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From Hollywood's earliest days, the maxim holds true: Sex sells. But it wasn't until the 1930s that actresses with sensational, come-hither sex appeal were publicized as "bombshells." In the days of big-screen glamour, shapely females -- often with blonde hair -- were the rage, often becoming popular, larger-than-life sex symbols.
Hollywood's First Bombshells
Deep-voiced, generously-proportioned Mae West could be considered Tinseltown's first bombshell but she was also a risqué Broadway playwright whose morals charges and obscenity controversies brought her continuous publicity. On screen, she became known for her wise-cracking "Diamond Lil" persona with raunchy double-entendres designed for men. Her bawdy one-liners in She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933) were notoriously frank (i.e., "Why don't you come up sometime and see me? I'm home every evening").
Jean Harlow flaunted a no-undergarment look in front of the camera and a scandalous love life off-screen. Her breakthrough role at 18 was in Howard Hughes' WWI war film Hell's Angels (1930). As an alluring floozy with a plunging neckline dress, she announced to her male companion: "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" First dubbed a "platinum blonde" after appearing in Platinum Blonde (1931), she became the first "blonde bombshell" with the pre-Hays Code screwball comedy Bombshell (1933). In this satire based upon silent film legend Clara Bow's career, Harlow portrayed a movie-star plagued by fake scandals created by her press agent. (Harlow herself died tragically at 26.)
With hair draped over one eye, Veronica Lake stood out mostly for her trademark "peek-a-boo" coif while playing a femme fatale opposite Alan Ladd in film noirs or as Joel McCrea's sidekick in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941). During the war years, the government reportedly had Lake change her signature look because female fans with her hairstyle were too often endangered by assembly-line machinery.
Jane Russell was a statuesque brunette most noted for her cleavage. Her controversial breakthrough film, Howard Hughes' notoriously fetishistic western The Outlaw (1943), showcased her famed bustline so pointedly that the film was censoriously shelved for three years. During the late part of Russell's career, the actress ended up hawking full-figured Playtex bras in TV commercials.
During World War II, the term 'bombshell' was temporarily replaced with the word "pin-up," especially in regards to two curvaceous celebrities. The number one pin-up at the box-office was girl-next-door Betty Grable -- famous for her "million dollar legs" and immortalized in a black and white photo of her shot from the back while wearing a white swimsuit and high heels. Unsurprisingly, her most glamorous starring role was in a film called Pin Up Girl (1944).
The other popular pin-up was "love goddess" Rita Hayworth, whose rep was sealed by her lead role in The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and a 1941 photo-shoot of her in silky lingerie for Life magazine. Hayworth's clothed strip-tease scene further flaunted her steamy sexuality in the noirish Gilda (1946). Grable's and Hayworth's mass-produced images weren't just admired by GIs. They were painted on planes, bombers and even bombs.
The 3 Ms: Monroe, Mansfield, and Mamie
Playboy's first centerfold in December 1953 eventually became the most famous bombshell of all time. Originally a brunette named Norma Jeane, Marilyn Monroe capitalized on her "dumb blonde" persona on-screen in the 1950s aided by her breathy voice and her hour-glass figure. She exhibited acting talent and vulnerability in Niagara (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) with Jane Russell, The Seven Year Itch (1955) (with her dress blown upwards by a gust from a subway grating), Bus Stop (1956), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Misfits (1961). Marilyn's 1962 drug-overdose death at age 36 led to declining interest in the bombshell mystique.
Jayne Mansfield parlayed her busty, bleached-blonde persona, after her Playmate modeling for Playboy's February 1955 issue, into a breakthrough Hollywood role in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Her high-pitched voice, flaunted cleavage, tight-fitting costumes, and willingness to play the sex kitten led to a surprisingly lasting legacy. The "most photographed woman" in 1957 can be credited with the first wardrobe malfunctions. Her aspirations to become a respectable actress were never taken seriously, bringing her the nickname "the poor man's Marilyn." Her premature 1967 tragic car-crash death at the age of 34 marked the second famous vixen death.
Mamie Van Doren was a lesser-known movie starlet, but she joined the trio of blonde beauties by possessing all the attributes of a bombshell and outlasting the other two by many decades. First gaining attention as a beauty contest winner, model, singer and Howard Hughes-promoted RKO actress, Mamie is probably most remembered for a tight-sweatered look and a "bullet bra." As a big screen bad-girl, she headlined low-budget B-movies, drive-in quickies and trashy sexploitation films that have since become camp classics: Untamed Youth (1957), High School Confidential (1958), Girl's Town (1959), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), Sex Kittens Go the College (1960), and The Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966) opposite Jayne Mansfield. Box office flops, some are now considered cult classics today.
After the 3 M's
Other female Hollywood stars in the mid-to-late 20th century who rightly acquired the title of sexy "bombshell" after the 3 Ms included Kim Novak, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek, Madonna, Sharon Stone, Anna Nicole Smith, and Pamela Anderson.