The Hollywood we know and love took its first breath in 1908 with the release of The Count of Monte Cristo. Merely three years later, the inaugural movie studio found its home on Sunset Boulevard. Like a magnet, it drew other film companies to sunny California.
Come 1920, the film industry was shaken up with the advent of sound technology. In the blink of an eye, studio priorities shifted, and actors found themselves employed by these studios. Powerhouses such as MGM Films, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount sat at the top of the food chain. They shelled out big bucks for their top stars but also kept a tight rein on every aspect of their lives.
MGM’s Eddie Mannix, a notable figure, was relentless in preserving the spotless reputation of his stars. This golden era, dripping in glamour, was rife with men like Mannix who could sweep even major scandals under the rug.
The Golden Age of Hollywood, spanning the 1920s to the 1950s, saw studios and their honchos wielding immense control over their stars. In the following list, we’ll dive into 12 of the most rigid rules thrust upon stars during this era.
Sign a Long-Term Contract, No Questions Asked
As the 1920s roared to life, Hollywood studios dispatched scouts to discover fresh faces to mold into stars. These scouts would rope in promising talents with contracts spanning several years, safeguarding the studios’ financial interests more than those of the actors. These contracts tethered actors to a single studio for a multitude of films.
If they were spent and desired a break, the studios wouldn’t hesitate to push them further. Should they find themselves at odds with the studio, they’d be stuck until the end of their contract. No matter what, they had to adhere to their contract to a T to get paid.
At a glance, it might seem like these stars were being handsomely compensated. Some big names were raking in a whopping $5,000 a week—a hefty sum for the 1920s! However, as their fame skyrocketed, their wages remained stagnant due to the locked-in contract rates. This restrictive practice extended to everyone involved in the filmmaking process.
Dubbed “studio self sufficiency,” it streamlined the production process at the expense of the artists’ freedom. But for years, stars had little recourse against the established system.
Stay Faithful or Face the Consequences
During the Golden Age, actors were bound to specific studios by their contracts, making it challenging to venture out to rival companies. While these contracts offered perks, they demanded loyalty, curtailing the creative scope of big-name stars.
On rare occasions, actors were allowed temporary releases or “loans” to work on certain films with other studios. The studios kept a close watch to ensure their image remained unblemished.
Elizabeth Taylor is a perfect example. Under contract with MGM until 1960, she was allowed to explore different roles with other studios, including edgier themes like extramarital pregnancies, homosexuality, and cannibalism, revealing a different facet of the actress.
But such limited “freedom” was a rarity. If actors stepped out of line, they risked being blacklisted from the industry. Take Olivia de Havilland, for example. Famous for her role in Gone With the Wind and tied to Warner Bros. since 1935, she grew weary of the shallow roles she was offered and began to refuse them.
The backlash was harsh. For years, she was practically ostracized from the industry, with Warner Bros. executives warning other studios against employing her due to her “difficult attitude.” All because she desired a say in the films she worked on! Hollywood might have seemed like a dreamland, but the reality behind the scenes was often filled with tension and unease.
Don’t You Dare Turn Down a Role!
During the glittering era of Hollywood, actors found themselves bound by stringent contracts with studios, which allowed them scant choice over the roles they were assigned. For fear of losing their livelihood, many opted to toe the line. Olivia de Havilland, however, dared to differ. Signed by Warner Bros in 1935, de Havilland boldly declined the cliché roles offered to her.
Years later, the veteran actress would express her disappointment in an interview, describing how she felt relegated to playing “The Girl.” Craving more depth in her roles, de Havilland boldly began refusing parts, a move practically unheard of in the 30s and 40s. This defiance caused an uproar among studio bosses, leading to her suspension without pay at Warner Bros. This setback, at the prime of her career, cost de Havilland a substantial amount of money, fame, and influence, all because she dared to uphold her principles.
Despite the blows, de Havilland remained resolute. She knew the system was unjust, and refusing roles felt like a breach of fairness. Armed with the legal wisdom of her attorney father, she decided to challenge Warner Bros in court. After a grueling legal battle, she emerged triumphant. In 1943, the Labor Code Section 2855, known as the “de Havilland Law” or the “seven-year rule” on contracts, was enacted. This law was a significant step towards dismantling the oppressive studio system.
Change Your Moniker for Stardom
Throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, it wasn’t uncommon for budding actors to have their birth names swapped for more glamorous sounding ones by the studios responsible for their rise to fame. Iconic stars such as Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Natalie Wood all owe their unforgettable stage names to the industry. The reasons for these name changes were manifold, often aimed at creating a specific image or persona.
In an era that favored white actors, many performers of different ethnicities had to disguise their roots. Margarita Cansino, known for her role in Gilda, was forced to adopt a new identity to distance herself from her Spanish heritage. The studio wanted her to appear more “all-American” on the screen, erasing any hint of her ethnicity.
Even Lucille LeSueur had her name changed by an influential MGM executive who found her birth surname unpalatable. She would then be known as Joan Crawford, a name she loathed. Despite her fame, Crawford wished she had never adopted the new moniker, finding it a distasteful reminder of her past. Even male actors, such as Archibald Alexander Leach, known to us as Cary Grant, had to go through this name-changing rigmarole.
Now, About Your Looks…
Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, once declared that stardom was a creation of careful and deliberate molding. According to him, a star was manufactured from scratch. His philosophy centered on the idea that a star’s face was the most vital aspect of their appeal. If a face photographed well, the studio could manage the rest.
Stars were under intense pressure to maintain perfect physiques and flawless faces. Should they fall short of this ideal, or begin to show signs of aging, Mayer had a solution—plastic surgery. Hollywood endorsed plastic surgery practices as early as the 1920s, even when the concept was practically unheard of worldwide.
Aspiring stars were expected to alter their physical appearance radically, often entirely transforming their image to fit Hollywood’s beauty standards. A notable example is Rita Hayworth, who underwent a painstaking two-year electrolysis process to alter her hairline.
Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jeane Mortenson as she was born, was made into the iconic blonde bombshell we remember today through hair bleaching and straightening. She arrived in Hollywood with curly, dark brown hair. But Emmeline Snively, a tough-as-nails agency head, advised her, “Look, darling, if you really intend to go places in this business, you’ve just got to bleach and straighten your hair because now your face is a little too round.” The brutal advice stuck, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Deal with Harsh Career Critiques
Back in Hollywood’s golden days, good looks were highly valued, but they didn’t guarantee you’d make it as an actor. Indeed, movie studios were more than ready to shell out big bucks for acting classes for their high-profile stars. As the legendary Shirley Temple shared in her autobiography, Child Star, Fox executive Winfield R. Sheehan saw such promise in her that he insisted she receive acting lessons, no matter the expense.
Likewise, when Ava Gardner signed her first MGM contract, she was nudged towards acting classes. But the studio heads weren’t so gentle in their feedback about her talent. On her first screen test, a rep reportedly quipped, “She can’t act; she’s not talking; she’s sensational.” Talk about a punchy critique! Not only was Gardner asked to attend acting classes, but she also had to undergo voice training to lose her southern twang and sound more worldly.
Gardner wasn’t the only one subjected to this rough appraisal and enforced coaching. Lauren Bacall, too, had to work on developing her distinctive “deep, sultry voice”, which eventually became her trademark. But, as Bacall recalls in her autobiography By Myself, director Howard Hawks was brutally frank about the need for regular self-practice to maintain a low pitch.
According to Bacall, Hawks once declared, “when a woman gets excited or emotional… there’s nothing more off-putting than shrieking.” Clear as day, Hollywood wasn’t for the faint-hearted. You had to take the criticism on the chin and use it to better yourself or risk losing your career.
Swallow this Cooked-Up Tale of Your Life
Hollywood isn’t exactly known for its authenticity. Publicists, studio bosses, and executive producers are skilled in the art of illusion and deception. This was true back in the days of Old Hollywood too. The studios were notorious for typecasting their stars or at least giving audiences the impression that they did. They’d go to extreme lengths to gloss over any unappealing aspects of a star’s early life.
For example, consider Joan Crawford, born as Lucille LeSueur and brought up amidst tough circumstances. MGM painstakingly erased her past, even asserting that she hailed from a high-profile East Coast family. They even staged a public contest to let fans choose her name! As a 1925 Movie Weekly ad proclaimed, “Bored with her debutante lifestyle, she left home to become an actress.” Voila! A new biography was crafted.
And Crawford wasn’t the only one. When Judy Garland was expecting, MGM, anxious about spoiling her “pure” image, made her take amphetamines to control weight gain. They also fed tabloids stories about Garland’s voracious appetite to deflect attention from her expanding waistline.
These fabricated backstories often hung over stars for their entire lives. Rita Hayworth, for instance, was never able to shake off the “vamp” label she got from her role in Gilda. Cary Grant once wistfully observed that “everyone wants to be Cary Grant… even I want to be Cary Grant.” The allure of these manufactured narratives was too strong for even the stars to resist.
Keep Grinding–And Pop Pills to Keep Going
Back in Hollywood’s glory days, movie-making was a never-ending treadmill. Between 1930 and 1945, an unbelievable 7,500 feature films rolled off the studio assembly lines. This relentless pace meant enormous stress for actors. In response, the studios came up with a terrible solution: they kept their stars going by feeding them pills.
Lee Siegel, doctor to the stars at Twentieth Century Fox, said it was pretty common to give meds to the stars to keep them going, even if they were pooped. And it didn’t matter whether the stars wanted the drugs or not! By the early ’50s, Siegel said, “everyone was on pills.” It was a cruel routine that often led to addiction and the awful problems that come with it. But for a while, it meant the studio bosses could keep their stars working and keep the money rolling in.
A famous example of this misuse was Judy Garland. Best known for her role in The Wizard of Oz, Garland got only one day off each week. On the other six, she often had to sing and dance for 18 hours straight.
To keep her energy up, the studio gave her speed. They’d also give her sleeping pills at night so she could come down from the buzz. Sadly, if she tried to get medical help or counseling, any delays would be deducted from her pay. At one point, she owed MGM over $100,000.
Tragically, Garland died from a drug overdose at just 47. Many people today realize her life was cut short because of what happened on the set.
Don’t You Dare Put on a Pound, Leading Ladies!
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, leading ladies weren’t flaunting their slim figures by chance. Indeed, keeping svelte was a hard and fast rule set by the studios. Piling on the pounds was a big no-no. Even contracts had “no weight gain” clauses. Before any major promotions, fresh talents would be scrutinized by studio bigwigs, often with a diet expert in tow.
Regrettably, studios didn’t beat around the bush about their expectations. They would sometimes pick at their starlets in a really awful way. Like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who once called Judy Garland “a pudgy piglet with braids.” He made sure she stuck to a diet of just chicken soup, black coffee, cigarettes, and pills to keep her weight down.
When Greta Garbo first set foot in Hollywood in the 1920s, she got a rude awakening. A producer didn’t mince his words when he told her that American audiences “aren’t keen on chubby gals.” Shocked, Garbo took it to heart and ended up eating nothing but spinach for a long stretch.
On top of watching their plates, these actresses also had to stay on the move. Take Marilyn Monroe, for instance. She was into weightlifting, which wasn’t a usual thing for actresses at the time. In a 1952 interview with Pageant, Monroe said she would spend at least 10 minutes every morning exercising with light dumbbells.
Like many starlets of her era, Monroe was under constant pressure to stay slim and would go to extreme lengths to do it—even if it took a toll on her body.
Love Life? What’s That?
Despite the dreamy romances we see in the movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, off-camera love stories weren’t always so rosy. Studios had a big say in the personal lives of their stars. Real love affairs had to get the thumbs up—and a lot of them were straight-up forbidden. Take 1942, for example, when Mickey Rooney, the star of Boys Town, told MGM boss Louis B. Mayer he wanted to marry actress Ava Gardner.
Mayer put his foot down, saying, “No way. That’s it. I won’t allow it.” Rooney managed to tie the knot in a private ceremony. But others weren’t so lucky. There were even rumors that Jean Harlow wasn’t allowed to marry William Powell because of a mean clause in her contract.
It was even harder to be an actor who identified as gay back then. During the Golden Age, studios often pushed these stars into pretend marriages with other celebs. The bigwigs figured this was a way to hide their true selves from the public while keeping them in demand.
Also, abortions were pretty common in Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century. Back then, it was seen as just a routine way to “take care of your body.” One actress, who didn’t give her name, told reporters that “abortions were our form of birth control.” Studios couldn’t afford to lose an actress while she was having a baby. So they took matters into their own hands, whether the woman wanted it or not.
Watch What You Wear Too
Before World War II hit, ladies in America dressed a lot more formal and old-school than today. Even though Coco Chanel, a French designer, started to use stuff like pants in women’s fashion in the late 1920s, the rules stayed tough in the U.S. Can you believe that a lady in Los Angeles in 1938 got locked up for five days just for wearing pants in a courtroom?
The movie industry followed suit. An article from Movie Classic magazine in 1933 mentioned that studios told their lady stars not to get snapped or quoted in clothes usually worn by men.
Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was famous for its strict dress code. Actresses had to wear dresses and skirts in public and on set. If a woman wore pants, she was seen as a rule breaker. She might even get turned away from shops and public places. Even Marlene Dietrich, who came from Germany, had to follow these tough fashion rules. Stories tell us that she was not allowed into the fancy Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles just because she was wearing pants.
But Katharine Hepburn was the one who finally helped to change the industry’s stiff dress rules. She didn’t play by the Hollywood actress playbook on set. When RKO’s costume folks tried to take her pants one day, she walked around the studio in her underwear in protest. Thanks to her bold move, Hepburn got her pants back. Little by little, this started to open up a new world of fashion freedom for her fellow actresses.
Watch Out, They’re Watching You
When loads of money were at stake on set, the bigwigs in charge wanted to keep a close eye on everything. So, of course, these pushy folks started to spy on their crew to make sure everyone was working hard. Often, the studio bosses would pay spies to be on set and watch the biggest stars. These spies could be anyone on the team. Most of the time, famous folks wouldn’t even think that the cleaning guy, the driver, or a waiter could be watching them all day and night.
In one of the worst cases, Judy Garland’s trusted helper Betty Asher was paid to spy on her for years. Every week, Asher would tell MGM about who Garland was hanging out with, what she was eating, and what she was up to off the set. When Garland found out about Asher’s real job years later, she was crushed. “I cried for days after I found out what she was doing to me,” Garland said, remembering the sad truth.
And it wasn’t just actors who got spied on. Hollywood was way too big a business to let anyone slip through the cracks. So film directors were told to keep a sharp eye on everyone working on the production. Producers, assistants, script clerks, sound and picture folks, and more were all paid to spy on actors and each other.
A feeling of mistrust was always there on almost every Hollywood set. All of this was done to make sure that the old powerful studios got their money’s worth out of each day on set.