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The Three Ms

By Jeff Willett

The Three M’s: Hollywood’s Platinum Blonde Bombshells of the 1950’s and 1960’s

Marilyn Monroe
Jayne Mansfield
Mamie Van Doren

In the 1950s and 60s, movie studios used the sex appeal of glamour girls to attract audiences to their motion pictures. In this era, a trio of peroxide-enhanced blonde bombshells emerged from American cinema. They played comedic and dramatic roles that capitalized on their physical appearance. Their names (originally) were Norma Jean Mortenson, Vera Jayne Palmer, and Joan Lucille Olander. They became better known as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Mamie Van Doren. The press often referred to them as “The Three M’s.”

A postcard published by Statics London showing Marilyn Monroe in a 1954 photo shoot for “The Seven Year Itch.” The photo was more provocative than the movie scene.

Marilyn Monroe, who appeared in over 30 films from 1947 to 1962, became one of the most recognizable women in history.  Movie aficionados can easily visualize her iconic scenes: innocently catching the updraft above a subway grating with her billowing white skirt in ‘The Seven Year Itch” or playfully singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” to a male entourage in her hot pink gown and opera gloves in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Though she had bit parts in movies in the late 1940s, her career took off in the early 1950s, propelled further by controversy over some nude calendar photos and a romance with another American legend, baseball’s Joe DiMaggio. 

Monroe’s persistence in attempting to control her career lead to conflicts with her employer, 20th Century Fox, and a suspension in 1954. That suspension prompted her to start her own production company (Marilyn Monroe Productions) in the same year before returning to a Fox contract under her terms.  Monroe was not satisfied playing the dumb blonde and remained focused on becoming a well-respected actress.

She lead a highly-publicized, troubled life, which ended tragically in 1962, when she was found dead of a barbiturate overdose at age 36.

Jayne Mansfield, a former beauty-pageant queen and model, worked in a few pictures for Warner Brothers before gaining notoriety on Broadway, playing a character parodying Marilyn Monroe in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” a role that Van Doren had turned down. She was sometimes referred to as “a poor man’s Monroe.” She appeared in over two dozen films from 1955 to 1967. Among these were “The Girl Can’t Help it,” “The Wayward Bus,” “Promises! Promises!” and the movie version of the Rock Hunter play.

She was preoccupied with fame and attention, yet she was known to be highly intelligent, reportedly with an IQ of 163 (equivalent to Albert Einstein’s). Despite her intelligence, she embraced the vacuous roles that lead to her popularity. Today, though, she is referenced more as the mother of Mariska Hargitay (of TV’s Law and Order: SVU) rather than revered for her success as an actress. Her popularity dwindled after Marilyn’s death, and like Marilyn, her life ended too soon, cut short by an auto accident in 1967 at the age of 34.

Jayne Mansfield, on a 1958 Dutch Gum Card
Mamie Van Doren on a Tobacco Classics ‘No Smoking’ trading card.

Mamie Van Doren, with over 40 movie credits (from 1951 to 2002), started as Universal International’s version of Monroe. Eventually, she became cast in several ‘bad girl’ roles and appeared in movies that promoted ‘controversial’ rock ‘n’ roll music, incorporating those songs into her on-screen musical numbers. She ultimately became known as a B-movie celebrity and appeared in such films as “Untamed Youth,” “College Confidential,” “Sex Kittens Go to College,” “The Navy vs. the Night Monsters,” and “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.” Despite the perception that her film career was less prestigious than her counterparts, she co-starred in numerous pictures with prominent actors of the era (Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney, Donald O’Conner, and Clark Gable, to name a few). In her autobiography, she describes her many affairs with celebrities and her off-screen interactions with her peers, Marilyn and Jayne.

Van Doren is the only one of the three actresses to have survived past the 1960s.  Now, in her 90’s, she has remained creatively active over the last half-century-plus: writing, acting, singing, and frequently posting on social media.

The three had brief social encounters with each other off-screen. Still, professionally, only two appeared in a single film together (Mansfield and Van Doren in ‘The Las Vegas Hillbillies in 1966). 

Today, Monroe’s films infrequently appear on classic movie channels, while surprisingly, the works of Mansfield and Van Doren are rarely shown outside of YouTube clips or various streaming services.

Ephemera displaying the allure of these three American sex symbols exists in many forms.

Magazines (cover photos and feature articles)

Marilyn on the cover of LIFE magazine, April 7, 1952. Marilyn and UFOs – who could resist buying this issue?
Monroe on the cover of Movieland, November 1954 issue. The inside article references her nude calendar shoot, life with her husband Joe DiMaggio, and her new movie “The Seven Year Itch.” Van Doren is also featured in this issue on the page following Monroe’s article.
Photoplay magazine, Dec 1954, features Monroe
Photoplay magazine, Dec 1954, features Monroe on the cover in a western showgirl costume from “River of No Return,” the film she made before her suspension from 20th Century Fox in 1954.
Mansfield on the cover of LIFE magazine, April 23, 1956 issue, during her run on Broadway in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?”.
Mansfield on the cover of Modern Man
Mansfield on the cover of Modern Man magazine (a men’s magazine predating Playboy), April 1956 issue.
Mansfield shown in her Beverly Hills pool with multiples of the Jayne Mansfield Hot Water Bottle, a 22″ plastic novelty item that is highly collectible today. From Filmfax’s Outré magazine issue #1, 1994.
Van Doren on the cover of the British weekly magazine Picturegoer
Van Doren on the cover of the British weekly magazine Picturegoer, October 12, 1957 issue. The lackluster article on p 13, written by her husband Ray Anthony, was about how years of voice lessons improved her singing.
Van Doren on the cover of the British magazine Photoplay, Aug 1958
Van Doren on the cover of the British magazine Photoplay, Aug 1958. There’s nothing inside the magazine about her (though there is an article about Marilyn working on “Some Like It Hot”).

Movie/Theatrical Stills (publicity-related photos of the actors on-set or off-set)

Movie still with Monroe and Tom Ewell, from “The Seven Year Itch”, released by 20th Century Fox in 1955.
Movie still with Monroe and Tom Ewell, from “The Seven Year Itch”, released by 20th Century Fox in 1955. The numbers at the bottom “55/235” are the National Screen Service numbers that show the year (55, for 1955) and the sequential movie number (235) for the year.
Movie still with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, released by 20th Century Fox in 1953.
Movie still with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, released by 20th Century Fox in 1953. The numbers “882/84” in black on the right are production code numbers, denoting the movie number (882) and the still photo number (84).
Frankie Vaughan and Marilyn Monroe in “Let’s Make Love”.
Frankie Vaughan and Marilyn Monroe in “Let’s Make Love”, released by 20th Century Fox in 1960. Monroe had commented that her role as Amanda in this film was the worst of her career.
Jayne Mansfield headshot photo.
Jayne Mansfield headshot photo. By the production code# “951” at the bottom, this is from 20th Century Fox’s film “The Girl Can’t Help It”, 1956.
Movie still with Jayne Mansfield and Ray Danton
Movie still with Jayne Mansfield and Ray Danton in “The George Raft Story”, a biographical film about the Hollywood actor. Mansfield’s character in this film is based on Betty Grable. From Allied Artists Pictures Corp., 1961
Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield
Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield in a photo from the film  “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?”, from 20th Century Fox Corp., 1957.
Mamie Van Doren
Mamie Van Doren in a movie still from “College Confidential”, Universal Pictures Company Inc, 1960.
Van Doren bums a pack of cigarettes from Ray Anthony
Van Doren bums a pack of cigarettes from Ray Anthony (her real-life husband at the time) in this scene from “Girls Town”, from MGM, 1959.
Van Doren, portraying an ex-stripper
Van Doren, portraying an ex-stripper turned college professor, dances with a beatnik chimp and her co-stars Jackie Coogan, Irwin Berke, John Carradine, and Louis Nye in “Sex Kittens Go to College”. From Allied Artist Pictures, 1960.

Lobby Cards (sets of promotional photos on heavy card stock that were distributed to theaters to put in the lobby to promote the films)

Monroe with co-stars Ethel Merman, Dan Daily, Mitzi Gaynor, and Donald O’Connor
Monroe with co-stars Ethel Merman, Dan Daily, Mitzi Gaynor, and Donald O’Connor in “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, from 20th Century Fox, 1954. This was the first movie she made after her suspension from 20th Century Fox was retracted.
Don Murray and Monroe
Don Murray and Monroe (in a dramatic role) in “Bus Stop”, released by 20th Century Fox in 1956. Monroe’s new production company (under her leadership) partnered with Fox on this movie, finally giving her some active control over her career.
Mansfield and Dan Duryea
Mansfield and Dan Duryea in “The Burglar,” from Columbia Pictures Corp, 1957. Filmed in 1955, the movie wasn’t released until 1957 to capitalize on the rising success of Jayne Mansfield.
British lobby card with Jayne Mansfield
British lobby card with Jayne Mansfield in “The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw,” released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. Singer Connie Francis dubbed Mansfield’s musical numbers in the film.
Lobby Card, signed by Mamie Van Doren
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” lobby card, signed by Mamie Van Doren. From Universal Pictures Co., 1955
Lobby card from “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve”
Lobby card from “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve” with Mickey Rooney and Mamie Van Doren, signed by both. From Universal Pictures Co., 1960. Rooney, portraying the Devil, at one time called this his least favorite movie because of the uncomfortable costume he is shown wearing here.

Pressbooks, which film distributors created to promote a film, and included advertising images for newspapers, facts about the film and cast, and various ideas to help promote the movies:

Movie Pressbook for “Single Room Furnished,” which was Mansfield’s last movie (dramatic role). From Crown International Pictures, 1968.
Pressbook for two Van Doren films
Pressbook for Van Doren’s film “The Navy vs. the Night Monsters” and another unrelated B-movie, “Women of the Prehistoric Planet” (not to be confused with Van Doren’s movie “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women”). Distributed by Standard Club Productions, 1966.

Postcards, Arcade Cards, Trading Cards, Sheet Music, Posters, Stamps, etc. 

3Ms Cards
3Ms Stamps and Cards
Sheet Music - 3Ms
British Lobby C ard from “Kiss Them For Me
British Lobby card from “Kiss Them For Me”, distributed by 20th Century Fox in 1957. Mansfield shows a leg, distracting Cary Grant and the other men.

Ephemera captures snapshots of a point in time, so what does this ephemera say about the period in which these women rose to fame, and what do their images convey?
On the negative side, we are certainly reminded there was a fair amount of male chauvinism in this post-WWII/pre-women’s-movement era. Images show a preoccupation with a particular type of exaggerated female figure, and sex appeal became an exploited gimmick. The women were often put in tight or revealing costumes as a gag, prompting audiences to laugh at the distracted or infatuated male onlookers. One has to admit that, unfortunately, movie roles for these women were somewhat limited compared to today.

On the positive side, as a movie fan, I like viewing and collecting these images, which bring back memories of the films they starred in, the characters they portrayed, and the random musical numbers they performed. Collectors know that Marilyn Monroe’s ephemera is generally the most expensive, and if one is looking for autographs, only Van Doren’s is easily attainable.

My introduction to acquiring this type of ephemera began at an estate sale, where I contemplated buying some old playing cards (singles, which some ephemerists collect). At one point, the seller, clearly wanting to unload them onto someone else, challenged me to” maybe make a picture out of them.”  Since they were cheap, I figured I would take on that endeavor.

With help from freeware imaging software and inspiration from watching “Some Like it Hot” on TV that week (to define a subject), I found I had enough cards to make a fairly decent mosaic. I realized that sometimes ephemera can be repurposed to create an entirely new collectible item.  So, included at the end here (though you may have to step far away from the screen or squint your eyes to see the image well) is my 121-card salute to Marilyn, Jayne, and Mamie, “The Three M’s.”

The image on the left (below) is the same as the image on the right. It is based on a picture of Marilyn Monroe, which could resemble any of “The Three M’s”.

Mosaic of 121 playing cards (below). The original artwork measures 38” x 25”.