'Forever Alone': How Midcentury Movie Magazines Sold Marriage to Women

In Depth

It’s June of 1950 and you’ve just finished reading a story in Modern Screen about Bette Davis’s recent divorce, and there at the end is a little box with big letters: “Has YOUR MAN CHANGED toward you? See page 69.” Must have missed an advice column or something. So you turn back and what do you find? A picture of a guy in a white sport coat holding a girl in a dress. Beneath them appears the caption, “Are you always lovely to love?” The answer resides in that guy’s nose. Yes, you’ve just flipped back twenty-five pages for a deodorant ad. It’s a dirty trick, and all the worse if somehow you fell for it ten pages earlier at the end of a story on Ava Gardner. That time the box asked, “AFRAID of being an OLD MAID?”

The page-turning ploy was new, but if you’d been reading various popular movie magazines for a few decades, you were used to being insulted at every turn. This was actually comparatively kind, a last vestige of an old ad style in a field that was discovering a modicum of subtlety. Compare this typical soap ad from 1931:

To explore these ads is to step into a dramatically different—if not altogether unfamiliar—era. It was a time with less artifice, a time when skin creams proudly displayed the mouse test subjects they used, a time when “Aunt Flo” wasn’t a trite euphemism but a real person, and the only one in your life bold enough to tell you that you stink. Now we understand advertisements as subtly, subconsciously making people feel insecure so they’ll buy some solution. Back then, marketers were just discovering the buyer’s inner life, and they decided the surest way to reach it was to attack the outer self.

And, in speaking to women, they almost invariably used the same tool of persuasion: husbands. Either a woman will never find one, or she’s always one mistake away from losing one. “You’re not the sweetheart I married!” shouts another ad’s frowning, post-sniff husband, hand on the doorknob. It was an accusation made every few pages, every month, every year from the late 20s on into the 50s. Such ads appeared in all sorts of reading material, but in the movie magazines they operate as a funhouse mirror of the main copy, contrasting idealized life with those falling pathetically short of it. Together they create a strange theater of desire that reads like a monthly installment of Mulholland Drive—alternately absurd and harrowing.

Advertisers targeted women because research showed they were responsible for 80 percent of household purchases. Marketers also deemed them easy marks. As Roland Marchand shows in Advertising the American Dream, ad execs described their principal audience as “vats of frothy pink irrationality” with a “natural inferiority complex.” Hence:

Advertisers preyed not only on their own projections but also on women’s very real economic insecurity. It is as though they read Cicely Hamilton’s 1909 book Marriage as a Trade and took it as a guidebook. The reliance of most women on a husband merely to get by was nothing more than a great marketing opportunity:

Lysol ads especially tended to emphasize divorce. They can’t quite spell out the product’s (dangerous) use as a douche, and they imagine buyers are likewise bedeviled by propriety. The women depicted are clueless about what they did wrong; husbands are afraid to say; mothers chide their daughters. Failure to heed the advertiser’s call is the fault of the victim. Standing in divorce court, one “truthful ex-wife” says of her supportive friends, “I didn’t deserve their pity.” The ads are utterly shameless.

That marketers knew exactly what the stakes of marriage were is apparent from the many ads focusing on job hunts. Often, ads intertwine employment and romance, using a recurrent theme of the period’s movies: marrying the boss. Consider this excerpt from a 1937 ad, in which the heroine’s boss finally notices her after her friend Wendy introduces her to mascara:

The horrible truth is right there in the open: losing a job really does mean she might have to make some desperate marital choices. Capitalizing on the culture’s most horrible aspects is commonplace in these magazines. Some even blithely deploy threats of violence, against the reader’s child or the reader herself. Always, the woman is instructed to blame her own shopping failures for the ill treatment she receives.

The ads get even more bizarre as marketers try to stretch both the marriage theme and the range of problems:

They’re so over-the-top that it might seem the advertisers aren’t serious, but with the threat so real in an era when extremely few well-paying jobs were open to women and divorce was heavily stigmatized, the intent hardly mattered. If they didn’t think the message hit home, marketers wouldn’t have reached so clumsily to tie it to whatever was on offer. Everything could lose a man: shiny nose, not white enough whites, gray hair, chapped hands, perspiration stains, corns, slow-drying ink, dull blonde hair, nerves, not taking a laxative, giving the kids the wrong laxative, PMS, a poorly powdered face, dandruff, parched lipstick, low red-blood cell count, iron deficiency, not playing piano, not drinking Ovaltine, dry hair, oily hair, sloppily-pinned hair, a red nose from a cold, buying the wrong cigarette brand, stocking runs, constipation, itchiness, bloodshot eyes, sleeping with make-up on, not wearing talcum powder, not chewing gum, not serving canned spaghetti, and, during World War II, not buying war bonds, so now your sweetheart’s dead.

That, of course, is only a partial list. It omits, for instance, failure to juice:

This ad, which is real, was produced by Sunkist in 1942, when orange juice was a relatively new drink. With a surplus of oranges in the 1910s, orange growers turned toward advertising executive Albert Lasker to figure out new ways to unload them; he came up with the ideally wasteful product of orange juice.

Then as now, companies would do anything to get people to ingest more of their stock. A single item was routinely sold for a half dozen different uses. When home bread-making declined, Fleischmann’s and other yeast manufacturers started claiming the stuff was good for acne, anemia, nerves, constipation, and—as though to spite the Depression-era hungry—to gain weight. Lysol felt no compunction about marketing the same bottle as douche and multipurpose housecleaner. Listerine was sold as face wash, after-shave, and deodorant. They also said it staved off colds, sore throats, and dandruff.

Even for the one use Listerine could truthfully promote, they still went over the top. Bad breath wasn’t scary enough, so in the twenties they invented the pseudo-scientific scourge of “halitosis.” It worked so well they became the envy of the ad world, a manipulative model to follow. Warner Bros. even made a movie giving the “lowdown on the publicity racket,” in which Listerine’s inspiring example helps turn James Cagney from con artist to marketer. Yet after that success, they were less innovative, just relentlessly hectoring women for decades: picturing a woman sitting alone at a dance with a “Please Do Not Disturb” sign around her wrists; a woman running happily in a bathing suit with the caption, “Take to the boats, boys!…here she comes!”; a woman sitting in darkness at the edge of a bed with the caption, “It’s no fun being 30…and alone.” One recurring slogan warned, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” a pre-existing phrase that Listerine widely popularized.

These little tableaus Listerine employed were another key innovation of the era, inspired, as advertising historians have noted, by the growing appeal of “true life” magazines and comic strips. They hoped readers would identify with the cartoon women who come to recognize their errors. Not all were so willing:

“I know from experience that for every woman who has bad breath there are at least nine men,” one Chicago woman writes. Men are “too self-satisfied, vain, conceited, and stupid to do anything about it,” a woman from Tuckahoe adds. “They think that just because they’re men they can get away with anything and we women have to stand around and pretend we like it.” It’s wonderful. In another ad, Listerine says they received over a thousand such letters. Yet they don’t deserve credit for admitting it. That the one above appeared concurrently in Country Gentlemen suggests it was just an opportunity to put the screws to men for a change. They soon returned to needling women. It’s nice nonetheless to see evidence women held them in the contempt they deserved.

But advertisers were generally confident that frustrations were self-directed, and the magazines hosting them supported the cause. Some used space to tell readers how valuable the ads were to their lives: “Do you think twice about your skin, those wrinkles at the corners of your eyes, your tell-tale past-thirty neck because of beauty ads that bring about happiness, love and youth?” Good for you; keep looking, they said.

It’s a natural position for them to take since reformation via sight was a propaganda point these magazines used to extol cinema from their outset in the 1910s. They eagerly printed letters telling of movies bringing urbanity to the countryside, civilization to the Third World, and reform to the incarcerated. Movies were hailed as teachers of etiquette, pronunciation, fashion, fitness, and grooming. In the late twenties, when church leaders began criticizing the medium, Photoplay, the most popular and propagandistic magazine, used fan letters to wage an assault on religion, pointing out how much less compromised cinema’s lessons were than those of hypocritical church leaders. (Read that one.)

Movies offered better models, the magazines continually asserted. They sometimes ran sad letters of people describing how the screen allowed them to forget their deformities as they put themselves into the body of some star: “the lovely heroine up there isn’t Joan Crawford or Anita Page, no sir, it’s I.” The writer presents her case as extreme, but the magazines suggested every reader do likewise. They offered repeated stories on how to interpret the stars’ bodies or the shapes of their skulls and then encouraged readers to match themselves up, as in this Screenland chart inviting readers to compare their every facial feature to those of film favorites. In turn, readers repeatedly sent letters describing the hodgepodge of different actresses’ features that they desired.

It’s no wonder then that these magazines would be lined with products pushing extremes of self-modifying:

Nose shapers appeared frequently (and were also available in child sizes):

Some devices are so macabre that the artists apparently couldn’t even imagine a person wearing them happily:

The messages of advertising and main text further aligned when stars bridged the divide, like Elissa Landi appearing for Lux soap to warn women, “You’ve won him—now you must keep him.” Sometimes, the objects of desire explained how to do so. A 1935 Tangee lipstick ad shows leading heartthrob Gary Cooper sitting down on set of his upcoming picture The Wedding Night to judge the applications of a few women: “’Honest lips!’ That’s Gary Cooper’s forthright, masculine way of putting it. And lips that are painted don’t look honest to men.”

Properly beautified, the reader might hope to canoodle with the stars, a dream pushed further in later Tangee ads featuring Hollywood wives such as “Mrs. Gary Cooper.” The women’s actual names weren’t given. It would spoil the illusion that the reader herself might someday live inside those three letters. To commit to that dream, she had to accept Camay soap’s claim that “You are in a beauty contest every day of your life,” one in which the moment of truth in a man’s eyes would be decided “in a tenth of a second.”

A few ads unintentionally reveal the psychological effects of such a focus, like one for Lysol in which a cartoon woman giddily tells her reflection, “Our husband belongs to us again!” Her Gollum-like dialogue with herself seems the natural result not just of Lysol’s campaign but also of the message of betterment through emulating the unreal that is celebrated throughout these magazines.

But no matter how hard these advertisers pushed marriage as both motivator and reward, readers weren’t buying it. In 1931, Gladys Charnas of Miami Beach wrote Photoplay with a brilliant satiric takedown of the conflicting messages facing her. Laying bare the mix of comedy and tragedy in the whole scheme of entertainment, improvement, and manipulation that made up the film fan’s world, she gives a hint of how real women must have negotiated all these nagging calls for their renovation:

Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.

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