Top 10 Dark Truths About Old Hollywood
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
Behind the glamor, Old Hollywood was full of dark truths. For this list, we'll be ranking the most surprising, disturbing, and/or controversial things about the industry's so-called Golden Age. Our countdown includes contract pressure, spying, morality clauses, and more!
Top 10 Dark Truths About Old Hollywood
Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Dark Truths About Old Hollywood.
For this list, we’ll be ranking the most surprising, disturbing, and/or controversial things about the industry’s so-called Golden Age.
Did any of these stories surprise you? Let us know in the comments.
#10: The Pressures of Beauty
Hollywood is, among many other things, artifice. Yet we often worship old school, Tinseltown idols for the perceived standards of beauty espoused by their films. However, appearing that glamorous came at a price. Icons such as Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Judy Garland were all pressured to look a certain way. For instance, Dietrich reportedly lost weight and dramatically altered her look in a bid to meet often unattainable ideals. Crawford, for her part, allegedly had her back teeth removed, which in turn raised her cheekbones. Her autobiography also touches upon intense beauty practices, one of which involves using boric acid on your eyelids.
#9: Contract Pressure
Outside appearances weren't the only cause of pressure for old Hollywood stars. Nowadays, actors have a decent amount of freedom, and can often sign on to any picture, regardless of which studio is at the helm. However, the system used to be quite different. Back in the day, performers were signed to hefty contracts, some of which had rather lengthy terms. As a result, they typically had to take jobs given to them, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. Turning one down was intensely frowned upon, and could be punished via things like suspensions. In other words, film studios wielded what’s considered an unreasonable amount of power. Many careers, including silent film star John Gilbert’s, suffered as a result.
These days, celebrities are often forced to fight for their right to privacy. Old Hollywood actors didn’t have it easy either — but it was often due to the studios’ desire for control over their personal lives. It apparently wasn’t uncommon for private spaces to be bugged, or for studio employees to act as publicists and friends to the stars while going behind their backs. For instance, Judy Garland was allegedly deceived by such a “confidant”. Sammy Davis Jr., meanwhile, also had to deal with a sort of spy game. His romance with screen icon Kim Novak was strictly forbidden. So intent was Columbia head Harry Cohn on nixing the love affair that he reportedly had organized crime associates threaten to harm Davis Jr.
#7: Thomas Edison’s Monopoly
Hollywood as we know it today might look very different were it not for Thomas Edison. Indeed, the inventor was responsible for developing the first film studio in the late 1800s, named the Black Maria. He also invented — and patented — lots of movie-making equipment, like the motion picture camera. Importantly, this all took place in New Jersey and New York, where he eventually assisted in establishing the Motion Picture Patents Company. With that, he got himself a monopoly. In a bid to get away from it, his intimidation tactics, and his infamous litigiousness, numerous filmmakers reportedly moved out to California. Edison’s monopoly essentially ended after the United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co. court case in 1915, though LA remains the industry’s home base.
#6: Child Labor
It can be difficult to reconcile the affection we feel for adorable young actors with Hollywood’s historically horrible child labor record. “The Addams Family” actor Jackie Coogan was notoriously robbed of his earnings by his parents, leading to the California Child Actor’s Bill of 1939. Elsewhere, directors and others reportedly went to cruel lengths getting young performers to cry on camera. Many even resorted to punishment when someone was perceived to be wasting time. “The Black Box”, a cramped space with only a block of ice as a seat, was one example of this. Finally, it wasn’t unheard of for productions to make youth work insanely long hours, something that’s unthinkable today,
#5: Award Show Racism
The lack of diverse representation at Hollywood award shows is an issue that remains today. And while there’s a lot that still needs to be done, the industry has come a long way. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to be awarded an Oscar, which marked a historic moment. Yet before the ceremony, there was a real worry that the actress wouldn’t be allowed to attend. In the end, she was cruelly seated separately from Vivien Leigh and the rest of her “Gone with the Wind” co-stars. McDaniel showed great courage amid the racism and prejudice she faced, and gave a deeply stirring speech when she was named Best Supporting Actress. But the journey for her and many others was very difficult.
#4: Pre-Code Hollywood
The enforcement of ‘morality’ can be a slippery slope, and it’s easy to fall backwards with regards to cultural sensitivity and representation. Pre-Code Hollywood refers to a time between the mid-late ‘20s until 1934, before films faced the strict enforcement of morality policies outlined in the Hays Code. These policies were put in place, in part, to clean up Hollywood’s perceived reputation as an immoral Babylon. As a result, filmmakers were required to skirt around issues of intimacy and substance use via innuendo. This could notably be seen in the film noir movement of the ‘40s and ’50s. However, pre-Code films were often rife with anti-heroes,strong female leads and plenty of romantic liaisons. Film lovers just need to seek them out.
#3: Incentivized Substance Use
We’ve discussed how poorly child actors were often treated within the old school Hollywood system. Unfortunately, emotional manipulation and long work days weren’t the only hurdles they faced. Studios reportedly often incentivized substance use amongst their most popular young stars, such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. The idea was apparently that “time is money”, so studios would dole out uppers to make hours upon hours of work possible, and downers and/or sedatives when the time came to sleep. Time is also precious, however. And too little of it was spent considering the dependencies these vulnerable actors would develop as they grew up, and the often tragic consequences.
#2: Morality Clauses
The 2016 Coen brothers film “Hail, Caesar!” does a great job at satirizing the back-door dealings of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Specifically, it expertly separates the artifice we mentioned earlier with the very real behind-the-scenes drama. Studios would often sign their actors to “morality clauses” that intensely governed their public personas. Hollywood and the press reportedly collaborated often on star stories, while “fixers” like Eddie Mannix would try to put the kibosh on certain scandals. A pregnancy like the one Scarlett Johansson’s character experiences in “Hail, Caesar!”, for example, would have likely been ‘handled’ with a hush-hush abortion. This was all to protect the studios’ investments in the perceived “purity” of their biggest stars.
#1: The Casting Couch
The l practice of having to exchange intimate “favors” for career advancement doesn’t solely exist within the realm of moving pictures. However, “casting couch” practices have been dogging the film industry since the days of Old Hollywood, with seemingly never-ending stories about predatory behavior. The phrase even shows up in a 1924 stag film of the same name. “The Casting Couch” plays this behavior up for the prurient interest, as well as for laughs. But there’s absolutely nothing funny about how many actors have been victims of these exploitative tactics. The Time’s Up organization has brought more attention to harassment and assault within the industry in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. But it remains an active talking point.