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The Not-So-Golden Era of Hollywood

The not-so-Golden Era of Hollywood


Looking back to the golden years of vintage Hollywood in the 30s/40s, everything seemed as glamorous and star-studded as possible! Actresses looked absolutely immaculate both on and off screen, and relationships between Hollywood stars kept the American public obsessed. But not everything was as glamorous as it seemed…


In fact, behind the scenes vintage Hollywood had a darker and somewhat morbid feel to it with child actors being punished with ice and actresses undergoing painful cosmetic surgeries to fit film companies’ vision of a perfect white western woman.


But just how far did the golden age of cinema go to maintain appearances?


Old Hollywood



Leaning Boards for Actresses


Arguably quite a tame feature of vintage Hollywood is the use of leaning boards. These were large boards with cushioning around the board, and were made for actresses who needed to take a break between filming.


Most of the form-fitting costumes of the time were often cut on the bias and were so tight to their figures that they were sewn into their costumes. When break time did come around for these ladies, their costumes were so incredibly tight that if they sat down the costume would quite literally burst at the seams!


In his book  The Glamour Factory: Inside Hollywood’s Big Studio System, Ronald L. Davis said:


“For the screen, clothes, above all, must be photogenic. Comfort and practicality were of little concern. Many gowns were too tight for the actresses to sit in, requiring them to recline on ‘leaning boards’ between takes”.


Of course, the actresses quite rightly needed time for a rest between shoots, and so the leaning board was created and allowed ladies to have a rest whilst remaining in their costumes, although we can imagine these weren’t all that comfortable.



Jean Harlow using a leaning board

Jean Harlow resting between scenes for "Dinner at Eight" 



Brutal Cosmetic Surgery


As beautiful as the women were in this era of Hollywood, it’s not too shocking to know that quite a few prolific actresses received some form of cosmetic surgery to enhance their beauty. Actresses were usually typecast as the girl next door or sexy bombshell, so filmmakers went through great trouble to make sure that these images were being marketed to their audience!


Unfortunately, Hollywood was brutal and insensitive with what is considered “beautiful”. Movie companies wanted actresses to be the embodiment of white, western beauty and reflect a true “American Beauty” which ultimately ended up with so many stunning individuals being whitewashed and having their ethnic backgrounds completely erased.


Rita Hayworth in all her beauty was a beloved star who quickly became a pinup girl whose glamorous looks had Hollywood offering her countless film roles and quickly gaining a place in the heart of fans. Unfortunately, she was one of many actresses who underwent agonisingly painful cosmetic procedures so that she conformed to the ideal of a western glamour star.


Rita was born to a Spanish father who was a professional dancer, and an Irish American mother who had performed with the  Ziegfeld Follies. Unsurprisingly, Rita (born Margarita Carmen Cansino) had impeccable dancing skills which launched her into fame in the dancing scene before being propelled towards a film career in Hollywood. But there was a high cost to breaking through to Hollywood, and Rita underwent an extensive makeover which in the end eliminated traces of her ethnicity.


Rita dancing with her father before Hollywood fame 



Her birth name was the first thing that Rita was convinced to give up, as she adopted her mother's maiden name to sound more American. After that, she underwent the painful process of electrolysis which took two years to complete and reshaped her hairline to be much higher. This process involved a thin metal probe being used to shock the hair follicles and permanently remove the hair. The result was Rita had a hairline which was about an inch higher and more square in shape giving her face a whole new look.


Rita Hayworth Electrolysis

Rita before and after the electrolysis procedure 



For better or for worse, this helped Rita rise to fame in Hollywood. As Erin Blakemore writes:


“...Hayworth was idolized both as a “white” body and as an “ethnic” one who could play a myriad of interchangeably “foreign” film roles. Similarly, Hayworth played roles that were both sexy and wholesome - presumably some kind of combination of the permissiveness Hollywood felt her ethnicity allowed and her new identity as a chaste white woman to be protected and cherished.”


Rita Hayworth wasn’t the only one who went through such a drastic makeover, as Marilyn Monroe was known to go through the same electrolysis procedure which removed her widow’s peak and changed the shape of her face.




Actresses and Actors forced to change their names


Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe are just two of many Hollywood stars who had to be willing to change their name if they wanted to make a break in the film industry. When Lucille Le Sueur was an upcoming film star, the film company MGM held a competition to pick out a new name for their new star - this is how Joan Crawford was born! She apparently detested the name as it reminded her of a crawfish.



The competition published which gave Lucille Le Sueur her Hollywood stage name "Joan Crawford"




Punishment of Child Stars


It’s such a shame that even children weren’t spared from the harshness of old Hollywood.


Children being children, they are bound to get into some kind of mischief! However, a gentle telling-off wasn’t the course of action. Shirley Temple, who found fame as a child actor, spoke about how if children misbehaved on set they were sent to a dark, black sound booth where they would be forced to sit on a block of ice as punishment.


Historian John Kassan wrote about the set of Baby Burlesk, Shirley Temple's first credited works:


"To threaten and punish uncooperative child actors, the director, Charles Lamont, kept a soundproof black box, six feet on each size, containing a block of ice. An offending child was locked within this dark, cramped interior and either stood uncomfortably in the cold, humid air or had to sit on the ice. Those who told their parents about this torture were threatened with further punishment"






More Cosmetic Procedures


Joan Crawford had a trick where she would soak her eyes in boric acid (commonly used as a preservative or as an antiseptic) to make her eyes “sparkle” on film. In her biography,My Way of Life, she said the boric acid was part of her beauty ritual:


“While the masque is working, place pads soaked in witch hazel and boric acid over your eyelids and put on your favourite music.” 


Joan Crawford's signature shining eyes

 The secret to Joan Crawford's shinning eyes: acid


The  Sans-Molars Cheekbone Trick/Croydon Facelift was another procedure done on actresses which involved removing an actress's molars to change their cheekbone structure. Apparently, Marlene Dietrich who was famous for her sharp cheekbones, went through this procedure to emphasise the hollows of her cheeks and make them even more defined.



Marlene Dietrich Croydon Facelift

Rumour has it that Marlene Dietrich had her molars removed to accentuate hercharacteristically sharpcheekbones





Fake Celebrity Relationships


A staggering amount of relationships between old Hollywood stars were completely fabricated by movie studios. Usually to promote a movie, studios would promote that their lead actress and actor had miraculously fallen in love, as if fate had brought them together on the movie set! 


While promoting their film Babes in Arms in 1939, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were shown being in a loving relationship despite Judy being 16 and Mickey being 19!



Babes in Arms (1939)




Controlling and restrictive contracts


Contracts for actors and actresses were drastically controlling for the stars themselves. If you wanted to be a Hollywood star, you had to be prepared to sign a long-term contract which could last between four and seven years and would tie you to just one film studio. 

Once signed on the dotted line, the stars weren't able to work with any other studio leaving many stars feeling like they were missing out on opportunities to show their talent as an actor. 

They couldn't refuse roles either without facing drastic consequences for their Hollywood career. Bette Davis was famously suspended by Warner Brothers for turning down too many roles - if she wanted to be in films she would have no choice but accept the roles assigned to her. 

Stars were able to work with other studios by a form of loan between film studios (similarly to how footballers are loaned out to other teams!). Elizabeth Taylor was infamous for getting her studio, MGM, to agree on loaning her to other studios so that she could work on more complex films. 

Bette Davis Suspended by Warner Brothers

Bette Davis also had disputes with Warner Brothers over wanting a fair wage as an actress


Asbestos used as fake snow

Thankfully, today we know just how dangerous asbestos can be! But of course, health and safety was extremely different in the 1940s. 

It was common for films which needed artificial snow to use asbestos mixed with flour and salt to get the picture perfect sheet of white that they wanted. When Dorothy falls asleep in a field of poppies and wakes up in a snowstorm in The Wizard of Oz is thanks to this asbestos mixture. 

During the filming of the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life, writer-director Frank Capra created a new type of artificial snow for his film. Their first attempt was using cornflakes which there painted white, but using cereal does of course lead to rather loud crunches when actors had to walk on top of it. Frank's solution was to use a mixture of foamite (a material which was used in fire extinguishers) mixed with sugar, water, and soap flakes! 


The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland being covered in asbestos snow 




If you’d like to know more about the more scandalous side of vintage Hollywood, pop over to the following sources:

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