During the Golden Age of Hollywood, movie studios ruled the roost. Their star system produced iconic actors and actresses that lit up the box office, but they also controlled the personal and professional lives of the screen legends at all times. The clauses in A-listers’ contracts were extremely prohibitive, and they were also constrained in what they could do on-screen by Hollywood’s self-censoring Hays Code.
40. You had to sign a long term contract with one movie studio
Movie studio talent scouts could sign people off the street to long-term contracts, based almost entirely on their looks. It didn’t matter if they had acting experience or not. These contracts tended to last anywhere from four to seven years. The prospective star effectively became the studio’s property, free to be moulded any way their bosses saw fit.
39. You couldn’t work for another studio while under contract, unless officially loaned out
Unlike today’s movie stars, who are generally free to work on projects with a variety of studios, Old Hollywood stars were forbidden from working for studios other than the one to which they were contracted. That is, unless the studios in question worked out an official loan deal. Elizabeth Taylor was famous for pushing for these deals, as it enabled her to work on more challenging projects.
38. You couldn’t say ‘no’ easily if the studio wanted you to play a role
If a star had been earmarked by the studio for a particular role, it was expected that they would do what they were told. Saying “no” was not an impossibility, but it could lead to the studio making their life difficult. For example, in the late 1930s Bette Davis was benched by Warner Brothers for refusing the roles they offered her. She wound up suing the studio.
37. You were likely to be given a stage name
Today, most Hollywood actors and actresses are known by their real names. But in the days of the studio system, many of them were forced to adopt stage names the studio deemed more marketable. For example, Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford; Norma Jeane Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe; and Archibald Leach became Cary Grant.
36. You could even be given a fake backstory
Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, once said, “A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing.” The studios would pick a persona, such as the girl next door or teenage rebel without a cause, and market that to the audience. In some instances, they would even go further and invent fabricated backgrounds for their actors and actresses.
35. Stars were sometimes given plastic surgery
Movie stars having plastic surgery is still fairly commonplace today, but in Old Hollywood the practice was arguably even more extreme. For example, Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, and her father had Spanish heritage. In order to make it in Hollywood, she had her skin lightened and endured a year of electrolysis treatment to alter her naturally low Latina hairline, making it an inch higher.
34. Their weight was also strictly controlled by the studio
It was standard practice to include weight maintenance in a star’s contract, and the studios also pushed for their stars to stay physically fit at all times. Marlene Dietrich was one of the first actresses to be publicly encouraged to lose weight by her studio. She exercised and also went onto an extreme diet consisting of cottage cheese, broth and toast.
33. The studio dress code discouraged women from wearing pants
Katharine Hepburn was a star who often fought back against the studio’s influence. For instance, the costume department at RKO Pictures once took away her pants, as they were considered too boyish for their female starlets to wear. Hepburn responded by coming to set in her underwear, railing against putting her clothes back on until she was allowed to wear her pants again.
32. Contracted actors often took acting and voice lessons
Louis B. Mayer said, “All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I’d have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest.” This looks-over-ability approach led to many non-actors being signed to major studios. Therefore, it was common for these young stars to be sent to acting and voice lessons.
31. Many were also sent to horseback riding, fencing and dance lessons
On top of acting lessons, prospective stars were often given lessons in other disciplines, with the end goal of making them better all-round entertainers. After all, the idea was to transform these young people into multi-talented stars with true screen presence. To that end, horse-riding, dancing and even fencing lessons were therefore commonplace.
30. Male stars had to exude the public image of gentlemen
Female stars weren’t the only ones controlled by the studio. The male stars were expected, at all times, to present the image of debonair gentlemen to the public. If they became embroiled in anything unseemly in their personal lives, such as a divorce or an affair, this would have to be covered up and could affect their standing with the studio.
29. If you violated the studio’s morality clauses, you could be fired
Studios were ruthless if a star somehow violated the image they wanted portrayed to the world. Clara Bow was one of the most famous actresses of the silent film era and made a mammoth 58 movies between 1922 and 1933. However, despite her film persona being that of a sex symbol, real-life rumors of promiscuity convinced Paramount to fire her from her contract.
28. Time off was totally at the mercy of the studio
Studios dictated what their stars did and when they took time off. They could also be vindictive if a star defied them in any way. In 1941 a 19-year-old Judy Garland married David Rose, a musician, and MGM was not happy about it. It exerted its power and forced her to come back to work a mere 24 hours after the wedding, preventing Garland and Rose from going on honeymoon.
27. The studio often pretended stars were dating in order to promote their movies
Studio influence over their stars even extended to their love lives. Sometimes, in order to promote a film, the studio would organize a “sham date” between the two stars. For example, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland publicly went on dates while Babes In Arms was being marketed, despite Rooney being a known Hollywood lothario.
26. Even a real-life wedding could double as a promotional stunt for a movie
In 1950 an 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor married Conrad Hilton, heir to the Hilton Hotels empire. The wedding was entirely paid for by MGM and featured a guest list that included some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The nuptials were timed nicely to coincide with the release of Taylor’s latest film, the wedding-themed Father Of The Bride.
25. Studios could force LGBTQ actors into heterosexual marriages
In 1955 screen heartthrob Rock Hudson married Phyllis Gates, who was his agent Harry Wilson’s secretary. They would divorce after only three years; it would later come to light that Wilson had arranged the marriage to disguise the fact that Hudson was a homosexual. It wouldn’t be until 1985, when he was diagnosed with AIDS, that Hudson bravely revealed his homosexuality to the world.
24. The studio could even veto a marriage if it would affect a star’s appeal
Jean Harlow only worked in Hollywood for nine short years, but became an icon during that time. The original “Blonde Bombshell” began a relationship with fellow MGM star William Powell in 1934, but the studio was able to veto the couple marrying due to a morality clause in her contract. It allegedly believed that being a wife would change Harlow’s sex appeal to the common man.
23. Marriages from before becoming a star were often kept secret
In 1935 it was discovered that, in 1911, a 17-year-old Mae West had married a man named Frank Wallace in Milwaukee. This risked affecting her sex-symbol image and also pointed to her being older than people thought. She repeatedly denied the marriage, even saying she had no idea who Wallace was, before eventually admitting it after he filed a lawsuit.
22. Babies were often prohibited in female stars’ contracts
In her autobiography Ava: My Story, Ava Gardner wrote that, “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies.” Horrifyingly, this led to many actresses of the time having abortions. According to website ranker.com, when Gardner had an abortion during her marriage to Frank Sinatra in the 1950s, she reportedly did it because she was afraid the studio would cut off her salary if she had the baby.
21. Actors and actresses had to cater to the press with staged photo opportunities
Dealing with the media is still a large part of any current Hollywood superstar’s job description, but in the days of Old Hollywood the pandering to the press was perhaps even more stifling. Staged photo opportunities were common, and the star was always expected to project their studio-marketed persona. Today’s stars can at least be themselves on press junkets, to an extent.
20. Token child labor laws meant young stars could be worked as hard as adults
These days, there are laws that limit the time a child can spend working on a movie set. However, in the days of Old Hollywood, studios were able to work their child performers as hard as any adult. In her teens, Judy Garland reportedly worked 18-hour days, performing grueling shifts of singing and dancing, with only one rest day per week – and that’s including weekends. She was given amphetamine “pep pills” by the studio to keep her going when she got tired.
19. Child stars would also face harsh punishments if they misbehaved on set
Shirley Temple described the punishments that young stars faced if they stepped out of line on a movie set in her 1988 autobiography, Child Star. For example, they could be sent to a black sound booth, where they were forced to sit on a block of ice. Temple believed she wasn’t psychologically scarred by her experiences, but did write, “Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money.”
18. Stars could even be punished financially for their sick days
In an alarming example of the dangers of studio practices, Judy Garland became addicted to the “pep pill” amphetamines she had been supplied. During filming of 1946’s Meet Me In St. Louis, she racked up 16 sick days and visited psychiatric facilities. The studio kept track of her absences and everything was deducted from her salary. In the end, she reportedly owed the studio $100,000.
17. Studios hired assistants for their actors, who mostly acted as spies
Many stars were assigned an assistant or caretaker. They were spies for the studio, who would advise and take care of the star, while also subtly keeping them in line. They would report any bad behavior back to the studio. Mickey Rooney allegedly knew what was really going on with his assistant, but co-star Judy Garland was reportedly upset when she discovered her nanny was a studio stooge.
16. The Motion Picture Production Code limited what all actors and actresses could do on-screen
From 1930 until 1968, every Hollywood picture adhered to the strict moral guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code. The 1920s had seen some notable scandals and Hollywood felt it needed to self-censor, lest the industry be seen as morally suspect by society and the American government. The code would later become known as the Hays Code, named after Will H. Hays, the U.S. politician and Presbyterian elder who first suggested a list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls.”
15. On-screen kisses could last no longer than three seconds
The Hays Code was very prohibitive when it came to the simple act of an actor and actress kissing on-screen. “Excessive and lustful” kissing was deemed undesirable, so it was mandated that any kiss could only last for three seconds. Movie kissing of this era also looks strange to a modern audience because it was conducted entirely with closed mouths.
14. Whenever lovers were lying down, one foot had to remain on the floor
During this era, lovers were never allowed to be depicted lying down in bed together. In order to avoid this state of being totally horizontal, one partner always had to have a foot on the floor during the scene. On top of being awkward for the actors, as this was a completely unnatural thing to do; it is another era-specific thing that looks farcical to a modern audience.
13. Nudity, even in silhouette, was banned
In modern-day Hollywood, on-screen nudity is still arguably more controversial than excessive violence or swearing. But, in the days of the Hays Code, it was banned outright. In fact, this even extended to the implication of nudity, such as a silhouette. The code stated, “Transparent or translucent materials and silhouette are frequently more suggestive than actual exposure.”
12. Characters speaking about adultery or sex in positive terms was strictly off-limits
“Adultery and illicit sex, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated or justified, or presented attractively,” wrote the Hays Code. Its creators were intent on upholding the moral values in which they believed and therefore these things had to be depicted as categorically wrong. While few would argue adultery is a good thing – and the code did acknowledge that some films called for it – the measure robbed some film plots of any nuance.
11. Most cursing was banned on-screen
The Hays Code outlawed movie profanity almost in its entirety.That is, unless you had a producer willing to battle with the censors. In order to keep the line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” in 1939’s Gone With The Wind, producer David O. Selznick fought for it, citing that it wasn’t used as “an oath or a curse.” In the end, the words “hell” and “damn” were allowed in the film.
10. Only single beds were permitted to be shown on-screen
The Hays Code prevented characters from expressing even the slightest hint of sexuality and it even extended to their sleeping arrangements. The code stated, “Beds are not allowed to accommodate more than one person.” To a modern audience, the idea of a double bed being banned from the screen is hard to imagine, but the rules had to be followed.
9. Even actors playing a couple must be shown sleeping in separate beds
I Love Lucy was an iconic television show that ran from 1951 to 1957. It starred real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. However, even they had to follow the code’s rulings, and therefore their characters on the show, the happily-married Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, were shown to sleep in separate beds.
8. No ridicule of the clergy or governmental institutions was allowed
Clergymen and nuns were to be presented as honorable at all times and were never to be made the figure of fun. Other authority figures were also to be given respect. Though sometimes policemen, judges or politicians could be the villains, it had to be made explicitly clear they were exceptions and didn’t represent the values of their institution.
7. No scenes of childbirth could be shown
Another example of the code that might seem strange to a modern audience was its strict ban on depictions of a woman giving birth. The code stated that, “Scenes of actual childbirth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.” It’s difficult to see how the natural act of birth could contribute to the moral decay of an audience, but directors and actors had to obey the rule nonetheless.
6. Interracial sexual relationships on-screen were completely banned
Interracial relationships on-screen were outlawed by the Hays Code. The exact term used was “miscegenation”, a phrase which sits uneasily on modern lips and appears to view mixing of races pejoratively. Naturally, this word is avoided today, given its associations with colonialism and racial segregation. As it transpired, 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which showed a mixed race relationship between a white woman and black man, was a watershed moment in combating this awful section of the code.
5. The American flag was to be respected at all times
The code stated that any use of the American flag in a film had to be, “consistently respectful.” The creators of the code felt that patriotism was an essential component to maintaining moral standards. Regarding the national pride of other countries, the code stated that, “the history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.”
4. On-screen criminals couldn’t be portrayed in too glamorous a manner
Hollywood was terrified of presenting criminals in any kind of glamorous manner, as movies had done previously. Its authors did not want regular people trying to emulate the villains they saw on-screen. The Hays Code stated that crime “shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.”
3. All criminal action must be shown to be punished
It was paramount that audiences knew crime didn’t pay. So, on top of ensuring that criminality wasn’t depicted too glamorously, it was also mandated that criminals must be shown getting their comeuppance. While the good guys still largely win the day in most Hollywood movies, occasionally modern audiences do see a villain getting away with their crimes, but this wouldn’t have stood in the days of the Hays Code.
2. Homosexuality couldn’t be depicted on-screen
In the 1920s, prior to the Hays Code being enacted, there was LGBTQ representation in Hollywood films. For example, the 1927 war movie Wings featured the first gay kiss in an American movie. Sadly, the code-makers believed that anything that differed from the standard relationship between a man and woman fell under the umbrella of sexual perversion, and this led to LGBTQ characters being forbidden.
1. Risqué inferences in dialogue were prohibited by censorship
Mae West was a star on the Broadway stage in New York City, with her risqué Vaudeville act catapulting her to fame. In 1932 she signed a movie contract with Paramount and soon became one of its biggest attractions. However, she ran afoul of the Hays Code due to her trademark double entendres and sexual innuendos, leading to the scripts for her films being heavily edited.