I’m sorry Simon Cowell, you are about 75 years behind the times

With his talent contests and pin-up girls, publicist Russell Birdwell pre-dated reality TV and lads’ mags, says Mark Borkowski

Monday 27 April 2009 00:00 BST

Listen to some cultural commentators and you’ll hear that the reality television show and the lads’ mag embody much of what’s wrong with modern society. Little do they know that both phenomena were invented more than 75 years ago by a Texan publicist who has done more than almost anyone to shape British media.

So good was the Machiavellian Russell Birdwell that 70 years after he began publicising Gone With The Wind the movie still occupies the limelight.

He was a brilliant huckster, a journalist-turned-publicist who through a web of intrigue could turn an unpopular idea into a global phenomenon. Without him the modern publicity industry would be a very different monster.

Birdwell invented the “hunt for a star” format, he founded the merchandising industry, and he thought up a large proportion of the stunts that have since become clichés of the publicity world. He made the sexy pin-up disreputably valuable, creating the fixation with scantily clad women.

In advertising circles, the power of ego and self-congratulation means that historical precedent is constantly and conveniently ignored. But any modern day creatives who are patting themselves on the back over the way they’re using outdoor spaces to sell a product should know Birdwell was way ahead of the curve. In 1936, he assembled a five-and-a-half-mile long ambient ad for the movie Little Lord Fauntleroy, painted on the roads of Culver City, California. Such was its scale that it could only be fully appreciated from space.

Birdwell could run stunts with wit, guts and an exhilarating bravado, but it was human interest stories and sex that caught his eye and fuelled his talents. He mastered tabloid culture from an early age; as a precocious 15-year-old he talked his way into journalism by sneaking into jails, claiming he was the sheriff’s son, and talking to condemned men on death row. He wormed his way into the confidence of prisoners and landed scoops for Dallas newspapers.

His reputation as a publicist began with the 1938 movie The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, for which Birdwell instigated the first search for a star – and was rewarded with a perfect winner in Tommy Kelly, who had the sort of family that Simon Cowell would culturally engineer to get into the early stages of The X Factor. Kelly’s relatives insisted on sharing one room at the hotel they were booked into and, to the joy of the assembled press, insisted on making the beds themselves. Birdwell pushed the humble hillbillies towards the reporters, feeding tabloid-friendly stories to whoever would take them and prefiguring the reality TV publicity machines by many decades.

Following the success of that search, Birdwell ratcheted up several gears for the main event. The search for Scarlett O’Hara to star in 1939’s Gone With The Wind took place over three years, featured auditions with 1,500 actresses and was punctuated with endless rumour, gossip and press opportunities. Imagine Pop Idol dominating the headlines over that period of time. Then keep in mind that dozens of the unknown women who were screen tested for the role went on to have careers in Hollywood and became big stars, such as Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead and Susan Hayward.

There can be no doubt that the search for Scarlett O’Hara was the genesis of reality TV and that The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and their ilk are refinements of Birdwell’s brilliance. Simon Cowell, eat your heart out!

Not only did Birdwell stage-manage the search and Scarlett’s discovery, but he created a fashion for merchandising that persists to this day. Before the movie went out, the wedding dress that O’Hara was to wear appeared in major department store windows and throughout the press. Birdwell struck deals with stores from Dallas to Boston and sat back contentedly as the frock did just what he’d hoped. This huge publicity lollapalooza came 40 years before Star Wars and its many merchandising tie-ins.

Birdwell’s other remarkable innovation was to make the pin-up ubiquitous. It began with his promotion of The Outlaw with the unknown Jane Russell as star; he hired a photographer to shoot thousands of pictures of Russell rolling in the hay in a very low-cut top. “When you think of [Clark] Gable you get a picture in your mind; Sophia Loren, a picture. Not 500 pictures, a picture. That was what I was after,” Birdwell later said. “Her breasts hung over the picture like a summer thunderstorm spread out over a landscape.”

He then had the photograph blown-up and sent thousands of copies around the world. “She replaced Betty Grable as the number one pin-up,” he said. “I took [this] big blow up and got a sick looking GI to pose with it plastered on his barracks wall. He was sitting there looking at Jane and knitting. He had a sweater for her half finished. This picture went all over the world.”

Without Birdwell’s canny manipulation, the pin-up shot itself would have stayed a largely secretive thing used by lonely GIs to keep their spirits up. But the publicist’s understanding of the workings of a young man’s mind and the use he made of this knowledge was ground-breaking – far more so than Loaded projecting a nude image of television presenter Gail Porter on the Houses of Parliament. Loaded, Nuts, FHM and Zoo owe much to Birdwell, though his ethos, alas, encouraged the objectification of women. He made the pin-up a necessity for the war effort, and the knock-on effects, from the more risqué attitudes of the 1950s and Marilyn Monroe to the lads mags, have been extraordinary.’

On his arrival at the famous Selznick film studio in 1935, Birdwell was told: “I trust you will bring innovations into the field of publicity and advertising.” He did just that. Look at today’s publicity industry, the television business and much of modern media – Birdwell’s dabs are on almost everything.

Mark Borkowski will discuss Russell Birdwell and his impact on the modern publicity industry at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London, to launch the paperback of The Fame Formula on Wednesday, 29 April, 7.30pm

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