When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
BARBARA NICHOLS: muse of screenwriters…

the immortal Barbara Nichols

the inspirational Barbara Nichols

I recently viewed a mid-century curiosity called MANFISH starring gorgeously sculpted B-Movie leading man John Bromfield, featuring a haggard Lon Chaney Jr., and “introducing Barbara Nichols.” Miss Nichols had previously had experience in early TV and a non-speaking role in the Otto Preminger / Robert Mitchum / Marilyn Monroe movie RIVER OF NO RETURN, but this was her first filmic character.

The following year, 1957, her role as the exploited party girl Rita in the defeatist classic, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, would define her screen persona for the rest of her tragically short career (she died at 46). From then on, her frequent blips on the cinematic radar signified giggly sex and innuendo.

Nichols was blonde, sweet, clueless, sexy and yielding: a softer, multi-orgasmic version of Iris Adrian.

And while her Character Actress Star ascended in Hollywood, something strange happened: the names of the characters she portrayed accelerated into delirious heights of wit and piquancy. It almost appears that screenwriters competed with each other to give her characters more and more outrageous names.

Immediately following SWEET SMELL…, Barbara was Poopsie in THE PAJAMA GAME. Back on TV in 1959 for the pilot of the series THE UNTOUCHABLES, she was Brandy LaFrance, then back to the Big Screen as Mayme Radzevitch in WOMAN OBSESSED.

During this time, she also became identified as Jack Benny’s cheap date, Mildred Meyerhouser, on THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM.

As with all things in the 1960s, entrenched overdrive became the modus operandi when naming her characters. In 1960’s demi-sublime WHERE THE BOYS ARE, she was Lola Fandango. As Jethro’s first love in THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, she was Chickadee Laverne. In the 1964 film LOOKING FOR LOVE, Nichols was Gaye Swinger [don’t go there…]. In a ten-year period she portrayed Gloria Coogle, Candy Ball, Bunny Easter and Blossom LaTour. Her screen monikers perhaps crested in her penultimate appearance (on the 1970s cop show, THE ROOKIES) as “Marie Antoinette.”

Ironically, her best serious performance was simply as “Jane” in the Sidney Lumet film, THAT KIND OF WOMAN, opposite Tab Hunter and Sophia Loren. (Another film criminally overlooked by home video distributors.)

Doug of PostModern Joan
PS– I consciously made an effort to avoid using the phrase “dumb blonde” in this post. While teaching ‘Urban Images in Media & Film’ at Columbia College Chicago, I casually used that term to describe Marian Carr’s character after a screening of KISS ME DEADLY, whereupon I noticed a blonde coed in my class shut down and become silent. I’ve tried to strike it from my vocabulary ever since.

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1 Comment to “BARBARA NICHOLS: muse of screenwriters…”

  1. Ralph Benner says:

    Some of the cleavage heavies spawned by the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon: Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Joi Lansing, Diana Dors and Barbara Nichols. Mansfield turned herself into mammary tripe, Mamie made us feel she was never hygienically clean, and Joi was a sitcom robot. Dors, however, never made it the way she might have in that, as Ephraim Katz pointed out in “The Film Encyclopedia,” the “public remained largely apathetic toward her frank, exaggerated sexuality.” But then, no sex symbol was more indifferent about herself; there was always something held back, she was more than a little standoffish, and when movie makers used her as a hotbox she failed to light her own fire — her ignition seemed forever damp. (In the fake noir “The Unholy Wife,” she can’t be bothered to show any heat when she embraces Tom Tyron, who was far from a chill in those days and far removed from co-star Rod Steiger, who needed to wear a snicker guard.) With the thick heavy platinum hair, badly contrasting brows, puffy cheeks and pouty lips, she looked garish and bored, sending out inhospitable vibes as glossy Vargas caricatures of Gloria Grahame or Anne Francis, or a cut rate Monroe or (in the end) Mama to Divine. Who can figure out why she was in J.Lee Thompson’s 1955 musical comedy “An Alligator Named Daisy,” or in any other movie for that matter? The 50s as the decade of the buxom blonde was also the era of less-than-benign insipidity, when movies and the boob tube dispensed t & a as sex fixes while at the same time lecturing us on their supposed perils. Dors and the Mansfield, Van Doren and Lansing types were inflatable bombshells — frauds as movie broads. Of the wannabes, Nichols was (and still is) most likely to win a spot in our hearts; she had a stripper’s sweet way of working her not-so-smarts. Her dense blondness and shrill voice were trademarks that unfortunately narrowed her opportunities; with her innate agreeableness and gritty empathy, she might have been the better choice by Olivier for “The Prince and the Showgirl.” In “Sweet Smell of Success,” director Alexander Machendrick tones Barbara down, even letting her whisper, and guides her in pulling off a difficult sequence during which Curtis pimps her out. That she’s typecast is obvious; that she’s memorable among the likes of Lancaster and Curtis remains no small feat.

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