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The allure of illusion

Glamour Inc.: Coiffed and cultivated, Hollywood virtually invented the word. Where has it gone?

May 21, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

IS Paris Hilton glamorous? She meets all the criteria. She's young, shiny, obscenely rich and reckless. She does precisely as she likes. She's an heiress. Old money! (Mature, anyway.) She is pure, uncompromised artifice. Noel Coward or Preston Sturges could have made her up -- if it weren't for the sex tape. And the hamburger ad. And the album. And her mother.

What does it mean to be glamorous anymore? What did it mean in the first place? Is Jessica Simpson glamorous when she's playing Daisy Duke? Is she glamorous as herself, eating tuna out of the can? Or is she glamorous only when she's posing for InStyle, in-styled within an inch of her life?

Every once in a while a celebrity comes along who looks good in a tux, or seems smart and urbane, or doesn't attend an award show wearing a string, and magazines start chirping about "a return to glamour!" or "a return to Hollywood glamour!" Which is a redundancy, because there never really was any other kind. The word itself is practically a Hollywood invention, derived from a Scottish word for charm and enchantment, and then dusted off in the 20th century by studio publicity departments and the press. (The vestigial "u" is intentional, by the way. It was kept for added glamour.)

Glamour popped onto the scene in the '20s, infusing the fantasies of fame, fortune and ease coming out of MGM, Paramount, Fox and Warner Bros. The stars, like the movies, were not made so much as they were meticulously assembled. Contract actors -- who had gravitated to movies from the stage but also from the shops, the choruses and the clutches of rabid stage mothers -- were coached in feigning the kind of upper-class upbringing they'd be reenacting on-screen. They were educated in comportment and diction, coached in music and culture, taught to know their way around antiques and fashion, presumably so that they could convincingly re-create the kind of existence to which Hilton was born in real life.

The art of cinema was in its ability to make intimate even the most foreign lives and unattainable lifestyles. Cinematic lighting created glowing, flawless faces and diamond eyes. Hair and makeup were elevated to art forms. MGM art director Cedric Gibbons traveled to the 1925 exposition in Paris and brought Art Deco Modernism to the movies. Edith Head at Paramount and Adrian at MGM designed costumes that drew women to the movies by the thousands, just to look at the clothes.

Even off-screen, stars were contractually bound to be groomed and dressed to perfection at all times. In his book "The Glamour Factory," Ronald L. Davis quotes actress Mary Astor, who wrote, "At Metro, you practically had to go to the front office if you wanted something as real as having your hair mussed ... all automobiles were shiny. A picture never hung crooked, a door never squeaked, stocking seams were always straight and no actress ever had a shiny nose."

Hollywood's Golden Age arrived with the Depression, and Hollywood movies became a sort of mass escape from reality that gave the haves gloss and the have-nots hope. The romantic screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s were replete with lovers from every side of the track. If glamour in the '20s had been embodied by the Garbos and Dietrichs of the world -- tragic sirens, femmes fatales, highly strung and delicate romantic heroines in peril -- glamour in the '30s became more playful and lighthearted. Romantic comedy heroes and heroines were rich, poor, ruined, rescued and recognized as worthy no matter how much money they had.

All were sure of themselves in the way of people who know exactly who they are, and they belonged to specific social classes as surely as they lived.

The movies acknowledged the differences between the classes they satirized and drew their tension from them. But in films such as "The Palm Beach Story" and "My Man Godfrey" they also offered the consoling notion that class divides could be bridged, if only people tried hard enough, and had a sense of humor. It was typical in Depression-era comedies, for instance, for the ambitious working-class girl in love with a well-born swell to be put in her place for the way she spoke, dressed or behaved. Vulgarity, in other words, was a social liability. (Of course, the snooty critic would eventually get her comeuppance -- purity of heart always trumped rank in the movies.)

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