When I was very young, say, around seven or eight, I went in for cowboy flicks. I usually went with a pack of boys my own age; we paid our dime and watched a double feature. The National Anthem was played and sometimes there’d be a yo-yo contest. There were usually one or two cartoons, a serial of Superman or Captain Marvel and always Movietone Newsreels. I had no use for Tom Mix or Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. I liked Randolph Scott, I guess because I admired his perfectly chiseled features and the fact that he didn’t sing. But I’ll talk about the male stars of my past at another time.
Now I want to discuss the females that I had begun to want to watch, the many on whom I developed a crush. I was nine or ten when I thought Esther Williams [left] was hot. It was her swimming, naturally, that did it for me. In those days I liked women who evinced some athleticism. I never really thought of them as women, but as grown up girls. Esther Williams could swim. That was it for me. I thought her face a little broad, especially when she wore a swimming cap. The crush was short lived. I moved on. Athleticism ceased to be a necessity, since almost none of the female stars was athletic, at least not on screen. That is, with the exception of Ginger Rogers, whose dancing I considered a kind of athletic event. (As I grew older I ceased to think of it as merely that.) I should also mention Betty Grable [below right: the GIs' favorite pin-up girl in WW II], who does a terrific solo in “The Gay Divorcee.” But this and other Rogers/Astaire movies I saw sometimes as many as ten years after they first appeared. It wasn’t simply Rogers's athleticism that got to me, it was her energy, her perkiness. That’s it: she was perky, despite those eyes that could be a shade soulful, a little hurt.
Other Perky cuties I had a crush on were Janet Blair, Joan Leslie. I have not seen Janet Blair since I was ten years old, so I can’t say what effect she would have on me now, but I recently watched “Flying Down to Rio” and took a good hard look at the young Ginger Rogers [left] but was not overwhelmed. More overwhelming was the seemingly endless Carioca dance numbers with Fred and an ensemble of hundreds (it seemed). And most overwhelming was Dolores Del Rio [below] to whom I had paid no attention when I was a boy.
Ah Dolores! I ran into her once in an elevator in Mexico City back in 1953. I was with my father and he noticed her right away and practically fainted on the spot. She was then 48 and I was 19. She was still beautiful, but not the way she was in “Flying Down to Rio.” She was darkly glamorous, which is about all that I could be certain of in the few seconds we were on the elevator. In “Flying Down to Rio” you noticed the playful intensity of her eyes and her perfect features. But more about the true beauties next time.
-- Mark Strand