Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood

Khalid Elhassan - July 10, 2023

Hollywood had its first version of “Brangelina” long before Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie were born. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were Tinseltown’s most popular power couple. Their posh Hollywood estate was the hangout spot, and invitations to their parties were prized by the day’s elites. Their guests were the era’s Who’s Who, and included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and wife Eleanor, Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, and the king and queen of Siam. Below are twenty five things about their estate and other fascinating Hollywood facts.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
The Golden Age of Hollywood was as posh as posh gets. Filmmaking Lifestyle

The Rise of Classical Hollywood Estates

The Golden Age of Hollywood, from the first sound movies in 1927 to 1969, created the world’s most influential filmmaking style. It also upended and radically transformed Los Angeles and its environs. The hitherto quiet town and region was flooded with actors and filmmakers who revolutionized the cinema industry with new methods of filming, creative screenwriting, and new talent to bring it all to vivid life. The period saw the rise of many talents to superstardom, as they and their studio bosses raked in unprecedented amounts of money.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Hollywood at its Golden Age peak. Imgur

The new stars splurged on many luxuries, not least of them posh mansions that forever altered LA’s real estate scene. As locals – and soon enough, sightseers from across the country and around the world – gawked, luxury mansions and posh estates were built all over the place. Some of those estates have long since declined into shabbiness or even been reduced to piles of rubble. Others, as seen below, are still around, and continue to exude a sense of history and old school Hollywood.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffiths, co-founders of United Artists. United Artists

The Posh Pickfair

The disconnect between Hollywood and average Americans existed since Tinseltown’s earliest days. At core, the divergence between Hollywood’s rich and famous and everybody else comes down to money: they make a lot more of it than most of us do. In the 1920s, the average American family earned about $3,200 a year – a figure that dipped significantly in the 1930s and the Great Depression. By contrast, contemporary silver screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino made $7500 a week at the peak of his career. Then as now, successful Hollywood figures were among America’s richest. And then, just as now, they liked to flaunt it. Few were more successful in 1920s Hollywood than Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The “Brangelina” of their era, they had co-founded United Artists in 1919, along with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in a canoe in their Pickfair swimming pool. Pinterest

After their 1920 marriage, Fairbanks bought his bride a Beverly Hills lodge. He then contracted architect Wallace Neff – creator of the region’s distinct “California style” of architecture – to make extensive renovations. Over five years, the estate, dubbed “Pickfair” by the press in a combination of Pickford and Fairbanks, grew to a 56-acre luxury sprawl. In addition to a four-floor and twenty-five-room mansion, it included tennis courts, servants’ quarters, stables, and an Old West saloon with a mahogany bar. It was also the first private Los Angeles residence with a swimming pool. In addition to frescoed ceilings and paneled walls, the couple decorated Pickfair with Far East antiquities. They entertained lavishly, and invites to their parties were highly coveted. As Life magazine put it, Pickfair was: “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House, and much more fun“.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon Lair. Hilton and Hyland

Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon Lair

Rudolph Valentino, who rose to fame in the silent film era, became one of Tinseltown’s earliest sex symbols. Often known as the “Latin Lover”, he set hearts aflutter across America and around the world. At the height of his fame in the 1920s, he wanted to both escape his crazed admirers – the Beatles were not the first celebrities to inspire fan mania – and showcase his newfound wealth. So in 1925, he plunked down $175,000 – a fortune at the time – to purchase an estate in Benedict Canyon, LA.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Site of the Falcon Lair. Realty List

Valentino named it the Falcon Lair, in a nod to his character from a 1924 hit movie, The Hooded Falcon. He modified and expanded the property to his liking. In homage to his home country of Italy, Valentino outfitted the property with Italian cypress trees, and an Italian garden. An accomplished horseman, he also built stables for his four Arabian steeds. He was seen on most mornings riding his horses around his property, which overlooked Beverly Hills and what is now the Rodeo Drive shopping district.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Lana Turner in 1937’s ‘They Won’t Forget’. IMDb

America’s Favorite Teen Star Bucked Hollywood Chaperones

Fifteen-year-old Julia Jean Turner skipped school one day in 1936 to buy a Coke at LA’s Sunset Boulevard, and her beauty attracted the attention of a Hollywood reporter. When he asked if she would like to become an actress, Turner replied: “I’ll have to ask my mother first“. Her mother, ill and broke, jumped at the chance, and signed Turner to a contract with Warner Brothers. Within a few months the novice actress, now screen-named Lana Turner, was a hit. Aware that they had struck gold, the studio worked hard to protect Turner’s public image, and packaged and presented her as a wholesome American good girl.

To safeguard her reputation, the studio even hired chaperons to accompany her wherever she went. Unsurprisingly, the restrictions eventually chafed, and the young starlet began to push back. The result was scandal, as Turner came to resent the bubble in which she was confined by MGM Studios, which took over her contract from Warner Bros. in 1938. As an escape, America’s favorite good girl began to party hard, and developed a taste for bad boys. The degree of badness grew over the years, as Turner gradually worked her way from Hollywood tough guy poseurs to outright Mafiosi.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato. Wikimedia

A Good Girl With a Taste for Bad Boys

By the late 1950s, Lana Turner’s career had passed its peak, and she no longer cared about her public image. In 1958, she hooked up with a new boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, a mobster with close ties to LA’s key crime boss, Mickey Cohen. On the one hand, Stompanato, a World War II Marine veteran, was a handsome hunk. On the other hand, he was a violent psychopath who did not hesitate to beat the daylights out of Turner, starting with when she first tried to break up with him. It was a toxic relationship that ended with a scandal that shocked even a jaded Hollywood seemingly impervious to scandals.

Throughout the course of a stormy year, Turner and her psycho beau carried on a torrid affair filled with violent arguments, physical abuse, frequent breakups, and just-as-frequent reconciliations. Turner claimed that on at least one occasion, her mobster boyfriend drugged and photographed her in the nude when she was passed out, in order to have something to blackmail her with. The relationship finally ended when Stompanato was stabbed to death in Turner’s home – not by her, but by her fourteen-year-old daughter.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato, and Turner’s daughter, Cheryl. UCLA Digital Library

A Fatal Hollywood Affair

The toxic relationship of Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato came to a dramatic end on the evening of April 4th, 1958. The hoodlum boyfriend arrived at her Beverly Hills home, and as was their wont, the duo began to argue in the bedroom. Outside the bedroom, Turner’s fourteen-year-old daughter Cheryl stood and eavesdropped. When at some point Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, her daughter, and her mother, Cheryl ran to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. As Turner tried to push Stompanato out of her bedroom, Cheryl fatally stabbed him in the stomach.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl, escorted from jail to juvenile court. Getty Images

The resultant scandal was a media sensation. Hundreds of journalists crowded into a jury inquest over the death of Stompanato. After four hours of testimony and twenty-five minutes of deliberations, it was deemed a justifiable homicide. Cheryl was kept as a ward of the court for over two weeks, and a juvenile court judge expressed concern over her lack of “personal parental supervision”. She was eventually released into the custody of her grandmother, with court-ordered visits to a psychiatrist alongside her parents.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
John Wayne became an icon of male toughness. Imgur

The Director Who Made This Iconic Hollywood Tough Guy

John Wayne (1907 – 1979) made a lot of money off his tough guy image, and on-screen portrayals of virile and gung ho masculinity. “Duke”, as he was known to millions of admirers, cornered the market for a while on depictions of the quintessential American fighting man. Such roles got him two Best Actor Oscar nominations, including one for playing a tough US Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Less known is the fact that, just a few years earlier in WWII, Duke had been booed off stage by actual US Marines, who reacted negatively to his fake machismo. They also resented the fact that he had ducked the draft and avoided service. For the rest of his life, Wayne berated himself – and overcompensated – for his WWII draft avoidance.

Director Raoul Walsh cast an unknown actor named Marion Robert Morrison in his first lead role in The Big Trail, released in 1930. The movie flopped, and sent its lead actor back into Hollywood purgatory. However, some good came out of the venture: on Walsh’s and the studio’s recommendation, Marion Robert Morrison changed his name to John Wayne. Over the next few years, Wayne toiled in dozens of forgettable Westerns for so-called Poverty Row Studios. He was saved from obscurity in 1938, when Oscar-winning director John Ford offered him the lead in Stagecoach. The movie was a hit. It kicked off a productive relationship that lasted for 23 pictures, in which the iconic director crafted John Wayne’s public image, and transformed him into a Hollywood legend. Throughout their long professional relationship, Ford seldom spared a kind word for his protégé.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Director John Ford, seated, and John Wayne. IMDb

Director John Ford’s Savage Treatment of John Wayne

John Wayne worshipped John Ford, but Ford savagely mistreated and bullied Wayne. That helped create an iconic aspect of Wayne’s image: his cowboy strut. On the set of Stagecoach, Ford seemingly disliked everything about Wayne. At one point, the director grabbed his lead actor by the chin and shouted: “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures?” He even hated how Wayne moved, which Ford thought was effeminate: “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a goddam fairy?” That one hurt so bad, that Wayne changed the way he walked for the rest of his life. Stagecoach’s success secured Wayne a place in Hollywood. By 1941, while not yet among Hollywood’s top drawer elites, Wayne had established himself as a reliable star.

Later that year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and America joined WWII. Wayne’s conduct throughout that conflict forever after formed his self-perception of his manhood. His regrets about what he did – or more accurately did not do – during the war, shaped the public image he strove to project for the rest of his life. America’s entry into WWII, triggered the greatest collective outpouring of patriotism in the country’s history. It seemed that just about everybody and their grandmother wanted to chip in, do their part, and sacrifice what they could for the common cause of victory. As the country armed and geared up to beat plowshares into swords, women rushed to the factories, and men of fighting age rushed into the service. John Wayne, by contrast, rushed to do all he could to avoid military service.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
John Wayne played a tough WWII Marine in ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’, but ducked military service in the actual war. IMDb

The Hollywood Tough Guy Who Ducked Military Service in WWII

John Wayne was in his early 30s when America joined WWII. Many famous public figures rushed to enlist. Some were significantly older than Wayne, such as Clark Gable, who enlisted in his 40s. Another was Jimmy Stewart. Underweight, he pulled strings to join the military. Wayne, by contrast, pulled strings to stay out of the military. Both Gable and Clark risked their lives in combat. Wayne did USO tours, in which he entertained troops overseas. Even those, were done with an ulterior motive: to keep out of the military. As he once put it during the war: “I better go do some touring – I feel the draft breathing down my neck“. Post-WWII, many bought into Wayne’s public image of manly toughness. During the war, that image was not bought by America’s real tough guys: the fighting men.

When Wayne visited a hospital in Hawaii, wounded GIs and Marines booed him. He never got over that humiliation. Wayne developed a guilt complex for his failure to enlist during WWII. It shaped the public image he sought to project thereafter. It also explained his decision to star in numerous testosterone-drenched war movies throughout the rest of his career. In those films, he got to play heroic characters on screen: the kinds of men he wished he had been like in real life. Four years after he was booed offstage by wounded Marines for being a phony, Wayne played a grizzled combat Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima. He nailed it, and got a best actor Oscar nomination for the effort. As Wayne’s third wife put it: “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying at home“.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Rudolph Valentino in ‘The Sheik’. History Link

A Hollywood Heartthrob With a Controversial Past

As seen above, some of early Hollywood’s scandals make today’s Tinseltown controversies look quite tame by comparison. Another early superstar whose public image was marred by scandal was Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), he of the Falcon Lair estate. Valentino was a Hollywood superstar and heartthrob of the silent film era, and a 1920s’ symbol of masculinity. He shot to fame with captivating performances in silent film blockbusters such as The Sheik, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
A mourner grieves at Rudloph Valentino’s bier. Associated Press

Valentino’s sudden death when he was only thirty one resulted in mass hysteria among his female fans. The early demise at the height of his popularity solidified his iconic status. It later emerged, however, that before his Hollywood stardom, Valentino had probably been a male prostitute. He had worked as a dancer in what were known as “taxi dance clubs”. Such clubs were basically escort services, where clients would come in, examine the club’s stable of dancers, and pay to dance with whichever one caught their eye. As seen below, there was more to it than a dance.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Rudolph Valentino. Vanity Fair

Was Rudolph Valentino a Male Prostitute?

Taxi dance clubs, such as the one in which Rudolph Valentino worked, had a system in place for picking intimate partners. Clients who got good vibes and liked their dance partner would negotiate a price with him or her, then pay the club an “exit fee” to leave with the dancer. To be sure, some taxi dance clubs were legitimate and innocent. However, most were straight up escort services. In Valentino’s case, he was once arrested in a brothel before he became famous.

In short, it is unlikely that Valentino’s taxi dance club was the innocent kind. To put it in perspective, imagine the damage to Brad Pitt’s public image if it emerged that he had been a gigolo or male prostitute who had worked for an escort service. The paparazzi stampede would probably have caused an earthquake. The resultant media and social media firestorm would probably have broken the internet, as the insatiable demand for salacious details produced a never ending stream of stories.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. Silent Film Locations

Charlie Chaplin’s Scandalous Pal

As seen in an earlier entry, Charlie Chaplain was scandalous. However, his scandals pale in comparison to that of his orgy pal, comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle. Fatty’s scandal not only tarnished his public image, but outright wrecked his career. Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, better known as Fatty Arbuckle (1887 – 1933), was a comedian, director, screenwriter, and early silent film era superstar. A hefty fellow who weighed about 300 pounds, Fatty incorporated his mass into his comedy. He moved gracefully, tumbled, threw pies, and was an all-around lovable and jolly fat guy. He was not just an actor, but also a Hollywood mover and shaker.

Fatty mentored Charlie Chaplain, with whom he formed a close personal friendship. He also discovered and launched the careers of future stars such as Buster Keaton and Bob Hope. Then came the scandal that wrecked his public image beyond repair. It began with a wild party at a San Francisco hotel, where Fatty and his friends rented adjacent luxury suites in September, 1921. Several women were invited, and at some point amidst the revelry, an aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe, was found seriously ill in one of the suites. The hotel’s doctor examined her, concluded she was just extremely drunk, and gave her morphine to calm her. In hindsight, he should have examined her more closely.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Fatty Arbuckle. Diesel Punk

A Hollywood Scandal for the Ages

Two days later, Virginia Rappe was rushed to a hospital. There, a friend claimed that Fatty Arbuckle had raped Rappe at the party. The next day, Rappe died of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Medical examinations found no evidence of rape. Newspapers had a field day, however, and printed increasingly salacious stories. Some alleged that Fatty had killed Virginia Rappe with his weight while he assaulted her. Other stories claimed that Arbuckle had penetrated Rappe with a piece of ice. That eventually grew into accusations that he had ruptured her insides with a bottle of Coca Cola or champagne.

Police investigators theorized that the heavy impact of the overweight Fatty atop Rappe during intercourse ruptured her bladder. He denied any wrongdoing, but was arrested and charged with a slew of felonies. The Hollywood scandal was a major media event, and generated OJ Simpson levels of interest. Fatty was regarded by those who knew him as good natured and shy with women – “the most chaste man in pictures“, as some put it. Charlie Chaplain, for example, “knew Roscoe as a genial and easy going man, who would not harm a fly“. However, newspapers went with a far different image, and depicted him as a gross pervert who routinely used his massive bulk to overpower and have his way with innocent girls.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Contemporary coverage of Fatty Arbuckle’s scandal. Art and Architecture

A Public Image Ruined Beyond Redemption

The media’s coverage of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal caused irreversible damage to his public image. It did not matter that the prosecution’s case against Fatty eventually fizzled. It turned out that San Francisco’s District Attorney, an ambitious man with plans to run for California governor, had pressured witnesses into lying. The defense also obtained a letter from the state’s star witness, Virginia Rappe’s friend who had had first leveled accusations of assault, in which she admitted that she had planned to extort money from the Hollywood superstar.

In the trial, the state produced little credible evidence. Medical experts demonstrated that Rappe’s bladder had been ruptured by an internal inflammation, not by an external force. The jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal, and a mistrial was declared. A second trial again ended in a 10-2 deadlock in favor of a not guilty verdict. At the conclusion of a third trial, the jury took just six minutes to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Fatty Arbuckle was exonerated, but his reputation never recovered. His public image was destroyed, and so was his career.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Clark Gable in ‘Gone With the Wind’. Wikimedia

When Clark Gable Fought the Nazis

Once known as “The King of Hollywood”, William Clark Gable (1901 – 1960) is one of the silver screen’s greatest legends. He starred in over 60 movies, and is perhaps best known for his role as Rhett Butler in the blockbuster Gone With the Wind. Gable won a Best Actor Oscar for his lead in It Happened One Night. Other notable films in which he starred and that met both critical and commercial success include Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hucksters, and The Misfits, his last film, as well as that of his co-star, Marilyn Monroe.

When America entered WWII, Gable was Tinsletown’s biggest star and its greatest box office draw. He took a break from Hollywood to fight the Axis. Gable had quit school at age sixteen to work in a tire factory, and decided to become an actor after he saw a play. He took acting lessons and worked a variety of jobs, from oil field roustabout to selling neckties. In 1924, he married his acting coach and the couple moved to Hollywood so he could focus on his dream.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Clark Gable’s ‘Combat America’. Wikimedia

The Hollywood Superstar Who Decided to Enlist in the Army

Clark Gable began his Hollywood career as an extra. After years of bit parts and stints in the theater, he got an MGM contract in 1930, and garnered notice for a powerful performance in his first lead role in The Painted Desert. He built upon that success. When MGM paired him with established female stars such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, the combination steamed the screen, and he became an insta-star. By the time America entered WWII, Gable was MGM’s biggest earner.

Gable suffered a serious tragedy when his wife died in an air crash on a war bonds tour. Devastated, he decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most lucrative star go, Gable enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner. He was sent instead to OCS, which he completed in October 1942 and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. On personal orders from the Air Forces’ chief, General Hap Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England, with orders to make a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners titled Combat America.

Forgotten Details From The Golden Age Of Hollywood
Clark Gable manned a B-17 waist gun in real life combat. Pinterest

Clark Gable Was a Real Life B-17 Waist Gunner

Clark Gable needed combat footage for his recruitment film. To obtain it, he flew five combat missions as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress, including a bombing raid into Germany. His presence in the missions was for propaganda and PR purposes, but the dangers he ran were all too real. In one mission, Gable’s B-17 was attacked by enemy fighters and hit by antiaircraft fire, and in the process lost an engine and had its stabilizer damaged. Over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after it was struck by flak. Shrapnel went through Gable’s boot, and almost took off his head.

When MGM heard of its most valuable actor’s brushes with death, it worked its connections to have Gable reassigned to noncombat duty. For his service in Europe, he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal, and in late 1943, Gable was ordered back home to edit the film. He hoped for another combat assignment, but none came. By the summer of 1944, after the Normandy invasion came and went without a combat assignment, Gable finally gave up and requested to be relieved from active duty on grounds that he was 43-years-old by then, and overage for combat. He stayed in the Air Forces reserves until 1947, when he finally resigned his commission.

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