Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Exotics: Orchids of the Silver Screen

Movies have always defined "types." For example, we all know stars who fit into the types of the all-American, the sexpot, the sweetheart, the hero or the rogue. One of my favorite "types" is the Exotic; women - and sometimes men -  who usually come from a foreign land (but a few were home grown), are frighteningly beautiful and have an air of mystery about them. These creatures were mostly, but not always, dark, had heavy eyelids and smoked. They all seem only to be able to thrive in a hot-house environment, like a beautiful orchid. While the Exotic was definitely a type that was more popular in the past, there are a few out there today who might be able to carry the mantle of mysterious heart breaker from parts unknown.


Enter the Hot-House and View the Orchids 
(but don't touch)

Theda Bara

Theda was certainly a totally manufactured Exotic. It is well known that she was, in reality, the modest and demure Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati, Ohio. However, it's not where a vamp begins, but where she does her damage! Theda exploded upon the screen in 1915's "A Fool There Was" and vamped her way into the movie-goer's consciousness. She was the stiff drink antidote to Mary Pickford's Sasparilla.

Rudolph Valentino
Still the gold standard for the male foreign heart throb. Valentino's image was sealed as the exotic sheik of the desert. His most popular films showcased him in those larger than life romantic roles that still have the ability to hit the female audience in their weak spot. Oh Rudy, if only we could have more!

Pola Negri

The first female foreign film Exotic and one who showed all the other gals how to behave like a star. Not only did her early Hollywood films show off this Polish diva's femme fatale qualities, but she was also a fashion trend setter who showed American ladies how to dress (red painted toenails and turbans, anyone?). Her chief rival at Paramount Studios was the very American Gloria Swanson and the press had a field day with their supposed "feud." But even the great Swanson could not top Pola's antics at former lover Valentino's funeral (an over-the-top outpouring of grief that stole the show from poor Rudy). A real diva if there ever was one.

Greta Garbo

While Swedes are not normally thought of as hot-house flowers, there was something of the tropical passion about her. The icy landscape of Sweden may have been her home, but, at least on screen, she was equally at home in a tropical environment. In fact, she did her best silent seductions in a warm climate ("The Torrent," "The Temptress," "Wild Orchids"). Sound robbed her of a tiny bit of the exotic factor. Without even trying, she was probably the sexiest of them all.

Dolores Del Rio

A genuine Exotic, this actress was described as orchidaceous, as she was rumored to eat orchid petals and sleep 16 hours per day. Long considered one of the most beautiful women in films, Del Rio was a wealthy woman whose beauty makes her dramatic ability almost impossible to assess. She was exotic to the max and (shades of "Sunset Boulevard") even brought her pet monkey on the set with her

Rita Hayworth

An interesting blend of all American good health and foreign glamor, Hayworth could project the allure of the Exotic. "Gilda" is appropriately set in Argentina, as all of that steam could only be handled in the tropics!

Charles Boyer

The French don't usually transplant too well in Hollywood, but Boyer became the romantic Frenchman and Exotic male for American moviegoers. Under his lazy gaze, he smoldered, he pouted, and even if he didn't actually say it, women who fell under his continental spell would have gladly come wiz him to ze Casbah.

Hedy Lamarr

A beautiful and exotic actress who may have been too intelligent in real life for the roles she was offered in Hollywood. Her talent is a little static, and because many of her films were made during a time when Exotics were a bit out of favor (WWII), her true potential never came through. She was, however, stunningly beautiful and somewhat other-worldly. Maybe, at the peak of her career, she was just a little too exotic for Hollywood. She did get to lure Boyer from that Casbah in "Algiers," and, after seeing her in that film, the rest of the world was ready to follow.

Ramon Novarro
The Latin Lover rival to Valentino, Ramon Novarro was a very sexy Exotic. He was a great success (and greatly under-dressed) in "Ben-Hur" and later silents and early talking films. Certainly not your all American boy-next-door, he was more heroic than Valentino, but he could smolder with the best of them.

Gene Tierney

This American lady always seemed to me to have the touch of the Exotic about her. In fact, in several films she was called upon to play just that ("The Shanghai Gesture," "China Girl," "Sundown"). Gene had some of that seething passion just below the surface that is the mark of the Exotic and her lush beauty made her seem at home in that hot-house environment.


Marlene Dietrich

She says she's German, but really - she must be from some exotic galaxy where all women sip champagne in furs and diamonds by day and drive men wild by night. There can be no other explanation. Although not at all like Garbo, she has that same Continental/Exotic glamor and effortless sophistication that can't be equaled.

Maria Montez

The Technicolor Queen of such exotic adventures as "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," "Arabian Nights," and "Cobra Woman," Maria Montez was a tongue-in-cheek Exotic. She was as beautiful and vivid as any of them, and those wonderfully fun adventures showcased an impossibly beautiful woman who starred in the dreams of many viewers during her reign.

Bela Lugosi

Ouch - but we know Vampires are exotic and sexy. Notice how the recent ones all hang around in hot climates?
Vivien Leigh

An English Rose with an exotic cast. Although she tried to be prim and proper on the outside, she was hot and luscious on the inside (and it always showed just enough to make her mysterious). Hollywood knew how to best bring this side of her to light. And after all, didn't this lady do her best work in Georgia and New Orleans? London was just not hot enough for her brand of exoticism.

Dorothy Lamour


This American Exotic hailed from New Orleans, so the tropical seductions came naturally. She seemed at home in a sarong with a flower in her hair in films like "The Hurricane," "Her Jungle Love," and "The Jungle Princess," until she joined Crosby and Hope on a few road trips and changed her image. But she was a fun Exotic while it lasted.

Angelina Jolie

Angelina certainly qualifies as a modern Exotic. She has all of the qualities (she looks like Gene Tierney to me in some photos) and she certainly is a mystery!

I'm sure I missed a few, but I always welcome the screen presence of an Exotic - they're just so - well - exotic!


15 comments:

Rachel said...

Great post, FlickChick! It does feel like Hollywood's idea of the Exotic has disappeared for better (not nearly as many Caucasian brunettes playing Asians and South Sea island girls) or for worse (less mystery/sexiness).

I'd add Myrna Loy as one of the more dramatic turnarounds from Exotic Vamp to Ideal American Wife

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Rachel. These types offered a fantasy that was pretty intoxicating and irresistible. Myrna certainly was an Exotic in her early career, but I think at heart she was Nora Charles!

Rick29 said...

What a clever and photogenic post! Rita, Hedy, and Gene--they were indeed stunning and exotic! If I could add a little-known exotic actress, I'd nominate Susan Hart. She only made a handful of "B" films in the 1960s (some BEACH PARTY movies, a sci fi tale). She then married producer James Nicholson and retired from acting.

FlickChick said...

Hi Rick: I just checked out Susan Hart and she did have that look. There were so many interesting actresses in the 60s who had only a brief career. It's fun to remember them. One of my favs is Pamela Franklin.

DorianTB said...

FlickChick, I thoroughly enjoyed your wonderful salute to the great exotics of the silver screen! I'd agree that Angelina Jolie has an exotic look and attitude, and she also strikes me as the kind of actor who knows how to have fun with a role, like another of Anjelica Huston, Meryl Streep, Max Von Sydow, and Johnny Depp.

Your pictorial about The Exotics was great fun, with your tidbits about the vamps' rumored idiosyncrasies, and of course, those gorgeous photos! I especially enjoyed the pictures of Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Lamour (another gal who knew when to have fun with a role -- hard not to, when you have Hope and Crosby as co-stars! :-)), Gene Tierney, Vivien Leigh, the playful Maria Montez, Rita Hayworth, and of course Valentino and Boyer! I must also agree with Rachel about Myrna Loy, who was everyone's favorite exotic bad girl before she became America's Favorite Wife. :-)

FlickChick said...

Dorian - I almost included Johnny Depp! The reason I didn't is because of the whole Pirates thing - I wish he would do more romantic roles.

Mythical Monkey said...

Great picture of Theda Bara. The fact that A Fool There Was is the only one of her films that still exists is particularly frustrating. I'm working on an essay about the films of 1917 and of course can't watch the highest grossest film of that year, Theda Bara's Cleopatra. I guess it goes with the territory when you write about silent movies, but it's frustrating for sure.

FlickChick said...

Oh, isn't just a pity that her films - Cleopatra is particular - are lost? What wouldn't you give to see that one? Right now I am getting deeply immersed in Pola Negri and am just blown away by the woman! By the way - I love your blog - so informative and entertaining!

FionaAlanna said...

I agree with your comment that Johnny Depp should do more romantic roles. He was in Chocolat with Juliette Binoche and he did a fabulous job. Hopefully he'll break away from his Sparrow role and do something completely different!

Diane said...

Orchidaceous from an exotic galaxy! And Angelina. What a great post Flick Chick. If you left out a few, well I don't know who. I loved your post and the pictures were so luscious. Thank again for reminding me how wonderful these people really were (and are!).

FlickChick said...

Orchidaceous - isn't that a great word? Only a Hollywood publicity man could have dreamed that up!

Chris said...

Very cool post, love the lighting in the old screenshots.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Chris. I love the Exotics!

Caftan Woman said...

Your descriptions of the various stars are evocative and witty. A fabulous post and stroll down memory lane.

FlickChick said...

Oh thank you Caftan Woman, High Priestess of the Haiku!