Friday 11 July 2014

Even in Precode - Nobody’s Perfect

Hollywood, since the 1920’s, has been jokingly known as the community of fakers, liars and ‘Yes-man’. However once in a while a character stands out and breaks the mould as well as few a egos.

Gloria Swanson by Stanlaws
Penrhyn Stanlaws was a portrait painting genius in the early 20th Century and, like rival Charles Dana Gibson, even had his own set of ‘Stanlaws Girls’. Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1877, his artworks graced the covers of countless popular magazines from Collier’s, Life, Saturday Evening Post, The American Magazine and Heart’s International. He became a faviourite of many of the silent Hollywood stars including Anna Q. Nilsson and Olive Thomas, who was the subject of Stanlaws’ famous nude portrait “Between Poses’. In 1920, Stanlaws moved from New York to Hollywood and used his artistic eye to direct films. He is credited as directing seven features including four Betty Compson pictures - At the End of the World (1921), The Little Minister (1921), The Law and the Woman (1922) and Over the Border (1922) - and two Bebe Daniels films - Singed Wings (1922) and Pink Gods (1922).

A year later and, strangely, around the same time Stanlaws first criticized the appearance of some of films most popular beauties, he retired from directing to live in an artist’s community in Woodstock. He returned to California two decades later but never again resumed his career in the film industry. He died in sad circumstances on May 20, 1957 from a fire that engulfed his Los Angeles home. Investigators reported found the fire had started from a cigarette that Stanlaws was smoking before absentmindedly falling asleep. However, Stanlaws legend encompasses more than his successes as an artist or director. During his short time in Hollywood, Stanlaws, famously spoke out twice about the real state of popular film star’s beauty. In 1923 and 1933, he made scandalous claims about the physical imperfections of many leading ladies. I highlight the word ladies as Stanlaws did not feel the need to comment on the appearance of the male stars. The Montreal Gazette called him a “bold” and a “brave” man for publicising his views.
Olive Thomas by Stanlaws
Read his controversial comments from 1923, published in the Syracuse Herald, January 7, 1923:
·         “Betty Blythe is muscle bound in her hips. She has horse nostrils. Betty Compson’s hips are too prominent and are muscle-bound.” 
·         “Viola Dana has a big nose that is heavy at the end; jawbones are too wide and chin too prominent.
·         “Bebe Daniels figure is good, but she keeps her mouth open too much. Pauline Fredrick’s eyelids are too heavy.”
·         “Dorothy Gish sisters have imperfect noses, Lips too large, also. Lillian Gish as imperfect as Dorothy.”
·         “Phyllis Haver has a face like a diamond with too many facets.  It is over-modeled.
·         “Lila Lee’s figure is stocky and face is too flat. Shirley Mason’s faults are deep-set eyes and horse nostrils.
·         “Mary Miles Minter is too matronly because she carries herself stiffly. Nazimova’s eyes are too large for her face and her head is too big.
·         “Pola Negri – her face is too square. Mary Pickford shares the common blemish of too large a head.
·         “Marie Prevost’s neck is too short. Ruth Roland has a moon face and her lips are too large.”
·         “Gloria Swanson’s head is too heavy for her body.  Her nose is retrousse.
·         “Constance Talmadge has an inadequate mouth and chin, Norma Talmadge has a bulbous nose.”
·         “Clair Windsor’s eyes are set too high in her head.

And 1933, published in the Montreal Gazette, November 17 1933:
·         Mae West – “Her head, eyes and mouth were constructed for a simple nose, but nature presented her with a complicated one – interestingly modelled, but bringing the eyes too close together.”
Magazine cover by Stanlaws
·         Katherine Hepburn – “Her chin and the lower part of her face project too far. Anthropologists have a name for such a facial type; they call it prognathism. Artists call it ‘horsey’”.
·         Constance Bennett – “A real symphony in jazz – her nose too small for her face.”
·         Greta Garbo – “She has a sleepy, sophisticated look, attained by deep eye sockets and a peculiar slant of the upper lip. These are not aids to beauty, but schoolgirls find the effect more alluring than beauty.”
·         Jean Harlow – “She has a graceful and expressive figure – between that of the ‘90s and the boyish form. Her face is the same type as Katherine Hepburn’s, but more so, caused by her nose projecting at too sharp an angle.”
·         Lupe Velez – her, “figure is the ‘true maidenly’ one, he said, and her face is mobile so she ‘can look sophisticated or innocent at will.’”
·         Ann Harding – “Fine symmetrical features – but so nearly approaching the classic type that repose of is essential to beauty.”
·         Kay Francis - “Nicely-balanced features – head in fine proportion to body – oversized triceps of the arms.”
·         Marlene Dietrich – “Take Mary Pickford’s head, replace it with one slightly out of drawing, give her heavy eyelids and sunken eyes and you have Dietrich – a sophisticated Mary.”
·         Joan Crawford and Joan Blondell – “have Mae West’s unusually prominent features, but their ‘skull construction isn’t large enough to carry them.”
His comments are obviously judgemental, negative, sometimes unclear and just plain rude. He was evidently searching for a kind of superficial perfection that wasn’t possible. I initially also found the comments slightly bigoted and outrageous as he focused only on belittling the appearance of the female actors not their male counterparts. However, now I believe his opinion to be useful for film fans both now and then as he was highlighting (perhaps not in the best possible way) the inherent imperfection of human beings whether they be actors or accountants. Although, I prefer the words of Hollywood photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull, who said, “really pretty faces don’t seem to last [in the movie mecca]…It’s the interesting faces that folks remember.”


  1. What he was commenting on were problems photographically that needed to be addressed. He left no doubt, because esthetically, he had no doubt. . Everyone has issues with the camera. Or, nearly so.

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