Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema

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9780142180679: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema

Gossip meets history—a compulsively readable collection of Hollywood's most notorious clashes and controversies in the spirit of Hollywood Babylon

Believe it or not, America's fascination with celebrity culture was thriving well before the days of TMZ, Perez Hilton, Charlie Sheen's breakdown and allegations against Woody Allen. And the stars of yesteryear? They weren’t always the saints that we make them out to be. BuzzFeed columnist Anne Helen Petersen is here to set the record straight with Scandals of Classic Hollywood. Pulling little-known gems from the archives of film history, Petersen reveals eyebrow-raising information, including:
   ·  The smear campaign against the original It Girl, Clara Bow, started by her best friend
   ·  The heartbreaking story of Montgomery Clift’s rapid rise to fame, the car accident that destroyed his face, and the “long suicide” that followed
   ·  Fatty Arbuckle's descent from Hollywood royalty, fueled by allegations of a boozy orgy turned violent assault
   ·  Why Mae West was arrested and jailed for "indecency charges"
   ·  And much more
Part biography, part cultural history, these stories cover the stuff that films are made of: love, sex, drugs, illegitimate children, illicit affairs, and botched cover-ups. But it's not all just tawdry gossip in the pages of this book. The stories are all contextualized within the boundaries of film, cultural, political, and gender history, making for a read that will inform as it entertains. Based on Petersen's popular column on the Hairpin, but featuring 100% new content, Scandals of Classic Hollywood is sensationalism made smart.

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About the Author:

Anne Helen Petersen received her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Texas, where she studied the industrial history of the gossip industry. After teaching in the university setting for several years, she transitioned to full-time feature writing, most recently with BuzzFeed. Her work has appeared in The Believer, The Awl, The Hairpin, Laptham’s Quarterly, The Baffler, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

SCANDALS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

Chugach Peaks Photography

Introduction

On July 26, 2006, Mel Gibson—’80s hunk, ’90s director, ’00s oddball—was arrested for driving under the influence. He was visibly drunk and combative, and hurled misogynistic, anti-Semitic slurs at the arresting officers. Within hours, Gibson’s disheveled mug shot had gone viral, as had the audiotape of his arrest, thanks to upstart website TMZ.com. The story made TMZ, but more important, it destroyed Gibson, whose personal and professional lives immediately fell apart. His marriage collapsed; work dried up. The man so powerful that he could make a film graphically detailing the death of Christ—a millionaire many, many times over—couldn’t make a hit film in Hollywood. Today, Gibson is slowly reappearing in supporting roles, but save some remarkable, redemptive gesture, his career as a leading man is over.

Had this happened just seventy years ago, Gibson’s fate would have been dramatically different. He would’ve been signed to a studio contract, complete with a morality clause to govern his behavior, and he’d have had studio-employed “fixers”—the hidden yet essential cogs in the star-making machine—to clean up after him in case of scandal. The fixers would erase all traces of the incident: the police would be paid off; the report would disappear. To the public at large, he’d continue to be a gallant husband, doting father, and responsible citizen—the very paragon of contemporary masculinity. Any whispers of chronic drunkenness would be silenced by well-placed mentions in the gossip columns concerning his commitment to his adoring children and devoted wife. Gibson’s image would remain intact, his earning power for the studio secure. Because in the golden age of Hollywood, scandal was a roadblock, but rarely an endgame.

During this period, stars weren’t born; they were made. Scouts would bring in “raw” star material, culled from the vaudeville circuit, the theater, or the soda fountain counter. The potential star would be given a name, a sanitized (and sometimes dramatized) backstory, a makeover, and a contract. After assigning him or her a few bit parts and gauging audience reception (usually through the amount and tone of fan mail), the studio would figure the performer’s fate. An actor could be kept around to “pleasure” visiting execs, relegated to the stock character pool, or promoted to bona fide stardom, with first choice of roles and directors. Stardom was what happened when the raw star material and studio magic created an image that was not only beautiful but sublime; not only likable but charismatic. For an actor to become a star, he had to become more than the sum of his exquisite parts. His image had to demonstrate a particular way of life, a way of being in the world that resonated and inspired emulation—the boy next door all grown up, the rough cowboy with a heart of gold, the adventurer with a romantic streak.

This book tells the story of how these extraordinary stars were made, but also, as the title indicates, how they were unmade—or at least how the emergence of scandal compromised their carefully constructed public personas. The stars in this book were immaculate productions: the result of tremendous toil on the part of press agents, stylists, directors, and cooperative gossip columnists and fan magazine editors. But even the most perfect productions can crumble beneath the weight of their accumulated cultural meaning. Over the course of the next fourteen chapters, you’ll see how that pressure served as a catalyst for all manner of misbehavior: drug use, gambling, and illicit sexual encounters in various shapes and styles. In other words, the bigger the star, the more meaningful she becomes to the public, the higher the chance for scandal to emerge.

Yet a star’s actions, behavior, or lifestyle choices are never de facto scandalous; rather, they become scandalous when they violate the status quo in some way. A divorce in 1920 was potentially scandalous; today, it’s par for the course. In 1950, homosexuality was unspeakable; today, it’s doable, if difficult, with the help of a well-orchestrated coming-out narrative. Scandal is amplified when a star’s actions violate not only the status quo but the underlying understanding of that star’s image as well: when “Saint Ingrid” (Ingrid Bergman) ran off with an Italian director and gave birth to a child out of wedlock, the scandal was rooted not only in the infidelity but in how brazenly she violated her fans’ understanding of her image and what it seemed to represent.

Scandal thus functions as a rupture—not only in a star’s image, but in whatever cultural value that star represents. With carefully planned publicity, that rupture can be repaired. A star can repent; her actions can be reframed. See, for example, the dramatic reconfiguration of Brad Pitt’s divorce from Jennifer Aniston, or Robert Downey Jr.’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of addiction. The status quo is seemingly restored.

The scandals discussed in this book are more than just smut. They’re history lessons, teaching us about what it meant to be a man, a woman, a child, a straight person, a fat person, a person of color, or a sex object during specific time periods in our past. But they’re also love stories, tragedies, and comedies—lessons in the way stars come to embody a culture’s hopes and aspirations and the harshness with which they are treated when they fail to meet expectations. Above all, these stories are page-turners: the very stuff of the very best of Hollywood films, complete with crackling narrative tension, breathless ascents, and dramatic downfalls. Many of these scandals end in tragedy, but others are raucous, screwball comedies, filled with wit, double entendres, and generalized rascalry. These stars lived big—and the narratives of their lives, their loves and losses, the way they rose and fell from fame, are just as impressive as their conspicuous spending habits.

This book will introduce you to new stories, broaden stories you know, and revise those you thought you knew. Chances are, you’re familiar with many of the stars and scandals to come—Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, James Dean. These stars endure for specific cultural reasons, co-opted by new generations, plastered on dorm room walls, and evoked in magazine photo shoots as signifiers of authenticity, rebellion, or class. But this book also includes the stories of much less familiar names: Jean Harlow, Wallace Reid, Clara Bow, Dorothy Dandridge, to name a few—stars who once enjoyed tremendous popularity but have, for various reasons, faded with time.

By familiarizing ourselves with the contours of stardom and scandal that shaped the past, we can see how they shape the present. Today, as before, there are certain types of stars for whom we will forgive all manner of trespass, and other types of stars who, once they step over the line, can never return. If our stars are reflections of our values and ourselves, then the way we elevate, denigrate, and dispose of them also functions as a sort of cultural mirror, however distorted, clumsy, and unbecoming. The aim of the book, then, is not simply to titillate, nor is it to propagate old, worn-out rumors. Rather, it will help rescue gossip, the study of stars, and scandal from the cultural wastebasket. With every chapter, you’ll see how these stories are crucial to understanding our present and our past—history dressed in an evening gown and pearls, holding a flute of expensive champagne. But beware: Once you read one, it’s difficult not to read them all. Your list of must-watch classic films will grow exponentially. You might develop a hankering for well-tailored double-breasted suits. Rest assured, it’s all natural—once you become familiar with these stars, their complex narratives and their bewitching charisma prove impossible to resist. And you’ll never think about stars, Hollywood, or the machinations that create them in the same way again.

VOLUME ONE

When the moving image first began to circulate in the late nineteenth century, it wasn’t as if stars suddenly popped up along with it. Audiences were mostly just fascinated with the technological marvel they saw before them—the moving image itself was the star. Even as cinema developed in the early 1900s, huge, unwieldy cameras made it difficult to film anything other than a full-length shot. Because viewers couldn’t see the actor’s face up close, it was difficult to develop the feelings of admiration or affection that we associate with film stars. Gradually, close-ups became more prevalent, various actors became more recognizable, fans began to know the stars’ names, and slowly but surely, audiences pieced together “types” associated with each star—the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the virtuous heroine.

It wasn’t until the early 1910s, however, that stars as we understand them today came to be: an actor with a recognizable type on-screen—a “picture personality”—accompanied by information about her off-screen, made available through the proliferating fan magazines. A star was the combination of her on-screen and off-screen selves—selves that complemented and amplified each other. An actor who played a cowboy on-screen would stable a horse just outside of Hollywood; a sporting heroine would fit in a game of golf between taking care of her children and cooking dinner. Crucially, these off-screen images were always squeaky clean. Women were married or seeking marriage; men were eligible bachelors or devoted husbands. Throughout the 1910s, these narratives served a distinct purpose: to make Hollywood seem less scandalous.

Because the “film colony,” as it was then called, was populated with young people, mostly poor immigrants, it was assumed that these actors, now flush with cash and lacking in so-called moral hygiene, would run wild. The logic of the time went something like this: if Hollywood was filled with immoral behavior, that selfsame behavior would seep onto the screen, thereby corrupting the impressionable youth so irresistibly drawn to the picture show. To sustain their business, then, and calm the anxiety propagated by reactionary moralists, the studios collaborated with the gossip press to make the stars’ lives seem squeaky clean.

Working together, the studios, fan magazines, and gossip columnists painted a becoming, believable portrait of the players on the screen. By providing details from actors’ domestic, ostensibly private existences, studios enabled fans to feel as if they had access to the true, authentic star. Knowledge about the star’s living room, dress purchases, or other patterns of conspicuous consumption became de facto knowledge about how he or she “really was.” In this way, Hollywood was able to convincingly suggest that the stars were without scandal. Until, that is, the stars started making decisions that no matter of fawning publicity could cover up. These cracks in the image of both the star and Hollywood as a whole provided a dim, shadowy peephole unto a new layer of the star: the scandalous, unspeakable, immoral core.

But as will become clear, this period of salacious scandal in the early twenties did not sink the industry; rather, it served as a catalyst for Hollywood to better manage its stars and their actions. The stars did not suddenly become less prone to scandalous behavior; the cover-up and management strategies simply got better. This pattern—the emergence of scandal; the subsequent emergence of techniques to manage it—has structured the dynamics of Hollywood for the past century. Sometimes scandal emerges due to a savvy new publication; other times, it’s a rebellious star with a lack of oversight. The means of release and the methods of containment may change, but the pattern endures. As we trace that pattern, and how it adjusts with the cultural temperature, a vivid picture of the past American century begins to come to light.

CHAPTER ONE

With her immaculate curls, plaintive eyes, and porcelain skin, Mary Pickford bore a keen resemblance to a child’s doll. And like a doll, she acted out the fantasies of others: her whimsical spirit and wholesomeness represented an American ideal under threat, proof positive that Victorian notions of girlhood and virtue could endure the onset of modernity. In this way, Mary Pickford became “a girl of all girls,” an exemplar of femininity and desexualized youth. She began her film career in 1909 at the age of seventeen, but played roles much younger, usually as adolescent and prepubescent daughters. In 1909 alone, Pickford appeared in fifty films; by 1915, her salary equaled that of the president. In the years to come, she’d continue to play young girls—most notably in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), and Pollyanna (1920)—but she also worked, with mixed success, to sophisticate and texture her image. By the end of the 1910s, she was, without question, the biggest star in the world.

Audiences just adored her. A review in The Bioscope nails her appeal: only Pickford could be “ineffably sweet, joyously young, and sometimes, if one may put it so, almost unbearably heartbreaking in its tender pathos.” She may have been “ineffably sweet,” but she was also a savvy businesswoman, entrusted, from a very early age, with providing for her entire family. Her father, a drunk, had left the family when Pickford was three years old, and her mother concentrated on promoting young Mary’s career. Throughout the 1910s, Pickford made a series of business decisions that afforded her more and more control over her image and salary; by 1916, her contract with Zukor Inc. gave her full authority over every production—along with five hundred dollars a week, an unheard-of salary. She was still playing little girl roles, but she had morphed into the first of many female actors bestowed with the title of “America’s Sweetheart,” neatly eliding her Canadian birth. Pickford may have been powerful, but any anxiety over that power was muted by how convincingly and consistently she radiated demureness and amiability.

Yet for all of her successes on-screen, her off-screen life was far from perfect. Pickford was entrapped in an abusive marriage to fellow silent actor Owen Moore, whom she had quietly wed in 1911 after meeting him on the studio lot. The marriage was kept secret due to Pickford’s mother’s disapproval of Moore, but IMP, their studio at the time, exploited the pairing, placing ads of the two together in a heart-shaped frame, paired with the catchphrases “She’s an Imp!” and “He’s an Imp!” Outwardly, Moore was “America’s first juvenile,” known for his boyish appearance on-screen. Off-screen, he was jealous of Pickford’s success and embittered by his reliance on her connections for his new contract at IMP. Alcoholism, exacerbated by professional jealousy, led to bouts of physical and emotional abuse, but Pickford had to keep all traces of their unrest a secret lest it compromise her pristine image. By 1916, it was a deeply unhappy marriage, with Pickford and Moore living apart for long periods of time.

Enter Douglas Fairbanks: ascendant king of Hollywood, swashbuckler, athlete, and all-America...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2014. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Gossip meets history--a compulsively readable collection of Hollywood s most notorious clashes and controversies in the spirit of Hollywood Babylon Believe it or not, America s fascination with celebrity culture was thriving well before the days of TMZ, Perez Hilton, Charlie Sheen s breakdown and allegations against Woody Allen. And the stars of yesteryear? They weren t always the saints that we make them out to be. BuzzFeed columnist Anne Helen Petersen is here to set the record straight with Scandals of Classic Hollywood. Pulling little-known gems from the archives of film history, Petersen reveals eyebrow-raising information, including: - The smear campaign against the original It Girl, Clara Bow, started by her best friend - The heartbreaking story of Montgomery Clift s rapid rise to fame, the car accident that destroyed his face, and the long suicide that followed - Fatty Arbuckle s descent from Hollywood royalty, fueled by allegations of a boozy orgy turned violent assault - Why Mae West was arrested and jailed for indecency charges - And much morePart biography, part cultural history, these stories cover the stuff that films are made of: love, sex, drugs, illegitimate children, illicit affairs, and botched cover-ups. But it s not all just tawdry gossip in the pages of this book. The stories are all contextualized within the boundaries of film, cultural, political, and gender history, making for a read that will inform as it entertains. Based on Petersen s popular column on the Hairpin, but featuring 100 new content, Scandals of Classic Hollywood is sensationalism made smart. Bookseller Inventory # ABZ9780142180679

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