Part Two of ‘What’s in a Name?’ features some of the more stupid names thought up by the studios in their endeavours to create phony images for their stars. One of the silliest was the one they lumbered poor Ann Sheridan with – The Oomph Girl. She simply did not get it, and who could blame her. ‘Oomph’ is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth,’ she said. It probably had some kind of twisted sexual connotation for its inventor, but to everyone else it was just plain dumb. There was even a line of women’s house slippers brought out called ‘Oomphies’, to cash in on Ann’s popularity. Ann was quite a card. Because she was rather flat-chested, Warners made a ‘false chest’ for her to wear on screen, to give her boyish figure a little shape. It annoyed the hell out of her. On the set, when she was required to shoot a scene, it was not uncommon, (especially if she was in a bad mood, or hungover, or both), for her to walk about hollering, ‘Has anybody seen my tits? I need my tits now!’ A messenger boy once arrived at Ann’s bungalow to find her sitting back with her feet up, sipping on a beverage; her ‘chest’ stuffed in a nearby waste basket. ‘Well, I’ve got to put it somewhere’, she casually told him, ‘and it won’t fit in the toilet.’
The ‘Oomph Girl’, au naturale
with a little help
Another Warners star was the inimitable Bette Davis. Her feuding with Jack Warner was legendary. In 1936 she tried to break her contract with the studio by walking out and heading for England where she intended to make movies. Warners prevented her, citing her for breach of contract. There were four Warner Brothers. Bette’s knock-down, drag-out fights with them culminated in her being dubbed ‘The Fifth Warner Brother’. It was generally agreed that she fought as tough a fight as the brothers, but from the other side of the fence. As if to keep an eye on them forever, her grave at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills directly faces the Warners lot, just a short distance away.
‘the Fifth Warner Brother’
Keeping an eternal eye on the Warners lot
Veronica Lake was a ‘one-off’. During World War Two she sported a hairstyle that resulted in her nickname, ‘The Peek-A-Boo Girl’. It also had an astonishing effect on the female workforce in the USA. Thousands of young women working in factories producing war materials suddenly turned up at their work stations with Veronica Lake ‘Peek-A-Boo’ haircuts. Not only did her coiffure hamper vision; but it also caused several accidents on the job as girls caught their hair in machinery. Eventually the government forbade ‘Peek-A-Boo’ hairstyles in the workplace. As for Veronica, her fame was short-lived, probably because of her limited acting ability, but also because underneath that coiffure resided a rather plain countenance.
‘the Peek-A-Boo Girl’
Lana Turner had anything but a ‘plain countenance’. She was a knockout. From the moment she sashayed down the street in her debut screen appearance in 1937’s They Won’t Forget, she was a star. The picture told the real life story of the murder of 13 year-old Mary Phagan in 1915, (called Mary Clay here, and portrayed by 16 year-old Lana), complete with the form-hugging sweater that gave birth to her nickname, ‘The Sweater Girl’. She had only been in Hollywood a month when she secured the role that saw her rocket to stardom. At her peak Lana Turner was a staggeringly beautiful woman who single-handedly sent sweater sales through the roof. Such was the impact of the movies on society.
16 year-old Lana as Mary Clay
‘the Sweater Girl’ at her peak
I mentioned poor Carole Landis’s idiotic nickname in my July 10 piece on her, but it is worth repeating here. In 1940, Hal Roach’s publicity man nicknamed her ‘The Ping Girl’, an crude name that men at the time identified with. ‘Ping’ was a slang word for a male erection in those days. Carole had genuine talent as well as beauty. She was a successful lounge singer pre-Hollywood; she wrote a best-seller, Four Jills In A Jeep, that was made into a popular movie, and she was a hard worker. Her boss, Darryl F Zanuck, chose instead to exploit her sexually, both on-screen and off, and that talent was never fully utilized.
Lovely Carole Landis
The average movie fan today has probably never even heard of Marie McDonald. She was a popular pin-up girl during WW2, winner of the ‘Miss New York’ title and other beauty contests, and an actress at Universal. The press dubbed her ‘The Body’, a title she publicized at every opportunity. In fact, she tried just about anything to advance her movie career, but it just didn’t happen. She had a great body and was quite attractive facially, but she lacked that extra ‘something’ that we like to call ‘star quality’. Seven marriages, countless affairs (gangster Bugsy Siegel was just one of her lovers), and several run-ins with the law over traffic offenses, all added to her publicity portfolio, yet did little to boost her career. She even faked her own kidnapping, but nobody fell for that one either. Eventually, it all got too hard, and she ended her life with barbiturates at 42. Her fans insist she died accidentally. Who knows?
‘the Body’ – Marie McDonald
Lauren Bacall was dubbed ‘The Look’ immediately following her terrific debut in To Have And Have Not in 1944. In an interview years later she explained the origins of ‘the Look’. ‘My hand was shaking, my head was shaking, the cigarette was shaking, I was mortified. The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked and turned out to be the beginning of ‘The Look’. She was also known to her many friends as ‘Betty’, in deference to her real name, Betty Perske.
Nobody should have to try and live up to a tag like ‘The Love Goddess’, but shy, sensitive Rita Hayworth had to do just that for much of her life. In 1941, a Life Magazine photographer took a shot of her kneeling on a bed, dressed in a nightie; possibly the greatest photograph of a female movie star ever taken. Inexplicably, GIs voted it the second best pin-up behind the famous Betty Grable bathing suit pic. I shall insert them both here. You decide. Poor Rita – she was forever being exploited. ‘Basically, I’m a good, gentle person,’ she said. ‘But I’m attracted to mean personalities.’ That nickname certainly did not help. Nor did her sexy portrayal of Gilda in the movie of that name. As she famously said later about her husbands: ‘They fell in love with Gilda, and woke up with me.’
‘The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs’ was the sobriquet dished out to Betty Grable. As per usual the studio exaggerated slightly, her shapely pins being insured in 1941 by Lloyds of London (as a publicity stunt) for a quarter of a million dollars. Ah well, close enough is good enough as far as Hollywood is concerned. Movie buffs might be surprised to learn that, according to the IRS in 1946-7, Betty’s earnings of $300,000 that year made her the highest paid woman in America! Forget your Bette Davis, Kate Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Garbo, Bergman, whomever. A hoofer with a friendly smile outdone them all.
WW2’s number 1 pin-up girl
There were many, many more tags dreamt up for studio stars up until the whole system disappeared more or less overnight in the late fifties. These are just a sampling.