Hollywood's First Magical Makeover Movie

by | May 23, 2013 10:33 AM ET

Post-makeover Bette Davis in the 1942 drama "Now, Voyager."

As a kid, I watched a ton of AMC, back in the pre-"Mad Men" and -"Walking Dead" days when the channel only played old movies, and was commercial-free to boot. And, oh, how I hated Bette Davis because whenever one of her movies was on, that meant it was probably a drama about dramatic adult things, and all my 10-year-old self wanted was some Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis slapstick or a happy-go-lucky Technicolor musical. However, my kid self likely would've been into Davis' "Now, Voyager"because I was and still am a sucker for a magical makeover movie.

That 1942 drama was Hollywood's first magical makeover movie, effectively kicking off a genre of lady-leaning films that center around how a physical and fashion overhaul can transform a woman's life readily, generally in the form of a super hot guy really, truly seeing her for the first time. Think "My Fair Lady," "Pretty Woman" and "Clueless," to name just a few.

(For a deeper look into the genre's enduring appeal and its conflicting gendered messages about beauty and empowerment, you can listen to a Stuff Mom Never Told You episode all about it here. I highly recommend it, of course.)

Moreover, "Now, Voyager" established the standard magical makeover formula, complete with the classic foot-to-head pan up of protagonist Charlotte Vale, in which the camera painstakingly reveals the beautiful swan that had been hiding inside that former ugly duckling. The beauty "before" and "after" signifiers haven't changed much over the years, either, which is kind of fascinating when you consider how those outward symbols of femininity haven't fluctuated alongside the ever-evolving fashions, politics and media depictions of women. Aside from the hosiery and hat, today's markers of a glamorous, desirable woman look just like they did in 1942, as highlighted in “The Makeover In Movies: Before and After in Hollywood Films, 1941 – 2002" by Deborah C. Mitchell and Elizabeth E. Ford:

  • FRUMP FORMULA: orthopedic oxfords, thick stockings, thick ankles, bad clothes, dumpy figure, glasses, no makeup, heavy brows, heavy dark hair in a bun.
  • FABULOUS FORMULA: stylish shoes, silk stockings, shapely legs and ankles, awesome clothes, trim figure, no glasses, good makeup, shaped brows, lovely hat, flattering hairdo.

Ah, the transformational power of simply taking one's bun down!

Mitchell and Ford also note that Warner Bros strategically publicized the amount of costuming it took to dowdy up Davis, and the film's promotional images only showed Davis post-makeover and fabulous. By that time, Davis was famous enough that people knew she was a striking woman in the real life, so it was her spinster make-under that people came to see.

That's the funny thing about magical makeover movies. Usually, the audience is well aware that the leading lady is a stunner, which means that perhaps the genre's appeal relies on a bit of schadenfreude. Maybe we derive comfort both from seeing gorgeous starlets sporting unflattering glasses, unibrows and ill-fitting clothes, as well as witnessing the seemingly attainable elements of their transformation. While a lot of makeover movies offer a saccharine moral that it's what's on the inside that counts, I'd argue that our delight in these kinds of movies is all about the superficial stuff because it simultaneously tells us that all it takes to become the center of sexual attention is a trip to a waxing salon, makeup counter, hair salon and stylist. Anyone can be beautiful by normative (i.e. white, Western) standards -- hooray! Although it most certainly helps to already look like Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, or another A-lister in order to maximize makeover results.

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