Celebrity scandals have been an inevitable part of Hollywood since the birth of the American cinema industry. In this age of intensive media coverage, the whole world is familiar with the dark side of Hollywood, but it wasn’t always this way. In the 20th century, the most influential people in Hollywood were able to sweep many scandals under the rug, at least for the time being.
Here are the most notorious celebrity scandals that reveal the dark side of Golden Age Hollywood.
The earliest Hollywood celebrity scandal occurred in September 1920 and involved the death of Olive Thomas due to a drug overdose. An archetypal movie flapper, Thomas had starred in her most important movie, The Flapper, earlier that year.
In 1921, the famous silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was arrested for the sexual assault and murder of the struggling actress and model Virginia Rappe. The court pronounced Arbuckle, whose popularity was akin to that of Charlie Chaplain, guilty of raping and murdering Rappe during a debauched Labor Day party at the luxurious St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
If you think studios control actors’ personal lives now, you would be shocked by the state of Hollywood around a century ago. Employers had immense power over performers, especially female ones. They discouraged famous, attractive actresses from getting married or pregnant. When some of them (including Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, and Joan Crawford) did get pregnant, they were pressured into getting abortions.
The child star of The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland, was about to star in her first feature film at the age of 14 when MGM started to pressure her into losing weight. Her strict diet consisted of black coffee and chicken soup supplemented by diet pills and cigarettes. Garland also experienced sexual harassment from the studio producers. This ordeal left her with an eating disorder and drug addiction, leading to her death from overdose at only 47.
Only two months after his wedding to film actress Jean Harlow, the MGM executive Paul Bern committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. The news of his lifeless body being found with a gun in his hand and a note shook Hollywood. Although the police took the note as proof that he took his own life, its content was quite ambiguous.
In the mid-1920s, the entertainment industry designed a blacklist that rendered alleged communist or communist sympathizers ineligible for employment. Founded in 1918, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was responsible for the existence of this document.
Initially meant to promote patriotic credentials and shield Hollywood studios from the economic harm of subversive activities, the blacklist gained worrisome reach until the 1940s. As a result of this hysteria, ten producers, directors, and screenwriters spent time in prison and ended up blacklisted for refusing to disavow communist affiliations.
Between the late 20s and 50s, most of the power in Hollywood was in the hands of five ruling movie studios: Warner, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and RKO. With around 700 movies created in the 20s, these studios dominated American theaters and the movie industry. Warner Bros.’s influence and status as one of the biggest Hollywood studios can be attributed to the popularity of The Jazz Singer, the first long-running sound film, upon its release in 1927.
This complete domination of a few studios in the Hollywood industry resulted in vast financial manipulation. The most successful studios owned their theaters, fixed the prices, and offered packages of a few A-budget movies, a few lesser quality ones, and one or two highly popular feature films.
As the name suggests, the Golden Age of Hollywood is associated with glamour and glitz. However, many shocking instances of abuse and violence occurred behind the scenes. While the public has forgotten some old Hollywood celebrity scandals, others remind us of the dark side of the entertainment industry. After all, life was pretty hard for celebrities, even before the days of social media.