10 Abuses of Studio Power From the Golden Age of Hollywood
10. Career Sabotage
Once they were under contract, actors had no choice when it came to which films they worked on or who they worked with. Executives made those decisions for them.
Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM Studios, is believed to have used this authority to sabotage the career of legendary silent film star John Gilbert, who he'd never gotten along with.
When Gilbert's movies started losing money, there were rumors that Mayer had purposely cast him in films he knew would bomb. When Gilbert tried transitioning to talking films, rumors spread that Mayer manipulated the sound systems so that Gilbert's voice came out high-pitched.
In 1929, director Howard Hawks expressed interest in casting Gilbert in a talking picture about World War I. Mayer met with Hawks and Gilbert about possibly lending out Gilbert's contract. But Mayer soon revealed that he'd only agreed to the meeting to get Gilbert's hopes up and then humiliate him by forbidding him from making the film.
In 1931, an L.A. Times article dubbed Gilbert "Hollywood's Unhappiest Man," as he was known for skulking around the studio lot with his hat concealing his face. When his contract with MGM ended in 1933, he dropped off the radar and later died of a heart attack at age 36 after a long battle with alcoholism.
9. Spying on Actors
Under the studio system, everything actors did reflected back on the media moguls they worked for. So to keep them in line, studios hired spies.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were appointed “friends” by MGM to keep track of their behaviors and report back. Though Rooney knew what was going on, it took Garland years to realize that her close friend and rumored lover, Betty Asher, was hired to spy on her. Asher had also spied on Lana Turner and Artie Shaw.
When the truth came out, Garland was quoted as saying, “She gave a report to the studio office every week on the people I saw, what I ate, what time I came in at night and what time I got up in the morning. I can remember crying for days after I found out what she was doing to me.”
Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios, would plant listening devices all throughout the studio to spy on his actors. He even put them in dressing rooms to listen in on their private conversations. Anyone who spoke a word against him was fired.
8. Forbidding Marriage
At the peak of his career, Mickey Rooney had a wholesome, all-American boy image, which MGM wanted to maintain. When he announced his plans to marry Ava Gardner, Louis B. Mayer called him into his office and said, “I forbid it." An argument took place, which Rooney won when he threatened to leave the studio.
Jean Harlow, the original blonde bombshell, was another star at the mercy of MGM. Rumor has it that her contract forbade her from getting married, because it wouldn’t have meshed with her image as a sex symbol.
Harlow did get married a few times, but it was to an MGM executive and a cameraman, which was acceptable. MGM put their foot down when she fell in love with William Powell of Paramount Studios. Though they were reportedly engaged against the studios' wishes, Harlow died of a kidney infection before they could marry.
And of course, interracial relationships were out of the question. When the rebellious Kim Novak began a relationship with Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Cohn hired his mobster friends to kidnap and threaten to murder him if he continued to see her. He never contacted her again.
7. Studio-Arranged Marriages
Back in the Golden Age, having gay actors associated with movie studios would have been terrible for public image. So not only were they required to stay closeted; they also had to let the studios arrange marriages for them.
Two of Judy Garland’s six husbands were closeted gay men. One of them was actor / director Vincente Minnelli, who married four women throughout his life. The other was Mark Herron, who maintained a relationship with fellow actor Henry Brandon before, during, and after his marriage to Garland.
All-American heartthrob Rock Hudson married a woman named Phyllis Gates to keep up appearances, though his sexuality was known to the inner circle of Hollywood. Barbara Stanwyck, who was married twice, was rumored to be a lesbian.
Richard Cromwell was married to Angela Lansbury for a year. After their divorce, Lansbury revealed that Cromwell was bisexual. Cary Grant married five times, but had a long-term live-in relationship with a male partner.
Then there was William Haines, who made no effort to hide the fact that he lived with a male partner. In 1933, his star power started fading and his movies weren't the box-office draws they once were. So Louis B. Mayer demanded that Haines marry a woman for the sake of studio profits.
Haines refused, left MGM, and became Hollywood's most in-demand interior designer. He and his partner, Jimmy Shields, remained together until his death in 1973.
6. Racial Discrimination
In 1942, Lena Horne became the first African-American actress to land a studio contract. In an era when black actors were typecast as slaves, servants, primitives, and other unpleasant stereotypes, Horne was the first to be portrayed as glamorous.
But dressing her up and parading her about was as far as MGM went. They weren’t about to give her the roles or recognition she wanted.
Horne had already made a name for herself as a successful singer. But more often than not, her film roles were restricted to just a couple minutes of screen time. Even if she filmed a bigger role, her scenes were cut so that theaters in the south would screen the films. Horne desperately wanted the role of a mulatto singer in the musical Show Boat (1951), but the role went to white actress Ava Gardner instead.
Though she starred in two all-black musicals, Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943), Horne was never afforded the same success as her white contemporaries. Dorothy Dandridge, another African-American actress, also struggled to make a name for herself, finding some success playing singers and showgirls. Her most prominent roles were in the all-black musicals Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959).
Few people have heard the name Margarita Carmen Cansino. Her father was Spanish Roma and her mother was Irish-American. In typical Hollywood fashion, she was typecast as the exotic foreigner in a series of B movies. When Fox didn’t renew her contract, she tried her luck with Columbia.
To make her more marketable, Harry Cohn transformed her into Rita Hayworth.
She lost weight, dyed her hair red, and underwent painful electrolysis procedures to raise her hairline, since her low hairline was considered ethnic.
Once she was marketed as a white actress, Hayworth rose to international fame and was even nicknamed “The Love Goddess.” She made 61 movies and was ranked #19 on the American Film Institute's List of Greatest Stars of All Time.
Studios certainly weren’t above changing their actors’ appearances and choosing stage names for them. Columbia pressured Marilyn Novak to use the name Kim Novak. 20th-Century Fox told Norma Jean Mortenson to go by Marilyn Monroe, a name she never liked. But Rita Hayworth's price of fame was complete renunciation of her background and erasure of her natural beauty.
4. Firing Someone for Mental Illness
Clara Bow was the original “It Girl” and the first sex symbol of the silent film era. She rose to fame from a difficult childhood, with a sexually abusive father and a schizophrenic mother who tried to kill her with a butcher knife.
But her success also came with its challenges. She was often taken advantage of by family members who stole and squandered her money. Her secretary and trusted friend, Daisy DeVoe, was arrested for embezzling her funds.
During DeVoe's trial, details of Bow’s private life was made public, including her party-girl lifestyle of sex, drugs, and alcohol. The media was merciless in humiliating Bow, which contributed to her nervous breakdown in 1931.
Paramount, however, was not sympathetic. The studio forced Clara to return to work and finish filming Kick In (1931) despite her fragile condition. When the film bombed at the box office, Paramount blamed Bow and fired her.
These days, firing someone for mental illness falls under workplace discrimination. Paramount would likely be sued. But mental illness wasn’t widely understood then. Bow was simply considered a liability to be dealt with.
3. Restricting Diets
These days, actresses lose weight with the help of nutritionists and personal trainers. If they're dissatisfied with the work they're doing, they're free to fire them. Judy Garland, however, didn’t have that luxury.
When Garland signed on to MGM at 13 years old, Louis B. Mayer immediately began controlling her diet. Executives kept detailed notes of what she ate every day and took her food away once she consumed a certain amount of calories. They kept a close watch on her and even took notes of when she’d sneak out for ice cream or milkshakes.
Not only that, executives constantly told her she looked like “a monster” and “a fat little pig with pigtails.” By the time Garland was 18, she was only consuming black coffee and chicken soup. She was also required to take diet pills and smoke 80 cigarettes a day to keep her appetite under control.
As a result, Garland suffered from an eating disorder for the rest of her life. It’s believed this was also a contributing factor to her drug addiction, as drugs were an effective way to suppress her appetite.
2. Drugging Teenagers
There were no laws protecting child actors during the Golden Age. That meant no restrictions on how many hours children could work. But these are human beings, not machines, and they need to eat and sleep at some point.
MGM’s answer to this conundrum was drugs.
The biggest teen idols of their time, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made nine movies together from 1937 to 1943, starting when she was 15 and he was 17. MGM had them working nonstop, wrapping up one movie and filming another almost immediately.
Every morning they were given amphetamines to boost their energy. At night they were knocked out by sleeping pills, but woken up four hours later and given more amphetamines. Garland even claimed they would work 72 hours in a row.
Both actors went on to struggle with addiction throughout their lives. Garland attempted suicide twice and eventually died of an overdose when she was 47. Rooney filed for bankruptcy and died with little money to his name.
1. Forced Abortions
Though pregnancy discrimination exists in the workforce even today, Old Hollywood took it a step further by forcing their actresses to get abortions. This long list includes Judy Garland, Jean Harlow, Dorothy Dandridge, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead, and Joan Crawford.
These procedures were all kept secret. Garland’s two abortions were arranged by her mother. Harlow checked into a hospital under a different name for an “appendectomy.” Turner had it done in a hotel room without anesthetic. Crawford told her husband that she slipped on a cruise ship and miscarried.
Whether the actresses wanted to keep their children made no difference. Garland, though married, could not tarnish her wholesome image. Harlow couldn’t be both a sex symbol and a mother. Crawford had to cover up her affair with a married man. Dandridge, being an African-American actress, had to cover up her affair with a white married man.
If they refused, at best they would get their salaries cut. At worst they’d be fired and never work in the industry again. Neither was an option for Davis, who had to support her family, or for Gardner, whose husband, Frank Sinatra, was broke at the time.
A notable exception is Loretta Young, who went to great lengths to keep both her child and her career. While pregnant with Clark Gable’s baby, she traveled abroad to avoid the media, then returned to Los Angeles to give birth. She gave her daughter up for adoption, and then adopted her so no one would suspect she was her biological child.