“The Golden Age of Hollywood.”
The very words induce visions of glamorous stars in glittery cocktail dresses and suave, square-jawed actors in tight-fitting tuxedoes. But while California’s 1950s film industry offered glitz and glamour to the masses – and did manage to create all kinds of magic on screen – the things that were happening off-screen and behind the scenes proved to be just as entertaining… if not more so. Scandals, affairs and backstabbings were just as common backstage as they were among the characters they brought to life.
Let’s step into the black and white world of 1950s’ Hollywood and take a look at some of the stories that helped turn it into a truly magical place and time.
Back in the early days of Hollywood, big movie studios weren’t just responsible for funding and producing films – they were also responsible for their actors.
Studios would sign actors on – not to a specific film, but to the studio itself. The actors would then become employees of the studio – but also, more than just employees. The actors were the face of the studio, and in those socially conservative times, any personal scandal or “immoral” behavior by the actors would be seen as reflecting off the studio itself.
That’s why some studios employed “Fixers” – men who would quell public scandals before they got reported and help bring the actors ‘under control’ in difficult situations – for instance, when Marlene Dietrich was distraught after discovering John Gilbert’s corpse.
Loretta Young’s Daughter
One famous Fixer story took place when Loretta Young got pregnant out of wedlock. It wasn’t until after she died, that the story of her child was revealed.
With the help of her studio’s fixers, Young faked an elaborate illness for the whole duration of her pregnancy, gave birth in secret and gave her daughter to an orphanage. A few months after the birth, Young entered procedures to adopt her own daughter, and so was able to raise her without anyone knowing that she gave birth in the first place.
Another famous Fixer story took place in 1958.
That year, Lana Turner, a famous dramatic actress and model, began being courted by a man by the name of Johnny Stompanato – who had extensive connections to the underworld. The two entered a relationship that quickly turned toxic and abusive – and after Stompanato entered an argument with Lana at her home, her 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed him with a kitchen knife, killing him on the spot.
It was then that the studio called fixer Fred Otash, a former LAPD detective and a private eye, to come to Turner’s house and help sort things out – a move which would later raise theories about Lana having stabbed her boyfriend, and laying the blame on her daughter.
Rita Hayworth’s Transformation
Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino in 1918 to a Spanish father and an American mother of English and Irish descent. She was an extremely talented dancer and actress, and it didn’t take long for producers to sign her on at a big studio.
Rita’s agent, however, believed that her look was too “Mediterranean,” and feared that if she didn’t pass as more “American,” she’d only be cast in “exotic” roles, and so Margarita shortened her name to “Rita,” took her mother’s maiden name, “Hayworth,” and dyed her hair a dark red.
She also underwent electrolysis treatments to raise her hairline and broaden the appearance of her forehead, eventually creating a more “norther European look” which was, at the time, considered more “American.”
When the military began conducting experiments with atomic bombs, a tradition was formed in which pictures of Hollywood “bombshells” were painted on to the nuclear warhead. Hayworth was one of them.
Orson Welles, then married to Hayworth, told biographer Barbara Leaming what happened when Rita found out her likeness was placed on a bomb: “Rita almost went insane, she was so angry. … She wanted to go to Washington to hold a press conference, but Harry Cohn” – her agent – “wouldn’t let her because it would be unpatriotic.”
The studio system in Hollywood went to great lengths to ensure its stars appear glamorous and desirable – but their real lives were often very, very difficult.
Unlike today, when stars are represented by agents and lawyers in front of production companies, back then the studios controlled every aspect of their stars’ lives, often making them work unreasonable hours, demanding personal and even, in some cases, encouraging drug use to up their talent’s productivity – all of this sanctioned by draconian contracts and severe penalties.
Happily, these days are long gone, and while Hollywood stars today may face other difficulties, the studio system is no longer one of them.
The studios weren’t just manipulating actors – they also took to manipulating the media, in an attempt to make headlines.
Studios would “leak” information about their actors and actresses, create scandals and invent affairs, all in attempts to promote upcoming films – and all with the help of gossip columnists who were eager to report on whatever juicy new gossip the studio executives would feed them.
Any News is Good News
Being in the paper meant free publicity, so the studios “fed” gossip columnists with news – positive or negative, it didn’t matter.
One example of this was the famous – and highly publicized – feud between actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. When Davis first came to Hollywood, Crawford was already a well-established star. Their feud started when, on the same day a big article on Davis was meant to be published, Crawford announced her divorce, throwing shade over Davis’ coverage and severely hurting her ticket sales.
The feud between the two escalated, with gossip columns becoming the field of battle, and giving stage to Davis’ famous quote about Crawford, saying she “slept with every male star at MGM — except Lassie.”
The two’s feud continued to escalate over the years. At one point, while both actresses were filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, Bette Davis installed a Coca-Cola vending machine on set. The problem? Crawford had just been widowed, and her late husband was Pepsi’s CEO.
The entire film’s production was riddled with quips between the two stars. After the film’s final cut was released, Joan Crawford urged Davis to watch the film. Crawford later recalled that when she called Davis up a few days later to hear her impressions, Davis said: “You were so right, Joan. The picture is good. And I was terrific.”
Crawford continued: “That was it. She never said anything about my performance. Not a word.”
Most public feuds have a way of petering out and calming down over the years, but it seems Davis and Crawford were true nemesis.
When Joan Crawford died in 1977, Bette Davis commented: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good … Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
It seems safe to say that the two famous actresses stayed enemies until the very end.
Judy Garland and JFK
Still, being a movie star wasn’t all doom and gloom.
For instance, Judy Garland, who famously portrayed Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, had a really close relationship with US President John F. Kennedy thanks to her star status. Although JFK was known for his admiration for Hollywood’s female stars, this relationship was purely platonic; the two simply got along as good friends.
JFK admired Judy Garland, and often enjoyed late night conversations with her – some of which would reportedly end up with her singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
No Place Like Home
When Judy Garland auditioned for the role of Dorothy, she was only 13 years old. By the time filming started, however, Garland was starting to grow up and the studio executives were concerned about her weight. The placed her in a strict diet, even giving her tobacco in order to suppress hunger.
But that wasn’t the only reprehensible behind-the-scenes behavior that the studio promoted. To maximize her productivity, the young actress was put on amphetamines to help her stay awake during the grueling shooting schedule, and was given barbiturates to counter the amphetamines’ effects and allow her to fall asleep.
Little Drunk Munchkins
It wasn’t just the production crew that made life difficult for Garland during shooting. Her ex-husband, Sid Luft, often spoke badly about the behavior of the actors hired to play the munchkins on the set of The Wizard of Oz. He said that they were often drunk or hangover on set and that in that state they often harassed the young Garland.
These difficult filming conditions made Garland’s performance in the film even more admirable – but also makes it difficult to watch it with the same child-like wonder.
The Original “Frenemies”
As the star of one of the first color feature films in the world, Lana Turner wasn’t even a blip on Judy Garland’s radar at first. But the two co-stars soon got to know each other – and to become quite jealous of one another. Garland was in a relationship with actor and musician Artie Shaw – but he then eloped with Lana Turner, breaking Garland’s heart in the process and leaving her devastated; the first in a long line of heartbreaks Garland would experience.
Animal Rights Activist
Hollywood isn’t all heartache and sadness, though.
In fact, some behind-the-scenes stories are truly inspiring and uplifting.
Take, for instance, actress Tippi Hedren’s story. For the filming of the film Satan’s Harvest, Tippi flew with her husband and daughter to Africa. There, they witnessed wild lions, and became aware of their plight and trouble with hunters. Her sway in Hollywood – not to mention help from producers – allowed her to bring many lions over to California and into a special shelter she had built for them, where she and the lions still live today.
To finanace this undertaking, she filmed a semi-documentary film, the shooting of which spanned eleven years and cost $17 million.
Hedy Lamarr – Adventuress and Inventor
Hedy Lamarr’s life seems like it was taken directly out of an adventure book. Born in Vienna, Lamarr was married to a wealthy Austrian arms manufacturer.
“I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife. … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage. … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own,” Lamarr later wrote about her former husband.
One day, she managed to persuade him to let her wear all of her jewelry to a lavish dinner party, and, after having all of her valuables securely on her body, disappeared.
She later met up with MGM’s owner in London, who signed her up as an actress – but some say her greatest contribution was in her development of a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes in WWII, which is used today in WiFi and Bluetooth technology.
Lead actors and actresses in Hollywood today make astounding amounts of money for their work – but it wasn’t always like this. In fact, under the studio system, actors were usually significantly underpaid for the number of hours they put in each day.
That all changed with the efforts of stars like Marilyn Monroe in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and in 1963, Elizabeth Taylor became the first actress to earn $1 million – approximately $8 million’s worth by today’s standards, when adjusted for inflation – for starring in a film.
Her iconic role as Cleopatra garnered her critical and popular acclaim, and the film was a huge success, still considered one of filmmaking’s finest products today.
Iconic Hair Style
We all know the story of “The Rachel” – Jennifer Aniston’s hairstyle made famous and popular in the ’90s by Friends.
But it wasn’t the first time Hollywood sparked a national hairstyle craze. Back in the ’40s, Veronica Lake’s “peek-a-boo” hairdo, in which locks of her hair fell in front of her eye, was all the rage – but it actually started off as an accident. When Lake was playing in I Wanted Wings, her hair fell in front of her face, and considering the fact that the character she was plying was drunk, she didn’t bother to brush it out of her eye.
The mysterious, sultry look caught on immediately, and soon young American women from all walks of life were imitating it.
Dangerous Hair Style
During World War II, Lake’s “peek-a-boo” hairstyle actually became a national problem, and was not banned by the US War Department.
The women working in factories and taking part in the war effort would often wear their hair like the iconic Lake – but when you’re working near heavy machinery and leaning over cogs, wheels and production lines, long strands of loose hair can be a real hazard. The War Department allegedly asked Lake to change her hairstyle in an effort to dissuade women from wearing their hair in that manner.
The Shortest One
Veronica Lake was known not only for her famous hairstyle and acting skills – but also for her height.
Coming from the world of theater, most actresses at the time were quite tall, ranging on average between 5’6″ (167 cm) and 5’10” (177 cm). And while Veronica Lake’s studio claimed that she was 5’2″ (157 cm), in reality she was one of the shortest actresses in Hollywood, being only 4’11” (149 cm)!
Thelma Todd was a popular actress back in the 1920s and ’30s. Mostly remembered for her comedic roles, she appeared in several Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy films, as well as opposite of Buster Keaton in a few shorts.
Her life, however, was not nearly as comedic as her career. In December 1935, Thelma Todd was found dead inside her car, at the age of 29. Authorities determined her death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning – but the fishy thing about it was that her car was parked not in her own garage, but in that of Todd’s lover’s ex-girlfriend, Jewel Carmen.
How she had found her way there and why she had spent the night in a car with a running engine remains undetermined to this day.
Despite her relatively short career, Jayne Mansfield is still considered one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
When she first came to Hollywood, she was already married and a mother to three children – but she was determined to make it in the film business. And, indeed, her first job really was in the movies – selling candy at the snack counter of a local theater.
After working there for a short time, however, she was spotted by a talent agent and offered a modeling gig, after which it didn’t take long for her to break through to the studios and become a star.
Jayne Mansfield’s career really was meteoric. Within a few short years she was appearing in numerous blockbuster movies and rubbing elbows with the likes of John F. Kennedy and Brazilian billionaire Jorge Guinle.
This was all sadly cut short when, in 1967, she was driving with her lawyer and three of her children to New Orleans, when their Buick crashed at high speed into the rear of a tractor trailer that had abruptly slowed down.
Mansfield and her lawyer were killed instantly, but her children survived with minor injuries.
The incident led to the requirement of underride guards to be installed on all tractor trailers – which is why they are sometimes known as “Mansfield bars.”
Mansfield didn’t just leave her mark on Hollywood through her films. Actress Mariska Hargitay – aka Detective Olivia Benson from the famous crime drama series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – is actually Jayne Mansfield daughter from her second marriage. Mariska Hargitay was born from a famous Hollywood mother and bodybuilder father. Unfortunately, little Mariska was only 3 years old when Jayne died in a car accident.