Hollywood first came to existence — as we know it — in 1908, debuting its first movie, “The Count of Monte Cristo.” According to History, a mere three years later, Hollywood gained its first movie studio on Sunset Boulevard. After that, it didn’t take long for many other companies to start flocking to sunny California, as well.
By 1920, sound was introduced to film, and as Arcadia Publishing noted, this also marked a shift in movie studios, with actors finally joining them instead of working independently. MGM Films, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount were considered the “leading companies” during this decade. The studio figureheads, such as Eddie Mannix of MGM, for example, also went to great lengths to protect their stars, as Tinseltown had a “reputation as the land of affluence and fame” (via History). Per Slate, Mannix was believed to be able to cover up any sort of accident that befell his actors — “everyday misdemeanors like car wrecks and pregnancies, and also some of the most horrible scandals.”
But although Hollywood was determined to keep the image of its stars intact, it also demanded a lot from them in return (to say the very least). Let’s take a look at the rules Old Hollywood stars had to follow.
Long-term contracts with studios were standard
As the roaring 20s kicked off and movie studios flocked to Hollywood, they released their talent scouts into the wild, searching for fresh faces to turn into stars. Per Timeline, they would then “contract” these aspiring actors “for years of work.”
All of this was done to protect a major studio’s “own economic interests” (via The New Yorker). As the outlet notes, these contracts meant an actor could only work with “one particular studio,” locking them down for years to come. Although in the beginning, it would seem that these stars were handsomely paid (The New Yorker states that some Hollywood greats were “making as much as five thousand dollars a week”), as an actor’s popularity grew, their salary didn’t rise — all thanks to the contracts put in place.
But it wasn’t just actors who were placed under contract. According to Hollywood Lexicon, nobody was exempt, and even directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, art directors, and technicians were asked to sign on a dotted line. As Hollywood Lexicon explains, this “studio self sufficiency” made everything in the production stage that much easier — even if it meant that some of the props and sets were a bit more inferior than they could have been.
An actor couldn't just work with any studio while under contract
Since stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age signed contracts with specific film studios, this meant they had to remain loyal to their company and subsequently missed out on roles with competitors. Per Into Film, although actors were “very well looked after,” it also made it difficult for A-listers to branch out and take different roles, as they had an image to maintain. That being said, on occasion, some actors were allowed to be taken out on “loan” to other studios for specific flicks — although the parent studio would “ensure that they were always a credit to the studio they represented.”
Some stars succeeded with these loans; according to The Hollywood Reporter, Elizabeth Taylor was under contract with MGM until 1960, yet they allowed her to pick different projects with other studios — and they weren’t the usual fare she made with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, either, touching on “daring” themes such as “pregnancy out of wedlock” or “homosexuality and cannibalism.” Others, such as Olivia de Havilland of “Gone With the Wind” fame, didn’t have the same luck.
Per Entertainment Weekly, de Havilland, who signed with Warner Bros. in 1935, was sick of the one-dimensional roles she was repeatedly forced to play and began declining parts the studio thrust upon her. The punishment? As author Emily Carman told Entertainment Weekly, de Havilland was essentially “blacklisted” from the industry, with Warner Bros. even going as far as to “tell other studios to not hire her.”
Actors couldn't refuse roles given to them by their studios
Being locked into long-term contracts with their studios, actors had virtually no say when it came to whatever roles were assigned to them. According to Into Film, while many stars were unwilling to go against the system, it’s “The Heiress” actor, Olivia de Havilland, that boldly decided to rebel against Warner Bros. (the studio which signed her in 1935), making a legendary change to the Hollywood system.
“What bothered me was playing one-dimensional parts in films,” de Havilland once told Entertainment Weekly, adding, “Those roles were intended simply to fill the routine function of ‘The Girl.'” As such, the A-lister began declining roles and found herself “suspended” from the studio, without pay. “She was off screen for almost two years, and she wasn’t even 30 yet,” author Emily Carmen told the outlet. “This is the prime of her career.”
Yet de Havilland was relentless, and with the knowledge that her lawyer father gave her, she took Warner Bros. to court — and won. Per Reuters, the result was “The De Havilland Law,” a “seven-year rule” on contracts (a.k.a. Labor Code Section 2855), which ultimately “[helped] bring down the old studio system.” As Victoria Amador, author of “Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant,” told Entertainment Weekly, “it was a major brick in the downfall of the control of the studio system.”
Stars had to be willing to change their names
What did Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Natalie Wood all have in common? Their legendary A-list names were all created by the studios that built them into the stars they’re remembered as today. As The Guardian writes, during the time of Hollywood’s Golden Age, it was “standard” practice for an actor’s name to be changed, and the reasons were endless.
While “Gilda” lead Rita Hayworth was viewed as an “all-American” bombshell, her birth name was Margarita Cansino, as her father was Spanish while her mother was Irish-American (via JStor Daily). Forced to change her name to appear more Anglo-sounding, her transformation “eliminated most traces of her ethnicity.” Joan Crawford, on the other hand, was born Lucille LeSueur, and according to The Guardian, her name change came by way of an MGM studio exec who said that “her last name reminded him of a sewer.” According to “The Star Machine,” Crawford allegedly loathed her given stage name, which reminded her of “crawfish.”
But it wasn’t just female screen stars who had to change their names; men weren’t excused from this practice, either. Cary Grant, for example, was actually Archibald Alexander Leach, and was given his new identity by Paramount Studios (via Biography).
They also had to be willing to change their appearance
Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM), once declared, “A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing,” and sure enough, that’s precisely what Hollywood was doing during its Golden Age (via Hollywood Lexicon). The iconic producer noted that all he initially looked for in a future star was their face and if they could look good on camera. As he revealed, “we could do the rest.”
Sure enough, future A-listers had to be willing to change their appearance, and sometimes, their entire image. Along with changing her original Hispanic last name (Cansino), Rita Hayworth also went through a rigorous physical change; according to JStor Daily, she was subject to “two years of painful electrolysis to change her low, dark hairline.” On the other hand, Marilyn Monroe was also manufactured into the blonde bombshell she’s forever remembered as. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Monroe actually had dark brown curls when she first began her climb to Tinseltown’s elite, with modeling agency head Emmeline Snively once telling her, “Look darling, if you really intend to go places in this business, you’ve just got to bleach and straighten your hair because now your face is a little too round” (via “Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modeling Years“).
According to Racked, Old Hollywood was also a supporter of expensive plastic surgery — which still wasn’t common at the time — and even “as early as the 1920s,” nose jobs and facelifts were being performed.
Just because a star had a pretty face, didn't mean they could act
Although appearances meant practically everything in Old Hollywood, that doesn’t mean that just any pretty face could act. In fact, studios were willing to dish out big bucks for acting classes for their aspiring A-listers. As Shirley Temple revealed in her book, “Child Star,” while she was still a rising star in Tinseltown in the early 30s, Fox executive Winfield R. Sheehan told her and her mother that due to the youngster’s “potential,” they demanded she take acting lessons, even if they risked the expensive price tag to do so.
Ava Gardner was also asked to take classes after signing her initial contract with MGM. According to the Los Angeles Times, when she took her first screen test with the studio, an official allegedly declared, “She can’t act; she didn’t talk; she’s sensational.” Along with her acting lessons, the “Mogambo” star was also asked to take vocal lessons to get rid of her Southern accent (via Biography).
Vocal training was also given to Lauren Bacall — with her “low, seductive voice” becoming her signature (via Vulture). As the star herself revealed in her memoir, “By Myself,” director Howard Hawks was the one who instructed her to read out loud by herself. “He felt it most important to keep the voice in a low register,” she recalled, noting that Hawks told her “when a woman gets excited or emotional … there is nothing more unattractive than screeching” (via Vulture).
Backstories were created to boost an actor's public persona
It’s no secret that Old Hollywood stars were usually typecast, but it turns out that sometimes, their entire image was carefully crafted, too. As Racked explains, studios’ publicity departments “went to great lengths” to create backstories for their future A-listers. According to FSR, Joan Crawford, born Lucille LeSueur, came from a “rough upbringing,” yet MGM made sure to completely hide her past, even telling the press that she came from an upper-class family. In fact, they released a public contest to pick her name. “Tiring of the social life of a debutante,” the ad in “Movie Weekly” read, “she left home to become an actress” (via The Best of Everything).
Backstories and lies continued well into an actor’s career, as well. Per Timeline, when Judy Garland became pregnant, MGM didn’t want to ruin her “innocent” image, so they ordered her to “take more speed” after her weight gain, while her publicists dished to the tabloids that “she ate like a truck driver.”
If anything, at least the actors were self-aware of the inevitable truth that they were typecast. Per Independent, “Gilda” lead Rita Hayworth couldn’t ever shake off her “femme fatale” image, causing her to groan, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me.” Cary Grant, on the other hand, who was born Archibald Alexander Leach, once deplored, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant” (via The Telegraph).
There was no limit to how much actors had to work, and it was sometimes cruel
The Golden Age of Hollywood churned out movies at a meteoric rate. According to Britannica, over 7,500 feature films were made by studios between 1930 and 1945. Of course, to produce that many flicks, actors were pushed to the brink of exhaustion, since there was no limit put in place to how much a star could work (via Timeline).
Per History, the solution that studios had to keep their A-listers working was simple: feed them pills. As Twentieth Century Fox doctor Lee Siegel explained in “Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” it was the norm to use pills as a “tool to keep stars working,” adding that by the early 50s, “everyone was using pills.”
Perhaps the most well-known example of this exploitation was Judy Garland. Per Timeline, “The Wizard of Oz” star only had one day off a week, with “sometimes 18-hour shifts of constant singing and dancing.” To keep her awake, studios fed her “amphetamine uppers,” while in the evenings, she was given sleeping pills. Tragically, when Garland tried calling in sick or tried going to therapy or the hospital, the “filming delays would come out of her paycheck” — and she once owed MGM $100,000. At the age of 47, Garland died of a drug overdose.
Women weren't allowed to gain weight
There’s a reason why seemingly every female star from Hollywood’s Golden Age had a slim figure: they weren’t allowed to gain weight. As explained by Racked, gaining weight was actually “forbidden” when a star was signed — and it was even written into their contracts. In fact, fresh faces were “closely examined by studio execs” and then potentially given a dietitian before a studio would begin heavily promoting their work.
Heartbreakingly enough, studios weren’t even discreet with what they expected from their A-listers, sometimes even acting downright cruel. Per Biography, Judy Garland was nicknamed a “fat little pig with pigtails” by MGM execs, with studio head Louis B. Mayer demanding the actor “consume only chicken soup, black coffee and cigarettes, along with pills” to keep her figure. Swedish-born actor Greta Garbo was also hit with a blunt realization when she made it to Hollywood in 1925, with Mayer allegedly telling her, “In America, we don’t like fat women” (via The Guardian). As silent-movie expert Pamela Hutchinson told the outlet, “Garbo ate nothing but spinach for three weeks.”
Along with dieting, female actors also had to try and remain active. According to Harper’s Bazaar, Marilyn Monroe was keen on weightlifting — in a time when it still wasn’t the norm in Hollywood. Speaking to Pageant in 1952 (via Into the Gloss), the actor revealed, “I spend at least 10 minutes each morning working out with small weights.”
Stars' love lives were also arranged by studios
While the movies made during Hollywood’s Golden Age were filled with glitz and glam and A-listers swooning for one another, behind the scenes, a fairytale ending wasn’t that easy to come by. It turns out, studios actually had a lot of say when it came to an actor’s love life. When “Boys Town” star Mickey Rooney went to MGM and declared he was going to marry Ava Gardner in 1942, studio head Louis B. Mayer bluntly told him, “I simply forbid it. That’s all. I forbid it” (via Slate).
Although Rooney was eventually allowed a very private wedding, others weren’t as lucky. According to “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” there was a rumor that Jean Harlow allegedly couldn’t marry William Powell because MGM “had written a clause into her contract forbidding her to marry.” For LGBTQ actors, it was even more challenging. As Stephen Tropiano, professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College, told History, studios would actually have arranged marriages “between one or more gay, lesbian or bisexual people in order to hide their sexual orientation from the public.”
Abortions in Old Hollywood were also the norm from the 20s until the 50s, seen as “necessary body maintenance” (via Vanity Fair). As one anonymous female actor told the magazine, “abortions were our birth control.”
Dress codes for women were very important
Before World War II, female fashion was drastically different in America — and formal. According to Quartz, while French designer Coco Chanel slowly started integrating “menswear staples” such as pants on women in the late 1920s, things were still strict across the pond. In fact, in 1938, a woman in Los Angeles, California, was sent to jail for five days for wearing trousers in a courtroom (via Los Angeles Times).
Of course, Hollywood was no different. A 1933 article published in Movie Classic magazine claimed that studios actually gave out official orders “that their women stars should not be photographed in male attire or quoted on the subject.” Even Marlene Dietrich, who came to Tinseltown from Germany, wasn’t exempt, and one story saw her getting turned away from the trendy Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood — simply for wearing pants (via Los Angeles Times).
Interestingly enough, it was “The Philadelphia Story” star Katharine Hepburn that helped abolish Hollywood’s strict dress code. Per Biography, the actor refused to comply and act as a cookie-cutter starlet, and when RKO’s costume department stole her pants one day, she “walked around the studio in her underwear.” Naturally, Hepburn got her pants back, slowly paving the way for her peers.
Stars' assistants acted like studio spies
With so many rules set in place by Old Hollywood studios to keep their stars in check, one must wonder: how on earth didn’t they miss anything that happened behind closed doors? Ingenious, as always (or callous, by today’s standards), studios hired spies — and they could be anyone, “[compiling] reports on their stars from studio drivers, waiters and janitors” (via Smithsonian Magazine).
As detailed in “Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland,” Garland’s assistant, Betty Asher, was fooling her for years. As Garland herself once shared, Asher would actually “[give] a report” to MGM once a week detailing exactly who the actor would see, her eating habits, and if she was out too late in the evening. “I can remember crying for days after I found out what she was doing to me,” Garland reflected.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t just screen stars who had their lives painstakingly scrutinized. According to “Hollywood Works: How Creativity Became Labor in the Studio System,” movie directors were also kept a close eye on while a film was in production to make sure the studio’s best interests for the flick were going according to plan. To do this, filmmakers were spied on by “production assistants, line producers, and script clerks.”
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