Hazel Brooks, model, pin-up and Hollywood star of the 1940s is all but forgotten now. Except for here…
‘Known among the wags of Hollywood as “The Human Heat Wave”’, as the caption of one of her publicity stills puts it, she was lucky in love but not in her career. Or perhaps, when push came to shove, her marriage was more important to her than her career.
Hazel Brooks’ MGM years and before
The story starts in 1941 and Hazel, age 17, is working as a model for New York’s two leading agencies of the period – Walter Thornton and Harry Conover. With her red hair, green eyes, high cheekbones and svelte figure she certainly has what it takes.
So it’s not surprising that she’s ‘discovered’ by Arthur Freed, who has recently become head of his own unit at MGM and has quite a track record as a talent spotter. He is in the process of helping establish MGM as the leading Hollywood studio for musicals and will go on to produce An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and Gigi. A couple of years after her arrival in Hollywood, he will cast Hazel as one of the 14 ‘glorified girls’ in Ziegfeld Follies.
When she arrives at MGM, the studio goes to work on her, one of the first steps being to send her for a photo session at the stills studio. An early sitting for Laszlo Willinger uses dramatic lighting and props to create some truly moody images, aspects of which seem almost to foreshadow Guy Bourdin. The three shots by Clarence Sinclair Bull a year or so later seem to be experimenting with different personas.
As with Ava Gardner, MGM can’t decide what to do with Hazel and she ends up with a series of bit-parts. But Alberto Vargas, pin-up painter extraordinaire, has no such doubts. In 1942 he uses her legs as inspiration for the perfect MGM glamour girl. The other features are Inez Cooper’s hands, Mary Jane French’s hair, Thea Coffman’s feet, Ruth Ownbey’s hips, Aileen Haley’s bust, Eve Whitney’s’ waist, Kay Williams’ arms, Kay Aldridge’s profile, Natalie Draper’s lips, Marilyn Maxwell’s ankles, and Georgia Carroll’s eyes.
In the meanwhile, though, Hazel meets Cedric Gibbons, head of MGM’s art department and the designer of the Oscar statue. Is it a coincidence that that the year she arrives, he divorces Dolores del Rio? Anyway, Hazel has a thing about older men and on 4 February 1943 the couple announce their engagement in Los Angeles Superior Court, where her $150-a-week MGM contract has to be approved by Judge Joseph W Vickers because she’s under legal age. He stipulates that one-tenth of her earnings be in vested in war bonds. The following year they marry. He’s 49, she’s 19 and eyebrows are raised.
Body and Soul – Hazel Brooks’ greatest movie
In 1945 Hazel Brooks obtains her release from MGM and tests for Selznick. 18 months or so later, she gets her big break – she will be groomed as a star by The Enterprise Studios, a new independent production company co-founded by actor John Garfield alongside producers David Loew and Charles Einfeld. You can read the story, including some comments from Hazel herself, in The million dollar gamble.
The studio goes into marketing overdrive for the release of Body and Soul. By way of illustration, here’s an extract from an article in Showmen’s Trade Review, November 22, 1947.
The News Post ran a contest on the question, “What Type of Girl Do You Prefer,” using portraits of Hazel Brooks as the “body” type and Lilli Palmer as representative of the “soul” type. Two radio stations also ran contests, with theatre tickets as prizes. The “Body and Soul” records were exploited through window displays in 23 music shops. Department stores also came through with fashion windows. The campaign was one of the most widespread Saxton has staged in some time, and the results at the box-office were ample proof of its effectiveness.
Body and Soul is one of the all-time-great boxing movies, with Hazel cast as Alice, a ‘gold-digging tramp’, as Bosley Crowther characterizes her in his New York Times review. Bud Graybill, the stills photographer for the movie, captures some great noir shots in which she seems to relish letting her hair down and vamping it up for the camera – her modelling background coming to the fore perhaps.
Regardless, it sounds like Hazel enjoys flaunting what she’s got. In May 1947, vacationing in Hawaii she…
Took with her for the edification of the islanders, all of the top-revealing dresses and swim-suits that the Johnston Office prevented her wearing in Body and Soul…
And the following year, Cobina Wright in an article for Modern Screen called Banned in Hollywood reports that…
Along the French Riviera, the ladies are wearing what they call “diaper suits” for swimming. The suit consists of a trifle of material on the top, a trifle of material on the bottom, and an almost unbelievable amount of girl in between.
Incidentally, just because I’ve said Hollywood’s pretty conservative, and we don’t go for the diaper suit, doesn’t mean we don’t have our own exotic fringe. Take Hazel Brooks (the Body and Soul menace). I saw her lounging near Mr. Kent’s pool, all covered by a flesh-colored clinging leotard covered with skin-tight black lace.
Sleep, My Love – Hazel Brooks’ follow-up movie
In 1948 Hazel Brooks stars as Daphne in Sleep, My Love, a Douglas Sirk melodrama that in terms of plot is a bit of a Gaslight rip-off. It is her only other major starring role. As Daphne, she’s another scheming bitch and in this case she likes to parade around in diaphanous garments. MGM might have struggled to figure out how to cast her but Triangle have no such problems.
One of the aspects that makes Sleep, My Love interesting is the way in which it illustrates the Hollywood studios’ attempts to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in 1940s America. According to IMDb:
In 1947, an amendment was made to the Production Code that cleared the way for the production and release of films dealing with drugs, and Hollywood wasted no time driving through the “drug” door. (Drugs still couldn’t be smoked or used free-will or for recreation, though.) While not the first film to take advantage of the drugs-can-be-used-when-essential-to-the-plot loophole, this Mary Pickford production for Triangle Productions made certain the use of a drug was most essential to the story of “Sleep, My Love.”
Hazel Brooks appears in a couple more films before leaving the movie industry. So why does her career stall? One factor is that though she looks terrific and is a competent actress, she doesn’t have the on-screen electricity or charisma of the likes of Lauren Bacall and Ava Gardner. But it could also have been down to the politics of Hollywood, to personal motivation and to luck.
According to long-time friend Maria Cooper Janis, Gary Cooper’s daughter, in the years after her retirement from films Hazel becomes a skilled stills photographer and works actively for a number of children’s charities.
In 1960, Cedric Gibbons dies. In 1967 history repeats itself. Hazel marries Rex Ross, Jr., a Beverly Hills surgeon and founder of the Non-invasive Vascular Clinic at Hollywood Hospital – he’s 58, she’s 40.
He will die in 1999, she in 2002 after a long illness.
Want to know more and Hazel Brooks?
Apart from the captions on the backs of some of the photos, my two main sources of information have been: