If you spend a lot of time roaming the vintage fashion/Old Hollywood corners of the internet, you may have noticed something funny: a weird number of seasonal publicity shots of actresses. Who put these women in these corny Halloween setups?
Come to find out, these photos are essentially the studio system version of what my colleague Bobby Finger and his podcast compatriot Lindsey Weber have dubbed “Who” behavior—thirsty efforts to get stars in the making onto the public radar by any means necessary, up to and including witch’s hats.
In her book The Star Machine, film historian Jeanine Basinger explains the complicated system through which the great movie studios, at the height of their power, created and used movie stars. According to Basinger, a newcomer to the movie business was often put through a long development process which she paints as almost industrial. First, you were thoroughly evaluated by a studio. If they thought you had potential, they’d sign you to a short-term contract, give you a makeover, and start putting you into bit parts that gradually grew into bigger roles. If you still looked promising, racking up some fan letters and nice notices, you got the publicity department treatment. These were big operations, one-stop shops:
There was an office to create previews of coming attractions, generate magazine articles, news items, and merchandising tie-ins; people to solicit product testimonials and endorsements; and specialists to do fashion layouts, to arrange personal appearances and radio assignments, and to design all the movie ads and posters.
“We did everything for them. There were no agents, personal press agents, business managers, or answering services in those days. All these services were furnished by the MGM publicity department,” Basinger quotes MGM’s Howard Strickling. At this stage of the star-making game, the goal was to get an actor’s name out in front of the moviegoing public, whatever it took. Photographs were an important tool in this process; everybody had to take fashion shots, glamour shots, sexy shots, shots with dogs and kids that they’d send around to newspapers and magazines who, of course, welcomed free content that was both easy and popular. (Again, not that much different from today, when the Instagram accounts of minor celebs make great fodder for places like People and US Weekly and many, many other outlets.) And those corny holiday poses were part of the package:
No one became a star without posing for silly holiday promotions. In looking through old studio publicity shots, it’s one thing to see Marilyn Monroe sitting on an exploding firecracker or Esther Williams on a diving board in a bathing suit, but quite another to come across Loretta Young dressed up as an Easter Bunny, her ears all a-flop, her eyes all a-twitter as she proffers a gigantic Easter egg, or Susan Hayward, who later became an Oscar-winning actress, “riding” a phallic Forth of July rocket in shorts and high heels, a leering grin on her face.
Everybody, Basinger stresses, had to do “holiday promotion shots with witch hats, pumpkins, Santa suits and Christmas trees, and firecrackers.”
Sometimes these photos really worked. For instance: a shot of Betty Grable in a swimsuit became one of the most popular pinup photos of World War II, making her an icon. And even if an individual photo of a young woman grinning with a pumpkin didn’t make huge waves, it was still one more opportunity to get her name out there. Once you broke out and became a success, you could look forward to seeing your name on many other types of fan magazine pieces, like the infamous celebrity recipes.
Of course, the studio system and its star machine have been dead for decades, and if there’s a piece of the industry that gets the lavish developmental attention that stars once received with the eye to creating reliable moneymakers, it’s probably franchises. There are still scads of people who want to be famous and are willing to go to any lengths, no matter how embarrassing, to climb the ladder, but they don’t have an entire system dedicated to building them an elevator. Hence the reality TV appearances and the aggressive Instagram posting and the promotional partnerships and the mystifying Daily Mail headlines.
If you’re lucky, you get the closest modern equivalent to the MGM publicity department: Kris Jenner.
This post originally misspelled Jeanine Basinger’s first name; we regret the error.