Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Carole Landis and the Concept of Public Beauty

No. 288: Saturday, July 19, 2003

My interest in Carole Landis may remind those given to literary analogies of old Faust’s infatuation with Helen of Troy. However, I am not awaiting from Carole the kiss that will make me immortal. She has already done her share for the world; it’s time someone did something for her. Rather than giving up philosophy for love, I am trying to give a little love through philosophy.

Carole Landis is a revelation in the history of public beauty. On her appearance on the Hollywood scene, she was deluged with superlatives: "the most gorgeous figure in moviedom," "a physical silhouette bordering on the magnificent," "blonde, buxom, and beautiful, Carole has caused the film city critics of feminine pulchritude to scratch their heads to get fitting phrases for her physique." Every possible adjective for female sexual attractiveness, from "curvaceous" to "lovely," was applied to Carole, and she was rarely referred to without one or two. No other actress has so impressed the film world with her physical beauty--and unlike most of the so-called beauties of the past, Carole produces no less an effect on those who discover her today.

The institutions that determine popular taste and the multitude who follow them have all but forgotten Carole, but no truth once revealed can be fully lost. Carole’s tragedy was that the beauty that brought her to the world’s attention was too exceptional to fit into the comforting legends of popular culture within which her career was charted.

The experience of beauty--true beauty, not the mimetic sign of a fictive other’s desire--is the worldly correlate of what we call immortality, the timelessness of the realm of signs. It is an individual, not a collective experience, one that finds its guarantee on the individual’s internal scene of representation rather than on the public scene of ritual from which it derives.

The beauty of art is a beauty of representation, of signs rather than things. Because artworks are composed of human signs, the postmodern spirit that sees natural difference as the product of cultural victimage tempts us to construe them entirely within the "socially constructed" orbit of mimetic desire and its deferral. But mimetic desire, even as a specifically human phenomenon, is founded on appetite, with which it loses contact only at the point of madness.

The prototype of Kant’s idea of natural beauty is landscape, a source of esthetic pleasure less in itself than by analogy with landscape painting. But by far the most intense experience of natural beauty, indeed, of beauty tout court, is that of human beauty. In classical civilization, this beauty was more likely to be masculine than feminine, but beginning with the troubadours and medieval courtly love, the terms "beauty" and "beautiful" have been applied more and more exclusively to women. Since the demise of the Old Regime eliminated the sacred/aristocratic notion of self-display, the norm of masculine dress has become sober and conventional, whereas women’s clothing and adornment remains attuned to displaying the body to advantage.

Some feminists have complained of the "objectification" of women in such things as beauty contests. Yet historically, the increasing insistence on feminine beauty parallels the growing equality of women. Today, when women are arguably closer to equal public status with men than ever in history, young women’s dress seems geared more than ever to the flattering display of the body. The obvious difference in the respective degrees to which sexual selection has reshaped male and female bodies obliges us to conclude that, lacking special cultural circumstances, female beauty will always be more humanly significant than masculine. Nor is this beauty appreciated exclusively or even predominantly by men. Not only do women actively seek out examples of female beauty to imitate; they are touched by it, perhaps more authentically than men. Of the many people to whom I have shown Carole’s pictures, a far greater proportion of men than women feel the need to deny her exceptionality. To my mind, this difference is attributable to the interference of the shame of masculine desire with esthetic judgment. In particular, interest in the bosom is so vulnerable to ridicule that efforts to avoid it dominate whole historical eras, for example, the 1920s, during which time men’s real tastes in women’s bodies could hardly have undergone some mysterious mutation. Women, unencumbered by male embarrassment, are much more ready to acknowledge female beauty when they see it.

The central implication of Carole’s revelation for my theoretical model of the human is a proposition I had taken for granted without reflecting on its consequences for originary anthropology: that, because the imaginary joys and sufferings that are the content of our fictions are grounded in real experience, the oscillation of attention between the sign and its imaginary referent that defines the esthetic is guaranteed by our faith in the possibility that such a referent could wholly satisfy our desire. In the history of the public imagery of beauty during its domination by the Hollywood movie industry, say from 1920 through 1980—although a less exclusive form of this domination is arguably still in effect—I would claim that only Carole fully justifies this faith. The origin of the human is a singularity, a single instance of collective desire for a single object. This one woman’s public beauty stands as a guarantee that, however paradoxical may be the concept of "fulfilled desire," we can conceive in the presence of her image an idea of desire fulfilled.

Desire is the stumbling-block of esthetic theory. Kant rightly saw that esthetic experience is not linked to appetitive satisfaction and is therefore "disinterested"; but once desire has been eliminated as a motivation, the principle that makes us call a painting, a sonata, or a narrative "beautiful" is lost. What distinguishes the beautiful object from the merely desirable one is not its lack of an appetitive basis but its provocation of a return of our attention to the image from its imagined referent; we are not incited to practical action in the service of our appetites, merely to a renewed contemplation that is nonetheless inhabited by desire. In the moment in which we experience beauty, we return to the image, real or reproduced, rather than proceed immediately toward fulfillment. Beauty’s deferral of appetitive action is not a denial of desire but a means of making it eternal ("Forever wilt thou love and she be fair," as Keats put it).

Art operates through the creation of a utopia of desire that, whether or not realized in the artwork, can never be actualized substantially. Tragedy is more profound than comedy because it thematizes this impossibility; comedy is more realistic than tragedy because in real life we do our best to avoid this thematization: except on the extreme fringes of the mensonge romantique, we marry and live more or less happily ever after rather than hubristically transgress sacred taboos. In either case, however, the esthetic utopia of desire is the source of meaning for our worldly goals, just as religion promises our spirit accession to the eternal realm of signification.

What I have learned from Carole is that this utopia has its objective correlative in the public as well as in the private world, that it is indeed possible for a woman in the public eye to be truly beautiful, so that, unable to conceive her any more desirable than she already is, we must return to her image to reassure ourselves of her existence on earth at a specific historical moment.

Carole’s beauty is timeless, but what makes it a historical revelation is determined by the nature of the traces we retain of her existence. If human beauty is to have cultural significance, there must be means to preserve and communicate it to those who have not seen it at first hand. The plastic arts, curiously enough, are not adequate to this task. A painting or sculpture, however closely it may reflect the objective reality of its model, is the product of an esthetic will to which the beauty of the image must in the last analysis be attributed. When we refer to the beauty of the Mona Lisa, it is Leonardo’s painting we are discussing, not some fifteenth-century Italian noblewoman. The possibility of preserving a image of human beauty adequate to its object arises only in what is famously known as the "era of mechanical reproduction." The fundamental difference between the esthetic of photography and that of plastic art proper is that a photographic portrait, however beautiful "in itself," must be taken as the image of a real person, unmediated in its detail by human intention, and it derives its power and poignancy from that fact. (The nineteenth-century dream of recording the sounds and images of reality is not coincidentally that of the first modern market societies: this is an idea that will be developed elsewhere.)

It hardly needs remarking that Carole’s beauty was not hers alone; the beauty of her photographic image is that of a total package that includes clothing, cosmetics, hair styling and coloring, and jewelry as well as such external elements as lighting and, no doubt on occasion, retouching. In the glamour photographs that Carole posed for from the beginning to the end of her career, cosmetics and adornments are more than beauty aids; they are signs of reverence that affirm the photographic subject’s transcendental significance. Carole’s beauty is public and even publicitary; most of her photographs were created to be distributed as advertisements for the star and her studio. The commercial intention of these photographs, far from tarnishing their "aura," is precisely what makes them objects of public beauty. (The star’s public status once established, "private" snapshots then take on the aura of showing her as she really is.)

I would not be writing about Carole if I saw her as one among many beautiful and talented actress whose lives were shortened by exploitation and calumny and/or unjustly neglected by history. My experience of Carole is of someone unique, and it would be unfaithful to that experience for me not to begin from the premise of her uniqueness. This leads to an anomaly that must be faced head on. How can it be that during the era when Hollywood wholly dominated the generation of images of public beauty, only one person has left us a truly beautiful public image, and, if this is so, how is it possible that this person and her images are so nearly forgotten today?

Although many are reluctant to admit it, a woman’s beauty begins with her body, which the glamour photograph can only suggest; with a few possible exceptions, such as the infamous Marilyn Monroe calendar, nude photography before the 1970s was either art photography or pornography, neither of which are modes of what I call public beauty. The subject of the picture says to us, "take this image as a substitute for what I cannot show you, but which I promise you is there." Yet the typical glamour shot (classically, an 8x10 black and white glossy), even of the presumably most beautiful stars, promises something it cannot deliver. The disparity between the physical beauty that the subject’s dress and comportment promise us and what our objective judgment concludes is really there is a measure of the mimetic element in our cultural perception; one is expected to sacrifice one’s judgment on the altar of cultural mimesis to the (implicitly collective) suggestion emanating from the picture itself. The spectator must supplement the image’s failure to fulfill its promise (a relative failure, to be sure, but the promise is of "absolute" satisfaction) with images of the star’s film roles, perhaps of her off-screen life. The success of the Hollywood publicity machine in determining our sense of public beauty is a tribute to the effectiveness of this sacrificial operation.

It was in the 1930s, with the coming of sound and the consequent expansion of the film audience, that the studios and their publicity operations acquired their mature form. An early byproduct of audience expansion was the 1930 Hays code, which strictly limited sexual display, institutionalizing the photographic esthetic of promise within which Carole’s career was encompassed. We may take three stars as paradigmatic of public beauty in this period: Jean Harlow, Mae West, and Greta Garbo.

Jean Harlow’s screen image was typically (e.g., in The Red-Headed Woman [1932]), that of a woman undeterred by morality from exploiting her sexual value, whether in exchange for wealth or other social benefits, or simply for sensual pleasure. The salient characteristic of Harlow’s body image is that she is often shown not wearing a brassiere or other constraining undergarments; her character as a "loose woman" is exemplified by this particular looseness. Harlow’s dress, with occasional revealing poses, suggests her body’s sensual presence much more explicitly than standard garb, without however making its form explicit.

Mae West, Harlow’s fellow sex symbol of the 1930s, presents her body most often in the opposite manner: tightly squeezed into a corset or the equivalent. Where Harlow suggests her body’s immediate presence, West discourages us from guessing at her real contours under the restraining clothing. Neither implies an unambiguously beautiful whole; both point to a behavioral narrative of easy availability as a supplement to the image.

At the opposite pole from Harlow and West is Greta Garbo, who, disdaining to present a sexual image of her body to the public, scarcely presented any at all, preferring to limit photographs to her face or appearing draped in flowing, formless clothing.

That those who purveyed the images of movie stars were reluctant to obviate the cultural mimetic effect by not just promising but delivering a truly beautiful body explains the exceptionality attributed to Carole throughout her career. Carole’s body was indeed exceptionally beautiful, but had her example corresponded to the generally accepted criterion of public beauty, other actresses of similar body type would surely have emerged. As it is, despite all the hype about actresses’ bosoms, Carole remained in a class by herself; witness the catty remark of Esther Williams (an actress noted for her figure) that she wondered how Carole could stand erect--forgetting that Carole got her big break in One Million B.C. because she could run like an athlete.

The absence of beautiful implicit bodies in these images stands in contrast to the buxom figures of the fictional "Petty Girls" or "Vargas Girls" of the period. (One revelatory comment about Carole--Life, February 1, 1943--was that she had the body of a Petty girl.) When Carole was starting out in 1937-38 she was much in demand for cheesecake photographs, which made use of young women whose figures were both more voluptuous and less hidden than those of genuine film stars. Although this kind of work was felt to be half way between legitimate photography and pornography, it was quite chaste by our standards. Very little of the bosom was shown; it was the legs that received the most attention—whence the synonym for cheesecake, "leg art." Long after her early days in Hollywood, Carole continued to pose for such photographs on occasion, no doubt in good-natured acquiescence to the demands of photographers. Carole’s 1940 self-description as "a refugee from leg art" became a tag line for the journalists of the day. One way of describing Carole’s place in the history of beauty is as the unique case of a cheesecake model who became a movie star.

The canard that voluptuous, untalented Carole got into film by seducing X, Y, and Z is not only slanderous, it begs the question of why no other women with Carole’s body type were found in Hollywood films. Carole herself was exceptional, but the key to her historical role is that her career benefited from an unusual institutional context.

Carole combined a beautiful body and face (perfected by a discreet 1940 nose job) with innate grace and unemphatic elegance. In a Photoplay article that appeared in November 1948, four months after Carole’s suicide, her older sister Dorothy recalls that she and a friend would sit on the school lawn and listen to Carole sing, "enthralled by her singing, her grace and beauty." Carole was also talented in a variety of areas: she was a fine singer with a sweet and rich if not powerful contralto, she had an excellent comic sense, and she applied herself very seriously to acting. As she demonstrates in her early films, Carole was also quite athletic; during the filming of Mystery Sea Raider, she picked up the director, Edward Dmytryk, and carried him across the gangplank. How many of those who blithely dismiss Carole as "a lovely torso, not an actress" (Time) realize that in her first four films she plays a prehistoric girl, a pampered housewife transformed into a man, a nightclub entertainer caught up in Nazi spying intrigue, and a circus owner who sings and even performs rope tricks? Throughout Carole’s career, although her films were often panned, she herself received generally favorable reviews and was never criticized for bad acting. One can only speculate what she might have been capable of with quality material and direction.

From the institutional side, the one word that explains the inhabitual openness of the film world to Carole is war. Carole’s film career began and flourished during the Second World War, which started, as Americans tend to forget, in September 1939. Even before Pearl Harbor, Carole was making war films and visiting military installations; she starred in Mystery Sea Raider in 1940 and Cadet Girl in late 1941, which reproduces one of Carole’s real experiences of singing in uniform on a military base before 15,000 cadets. WW II obliged the United States to set an example for the other "bourgeois democracies" by affirming the superiority of its social order over Axis despotism. The Depression had indulged the distracting narrative of coquetry; war was a time for the genuine article.

Carole’s devotion to the war effort was legendary; she visited both theaters of the war--contracting dysentery, malaria, pneumonia, and appendicitis in the process--and tirelessly traveled the US, selling war bonds, singing, dancing with the men, visiting barracks and hospitals, being sure to speak to every soldier in person. Carole was very much aware that her most precious gift to the fighting men was a vision of beauty, offered under circumstances where false promises were inappropriate.

The great lesson of the twentieth century was the triumph of liberal democracy over both left- and right-wing utopias that claimed to replace the anarchy of the market with a rational, conflict-free order. As we have learned, the freest and most prosperous social order is founded on the recognition that, because our mimetic nature makes us as different as it makes us similar, peripheral exchange is more effective in mediating our differences than centralized uniformity. It might seem to follow from this recognition of difference that such a society could not be united by a common image of desire. Yet market society’s inherent optimism turns on the faith that our desires are mimetic elaborations of underlying appetites that are ultimately faithful to their natural paths of satisfaction. Carole’s beauty is never perverse; too patently desirable to seek to whet our desires by coquetry, she need never overstep the bounds of good taste to display herself as living proof that there are indeed objects on earth by which these desires can be satisfied--suggesting that the free circulation of desire leads not to a vicious circle of mimetic rivalry but to a dynamic equilibrium between desire and the means available for its satisfaction. Carole’s beauty gives proof that the world is a wondrous place whose reality outstrips our desiring imagination--proof that gave courage to many soldiers going into battle.

The postwar era was less happy for Carole; the age of the postmodern critique of difference, however beneficial to society’s victims, was not one in which the centralizing force of beauty, let alone beauty in the service of American patriotism, could be frankly celebrated. But the victimary paradigm that makes collective resentment the primary criterion of social justice appears to have run its course. Now that we are forced to defend our way of life against the destructive forces of those who make victimhood their alibi, we can find no better symbol of the inherent optimism of our liberal democracy than Carole Landis’s incomparable American Beauty.

(For other photographs of Carole, see http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/cl/clpix.htm)

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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