It’s not exactly known where or how the concept of a dumb blonde originated. Some argue that the first dumb blonde was Rosalie Duthé in the 1775 French play Les Curiosités de la foire. Since Duthé would take long pauses before speaking and wasn’t the brightest bulb in the batch, an association could have been made between intelligence and hair color, but we don’t actually have any documented evidence of the term “dumb blonde” or anything similar being used at the time. In the late 1800’s, however, many burlesque performers or any risqué stage performers were often called “dizzy blondes.” Not long after, the term “dumb blonde” was formed and used. So the dumb blonde predates film. We acknowledge that, but film has carried on this legacy and helped proliferate the stereotype. For that reason, we wanted to go through and trace Hollywood’s checkered history with using and often abusing dumb blondes.
Over the years, blondes in Hollywood may have had more fun, but they also seem to have more tragic relationships. Obviously, we’re cherry-picking our results here, but many of the most famous actresses to play dumb blondes seem to have had challenging careers. Now you could probably make this argument for any actor who has been forced into a typecast, but don’t spoil it for us. We’re on to something here. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most famous dumb blondes in Hollywood history and observe the most tragic lives and careers of the pile. Here are 15 Tragic Tales of Hollywood’s Dumb Blondes.
15. Thelma Todd
Before 1931, Thelma Todd was basically an eye candy during the silent film era. Prior to producer Hal Roach coming along and offering her a contract that allowed her to show off her comedic talents, Todd was stuck in roles that showcased only her beauty. She did have some dramatic roles such as the one in The Maltese Falcon, but she often played a beautiful Vamp-like character or femme fatale, a type of role that is often thought to be a precursor to blonde bombshells. Though Todd was never described as a dumb blonde, she was often called “The Ice Cream Blonde,” which positions her close to that trope. If we were to peg one woman as the inspiration for the dumb blonde, Thelma Todd would be a good choice. Tragically, at the peak of her fame, Todd was found dead in her car. The car was in the garage of Roland West’s ex-wife’s house. West and Todd were in a relationship and were business partners. The death was ruled accidental, though there has been a lot of speculation about possible foul play.
14. Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow was the first blonde bombshell, a term that she became associated with after she starred in the 1933 film Bombshell. Before that, however, Harlow’s fame blew up after she starred in Hell’s Angels in 1929. Even though her acting talent was criticized, her looks were desirable. This led Variety Magazine to write of Harlow, “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses … nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” In 1931, Harlow’s hairstyle was popularized in the film Platinum Blonde. Prior to her 1933 fame, MGM tried to change Harlow’s image in the public eye, but it was futile. Most of the audience only cared about her looks and not her talents, which famously led Harlow to ask, “My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?” In 1933, along with Bombshell, Harlow also starred in Dinner at Eight, a film that she played an adulterous wife. Though Harlow was considered one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, critics were often critical of her craft. This followed her throughout her young career until she died tragically of cerebral edema, the result of kidney failure. She was only 26 years old then.
13. Carole Landis
Though Carole Landis was born a brunette, she dyed her hair blond and created an iconic look for herself before moving to Hollywood. She started out with a few bit parts prior to 1940, but it was her role in One Million B.C. that made her famous. Playing a cave girl, Landis’ curvy figure gained her a lot of attention and she was dubbed “The Ping Girl” because “she makes you purr.” Other nicknames followed her around, such as “the Chest,” which you can probably work out yourself. In the 40’s, Landis became a popular pin-up girl for soldiers and her career was a success. It was when her relationship with film producer Daryl Zanuck ended that her career began to suffer. She was assigned to B-movies that flaunted her sexiness at every turn. Years later, Landis and actor Rex Harrison got involved in a heavily publicized affair and it is said, when Harrison refused to leave his wife for Landis, she committed suicide.
12. Veronica Lake
Veronica Lake might be a name that has faded away recently, but her iconic look and hairstyle has lived on in the industry ever since she left it. It started while filming I Wanted Wings, when Lake’s long blond hair fell over her eye in a scene. It was left in and the peek-a-boo effect was created. Lake’s first big role came in Sullivan’s Travels, the film that inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou? After an up and down career of films and roles that received mixed reviews, Lake left the industry in 1951, citing that her blonde s*x symbol status was wearing on her. When she left, she declared her reasoning was the answer to a simple question, “Did I want to be one of the walking dead or a real person?”
11. Dorothy Comingore
It’s no secret that Citizen Kane, perhaps the greatest film ever made, was maligned when it was first made. Orson Welles was a newcomer to the industry and the film was ahead of its time, but there was also the role of Susan Alexander Kane, a role played to perfection by Dorothy Comingore. This role was the not-so-subtle satire of the real-life Marion Davies, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst‘s mistress. Comingore played up the character’s deficiencies beautifully, but it cost her a very promising career in film. While Comingore did participate in many left-leaning causes, she was the victim of a massive retaliation smear campaign from Hearst. She was suspended from RKO studios for getting ill and they refused to loan out her services to other studios. She was put on a communist watch list, arrested for prostitution, and later, lost custody of her children because of an alleged drinking problem. In 1951, Comingore was blacklisted in Hollywood. In 1952, she was called to answer questions about her communist involvement, but she refused. After all, her career was already over.
10. Barbara Payton
In a role that led the studios to quickly fall in love with her, the beautiful Barbara Payton’s first big break was in the film Trapped (1949). Despite her quality performance, the next role she was cast in was as the seductive girlfriend in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. If you were to track her career’s trajectory, even though the latter film made her a lot of money and helped cement her career, the seductive beauty role also led to her being typecast. The next two films she did, Dallas and Only the Valiant, were even lesser parts, essentially eye candy gigs that sheltered Payton from the spotlight. After that, Payton did Bride of Godzilla and her hopes of ever being a serious actress were dashed. Not long after that, Payton was involved in a highly publicized love triangle with actors Tom Neal and Franchot Tone, a triangle that ended in a bloody brawl between the men. The bad press that followed Payton and her love interests erased what was left of her career. She would end up going down a dark path of drinking, arrests, and prostitution.
9. Judy Holliday
These days, it would be unheard of for an actress to receive critical acclaim for playing a scatterbrained blonde like the character of Billie Dawn in the 1950 film, Born Yesterday, but that’s just what happened for Judy Holliday. For playing this character, Holliday won the award for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Holliday would go on to star in It Should Happen to You with Jack Lemmon. Here, she was asked to take another role of a rather naïve blonde woman. Unfortunately for Holliday, her name was linked to communism during Hollywood’s paranoid years and she was the subject of an FBI investigation in 1950, shortly after her first brush with fame. In 1952, more concerns were raised. While she was never found guilty, a result that some suggest was because of her ability to “play dumb” so well. Holliday’s career was hampered by the accusations. When she returned to big fame with 1960’s Bells are Ringing, the New York Times wrote of Holliday, “The squeaky voice, the embarrassed giggle, the brassy naivete, the dimples, the teeter-totter walk fortunately remain unimpaired.” Only five years after this review, she died of breast cancer. She was 43.
8. Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe is still considered one of the biggest names and most iconic actors in Hollywood history. While her cultural impact should never be narrowed down to just a dumb blonde, it is the type of role that made her into the star we now all know her. Born a brunette, it wasn’t until the Marilyn Monroe character was created that she was truly noticed. In the early 50’s, Monroe’s film career started taking off. Though her biographer, Donald Spoto, described her function in these early films, “essentially [as] a sexy ornament,” Monroe was becoming a star. Then, 1953 came. First, Monroe starred in Niagara as the sexy femme fatale and the world was captivated by her beauty. Right after that role, in the same year, came Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe played the blonde gold-digger in the film and it catapulted her into being considered as the biggest film star of the decade. Following that, again in 1953, Monroe starred as another gold-digger in How to Marry a Millionaire. While the two gold-digger characters did differ, both placed Monroe in that ditzy blonde bombshell light that she would become synonymous with.
Over the next decade, Monroe’s career had plenty of ups and downs, but the pressure and the fame wore on her. She suffered from intense anxiety and frequent depression and ended up overdosing (whether it was intentional or not may be up for debate) in 1962. After all her films, the dumb blonde roles are the ones that most people remember, and many actresses tried to imitate her persona in the years that followed.
7. Jayne Mansfield
There’s a solid argument to be made that much of Jayne Mansfield’s film success came because of the mold Monroe created. Though she was in several films and plays in her early career, Mansfield’s big jumpstart came from her now-iconic first issue of Playboy in 1955. Not long after, Fox studios signed Mansfield to a contract, calling her “Marilyn Monroe king-sized,” all in an effort to force the troubled and difficult Monroe to straighten out lest she be replaced. Despite trying to breakaway from the blonde bombshell roles, Mansfield was stuck because of her look and her act. Her voice, which the New York Times described as “a soft-voiced coo punctuated with squeals,” is still associated with dumb blondes today. After 1959, the demand for Mansfield deteriorated considerably and she was relegated to obscure films and B-movies. Eventually, she starred in Promises! Promises! in a role that would make her the first mainstream star to appear nude in a film. Pregnancies, weight gain, and new blonde challengers made her essentially obsolete by the mid-60’s. In 1967, Mansfield was involved in a car crash that was heard around the world, an accident that killed the three adults in the front, including the legendary blonde actress. Luckily, Mansfield’s three children in the backseat all survived, including actress Mariska Hargitay.
6. Barbara Loden
Barbara Loden got her start on television on The Ernie Kovacs Show on which she played the “scantily clad” sidekick to the host. Her big break came when she played a fictionalized version of Marilyn Monroe in the Arthur Miller play, After the Fall (1964). Following this performance, critics hailed her as the “new Jean Harlow,” another blonde bombshell making a name for herself. Loden was then to move on to the big screen, but her big break, a role in The Swimmer, was ultimately recast and reshot. Loden married director Elia Kazan, who would later describe her as difficult to control and suggested that she used her s*xuality to get ahead. When Loden was unable to find a role that didn’t emphasize her s*xuality, she wrote, produced, and directed her own film, Wanda, which received a lot of positive press. Unfortunately, it ended up backfiring on her as studios of the time had no interest in a strong female character like the one Loden portrayed.
5. Suzanne Somers
For most film and TV fans, Suzanne Somers will always be best known for playing the role of Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company. Chrissy was one of the most popular characters on television and one of the most iconic dumb blondes in television history. Chrissy was naïve, confused, ditzy, and girlish, all features of the modern dumb blonde trope. Leading up to the 1980’s, Somers was a megastar and one of Hollywood’s biggest s*x symbols. But her career came crashing down when she demanded an intense 500% raise in salary prior to season five. The studio, ABC, denied the request and forced Somers back to work. Gradually, over the course of the show’s fifth season, Somers role and screen time were cut back. After that, her contract was terminated and her star suffered. Though Somers stayed in the industry and kept some fame with Las Vegas performances and infomercials, she never did return to a level anywhere close to where she was in 1979 as the dumb blonde Chrissy Snow.
4. Pamela Stephenson
Pamela Stephenson rose to fame in North America with a number of films, such as History of the World, Part 1, Scandalous, and Superman III. Though Stephenson was a talented comedian (she would later become the first non-North American female cast member of Saturday Night Live), she had a tendency to play blonde bimbo characters. In fact, in Superman III, Stephenson took on a role that subverted this trope, a trope that would gain quite a bit of a steam in the 80’s. In that film, Stephenson played Lorelei Ambrosia, a sexy blonde who pretended to be dumb but was actually brilliant. Eventually, Stephenson, tired with the limiting roles available to her and became a clinical psychologist.
3. Anna Faris
Much like the early career of Goldie Hawn, Anna Faris was able to create a long career out of playing bimbo blonde roles. Though Hawn eventually broke out of that mold (hence, her name not included on this list), Faris is still somewhat trapped there. That being said, this beautiful blonde has been able to craft an impressive resume so we don’t want to try and throw a pity party for a talented, well-known, and very rich actress. Still, we would love it if Faris had more opportunities to showcase her acting chops in ways that go beyond the standard hot dumb blonde, a la the Scary Movie franchise, Just Friends, The House Bunny, and more. Even though she’s shown herself to be a very capable and sexy comedian, we hope that filmmakers allow her to spread her wings a bit, so we can see more of the versatility that we’ve only seen brief glimpses of up to this point in her career.
2. Paris Hilton
Prior to her first big role on The Simple Life, Paris Hilton was becoming a well-known New York City socialite. Her partying and relationships were tabloid material and this led to her being cast in a show about her life. Coincidentally, a short time before this show debuted, a s*x tape of her and a former boyfriend was leaked and Hilton became an overnight star. Even though she’s argued that the character she played on The Simple Life (the impossibly dumb version of Paris Hilton) was not actually what she was like, Hilton’s interviews and public appearances suggested otherwise. This dumb blonde persona became part of her and every role she received afterward played into this wheelhouse; films like House of Wax, Pledge This!, and The Hottie and the Nottie. Hilton’s only been part of one film in the last seven years, so her brush with Hollywood fame is all but gone, but we will always remember this airhead for her time in the sun.
1. Kaley Cuoco
Though some The Big Bang Theory fans will argue that Kaley Cuoco‘s character on the show, Penny, isn’t a dumb blonde, she is dumb by comparison. Besides, Penny started out as dumb and the prototypical naïve ingénue, the attractive aspiring actress working as a waitress, made to look intellectually inferior next to her new group of friends. Before this role, Cuoco gained attention for playing the ultra dumb and incredibly attractive Bridget on 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter. At this point, it’s hard to gauge where Cuoco’s career will go. She’s filthy rich and seems happy on The Big Bang Theory so we don’t expect her to branch out just yet. But what happens when that show ends? Will Cuoco be able to find work outside the pocket she’s been branded in? Does it even matter if she can’t escape these roles?