Posted in essay, film

The Dark Age of Hollywood (1/2)

April 2004

When thinking of the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” people often think of red carpet affairs, flashing camera lights, diamond jewelry and glamorous lifestyles. They do not see the behind the scenes where the Golden agree was not exactly as golden as the cover may make it appear. They do not imagine that Hollywood of yesterday was as bad if not worse then today, and there were codes that limited the content of films more so then the current rating system. Hollywood of the “Golden Age” was not as glamorous as people image but rather had a dark side that was never shown but was very clearly there.

Before the 1960s, the studio system controlled Hollywood. When people think of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Warner Brothers, or Paramount Studios, they think of their modern day versions as distribution and production companies. However, during the “Golden Age” they were known as studios and controlled more then just distribution and production. They controlled every step from the writing of the script to the theaters in which the films were viewed. They had contracts with writers, producers, directors, actors, crewmembers and composers who were only allowed to work for their studio unless their contract ended or they were lent out by the studio to another for a specific film. During this time, there were no actor unions as there are today, which made most of those wanting to work in film work for the studios instead of independent filmmakers (Jadloweic). Independent film companies had little chance to complete with the monopoly that the studios created.

Fortunately, the monopoly of the studio system came to the forefront in 1948 when the Supreme Court reviewed the case United States vs. Paramount. The United States Attorney General Tom C. Clark claimed that the studios had created a monopoly of the film industry. He stated that they controlled the entire filming process and owned the theaters in which the films were allowed to be shown. This did not allow the independent filmmakers a fair chance at the business (“The Hollywood Studio System”).

The lack of unions also allowed the studios to take advantage of their actors. In the early days of film making, actors and actresses worked under rather primitive working conditions compared to today’s advanced methods. Studios were often without light or heat and if a blizzard was needed, they would wait till one came along. Lillian Gish often recalled her days with Director D.W. Griffith, working from dawn until midnight and then again the next day on one of his pictures. While filming “Way Down East” in 1919, she worked through a snowstorm on a real frozen river with real ice slabs. The driving snow froze to her face and icicles formed on her eyelashes. The camera had to be heated to keep it from freezing. Several of the cast, including actress Clarine Seymour, died from pneumonia due to the exposure (Jadloweic).

Another actress of the time, Loretta Young remembers the exhausting hours even child actors had to endure. California law stipulated that a minor only work for four hours each day and could not work after five o’clock. They had to have a teacher present at all times as well. However, when the film fell behind schedule, the studio would ask them to work at night after the teacher had left the studio lot, and all day Saturday until late at night. Young ended up in the hospital suffering from exhaustion. She was only sixteen years old (Morella). Another case involving a young actor was the case of Olivia De Hallivand. She sued Warner Brothers and won in the Supreme Court. The case prevented studios from holding actors on suspension and/or extending their contracts so they could not work for another studio. Cases like Hallivand’s were the first steps that finally brought along the unions. In 1933, nineteen actors met secretly to draw up plans for a union that would protect artists from this kind of abuse. Soon seventy-five thousand motion picture performers became part of the Screen Actor’s Guild or SAG as it is known today (Jadlowiec). However this did not stop studios from abusing their power over actors.

As head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer abused the power he had as the head of the studio. While many studio heads did the same, Mayer’s actions became the most widely known examples. He was not well loved by his peers, although he was feared and respected, and some even looked to him as a father figure. He used his position faux reels promoting the Republican Party and to create films that bowed to his tastes as far as morality was concerned. For those who went against Mayer there were consequences. He could end his or her career or on the occasion use violence if someone did not have the same view as he did. When people walked into his office to ask for a raise, Mayer would his charm, guilt trips, and even blackmail to get them to lower the amount or leave without a raise at all. Mayer also used his position to arrange things for his actors, like in the case of Clark Gable. Mayer used the public relations department of MGMG to hide the fact that while drinking Gable hit and killed a woman with his car. Mayer managed to convince an executive of the company to take the blame for the accident and to convince the district attorney to charge the executive instead of Gable. This saved the company of the embarrassment of having one of their top starts getting a conviction (“Mayer, Louis B,”). However, he did not always work in the favor of the actor. In the case of June Allyson, who viewed him as a farther figure, he even went as far as to tell her whom she could date (Allyson).

For Judy Garland, the studio went much further than her love life. Garland had worked for several years for MGM and she was known for her part as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and as a singer later in life. However, things were not so bright over the rainbow. Her contract with MGM had strict clauses. If she gained weight or her voice was not in perfect form, she had the chance of termination from work without pay. These conditions influenced her use of drugs and later her death by drug overdose. Her mother introduced her to the drugs that were meant to keep her thin. Soon she began to take sleeping pills to keep up with touch schedules. The drugs she was taking were powerful psychological drugs and she went to many psychologists for the problems they caused, not realizing it was drug induced. Some drugs she took even caused suicidal tendencies. By the time she started I the film The Pirate she was so addicted that without the pills she would have severe pain and felt as she were suffocating. Finally, the drugs became too much and of June 15, 1969 she was found dead in her London hotel room overdosed on drugs (“Judy Garland: Destroyed at Rainbow’s End”). This all started with a simple clause. However, MGM did not only influence her life with drugs and psychologists. When she became pregnant for the first time, the studio pressured her, again with the help of her mother, into get an abortion. She did not want to have it but finally she caved into the pressure and got an abortion, “to keep from making the studio angry…” (Allyson, 42).

Another way the studios ruled the lives of those working in Hollywood was the installment of the Production code. The production code was set in place in the early thirties to counter the damage caused by the many scandals in the industry during the twenties. It lasted until 1967 and was the last hold the studios had over the film industry. It affected the screenwriters and directors more so then the actors as it affected the content of the films. It also affected public viewers of the films as it chose for them what they should see and what they should not see. Unlike today, they were not given the right to choose what they considered good entertainment, but instead of what studios considered to be morally correct for them. The code restricted how much a person could show of certain things such as words and actions as well as whether or not those things could be shown. Certain actions were not allowed on screen like criminal activity and immoral actions unless they were essential to the plot. A person could not put something criminal or immoral in a positive light. A popular movie such as Pretty Woman would not have been allowed simply because it showed prostitution in a more positive light then was accepted. According to the code “the methods and techniques of prostitution …shall never be presented in detail nor shall the subjects be presented unless shown in a contrast to the right standards of behavior” (Hayes). While some of the code was acceptable, many of the rules were very strict on what could be shown and what could not be. There could not be a grey area; good and evil must be defined. Not even cartoons were exempt from the code and cartoons such as Betty Boop were faded out due to their more mature content (“Betty Boop”). The studios decided for the population of America what exactly their moral stance was. They also decided what their feelings towards racism and other factors would be.

The production code also discriminated against race and sexual orientation. Homosexual or biracial relationships were not tolerated by the code (“Betty Boop”). The man who influenced the code makers greatly, Joseph Breen, was actually anti-Semitic and thought the Jewish executives of the studios were a threat (Eskenazi). Breen also founded an organization which claimed affiliation with the Catholic Church which would pout in the paper a list of films that would tell the readers which films were acceptable to watch and which were not. This appear greatly influenced the people who went to see the movies (Jadloweic). The code changed many times although not by much and was still in place by the late sixties. The current rating systems replaced it and gave the film industry more flexibility as well as give the public more choices and a chance to choose what their beliefs and standards were.

The code was taken for many reasons. There were moral chances since the code was put in as well as a Supreme Court decision that the code was infringing on the freedom of speech. The code did not allow the writers the freedom of choosing what to write in their films and the public was not allowed to make their own moral decision regarding the films content. The fall of the production code and the studio system marked the end of what was considered the “Golden Age” of Hollywood.

The era known as the “Golden Age” was not the Hollywood people normally imagine. The scandals of the twenties left Hollywood with a production code that restricted the content and subject of films as well as personal choice. There were also studio heads that added clauses to their contracts as well as used the Public relations departs to protect themselves from more scandal. They also ran people’s lives through threats with sly tactics and took advantage of the workers of Hollywood. The Hollywood imagined is only shown in the movies that the darker and real Hollywood created.


A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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