As 2013 winds down, and as media outlets online and off begin to roll out their traditional end-of-year Top 10 lists, LIFE.com gamely joins the fray.
Well, we’re sort of joining the fray. After all, 99 percent of the photos we’ve posted this year were taken decades ago. To be exact, they were made by LIFE staff photographers between 1936 (when the magazine launched) and 1972 (when it ceased publishing as a weekly). With the exception of one gallery of photos from the very early 1990s, none of the pictures that appeared on LIFE.com this year were taken after 1972. And while quite a few of the stories we wrote might have referenced or been inspired by current events, it simply feels closer to our mission as a website to look back not at the year that was, but at the decades in the middle part of the 20th century — when LIFE was at its peak — for our own end-of-the-year “Top 10″ feature.
It’s a scene straight out of a movie — but in this case, it’s nothing less than a pivotal moment in a real-life Hollywood legend’s life. Clad in a show-stopping velvet dress and fur stole, a young Marilyn Monroe glides across the floor of the Club Del Mar in Santa Monica, Calif., in January 1952. The starlet is there to pick up an award, the “Henrietta” for Best Young Box Office Personality from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the organization that bestows the Golden Globes).
The blonde bombshell captivates the room. She’s single, after all, and few men at the party that night fail to notice her. But in more ways than one, and to a degree that no one present can possibly imagine or foresee, the 25-year-old Marilyn’s life is about to change, and change utterly. Just a month and a half down the road, in March 1952, she will go on her first date with a professional baseball player named Joe DiMaggio. They will wed in 1954 — although the seemingly storybook marriage will last a mere nine months, before Monroe files for divorce on the grounds of “mental cruelty.”
He had the requisite looks, charm and talent, but it wasn’t until 1969, when he was in his mid-30s, that Robert Redford truly broke out as a genuine Hollywood player. That year he starred in two very good films (Downhill Racer and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) and one hugely entertaining, honest-to-god classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
As fate would have it, 1969 was also the year that LIFE photographer John Dominis spent a week with Redford as the legend-in-the-making mixed business and pleasure at his homes in Utah and New York, chronicling the days and nights of an increasingly famous man struggling mightily to maintain control of both his private life and his career.
With the possible exception of Betty Grable — and her fabled legs — no single Hollywood star was more popular with American troops during World War II than the actress and dancer Rita Hayworth. Thanks to a photo made by Bob Landry that ran in LIFE magazine in August 1941, months before the U.S. officially entered the war, Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn on October 17, 1918) was the face and the lingerie-clad body of arguably the single most famous and most frequently reproduced American pinup image ever.
On her 95th birthday, LIFE.com remembers the star of films as varied as Pal Joey, Strawberry Blonde, Orson Welles’s Lady From Shanghai and the 1946 noir classic, Gilda — in which she played one of moviedom’s most devastatingly sexy femmes fatale. Hayworth could play comedy, was stellar in dramatic roles and danced well enough that none other than Fred Astaire, with whom she starred in two hits for Columbia Pictures in the early 1940s, asserted that she was as talented a partner as any he’d ever had.
Vivien Leigh was one of the silver screen’s true legends: an incendiary talent who won two Best Actress Oscars, famously married (and divorced) another towering artist, Laurence Olivier, and was celebrated during much of her lifetime as a star of the first magnitude both on the stage and in the movies.
But Leigh, who would have been 100 years old today (she was born Nov. 5, 1913, in Darjeeling, India), also endured hellish hardships during her too-short life. She suffered from bipolar disorder, threw herself into calamitous extramarital affairs and died of tuberculosis — from which she had suffered for years when she finally succumbed to the disease, at just 53 years old, in 1967.