Marilyn Monroe is often the first person people think of when it comes to classic Hollywood actresses. Monroe was an iconic bombshell in her own right, but that might have overshadowed the prolific talent throughout Hollywood during her time. There are plenty of actresses who deserved to be just as popular, if not more. Monroe isn’t the only one who started out as a model and got lucky!
Carole Lombard was known for her work in screwball comedies of the 1930s, including films like Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey, the latter of which earned her a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Though she didn’t win, she was determined to get an Oscar by the end of the decade.
In 1939, she famously eloped with Clark Gable and began taking on more serious acting roles. Unfortunately, she never earned that Oscar since her life was cut short by a plane crash in 1941. Lombard was on her way home to Los Angeles when her plane crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas. She was only 33 years old.
Jayne Mansfield wanted to become an actress since she was young. She enrolled in the theater programs at University of Texas and UCLA, but it was her work with Playboy that helped put her career in motion.
In the ’50s she was known for films such as The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Mansfield was also noted as the first prominent actress to have a nude starring role in the film Promises! Promises! By the ’60s, her career hit a steady decline until her untimely death at age 34. In 1967, she died upon impact in a car crash in Louisiana.
Barbara Stanwyck was orphaned at four years old and dropped out of school at age 14. She took on menial jobs to support herself, but her real goal was to make it in show business. She started in the early ’20s as a chorus girl before transitioning to Broadway, and by the end of that decade, she moved to Hollywood.
Directors like Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra loved Stanwyck for her realistic screen presence. She was reportedly the highest paid woman in the U.S. by 1944 and by then was nominated three times for an Oscar for Best Actress.
Eva Marie Saint
Eva Marie Saint won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1955 for her role as Edie in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. The prolific actress’s 70-year career started in television when she was an NBC page in the ’40s. By 1955, she earned her first Emmy nomination for her role in The Philco Television Playhouse.
After her Oscar win, Saint starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which solidified her place in Hollywood. Though she remained relatively low profile for her family, she continued to wow critics with off-beat film and television performances.
Lauren Bacall worked as a theater usher and fashion model while taking acting lessons in New York City. Socialite Slim Hawks noticed Bacall on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and encouraged her husband, director Howard Hawks, to consider the model for To Have and Have Not. Bacall was flown to Hollywood to audition and was signed on the spot.
Bacall was so nervous during filming she’d press her chin to her chest and tilt her eyes to face the camera. This became known as “The Look,” which was one of Bacall’s trademarks.
Irene Dunne was a successful Broadway actress, playing the role of Magnolia Hawks in Show Boat when she was discovered by Hollywood. By the time she appeared in her first movie, Dunne was in her thirties and had to compete with much younger actresses.
Age didn’t stop the actress, who revived Magnolia Hawks for the film version of Show Boat in 1936. Many film buffs might say that Dunne was the best actress to never win an Oscar. She was nominated five times for Best Actress for her roles in Cimarron, Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth, Love Affair, and I Remember Mama.
Kim Novak was Columbia Pictures’s answer to 20th Century-Fox’s Marilyn Monroe. After her acting career was launched in the mid-’50s, she steadily became one of the biggest box-office draws of that decade, starring in The Man with the Golden Arm, The Eddy Duchin Story, and Pal Joey.
Novak’s most iconic performance was the dual role of Madeline Elster and Judy Barton in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which she landed without auditioning and having never met the director beforehand. At the onset of the ’60s, her career slowed down as she took on sporadic acting roles, leaving the trade altogether by 1966 because she was tired of being a Hollywood star.
Ingrid Bergman was a Swedish actress who debuted to American audiences in the English-remake of Intermezzo. The movie made Bergman a star, despite her initial doubts over her inability to speak English.
Bergman is best known for starring in Casablanca as Ilsa Lund, but she is notorious for the extramarital affair she had with director Roberto Rossellini while filming 1950’s Stromboli. The scandal caused Bergman to leave America and stay in Europe. Despite the backlash, she returned to Hollywood cinema with 1956’s Anastasia, for which she won her second Academy Award for Best Actress.
Grace Kelly’s first prominent acting role was Linda Nordley in 1953’s Mogambo, a part she took because it involved a free trip to Africa. Kelly is best known for her performance as Lisa Fremont in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window in 1954.
The following year, she began a relationship with Prince Rainer III of Monaco, and the pair became engaged. Their 1956 nuptials were dubbed “The Wedding of the Century” and effectively made Kelly a princess. She did not act much after marrying into royalty but did star in an independent film called Rearranged, which was never shown again following her death in 1982.
Dorothy Dandridge started her career in show business performing with her sister. After moving to Los Angeles in the ’30s, Dandridge began venturing into film with small roles in movies in addition to performing in nightclubs. By 1953, it was her starring role in Carmen Jones that helped her break barriers.
Her success in the role earned her a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and she became the first African-American woman nominated for a lead role. Despite her talent, Dandridge was unable to attain the same success with subsequent parts due to the color of her skin and her refusal to play stereotypes.
Myrna Loy started out in silent films where she often portrayed Asian or Eurasian characters in flicks such as Across the Pacific, The Crimson City, and The Great Divide. Because of this, she was typecast as an exotic actress, despite being an American from Montana.
Loy eventually managed to break free of the stereotype by 1934, starring alongside Clark Gable and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama. She rose to prominence as Nora Charles in The Thin Man, given a chance to showcase her wit and sense of humor that was lost in previous roles.
Aside from her hourglass figure, Mae West was mostly known for being one of the most controversial actresses of her day. Having been in show business as a child, she began writing screenplays under the pen name Jane Mast. In 1926, she wrote, directed, and starred in a play titled Sex, which landed her in jail.
West received her first motion picture contract with Paramount in 1932, at the age of 38. Her age was not a problem for her career, however, since she often played liberated women in films such as She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel.
Susan Hayward started out as a model, who was up for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Her limited acting experience didn’t deter her from staying in Hollywood, and she began taking big parts in movies after signing a contract with Warner Bros.
By 1947, she earned the recognition she was working toward with her performance in Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman and earned the first of five Academy Award nominations. Hayward went on to win Best Actress for her portrayal of Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! in 1958. Hayward’s career was cut short when she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1973.
While America had Marilyn Monroe, the United Kingdom had Diana Dors. At just 13 years old, Dors became a pin-up girl, lying to photographers that she was 17 since she was physically mature for her age. She was already in front of film cameras by age 15 in The Shop at Sly Corner.
By the ’50s she signed a contract with RKO Pictures and starred in The Unholy Wife, and I Married a Woman. To add to her provocative persona, Dors was often the subject of tabloid headlines for the adult parties that she often hosted at her home.
Early in her career, Rosalind Russell was typecast as a woman scorned, despite being classy and glamorous. By the late ’30s, she was looking to break free of her stereotype but was again cast as an aristocrat and gossip in Under Two Flags and The Women, respectively.
In 1940, Russell hit a breakthrough starring as reporter Hildy Johnson in the screwball comedy His Girl Friday in 1940. Through the rest of the decade, she continued to act in comedies and took on her most memorable as the titular character in the stage show Auntie Mame.
Ginger Rogers got her start in vaudeville before debuting on Broadway in Girl Crazy. Her success on the stage earned her a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1930, but her real breakthrough was with Warner Bros., starring in 1933’s 42nd Street as Anytime Annie.
Rogers is best known for starring in musical films with Fred Astaire. Throughout the ’30s, they made nine films at RKO including Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Tophat, and others. Rogers was able to make it on her own by 1940 in the lead role of the film Kitty Foyle, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress.
Maureen O’Hara was an Irish-American actress whose iconic red hair helped her become known as “The Queen of Technicolor.” After rising to prominence following her roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, O’Hara embarked on a successful film career.
O’Hara is known for her roles in The Black Swan, Miracle on 34th Street, and Comanche Territory, but she is mainly known for her close relationship with actor John Wayne. They starred together in some Westerns throughout the ’50s, most notable Rio Grande and The Quiet Man.
Jane Russell was a Hollywood sex symbol alongside Marilyn Monroe. Russell first rose to fame as Rio McDonald in the 1943 Western film The Outlaw. The film capitalized on Russell’s voluptuous figure, and her publicity photo for the movie became a famous pin-up photo during WWII.
In 1953, she starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. While she continued to act in Hollywood movies, she attempted to start a musical career by recording an album with Columbia records. Despite her attempts at music, Russell was always known for her looks and the bombshells she portrayed in film.
Anne Baxter was determined to become an actress after seeing Helen Hayes on Broadway at age 10. Just three years later, she made her Broadway debut in Seen But Not Heard. By the age of 16, Baxter was in Hollywood, and despite a seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox, she was often loaned to other studios to star in films that only heightened her popularity.
One of her most notable roles was that of Sophie MacDonald in The Razor’s Edge, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1947. She was also cast in the title role in 1950’s All About Eve, which earned her a Best Actress nomination.
Claudette Colbert was a French-American actress who got her start on Broadway in the 1920s. She later signed a contract with Paramount Pictures during a time when Hollywood was transitioning into “talkies” at the end of the silent film era.
Colbert saw success as a femme fatale in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, after which her career began to take off. By 1933, she was averaging four films per year. Her prominence as an actress culminated in winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in 1934’s It Happened One Night.