Revues and other Vanities: The Commodification of Fantasy in the 1920s

[Note: Unless otherwise indicated, images come from ebay.com offerings and are not copyrighted.]


A production number from the Earl Carroll Vanities, date unknown

I. The Keystone Kops Play the Earl Carroll Theatre

Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1924 opened on September 10th and ran for 440 performances. Part of its appeal to the "tired businessman," the proverbial audience for the "leg shows" of the twenties, was the spectacular "Peacock" number which closed the first act. The scene purported to recreate the entrance of the Queen of Sheba at King Solomon's court. To the music of Ravel's "Bolero," the queen approached Solomon on his throne of gold. Among the gifts she brought were peacocks from India. According to Ken Murray's biography, The Body Merchant: The Story of Earl Carroll (1976), Carroll explained: "That's where our beautiful girls will come out as peacocks. And the esthetic art of the number demands that the girls be in the absolute buff this time, not even G-strings." Murray knew and worked with Carroll, though not until the 1930s. He was, however, an especially close friend of Carroll's brother Jim who worked alongside Earl throughout his career. We cannot take the quotation as verbatim, but it is likely Carroll said something of the sort. Unless noted otherwise, the following account of Earl Carroll's 1924 Vanities draws upon Murray's biography.

Nudity was a common element in shows like the Vanities, George White's Scandals, Ziegfeld's Follies, and the other "revues." Usually, it was momentary and partial, a bared breast or buttock briefly glimpsed. Writing in The Survey, a weekly magazine normally devoted to social problems and issues, Leon Whipple described both the "Artists and Models" revue at the Winter Garden and the public's "acclimation" to "public nakedness" in the theatre:

. . . for a not excessive price, men, women, and adolescents can go into a lovely New York theatre on Broadway and see naked bodies, generally of women, under full lights with nothing on save what antique writers call a "zone" [belt or girdle]. The rest of the body is completely and absolutely nude, with scarce alleviation of a coat powder. The bodies are exposed as statues, figurines, and symbolic persons, with recurrent veilings and for brief flashes. The showmanship is deft and even discreet though the shadowy lighting of yesteryear has given way to the full flood. The exposure of the body lasts probably not five minutes out of the three hours, though there is a constant and cloying stream of lesser bareness — legs, backs, torsos, and anatomical odds and ends. To these latter we have already been acclimated for the unveiling has been going on in New York for several years, almost by fractions of inches as the producers tried out the public taste. Indeed, the student might find a thesis in social science in the scrutiny of this process of breaking down a convention by annual innovation. — "Not Art and Not Model," Survey, March 1, 1926

But 108 showgirls, clad only in peacock headdresess and carrying fans of peacock feathers, slowly parading across the stage, that would be different. And Carroll needed something different, if he was going to top his first Vanities. That show had starred Peggy Hopkins Joyce, then the most notorious woman in America and the original for the character Lorelei Lee Anita Loos made the narrator of Gentlemen Prefer Blodes. Press agent Will Page, who did not work for Carroll, recounted:

Considering it only a summer show at the start, and not being minded to invest a fortune in the scene-settings, gorgeous fabrics and all the glittering gew-gaws of the conventional revue, Earl Carroll built his platforms, pedestals, and stairways out of large hollow cubes—colored differently on their various sides. By simply turning these blocks during the periods when Joe Cook was performing sections of his "One Man Vaudeville" in 1[sic], Earl Carroll achieved complete changes of stage settings in the cubist style. Then he engaged Peggy Hopkins Joyce to trail her ten-thousand-dollar sables down the golden stairway, allowed the minimum of costumes to the rest of the comely cast—and Earl Carroll's Vanities was the most vivacious and visible success of the current revues. — Will A. Page, Behind The Curtains Of The Broadway Beauty Trust (1927)

Page perhaps did Joyce an injustice. She claimed the sable cost $60,000. Peggy Hopkins Joyce was not available for the 1924 show. Neither was Dorothy Knapp, pictured at right, whom Carroll had billed as "the most beautiful girl in the world" and whose costume supplies a useful definintion of what Page meant by the "minimum" worn by "the rest of the comely cast." [Click on the image for a larger version.] Comedian Joe Cook was back. Sophie Tucker, the "last of the red-hot Mommas," sang in the show. But there was no famous beauty. Without a "name," Carroll decided to feature nudity on a grand scale.

It was not a decision that sat well with the New York City District Attorney. New York had become far more permissive about what could and could not be shown on the stage in the decade since Anthony Comstock's death, but the "Peacock Dance" threatened to make the censorship laws dead letters unless something was done. Two detectives from the Vice Squad attended the opening night performance. The next morning the District Attorned demanded that Carroll either drop the number entirely or else clothe the performers. Carroll refused.

That night, September 11th, a police officer stood in the wings of the Earl Carroll Theatre. His orders were to stop any display of nudity. For this purpose he brought a blanket. He did not have to wait for the "Peacock Dance." The opening number featured Kathryn Ray "in the buff" swinging upside down on the pendulum of a huge clock. Onto the stage raced the officer who attempted to capture the startled Ray in his blanket. She broke free and dashed across the stage closely pursued by the officer still trying to wrap her in his blanket. It was, as Ken Murray remarks, a scene straight out of a Keystone Kops two-reeler. Sennett had dressed his Kops in the uniform of the New York City police, even to the bowler hats. The audience, sure it was part of the show, shrieked with laughter and, when stagehands finally rescued Ray by carrying her offstage — still followed by the police officer — they leapt to their feet in applause. The curtain fell.

Earl Carroll stepped forward to address the audience. No, it was not part of the show. It was the effort of the censors to prevent him from presenting the show he had advertised and they had purchased tickets to see. What did they want, he asked. They could see the show as the Board of Censors wanted it or as he had designed it. The Board of Censors lost this plebiscite in a landslide, and the show went on. The next morning, another of New York City's finest observed a group of teenaged boys stopping in the lobby of the Earl Carroll Theatre to ogle a poster of the same Kathryn Ray. The officer later testified that the poster had a "bad effect" on them. He went inside the theatre to demand that Carroll remove it and others of a similar sort. Carroll refused. The policeman arrested him on a charge of public obscenity. As a result, even as the show went on for another 438 performances, Carroll found himself on trial on November 10, 1924 for displaying obscene posters in the lobby of the theatre.

Carroll read a prepared statement in his defense:

. . . A vast amount of words have been spoken and written on the subject of censorship, most of it, on both sides, in bitterness. I have nothing to say against the censor individually, but I will point out clearly, I hope, and without rancor, how reactionary and out of date the Board of Censors is. It is a commonplace to everyone who has given any attention to the origin and history of ethics, that what is prohibited in one age is apt to be orthodox and quite correct in the next.

It was once shocking for a woman without stockings and a flowing skirt to be seen on a bathing beach. But, today, in this year 1924, men and women, and our young people in their unafraid companionship preach and practice a freedom formerly unknown.

This freedom, both of action and utterance, is finding abundant expression in the dramatic field. Then along comes the censor with frown and formula out of a forgotten age, and applies the cloture. And the evil thing about this is that cloture is not only drastic and effective, but puts lasting fear into the hearts of the owners of theatrical property.

[Carroll went on to use the official objections to profanity in "What Price Glory?" — a play about trench warfare — as an example censorship meddling with art.]

. . . Under the present law, however, the office of censorship cannot adjust itself to change. It is under the old compulsions, the old dominations. In the days of the early Italian astronomers, a dramatist who produced a play with a plot based on the shape of the earth and the possiblity of the hero circumnavigating it, would have been in danger of the rack or the stake.

The censor stands equally in the way of progress now. The only light he gets is the feeble glimmer from the past. Infinitely better than concentrating the power of censorship in one individual's hands, even when that individual is supported by policemen or other witnesses, is my sincere belief that such standards can be safely left to the people. Only then can we have regulation without strangulation. I have always been impressed by the verdict the public places upon a work of art.

The three judge panel of the Court of Special Sessions retired to consider their verdict which, they announced, would be based strictly upon the question of fact: Were the images immoral? "We have examined the exhibits that are specimens of nudity and find they are not sufficient to hold the defendant. We find the defendant should be acquitted." W.C. Fields, who starred in several of Carroll's later revues, reached his own verdict: "Earl Carroll is a preacher with an erection." Lincoln Steffens might have found him an "honest crook." The premiere muckraking journalist of the Progressive Era, Steffens claimed to prefer "honest crooks," rascals who admitted their rascality so long as the admission could not be used against them in a court of law, over do-gooders of any sort. At least with an "honest crook" you got the truth. Carroll began his statement to the judges by saying "I have always staked my name, my reputation, and when I had it, my money, on the conception of what people wanted to see." He never pretended that the Vanites had any higher purpose than giving the audience what it craved. This was, in a word, titilation.

The Revue as a Sign of the Times

Historians pay no heed. Titilation is, presumably by definition, insufficiently serious. So too the revues which took dead aim upon frivolity. [A recent exception, and a very important study, is Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema by Linda Mizejewski (1999). A pioneering study is Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930 (1981) by Lewis A. Erenberg. Another useful work is Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (1991).] In ignoring both revues and titilation scholars ignore the testimony of contemporaries. In the preface to Will Page's Behind The Curtains, Jack Lait described the staggering popularity of the "Beauty Trust" as of 1927:

The "girl revue," wonder child of the old "musical comedy," has become a gigantic institution. Eight stupendous revues, and scores of lesser ones, blaze anew on Broadway every autumn. The cost of producing one of them would have beggared P.T. Barnum. Millionaires have gone bankrupt backing them. One scene alone may call for thousands. The public, in return, pays millions to see them, sometimes at a smashing price per "see." Other millions are invested in the properties that house them. The institution is, literally, a billion-dollar gamble.

Edmund Wilson, later to be acclaimed as one of the nation's most insightful critics, took the Follies quite seriously as a sign of the times. He too described that archetypical revue as an "institution" albeit one devoted to institutionalizing fantasy. Of the 1923 edition he wrote:

. . . there is . . . something wonderful about the Follies. It exhibits the persistent vitality as well as the stupidity of an institution. Among those green peacocks and gilded panels, in the luxurious haze of the New Amsterdam [Theatre], there is realized a glittering vision which rises straight out of the soul of New York. The Follies is such fantasy, such harlequinade as the busy well-to-do New Yorker has been able to make of his life. Expensive, punctual, stiff, it moves with the speed of an express train. It has in it something of Riverside Drive, of the Plaza [hotel], of Scott Fitzgerald's novels—though it radically differs from these latter in being almost devoid of wit.

. . . . . .

Yet, as I say, there is a splendor about the Follies. It has, in its way, both distinction and intensity. At the New Amsterdam, the girls are always young— the mis en scene nearly always beautiful. And there is always one first-rate performer. Just now it is Gilda Gray. [pictured at right.] She is not the official American Girl; she embodies a different ideal: an ideal which was probably created by the vibrant and abandoned Eva Tanguay and which has produced the jazz baby of the years since the war who now rivals the magazine. . . . she is the semi-bacchante of Main Street. [From The Portable Edmund Wilson, edited by Lewis M. Dabney, 183, 184]

Gilda Gray's proficiency in performing the "Shimmy" aside, what drew Wilson back to the Follies was the way it packaged "such fantasy . . . as the busy well-to-do New Yorker has been able to make of his life." At its heart Wilson found a particular kind of sexual daydream:

Mr. Ziegfeld has now "Glorified the American Girl" in a very real sense. He has studied, with shrewd intelligence, the American ideal of womanhood and succeeded in putting it on the stage. In general, Ziegfeld's girls have not only the Anglo-Saxon straightness—straight backs, straight brows, and straight noses—but also the peculiar frigidity and purity, the frank high-school-girlishness which Americans like. He does not aim to make them, from the moment they appear, as sexually attractive as possible, as the Follies Begères [in Paris], for example, does. He appeals to American idealism, and then, when the male is intent on his chaste and dewy-eyed vision, he gratifies him on this plane by discreetly disrobing his goddess. He tries, furthermore, to represent, in the maneuvers of his well-trained choruses, not the movement and abandon of emotion, but what the American male really regards as beautiful: the efficiency of mechanical movement.

Who was this chaste, dewy-eyed goddess? Her name was legion. Ziegfeld's photographer, Alfred Cheney Johnston, photographed scores of the "girls." One whose Wilson's description captured almost exactly was Dorothy Flood, seen here in a portrait by Ziegfeld's official photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston.

Gilbert Seldes, whose The Seven Lively Arts historians and other scholars interested in the 1920s routinely acclaim for its early and perceptive appreciation of jazz, silent movie comedians, comic strips, and other manifestions of art erupting in the popular culture, found fault with what he considered Wilson's too hostile view of the Follies. Seldes' "A Tribute to Florenz Ziegfeld" objected to Wilson's claims "that the Follies are frigid—the girls are all straight, the ballet becomes a drill, the very laughs are organized and mechanical."

I dissent . . . from the suggestion that the physical loveliness of the Ziegfeld chorus has ceased to be seductive. Some, as Mr. [Ring] Lardner once said—some like 'em cold, and there are at least five other choruses which affect me as pleasurably. But for those that like the Ziegfeld-type chorus, which has always a deal of stateliness and a haughty air of being damned well bred, Mr. Ziegfeld's production of wares is perfect. He has simply moved his chorus one step backward in order to make them appear slightly inaccessible and so a little more desirable. His attack is indirect, but it is no less certain. — The Seven Lively Arts (1924), 136-7

Seldes did, on the other hand, agree with Wilson on the "mechanical" precision of a successful revue. The revue "shows a mania for perfection; it aspires to be precise and definite, it corresponds to those de luxe railway trains which are always exactly on time, to the millions of spare parts that always fit. . . ." A jazz melody or a symphonic composition "may sound from the orchestra pit, but underneath is the real tone of the revue, the steady incorruptible purr of the dynamo." This was the "one point, and only point" where "the revue touches upon art."

Joseph Wood Krutch, to whose The Modern Temper (1929) historians routinely turn for illustrations of the disillusionment and angst of the twenties, was the drama critic for The Nation. Like Wilson and Seldes, he faithfully attended the revues. He was a more enthusiastic advocate. He even liked the choreography although he did agree with Wilson about the absence of genuine humor. And where Seldes praised the "mania for perfection" as the artistic touchstone of the revue, Krutch turned to its philosophical integrity, its faithfulness to its "essential nature."

Revues have, of course, their drawbacks. There are moments of "art" which are pretty painful, and there are bits of comic relief which do not always relieve; but on the whole I prefer them to the more orthodox musical comedies from which they sprang, and that for a very philosophical reason—they are that which it is their nature to be more perfectly and more completely. The essential nature, the true inwardness of musical comedy, I take to be neither music nor comedy but something more simple and more fundamental. Feeble drama and tepid music are but decorous excuses for the sensuous delights which the spectacle of rhythmic bodies affords, and the revue, recognizing the fact with an honest frankness, is built around bodies. It has no stupid plot to bore the spectator and its music is frankly no more than the music of the dance, but it offers as a compensation the swaying body and the nimble limb in all the greater abundance. Nor can I, for one, pretend to be shocked by the increasing nakedness which the last few years have developed. . . . the fact remains that the body, half hidden or wholly revealed, furnishes the essential element of the charm, and I see nothing gained for morality, though much lost for beauty, in pretending that anything else is true.

. . . . [Revues] are to a democracy what troupes of dancing girls were once to kings. Throughout history any king who could afford the expense and disregard the scandal has kept his company to dance for him; but then it was the luxury of a few, while today there is no one above penury who may not be entertained in the way that the potentates of Babylon and Rome were entertained. If Solomon had his seven hundred wives his relations with most of them cannot have been very intimate. Their real function, I suspect, was merely to stage his reviews. — The Nation, January 13, 1926.


Harem number, no date, from an unknown review

Just as Solomon could scarcely have "been very intimate" with most of his wives, the "well-to-do New Yorker" (Wilson) or the anyone "above penury" (Krutch) who attended a revue could not romance all one hundred or so beauties on stage at the Follies or the Vanities or Scandals. An unlucky few "tired businessmen" fell for a particular girl. The most notable, because most unfortunate, was Stanley Joyce, Peggy Hopkins' third husband whose one-year marriage with the decade's most celebrated "gold digger" cost him at least two million dollars. Indeed she entitled one chapter of her autobiography, Men, Marriage, and Me (1930) which described one week in her marriage to Joyce, "How to Spend a Million a Week." Will Page devoted several chapters of Behind The Curtains to stories of rich men taken for large sums by the "gold diggers" of the chorus. According to Page, one admirer of Gilda Gray, for example, tossed a diamond bracelet worth $100,000 onto the stage to show his appreciation. Page, a press agent, quickly put the story in every newspaper he could. The incident, he related, made Gray a star.

Most of the men in the audience, however, did not fall in love with one or another of the performers. Instead, like Krutch's Solomon and Krutch himself, they fell in love with the fantasy, the dream that one could have any woman one wanted. The fantasy became problematic only when one loved an actual woman. Better to love all 700 in one's dreams and go to revues.

A Complementary Fantasy

Wilson and his contemporaries regarded the revue strictly in terms of male fantasies. And, so far as the shows themselves were concerned, they were perfectly right to do so. Everything about the Vanites from the numbers of beautiful women to the dance numbers to the costumes fed Krutch's Solomon fantasy. But there was a female fantasy tied up in the revues. This was the dream of becoming a chorus girl. Every week Ziegfeld received hundreds of photographs of young women from all over the country hoping to be in the Follies. J.P. McEvoy, who worked on many Follies shows as a comedy writer, described the response whenever Ziegfeld sent out a "call." Those wishing to try out, it would read, should "appear on the New Amsterdam stage, say about eleven o'clock.

Long before that all the streets leading to the New Amsterdam would be blocked with flocks of girls all sizes, shapes, weights and ages. Shopgirls and home girls, girls from small towns and big towns, chorus girls, models, girls from burlesque, vaudeville and the movies, debs from Park Avenue homes and hostesses from taxi-dance halls—all the girls who ever worked for him before, and practically all the girls from all the shows then running in New York. For every girl in the show business or out wanted to be known as a Follies girl. . . . the stage manager would line the girls up in rows stretching clear across the stage, and row after row would march down to the footlights and stand there until Mr. Ziegfeld had looked them over. They came in evening gowns and bathing suits, and fur coats and ballet dresses. Every kind of face, leg and head of hair known to anatomy. After they stood for a few minutes looking out into the dark theatre, they were dismissed and the next line marched up to the footlights. This would go on for hours, and still there would be more girls and more girls and more girls, and long after Ziegfeld had gone home, the police would be called to clear the stage and the alleys. — "He Knew What They Wanted," Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 10, 1932

James S. Metcalfe, writing in Theatre Magazine in April 1921, noted the "endless supply" of chorus girls for what seemed "an unlimited demand." Why did so many women seek to work in the chorus?

Because of its adventure, its romance, its possibilities matrimonially, its temptation to feminine vanity, its apparent gayety and freedom of life—all this account for the why of the chorus girl in her countless numbers. — "The Why Of The Chorus Girl"

Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern would make fun of this in "Showboat" (1927) with their "Life Upon The Wicked Stage" number. But stories of chorus girls, rich businessmen, midnight suppers, and movie offers filled the newspapers and magazines. Press agent Will Page supplied a textbook example in Behind the Curtains. In 1925 two Ziegfeld Girls asked the great man for a vacation. "All of their wealthy admirers, they explained, had gone to Palm Beach and they had various invitations to social functions."

The kind Mr. Ziegfeld . . . permitted Helen Lee Worthing, one of the most famous beauties of recent years, and her intimate pal and confidante Phoebe Lee to depart for southern climes and the social activities of Palm Beach in the height of the January season. The advent of two such beautiful girls—Miss Worthing, a delicate blonde, and Miss Lee, an exotic type of red-haired feminity—created nothing less than a sensation at the aristocratic Royal Poinciana Hotel. Social dowagers, who saw them on the sands, glowered with anger as they saw all of the eligible young men—and many of the elderly rich men—flock around the two pretty girls. With ingenuity born only of devilish minds, the two girls had contracted to attract attention by a weird contrast; Miss Worthing wore a smart bathing suit of red silk, while Miss Lee wore a home-made bathing suit of calico somewhat resembling blue rompers. The moving picture men, newspaper photographers, all of the employees of the hotel and four-fifths of the crowd on the sands paid no attention to anyone else except to the beautiful Helen Lee Worthing and the lovely Phoebe Lee.

What was the result? Ziegfeld lost them both. They never went back to the Follies. Miss Worthing met a millionaire to whom she became engaged immediately and returned to New York, became a motion picture star because of the publicity she had acquired at Palm Beach and expects in a few weeks to become the bride of her wealthy admirer. Miss Lee remained throughout the Palm Beach season, then went to Havana for the races and returned to New York with so many diamonds, gifts of impetuous admirers, that she bought a beautiful home on Long Island, moved her mother and sister from their residence on Second Avenue, is sending her little brother through school and is also on the point of being married to a Wall Street broker who has given her wise counsel upon how to invest her little savings in the stock market to make a small fortune.

Ziegfeld took pride both in the number of his "girls" who went on to success in the movies and in the number who made advantageous marriages. An article published in the Pictorial Review of May 1925 called "What Becomes of the Ziegfeld Follies Girls?" contained pictures of several former Follies chorus members who became Hollywood stars. Their number included Marion Davies [seen here with Billie Dove, also a Follies alum, in "Blondie of the Follies], Mae Murray, and Nita Naldi who played opposite Rudloph Valentino in several films, including "Blood and Sand." Naldi gave an highly entertaining account of how she won the part of the "vamp" in that movie to the Columbia University Oral History project.[At right is a portrait of Naldi with the Greek god Pan, done by Alberto Vargas who came to work for Ziegfeld in the early 1920s and did numerous paintings of Follies performers.]

But how I really got the job is a most amazing story. Of course, everybody wanted to work with Valentino; he had finished The Four Horsemen and The Sheik. He was a great star before I ever went out there. Everybody was fighting to get into a Valentino picture.

Well, it seems that a friend of my mother, called Maria Barrientos, a great Spanish opera singer, had an apartment on Riverside Drive and 80-some-odd Street, and she invited me to come and visit her for a supper party, so I did. And I came from Mr. Ziegfeld's, where I was working, and there I met Mr. Blasco Ibañez, the writer, the man who wrote Blood and Sand. He had written several Four Horsemen; he'd written The Cathedral, which impressed me as being violently communistic, but we didn't use the word "Communist" in those days.


But his theory in The Cathedral was that all the riches and all the things from the vestments to the—oh, all the magnificence inside the cathedral—should be given to the poor. Well, if you give everything away to the poor, nobody would have anything anyhow. As our Lord Jesus Christ said, "The poor are always with us." Unfortunately, myself included.


Well, it seems that Maria Barrientos had a huge dish of punch in the middle of her salon, and, of course, when I met Mr. Blasco Ibañez, I said, "Well, you monster of iniquity! You sacrilegious lout! Now that you're a success, I suppose you'll change your entire theories for expediency. You've made a fortune selling your thing to the movies."


And, my dear, the man got so excited trying to deny the fact that he was a Communist, or communistically inspired, that he dropped his false teeth in the middle of my bosom. I had a very low-cut evening gown on. And Maria Barrientos, who knew me from the time I was 4 years old, reached down in my bosom, pulled the false teeth out, put them in the punch bowl, practically sterilized them (much to the edification of the rest of the guests), and stuck them back in Mr. Blasco Ibañez's face.


So then he screamed at me, he said, "You are Doña Sol; you are a very evil and very wicked woman." So he decided that I would play the part of this horror, this sadistic demon. And nothing would ever change him. Many others were up for this role, but I got it. He wouldn't have anybody else do it. I kept saying to him all the time, "How dare you insult me? This woman is a monster; she's a sex maniac; she's a sadist, she's a horror, the worst type."


And he kept answering me back all the time that that would be his revenge.


And it was. I never outlived it. —
"The Reminiscences of Nita Naldi" in the collection of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office. Interview by Joan and Robert Franklin,1959. Copyright 2000 by The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York.

None of the filmgoers of the day knew about Naldi's adventure with Blasco Ibañez's false teeth. But most knew she had been a Follies Girl. And who knows how many young women came out of "Blood and Sand" dreaming of vamping Rudolph Valentino? And how many fantasized about being the center of attention at the swank Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach at the height of the January season? Or of being showered with diamonds? Or of marrying a stock broker or a millionaire?

Titilation and the Censor

Wilson, Seldes, Krutch, all in their various ways insisted that the "revue" said something important about American popular culture. Its producers were on to something. What Carroll and his colleagues on Broadway understood, beyond the American fascination with machine-like precision, was that America was ripe for titilation. It was everywhere in the popular culture — in "petting parties," in movie posters (at right is the lobby card for a 1929 film starring Myrna Loy as "Nubie, Gypsy Gale of Passion"), in Mae West's stunning Broadway success with "Sex," in the newspaper stories about Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Helen Lee Worthing, and in advertisements of all sorts.

But, should titilation signify for historians? Did the ongoing struggle between Carroll and the censors matter? No one confused the Vanities with the plays of Eugene O'Neill. Nonetheless the ephemeral does have import. In this instance, it illumines an important aspect of modern American life, the commodification of fantasy. Designing, packaging, and selling fantasy is a core component of the Consumer Ethos which came into its own in the 1920s and which continues to help define American popular culture.

If Carroll should matter to the historian, so should the censor. Carroll, despite his eloquent denunciation, needed the censor. How else could his productions achieve notoreity? The historian needs the censor too. Someone had to, as Carroll put it, express "the old compulsions, the old dominations." How else can the historian grasp the sense of danger the new ethos generated? In particular, how else is the historian to understand how evangelical Protestants saw the new popular culture?

John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, led the campaign against the "decadence" in the modern theatre. George Marsden, in his Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980), wrote that Straton "perhaps comes closest to the 'ideal type' of the fundamentalist moral reformer." (p. 161) In the spring of 1920 he launched an exposé of vice in the Times Square area and published The Menace of Immorality in Church and State. Earlier in 1920, in the February issue of Theatre Magazine, he published "an open letter to the American threatre-going public" entitled "The Trouble With The Modern Theatre."

Even by the admissions of those who know the theatre of today best and who are naturally inclined to be lenient to its shortcomings, the morals of the present day theatre are deplorably low. Perhaps the saddest fact of all is, that the stage is the only place where a stain upon a woman's personal character seems to enhance her popularity and success. . . . Many of the chorus girls and the less important actresses are being ground to pieces by the upper and nether mill stones of the commercialism and the low moral ideals of the theatre as it exists today. Undress that would not be tolerated in any respectable home, even among brothers and sisters, is shamelessly flaunted on the public stage. Conversation, which in private life, would make a woman unfit for decent company, and postures from which the face of virtue would turn in disgust in any other place, are not only tolerated, but insisted upon by theatre managers. It was recently remarked by one who knew, that in employing girls, it was not a question of "whether they could sing, but of how near naked they were willing to appear on the stage."

Straton was hardly alone in these sentiments. In his "open letter" he quoted Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent Reform Judaism leader in New York:

I carry in mind one show in particular, that I saw only last week in one of the leading theatres of the city. I am told that there are a dozen shows equally as bad in the city. It was nothing less than the work of moral scavengers and filth-producers. It was the product of moral leprosy. The stage was filled with half-dressed women—though no more so than the boxes of the theatre itself, or the lobbies of the average hotel. It was a vulgar incarnation of impurity, spun about a display of hosiery and underwear.

At stake, according to Straton, and here he parted company with Wise, was "Anglo-Saxon civilization," the "three greatest foundation stones" of which "are the home, the purity of womanhood and the sanctity of the Sabbath." These "are the three things which the theatre most directly and constantly attacks and tries to undermine." Or, in an alternative formulation:

A little handful of men who pollute our stage—men utterly foreign to Christian ideals of life and conduct—have discovered that, by appealing to prurient curiosity, and by catering to those elements in a community who applaud the salacious and the impure, and by enlarging these elements, their dividends are increased.

No doubt Straton would later include Earl Carroll in that "little handful of men." Yet Carroll was a symptom, not a cause of the danger. Ticket prices, Joseph Wood Krutch to the contrary, were high enough to protect most from whatever evil influence his Vanities might exert. So did the limited nature of the "national tour" such a revue would undertake after its Broadway run. The Vanities would play Pittsburgh and Chicago, but not Wheeling or Dubuque. Ziegfeld complained that the high price of railroad fares made taking the Follies to the West Coast prohibitively expensive. Only a small percentage of Americans would ever see a revue. Yet the threat titilation posed to morality was by no means limited to those who did. Rabbi Wise inadvertently drew attention to this when he noted that the "half-dressed women" on the stage were "no more so" than those in the "boxes of the theatre itself, or the lobbies of the average hotel." Edmund Wilson's reference to Gilda Gray as symbolizing the "semi-bacchante of Main Street" made the same point. So did the turnouts of prospective Follies Girls every time Ziegfeld issued a "call." There was something going on in the lives of millions of ordinary people which the revues captured and which Straton, Wise, and other defenders of the moral order deplored.

One way to study this is through the furor over proper bathing attire.

Bathing Beauties, Bathing Costumes, and Beach Censors

Any male looking for a "leg show" could, as Earl Carroll pointed out, simply head for the nearest beach where "our young people in their unafraid companionship preach and practice a freedom formerly unknown." At left is a photograph, model and photographer both unknown, taken at Santa Monica, California sometime in the late 1920s. The model is wearing a one-piece bathing costume against which religious leaders (including the Pope), local communities, and outraged parents had all campaigned through much of the decade. Of all of the changes in women's appearance throughout the twenties, and the "New Woman" looked very different from her namesake of the 1880s, none generated more concern and provoked more efforts at censorship than the one-piece bathing suit. Studying the controversy provides us with a way of grasping some of the ways in which women chose to be modern — the campaign failed because women insisted upon wearing the one-piece suit — as well as some of the ways they defined their new freedom.

For Crystal Eastman, the suit offered freedom of movement. A radical feminist, an attorney, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Eastman was also an avid athlete. (For a biographical sketch by historian Blanche Wissen Cook, visit the ACLU site.) For a March 16, 1927 article, part of a series The Nation ran on "These Modern Women," she recalled an episode out of her childhood:

In our summer community I was a ringleader in the rebellion against skirts and stockings for swimming. On one hot Sunday morning [circa 1900] the other fathers waited on my father and asked him to use his influence with me. I don't know what he said to them but he never said a word to me. He was, I know, startled and embarassed to see his only daughter in a man's bathing suit with bare brown legs for all the world to see. I think it shocked him to his dying day. But he himself had been a swimmer; he knew he would not want to swim in skirt and stockings. Why then should I?

Eastman was not alone in insisting that the conventional bathing costume impeded swimming. Annette Kellerman, an Australian-born distance swimmer, became a big attraction on the American vaudeville circuit. In her act she would dive into a glass tank, perform underwater stunts and ballet maneuvers, while wearing, like Eastman, a man's bathing suit which left her arms, legs, and neck uncovered. In the summer of 1907 she engaged to do a number of shows at Revere Beach near Boston where she was arrested, during the taking of publicity photographs, for public indecency. The notoreity did her no lasting harm. Instead she went on to star in several successful silent films including Neptune's Daughter, Queen of the Sea, and A Daughter of the Gods. [For a publicity still from this last film, click here.] She also continued her vaudeville career. And she marketed a line of bathing suits. The one-piece suit, for a time, was called "the Annette Kellerman."

As Eastman's reference to her "bare brown legs for all the world to see" indicates, there was more to the controversy than the desire of avid swimmers to pursue their favorite pastime. Many, perhaps most, of the women who adopted the new bathing costume were not avid swimmers. Some could not swim at all. They flocked to beaches to bathe in the sun, not the water. They also came to be seen. Eastman's "bare brown legs" were incidental to her pursuit of exercise. But for any number of young women in the 1920s showing off their legs, and their figures, was the main point of going to a beach. They sought, in the parlance of the day, to be "bathing beauties."

The term came from the movies. Mack Sennett, creator of the Keystone Kops, also created the "bathing beauty." At right are two of the earliest, Marie Prevost and Gloria Swanson, the latter of whom would go on to play some of the top dramatic roles of the 1920s and star in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" twenty or so years later. Marie Prevost also became a big star, especially in comedies. In a Sennett comedy, the "bathing beauties" largely functioned as decoration but, as the examples of Swanson, Prevost, and the very first, Mabel Normand, demonstrate, many successful actresses got their start as a Sennett beauty.

Given that everything associated with the movies was rapidly gaining popularity, it is not surprising that local entrepreneurs begain to drum up business by staging "bathing beauty" contests at local resorts. [Click here for a panoramic view of the 1917 Seal Beach "Rough Riding" pageant from the Library of Congress's American Memory site.] As Lois Banner noted in American Beauty, beauty contests themselves had been popular for decades. What was new was the parade of contestants in bathing costumes. Such a thing, the reform-minded The Outlook editorialized was "the vulgarest thing in America."

Nowadays some of the resorts seem to have adopted a form of advertising which combines a maximum amount of sophistication with a minimum amount of brains and imagination. We are thinking of the beauty contests which provide cheap copy for illustrated newspapers and motion-picture reviews.

We can think of nothing better designed to develop a false point of view in the minds of the youthful contestants . . . than the notoreity which is given them in press and film. These contests lack the wholesomeness of athletic contest, for victory is given for something which has no relation to achievement or skill. They set up Mack Sennett as a standard of customs and manners; they touch nothing they do not degrade. — September 10, 1924

Here She Is . . .

The Outlook was but a voice in the chorus of disapproval. "YWCA Opens War on Beauty Contests," read a story in the April 18, 1924 New York Times. The Times endorsed the Y's efforts:

The shocking costumes which such contests encourage certainly call for protests from organizations interested in girl welfare. . . . It was noticed by competent observers that the outlook on life of girls who participated was completely changed. Before the competition they were splendid examples of innocent and pure womanhood. Afterward their heads were filled with vicious ideas.

Three days later, in an editorial, the Times argued that it was the "whole idea" of the contest "rather than the wearing of bathing suits for a purpose different from swimming, that is detestable.

. . . the effect of these rivalries on the contestants is deplorable. They may be good girls when they enter; but whether they win or lose the coveted prizes, they have deteriorated after judgment has been passed. They have learned to mistake notoreity for fame, their estimate of relative values has been utterly destroyed, and of true modesty they can have but traces left.

A more reprehensible way to advertise Atlantic City or any other town could not be devised by the devil himself.

In 1927 the National Council of Catholic Women called the contests "a backward step in the civilization of the world." The Washington Star agreed:

Thinly disguised as "artistic," they are merely lures for crowds inspired by unworthy motives and desires. They are an unwholesome influence. They do incalculable harm to participants and to beholders.

. . . . . .

Standards of public propriety have been lowered decidedly by these exploitations, for which in every case a commercial purpose exists. As a result of far-flung organization, these contests affect hundreds of communites . . . .

The Boston Post chimed in, terming the contests "exhibitions of feminine semi-nakedness before crowds of ogling men." [The Star and Post quotations come from "The Ugly Side of Beauty Displays," Literary Digest, October 22, 1927.] Even Mary Katherine Campbell (pictured at right), who won the Inter-City Beauty Contest in 1922 and 1923 and thus the title "Miss America, and was runner-up in 1924, claimed that there would be "No Beauty Shows for My Daughter" in a article for Collier's magazine of February 14, 1925. "From what I have seen of of beauty shows and beauty contests," she wrote, "there is a fascinating glamour about them, but it is that of Fairyland with an artificial foundation."

They take a girl rather too far away from the normal things of life.

I don't believe in the one-piece bathing suits. I don't believe in the bitterness of the contest, nor do I like some of the experiences which it entails. You have no conception of the depth and intensity of feeling that sways the crowd at the last and prime event. . . . When I knelt on the stage of the Million Dollar Pier [in Atlantic City] to be crowned "Miss America, 1922," the crowd either yelled for joy or hissed at fate. Then they started to surge forward, some scenery was knocked down and I trembled before the Kleig lights and photographers, women fainted and the faces of the committee were pale with the anxiety of it. A corps of policemen beat their way through the crowd to escort me to my auto. In the eyes about me there was everything from stilettos to fan worship, but never indifference.

She agreed with the Times, the Y.W.C.A., and other critics that the impact on the contestants could be very harmful. "I know some girls," she wrote, "who, after a little local success, have had their minds turned for nothing but a show of their beauty." They would "appear anywhere before audiences, just to have themselves admired." They would appear at "stag parties of businessmen, at local amusement parks and in local carnivals for very small sums of money, sometimes for even nothing."

One of the panel of judges who selected her in 1922 and 1923 was Normal Rockwell whose account of his adventures in Atlantic City, "36—24—36 WOW!" appeared in his autobiographical My Adventures as an Illustrator. His is one of the few first-hand accounts of the early beauty pageants, aside from Campbell's article. The judges were all well-known artists and illustrators like Howard Chandler Christy and James Montgomery Flagg. Rockwell recalled that they all worried about how to judge the contest.

The Chamber of Commerce couldn't tell us how to go about it; they didn't have any system worked out. "Just judge it," they said.

So we talked it over among ourselves. It was all very confusing. The first night one girl looked absolutely stunning in her evening dress. "That's the one for us," we said. But the next day when she strolled down the boardwalk in her bathing suit we saw that she was just a trifle knock-kneed.

Then one judge had an idea. "Look," has said, "it's a beauty contest, isn't it?" We agreed. "Then let's judge beauty," he said. "we'll give each feature — eyes, nose, lips, etc. — and each part — legs, shoulder, neck, etc. — an ideal score of ten points, and then we'll grade each feature and every part of every girl, add up the scores, and the girl with the higher score wins." Well none of the rest of us could think of anything better so we tried the system.

The judge who had thought it up had a wonderful time measuring all the girls — bust, waist, hips, etc. But unfortunately his system didn't work. A girl might not have anything wrong with her features or figure and so receive a very high score. But then she might not have anything right either. Individually her features were lovely, but put together they left one cold or bored. We found you can't judge a womanÕs beauty piecemeal; you have to take the whole woman at once. Charm, after all, is important. So we gave up trying to figure out a system and resolved to trust our eyes. It led to squabbles, because all of us didn't see things in the same way, but it was the best we could do. And Miss America of 1922 was selected. (Which made every other mother but one furious. "She looks like an enraged lizard," said a judge of one of the mothers who was particularly angry.)

According to a contemporary press report, the judging was less random than Rockwell recalled. "Joseph Cummings Chase, one of the jury of artist experts who participated in the difficult task of picking the winner [in 1923], [said] 'Miss Campbell is possessed of great vivacity and an inherent shyness that constitute a wonderful combination. She is typically American and altogether an ideal type. Her forebearers for ten generations have been American born.'" Miss Campbell, in short, was precisely the same "type" of "American Girl" Edmund Wilson described Ziegfeld as "glorifying" every year. Chase's reference to the winner's "forebearers" reflected the influence of eugenics upon the popular culture of the decade. The Eugenics Society ran its own contests every summer at state fairs to choose the "fittest families." They ran "beautiful baby" contests as well. So it is unsurprising that Chase and at least some of the other Miss America judges adopted a "Nordic" ideal of beauty.

[Contemporary press accounts of the Atlantic City contest, copyrighted by South Jersey Publishing Company, for the 1922, 1923, and 1924 are available online.]

Despite the criticisms bathing beauty contests proliferated across the country. One of the biggest was held in Galveston, Texas starting in 1920 . Here are panoramic pictures of the 1922 and 1923 pageants. [Photographs of the Galveston and other contests come from the Library of Congress American Memory site.] In 1926 Galveston hosted the First International Pulchritude Pageant. The winner in Atlantic City was "Miss America." The winner in Galveston was "Miss Universe." In 1926 Miss France claimed the title. In 1927, Dorothy Britton, "Miss New York City," won. Much of her home town of Jersey City turned out to greet her, led by Mayor Frank Hague. Among those she beat out was "Miss Germany," Hildegard Quandt. The New York Times for March 7, 1927 carried the story of the German contest:

Berlin, March 6.—Amid the despairing screams of unsuccessful competitors, three of whom fainted and had to be carried out of the hall, Germany's Queen of Beauty was chosen by public acclaim at 3 o'clock this morning before a crowd of several thousand assembled in the vast Sport Palace.

Her name is Hildegard Quandt. She is 21, slender, medium-sized, and has long blond hair. She is a stenographer, and it is emphasized that her family is 100 per cent. German.

. . . .

Although the crowd seemed unanimous for Hildegard, other contestants evidently regarded the decision as unfair, for they shrieked their protests so vehemently that three of them swooned.

In addition to those crowning "Miss America" and "Miss Universe, there were countless other pageants with countless other titles. The San Francisco Chronicle sponsored California Beauty Week. Film studios ran contests. Cities, like Balboa, California, hosted Beauty Parades. These panoramic views of young women share key features with the Ziegfeld auditions described above. In addition to the long line, there is the same variety of physical types. "Every kind of face, leg and head of hair known to anatomy" shows up in these photographs as does every sort of bathing costume. All the contestants shared the desire to be recognized as a beauty.

Steeplechase Amusement Park in Coney Island held an annual "Modern Venus" contest. In that pageant, movie director Ralph Ince chose fifteen-year-old Florence Bonn out of a field of sixty. [New York Times, August 3, 1927] A couple of weeks earlier, Mrs. Richard Tierney captured the far more socially prestigeous title of "Miss South Shore" during the opening evening of the annual Venetian fête. The fête, the Times for July 15, 1927 reported, "is one of the chief society events of the year along the south shore. Many debutantes, the story continued, particupated in the beauty pageant. Judges included Charley Chaplin and stage actress Gertrude Lawrence.

A feature of the evening was the appearance of Miss Claire Luce, star of the new "Follies," wearing a stunning ceation of white feathers. Miss Luce danced to orchestral music. Miss Gertrude Lawrence sang "Do, Do, Do," and Charley Chaplin clowned for the amusement of the mob of spectators that thronged the tent and gave his own interpretation of the Black Bottom.

[Click here for Johnny Hamp's Kentucky Serenaders' 1926 hit, "The Black Bottom.]

The New York Times, which continued its editorial opposition to the contests, observed that the "mania for competitions of this sort has grown greatly. It is world-wide, and includes all sorts of rivalries." [December 16, 1926] The total number of entrants, by the middle of the decade, ran into the tens of thousands annually. Why did so many young women enter these pageants?

However much Mary Katherine Campbell protested against the "artificial" glamour of the contest, glamour was precisely what the vast majority of contestants sought. She herself dropped out of college after winning the "Miss America" title in 1922 to go on the vaudeville circuit. The second runner-up in 1922 was Dorothy Knapp, one of the stars of the Vanities of 1923. According to the Atlantic City press, the 1923 contestants were eager to flee "the normal things of life":

Hollywood, city of movie stars, is destined to have its population increased soon.

Marriage as a career is not considered seriously by the beauties from every part of the United States who are taking part in the city's annual Pageant. All seventy-four entries yearn for the movies.

Several of them already have signed contracts, and others only crave an opportunity to put their names on the dotted line.

"Marriage Versus the Movies" was discussed last night, as the beauties tired with the strain of showing how lovely they could look in evening clothes, relaxed while they waited back stage at the Garden Pier Theater.

Whatever the chances for movie stardom of the Atlantic City contestants, women participating in lesser events, say the Long Beach, California Beauty Parade, could hardly expect to get a movie offer. They could expect admiring stares. They could feel, as they paraded, like show girls for a moment before returning to the routine of their regular lives. They could enjoy, in Mary Katherine Campbell's word, a sense of glamour. This certainly appears to have motivated the five hundred or so who entered the "Miss Broadway" pageant sponsored by the Broadway Association within the first twenty-four hours. [New York Times, April 7, 1926]

Campbell's own belated choice of "normalcy" won the ringing endorsement of Mary Pickford. "The marvelous thing about Miss Campbell's experience was that she went through it all and came out unspoiled." Twice winning the title "would have been enough to turn the head of nearly any normal girl." Yet, after that lucrative tour on the Keith vaudeville circuit, Mary Katherine had decided to return to Ohio State University. "That took great depth of character," Pickford wrote. "It makes me proud to think that America has produced such a fine type of young womanhood."

As the 1923 press account indicated, most of Campbell's rivals intended to emulate Pickford herself. The first to succeed was the 1925 Miss America, Fay Lanphier. Lasky-Famous Players decided to produce a film on the pageant, "The American Venus," and cast Lanphier as the winner. The studio also hired a number of other contestants to play contestants. Given Hollywood's importance in creating the "bathing beauty," there was a certain appropriateness to the scheme. The Variety review of the now lost film is worth quoting in its entirety.

"The American Venus," Variety, January, 27 1926

This is the long-heralded exploitation special of Famous Players — the picture to afford a million tie-ups for publicity and other purposes. Its chief tieup so far has been with the alleged expose of the New York "Graphic" of the last beauty contest in Atlantic City, in which the "Graphic" charged, Fay Lanphier's selection was prearranged.

That has nothing to do with the picture.

Out in the sticks the beauty contest stuff may mean something, but on the merit of the film itself there are grave doubts. It is a milk and water story well done, but disappointing because of the generally weak yarn. The plot concerns two rival beauty cream factories out west. A son of one proprietor is engaged to marry the daughter of the other. A publicity man annexes himself to the minor plant and almost puts over the plant's daughter as "The American Venus." The plan was to have her endorse a cold cream and, on that basis, sell millions of jars, thus putting the other man out of business. But the girl's father became ill and she was called back home, going to Atlantic City the second time, but arriving too late for the final.

Her friend, "Miss Alabama" wins. Although the heroine has had an accident and is confined to her room, the winner endorses her father's cold cream gratis.

[There is] Some comedy because of Ford Sterling [at right, trying to get a better look at Louise Brooks making her film debut] and Edna May Oliver. Sterling plays the wealthy cold cream magnate, and Miss Oliver is his wife — one of the type who hot-foots it behind her husband. Kenneth McKenna does a great job as their straight-laced son, but Lawrence Gray and Esther Ralston walk away with the real honors.

The pageant scenes are in colour, some well done and some rather garish. The actual Atlantic City stuff wasn't too much of a thrill. The producers tried to stress the undress angle by showing a series of supposedly thrilling "tableaux vivants." There was naked stuff in these and it may get censors sore in the more puritanical regions. As for the New York censors, they let anything and everything go through. It's different elsewhere in several states.

Whether its exploitation values mean anything to the box office is for the exhibitors to judge. Aside from these values, whether they are legendary or real, the picture itself is an in-betweener, with a few laughs and no real dry spots, but on the other hand no really hilarious moments. Just lots of female flesh and silk bathing suit beauties, all dressed so that the maximum of sex appeal will be reflected on the screen.

It may give some of the old boys a kick, and then again it may not.

A Sidelong Glance at the Scandal

Charges that the pageant had been "fixed" so that Lanphier would win dogged the contest for the next several years and led to its being discontinued after 1927. Ironically, in 1928 the Graphic admitted in court that there was no basis in fact for its accusations. Indeed, they were unlikely on their face. Lasky-Famous Players, aka Paramount, wanted to feature whoever won the title. The part, "Miss Alabama," was not a major one. Further, given the eagerness of the contestants to "go into" the movies, demonstrated by the willingness of many of them to play contestants in the film, Paramount hardly needed to fear that the winner, whoever she turned out to be, would refuse its offer. The studio's goal was one worhty of an "honest crook." This was, as Variety put it "to afford a million tie-ups for publicity and other purposes."

Bernarr Macfadden, publisher of the Graphic had built a publishing empire founded upon the magazine Physical Culture, the first issue of which appeared in 1899. Its stories and illustrations emphasized the male and female body, sometimes clad only in tights. This outraged Anthony Comstock who used his office as special inspector of the Post Office to prosecute Macfadden for obscenity. Macfadden, twice convicted, moved to England in 1913 and organized a contest there to select the "perfect specimen of British womanhood." The winner, pictured at right, was Mary Williamson whom Macfadden married a few months later. She was nineteen, he was forty-five. They then went on tour. As the finale of their act — they were billed as "the world's healthiest man and woman" — Mary would jump off a seven-foot high platform onto Bernarr's stomach.

With the onset of World War I, and the coincidental death of nemesis Anthony Comstock, Macfadden returned to the United States. In 1919 he launched a new magazine, True Story. Within a few years it was the best-selling magazine in the country at 300,000 copies a week. In the wake of its success came True Romances, True Detective, and a host of others. Macfadden had created a multi-million dollar empire. At its heart was a formula: supposedly "true" stories, about ordinary people who had extraordinary adventures. The only thing true in any of the magazines, however, was in the titles. [Information about Macfadden taken from Jim Bennett's Bernarr Macfadden: The Father of Physical Culture website.]

Macfadden brought the same lack of concern with actual fact to his newspapers, the most notorious of which was the Graphic. In 1925 it carried front-page stories about Earl Carroll's efforts to rig the "Miss Coney Island" contest, one of the preliminaries to the Atlantic City pageant. Carroll, who was one of the judges, lobbied to have Kathryn Ray, the girl on the pendulum and the girl in the poster of his Vanities of 1924, chosen. Carroll sensibly decided it would be a boost for the Vanities of 1925, in which she was also featured, if Ray were to be chosen "Miss America." Dorothy Knapp, runner-up in 1922 and star of the 1923 Vanities, also won a preliminary contest.

Ruth Malcolmson, winner in 1924, refused to defend her crown against such "professional beauties." As a result, Mary Katherine Campbell, despite her earlier protestation that she wanted to get back to the "normal things" of life, returned to Atlantic City, not to compete, but to participate in the parade down the Boardwalk and to crown the winner.

It was Macfadden's Graphic which had sponsored the Coney Island contest, and one of its reporters found out about Carroll's efforts. The paper gleefully exposed the "fraud." Carroll sued for slander. Both benefitted from the publicity. It apparently occurred to Macfadden that if an exposé of one of the preliminaries was good, a series doing the same for the Atlantic City pageant would sell even more papers. BEAUTY CONTEST EXPOSED. FRAME-UP IN ATLANTIC CITY. read the Graphic headline. Both Ray and Knapp decided that, even though the pageant committee had accepted their eligibility, it was wiser simply to appear in the grand parade along the Boardwalk, pose for as many pictures as possible, and not actually compete. Even so, the Graphic continued with its daily stories of "frame-up," shifting smoothly from Carroll to Paramount as the corrupting influence.

It is hard to imagine that Macfadden actually wanted to put an end to the Miss America pageant, but he did so anyway. The Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, which had always complained that the contest lost money, decided in 1928 that the negative publicity was harming the image of the resort as a place where families could enjoy themselves. They changed their minds again, in 1933, as a means of coping with the impact of the Great Depression. Now officially called the "Miss America Contest," the reborn pageant had much stricter rules about eligibility and about judging.

An "American Venus": Louise Brooks, Chorus Girl

As the Variety review indicated, the producers of "The American Venus" "tried to stress the undress angle." The Variety reviewer professed ennui: "It may give some of the old boys a kick, and then again it may not." Success at the box office demonstrated that it did. Part of the "kick" was the fantasy of being a judge. As Norman Rockwell's account demonstrates, there were as yet no protocols for judging. One of his colleagues, he recalled, "had a wonderful time measuring all the girls — bust, waist, hips, etc." In "The American Venus," the contestants stood on various pillars, dressed in low-cut, backless dresses, as the judges examined them from every angle. They also formed tableaux vivantes at which judges peered through a peephole. As with the revues, the male fantasy was having one's pick of a bevy of beautiful women. The complementary daydream, for the young women in the audience, was of being a contestant. They could imagine turning heads as they paraded past the judges. They could share the dreams of Hollywood and stardom.

Fay Lanphier did not become a movie star, although she did make several more films including one with Laurel and Hardy. On the other hand, "The American Venus" did launch Louise Brooks' career in Hollywood. She was not one of the real contestants used in the movie. She was a Ziegfeld girl. In a 1926 interview in Macfadden's Photoplay Ruth Waterbury noted:

She started her career at Denishawn, that school of dancing of Ruth St. Denis' and Ted Shawn's. She studied two months and then they signed her to dance on tour with them as one of their leading soloists.

"You must have been very talented to be starred by them so immediately," I said.

Another wise glance winged its way upward.

"They needed somebody in a hurry, somebody young and inexpensive," Louise explained. The possibilities of kidding Louise seem very remote.

"Miss St. Denis is very strict," she added. "She wouldn't let us smoke or eat candy or stay up late or anything. We did nothing but work or dance. Some of the girls got very artistic. I traveled all over the country and in Europe with them. I stayed two years."

"And after that the Scandals."

The corners of Louise's mouth curled slowly upward. "Yes," she said, in her quiet, lazy voice. "Immediately after. Fancy that." Faint lights of amusement revealed themselves in the depths of her eyes.

She is just nineteen.

Brooks had gone from George White's Scandals to Ziegfeld's Follies for two years. [For a photograph of Brooks in a Follies costume, click here.] Ruth Waterbury commented:

Describing Louise presents its difficulties. She is so very Manhattan. Very young. Exquisitely hard-boiled. Her black eyes and sleek black hair are as brilliant as Chinese lacquer. Her skin is white as camellia. Her legs are lyric. She has been one of the decorative daughters of the night life of New York for three seasons. . . .

She started in pictures with The American Venus. It was only a small part. After all the picture had the specially signed Fay Lanphier, the chosen Miss America, Esther Ralston and the entire Atlantic City beauty pageant for eye fillers with Ford Sterling, Edna Mae Oliver and Lawrence Gray to do a little acting. Nobody intended Louise to be particularly important and Louise didn't bother to mention to anyone that she was.

Then Paramount saw her rushes. They signed her for five years. That's how good she is. A good chorus girl learns lots of things, and Louise was an excellent chorus girl.

A subsequent interviewer, Malcolm H. Oettinger in Picture-Play for August 1926, adopted a similar tone:

From the rolling prairies [Wichita, Kansas], she came to the city, her fate paralleling that of many prairie flowers: the Follies got her. And so successful was she in brightening that gay symphony of the fleshpots, that the grateful Mr. Ziegfeld deployed her to grace his production of Louie - historically enough - the Fourteenth.

After watching Leon Errol's collapsible ankles throughout two hundred performances of that comedy, Louise spent an afternoon discovering Long Island's Astoria. She had heard about the fortunes to be earned, or at least obtained, in pictures. Mr. Cohill, of Paramount's casting office, found Louise worth filing for future reference. And before she knew it, she was being hired to lend a bit of sex appeal to The American Venus - the picture that featured Atlantic City, Venus, and five hundred other girls.

Although her part in the proceedings was limited to what is technically known as a bit, Louise made it stand up and speak, surrounded though it was by distracting one-piece bathing suits. New York critics acclaimed her, singled her out for special praise, showered paragraphic commendation upon her. She was signed, then, on what studios always call a "long-term contract."

Brooks, as both interviews demonstrate, possessed a degree of worldly wisdom rarely admitted to by either actresses or beauty contestants. Note how Oettinger ended his story. After detailing her work in revues in London and Paris, her seasons with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, her success as a chorus girl, and her initial success in the movies, he wrote:

Here is inspiration for young America, for high-school belles, misses' sizes. And here, perhaps, was a chance to get a message from Louise.

"What, Miss Brooks, are the chances for a young girl, fairly pretty, fairly intelligent, to come to the city, and make good ?"

A breathless silence preceded her reply.

"The chances," said Louise, "are what she takes."

The Photoplay interview ended in similar fashion:

"Isn't the family thrilled by your sudden success ?" I asked.

She looked at me carefully. . . . "They don't know about it," she drawled. She waited and then smiled.

"My mother and father separated when I was a kid," she explained. "My father thinks I'm terrible."

Her black eyes were languid.

"In our family," she said, "it was everybody shift for himself." She smiled once more and waved her little white hand to indicate her apartment. It is a Park Avenue apartment, and in Manhattan there is nothing more utterly utter than a Park Avenue apartment.

"Well," said Louise, "I have."

Brooks would prove over the course of her career that she was the consummate "honest crook." She was, as Ruth Waterbury put it, "exquisitely hard-boiled." As such, she risked puncturing the male version of the revue fantasy. Edmund Wilson pointed out there had to be a pretense of "dewy-eyed" innocence. Louise refused to pretend. She had taken her chances. So did tens of thousands of others who became chorus girls during the heyday of the revues. So did more thousands who went to Hollywood seeking to break into the movies. Numerous as they were, they were still the exceptions. The great majority of young women did not even enter a bathing beauty contest. But lots of them did go to beaches where their costumes raised the identical moral issues posed by the "undressed angle" in the movies and on the stage.

Censoring "the semi-bacchante of Main Street"


A beach censor arresting two women in Chicago in 1922 for violating the laws concerning proper beach attire. The image comes from the collection at the University of California at Davis housing materials collected by the late Roland Marchand. The precise date and the original place of publication of the image are not available.

HIS OWN BEAUTY CONTEST

Imposter Sent to Jail After Approaching Girls on Beach.

Pleading guilty to posing as a beauty contest expert to "make a hit with the bathing girls," William Elsmar, a railway mail clerk of Baltimore, was sentenced to ten days in the workhouse yesterday by Magistrate Levine in West Side Court.

Elsmar was arrested on complaint of an 18-year old girl, who said Elsmar approached her at Rockaway Beach and represented himself as a newspaper photographer, conducting a prize-winning contest for a daily newspaper. She said he asked her to visit the Camera Club, at 121 West Sixty-eight Street, to have her photograph taken in bath costume, assuring her she was certain to win the prize.

The young woman discovered, she said, that other girl bathers had been similarly approached, except that the hours of "appointment" differed. The girls called up the newspapers in question and were told that the man was an imposter.New York Times, August 22, 1924

Usually it was the bathing girl who ran afoul of the law. Atlantic City decided in 1924 to permit women to wear one-piece suits provided they also wore a skirt with it. According to the New York Times for March 27, "The official regulation provides that the bottom of the tights shall be no shorter than four inches above the knee and the bottom of the skirt no higher than seven inches above the knee." Bare legs, prohibited in previous years, were allowed. Atlantic City also passed a "macintosh law" which required that anyone in beach attire had to wear a coat reaching at least to the knees. According to the Times of July 14, 1924, police turned back hundreds of would-be bathers. "Mayor Edward L. Bader ordered this action on complaints that bathers were sometimes unclad to the point of indecency, while with others their wet suits were a nuisance."

Spring Lake, New Jersey also had a "macintosh law." In the summer of 1925 the town went further. No one wearing a bathing costume, no matter how well covered by coat or robe, could walk "through the town's streets to the beach." Only those driving automobiles could wear their suits to the beach. A number of residents staged a protest, claiming it was "class legislation" which discriminated against those without cars. (New York Times, June 22, 1925) The next day, the mayor and city council caved into to the protest and repealed the ordinance.

Palm Beach, Florida, site of Ziegfeld Girls Helen Lee Worthing's and Phoebe Lee's triumph, ordered its "beach censor" to bar "flesh colored" or white stockings the same year.

The censor [Connie Lewis] reported yesterday for the first time this season armed with a color chart and ready for work. Last year great difficulty was experienced by him in attempting to ban flesh colored stockings. Owing to the variety of shades Connie was unable to determine just what constituted "flesh color." Many women who were told they would have to change their stocking because of the color plunged into the ocean and returned with darkened hosiery, claiming exemption.

This year, however, the censor has taken precautions against similar occurrences. His new chart contains samples of every conceivable shade that hosiery experts have adjudged to come under the heading "flesh colored." Placards have been posted about the bath house warning bathers against violations of the rules. — New York Times, January 5, 1925

In an editorial the Times described this as "the very limit of absurdity." "The particular viciousness of the rather indeterminate shade mentioned is not explained," it noted. "This doubtless is clear enough to such powerful minds as censors of all kinds possess, but to common folk it ever will remain a deep mystery why even no stockings at all on anybody would not be compatible with both innocence and innocuousness." (January 6, 1925)

Just as the bathing beauty contest "mania" spread to Europe and beyond, so did the controversy over decency on the beaches. Mussolini's Italy led the way with the cooperation of the National Federation of Catholic Men. According to the Times of June 5, 1927, "the federation hopes to equip Catholic fathers and mothers to serve as amateur detectives" to work with "police vice squads." "The system already as borne fruit in numerous arrests at various resorts. . . ." A year earlier, when the "new modesty regulations" went into effect, there were "exciting arguments in the course of the police raids, and there was some fighting. Many of the women protested against the activities of the special costume censors." [New York Times, August 16, 1926] In France Biarritz's city fathers adopted even more stringent rules. The Times reported that: "Trunks are barred for men, who must not wear clinging material. Women's bathing dresses must reach from the neck to below the knees. All décolleté effects are prohibited." [July 24, 1925]

Some of the fiercest battles over bathing costumes were waged in small towns. Under the header WARS ON BATHING "SIRENS" the Times for October 5, 1925 reported the "village of Valley Cottage in Rockland County is up in arms over the invasion of flappers, who during the last season paraded the roads in their one-piece bathing suits." Residents formed the Valley Cottage Community League to ask Governor Al Smith to send the state police to patrol the village and enforce the ban on one-piece suits. Valley Cottage lacked a police force of its own. In its absence a kind of vigilante justice prevailed. League spokesman Vito Pascal told the reporter: "Several times during the Summer the wives of some of our members ran out into the roads with switches and paddywhacked these sirens back into their bungalows."

Another "wrong crowd" overran Monmouth Beach in New Jersey some of its residents charged. A judge, however, refused to uphold their complaints brought against Jersey Coast Resorts Corporation. In the process he made explicit the connection between the censorship controversy and beauty pageants.

It would be a far stretch of the powers of this court, in this day of one-piece bathing suits, to hold that the defendant was guilty of maintaining a nuissance because the occupants of its cottages walked the streets clad only in their costumes.

It may be that the bather of yesteryear clothed in the bathing costume of 1871 . . . was a less objectionable sight than the bathing beauty of today. But judging from the popularity of the bathers' parades staged at some of our seashore resorts, the modern bathing beauty is not so uniformly objectionable to the eye to justify the exercise of the injunctive powers of this court in excluding bathers from the streets of a seashore resort.

"One of the objections of the complainants," the Times for October 29, 1925 reported, "was that the house in question was occupied by Jews." The court dismissed this as immaterial as well as the charge that the occupants of the house played jazz music and Yiddish songs. The judge refused to:

say how many popular songs may be sung in a private residence on an evening or how much music or what kind may be produced there, or whether those songs must be rendered in English or in Yiddish. It is quite true that a class of music which may be entertaining to one may be annoying to another, but those who enjoy the modern jazz cannot be restrained from producing it because it offends the classical ear.

These battles continued for the rest of the decade before the censors finally gave up. One measure of the end of the struggle is the back cover of the Montgomery Ward catalog for Summer 1931 pictured below. Before the censors struck their colors, vast numbers of young people flaunted regulations concerning modest attire in hundreds of communities all across the country. Thousands were arrested; thousands more were fined. All were the object of impassioned indignation which poured from pulpits and editorial pages, not to mention the cottages of Valley Cottage in Rockland County, New York. Their defiance was as brazen as it was determined. And they won out. This is worth emphasizing because it is the one area of controversy where the advocates of censorship did NOT succeed. Nudity, even the merest hint thereof, disappeared from the Broadway stage when New Yorkers elected Fiorello LaGuardia mayor. A revivified Hays Office, vigorously backed by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, enforced a stringent Production Code in the movies beginning around 1934. But the bathing skirt and stockings (shown below in a photograph of Margaret Gorman, the first "Miss America") went the way of the bustle, never to return.

Peer Group Morality

Bathing suits, like hemlines, corsets or the lack thereof, and petting parties reflected a new way of forming moral standards. Instead of turning to parents or pastors, young people turned to peers. Young people went to the beach with friends. And their bathing attire conformed to an ongoing series of collective judgments. Petting too was a peer activity. Couples went to petting parties where another series of collective judgments defined the meaning of "going too far." So too with popular dancing. Gilda Gray may have thrilled Edmund Wilson with her version of the Shimmy in the 1923 "Follies," but, when young people danced to "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate," it was peer sensibilty which decided how frenetic the choreography would become. [Click here for the Henry "Red" Allen and Coleman Hawkins' 1933 recording, from the Red Hot Jazz Archive.]

Different groups decided differently. At some colleges the music was "hotter" than at others, as Paula Fass demonstrated in The Damned And The Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920's (1977). That was not the point, as worried defenders of the old order quickly realized. What mattered, as Fass emphasized, was that young people were looking to each other to establish limits previously set by their elders. As a result, whether hemlines rose to the knee or just above or below on a given campus made no difference. It was the process by which young women decided how high to raise their hemlines that mattered. Beach censors ran athwart this shift in popular moral thinking.

William Jennings Bryan, by the 1920s well established as the champion of traditional evangelical beliefs and values, liked to declare that he cared much more about the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks. At the Scopes Trial Clarence Darrow would make him pay dearly for the play upon words. Yet, as he had so often, Bryan articulated something millions felt. They wanted their faith to be a rock, an unchanging and indestructible source of moral guidance. To such people, the rise of the peer group as the determiner of morality was the functional equivalent of the destruction of the very possibility of morality.

Several generations later, we are no longer as horrified by the way young people turn to each other for guidance. We do it ourselves. Further, eighty years beyond the 1920s, we know the sky did not fall. On the other hand, we also know that, for millions, the Rock of Ages shattered into thousands of pieces. And we still reel as we seek to cope with the dilemmas of moral relativism. Small wonder the 1920s were a time of great turmoil, confusion, and conflict.

However different in detail, the myriad decisions of the peer groups shared common elements. All gave some legitimacy to the pursuit of pleasure. All gave some measure of approval to titilation as a form of sexual play. Skirts rose everywhere. Dance steps called for shaking hips, kicking legs, and no corsets. Cole Porter exaggerated in his 1934 masterpiece "Anything Goes." [Click here for a 1934 recording by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra from the Red Hot Jazz Archive.]

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.

Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose,
Anything Goes.

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today,
And black's white today,
And day's night today,
When most guys today
That women prize today
Are just silly gigolos

. . . . .

If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose!

When every night,
The set that's smart
Is intruding in nudist parties in studios,
Anything Goes.

. . . . .

And though I'm not a great romancer
I know that I'm bound to answer
When you propose,
Anything goes. . . Anything goes!

"Anything" did not "go." "Good girls" still did not "go all the way." But, they went a lot farther than previous standards had allowed. That is titilation. Earl Carroll got it right when he compared his revues with "our young people [who] in their unafraid companionship preach and practice a freedom formerly unknown." What he and other Broadway producers, along with their counterparts in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, sought to do was to package titilation. The market was virtually boundless.

Marketing Fantasy I: Hollywood

In his 1924 comedy "Sherlock, Jr." Buster Keaton, whose character is simply called "the Boy" in the titles, is in love with "the Girl." His rival, "the Sheik," steals her father's watch and then makes it look as if Keaton were the culprit. Disconsolate, Buster goes to his job as a movie projectionist. He tries reading his book on how to become a detective but falls asleep. His dream self then climbs out of his body and sets out to solve the crime, not the theft of the Girl's father's watch, but the theft of jewelry in the film he is projecting. His dream self walks up to the screen and steps into the action, or tries to. The Sheik, now a villian in the movie being shown, throws him back into the audience. Undeterred Buster watches for another chance and succeeds in entering into the movie within the movie.

Movie lovers, film scholars, and historians all acclaim "Sherlock, Jr." as one of the most insightful explorations of how movie fantasies entrance audiences and of the parallels between audience daydreams and those projected for them on the scene. It is a movie about watching movies, a fantasy about fantasies. The Boy is completely ineffectual; the detective he becomes on the screen, the brilliant Sherlock, Jr., is master of every situation. Seeking to prove his own innocence, the Boy attempts to follow the Sheik but learns nothing. Sherlock Jr., on the other hand, foils a criminal gang led by the Sheik singlehandedly.

Fortunately for the Boy, the Girl believes in his innocence. The Sheik had pawned the watch and planted the ticket in the Boy's jacket. The girl goes to the pawn shop, gets a description which exonerates the Boy, and then, as the Sheik passes the shop window, gets an eye witness identification. She goes to the movie theatre to tell the Boy the good news. He is just waking up. He realizes that, with his rival out of the way, he should romance the Girl. But, what is he to do? They are both shy. Fortunately, the movie within the movie is about to end. Its hero embraces its heroine. The Boy follows suit. The Girl melts into his arms. On the screen the hero gives the heroine a passionate kiss. The Boy flinches and settles for a peck on the cheek. The movie within the movie fades out. In the fade-in we see the Boy, the Girl, and their several children. The Boy looks bewildered.

"Sherlock, Jr." is one of the very few movies to explore how the medium works, including how it works upon the imaginations of the audience. A series of sight gags demonstrate the difference between film and reality. When the Boy first steps into the movie within the movie, he initially cannot adjust to the rapid cuts from scene to scene as he finds himself, for example, trying to dive into a lake only to wind up in a snow bank. Having established the difference, Keaton then undercuts it towards the end of his film. The Boy awakens and takes the images on the screen as a guide to reality. How do you romance a girl? The movie shows him, step by step.

Most of "Sherlock, Jr." follows the Boy's adventures inside the movie he is projecting. In this dream/movie he fulfills his ambition of becoming a great detective and solves crimes with dash and aplomb. This fantasy provides a welcome surcease from reality. Ducking reality for the length of a movie does the Boy no harm. Quite the opposite. The Girl proves his innocence. He wakes up to find his problems solved. He even gets the Girl. Of course, he also gets a lot more as Keaton once again underlines the difference between the movies and real life with the last shot of the bewildered Boy staring at his wife and children. In the movies, the boy gets the girl, they embrace, and the fantasy ends with the fade-out. Life goes on.

"Sherlock, Jr." was a hit. This was not because of its exploration of movie fantasy but because of the brilliant gags. The New York Times' review, May 26, 1924, read:

As one watches "Sherlock, Jr." being unfurled on the Rialto screen, one might observe with a sigh after 500 feet have passed that it is about time the comical Buster Keaton skipped into action. Just about then you realize that something has happened - one of the best screen tricks ever incorporated in a comedy - the laughter starts, and for the balance of the picture you smile, snigger, chuckle, grin and guffaw. . . ."

The movie provided its audience with exactly what the Boy himself sought, a temporary break from ordinary life, an escape. For them, the primary fantasy was that the Boy got the Girl despite the efforts of the Sheik and his own shyness and clumsiness. It was a formula Keaton used again and again as did Harold Lloyd. [Click here for Showreels brief compilation of scenes from Lloyd's films.]

Movie audiences consumed fantasy, not exclusively — there were plenty of documentaries — but primarily. The filmgoer got to imagine him or herself going to faraway places, having romantic encounters with impossibly beautiful lovers, catching desparados, watching wits with criminal masterminds, rescuing damsels in distress or being rescued. These imaginings paid lip service, much of the time, to Victorian proprieties, as the enormous popularity of Mary Pickford attested. [Seen at right in a portrait by Alfred Cheney Johnston, undated.] But even when movies did portray Victorian values in a positive way, when they were what would-be censors called "wholesome" or "decent," another level of fantasy associated with the "stars" undercut the ostensible moral message. Pickford's highly publicized affair with Douglas Fairbanks, his divorce, their grand estate of "Pickfair" celebrated in movie magazines, the comings and goings of their famous friends like Charley Chaplin, countered the screen image of "America's Sweetheart." Or, more precisely, her glamorous off-screen life defined her screen persona as an image. "America's Sweetheart" was the character she played on the screen. But that character did not live at "Pickfair" or own a substantial share of United Artists. Movie fans were as enraptured by the magazine accounts of Pickford's estate and glamorous life as they were of her screen portrayals.

Many films openly undermined Victorian beliefs. Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops films, source for much of the vocabulary of silent comedy, led the way. Filled with car chases (and chases of every sort), bathing beauties, and stock characters, his two-reelers spoked fun at everyone and everything. Wives henpecked husbands. Husbands ogled young women. The police never caught the right man. Judges never served justice. This became the moral universe of the silent comedy. In it the hero, usually small of stature and not handsome — Harold Lloyd was an exception; hence his glasses — routinely falls in love with a pretty girl but is too shy and awkward to win her. Instead a swarmy rival threatens to gain her affections. Happily, through the sheerest dumb luck, the hero performs a series of amazing acrobatic stunts, foils his rival, and accomplishes a seemingly impossible task. Lloyd's "Safety Last," in which he climbs up the exterior of a building and hangs on to the bent hand of a clock at the top, is a classic example. His character too is simply called "the Boy." His Everyman status was essential for the fantasy to work. At the fade-out "the Girl" gazes lovingly into his eyes. Virtue is rewarded. But only as the result of a series of unlikely happenstances.

Still other films dispensed with Victorian notions altogether. Valentino's star vehicles led the way. In "The Sheik" he carries Agnes Ayers off into the desert; in "Son of the Sheik," mistakenly believing that the beautiful dancing girl Yasmin, played by Vilma Banky, has betrayed him, he rapes her. [At left, he smiles as Yasmin ineffectually tries to protect herself.] Why did so many women flock to the film? The fantasy, as in "Gone With The Wind" when Rhett Butler carries a struggling Scarlet O'Hara off to bed, was of being ravaged but by a dream lover. In both films, the heroine looks blissfully happy afterwards. In such a fantasy one could imagine performing acts one's usual inhibitions would prohibit. If one were being forced, if it was against one's will, and, if the one doing the forcing were Valentino or Clark Gable, then one could throw conventional morality to the four winds.

The "Tarzan" movies provided another sort of fantasy, one of a sexual Garden of Eden before the Fall. Beautiful Jane Porter accompanies her father on safari where she encounters the "Ape Man." Although a British aristocrat by birth, he is a perfect creature of nature, having been raised by gorillas. Tarzan rescues Jane, several times, from dangerous animals and humans, and carries her off to his home in the trees. There she teaches him the rudiments of language and he teaches her the ways of the wild. Soon Jane's costume is as abbreviated as Tarzan's. They swing on vines, swin in jungle pools, and explore the delights of sex. Of course, beasts and villains intrude. Yet there is no question that they consummate their relationship. And Jane's decision to remain with Tarzan, without the benefit of a clergyman's blessing, forms the happy ending. Variety's review of "Tarzan and His Mate," (1934) the second to feature Olymphic swimmer Johhny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, captured much of the series' appeal:

It may be silly, but it continues to be fascinating, this "Tarzan" theme. In "Tarzan and His Mate," second of the Metro series with Johnny Weissmuller, the monkeys do everything but bake cakes and the very human elephants always seem on the verge of sitting down for a nice quiet game of chess; yet the picture has a strange sort of power that overcomes the total lack of logic and (probably most important) it is an extraordinarily beautiful photographic specimen. Picture will doubtless draw business.

Tarzan No. 1 ended with Tarz and the white girl from England at peace in their jungle kingdom. They're again at peace as No. 2 ends, but in the 92 minutes between the two fade-outs they're almost in pieces, several times. Trouble starts soon as the domain of Mr. and Mrs. Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan) is trespassed upon by Neil Hamilton and Paul Cavanagh, a couple of Miss O'Sullivan's heels from Mayfair. Boys after the fortune in ivory which lies in a pachyderm graveyard.

There are gory battles between bands of natives to liven up the proceedings when Tarzan isn't fighting some jungle beast that is just about to devour his mate. Tarz's stiffest encounters are with a horned rhinoceros and a giant alligator, respectively. His encounter with the rhino is obviously phoney and seemingly impossible, but so well done that it provides a real thrill. The underwater battle with the 'gator supplies a big kick also. Tarz's hand-to-paw grappling with lions are, in comparison, just child's play even when one lion is close-upped with Tarzan's arm in his kisser, and the long teeth showing. Miraculously, when the arm is withdrawn it bears nary a scratch. But such slight discrepancies are easily overlooked, since it's granted that Tarz is a cinch bet in all matches, despite that he always gives away at least two or three tons in weight.

But for a white man's bullet, Tarz is just another sucker. He is temporarily felled by a slug tossed at him by Cavanagh, who at first can't make up his mind whether he wants the ivory or Mrs. Tarzan, and then decides he wants both. In this animal picture, Cavanagh represents the species skunk.

Apes of both the genuine and prop variety play a large part in the picture. One of the real ones, called Cheta, does messenger service for Tarz whenever the missus is in danger, such as the identical pair of lions that a few moments before had made a meal of Cavanagh and Hamilton.

Tarzan and his mate spend most of their time swinging through the branches. Film goes so far as to stage a regulation flying act, with Tarz tossing Mrs. Tarz into an aerial loop, to be caught by the outstretched arms of an ape. The Tarzans also do some fancy swimming, particularly during a tank sequence when Weissmuller and a lady swimmer doubling for Miss O'Sullivan, perform some artistic submarine formations. The lady is brassiereless but photographed from the side only. Weissmuller duplicates his first Tarzan performance, which means the girls will probably go strong for him again. Miss O'Sullivan, never wearing much in the way of clothes, isn't bad to look at from the masculine viewpoint.

The Culver City jungle and studio exteriors were so constructed as to look like the real thing. In every technical department, the picture is first grade.

[Tim Dirks has put together a detailed synopsis, illustrated with movie posters, of both "Tarzan and His Mate," and "Tarzan, the Ape Man."]

However silly, the Tarzan movies proved immensely popular. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the novels upon which the films were based, did an article in 1934 for Screenland magazine discussing the seven actors who had already portrayed his hero. Why did this preposterous story have such appeal? Swinging from trees, battling lions, defeating villians, romancing the beautiful Jane, all fed a male fantasy of perfect virility. Women in the audience also could fantasize about swinging from trees. They could dream of throwing off all of the inhibitions parents and pastors had sought to instill. Jane shed more than her clothes. She threw aside all of the conventions of courtship. She did not pretend to be coy. Instead she was just as eager as Tarzan to explore the delights of sexuality. And Tarzan, despite his improbable feats of strength, proves a very attentive lover. He seeks to learn what gives Jane pleasure.

In these and numerous other films, filmgoers encountered the same message. Life, at least one's fantasy life, should be glamorous, exciting, and romantic. You should "let yourself go." Go ahead, dream of an affair with Valentino or of carrying Jane off to one's treetop retreat. Where's the harm? An advertising jingle urged:

If you're sick of troubles rife,
Go to the picture show;
You'll forget your unpaid bills,
Rheumatism, and other ills,
If you'll stow away your pills,
And go to the picture show. — quoted in Frank Walsh, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (1996), p. 4

Simply going to the movies became a fantastic, romantic event. In 1922 Grauman's Egyptian Theatre [pictured at right] opened in Los Angeles. Grauman's Chinese followed a few years later. Theatres in other cities adopted similarly fanciful and exotic themes. Some resembled French chateaux; others evoked the Ottoman Empire in its heyday. Whatever the architectural style, theatres in large cities became "palaces." [There is an entertaining and informative treatment at the University of Virginia.] New York's Roxy sat over 6,000. Other theatres had their own hospital wards and exercise rooms. Bathrooms became lounges. Attendants hovered, offering towels. The moviegoer bought more than a ticket to a show. He or she entered what Walt Disney would later dub a "magic kingdom. Leave your own life behind was the message of these palaces for the common folk. Imagine yourself, for a few hours, in imperial China or on one of Sinbad's voyages or in a Newport "cottage." The destination did not matter, so long as the movie-going experience took you out of yourself.

Even after you returned home, you could still live the fantasy. Studios manufactured stories about their stars almost as energetically as they turned out films. These filled the fan magazines like Photoplay, Screenland, and dozens of others. Readers devoured stories about movie stars as avidly as they did movies. And they cared as little about their correspondence to reality. In the fan magazines, everyone was beautiful, every dress exquisite, every motorcar brand new and chauffeur driven. Stars cavorted in nightclubs, partied in mansions, and devoted their time to worthy causes while still showing up on the set on time for a dawn shoot looking fresh and well-rested.

Studios encountered competition when it came to these stories, however. Gossip columnists and other writers created another, darker layer of fantasy. In these stories movie people defied the Volstead Act, experimented with narcotics, engaged in illicit sex, wrecked automobiles, and even committed murder. Fans ate these stories up too. An early example is THE SINS OF HOLLYWOOD: AN EXPOSE OF MOVIE VICE: A Group of Stories of Actual Happenings Reported and Written by A Hollywood Newspaper Man [Ed Roberts] May 1922 Hollywood Publishing Co. In it a former Photoplay editor detailed gossip about a host of Hollywood figures after thinly disguising their identities. Rudolph Valentino, for example, became Adolpho. Roberts then recounted his days as a gigolo working in dance halls. Movie magazines quickly got into the scandal market. In SHADOWLAND for November 1921 novelist Theodore Dreiser published "Hollywood: Its Morals and Manners, Part One: The Struggle on the Threshold of Motion Pictures." In it he explained the "casting couch":

By far the greater number of girls and women who essay this work know very well beforehand via hearsay or exact information the character of the conditions to be met. And if they do not know it beforehand, they could not be about the work a month before they would be aware of the general assumption of those connected with the work, the males in particular, of course, that all women connected with the work are potentially, if not actually, of easy virtue. Therefore, if they resent this and still linger about the scene, ambition or not, the responsibility is at least in part theirs. And a very large number linger, not only quite willingly, even though they may possess ample means to go elsewhere if they choose, but they rather relish, I think, the very lively war that is here persistently on between the sexes. They are by no means innocents or lambs being led to the slaughter. And not a few relish the personal and emotional freedom which life in this realm provides.

Movie fans swallowed the "puff" pieces which extolled every actor and actress as paragons of virtue and the gossip which painted them as, in Dreiser's words, "mentally liberated from most of the binding taboos which govern in the social realms from which they emanate." Each kind of story, like the different movie genres, offered its own sort of fantasy.

Sometimes reality intervened. Olive Thomas's mysterious death by poison in Paris, Fatty Arbuckle's three trials for murder in the death of Virginia Rappe, the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, Wallace Reid's suicide after failing to kick his addiction to opium — and these stories all come from 1920-22 — involved the final reality, death. Even so, the fantastic predominated. Here is Ed Roberts' version of Wallace Reid's drug use:

Then one day a certain well-known and muchly adored heart-breaking star of the so-called "manly" type taught them [the Hollywood crowd] something new. And this is how it came about: This star—who shall be called Walter —had tried out something. In his mad endeavor to provide for himself a thrill not written down in the Movie Vicealogue, Walter sought out several habitues of the underworld of Los Angeles and visited with them, consorted with them for the purpose, he explained, of obtaining "local color." Once they induced him to try "a shot of hop." It was great, he told some of his friends and "Yes men." They agreed that if he said it was great, it was indeed great. Yes, Walter smoked an opium pipe and went back for more. He then tried "snuffing" a bit of cocaine. That too gave him the desired kick. He "took a few shots in the arm." Ah, that was still better. He was getting on.

But why have his pleasures all alone? Walter was a good sort. He wanted his friends to taste of the sweets of life as he found them. Here's what he would do--he would give a "dope party." Obviously he could not hold this party at his own home. His wife—she, too, a star [Dorothy Davenport Reid]—would object. She didn't even know that Walter had been trying out various kinds of dope. But that was easy. Walter merely leased a cabin in Laurel Canyon and invited a few select friends to come and enjoy something new.

Many attended: Margaret and Mae, Vincent and Jay, Frank and Louise, Mary and Jack and Juanita--all good fellows and friends of Walter. Oh, yes, there was a Chinaman there with his layout—pipes and little pellets of opium. But first they must try "a shot in the arm." My! How they enjoyed that "shot in the arm." It thrilled the blase actor folk as they had not been thrilled since Clara Kimball Young auctioned off her teddy bears, removing them right before all the crowd. "Sniffing cocaine" through a little tube, one end of which hung inside a vial of "snow," was another pastime which all hugely enjoyed. It exalted and made other beings of them. It was thoroughly a worth-while party, his guests told Walter, and he was pleased—very pleased, indeed, if he had succeeded in bringing a few thrills into their uneventful lives—lives, too, made up of many thrills, but little else.

But the crowning event was when the Chinaman entered and gave each of them a pipe and a pellet of opium. Walter had fitted up cozy lounges for them to lie in. Soft, clinging curtains hung about them, pink-shaded lamps shed a soft glow, and the Chinaman worked fast and soft-footedly. Luckily the night was long—it was Saturday. None of them had to appear for work on Sunday. So all the rest of the night and far into the next day did they loll there upon the soft cushions and dream--—and—well, there are things that cannot be printed even for truth's sake. One by one they staggered homeward, vowing to return—any time—and partake of handsome Walter's hospitality. And they did. For that was but the beginning.

Had Reid, a star who rivalled Douglas Fairbanks in popularity, actually hosted opium orgies? Did the truth matter in the midst of the delights of learning of the existence of such sinfulness?

Scandal fueled the ongoing debate over the moral impact of the movies. In 1921 alone thirty-seven states considered censorship measures. In early 1922 the murder of William Desmond Taylor added to the cries to clean up Hollywood. Taylor was one of the most prominent and successful directors in the industry and president of the Directors' Guild. Among the items found in his home. also the scene of the crime, were a series of love letters, written in code, and a pink nightgown with the initials "MMM." The author of the letters and owner of the nightgown was Mary Miles Minter, a Paramount star second only to Mary Pickford in popularity. She had obviously been in love with Taylor. He, however, had courted Mabel Normand, star of Mack Sennett's "Fatty and Mabel" movies and numerous other comedies. Normand was the last person to see Taylor. Neighbors heard what might have been shots, although there were discrepancies about the time. One claimed to have seen a mysterious figure, possibly a woman, leaving the scene of the shooting. The police theorized that someone had been blackmailing Taylor. He had been withdrawing large sums at the end of each month. A related speculation held that the reason for the blackmail was Normand's narcotics use. But Taylor had things in his own life he would have not wanted to become known. The most important was that he had deserted his wife and child in New York City years before. In addition, his former valet, as the editorial cartoon to the left indicates, was missing. Taylor had fired him. In retaliation he had twice broken into Taylor's home. Then he mailed Taylor the pawn ticket where he could reclaim his possessions. He had signed the ticket using Taylor's real name. Had Normand shot Taylor? Had Minter? Minter's mother? The valet? One or another blackmailer? Drug dealers who resented Taylor's campaign to get Normand off heroin? The police never found the killer, despite decades of investigation, all well-publicized, and each with its own set of revelations of scandalous behavior in Hollywood.

Among the many calls for action to clean up both the medium and the industry was this editorial:

KANSAS CITY STAR, February 7, 1922, "The Defendant in the Case"
It may be that the man who committed the Hollywood murder will escape, but Hollywood can't. Hollywood as a community, as a social condition, as a moral delinquency, stands indicted. The conquest of easy fortune has much to answer for. Men and women intoxicated by money, the uses of which they never had learned through the process of earning it, came to believe that the finery they wore before the camera really had translated them into persons of condition and privilege. They made themselves into a class, a species of order, and set up a new code for themselves which repudiated all the obligations recognized and observed by society. To have more money than your abilities or service entitle you to, to spend it in wild excesses, to reject the restraints of decency and outrage all public sensibilities, was to be approved a member of this order. If you passed all these tests, you might, as a mark of special favor, be permitted, if it suited your taste and convenience, to live under your own name. This is the class that has branded the motion picture industry in Hollywood. It is without principle, character or morals, and but for the Midas touch of the films would be washing dishes and peeling potatoes. It isn't intelligent, it isn't capable, it isn't profitable to the industry to which it has attached itself. But it has been lavishly overpaid in the past--a condition now fortunately drawing to an end--and with this unaccustomed wealth it has ruined itself and half ruined the screen drama. What else could have been expected? Shallow girls and uneducated men, raised suddenly from poverty to riches, without the balance of character, without culture, moral background or social responsibility, will make a swift and sure descent to the level from which they came. You can't make an eagle of a crow by sticking an eagle's feathers on him. The real defendant in the Hollywood murder is the motion picture industry. The producers will have to recognize that it is their business to maintain certain standards or to suffer the inevitable consequences in the loss of public patronage.

Yet, many of those who claimed to speak out against sin and scandal nonetheless accentuated its glamor.

Fate is Seen in Tragic End of Filmdom's "Love Pirate" by Jane Dixon, NEW YORK TELEGRAM , February 12, 1922

It's a man's game—that of love pirate. The man plays, and plays—and PAYS. A potent, pulsing personality; a magnetism dangerous as it is compelling; a heart attuned to the voices of many women; a quick wit; a ready tongue; an adventuring that brooks no interference, moral nor material; a mad, reckless whirl through the shining hour of sun; and at the end—the leaden period of death.

William Desmond Taylor, dabbler in dreams. Ink is scarce dry on the cancelled mortgage the powers of evil held against his life. So, out of the rainbow past, the long, long past reaches the arm of expiation, pointing a merciless finger toward the hour of earthly reckoning. There is no escaping that finger. Ignore it if you dare. Defy it. Beat upon it with a will to destroy it. Still it points, and will point, until the ardent adventurer comes into his travail, until expiation has been done.

Filmdom welcomed William Desmond Taylor, gave him a seat among the mighty, hearkened to his word, moved at his command. Its men looked and admired. Its women looked—and loved. What richer sea could a love pirate sail? A list of the girls, the women, taken aboard the love pirate's ship of dreams for a brief cruise on the sea of pleasure would read like a slightly deleted directory of the screen's feminine stars. There is another directory, too, made up of the names of lesser planets, simple little extra girls who left the safe harbor of their homes to seek fortune in the world of make-believe. To them the great man behind the megaphone was a god whose favor was to be sought at any cost.

Now, if we may believe rumor, the sated appetite of the love pirate called for stronger stimulants than a conquest of hearts. One report has him a member of a cult with an unmanly ritual. Another speaks boldly of drugs—opium, cocaine, Lethian fogs of forgetfulness, ending in wild orgies, during which women, in jealous frenzies, tore the clothes from each other's bodies and, stripped to the waist, fought like tigers for the favor of the pirate ship captain.

Once, at least, since he has been privileged to gather blossoms willy-nilly in the glamorous garden of love, the pirate has eaten of his own dead sea fruit. His chauffeur tells how, after a New Year's eve party in the fashionable Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, he was so unhappy over an altercation with his companion [Mabel Normand] of the evening that he broke down and wept. The bitterness of unrequited love seems to have been his portion in this particular case. He was reaping the whirlwind of his own sowing.

Who sped on its horrid way the leaden pellet which brought the eventful story of the love pirate's life to a tragic close? Was it one of the fair ships he had scuttled? Was it another pirate vessel, jealous of a rival's plunder? Was it a legitimate craft, the captain of which could not endure the depredations of the modern Captain Kidd? Was it a derelict, its crew gone mad from dipping into a contraband cargo of drugs? Was it a phantom ship sailing out of the past to drive the pirate from the seas? Of only one fact we are sure—that William Deane-Tanner, alias William Desmond Taylor, could no longer escape the moving finger of Fate. He had made a bargain. The hour was at hand when he must pay—in silent expiation. Destiny, as is just, has taken her toll.

[For a full account of the murder investigations and the ensuing hoopla, see "Who Killed William Desmond Taylor."]

If impressionable young people, especially young women, went to the movies several times a week, poured over fan magazines, and turned actors and actresses into participants in their fantasy lives, surely moral standards would crumble. They would absorb the same false sense of glamor as beauty pageant contestants. So reasoned those calling for censorship.

Censorship, like Prohibition, has few friends in the historical profession. We would rather take our stand with Earl Carroll and Mae West than with those who rushed to pick up Anthony Comstock's fallen standard. Hindsight tells us that, as with Prohibition, censorship was a cure which proved worse than the disease. Better "Sex" on Broadway than efforts to censor the plays of Eugene O'Neill. Better Mae West's doubles entrendres in "She Done Him Wrong" than the prudery of the Motion Picture Production Code. One need not quarrel with this consensus to note that proponents of censorship asked some important questions: Was the jingle correct? Was movie fantasy an innocent way to banish your troubles? What if the fantasy involved flouting moral conventions?

Needless to say, fans of Wallace Reid did not rush out and become opium addicts any more than those of Mary Miles Minter suddenly began to fall in love with men old enough to be their fathers who had deserted their wives. Even in the matter of hemlines, it is by no means clear that they rose faster in the movies, or sooner. Yet, those alarmed by Hollywood nonetheless were on to something important. Movies contributed to a major shift in the way ordinary folk thought about moral issues by contributing to two important developments. One was the validation of pleasure as a goal of human life. The other was the presumptive innocence of fantasy. Men did not take to wrestling lions, women did not begin swinging on vines, despite the popularity of the "Tarzan" movies. But moviegoers did daydream about guiltless sexual indulgence. It was pleasurable. It did not do any harm. But, what the advocates of censorship grasped was that the immoral should also be unthinkable. Titilation literally changed people's minds, not by argument but by permitting imaginary transgressions.

Marketing Fantasy II: Madison Avenue

Fantastic as the movies, the fan magazines, the beauty pageants, and the revues all were, all were also part and parcel of the "New Era" of capitalism. They all paid, particularly the movies. They all designed, packaged, and marketed one of the core products of the 1920s, escapism. Advertising offered the same temporary surcease. At left is an image cropped from a Camels cigarette ad published in the Delineator magazine in 1929. {For the full ad, click on the image.] Like many of the ads of the 1920s it emphasized what the text of this ad called "the art of gracious living." Fashionably dressed, relaxing over coffee after dinner in a luxurious restaurant, a beautiful woman and her unseen companion enjoy a cigarette. She is, we learn from the text, one of those "fortunate people who seem to be born with a flair for living." She has "an instinct for good clothes, good food, good books, and good friends." Naturally she smokes Camels.

Roland Marchand, whose studies effectively opened the historical analysis of advertising, called this "the parable of the democracy of goods" in a 1976 article, "Visions of Classlessness."

According to this parable, the wonders of modern mass production and distribution enabled every person to enjoy the society's most significant pleasure, convenience, or benefit. The definition of the particular benefit fluctuated, of course, with each client who employed the parable. But the cumulative effect of the constant reminders that "any woman can" and "every home can afford" was to publicize an image of American society in which concentrated wealth at the top of a hierarchy of social classes restricted no family's opportunity to acquire the most significant products. By implicitly defining "democracy" in terms of equal access to consumer products, and then by depicting the everyday functioning of that "democracy" with regard to one product at a time, these tableaux offered Americans an inviting vision of their society as one of incontestable equality.

Marchand's signal contributions to the historical literature on advertising require those of us who come after to take this argument seriously. Advertisers, he argued, used this "parable" "primarily as a narrow, nonideological merchandising tactic. . . . The parable emphasized the affordability of the product to families of modest income while attempting to maintain a 'class' image of the product as the preferred choice of their social betters." The social meaning of the parable, Marchand maintained, was that there was no reason to envy the rich.

This argument, I will suggest, is deeply misleading as well as wholly incorrect. To turn to the second point first, the tableaux simply did not offer "Americans an inviting vision of their society as one of incontestable equality." Indeed the tableaux insisted upon the opposite. The woman in the Camels ad, for example, was one of those "fortunate people . . . born with a flair for living." The advertisement did not suggest that, by smoking Camels, the consumer would join the class of the "fortunate." That, it made clear, was impossible. Such people were "born" that way. Another ad in the Delineator for 1929, this one for Selby's Shoes, makes the same point. "The Gifted Women," those "charming creatures who are the outstanding personalities in any gathering," were unfailing drawn to Selby's new Arch Preserver Shoes. Would purchase of the same product make the consumer "gifted" or "charming" or "outstanding"? Far from offering a vision of "incontestable equality," such ads insisted on an innate inequality. There were the "fortunate," the "gifted," who set the styles. They formed an aristocracy of taste.

Consider this ad, from the Saturday Evening Post for March 22, 1930, featuring Gertrude Lawrence, the Broadway star who had helped judge the Miss South Shore beauty contest in 1927. [Click on the image for the full advertisement.] "Even her dearest enemy," the text read, "would concede that Gertrude Lawrence is one of the smartest women who ever stepped across a stage or a drawing room. Naturally," it continued, she went to Paris twice a year to buy her clothes from the finest couturier, in this case Lucien Lelong. He also designed her watch which was made by Elgin's. Elgin's had signed up a number of Paris designers. As a result, "the usual situation is reversed." You did not have to go to Paris. "Paris has come to you" at your local jewelers where you could purchase an Elgin watch in your own price range.

Everything about the image and text emphasize that "Miss Gertrude Lawrence" is several cuts above the common run of humanity. Most obvious is the elongated figure the illustrator has given her. In Advertising the American Dream : Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (1985), Marchand noted that Lawrence would have had to be over seven feet tall for the drawing to be anatomically accurate. In the ad she is a literally towering figure. Next comes the assurance that everything she chooses is the best. Even her "dearest enemies" concede that. And why "dearest enemies"? Her talent and taste inspire envy even among actresses and socialites. Nothing in the ad suggests that you can become as "smart" as Gertrude Lawrence. You can, of course, buy an Elgin watch which, the ad tells you, sell from $15 to $650. There is no hint that the $15 watch is as nice as the $650 one.

If this is not a "democracy of goods," what is it? One straightforward answer is that it is instruction. How is the consumer to decide which cigarette to smoke, which shoe to wear, which watch to own? Prior to the 1920s there were fewer such decisions. Most people, including the middle classes, owned far fewer goods. Men going to business, for example, changed their collars and cuffs, not their shirts, every day. Closets were less than a foot deep and typically contained two hooks, one for the clothes you wore every day and one for your "Sunday Best." Before donning the latter you took a bath, on Saturday night. There were no toasters, no radios, no washing machines in the average home. Most men did not smoke cigarettes. Their popularity arose with World War I when General Pershing endorsed their use among the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force as being good for their nerves. Few women smoked prior to the war.

The twenties witnessed not a "parable of the democracy of goods," but a literal explosion of consumer goods. Folks who had previously owned only two or three pairs of shoes now might have a six or seven. Millions took up smoking cigarettes. People bought more clothes. They purchased the new "necessities" like the vacuum cleaner. And they faced innumerable choices. How were they to decide among the many brands? Advertisers, needless to say, were only too eager to help them. The ads of the 1920s featuring the rich, the famous, and those with innate good taste contained a simple message: Some people know the right cigarette, shoe, watch, etc. They choose . . . .

Instruction, however, is only part of the message of these ads. Another central component is fantasy. This is where Marchand's analysis is misleading. Marchand wrote that the "parable" meant that "no discrepancies in wealth could prevent the humblest citizens, provided they chose their purchases wisely, from retiring to a setting in which they could contemplate their essential equality, through possession of an identical product, with the nation's millionaires." Marchand's consumer contemplated. The argument here is that he or, more often she because the great majority of ads targetted women, fantasized. One way to see this is by looking at several advertisements for Woodbury Beauty Soap.

Both invite the consumer into the glamorous world of the debutante. In one we discover that 102 New York and Boston debutantes use Woodbury soap. [For the complete ad, click on the image.] The text rhapsodized on the thrills they enjoyed. They danced to the "seductive strains of the latest jazz." Handsome men gathered round to pay "sophisticated compliments" and offer "delicious invitations." They lived a "dazzling existence." And they had to "look just so." They had to "enter upon every engagement alert, starry-eyed," and — the point of the ad — with beautiful smooth skin. How do "these engaging young creatures" "do it"? They used Woodbury's Soap and so could you. A 15 cent cake of the soap would last up to six weeks, making it affordable to anyone.

The element of instruction is clear. These are women with the money to buy any soap and with the leisure to discuss beauty products with experts. If they choose Woodbury's, you could trust their judgment. As debutantes they were among those "born" with a "flair" for food, fashion, and fun. They knew. This accounts for the emphasis in the advertisement on numbers. 102 debutantes chose Woodbury's. This was more than half of those surveyed. Other soaps could claim, on average, only half a dozen debutantes.

But did the claim that anyone could use the same soap choosen by debutantes constitute a parable of a democracy of goods? More specifically, was the buyer to retire to her modest dwelling and, while washing her face, contemplate her "essential equality" with those "engaging young creatures"? One is hard pressed to imagine such a thing. Easier to imagine is the buyer drifting off into a daydream about being a debutante, dancing to "seductive strains," receiving "sophisticated compliments" and "delicious invitations." The ad copy even described the ballroom floor, "so glimmering" in its polished surface, making the ball all the easier to imagine. So too the illustration. The debutante is the center of attention, surrounded by handsome men, wearing a fashionable gown, and carrying a feather fan. Even her shoes are pictured. Such an ad, like the movies, took the consumer into a "magic kingdom" far from the tedium of ordinary living.

Another Woodbury's ad using the debutante motif shows a young woman, again in an evening gown, taking "that last lingering look in the mirror." [For the full ad click on the image.] In this we learn that debutantes in eleven cities prefer Woodbury. "From luxurious, jazz-loving New York to strait-laced Philadelphia—from Boston, aristocratic and high-brow to lovely, romantic Baltimore, Nashville, New Orleans—the answer was the same." Again, the emphasis upon instruction is plain. "Young society girls," whether from "conservative" Philadelphia or "jazz-loving" New York or the "romantic" cities of the south, all chose Woodbury and by substantial margins. What can the consumer do in the face of such a consensus but buy?

There are no male admirers in the accompanying illustration. Instead there is a common prop in advertisements for beauty products, a mirror. Ads often stressed the anxiety looking into a mirror could induce. "Most men ask 'Is she pretty?' Not 'Is she clever?" a 1924 Palmolive ad noted. Further, another ad for a beauty cream noted in 1922 "if you are twenty and your skin is dull and lifeless," then "you are old." In both women sit in front of mirrors. From the time a girl read of Snow White, she knew that the mirror tells the tale of who is truly beautiful. Taking that "last lingering look" is what all women supposedly did before heading off to a night out. This might seem to verge upon what Marchand calls, in a variant of the "democracy of goods," the "democracy of affliction." Just as everyone, no matter how rich or fortunate, might have bad breath or body odor, every woman worried about her appearance. But, here again, democracy is a misleading notion.

The woman in the illustration is not everywoman. She is beautiful. She is well-born. She is perfectly groomed and coiffed. She is what every woman dreams of seeing when she looks into the mirror. Her reflection shows "a skin radiant with fresh beauty." The ad, again, does not preach equality. It offers fantasy. Imagine yourself about to head off to a ball. You are wearing the most gorgeous gown. You are certain to be the belle of the evening.

Instruction plus fantasy made a heady combination. Advertisements told you what to buy. And they provided you with the details needed to imagine yourself living a life of ease and glamor. Here is what the latter-day Cinderella would wear to the ball. Here is how her dancing partners would look. Here are the "sophisticated compliments" they would proffer. The ads promised a glimpse into the lives of the rich and well-born just as the movie magazines promised a glimpse into the private lives of the stars. In each case, the consumer purchased a product and a ready-made fantasy.

By Way of Conclusion

Phantasmagoria signified. Fantasy became a consumer good even as Madison Avenue used it to sell other consumer goods. This commodification of fantasy formed a core component of the new ethos of consumption that triumphed, albeit unevenly, in the 1920s. For the first time in human history, consumer demand drove the economy. An unprecedented profileration of consumer goods came to market. Advertising became a profession. Buying on credit became commonplace. Such were some of the signs of "New Era Capitalism." The "New Era" required a new ethic, one which sanctioned the immediate gratification of desire. In this new era, pleasure became an end in itself. Restraint ceased to be virtuous.

It is difficult, even now, to grasp the magnitude of the change. For the first time in American cultural history the marketplace and religion came into conflict. Previously, the traditional Judeo-Christian virtues reinforced the lessons of the market. Consider Andrew Carnegie's advice on THE ROAD TO BUSINESS SUCCESS (1885):

There is one sure mark of the coming partner, the future millionaire; his revenues always exceed his expenditures. He begins to save early, almost as soon as he begins to earn. No matter how little it may be possible to save, save that little. Invest it securely, not necessarily in bonds, but in anything which you have good reason to believe will be profitable, but no gambling with it, remember. A rare chance will soon present itself for investment. The little you have saved will prove the basis for an amount of credit utterly surprising to you. Capitalists trust the saving young man. For every hundred dollars you can produce as the result of hard-won savings, Midas, in search of a partner, will lend or credit a thousand; for every thousand, fifty thousand. It is not capital that your seniors require, it is the man who has proved that he has the business habits which create capital, and to create it in the best of all possible ways, as far as self-discipline is concerned, is, by adjusting his habits to his means. Gentlemen, it is the first hundred dollars saved which tells. Begin at once to lay up something. The bee predominates in the future millionaire.

Of course there are better, higher aims than saving. As an end, the acquisition of wealth is ignoble in the extreme; I assume that you save and long for wealth only as a means of enabling you the better to do some good in your day and generation. Make a note of this essential rule: Expenditure always within income.

The businessman of the 1920s, and he was the cultural hero of the hour, paid as much attention to spending money as to making and saving it. This was symptomatic of other changes. Temperance had been a mark of good character. Carnegie warned that drinking was the sure road to ruin for a young man in business. In the twenties, however, teetotalers were considered out of date. The "smart set" gathered for cocktails nightly before dinner or the theatre.

Unsurprisingly, such a shift in popular moral thinking occasioned furor. This, however, did not focus upon the underlying incompatability of New Era Capitalism and traditional Judeo-Christian moral teaching. It was virtually impossible for contemporaries to frame the issue in such terms. The recent Red Scare had fused capitalism and Americanism. The Harding and Coolidge administrations pledged themselves to advancing the cause of business. "The business of America is business," Coolidge proclaimed. Direct criticism of capitalism was virtually unthinkable to those alarmed by the rapidity of the change in popular moral ideas. Nonetheless, the marketplace directly challenged religious values.

The ad at right appeared in the November 1929 issue of Life. [For a larger version click on the image.] "American Intelligence" is breaking the chains of "an ancient prejudice." "False Modesty," the text on the top reads, " is a relic of an ancient prejudice." "American Intelligence . . . in behalf of better health and pure enjoyment sponsors the fashion of sensible swimming attire." The phrase "pure enjoyment" is especially cunning. It contrasts with "false modesty" to affirm that the one-piece suit is morally right. At the same time, it suggests that the enjoyment the new fashion permits is unalloyed. "American Intelligence" is another artful phrase. The American is always forward-looking, always distainful of the old. Intelligence is clearly superior to prejudice. Progress, "pure enjoyment," and patriotism all triumph together.

Of course, as the text on the bottom affirms, "gone too is that ancient prejudice against cigarettes. Progress has been made." [Cassandra Tate, Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of "The Little White Slaver" (1999) details the struggles over smoking, including the argument over the propriety of women smoking.] That the text praising the product is on the bottom of the ad and that no one in the illustration is portrayed as using the product are worth puzzling over. Why should the American Tobacco Company weigh in on a controversy not directly related to its business? Beach censors, some of them at least, were also smokers. Why condemn their crusade as "a relic of an ancient prejudice?" Why label their defeat as a victory for "American Intelligence"? Why, especially, directly attack evangelical moral values? The answer lies in the notion of "pure enjoyment." Smoking among women had been associated with prostitutes. Even when respectable women did take it up, they often hid the fact from family and friends. Lily Barth, heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, for example, smoked only with certain friends. Some men who might otherwise propose would surely not if they thought she smoked. After the war, smoking was a vice of "wild young things." Louise Brooks smoked, magazine articles about her regularly noted. So did other chorus girls. As the practice became more general, in part because of the patriotic mantle General Pershing had wrapped cigarettes in during the war, cultural resistance remained. Many a mother told her daughter that "respectable" girls did not smoke. Those same mothers had also probably spoken out against the immodesty of the one-piece suit. That had been an "ancient prejudice." So was the view that smoking was wrong.

Business, in short, did not hesitate to condemn traditional moral strictures on enjoyment and the pursuit of pleasure. Moralists, however, could not condemn business, except at the fringes. So the battles raged over the phantasmagorical. They were perhaps the more bitter for that. One could demonize the producers of revues, as John Roach Stratton, among many others, did. One could denounce the corrupting effect of beauty pageants upon the contestants. One could charge out of one's cottage, armed with a switch, and "paddywhack" the "sirens" in one-piece bathing suits. One could call for censorship of motion pictures. This latter campaign often had an anti-Semitic overtone. The culprits were usually identified as "the producers" who lacked moral values. These producers also lacked any concern for American values. And, as everyone knew, they were mostly Jewish immigrants.

In some cases, upholders of traditional moral values would succeed. By 1934 the Motion Picture Production Code had teeth and the sort of sexual hijinks of Tarzan and Jane enjoyed in their earlier films were no longer tolerated on screen. By about the same date New York and other cities cracked down upon nudity and explicit language on the stage. Beauty pageants adopted stringent rules, emphasized "talent" and "charm," and offered college scholarships in place of the opportunity to become a chorus girl or get into the movies. In other cases upholders of tradition could gradually reconcile themselves to change. The one-piece bathing costume became respectable as did the hemline reaching the knee. Yet, none of this stemmed the tide of change in moral thinking.

"I really don't know if I should smoke . . . " ran a Chesterfield ad in the January 21, 1933 Saturday Evening Post. The illustration showed an attractive young woman wearing a fur and clad in red. Her brothers and sweetheart smoked, she went on. Not her mother, she did not need to explain. And it gave her "a lot of pleasure." This, it turns out, was decisive. Women took up smoking about the same time they got the vote, "but that's hardly a reason for women smoking," she conceded. "I guess I just like to smoke, that's all." And that was now enough. Pleasure was its own justification.