Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema. By Anne Helen Petersen. Plume. $16.
One of the casualties of the demise of the Hollywood studio system was the studios’ old-fashioned publicity-and-protection machine, designed not only to pump up the latest films and stars but also to protect the stars from themselves – to craft carefully arranged “star personas” reflecting the supposed naïveté and wholesomeness of the movies’ audiences rather than the seamy, steamy realities of many performers’ actual lives. The publicity machines did not cease to exist after Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, of course, but they were transformed into movie-hype factories rather than facilities operating in loco parentis. Just how much the studios’ publicity people had to do in movies’ early days, and how much they tried to do in more-recent times, becomes clear from Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood, a strange hybrid of the savvy and the salacious by an author who has a Ph.D. in, believe it or not, the history of the gossip industry.
The book includes a number of familiar names and a few that may sound familiar to modern filmgoers and gossip-enjoyers even if they are not quite sure who the people were: Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Rudolph Valentino, Mae West, James Dean. Much of the genuinely interesting material here relates to performers whose work is less known today: Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, Jean Harlow, Montgomery Clift. The efforts of studios to sanitize and promote their stars, to do damage control while also producing plenty of hype, are the most interesting part of Petersen’s book, especially when she gives examples drawn from a time with standards very different from those of today. Regarding Arbuckle, for example, she writes, “When a fan queried Photoplay as to the identity of Arbuckle’s wife, the magazine offered [Minta] Durfee’s name, then asked, ‘Wouldn’t you love to be the wife of a fatty de foie gras?’ Today, these jokes read as incredibly poor taste; then, they were simply part of the image production machine. As Photoplay pointed out, ‘His fat is his fortune.’”
Speaking of image production, the Hollywood studios decided – after a number of scandals that they could not fully manage, notably including allegations against Arbuckle – that they needed to clean up their act, at least on screen if not behind the scenes. This led to one of the most notorious of all decisions of the studio era, and one that still affects Hollywood films today: establishment of a censorship organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), led by “devout Presbyterian and former postmaster general Will H. Hays…[who] instituted mandatory ‘morality clauses’ in star contracts, which effectively forced stars to hew to strict standards of moral behavior.” The fact that the clauses were more honored in the breach than the observance was not the point – they showed the studios’ willingness to adhere to the most narrow-minded images of morality possible, and paved the way for a modern censorship arrangement (the familiar G, PG, etc. ratings system) in which violence and viciousness are deemed far more palatable and family-friendly than sex. The Hays office, as it is still referred to, always focused primarily on sex, as Petersen’s chapter on Mae West makes clear: “The popularity of West, her films, and their explicit attitude toward sex weren’t [sic; should be “wasn’t”] just a fad, or a boon to an industry struggling to make its way through the Depression. They were [sic; should be “It was”] a flagrant, incendiary violation of common decency, a threat to the morality of the nation, evidence of the abject failure of the MPPDA and Will Hays to protect audiences from sin in the form of the moving image. …[So] in the summer of 1934, the Hays office decided to ‘grant enforcement’ of the censorship code via the Production Code Administration (PCA) and its very Catholic, very no-nonsense head, Joseph Breen.” What followed, and what resonates even today, makes for fascinating reading – a lot more interesting than much of Petersen’s surface-level focus on which stars were sleeping with which other ones and which publicity machines were churning out what sort of attempted cover-ups.
True, it is the headliners of the book that will most likely bring readers to it: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. But Petersen’s name-dropping is not the most interesting part of Scandals of Classic Hollywood – it is her insights into the way Hollywood used to operate that are the book’s primary attraction. Still, those seeking the salacious will find a fair helping of it here; but they will have to wade through some execrable editing to get to it. The book is distractingly filled with inelegant writing and with errors of all sorts. A small sampling includes page 13, “high-class, gentile [sic], wholly above scandal”; page 50, “his marriage to Rambocha” [the correct name is Rambova]; page 56, “you’re not [sic] angel”; page 67, “the lifestyle that had made her performative” [sic]; page 195, “had stuck [sic; should be “struck”] her violently”; page 202, “Hollywood, at least at in [sic] that era”; page 213, “all he cared about what [sic] re-creating”; page 218, “and wiling [sic; should be “whiling”] away.” The old Hollywood scandals, in an era long before the Internet and today’s anything-goes morality, seem somewhat quaint now, but the publicity machine that fed scandal-mongering and existed to support and encourage moviegoers’ fascination with celebrities is still very much with us. It just works differently today: more diffusely and with greater immediacy. Scandals of Classic Hollywood may lack analytical skill, but at least it opens a window into a time when well-known performers were supposed to be better people than they in fact were – as opposed to today, when they are not required to be much of anything at all.
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