Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood

Khalid Elhassan - July 10, 2023

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
The Golden Age of Hollywood. Studio Binder

The Hollywood Star System

Many film aficionados pine for the Golden Age of Hollywood, when American cinema established the world’s most powerful and pervasive filmmaking style. It was Tinseltown’s most glamorous and fabulous stretch. However, that classical Hollywood era had its seedy side. There was the pervasive manipulations of an era in which the “casting couch” was routine and the likes of Harvey Weinstein were common. Not to mention an extreme lack of diversity. There was also the fact that studios back then pretty much owned their actors and actresses. It was based on the method used to create, promote, and exploit stars.

Talent scouts were hired to spot new performers with potential. Emphasis was placed on image rather than the ability to act, which the studios figured could be taught. Once signed to an exclusive contract, the studios gave the performers new names, and even new backgrounds. Performers were then be given voice, acting, and dance lessons. In a type of apprenticeship, new performers were first tried out in supporting roles. Those with potential progressed to lead roles in minor productions, and if they did well, got to star in major productions. The system was effective, but also rife with abuses.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. Heritage Auctions

I Am Not Paid to Think

Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, and Rock Hudson, are just some of the Hollywood giants brought up through the star system. Gable, for example, got started with a pair of supporting roles, before he was signed up by MGM in 1931 to a two-year contract at $350 a week. That year, he acted in another eight movies for MGM, and two more on loan to Warner Brothers. As he progressed through the system, Gable was paired with others from MGM’s stable, such as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Gable was often required to display a savage and sadistic attitude towards women on screen. That established a brand that helped make him a star, but also limited his repertoire. He had little choice. As he put it in 1932: “I have never been consulted as to what part I would like to play. I am not paid to think“.

Gable finally objected to how he was typecast by MGM. As punishment, the studio loaned him out to Columbia Pictures to work on 1934’s It Happened One Night. It worked out well for Gable, who won a Best Actor Oscar for that performance. So MGM signed him to a seven year deal in 1935 with better terms. “Better”, however, was still relative. The studio owned exclusive rights to Gable’s name, image, and voice. If he was hurt or disfigured, he could be suspended without compensation. He had to work 40 weeks annually, and perform in up to three movies per year. He was still a salaried employee, and it was not until 1946 that he got a percentage share in his movies’ grosses. That was the lot of an actor so successful he became known as “The King of Hollywood”. Others had it worse.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Jane Greer. Pinterest

When Hollywood Stars Were Studio Property

Because of the star system, classical Hollywood studios and studio executives saw performers as their property. To protect their investment in those whom they had groomed to the heights of fame, the studios signed them to often intrusive exclusive service contracts. Studios owned the commercial rights to their contracted performers’ image and likeness, and they could not work for other studios. To protect the marketable image created by the studios, contracts included morality clauses. Men had to appear as gentlemen. Women were never to leave home without makeup, and had to always dress stylishly and behave like ladies. The studios had absolute control over their performers’ careers, and that often lent itself to abuses. Those who angered their Hollywood masters were often punished with unattractive roles, or were loaned out to less prestigious studios.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
RKO Pictures. RKO

Actresses were particularly vulnerable. Jane Greer, for example, caught the eye of tycoon Howard Hughes, who sponsored her entry into Hollywood. In exchange, he signed her to a personal contract – and told her he never wanted her to marry anybody. When she went ahead and married a singer, an enraged Hughes shelved her without any film work. She sued and got out of the personal contract, then signed up with RKO Pictures. So Hughes bought RKO, just to wreck her career. The star system got its first check in the late 1940s after the US Supreme Court ruled against the studios in an antitrust case. Television’s arrival also reduced movie audiences, which transformed contracted stars into expensive overhead. So from the 1940s to 1960s, studios gradually ditched long-term contracts, and Hollywood performers became freelancers, part of a large pool from which studios could draw.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Jimmy Stewart. Wikimedia

Clark Gable Was Not the Only Hollywood Superstar Who Took on the Nazis

James “Jimmy” Stewart (1908 – 1997) was one of the greatest actors in the history of Hollywood, and starred in many movies that became all-time classics. He was known for a down-to-earth mannerism that helped him excel in portrayals of middle class American men, diffident and resolute of character, as they struggled with crises. Notable among the more than eighty movies in which he appeared are his roles in the Christmas standby It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Vertigo.

Stewart was nominated for five Oscars and won one for Best Actor for his role in 1940’s Philadelphia Story. He was awarded another Oscar in 1985 for Lifetime Achievement. When WWII came along, Jimmy Stewart took a break from Hollywood to bomb the Nazis, then resumed his illustrious career after the war was over. He had gotten his start in shows with a drama group in Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1932. He then dove into acting, and by 1933, was performing on Broadway. In 1935, he landed a contract with MGM and headed west to Hollywood. A year later, he had his first breakthrough as lead actor in a popular musical comedy, The Dancer.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Jimmy Stewart in 1940’s ‘The Philadelphia Story’, a performance that earned him an Oscar. Wikimedia

Jimmy Stewart Was Initially Rejected by the Military for Being Underweight

By the time America joined WWII, Jimmy Stewart was a Hollywood superstar. It would have been easy for him, as others from Tinseltown had done, to avoid service altogether – John, cough, Wayne – or secure a safe military gig that allowed him to be seen in uniform while staying away from danger – cough, cough, Reagan. But Stewart’s grandfather had fought against the South, and his father had fought against both Spain and Germany. When WWII came along, it was thus natural for Stewart to go off to fight. He had been drafted into the Army in 1940, but was medically rejected because he was underweight.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable in WWII. Pinterest

Stewart wanted to fight, however, and figured a way to join the military. He was a flight enthusiast who had secured his pilot’s certificate in 1935. By the time WWII began, he had accumulated over 400 hours in the air. Stewart managed to enlist in the US Army Air Forces in 1941, despite being underweight. After he graduated from a pilot training program 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. Higher ups wanted to shunt him into PR and put his celebrity to use in bonds drives and rally appearances. Stewart, however, wanted a combat assignment. After many travails and clashes with commanders he managed a transfer into a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber group, which joined the US Eighth Air Force in Britain in the autumn of 1943.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Lieutenant General Martial Henri Valin, the French Air Force’s chief of staff, awards Colonel James Stewart a Croix de Guerre with Palms. US Air Force

Jimmy Stewart Was Also an Air Force General

On December 13th, 1943, Jimmy Stewart flew his first combat mission. He piloted the lead B-24 of the group’s high squadron as they bombed U-boat facilities in Kiel, Germany. A few days later, he flew lead bomber for the entire group as they bombed Bremen. By February, 1944, Stewart had been promoted to major, and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. The following month, he led an entire Bomb Wing in a raid on Berlin, and by the end of March, was assigned as operations officer for a newly formed bomb group. Stewart’s assignment meant he was not required to fly combat missions. However, he sought to inspire and encourage his new unit by personally piloting the lead B-24 on a number of raids deep into the Third Reich.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Brigadier General James M. Stewart, 1968. National Museum of the US Air Force

Stewart also served as a crewman on other missions. His actions earned him a second Distinguished Flying Cross, a French Croix de Guerre, an Air Medal with three oakleaf clusters, and other decorations. After the war, Stewart returned to Hollywood, but continued to serve with the US Air Force Reserves. He kept current with new bombers, and was certified to pilot B-36 Peacemakers, B-47 Stratojets, and B-52 Stratofortresses. Stewart was promoted to colonel in 1953 and given reserve command of Dobbins Air Force base in Georgia. By 1959, he had been promoted to brigadier general, and continued to serve in the Air Force Reserves until he retired in 1968.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading:


American Air Museum in Britain – Clark Gable

Atlantic, The, December, 2017 – How John Wayne Became a Hollow Masculine Icon

Bassinger, Jeanine – The Star Machine (2007)

BBC – Fatty Arbuckle and Hollywood’s First Scandal

Coe, Jonathan – Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life (1994)

Cracked – 15 Ways Classic Hollywood Sucked Big Time

Daily Beast – When Lana Turner’s Abusive, Gangster Boyfriend Was Killed by Her Daughter

Defense Media Network – Actor Clark Gable Served in Uniform, Flew Combat Missions in WWII

Eliot, Marc – Jimmy Stewart: A Biography (2006)

Film Reference – Star System

Forbes – Site of Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon Lair Sells for $15 Million

Golden Globes – Forgotten Hollywood: Old Hollywood Estates

Guardian, The, February 22nd, 2016 – Last of the Red-Hot Myths: What Gossip Over Rudolph Valentino’s S*x Life Says About the Silents

History Collection – Celebrities in the Ancient World

House Digest – The Fabulous Estates of Old Hollywood

IMDb – Rudolph Valentino

New Yorker, September 18th, 2015 – Charlie Chaplin’s Scandalous Life and Boundless Artistry

Schoenberger, Nancy – Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero (2017)

Smithsonian Magazine, November 8th, 2011 – The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial

Tereba, Tere – Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of LA’s Notorious Mobster (2012)

Vice – Charlie Chaplin Was a Sadistic Tyrant Who Fucked Teenage Girls