Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Top 10 Scandals of Classic Hollywood

In the early part of the twentieth century, Hollywood operated under the ‘studio’ system – whereby actors were contracted to one studio, often for five to seven years. The studios developed their own materials with their own writers, directors and cinematographers. (Interestingly, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, DW Griffiths and Charlie Chaplin created United Artists, to further their own interests in 1919). But in general the ‘studio’ system was how Hollywood operated. An actor may have been lucky to be contracted, and could be let go, but many great stars emerged from the system. The draw-back for actors was that while they may have been generating huge incomes from audiences, either due to their popularity, talent or the calibre of film they were given, they worked up to 50 weeks per year, often in back-to-back (and sometimes overlapping) films at pay rates well below their ‘studio worth’ and often in projects well beneath their proven talent.

At the time, the Hays code regulated what could be depicted in film, and demanded a high moral code of ethics from the studios, players and films. While many violations occurred, and many stars led lives that would not meet the code, the press at the time respected (or were paid off? or were owned by men in precarious moral circumstances of their own…) the studios, and generally did not print scandalous material. Many stars were subjected to blackmail by their studios to keep them in line, some lived repressed lives, but many popular or low-key performers lived very alternative lifestyles openly and without fear of exposure. It depended on who you were, and how much you were worth. Scandalous stories were printed, but names were not used, leaving the public guessing and the subjects fearful.

Behind the scenes were some interesting underlying stories and scandals.

Hollywood Scandal #1: Gone With The Wind


Gone With the Wind was a long-term MGM project. It had George Cukor, an MGM director, attached, and one of their studio players, Clark Gable cast as the male lead, Rhett Butler.

The issue: Cukor, openly gay, was considered a ‘woman’s director’ and Gable, who wielded great power at MGM, wanted him removed. Eventually after a two-year casting process, the film got underway. In the meantime, Gable had been purportedly undermining Cukor with producer David O. Selznick, and eventually Cukor was replaced. In fact he isn’t even credited on the titles. Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland, who played Scarlett and Melanie respectively, were both devastated and did all they could to have Cukor re-instated. In the end, Victor Fleming was released from his directorial commitments at MGM’s other great project, The Wizard of Oz, and came on board with Gone With The Wind. Both Leigh and De Havilland, unknown to the studio and to each other, continued to run scenes with Cukor as the film shot.

There are varying reports as to how much of a role Gable played in this internal drama. However, years later, a rumour circulated that Gable, famed for his macho film characters and persona, had had an affair with William Haines, a gay actor, in the Twenties, and that Cukor was aware of the relationship.


Interesting facts:
  • Bette Davis had been a front-runner for Scarlett in Gone With The Wind, so was quickly cast by her studio, Warner Brothers, in Jezebel; another story of a ‘strong-willed’ Southern Belle, which also starred Henry Fonda, father of Peter and Jane.
  • Gone With The Wind commenced shooting without a leading lady. Vivian Leigh was first seen by David O. Selznick, the producer, during a night shoot of the Burning of Atlanta. Selznick’s brother, Myron, an agent, brought along the British beauty and introduced her as Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh, who was in Hollywood with Laurence Olivier as he filmed Wuthering Heights, went through the arduous audition process and was eventually cast. They were living together at the time, and eventually married, with Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin as witnesses.
  • Both Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz had three directors active in the project, but Fleming was listed on the credits of each.
  • Shirley Temple, contracted to 20th Century Fox, had been originally slated for Dorothy, in an exchange deal for MGM’s Jean Harlow. However Harlow died prematurely at 26 years of age, and the deal fell through. MGM resorted to their contract player, Judy Garland (Frances Ethel Gumm), and history was made.
  • Cukor, who was loved by many of the actresses of the time, had a competitive friendship with Katharine Hepburn and Frances Howard Goldwyn (Mrs Sam Goldwyn – the ‘G’ in MGM). Cukor is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park – next to Mrs Goldwyn.

Hollywood Scandal #2: Clark Gable’s Love Child

This one also involves Clark Gable and his scandalous involvement with the very prim, proper and beautiful Gretchen Young – one of three acting sisters, including Sally Blane. Young adopted the first name of Loretta, and had a very long and successful career which branched into television later in her life. But in 1934 she was a 21-year-old starlet with an annulled marriage under her belt , a promising career ahead and was starring in the The Call of the Wild, with the married Gable.


Following the movie, she went on ‘holiday’ to England, and kept a very low profile for several months. Then it was back to work. A year or so later, Loretta adopted a one-year-old baby, Judy, and gave her the surname of her second husband, Lewis. Judy Lewis did not know until adulthood that her father was Gable, despite having heard rumours throughout her life. Young never confirmed the situation publicly, but according to Lewis, he eventually admitted the truth privately. In Young’s autobiography published after her death, she revealed the truth.


Lewis had a successful acting and writing career in TV soaps and went on to a career as a therapist.

Interesting facts:
  • Judy’s aunt, Loretta’s sister Georgiana, was married to the actor, Ricardo Montalban of Fantasy Island fame, for over 60 years.

Hollywood Scandal #3: William Hearst & Citizen Kane


Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was in a precarious social position. He was intensely private, and married, but was captivated by the much younger beautiful movie comedienne Marion Davies, with whom he set up house despite remaining married until his death. He had great aspirations for Davies and pushed her towards more artistic and dramatic roles, ultimately ending her career.

He was morally very judgemental of others, and on weekends on his yacht or at his castle San Simeon, unmarried couples were housed in separate rooms or cottages. Only one alcoholic drink per person per evening was ever allowed as Marion was developing a drinking habit.


Hearst’s incredible wealth and media power afforded him the privilege of conducting an illicit lifestyle whilst wielding the threat of publicity over others. (Today his publishing empire still includes newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle, and magazines in Australia such as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and later this year, the Australian edition of Elle as well.)

Interesting facts:
  • Orson Welles, a greatly talented actor and filmmaker, made arguably one of the top ten movies of all time in 1941 with Citizen Kane, based loosely on Hearst’s life. Hearst re-acted strongly to the parallels by banning mention of the movie in any of his publications. At that time, it was estimated that one in four Americans read a Hearst publication each day. The film failed financially at the time as a result, but over the years has maintained critical success. Welles’ career was definitely affected long-term by the negativity of Hearst.

Hollywood Scandal #4: The Charlie Chaplin shooting?


On a weekend aboard William Hearst‘s yacht Oneida, the silent actor, director and screenwriter Thomas Ince was shot and killed, or later died – reports vary. He was quietly disembarked, and returned home, where his death was written up as a heart attack and he was quickly cremated. Hearst’s power and wealth, and a significant payment to Mrs Ince, covered up the incident, which purportedly was an attempt to shoot Charlie Chaplin, who was having an affair with Marion. Also on board was Louella Parsons, who managed to negotiate a lifetime contract as a gossip writer on the Hearst publications following this now infamous weekend. Parsons wielded incredible power and could make or break Hollywood reputations.

This incident is depicted in the Kirsten Dunst movie, The Cat’s Meow.


Interesting facts:
  • Hearst’s Castle, San Simeon, was constructed of European rooms and a castle which were taken apart, transported to the United States and reassembled. The Castle is now a tourist attraction.

Hollywood Scandal #5: John Barrymore’s showgirl affair


John Barrymore came from an acting family. It was in their blood, and his brother Lionel and sister Ethel, were all in the business. John had an infatuation with the teenage actress/showgirl Evelyn Nesbit when they were 18 and 16 respectively. During the course of their romance, Evelyn was at some stage admitted to hospital for an appendectomy. Rumours over the years were that she in fact had an abortion, and the romance was brought to an end by the machinations of her older suitor, architect Stanford White, and her pushy stage mother.


Sadly, Nesbit and Barrymore may have been better off together. Whilst Barrymore went on to a hugely successful career it was often clouded by his personal problems, including excessive alcohol consumption and numerous relationships, and later in life, the inability to retain lines, hence requiring cue cards (even for one word lines!). Evelyn went on to marry the mentally unstable Harry Thaw who then shot and killed White during one of Nesbit’s performances. This scenario is played out in the modern musical Ragtime, and Nesbit was known as The Girl On The Swing and the murder as “The Crime of The Century”. Nesbit remained married to Thaw for sometime before divorcing him. She too slipped into alcoholism in later life.

Interesting fact:
  • Barrymore’s granddaughter, Drew, is well known to modern audiences, having gone from child star in E.T. to a successful adult career as an actress and producer.

Hollywood Scandal #6: The Bennett sisters


Family members were often part of Hollywood’s history – the Barrymore siblings, the Fairbanks father and son, the Talmadge sisters, the Gish sisters and the Bennett sisters: Joan and Constance Bennett.

Joan, after a successful theatre career and one marriage, was working in Hollywood, and was cast in Little Women as Amy, with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, and director George Cukor. She met Walter Wanger, the producer, and eventually married him.

During this time her agent was Jennings Lang. At some point Wanger began to suspect that Lang and Bennett were having an affair, and he lined up with a gun, according to Hollywood lore, and shot Lang ‘in the balls’. Historical documents are not quite as colourful, but the end result was that Lang was shot in the groin and Wanger did jail time.

Lang recovered, Wanger returned to a successful career, but Bennett’s on-camera career was permanently damaged. She did, however, continue onstage successfully, and in later life starred in the television series, Dark Shadows.


Interesting facts:
  • Both Hepburn and Bennett also auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara.
  • Dark Shadows was reinvented recently as a Johnny Depp movie. It featured four of the surviving members of the original tv show.
  • Joan’s sister Constance Bennett also had a successful movie career, and was financially astute and invested wisely. Her biggest scandal was five husbands.

Hollywood Scandal #7: Fatty and the Wild Party


Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was a hugely successful, silent movie comedian. He was rotund and very talented. However, his social life led to a dreadful end to his career.

During a wild party in a hotel, a young woman, who had been alone with him at some stage, became seriously ill and sent to hospital, where she died some time later of peritonitis. The rumours ran amuck.

Aspersions were cast on Virginia Rappe’s character, her history, the possibility that she had had a botched abortion along with rumours that Arbuckle’s size had caused her bladder to rupture during a violent sexual encounter, along with other salacious rumours.

Arbuckle was charged, and following three trials, was eventually acquitted. His career however was ruined. The story is legendary, and was the premise for the ‘70’s movie, The Wild Party, starring Raquel Welch.


Interesting fact:
  • The later musical of the same name is about a scandalous Twenties party which descends into a fatal orgy. The cast included Australia’s Toni Colette, and Mandy Patinkin.

Hollywood Scandal #8: Lana Turner & the murder trial


Lana Turner was a legendary beauty supposedly discovered at a drug store, and was later known as “The Sweater Girl” for some form-fitting costumes which she wore. Born, or known as Judy, once she was signed to MGM, she took the name Lana, as they already had a ‘Judy’.

Lana was schooled on the MGM set with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, among others. She appeared in a huge variety of movies: from Love Finds Andy Hardy with Rooney to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with Spencer Tracy. Her personal life was tumultuous – she had one daughter, but was married eight times.

But that wasn’t the most scandalous part. In the Fifties, Turner was involved with Johnny Stompanato who had criminal connections. It was a violent and volatile relationship. During an altercation, Turner’s 14-year-old daughter stabbed and killed Stompanato. The rumour mill went wild, and Turner provided some very ‘dramatic’ testimony. Eventually, the case was ruled justifiable homicide.


Interesting facts:
  • The Sixties movie Where Love Has Gone with Susan Hayward and Bette Davis (they also both auditioned for Scarlett!) was widely believed to have been based on the Turner/Stompanato scandal.

Hollywood Scandal #9: Mary Astor’s 50 Shades of Grey…


Mary Astor began her movie career in the silent era as a teenager. She was also involved with John Barrymore (who by the way, attempted to seduce Katharine Hepburn, who was repulsed by him). Mary established a very long career which, due to the restricted nature of the press, was not terribly tarnished by her scandal.

Astor appeared with all the big stars of the Thirties and Forties, including Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Walter and John Huston, and married four times. In the Thirties, however, her second husband divorced her, citing her affair with playwright George S Kaufman, among others, which she apparently documented in her diary! Labelled the Diary in Blue, it would apparently rival 50 Shades of Grey for graphic sexual depictions. The diary was eventually burnt, but lives on in Hollywood lore.

Astor, too, struggled with alcoholism. In later life, she put pen to paper again in a successful autobiography, however the salacious details of her diary weren’t part of this literary effort.


Interesting facts:
  • Walter Huston and John Huston were the grandfather and father respectively of Anjelica Huston, who most recently appeared in the TV series, Smash.

Hollywood Scandal #10: Hepburn & Tracy


Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy met in 1941 for the movie Woman Of The Year. Even watching it now, the viewer can sense the chemistry and sexual tension which made this an edgy movie at the time. Tracy was 41 and had been married for 18 years. He and Hepburn went on to make nine films together over a 26 year period, and Hepburn was in the house with Tracy the night he died in 1967, shortly after completion of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, their final film together.

Tracy was a Catholic and never divorced his wife, despite many infidelities with various well-known actresses and the 26-year relationship with Hepburn.


It is rumoured that Hepburn called a mutual friend on the night Tracy died and packed up her belongings and left before Louise Tracy arrived. At some point Mrs Tracy did meet Hepburn and purportedly told her that she had “heard a rumour….”. Hepburn did not attend the funeral.

Throughout their long relationship, Hepburn and Tracy maintained a friendship with the writer Garson Kanin and his actress wife, Ruth Gordon. Kanin published an insightful and quirky observation of their history as friends and as a couple.

Tracy and Hepburn escaped the rumour mills of the gossip magazines over the years, as they led very private lives. However, they were widely known as a couple, and listed Leigh and Olivier, Bogart and Bacall and many other high-profile Hollywood identities as friends. It wasn’t really until the 70’s that the relationship became public knowledge. This kind of discretion is not afforded to the stars of the present, as the digital age leaves nothing to the imagination.


Interesting facts:
  • Garson Kanin’s book Smash, is the basis for the recent television series starring Debra Messing of the same name.
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was remade in 2005 as Guess Who, with Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher and Zoe Saldana, in a reverse social scenario.

This original article was written by Marcia Carroll and published on Cinemazzi; as she draw from many, many years of reading biographies and memoirs of old Hollywood identities along with scandal magazines, gossip magazines and more recently, television documentaries.

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