The February 1934 issue of Modern Screen led off with a bombshell. The fan magazine had finally gotten Norma Shearer to share her biggest secrets—things long whispered about in Hollywood but which nobody imagined the actress would ever admit. She was a leading box office draw, but before she hit it big, she’d had to overcome what the magazine called “terrific handicaps,” “more physical defects than almost any star has had.” Finally, Shearer was willing to discuss them on the record.
The defects in question? Her muscular legs. An active youth filled with tennis, skating, and swimming had, Shearer said, rendered her unfit for the camera. It was only after three painful years in which she dieted and restricted herself to no more than 10 minutes light activity per day that she was able to undo it—to make her legs look like a star’s.
These were the standards of the time, and an aspiring actress had to conform to them. Careers were built on legs. The first thing a studio did upon signing a new actress was bare them for some publicity shots. Denying the request was an almost unheard-of career risk. Shearer had to reshape her legs before she could put together the glamour portfolio that would jumpstart her career.
Classic Hollywood was obsessed with legs. In 1953, when a Screenland writer traveled to Paris to interview dancer Colette Marchand, he kept prodding her about these “luscious limbs.” Frustrated, she insisted “there is more to a woman than legs.”
“Legs, poof! What are legs?” she said. “Can they talk? Do they think?”
The writer kept asking about them anyway, and Marchand answered, “What would it mean if I cut these legs off, all by themselves. They could do nothing!”
But she was underestimating Hollywood’s leg obsession. Magazines like the one she was talking to were way ahead of her:
Yes, what if you did cut an actress’s legs off? Wouldn’t that be fun?
Again and again, photo spreads like this highlighted just how vital these limbs were to a star’s identity. For actresses like Shearer, the leg effort was cyclical: her legs would garner her the type of career that would allow her to be reduced to her legs in a magazine.
The above spread ran in the nation’s favorite fan magazine, Photoplay, in 1927. If the pictures weren’t enough, the magazines offered clues, too. Number one reads, “Formerly known as the ‘legs of the Lasky lot.’” Limb enthusiasts and Photoplay readers might then remember that the magazine had previously featured her legs under that moniker in 1921. The feature was titled “Stellar Supports, or, one way to climb that ladder of fame.” Rival Screenland had zeroed in on her ankles in 1923, celebrating her “piquant,” prize-winning “pedal extremities.” She’s a “pioneer of the short skirt movement”—Julia Faye, of course.
Four years later, Photoplay did it again:
This time they threw in a wrinkle—the legs center left turned out to be those of John Barrymore. Similarly, the LA Record had previously run a “Whose Legs is Whose” competition that stumped everyone by presenting Will Rogers’ stems. Whether the point was to make fun of such a mode of identification or induce gender panic is unclear.
To Barrymore’s right in the Photoplay spread is a characteristically well-concealed pair: “She hated to be known as the possessor of the most beautiful legs on the stage. She can act, too.” That would be none other than Claudette Colbert. The 1940 Modern Screen story “Claudette Colbert’s Forgotten Legs” would later reveal that the actress was so modest that director Ernst Lubitsch ended up using a leg double for a shot in 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, much to Colbert’s annoyance. (Leg doubles were an equally fraught issue: When Anne Shirley’s legs were substituted with a less appealing pair in 1942, she sued the studio for $100,000.)
If you’re noticing a certain trend in the positioning of the legs, there’s a reason for that. A 1924 Screenland story, “The Lure of the Left Leg,” argued that it was simply the more beautiful limb.
They said they held a vote among prominent artists, which determined “The left leg has it. It has the lure, the enchantment and the beguile. The right leg was only a poor second in the voting.” The vote and the whole piece seem tongue-in-cheek, but look at the photos and you can’t deny that the majority of actresses are favoring their lefts.
Anyway, now it’s 1938, and Photoplay has a brand-new question:
No hints this time, but there are faces.
Only two actresses managed to appear in all three of these Photoplay leg spreads: Mary Pickford and Joan Crawford. It’s a testament to Pickford’s enduring popularity, as she had retired from acting five years prior to this last one. Crawford is the only one in any of the spreads I could identify—two of three times, which I feel weird about.
Photoplay clearly had no qualms about recycling content. You can just imagine the editors staring down a deadline and shouting at an intern to run and get them some back issues. But they weren’t the only ones playing peep-the-leg. In 1944, a theater in Missouri turned the recurring question into a contest for free tickets:
The clip appears in a theater trade journal, encouraging others to run similar contests: “How well do your patrons (especially the men) know the legs of famous Hollywood stars?” Pin-up extraordinaire Betty Grable is the first pictured, of course.
The spreads the magazines did, however, were generally less about sexual objectification than they were about emulation. The magazines were deeply invested in teaching their readers how they could be like the stars, inside and out.
And externals and internals were considered one and the same. This 1926 Film Fun spread jokingly proposes to substitute kneeology for a favorite serious topic of the early fan magazines, phrenology. The magazines adored quackery, featuring skull diagrams and discussions of how to read celebrities’ character in their noses:
And of course the body language of those legs again:
“You’d never recognize her by her feet,” says the next spread, confusingly.
So in recognizing a star’s legs, you were also recognizing something about the star’s character—and proving your supreme fandom in the process.
But legs were really where it was at, even if just from the knee down:
It was an era in which film shots of dance numbers routinely obscured all but the legs, film characters professed to recognize legs better than faces, and theaters regularly ran contests with a partially-raised curtain before screenings to judge the local pair that was either best overall or most similar to those of a given star.
Legs could make a woman a star, but also always threatened to steal her spotlight. The unsaid question behind every “Whose legs are these?” is “Does it actually matter?” Hence a theater trade journal in 1939 ran a legs-only picture of some local contest winners and joked, “We’re sorry the rest of the picture was out of focus.”
In 1949, a year after Grauman’s Theater preserved Betty Grable’s leg in cement out front, the actress reported that she had recently run to the grocery store in what was a then out-of-fashion short dress and heard a fellow shopper remark, “Wouldn’t you know that Betty Grable would ignore the New Look and wear her skirts above her knees just to let everyone know that she is Betty Grable.”
She was lucky; her legs had name recognition. She had a leg up on the following Victorian ladies, whose limbs survive in a familiar genre of photo spread but without the helpful clues or answer key, which will surely leave generations of scholars asking in anguish, “Whose legs are these!?!!?!?”
We’ve really come so far.
Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.
Top image via Photoplay. Images via Modern Screen, Photoplay, Photoplay, Screenland, Showmen’s Trade Review, Film Fun, New Movie Magazine, Photoplay, Photoplay, Picture Play