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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Ladies in a Man's World

The ultimate female objectification: Jane Russell and her assets
advertised in a 3D movie.

The battle of the sexes reached a fever pitch with the advent of cinema. Exploring gender roles on the silver screen was one thing, but it was the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that would take on much greater precedence in the history of He vs. She. The business of movie making, in a way, opened up a Pandora's Box of sexism, for as young ingenues came out to a land offering dreams-come-true and limitless possibilities, the consummation of ambition and corruption gave birth instead to what has commonly become known as "the casting couch." Sadly, it is not a myth. Hollywood itself, particularly in the early pioneering days and the apex of the studio system, was a glorified and gorified representation of a patriarchal society gone haywire. With large, wealthy businessmen and moguls holding the reigns and beautiful women running amok, it didn't take long for the well known game of quid pro quo to begin. As studio magnates got more and more powerful, their manipulation of the system, bloated egos, and inflated sensibilities of entitlement, resulted in a cat and mouse game, wherein more than one girl became the reluctant prey. In the eternal battle, many Virgins were sacrificed to the great Gods of Fame, Fortune, and Celluloid, but Rebels too came out swinging with a vengeance. Here are their stories.

LB at his throne of power.

MGM: "the dream factory." On the screen, it churned out delicious masterpieces for the eyes and imagination. Off camera, however, this iconic studio was a complete nightmare. Louis B. Mayer knew the business, he knew money, and he likewise knew how to cash in on his audiences. Yet, despite the fact that his job was to provide mass entertainment for the human soul, he seemed to lack one of his own. One of movieland's greatest hypocrites, he scolded his stars for their indecent behavior, while personally committing countless acts of debauchery and malevolence. In addition to controlling every aspect of his stars' lives-- his livestock-- spying on them, tapping their phones, intercepting their private letters and wires, he too abused his power physically. Some women, such as the strong Luise Rainer, never played into his trap and maintained enough control over their lives so that he was never able to infect their private business. Rainer (left) always made Mayer uneasy. He couldn't "figure her out." Read: she wouldn't play into his hands like an eye-batting simp. She came to work, did her job, and did not mix business with his pleasure. Actresses like Rainer, who didn't care about the fame but were invested specifically in the work, easily avoided the noose, and irritated the hell out of LB. Ava Gardner too could be lumped into this category. Fresh out of North Carolina, Ava was naive about the ways of the world when she was signed at MGM, which-- coupled with her beauty-- made her a prime target. However, Ava wasn't "that type of girl," and when she was nearly sexually attacked by a certain employee, she ran to Howard Strickling, MGM's publicity man, to protect her. Strickling ordered the man with happy hands to keep his "paws off." While Ava would later become more sexually adventurous, she was also a woman in control of her own life; she was calling the shots and not the other way around. For this reason, she was never played as a sexual pawn.

This is not to say that all women who fell prey to the man in charge were soulless fame seekers or women weak in spirit. Most girls were simply too young to understand how to fight back, nor in the days before the feminist movement did they know that they should. One such ingenue was Judy Garland (right), who in later years would recount being "felt-up" by Mayer a number of times when she was a young woman just starting to blossom. Mayer would call her into his office and have her sing for him. After she wowed him with her god-given gift, he would then say to her, "You know why you have such power in your voice, Judy? Because you sing from the heart. From here." He would then place his hand on her heart aka her breast. As an adolescent, Judy was awkward in these moments, not knowing how to react. Her instincts of course could feel that she was being abused, that something wasn't right, but Mayer was the man in charge. What could she do? (She joked in later years that she was grateful that she didn't sing from another part of her anatomy.) This type of occurrence repeated itself over the years, until finally, one day after Judy had matured, Mayer tried the tactic again. This time, Judy looked him straight in his bespectacled eyes and said, "Mr. Mayer, don't you ever do that again!" Mayer, who was known for lapsing into dramatic hysterics, burst into tears. "How could you say such a thing to me, after all I've done for you?!" Judy, shocked, suddenly found herself comforting him. At least he never laid another hand on her.

Mickey Rooney, Judy, and the "affable" Papa Mayer.

For all of the turbulence in their relationship, Mayer always had a soft spot for Judy, mostly because she proved to be such a huge moneymaker. This would come in handy later. Judy once had an encounter with one of Mayer's right-hand men, Ben Thau. When the stuffy, abrupt Thau surprisingly laid a kiss on the adolescent Judy, she was shocked. He then told her in no uncertain terms that she was to go to bed with him. Judy politely refused the flowery proposal, and Thau became angry, telling her that if she didn't obey, he would "ruin her." Judy by now had enough clout at the studio to hold her ground. She stared him down and said, "Oh, you'll be gone before I will." Indeed, he was. After the story was relayed to Mayer, Thau was out.

Another man who was known to throw his slovenly, repugnant weight around MGM was producer Arthur Freed. Judy had a hefty business relationship with Freed, whose name is present on the majority of the MGM pictures she made. Freed was another chronic womanizer who used his power for personal gain. His most infamous relationship perhaps involves Judy's co-star Lucille Bremer, who starred as Judy's older sister in Meet Me in St. Louis. She secured the job only because she was Freed's "girl." Sadly, her career didn't last much longer after the film's release. Another story involves Freed's meeting with Shirley Temple, the pint-sized actress who was one of cinema's greatest moneymakers (left). When she transferred over to MGM from Fox, the eleven-year-old was invited into Freed's office, where the pompous windbag told her that he was going to "make her a star," which, coincidentally, she already was. He then presented his... member to her. (That's right, I said 11-years-old). The young child responded with childish, uncomfortable laughter, which set off Freed's hairtrigger temper. He screamed at her "Get out! Get out!!!!" Honestly, what response did he expect? Despite the fact that this story in particular is unsettling due to Shirley's age, it is comical in that a pre-teen girl was able to emasculate the notorious lecher. (Temple's mother was also forced to fend off the wolves, who often tried to proposition her when she was trying to get her daughter ahead in the business. It is also speculated that Judy Garland's mother, Ethel, freely offered herself up on behalf of her daughter's career.).

Mayer's #2, Eddie Mannix, is a perplexing person in film history. A bruiser with mob connections, his experience and knowledge of cinema was null, making his high post at MGM... questionable. Publicly, he was Vice-President. In truth, he was a glorified spy who kept stars in line by keeping himself very knowledgeable about their private business. Needless to say, Mayer loved him, and Mannix loved his job, using MGM as his personal, sexual piggy bank. His favorite girl for a time was Mary Nolan, a former Ziegfeld Girl nicknamed "Bubbles" (right). When Mannix fell for her, she was suddenly cast in films opposite the likes of Lon Chaney and John Gilbert. However, she paid the price for fame. Attempting to prove his great machismo, Mannix was mentally and physically abusive. Sometimes he would beat Mary so savagely that she required surgery. Many would note her black and blue appearance when coming to set. It was only a matter of time before she, in addition, became addicted to morphine. (Ironically, she would play an addict in West of Zanzibar). When Mannix tired of her and tried to break it off, Nolan fought back and sued him in a court of law. Of course, being a high man on the totem pole with his hands in government pockets, Mannix never suffered the consequences for his actions. Mary was libeled as a "drug-addict" and a "tramp" in the press and quickly intimidated out of town by Mannix's henchmen. She died alone of liver disease in 1948.

One of the most horrific stories about the distorted misogyny of Hollywood can be learned from the story of extra girl Patricia Douglas. MGM held yearly sales conventions, during which Mayer entertained his multiple investors by showing off the fruits of their monetary contributions. Concocting elaborate parties that invited these men onto the back lots of the studio, wild and ribald behavior was endorsed and the wine flowed like... wine. The beautiful women and hopeful ingenues were too paraded before the slobbering lot-- dancing, singing, and serving them liquor. Eternal gentleman John Gilbert was so disgusted at the display at one particular party-- and the way Mayer was offering up "those poor little girls" like prostitutes-- that he stormed out, much to Mayer's chagrin. It seemed like harmless fun from the outside, but the truth was that once the gates of MGM closed, over a hundred girls were trapped and outnumbered by drunken, pawing men who felt they deserved a little "reward" for their lucrative contributions to the studio. On June 1, 1931, 20-year-old, Patricia was one of these victims. Growing up in Hollywood, the lovely young girl was familiar with the business and some of its players and took the job for a little extra money. It wasn't as easy a job as she originally expected, and soon things became rowdy and out of control. Actress Ginger Wyatt was also present at this affair, and would recall things getting so out of hand that actor Wallace Beery had to punch a few guys out in order to get her to safety. Patricia was not so lucky.

She was eventually asked to dance by MGM employee Dave Ross. She found him unsettling and creepy, but she found him difficult to avoid. At one point, he and an unnamed friend held her nose and poured a mixture of scotch and champagne down her throat. On the verge of vomiting, she stumbled outside onto the dirty fields of the Hal Roach lot. Ross came up behind her, pushed her down, threatened her life, warned her not to scream, and raped her. After she was discovered, bloody and bruised, she was taken to MGM's own hospital. Patricia expected something to be done, but the silence was deafening. She approached District Attorney Buron Fitts, but he of course gave service to the highest bidder, so Patricia's case went nowhere. MGM had to protect its reputation, so the story of their party had to be squelched. Despite the fact that Patricia was a young innocent and a virgin, a fact many testified to, she was labeled as a "loose woman" with unsuitable morals who was out for money. Her case was dropped, MGM was kept out of the papers, and Patricia never got her retribution. Her sad story meant nothing to Hollywood's biggest money machine-- she was just another commodity to be used as the men in charge saw fit. In court, Buron Fitts solidified MGM's defense with the mere comment, "Who would want to sleep with that?" That sentence would echo through Patricia's ears for the rest of her life. (Learn more from the film Girl 27 by brilliant author and filmmaker David Stenn).

But MGM wasn't alone in its sexual shenanigans. Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth-Century Fox was also a notorious lecher. In fact, it was well known on the lot that business with Zanuck was closed from 4-4:30pm each day. Why? Because that was always the time that a pretty, young actress was escorted into his office, where he would personally "audition" her. It was a free for all, and women who didn't perform off screen were told in no uncertain terms that they wouldn't perform on screen. The way these girls were paraded around led to more than one woman gaining a reputation. Carole Landis and Linda Darnell both allegedly suffered the humiliation of social judgment after various encounters. It was just the way of the business. Who were these young actresses to question it? Upon most of their initial introductions to Hollywood, they were told that this was just how things were. Not every girl was equipped with the same fierce and gamely antagonistic spirit of a Bette Davis, and some were a little too naive to simply say "No." However, Zanuck would learn that he wouldn't always get his way. When the young Betty Grable (right) entered his office at 4pm one day and was unceremoniously offered his appendage, she simply said, "That's beautiful. You can put it away now," and walked out the door.

Harry Cohn of Columbia was no prize either. The sadistic relationships he had with his actresses, especially the resistant ones like Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, and Jean Arthur-- who opposed his power plays-- were legendary. He was labeled as "White Fang," a mental and physical rapist who left in his wake a landscape of discarded and humiliated women. He was said to have auditioned new actresses by sticking a pencil in their mouths to examine their teeth, lifting their skirts to look at their legs, and moving them over to his infamous white couch where they would "perform" before being escorted out the back door. After Marilyn Monroe appeared in Ladies of the Chorus for Columbia (left), she was invited to a meeting by casting director Max Arnow. Nervous about a possible new role, Marilyn prepped herself, crossed her fingers, and went to the appointment. However, Arnow wasn't there. A smiling secretary sent her instead into the office with Cohn, who beamingly showed off a picture of his yacht. He then invited Marilyn to come along on his next trip to sea, to which Marilyn responded, "What about your wife?" Cohn became enraged telling her to "leave [his] wife outta this," but any time he tried to redirect conversation to a rendezvous, Marilyn avoided the bait. Despite what is often said about her, Marilyn was a shrewd tactician and she knew better than to become yet another one of Cohn's walking wounded. Thus, as she made her way to the exit, Cohn blurted out "This is your last chance!" She exited nonetheless. Her Columbia contract was cancelled the following Monday.

The stories out there are endless, most of them experienced by the nameless women whose sacrifices never got them the opportunities they were promised when in a compromising position. Often, in recollection, women still protect the names of the men that so abused them on their rise to the top. One such woman is the spitfire Veronica Lake (right), who was never prone to gossip. BS maybe, but gossip no. Ronni's encounters in the extreme and sometimes rotten world of Hollywood are entertaining and eye-opening to say the least. She would recount in her memoirs mysterious auditions for various "films," which turned out to be pornographies-- one sort of movie she was not apt to make. She recalled being somewhat fearful in these situations. The casting director would try to intimidate her into accepting the job, leaving her nothing to do but run. The most hilarious of her appointments with sexism is also the most indicative of her character. She was once called in to meet a certain producer, whom she left nameless. After talking about a future role for her, this man took out his member (seemed to be a running theme) and laid it on his desk. Instead of batting her eyes at the great wonder of nature before her, or cowering nervously and searching for the exit, Veronica did what only Veronica would do. She threw a book at it. A heavy one. That had to hurt, and good riddance!

Mae West: an actress who put women firmly in a position of
power and took over Hollywood on her own terms.

One would hope that the aforementioned practices are a thing of the past and that the rise of feminism had abolished the submission of women in the Hollywood workplace, but the sad truth is that this kind of thing still goes on all the time. In a fame-hungry world, the need for power and celebrity to validate one's own existence only heightens a prospective star's susceptibility to such a cruel injustice. The hungrier one's desire for fame, the easier it is for a person in the position to give it to feed his (or her) own appetite. Luckily, there have always been those ladies who knew that their greatest service to society and themselves could not be performed on their backs. From those who suffered and those who triumphed, we can learn much: the cost of fortune should never be one's soul. Unfortunately, this truth was not blatant enough for all of these young women to see. In the game of sex, life, or business, if a girl isn't in control of her own moves, she is the one being played. Women like Lake, Rainer, and Grable had enough gumption to turn the tables and not be the pawn. Check mate, fellas.


  1. I especially loved what Veronica Lake did. Two cheers for strong-minded women!

  2. Haha, these stories just make me love Ronni more and more every time I read them.
    Too bad I can`t get a copy of her autobiography.

  3. Glad it put a smile to your face! Why can't you get her bio?! Horrendous. Did you try amazon? That's where I got mine ;)

  4. I did, and was told it couldn`t be shipped to where I live:(

  5. To make light of the Shirley Temple situation, Arthur Freed (how ironic seeing as to what he "freed" in that meeting) actually was born Arthur Grossman. He might as well have stuck to the latter moniker. It's more fitting.

    1. Oh Lord... Yeah, very fitting indeed. It would have been nicer for society to have had the warning!