An appreciation of big screen redheads by Andy Royston
“I would always hesitate to recommend as a life’s companion a young lady with quite such a vivid shade of red hair. Red hair, sir, in my opinion, is dangerous.” P.G. Wodehouse – Very Good Jeeves
“Once in his life, every man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead.”
― Lucille Ball
In 2014 something extraordinary happened. A rubescence of redheads all in the running for the gold fella at the Academy Awards. Julianne Moore, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, and Emma Stone all looking simply fabulous on the red carpet. The red carpet is,at last, truly red.
Redheads have rarely been recognised as the sirens they are. They’re either tomboys (like Princess Merida, from pixar’s Brave) or firey spitfires, madcap clowns or witchy stepmothers. Rapunzels or mermaids, magdalenes or vampires.
Just a few have walked off with an Oscar. Ginger Rogers got one for Kitty Foyle, Shirley MacLaine got one for Terms of Endearment and Susan Sarandon got one for Dead Men Walking. Hardly sexy siren material. If they’d been rewarded for Top Hat, Sweet Charity and Thelma and Louise we’d be getting closer to the true impact of the Hollywood red.
So which redheads truly lit up the silver screen?
It was so hard for a true red to shine in the black and white era, but those of us with an eye for detail (and a freckle or two) could pick them out without too much difficulty.
“She was the ‘It’ girl, the oomph girl, the glamour girl. the girl for whose services every studio was in violent competition. This girl was the real thing, someone to stir every pulse in the nation”. F.Scott Fitzgerald
She was, said biographer David Stenn, the real thing. She had a heart-shaped face, an hour-glass figure and flaming orange-red hair. Hollywood’s first sex symbol and a natural talent with an independent heart.
A superstar of the silent screen the film ‘It’ provided America with an influential model of flapper femininity and sales of henna hair color went through the roof, as young girls went for the Bow Bob.
Billie Burke was a big music hall star who firms made a movie in 1907. It was there, in this quiet little town of Hollywood, that she met and married Florenz Ziegfeld. She was certainly no folly, though.
She lapped up the parts – including this glorious early talkie ‘Dinner at Eight’ with Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. Her roles? Inimitable, flouncy flibbertygibbets almost every time – she was as typecast as anyone in Hollywood. She finally got to step out from the black-and-white world when she played the iconic role of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz.
I love Lucy was such a small screen phenomenon it is hard to imagine what a terrific big screen presence she made in the talking picture era. A Hollywood showgirl and contract player who started brunette, went blonde, then finally red as she tried to get noticed on the MGM lot. It was said that the decision to go red was made by the studio “The hair is blonde, but the soul, it is fire. We will die the hair red”, gushed a press release.
The story is ridiculous. Red was a happy color. It was good with my eyes, and it photographed well. It turned out to be a successful color. There’s nothing more to it than that. Lucille Ball
Ginger Rogers, they said, could do everything that her famous dance partner Fred Astaire, could do, but she did it backwards and in high heels. Ten sparkling musicals with Astaire, and a few wonderful comedies, including Stage Door. She was a screen icon, the epitome of style and grace, Fred or no Fred.
Although her father called her Red Top it’s hard to figure out Kate’s coloring. She didn’t after all make a color film until the 1950s. In black-and-whites we can easily see the difference between blonde and brunette. We can only imagine the redhead. In the movie ‘Philadelphia Story, Dexter refers to her throughout as ‘Red’ which puts the picture firmly in our minds.
If Garbo was the first actress to give the cinema its true and subtle sexuality, then Katharine Hepburn was the first to give it spirit and verbal intelligence. Sheridan Morley
Dubbed The Queen of Technicolor, her highly photogenic green eyes and flaming auburn hair made her a favourite leading lady of the 40s and 50s. She was signed up by David O Selznick while still at school and was soon playing opposite Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and decorating westerns, B movies and film noirs for twenty years.
What I didn’t care for was everything made in those days was black and white, very hard black and white too, there was nothing really pretty about it, even my auburn hair became jet black. Rhonda Fleming
With her mahogany hair and her whip-smart delivery she created a character prototype of her own. Playing opposite Charles Laughton in Hunchback of Notre Dame she was the fresh faced, solicitous gypsy girl and almost stole the movie.
For all her technicolor wildcat image she was known as the don’t girl of Hollywood. Won’t drink, won’t smoke, won’t wear revealing evening gowns and negligees, won’t take a bath before the camera, or appear in a bathing suit. Or show her legs…
Another memorable celt, she’d been brought to Hollywood to play opposite Clark Gable in The Hucksters. Louis B. Mayer needed a cool, refined beauty to replace Greer Garson, who had suddenly retired to an oil magnate. She could so easily switch from gentile tea-sipping Englishwoman to a hot blooded temptress (who can ever forget her romp in the surf with Burt!).
“. . . in her coloring, hair, eyes, complexion, she is like a dazzling Scottish field of wildflowers, filmed in Technicolor.” Unknown interviewer
The transformation of her was slow, but sure. Her transition became part of the selling point for Strawberry Blonde, and became a metaphor for the change from Hispanic to American that many could identify with.
If Strawberry Blonde was a stylistic success, Gilda was a phenomenon. It was Casablanca all over again, plot-wise, but it’s Gilda we look at, all the time, no matter what Glen Ford says or does.
“It’s as if all the erotic energy that was held in during the war fell to Rita Hayworth. She’d come out of some dark bottle,,, A strange hum surrounds her. She’s uninhibited on the screen, her body involved in a constant swaying line. Gilda’s the girl with musical hips. And the first time we see her dance, it’s like she’s making love with every manchild in the audience. Now we understand why Ford is up there on the screen. He’s a stand-in for all of us” Jerome Charyn
Ann-Margaret was a hypnotic dancer with sequinned hips, throwing back the flowing red hair and taking Elvis into the swinging sixties. Typecast as a sexpot she played in a whole range of fun and forgettable movies before becoming a successful Las Vegas stage performer and TV host.
Variety was cutting in one review at the time: “Ann-Margaret is notable for some abandoned choreography and a chance to use both of her expressions: the open-mouthed Monroe imitation and the slinky Theda Bara.”
Hollywood has a long history of attracting talent from Europe. It might be said that the enduring appeal of Hollywood movies is the way that they have assimilated a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. Sophia seen from the start as a carefree unspoiled beauty and was warmly welcomed in the US.
A star back in Italy, she signed a two million dollar Hollywood contract and became the first star of the jet age, appearing in historical epics and cosmopolitan extravaganzas. Time Magazine noted that she was “matched with leading men who she could have swallowed with a glass of water”.
Unlike Sophia Loren, who made red hair her signature, Claudia Cardinale only really went red in the iconic Sergio Leone movie ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’. She’d become a star thanks to two of the greats of Italian movie making, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti’. In both, she was cast as an idealised, almost unattainable object of desire.
A generation of postwar cinephiles rhapsodized over her earthy voluptuousness, her hourglass figure, her “bedroom eyes”, her cascading brunette tresses. She was the embodiment of postwar European glamour and was packaged as such, on screen and off. It’s almost like she had sexiness thrust upon her. Steve Rose – The Guardian
Lets face it, Camelot was ridiculous. Her screen chemistry with her leading man, Franco Nero is the only thing that makes the movie even vaguely watchable. With lavish sets and a three hour running time it was a complete mess.
In the decade of the 1960s Vanessa Redgrave had developed and progressed to become one of the most noted young stars of the English stage and then film. She never really managed to pick that starring role. The closest she got to creating an independent, strong-willed, feminist character on film was Isadora, a bio of avant-garde dancer Isadora Duncan.
Redgrave has a willowy appeal that tended to be overshadowed by the Julie Christies and Bridget Bardots of this world, but looking back on Camelot, Isadora and especially Antonini’s Blow-up!’ she had an extraordinary on screen glamour that was so English.
I shall bow out with a song…
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