So, I’m reading the totally fascinating book, The Star Maker, by incredibly knowledgeable, terrific film scholar and all-around amazing lady, Jeanine Basinger (chair of film studies at Wesleyan University). One of the first Silver Screen goddesses Basinger discusses is Eleanor Powell, who is practically a tap dancing machine. Eleanor is a classic studio system product, and as such, is a good study for those of us who want to know how to turn the sow’s ear of our lives into a silk purse of unending pleasure (wow, that took an interesting turn, didn’t it?).
Eleanor’s tapping style is distinctive—she dances like her feet are machine-gun fusions of quick silver and lead. This style was the product of tap lessons at age 16, in which sandbags were fastened around her waist to keep her feet as low to the ground as possible. The fascinating result for this tall, strong young girl? She taps loud and hard. “She put ‘em down like a man,” says Fred Astaire, admiringly. (You can watch her beat up the floor with him in the stunning “Begin the Beguine” sequence in the Broadway Melody of 1940—it’s a classic! http://tinyurl.com/4xp2zhk)
Which leads me to our point for the day: Make the most of what you have! When Eleanor arrived in Hollywood, she was an accomplished tapper but “bashful, awkward, gawky” according to her mother (wow, mom, thanks!). Movie mags of the day credit Eleanor with recognizing she needed quite the makeover…”from the inside out and the top down…to deliberately achieve beauty.” I love that…to deliberately ACHIEVE beauty. Makes it sound possible for anyone, doesn’t it?
Here’s the short version: Studio dietitians devised a healthy diet to add 10 pounds (she was skinny); beauticians lightened her freckles with ultra-violet treatments (the mind reels—it’s a proto-laser treatment that causes skin peeling). Her eyebrows were plucked to kingdom come; clever lipstickery re-jiggered her mouth shape. A rinse and highlights made her mousy brown hair glow under the hot lights; a new side part better balanced her face. (Below, Ellie with a VERY glammy ’do in the early 1940s.)
Eleanor had one thing going for her besides her flashing feet: she had a great grin! That was enhanced by whitening and porcelain caps—watch her flash it at every occasion in her films. Her knobby knees were streamlined by customized exercises and posture class took the place of her mother nagging her to stand up straight. Diction lessons obliterated her Boston accent. And finally, Adrian (the famous costume designer who put Joan Crawford in those awe-inspiring linebaker-size shoulder pads) created a signature look for her: casual, comfortable, fluid clothes that made the most of her sporty, down-to-earth appeal. Eleanor was marketed as a simple, fresh-faced, girl-next-door, who just happened to be able to pound nails home with her feet.
All this studio witchery begins with a conference of image experts, called “the look over.” Basinger explains in wonderful detail just how this process works, but in short, a bunch of white lab-coated men peer at you, determining what needs doing in order for you to earn back the studio’s investment. We’ll spend much more time on this, but today’s lesson focuses on the leading lyric of that toe-tapping tune “Accentuate the positive!” Eleanor’s delightfully straightforward style was played up by the studio, who knew better than to attempt to turn her into a siren. Her calling card read “Ugly Duckling No More“, and she turned that into an extraordinary 10-year run in films like Born to Dance and Broadway Melody films of ’38 and ’40.
So, gals, put on your own lab coat for a frank assessment of YOUR finer points. Don’t beat yourself up; Edith Head used to advise women to stand naked in front of a mirror with a bag over your face to really SEE your shape. While that may be entertaining on several levels, you can also ask a good girlfriend to offer her thoughts on what your best features are–minus the delightful bag-over-the-head moment. She’s probably told you a hundred times. This time, listen. Got a great smile? Flash it, whiten it, straighten it if need be. But, like Eleanor, use what you’ve got to shine!
Go, Eleanor, Go!
(For more wonderful stories, please do check out Basinger’s book; it’s a must-read for fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood!)