Classic Hollywood wasn't all bright lights and beautiful stars...
The phrase “Old Hollywood” brings to mind images of glitz, glamour, and a whole lot of peppy movie-musicals, right? Well, not quite.
When moving pictures were introduced around the turn of the 20th century, filmmakers had to build an entire industry and aesthetic tradition from the ground up in record time. Think about it—the conventions of theater and other live storytelling have been around since, well, the beginning of human history. We’ve only had movies for about 100 years, and in those 100 years the language of cinema has evolved as rapidly as technology, culture, and laws changed.
Okay, so we all know now that the “Golden Age of Hollywood” (essentially the late 1920s to the mid-1960s) wasn’t actually so rosy, but the studios at the time worked extremely hard to maintain their public image over those years. And by hard, I mean they were basically gangsters who went around doing shady things to their stars to perpetuate the aspirational image that they wanted to portray in their features. Excuse my French, but sh*t was f**ked up. Seriously.
1. The “Star System” was a Dystopian Nightmare
Because of the “studio system” and “star system” that were in effect for most of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the film industry—specifically how they got their talent—looks almost nothing like it does today. If I’m honest, Old Hollywood’s “star system” sounds like something from a scary sci-fi novel. Basically studios would sign actors to contracts which obligated them to maintain a specific public persona that the execs believed would be financially beneficial to the company.
The stars were also obligated to play whatever roles they were told to by the studio (usually the same basic type over and over again), and since the major studios during the Golden Age were pumping out hundreds of movies a year, the stars were worked almost to death, but were unable to protest. They had morality clauses and were required to dress, speak, and look a certain way all of the time. They had to become whoever the studio told them to.
There Literally Never Was a Woman Like Gilda
This included starving actresses until they lost weight or forcing them to take diet pills. They completely revamped Kim Novak when she broke onto the scene—changing her name, hair, and even voice. The studios were even more devastating to Rita Hayworth… Who, by the way, was born to a Spanish dance family and was named Margarita Carmen Cansino. Yeah, Columbia Pictures forced her to get electrolysis, dyed the hair that was left, bleached her skin, and changed her name so no one would ever know that she was not the “all-American” (white… That means white) girl they saw in Gilda.
Here’s what MGM boss Louis B. Mayer had to say about creating stars according to Scott Eyman’s book The Lion of Hollywood. Be warned, it’s a nightmare.
“The idea of a star being born is bush-wah. A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I’d have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. … We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting.”
2. Judy Garland Wasn’t Allowed to Grow Up
Which brings us to Judy Garland, one of America’s most tragic Hollywood darlings. She hit the big time in 1939 in The Wizard of Oz (duh) when she was 16 after working for MGM for three years. Because Judy started her career as a young woman and it was incredibly lucrative, the studio wanted to keep her as young possible in the public arena.