Glamour With Tears

Lana Turner in her first star-billed film, MGM’s B-opus These Glamour Girls, from 1939, was still a teenager when she was cast (she was born in 1921), but you can see why she would soon be a star (and I do mean Star…).  She’s fresh, young, and adorable (utterly) here, displaying a non-cloying sweetness that makes you instantly fall in love.  If glamour, in its original meaning, means casting a magic spell, then I think I can say that Lana surely does that here.

Cue the sighs…

The movie came out a few years before MGM started manufacturing Turner as its own version of a Glamour Girl, shellacking her in gobs of glitz, glitter, sequins, fake eyelashes, and platinumed hair as if to embalm her for the Ages.  Yet I think enough of the lady’s genuine sweetness remained in her persona, throughout her career, so that audiences could still sense the real deal beneath.  It’s not a quality that can be bagged, gutted, and mounted on the wall, it’s more…magical than that.  It’s how the camera captures a spontaneous warmth and sparkle in her eyes and smile, how she opens herself to and rewards our gaze.  We ourselves are caught, wholly and willingly, our defenses knocked away as easily as a how child will blow out a candle.

Thus are great love affairs born and sustained.

As with Turner, MGM was using TGG as a showcase for several up-and-comers, mainly (as the title implies) for younger actresses:  Ann Rutherford, Marsha Hunt, Marybeth Hughes, and Jane Bryan (borrowed from Warner Bros.).  Some more experienced talent is on hand—Lew Ayres, Anita Louise, Ernest Truex (looking alarmingly embalmed himself)—but the film is really a B-level display of what the studio was then offering in youth, talent, and feminine pulchritude.  Most of these performers would stay at the B-level (though Rutherford did get to play Scarlet O’Hara’s younger sister in Gone With The Wind), only the fresh, young, and (completely) adorable Turner managing to hit, and hold onto, the megastardom heights.

TGG’s mixed Young-Bloods/Old-Hands casting might hold a story in itself, on the vagaries of Hollywood stardom.  Lew Ayres is billed first in cast order, but this film would have been a diminution for him.  Ayres had his major breaks early in his career:  Bestowing the title buss on Greta Garbo, no less, in 1929’s The Kiss, then starring in a Big One, the 1931 Oscar-winning version of All Quiet on the Western Front.  But he soon slipped down into 2nd-tier billing and 2nd-level programmers, until his performance in 1938’s Holiday, in a supporting role, attracted enough attention for MGM to sign him—for more such programmers as the Dr. Kildare series and disposable fluff like TGG.  Though Ayres’s name may have been first-billed, TGG is not his vehicle.

No, TGG belongs to Lana, who, if I haven’t made myself clear, is so TOTALLY fresh, young, and adorable here, that I think I’ll make that phrase an acronym—FYA—as a convenient shorthand.  Just to keep it simple.

Ayres’s role in TGG has a peculiar resonance, though, with the one he played in the previous year’s Holiday, the film that grabbed MGM’s interest.  In TGG he’s a young, wealthy college boy, smug and entitled, unlikable in that irritation-under-the-skin way that makes you hope he gets his comeuppance.  Which is a fate that echoes, in odd hindsight, in the rich, older, drunken wastrel he played in Holiday.  Ayres’s performance in that earlier (unconnected) film was poignant and sad, a downer in an otherwise ebullient movie.  I wonder if he saw his snobbish frat boy in TGG as a youthful version of his Holiday character—a guy to whom “nothing ever happens but security” as TGG puts it, who, having squandered his youth, can only muster a woozy self-contempt, strumming a banjo in a disused nursery while his vibrant sister has all the fun.  (That the actor Henry Kolker who played Ayres’s father in Holiday also plays his father in TGG may only deepen the connection.)

TGG’s focus is not really on Ayres and his posh Ivy League collegians, however, but on the well-to-do young women desperate to snag these “glamour boys,” as they’re called—and these girls are not having fun.  The film begins with the young ladies’ uneasy wait for invitations to the college boys’ end-of-term house parties, as they flap and flutter like exquisitely caged birds.  The opening scenes are a witty, round-robin series of phone calls, the competing girls ringing up each other to boast of cards received (or brazen out what’s missed in the mail), while the frantic, seemingly uninvited Rutherford packs for Bermuda rather endure hideous social embarrassment.  We sense this is a battle fought not with force but lace-curtain one-upmanship, in which Anita Louise’s three glamour-boy invitations are a major victory, and an iron-chinned matron will muscle a timid frat boy into inviting her left-out daughter.

Though this opening is played for laughs (a social-register-conscious mother acknowledges “a certain civilization even in Pittsburgh”), it masks an unbearable anxiety.  These invitations are more than a summons to a swank soiree.  They’re an admission to an exclusive marriage market for eligible young debs, and thus an entry into the society of the most privileged and elite.  Not receiving an invitation is, for these girls—they’re, what, only 19 or so?—already the end of the world.  There’s an underlying, almost Dreiser-like feel to what we’re watching, of how these young women are trapped by social and economic expectations outside their control (Bryan’s bankrupt deb pretends to be her own maid when answering the phone), or a Booth Tarkington-style scrutiny of a social microcosm’s unspoken demands of class, ritual, and tribe.  The desperation is still apparent as the debs arrive at the college, on a special train arranged for that purpose, frantically waving, smiling, their eyes agleam with fear.  Does the angst ever abate, even when the man is caught and ringed?

Nor is Turner’s naïve working girl, up from the farm and supporting herself as a taxi dancer in the Big City, free from such pressure.  When a sottish Ayres casually meets and invites her (and then casually forgets) to the weekend house party, Lana takes him seriously—even our gal-of-the-people is not about “to let a dream prince ride out of the picture.”  Blowing the rent money on a formal, she shows up, bright, eager, and not expected, on the college’s forbidding grounds, to be snubbed by snooty debs and callow frat boys.  It’s the familiar Cinderella trope, down to the heroine triumphing over the snoots and winning the bland prince.  But Lana’s unpackaged sweetness at least makes the clichés work; you root for this girl, you want to protect her from the horrible, mocking elites, you hope one or two will connect with a solid boot to the derriere.  So artless and unaffected is Lana, so—I’ll type it again—so absolutely FYA is she, that I’d be willing to deliver the backend kicks myself, could I have transported myself into the celluloid.

But that Lana’s dream-come-true is a fairy tale is offset, and undermined, by an unusual subplot that makes TGG stand out from other such Cinderella sagas.  Coming late (literally) to the ball is Marsha Hunt’s aging deb, an over-the-hill nymph said to be washed up at age 23(!).  Hunt’s character has shown up at too many of these house parties over the years, and the young(er) set now sees her as past her prime.  She’s become one of the truly desperate, driven by a need to grab a man fast lest her life crumbles into one of despised spinsterhood.

Hunt’s character is the film’s most affecting—like Lana, she’s mocked and snubbed by the elites, but unlike Lana, she lacks the protective shell of innocence.  Feigning gaiety and sophistication, Hunt affects what she thinks is the last word in Chic—“the last of the too, too diviners,” snarks one glamour boy—but you can forgive her artificial speech, her arch tones, her constant rictus grin because you sense how out of her depth she is.  She’s a drowning swimmer clutching at reeds, submerged in a world of artifice and false standards.  Her character may recall Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart from The House of Mirth, a heroine similarly constricted by rigid social roles and marital expectations; like Lily, Hunt’s tragedy is that she can’t imagine another life for herself.  And her fellow elites are so casually, dismissively cruel to her…it reminded me of Fitzgerald’s description, of the “vast carelessness” of the rich, as they scapegoat the one who embodies what are, for them, their own deepest fears.

Hunt is really superb in the role, her performance bringing out the subtext of the girl’s misery (and she’s still a girl…).  She makes the most of her part (said to be one of her favorites), as director S. Sylvan Simon grants her a kind of privileged space in the film, usually given only to stars; many of her scenes (happening in silence) show her in private, frightened and hurt, her eyes brimming with terror.  With her quite tall, long-waisted, willowy figure, high forehead, wide-set eyes, and long mouth, Hunt didn’t fit conventional beauty standards, but all the same her looks are the real McCoy.  She’s stunning here, gawky and graceful all at once, a duckling blossoming into a swan before our eyes.  Hunt may have been too unusual and striking to have become a Hollywood star—as an actress, she seemed more interested in playing a person than a personality—but she was unique to herself and to who she was as a performer.  At film’s end it’s her character that stays with you.

One other TGG performer I’d like to mention is Dennie Moore, who plays Turner’s roommate and dance hall colleague.  Probably best known as the gossipy manicurist in The Women, Moore, with her huge, round eyes and wry, twisty mouth, was no glamour girl herself.  But in a small role here, she’s, as always, great.  Yes, her character is a cliché:  A hard-on-the-outside-but-squishy-soft-on-the-inside smart cookie, a know-it-all dame who can still empathize with Lana’s starry-eyed hopes.  Yet with only a few minutes of screen time Moore somehow—through vocal inflections, a certain turn of the head, an askance glance—makes this character stand out, a working-class lady with both heart and class.  (Recall how her chattering nail-filer’s apology to Norma Shearer in The Women is so heartfelt that, in the moment, you feel it with her.)   No matter the role, Moore was memorable in all she did.  When you see character actors like these, you know why this era was called Hollywood’s golden age.

BONUS CLIP:  All right, for all you doubters out there who still need convincing:  Here’s Lana cutting up a swell rug as Deb of the Year (that being 1939) in These Glamour Girls.  As her partner says, “You’re terrific!”  As well as (need I add?) fully, thoroughly, entirely, and outright FYA:

%d bloggers like this: