It's hardly a secret that Carole Lombard looked luscious in a swimsuit, but just how did her figure compare to that of her contemporaries in the industry? We get a bit of an answer through an article from the March 1931 issue of Photoplay magazine recently retrieved from history via the Slate website (http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/04/17/best_figure_1931_photoplay_magazine_article_judges_starlet_measurements.html), with the aid of the Media History Digital Library.
Writer Anne Helen Petersen notes, "To a modern viewer sensitive to body issues, this article seems abhorrent -— the four 'judges' are explicitly assessing women’s measurements." (True, but a similar article written in the 1950s, when even more focus was placed on these criteria and "superstructure" was a term often used to describe the physique of a buxom actress, would have taken the issue even further.)
Here's the story...and the winner:
Truth be told, Carole doesn't figure much into this story, pardon the pun. In early 1931, Lombard was just getting started at Paramount, and only appears as one of 21 stars whose measurements were listed. She's listed at 5-foot-6, which if true would tie her for second tallest with Greta Garbo, an inch shorter than Kay Francis. That doesn't seem right to anyone who's seen Carole on screen with Kay...though if the shoe measurements were accurate, they could trade their pairs of 4Cs, and even get Betty Compson into the mix. At this stage of her career, Lombard likely was happy just being listed in such rarefied air.
The winner, Dolores Del Rio, was of Hispanic descent, with some success in the late silent era. She successfully transitioned into talkies, although like Anna May Wong and fellow Hispanic Lupe Velez, ethnicity limited her appeal in the sound era. She had a fuller figure that, according to Petersen, "challenged the standard emulated by (white) stars of the time," such as Marion Davies or Constance Bennett.
If Petersen is attempting to make Del Rio an early 1930s precursor of Jennifer Lopez, I'm not buying it. However, she might be right in saying this was a reaction to the boyish "flapper" look of the 1920s. As Adele Whitely Fletcher wrote in 1931, "The general notion of what is a good figure no longer seems to be what it was a year or more ago, influenced by the unsound fad which glorified boyish forms. Mrs. and Miss America survived on lamb chops and pineapple, oranges and lettuce." In that vein, it would be little different than the rise of James Cagney and Clark Gable in 1931, both of whom were a distinct stylistic difference from the likes of silent heartthrobs John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino.
Lombard herself had experienced these changes in body ideals. Compare the swimsuit pic at the top of this entry, from about 1934, to this 1927 image of Carole as a member of Mack Sennett's troupe:
A Sennett girl had to be shapely, not sleek, and Lombard was encouraged to gain a few pounds to better fill out a swimsuit, thus briefly earning her the tag "Carole of the curves" (sort of an anti-flapper). Upon leaving Sennett for Pathe, she shed those extra pounds, the tag and, even temporarily, the "e" in Carole (but that's another story). By 1930, the lithe Lombard figure -- in tune with that of her contemporaries -- was here to stay.