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Their perks came with plenty of strings attached.
Old Hollywood is known for its glitz and glamour, and that’s largely due to its shining stars. But celebrities during this time put up with a lot to make it big. You see, the Golden Age of Hollywood was a time between the ’20s and ’60s when the studio system ruled, meaning the Big Five studios controlled the film industry. These companies created stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, but due to strict contracts, they controlled them in many ways too. Find out what actors and actresses agreed to in order to become rich and famous.
Today, actors and actresses can work on one movie with one studio, then move on to a new studio for their next movie. But it was common during the Golden Age for film studios to discover talent and sign them to four- to seven-year contracts.
Depending on the projects an actor’s studio backed and the opportunities they pegged for that star, this stipulation could make or break a career.
Elizabeth Taylor was known for instigating loans from her studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), so that she could work on more complex films, including Giant, A Place in the Sun, and Suddenly, Last Summer.
During the studio system, it was unheard of for an actor to refuse a part, because doing so often had severe consequences. In fact, Bette Davis was suspended by Warner Brothers for turning down roles.
When Louis B. Mayer, cofounder of MGM, wanted to break his contract with actor John Gilbert, he planted rumors about the star and reportedly intentionally put him in bad movies. As a result, Gilbert’s career tanked.
Many of the Old Hollywood stars you know and love—Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, the list goes on—use stage names picked by the studios. MGM even held a contest to find pick a name for their new star, Lucille LeSueur. The winner? Joan Crawford—and she reportedly hated it.
Beyond just dying their hair (some starlets reportedly got plastic surgery), studios went to great lengths to make their new starlets marketable in their eyes, and actresses had to abide by their decisions.
Sometimes studios saw potential in an actor or actress even before they could prove their acting chops. So it was common for up-and-coming stars who’d already signed contracts with major studios to take acting classes.
Lauren Bacall went through a series of voice lessons when she first signed with film director Howard Hawks at Warner Bros. It was through these sessions that the actress developed the sultry low voice she became known for and that set her apart from her peers.
While being groomed to become Hollywood’s newest star, studios tested their young actors with small parts to see how they did. That’s how Sharon Tate ended up in The Beverly Hillbillies and Ava Gardner in Hitler’s Madman.
Women were primarily limited to all-American girl next door or sexy bombshell typecasting. Studios went to great lengths to market those images to their audience, sometimes even making up fake backstories for their talent.
Studios wanted to make sure their actresses were always ready to be photographed, as Hollywood had a looks-over-talent philosophy at the time. It was standard for weight maintenance to be included in contracts.
Katharine Hepburn famously rejected her studio’s guidelines on dress code and reportedly walked around set in her underwear, refusing to get dressed, after someone in the costume department at RKO Radio Pictures took her pants away.
Male actors weren’t exempt from the studio’s rules and regulations. They were expected to exude the ideals of a gentleman at all times. As a result, messy divorces, womanizing behavior, or anything illegal could have a serious impact on their careers.
One of the many responsibilities of Old Hollywood film stars was that they had to cater to the press. Staged photo ops were inevitable, and movie stars were expected to shine when the occasion arose.
Sham dates, as they were called back then, were a way for a studio to drum up publicity for upcoming pictures featuring their stars. While promoting Babes in Arms, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland acted like a couple, but in real-life Rooney was a well-known playboy.
Sadly, studios forced many LGBTQ actors into heterosexual marriages. Rock Hudson was forced to marry his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. It wasn’t until he publicly announced his AIDS diagnosis that he revealed he was homosexual.
Jean Harlow was told that becoming a wife would alter her sex appeal, and, due to the morality clause in her contract with MGM, the studio was allowed to deny her marriage to William Powell.
Actresses knew that becoming pregnant was against most studios’ rules, and, as a result, some women, like Ava Gardner, had abortions to prevent penalties. “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies,” Gardner revealed in her autobiography, Ava: My Story.
Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor both adopted children, as it allowed them to continue working, while Loretta Young kept her pregnancy and birth a secret from the public and later adopted her biological daughter, Judy Lewis.
Some stars, like Elizabeth Taylor, went the extra mile when it came to promoting films. The MGM star’s first marriage to Conrad Hilton was a widely publicized event that was conveniently timed with the release of her new movie, Father of the Bride, and was paid for by the studio.
When Judy Garland married composer David Rose in 1941, MGM didn’t approve, so what’d they do? They forced her to return to work a short 24 hours after their wedding. No honeymoon for the happy couple.
Marlene Dietrich was one of the earliest known film stars told to lose weight, and the pressure for actresses to look a certain way hasn’t gone away. As a child star, Judy Garland was force-fed speed and encouraged to smoke cigarettes to curb her appetite.
Studios would place actresses on strict diets if they gained weight. Marlene Dietrich followed a diet of broth, cottage cheese, and toast dictated by her studio.
Starlets often exercised to maintain their physiques, although it wasn’t common to talk about it back then. Katharine Hepburn favored tennis and swimming, while Marilyn Monroe was one of the first actresses to regularly lift weights.
Minimal child labor laws meant that studios could require children to work just as much as their adult counterparts. For Judy Garland, that meant working six days per week and up to 18-hour shifts filled with singing and dancing. “Pep pills” (amphetamine uppers) gave her energy, and sleeping pills helped when she couldn’t rest at night.
After getting hooked on the “pep pills” MGM was giving her, Judy Garland struggled with addiction. She called in sick 16 days while working on Meet Me in St. Louis, and production on The Pirate was delayed by the actress. All filming delays due to her absence came out of her paycheck, which at one point reached $100,000.
Shirley Temple learned from a young age that it was never a good idea to be unprofessional on set. “Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble,” she wrote in her book Child Star.
Studios often appointed assistants to their actors, who would advise and take care of the stars. They would also report back to the studio and essentially act as spies. Judy Garland was reportedly devastated when she found out her nanny had been betraying her.
As studios strived to present their actors and actresses in the best possible light, rumors or scandals could jeopardize a career. Actress Clara Bow was one of the most famous women in the 1920s, until her rumored promiscuity caused her to lose her contract with Paramount.