Bombshell B-Movie Queens: Remember These Familiar Faces?

Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Dorren and Diana Dors collage
Everett Collection

B-movie queens are a special brand of bombshell, usually relegated to the second feature beneath the marquee picture at the local movie house. You probably recognize their faces even though their names aren’t so familiar.

B-movies were a staple in Hollywood up through the golden era, adding to the available moviegoing fare with serials and Westerns, sci-fi and horror scream-fests, and a baker’s dozen of exploitation films — blaxploitation, low-budget crime, spaghetti Westerns, kung-fu films, bikers, women in prison, etc.

006468 03: Actress Karen Black poses 1973 in USA. Black has starred in many films and received several awards and nominations throughout her acting career.


Thanks to B-movies, some well-known actresses today got their foot in the door — among them Amy Adams and Charlize Theron. Some A-movie actresses whose luck was fading ended up in B-movies, like Karen Black (pictured above).

And then there were those who never rose above B-queendom whose star quality always shone through. Bombshells like Jayne Mansfield and Brigitte Bardot.

PANIC BUTTON, Jayne Mansfield, 1964

Everett Collection

The secret to their success? “A 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance,” quipped Mansfield. A bit of glimmer and the willingness to take on every role.

How do we love them? Let us count the ways.

They Have The Most Exotic Names

Actress Mamie Van Doren sitting in a glamorous pose on top of her luggage, as she arrives in New York with Trans World Airlines, Idlewild Airport, circa 1958.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Chances are Joan Lucille Olander wouldn’t exactly put bottoms in the seats. But Mamie Van Doren, her screen name, absolutely did! Likewise Vera Jane Palmer, Emily Bertelsen and Jo Raquel Tejada, who made era-defining names for themselves as Jayne Mansfield, Marie Windsor and Raquel Welch, respectively. 

The Marilyns 2.0

THE UNHOLY WIFE, Diana Dors, 1957

Everett Collection

Some like it hot, and there was no one hotter in Hollywood than Marilyn Monroe. Not surprising, then, that the studios groomed their own Marilyns. Jayne Mansfield was the most successful of these, but there are several others who rose above their bombshell typecasting by adding their own indefinable oomph to their roles (who can forget Anita Ekberg cavorting in Trevi Fountain in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita?). Other memorable stars in this category include Mamie Van Doren (High School Confidential), Marie Windsor (Cat-Women of the Moon), Carol Ohmart (William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill), Barbara Nichols (Where the Boys Are) and Diana Dors (Man Bait).

They Made The Coolest Movies


Everett Collection

Suffice it to say these versatile and prolific actresses generally did not appear in films with Oscar cred. Horror, biker, rock ’n’ roll and women-in-prison films, sci fi and erotic thrillers are seldom touted as Best Picture candidates. But no matter the genre, they are the life of the party. Seriously, what’s more fun to watch: Academy Award winner Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld or Haji in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!? Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet or Pam Grier in Foxy Brown? Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice or Barbara Steele in Black Sunday?

They Made Drive-Ins Great Again

COFFY, Pam Grier, 1973

Everett Collection

In the 1970s, Roger “King of the B’s” Corman produced a spate of sexploitation films that were progressively feminist. Yes, they had their quota of nudity and/or sex, but beyond that, he allowed the filmmakers creative rein. Corman and others released women-in-prison films, blaxploitation flicks and student-teacher/nurse potboilers that tackled social and political issues (no, really), and ushered in a new wave of formidable heroines, most notably Pam Grier. Her character in the revenge actioner Coffy was hyped in the film’s coming attraction as “the baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit town!” That about covers it.

They Were The Home Video Industry’s Secret Weapon

BASIC INSTINCT, Sharon Stone, 1992,

TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection

In the early 1990s, video stores could not live on major studio releases alone. They needed product and lots of it. Independent studios cranked out low-budget direct-to-video titles that tended to ride the coattails of whatever was hot theatrically at the time. The scandalous success of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct ushered in the golden era of the erotic thriller and made above-the-title stars out of Shannon Tweed, Shannon Whirry, Tanya Roberts, Maria Ford and others. In some they played damsels in distress, in others the femme fatale. But they made the most of the starring roles they were not being offered by Martin Scorsese or other A-list directors. 

They Are Artists

The budgets are low. The hours are grueling. Nudity is oft-times required. Why would an actress put herself through the grindhouse grind? Just ask Maria Ford, star of such early career films as Stripped to Kill 2 and Naked Obsession. “You have to love to act,” she told an interviewer. “I’m willing to take my clothes off for 10 percent of a film so I can act in the other 90 percent.”

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