Back in the good old studio days it was customary for studios to come up with snappy nicknames for their female stars. Well, they thought they were snappy, anyway. For some reason these were seldom given to male actors, although that is not to say that some of these guys didn’t have nicknames of their own long before their movie careers took off. John ‘Duke’ Wayne was one, for example. As a boy growing up he had an Airedale Terrior named Duke that rarely left his side. The name rubbed off on him for the remainder of his life. He greatly preferred ‘Duke’ over ‘Marion’, his real Christian name. What kid wouldn’t?
Young John Wayne (left) and
Duke, his Airdale Terrior.
John Barrymore earned the nickname, ‘The Great Profile’, due to his matinee idol looks, when he was still a stage performer. Given his enormous ego, no doubt he would have secretly delighted in such a moniker. Come to think of it, he probably liked it openly as well.
Barrymore – ‘The Great Profile’.
Then there was the greatest silent comic of them all – Buster Keaton. The legendary Harry Houdini dubbed him ‘Buster’ early in life, primarily because the kid’s vaudevillian parents used to throw him around in their act, which was all about how to discipline a prankster child. Little Buster was even thrown into the audience on occasion, all the while remaining stony-faced; never cracking even the semblance of a smile. OK, so Chaplin was pretty good, too, but I personally preferred Buster who became known as ‘The Great Stone Face’. All a matter of taste I guess.
The one and only ‘Great Stone Face’.
There were a couple of ‘Kings’ in Hollywood as well. Clark Gable was called ‘the King’ or ‘the King of Hollywood’ by pretty much everyone, not just his own studio. The title stemmed from a 1938 poll of entertainment readers who overwhelmingly chose him as #1 in the business. He was officially crowned by Ed Sullivan who was a reporter at the time.
‘The King of Hollywood’
Another ‘king’ rode a horse called Trigger. Roy Rogers became ‘King of the Cowboys’ to every boy in America and a few million more around the globe. He picked up Trigger in 1943 (the horse was then known as Golden Cloud) and rode him in most of his movies until the horse passed away in 1965. If you watch the 1938 Errol Flynn picture, The Adventures of Robin Hood, you will see the same Golden Cloud being ridden by Olivia de Havilland playing Maid Marian. According to legend, this was his one and only film appearance minus Roy.
Olivia aboard Golden Cloud in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Roy Rogers & Trigger
Frank Sinatra had four or five nicknames. Although he made a lot of movies, his titles, such as ‘Ole Blue Eyes’, ‘The Voice’, ‘Chairman of the Board’, ‘The Sultan of Swoon’ and the idiotic ‘Swoonatra’, were more to do with his singing career than his acting career. Oddly enough, Frank Capra tried hard to talk him into focusing on his acting and giving up singing altogether! Why? Because Capra considered him to have the potential to become ‘the greatest actor who ever lived.’ To be perfectly Frank, Frank, Frank was a very ordinary actor. If you have ever wondered why Sinatra was called the Chairman of the Board, you are not alone. ‘I’m trying to figure it out’, he said, ‘Chairman of what Board? People come up to me and seriously say: ‘Well, what are you Chairman of?’ And I can’t answer them.’
A few of the great ladies of the cinema rocked up with their own nicknames, but the studios couldn’t wait to think up new ones for them. One of the first was ‘America’s Sweetheart’, Mary Pickford. She was born in Toronto, Canada, took US citizenship when she married Douglas Fairbanks, but reclaimed her Canadian citizenship in time to die holding one of each. Her real name was the rather mundane Gladys Smith.
‘America’s Sweetheart’ – all the way from Canada.
Another early star was Brooklyn-born Clara Bow, dubbed ‘the IT Girl’ by some studio executive. Up until then she was known as ‘the Brooklyn Bonfire’. Clara was about as bright as a one-watt globe. When asked what ‘It’ was, she thought real hard before responding in her 100% Brooklyn twang, ‘I ain’t real sure.’ Poor Clara knew that the arrival of sound would bury her career, and she was right, although it was one scandal too many erupting at that time which did the trick. Terrified of what the ‘talkies’ would do to her career, Clara was working on a picture when the call went out that a fire had started on the lot. ‘Christ, please let it be the sound stages!’ she was heard to holler as she ran out.
Clara Bow – The ‘It’ Girl.
Swedish-born Greta Garbo was given several names, (‘the Face’, ‘the Swedish Sphinx’, or just plain ‘Garbo’), none of which made a great deal of difference to the degree of acceptance her pictures received in the US, for she was primarily a European star. Once the Second World War loomed on the horizon and the European market began to dry up, her days at the top were numbered. She certainly possessed a beautiful face, but the Guinness Book of World Records description of her as ‘the most beautiful woman that ever lived’ was a bit much.
Lupe Velez, ‘the Mexican Spitfire’ was probably the most aptly named of all. She made a series of films in the late thirties and early forties as the ‘Mexican Spitfire’, but her outrageous, volatile nature earned her that nickname anyway. She fought like cat and dog with husband Johnny Weissmuller for five years, and even took a shot at Gary Cooper when he ended their relationship! Sadly, she took her own life at 36.
‘The Mexican Spitfire’.
Songstress Jeanette MacDonald enjoyed a few years at the top of the Hollywood pile when she co-starred with sappy baritone Nelson Eddy in a series of appalling musicals in the thirties. A redhead with striking blue eyes, she was one of LB Mayer’s lovers, several sources claiming she was, in fact, the love of his life (along with Greer Garson anyway). Her beauty, combined with her hard-headed approach to negotiating her contracts, earned her the nickname ‘the Iron Butterfly’, although one wonders how ‘hard-headed’ she would have been had she not inhabited her boss’s bed so regularly.
‘The Iron Butterfly’
The ill-fated Thelma Todd had two nicknames – ‘the Ice-cream Blonde’ and ‘Hot Toddy’. The first referred to her hair style and colour, the second (more appropriately) to her party-loving, ditzy lifestyle. Thelma lived life in the fast lane, yet died in a garage, probably from accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning. Probably, but not definitely.
‘Hot Toddy’, ‘The Ice-Cream Blonde’
Not surprisingly, ‘the First Lady of MGM’ was Norma Shearer. ‘Not surprising’, because she was married to the studio’s second in command, Irving Thalberg. Consequently, she had her pick of all the best roles. Joan Crawford was quick to express what most others were thinking; ‘What do you expect? She sleeps with the boss.’ Norma had a distinct turn in her eye, stumpy legs, shortish neck and a slightly hunched back, yet she scored every prestigious female role at MGM until Irving had the bad manners to die young from a heart attack. Only then did LB Mayer, the head of MGM, offer the best roles to others. A mitigating circumstance, as far as LB was concerned, was his fury at learning that the 34 year-old ‘First Lady’ was busily servicing his 16 year-old number one box-office star Mickey Rooney on a daily basis.
Irving & Norma Thalberg
‘The First Lady of MGM’.
Mickey Rooney, her 16 year-old lover
One of the cleverest nicknames probably came from the writers at MGM, and was definitely not officially inspired. Because of her pious Catholic attitude, her dedicated church attendance, and her readiness to fine anyone who swore on the set of her pictures, Loretta Young quite rightfully earned herself the nickname, ‘Attila the Nun’. A hypocrite of legendary proportions, she rarely missed Sunday Mass and carried her rosary beads wherever she went. She also slept with married men, had a child out of wedlock, convinced her priest to allow her to secretly ‘adopt’ her own baby, and then denied the story almost until the day she died. Yes, ‘Attila the Nun’ was a fitting moniker for the lovely, but flawed, Loretta.
‘Attila the Nun’
My next post will look at another dozen actresses and their nicknames.