Mooresville Public Library

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

MPL Recommended Read: Not So Dumb: the Life & Career of Marie Wilson, by Charles Tranberg

Ever hear a "dumb blonde" joke?

The formula follows predictable lines: There's an unintelligent blonde woman, usually physically attractive (by society's shallow standards) . . . some situation sets the stage for the joke, and then . . . the punch line. ("Dumb blonde" jokes are 99.9 percent about females.) I call this type of humor "civil rights jokes," because they always focus upon some superficial, stereotypical characteristic of a particular classification of people--in this case, the female gender--and make fun of that group. "Dumb blonde" jokes attack women, just as racial, ethnic, religious, "old age," and sexual orientation jokes target their victims based on skin color, race, nationality, religion, age, or sexual preference. They are inherently mean-spirited, ignorant, demeaning, and undignified. But they continue to proliferate in everyday humor.

Why "dumb blondes"? Why not brunettes or redheads? And why beautiful women? We look to 20th century cinema and entertainment for our answer. Not too long ago, the television program Friends (1994-2004) enjoyed enormous popularity. One of its main characters was Phoebe Buffay, played by Lisa Kudrow. Phoebe was a flaky, ditsy, "air-headed," but quite pretty, blonde. Two decades earlier, Suzanne Somers portrayed Chrissy Snow, another ditsy, "air-headed," "drop-dead gorgeous" blonde, for the first five seasons of the television situation comedy Three's Company (1977-1984). About ten years before that, Goldie Hawn played a "spaced-out cute blonde hippie chick" on the television series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1967-1973). It is important to note that each of these actresses is extremely intelligent. People sometimes forget that actors are pretending to be characters on screen and stage.

It is interesting to note that two of these beautiful "dumb blondes" enjoyed huge success on enormously popular television programs during the late 1960s and early 1970s (Laugh-In) and the late 1970s (Three's Company) when the women's rights movement and the Equal Rights Amendment were becoming mainstream sociopolitical agendas. This is paradoxical; one would think that "dumb blondes" would have been dismissed as passé during this time. Why were these characters embraced by millions of television viewers? The answer lies in these characters' fundamental goodness. Hawn, Somers, and, later, Kudrow each played their empty-headed females with "hearts of gold." Each was innocent, kind, thoughtful, untarnished by cynicism, and, above all, a dependable friend. You could count on these women to be there when you needed them. They were not self-absorbed; rather, they thought of friends and loved ones first, when they thought at all (which was the joke). This is why their characters were so popular. Although they were physically attractive by society's "skin-deep" assessments, female viewers found them non-threatening and appealing, because of their honorable good natures. Heterosexual male viewers ogled them, of course, but they also found these TV blondes non-threatening because these female characters were simple-minded. (In my experience, many men find intelligent women, especially those considered pretty, to be extremely threatening.) So the "dumb blonde" stereotype was perpetuated, much to the chagrin of feminists, who, rightly so, consider "dumb blondes" (or "dumb women" stereotypes generally) to be major setbacks in the continued struggle for equal rights for women. (An illustration of the stereotype's continued vitality was driven home when, a few years ago, my daughter, a natural blonde who is extremely bright, referred to a momentary mental lapse as one of her "blonde moments.")

We need to go further back in entertainment history, however, to uncover the roots of the "dumb blonde." Most well known was Marilyn Monroe's "dumb blonde," through which her 1950s cinematic portrayals thrust her into superstardom. Monroe's blondes also seemed "true blue," good-natured gals who, although "bombshell" beautiful, were moderately acceptable to female movie goers who were only mildly threatened by her sexual magnetism. There was also Judy Holliday's Oscar-winning performance as Emma "Billie" Dawn, a politician's "dumb blonde" love interest in the 1950 movie Born Yesterday. Holliday's character, however, only seemed unintelligent; she was naive, but she was really quite bright, as demonstrated throughout the film alongside her tutor, Paul Verrall, played by William Holden.

But Marilyn and Judy were not the first to establish themselves as experts in "dumb blonde" portrayals on the silver screen. In the late 1930s through the 1950s, there was Marie Wilson.

Marie Wilson? Never heard of her? For an introduction, read Not So Dumb: the Life and Career of Marie Wilson, by Charles Tranberg (Albany, GA : BearManor Media, 2006) (ISBN 1-59393-049-6).

Our book trailer (video) elaborates.

MPL Book Trailer #234

In his biography of Marie Wilson (1916-1972), author Charles Tranberg painted a compelling portrait of an intelligent, determined actress who saw a niche in which she could excel as well as, and better than, most contemporary actresses. Just as her successors would do, Marie established herself as the prototypical "dumb blonde": her characters were gorgeous, naive, and ditzy, but they were also gold-hearted, sweet, innocent, kind, and dependable. She began her cinematic career playing "gun molls" opposite gangsters. She reached near-stardom playing opposite such famous film actors as James Cagney (Boy Meets Girl, 1938). In the 1940s, she became a household name playing Irma Peterson, an "airheaded blonde bombshell," on the radio serial My Friend Irma, which became a popular television series (1947-1954) and spawned two motion pictures, both of which launched the comedy careers of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Wilson's "dumb blondes" were amazingly convincing because they seemed genuine. Although Judy Holliday's performance in Born Yesterday was unquestionably brilliant, there are times when her screen presence is purely an affectation; in other words, you can tell she's acting. With Marie Wilson, you couldn't tell she was acting; instead, she seemed fresh, real, and completely believable. If she had been cast in either the stage or screen versions of Born Yesterday, perhaps she might have received an Academy Award nomination for best actress (and won).

One of the tragedies of American entertainment is that talented people are often forgotten rather quickly after their screen success fades. Some readers of this blog may never have heard of some of the actresses (and actors, for that matter) I've named. That's a shame. These were gifted performers who deserve a look for reasons beyond their physical "sex appeal." You probably won't find too many of Marie Wilson's movies or television shows on DVD today, but keep your eyes peeled. Watch her if you get the chance. Enjoy her beauty--I certainly would--but also marvel at her performance skill. She, more than any other actress, is responsible for the "dumb blonde" persona, which so many later actresses employed so successfully to establish their own careers and fame. That's more of an accomplishment than one might think.

Bill Buckley
MPL Indiana Room Librarian

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