Sex Symbols of Old Hollywood

For today’s post, I would like to take a look at the sex symbols of Golden Age Hollywood.   I am a huge fan of classic Hollywood films, and have long been a lover of silver screen sirens!   This love of sex symbols is what inspired today’s topic.

From the earliest days of film, we can see the portrayal of gorgeous women as screen sirens.   In the nineteen-teens, we have Theda Bara as the original screen vamp, literally the one they coined that term for!   In the 20s there was Clara Bow, the first-ever “It girl” for whom that term was coined.   In the 30s there was Jean Harlow, who was the original Platinum Blonde Bombshell.   Harlow was also Marilyn’s favorite actress when she was growing up!   Sadly, like Harlow before her, Marilyn would go on to die young.

By the time the 1940s rolled around, there was Betty Grable.   In fact, Grable would star opposite Marilyn in How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953, which served as a passing of the torch from one sex symbol to her successor!   Interestingly, we see Harlow having a small role in a late Clara Bow film that can be seen as serving this very same purpose!

When it comes to Hollywood sex symbols there is a no bigger name than Marilyn Monroe.   She went from being an iconic actress beloved by millions to becoming a legend, an icon, upon her death in 1962!   She did not truly have a successor.   Surely, Elizabeth Taylor was a gorgeous actress who starred in sex-symbol roles, but she began her career as a child star and acted during and after Monroe’s lifetime.    Some may claim that Jayne Mansfield was Marilyn’s successor.

I refute this claim, as although Jayne Mansfield was beautiful and a blonde bombshell, she was really more a case of being a “poor man’s Marilyn.”   I like Mansfield’s films well enough, but I never found her to be able to hold a candle to the great Marilyn Monroe!   After all, Mansfield’s contract was given to her in order for the studio to have another young sexy woman to threaten to replace Marilyn with.   The fact that she was seen as like Marilyn, but lesser, makes it all the more obvious that Marilyn was much more influential and successful than Mansfield could ever wish to be!

Sex symbols can go out one of two ways.   Either they retire and live quietly, drifting off into the ether, or they die tragically.   Bara and Bow would both retire from show business and ultimately live quiet lives until the end of their days.   Harlow, Marilyn, and Mansfield (who is a sex symbol even if not a true successor to Marilyn) all died tragically young.   Harlow died of renal failure, Marilyn died under suspicious circumstances, and Mansfield died in a horrific car crash!

Why did Old Hollywood feel the need to have these incredible women be known as sex symbols above all else?   Well, my theory goes that it was due to the Hays Code!   Bara and Bow both predate the Hays Code’s most strict era, however, this could be chalked up to the chaotic times in the pre-Code era making sex a prime subject matter for films.   Harlow was at her pinnacle when the strict adherence to the code became a mainstay.   So the later women were focused on as sex symbols because the code made the buttoned-up nature of the film industry all the more interested in sex!    After all, what can be more interesting than something that you are not supposed to be thinking about!

At the end of the day, Old Hollywood loved a sex symbol because of the desire for anything that is made taboo.   The Hays office tried to keep all of the sexy things in life under wraps.   This made the interest in those things even more intense.   It is like the fact that some of the naughtiest literature is born out of the buttoned-up Victorian era!   The tighter the morals, the more rebellious people (especially artists) become.

I hope you have enjoyed this analysis of the nature of Hollywood sex symbols.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image a the top of the post is Marilyn in the “skirt scene” of The Seven Year Itch. I found the image on

Further Reading

  • Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner
  • Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow by David Stenn
  • Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn
  • Jayne Mansfield: A Biography by May Mann
  • Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden
  • Elizabeth by J. Randy Taraborrelli