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At the end of the witty, bitchy, superbly filmed MGM classic of 1939, ” The Women”, a sadder yet wiser Mary Haines poses dramatically in her sumptuous white satin bedchamber, dons a lame gown similar in style to one that her husbands new wife/former mistress Crystal Allen once modeled for her and utters the immortal lines, ” I’ve had t…wo years to grow claws mother- Jungle Red!”

It’s an unforgettable moment and Norma Shearer plays it with just the right amount of humor and vitriol–she’s nobody’s fool and absolutely her own woman.

So where did the actual oft-mentioned siren shade originate? Although it’s suggested at a swanky Manhattan beauty establishment at the beginning–(Sydney’s by name), it is also applied by a somewhat vulgar, gossipy manicurist–Olga who was fired from Black’s Fifth Avenue sometime earlier.

Scarlet nails were considered somewhere between appealing and appalling at the time; some men reveled in needling wives, sweethearts and mistresses with,. ” You’re hands look as if they were dripping blood.” Echoing these sentiments cinematically is the lone masculine voice of acerbic writer Peggy (who is usually read as a lesbian), when she turns to viper-tongued Sylvia and states. ” You look as if you had been cutting somebody’s throat.”

This resplendent ravishingly and risqué image appeared on the back pages of the surprising, ‘Popular Song’ sometime prior to either the original play or the later film.

Boldly featuring the announcement of a wicked new shade for lips and fingernails- Jungle is feverishly described as vivid, brighter–willingly able to make you into the most disarmingly dangerous dame this side of the south seas.

This would have been the kind of makeup that girls, likely from poor or working class backgrounds would favor. It was meant to suggest in no uncertain terms that the brand and the shade were capable of making the wearer irresistible glamorous daring, an almost volcanically intense object of desire.

Bringing this back into the film–this all makes perfect sense. Duplicitous, disastrously loud-mouthed, gossip-ridden beastly blabber-mouthed, Sylvia Fowler suggests the shade after hearing a racy tale regarding Mary Haines perfect paragon (tall, fair distinguished’ an engineer), of a husband, realizing the second Mary puts on a coat or two of the tantalizing polish, the whole gruesome story will pour forth. It’s the first of two cinematic examples of how this shade is also a weapon; it leads to harmful gossip, that literally rips apart a supposedly elegantly ideal marriage.thewomen

Jungle Red, our newest color was new in 1936 and seen to provocative excess in the kind of magazine (Screen Stories, True Confessions, Popular Song), that a manicurist or a shop girl would be likely to read.

The shade Jungle and brand name, Savage, would have been sold in the five and dime, or the local drug-store thus equating in, in thirties parlance as common, vulgar and most definitely cheap. Each of these qualities is exactly what those untrustworthy supposedly straight-arrow spouses seem to fall for- a duo of the leads looses her man to respectively a shopgirl and a chorus dame!

Mystery solved.



Doesn’t the woman on the Sta-Rite hair pin card resemble the sophisticated movie stars of the 1930s?

Some of the most stunning cosmetics packaging was designed and manufactured during the 1930s.  In 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression, one in four people were out of work. Many others would be thrown off of their farms and out of their homes. With so much day to day uncertainty and hardship people took pleasure in small things.

Bullocks Wilshire, Los Angeles

Bullocks Wilshire, Los Angeles

Imagine that you’re a shop girl at the Bullock’s department store in Los Angeles during the 1930s. The clientele would have been upscale, and after a full day of waiting on them your feet would be aching and your spirits might be low — yet with only a few pennies in your handbag, you could go to your local dime store and pick up something beautiful. With a card of the Sta-Rite hair pins you could go home and experiment with a new hair style – perhaps something with a few wicked little pin curls on your forehead.

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford

The Sta-Rite card is an excellent example of some of the best cosmetics/beauty advertising produced during the 1930s. The colors are deep and lush, and the woman is supremely stylish, all angles and shadows, with just a hint of a smile playing across her lips. In fact, the woman on the card is evocative of the portrait of Joan Crawford by George Hurrell. I wonder if Joan used Sta-Rite pins to get “…the tiny ringlets and curls that fashion demands”.

Norma Shearer in a sultry pose

Norma Shearer in a sultry pose

During the late 1920s Hurrell was introduced to silent film star Ramon Navarro by aviatrix Pancho Barnes. Navarro was impressed by the photos taken of him and recommended Hurrell to the actress Norma Shearer. Norma was married to MGM producer Irving Thalberg and was trying to convince him to cast her in the starring role in the film “The Divorcee“. Norma’s career had been built on playing the girl next door, and she was seeking sexier, more complex roles. Irving Thalberg was knocked out by Hurrell’s photos of Norma. The photos were so alluring – she smoldered – that she won the part she wanted.  She also won an Academy Award TM

Norma would go on to appear in many successful pre-code films for MGM such as: Let Us Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), Private Lives (1931) and Riptide (1934); and Norma and Joan would be bitter rivals in the 1939 film The Women.

Joan Crawford wearing the Letty Lynton dress

Joan Crawford wearing the Letty Lynton dress

Joan Crawford’s career would have an astonishing upward trajectory for decades. Hurrell’s photograph of Joan for the 1932 film Letty Lynton made the dress she wore so popular that it was reported that between authorized copies and knock-offs over one million of the dresses sold world wide!

Despite the furor over the glorious organdy dress (designed by Adrian), the film would be pulled from distribution due to a lawsuit over copyright infringement. Unfortunately, Letty Lynton remains unavailable to this day [although a fuzzy copy in multiple parts appears on YouTube.]**

I’ll bet that the Sta-Rite woman would have wholeheartedly approved of the careers of Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer – both of whom were glamorous, sexy, and sophisticated.

**NOTE: Updated info as of August 10, 2010.  The Letty Lynton video that was available on YouTube when this was first posted has been pulled by the studio. There are undoubtedly still bootlegged copies in private collections.