Sexy Hollywood Bombshells: The saying 'sex sells' was ever-present from Hollywood's earliest days, but it wasn't until the 1930s that actresses with sensational, come-hither sex appeal were heavily publicized as "bombshells."
In the days of big-screen style and glamour, curvaceous females with blonde heads of hair were the rage, becoming popular, larger-than-life "sex symbols" - the more common-place term by the mid-1950s.
Which actress is the greatest sex symbol of them all?
Brief History | Top 20 Bombshells - 1 | Top 20 Bombshells - 2
Sex in Cinema | Sexual Films
Four stars in Hollywood's early history were the forerunners of the more classic bombshells:
Deep-voiced, generously-proportioned Mae West could be considered Tinseltown's first bombshell. She got her start in vaudeville and as a playwright for risqué Broadway plays in the mid-1920s. Morals charges and claims of obscenity brought her continuous publicity. She became controversially known for her racy, joke-cracking "Diamond Lil" screen persona, and for pushing the boundaries of censorship with raunchy double-entendres designed for male audiences. Her bawdy one-liners and quips in She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933) were notoriously frank and sexy for their time (i.e., "Why don't you come up sometime and see me? I'm home every evening").
Jean Harlow was a gifted and highly sensual actress who flaunted the no-underwear look on camera and a scandalous off-screen love life. Her breakthrough role at age 18 was in Howard Hughes' WWI war film Hell's Angels (1930) - as sexy floozy Helen with a plunging neckline dress, she announced to her male companion: "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" Dubbed a "platinum blonde" after appearing as a callous society girl in Platinum Blonde (1931), she then became the first "blonde bombshell" after her starring role in the pre-Hays Code screwball comedy Bombshell (1933). [The film was first titled Blonde Bombshell to assure audiences it wasn't another war film.] In the satire (based upon the career of sexy silent star "It Girl" Clara Bow), she portrayed popular movie-star Lola Burns, plagued by fake scandals and publicity campaigns created by her studio press agent. Harlow was an accomplished dramatic actress and romantic comedy star, but died a tragic death at the age of 26.
Veronica Lake stood out mostly for her trademark "peek-a-boo" icy cool blonde look with her hair draped over one eye. Captivating with cascading wavy hair, the star often played the femme fatale role opposite Alan Ladd in 1940s film noirs, and starred in Preston Sturges' comedy Sullivan's Travels (1941). During the war years, the government reportedly had Lake change her signature look after emulating female factory workers with her hairstyle were endangered by assembly-line machinery.
Jane Russell was a voluptuous, statuesque brunette and leading sex symbol, most noted for her bounteous cleavage and physique. Her controversial breakthrough film, fetishistic producer-director Howard Hughes' notorious western The Outlaw (1943), showcased her bustline and caused the scandalous film's censored shelving for three years. During her lasting career, she endured endless remarks about her breasts, even hawking full-figured Playtex bras in commercials.
During the war years, the term 'bombshell' was temporarily replaced with the word "pin-up" - exhibited mainly by two celebrity stars. The number one 1940s pin-up and box-office star was leggy, girl-next-door blonde Betty Grable - famous for her "million dollar legs" - seen in a 1943 white swimsuit (and high heels) photo. Her most glamorous starring role was in Pin Up Girl (1944).
The other popular 'pin-up' was alluring "love goddess" actress/dancer Rita Hayworth (especially after her title character role in The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and her 1941 Life Magazine photo-shoot in a sexy, silky nightgown). Grable's and Hayworth's admired, mass-produced images were painted on planes, bombers and even bombs, and were tacked on GI servicemen's walls all over the world. Hayworth's clothed strip-tease scene further flaunted her femme fatale sexuality in the noirish Gilda (1946).
The 3 Ms: Monroe, Mansfield, and Mamie
Playboy's first centerfold, "Sweetheart of the Month" (December 1953), soon 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 quiet whispering voice and glamorous, 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 blowing up above 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 very busty, bleached platinum-blonde, sexually-appealing 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, openly-displayed cleavage, flaunted pulchritude, tight-fitting scanty costumes, and her willingness to stereotypically portray a 'sex kitten' or 'dumb blonde' became her lasting legacy. She was the "most photographed woman" in 1957, due in part to various successful attempts to accidentally expose her anatomy (the first 'wardrobe malfunctions'). Her aspirations to become a respectable actress weren't 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 was identified with a tight-sweatered look and "bullet bras." As the screen's 'bad-girl,' she headlined many low-budget B-films, drive-in quickies and trashy sexploitation films that have since become camp classics (i.e., 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), but they all fizzled at the box-office.
More Bombshells (or Sex Symbols) 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, Angelina Jolie, Pam Anderson, and of course, many others.
History | Top 20 Bombshells - 1 | Top 20 Bombshells - 2
Sex in Cinema | Sexual Films