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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: Let's Get Down to Cases

Miriam Hopkins takes the stand in The Story of Temple Drake.
See the movie to hear one Hell of a testimony.

The public reaction when one of our beloved stars is hauled into court is varied. The collision of our perception-- or rather projection-- with reality often results in plain shock. The screen image is just an image? What??? Some feel betrayed, not only by the discovery that an idol is fallible, but by the fact that the icon is making such heinous and grievous mistakes after a life of such blessings as fame and fortune. Some fans become hysterically depressed, clinging to the vision of their hero, as if their love alone can keep him unsullied and innocent, despite the sometimes damning evidence against him-- a la Michael Jackson and the molestation claims. Others lash out in anger, feeling that the ungrateful star has arrogantly and ungratefully wielded his power. We thusly turn our backs on him as punishment for succumbing to human temptations and flaws-- a la Lindsy Lohan, or is she just "Lindsay" now? The natural human instinct is to jump to the defensive when celebs are offensive. There is no room for sympathy within our own disappointment. Our jealousy mixed with our worship dilutes our compassion: remember before Robert Downey Jr. cleaned himself up? America hates a loser, but we love a survivor. Thus it is that the Hollywood elite sometimes get a little taste of the soggy side of celebrity. Here are a few court scandals that temporarily tarnished or nearly ruined some of our screen stars' lives, particularly during the early Silent Hollywood Witch Hunts, when a more puritanical society lashed out vengefully at the film colony and their suddenly apparent, sinful ways.

William S. Hart (left) would be the last person to whom anyone would attribute controversy. Yet, even the stone-faced cowboy had his share of scrapes. Hart's brief marriage to Winifred Westover came to a violent end, as Winifred claimed, when Hart allegedly dragged her out of the house! Hart would swear on a stack of Bibles that this was a dramatic falsehood, but whatever the case, the divorce would end in 1927 with a hefty $200,000 settlement. Some claimed that this was the final nail in Hart's popularity coffin. Ironically, while Winifred had sued Hart in Reno for divorce over the claims of physical and emotional abandonment, Hart had found himself in court several years earlier when another woman claimed that he had gotten a little too familiar with her. In November of 1919, a paternity suit was filed against Bill by Elizabeth MacCauley of Brookline, MA. Elizabeth claimed that she and Bill had become acquainted three years prior in Syracuse, NY and had indulged in a sexual relationship. The result was a child, whom she had been forced to support on her own. Indeed, she claimed that she had hidden the child's existence for the past three years, because she feared that Bill would kidnap it! She alleged that she had only come forward for monetary reasons: her meager salary as a nurse in conjunction with a recent illness made it hard for her to support the youngster. Bill, who was in the middle of filming, arrived to court in complete cowboy array and asserted that, not only had he never engaged in an affair with Elizabeth, but he had never even seen her before. 

The proceedings that day were fairly comical to say the least, especially when the plaintiff was asked to identify the father of her child and did so by saying, "Everyone knows him. He is William S. Hart!" This caused the present audience to erupt in laughter. When the judge asked her to respond to Bill's denial of her claims, she professed that her testimony was the truth. Now this was something. All these years, Bill had been a self-proclaimed, nearly asexual bachelor, and all of a sudden this woman's assertions made him a secret, seductive predator! The game of He Said vs. She Said continued, but finally, the cards fell in Bill's favor. The skeptical judge asked Elizabeth once more if her claims of sexual intimacy with Bill had indeed taken place, to which she replied, "Well, not in the flesh, your Honor... He and I live in the spirit world." Uh oh, Lizzy. It turned out that the disturbed lady had borrowed the child from someone else and was posing it as her own. And so, poor Bill was dragged into court by a complete loon. As such, the case was quickly dismissed, and Bill was back in the saddle with this silly scandal quickly behind him. His status as America's favorite Western star would continue for six years more without faltering. Though there were occasional whispers that Bill did indeed have sexual flings, his recorded relationships with women like Jane Novak-- which were so puritanical they were almost platonic-- and his clear inability for emotional connection with his wife, Winifred, make it appear that he was far from the zesty Lothario Elizabeth had tried to paint him as. At least he knew, despite his personal issues, that some women around the world found his boyish onscreen charm irresistible... and even convictable. (You'll never take 'im alive! Hart in older years, right).

Speaking of paternity suits... Oh, Charlie Chaplin (left). Charlie, Charlie Charlie... With genius, there is always madness, and this genius was unfortunately bitten by the love bug. His addiction to and obsession with young, beautiful women got him into his share of trouble and plenty of regrettable, shot-gun weddings. But he didn't reach the worst of the worst until he met an unacceptable woman of acceptable age: Joan Barry. Charlie and Joan were introduced by Tom Durant, allegedly at the enthralled 22-year-old woman's request. Charlie initially enjoyed the lively, attractive girl's company, and a day of entertaining turned into the expected night of passion. Charlie took advantage of his movie stardom to go to bed with a lovely girl, and a lovely girl used her wiles to sleep with a movie star. Even Steven, as they say. The next day, Charlie expected the one night stand to disappear, as all his other trysts had, but surprisingly, Joan kept popping up in his life and essentially wooing him. This wasn't totally unexpected, as Charlies had become accustomed to hangers-on and "friends" with their hands out. Joan seemed innocent enough, so the liaison continued a bit longer. In time, Charlie's enchantment with the girl seemed to fade. She just wouldn't go away, and he couldn't decide if he was being conned or guilted into accepting her presence, but soon he was bewildered to find himself paying for her acting classes and later even signed her to a contract at his studio. But, he was a wealthy man after all, and he figured it was the least he could do. As an astute man-- at least after the initial call of desire had been quelled-- Charlie couldn't ignore the odd feeling in his gut that something in this girl wasn't right. He slowly tried to distance himself, but this only exacerbated her obsession with him and led to her repeatedly and drunkenly driving to his front door, breaking windows, and one night even threatening his and her own lives with a gun.

What Charlie didn't know was that he had chosen to have one of his brief flings with an as yet undiagnosed schizophrenic. The product of a broken home-- her father had committed suicide before she was born-- Joan (right) had used her sexuality to get ahead in life. After coming to Hollywood to become an actress, she had been taken in, or rather "kept," by another man with whom she lived out of wedlock, which was quite scandalous in those days. Her most recent affiliation had been with another rich "keeper,"  John Paul Getty, who incidentally had also sensed something off about her and passed her onto A.C. Blumenthal, who passed her to Durant, who passed her onto Charlie. She had been arrested for shoplifting prior to this latest tryst and, in the midst of her affair with the comedian, would be picked up for being under the influence of barbiturates. She was clearly an unstable woman, who sadly and obviously had been misused by the men in her life and perhaps even moreso by herself. Charlie eventually became so put off by her erratic behavior that he bought her contract back from her and essentially paid her to go away. He wasn't in the clear, however. He became the straw that broke the camel's back in Joan's train wreck life, and after he met and fell in love with his final wife, Oona O'Neill-- over 35 years his junior-- Joan would flip her lid, and Charlie would find himself slapped with a paternity suit.

Joan claimed that Charlie had seduced her from the beginning and that their relationship had dragged on for a couple of years by the time she had become pregnant with baby Carol. Charlie would admit to the affair, but claimed that he hadn't been intimate with her for two years prior to the suit. Joan also claimed that Charlie had paid for at least two previous abortions for her during their affair, but she refused to get rid of baby number three when she became pregnant again in May of 1943. She had been used and discarded, at least that is what she told Hedda Hopper, who was engaging in an anti-Charlie war when it was suspected (falsely) that he was a communist. Hence, the media storm. Despite Joan's attempt to essentially blackmail Charlie and enact a little vengeance, he clearly was confident that he wasn't the father. He and his lawyer made an offer: he would take a paternity test, paying for the medical costs and Joan's living expenses while they awaited the baby's birth, but if the results came back negative, then Joan would drop the charges. Charlie turned out to be blood type-O. Joan was type-A. When Carol was birthed, she was tested as type-B. Charlie was in the clear... at least until Joan decided to ignore their agreement and take him to court anyway. Paternity tests were not yet admissible in court, so despite the obvious invalidity of her case, the trial commenced in Dec. of 1944. Two deadlocked juries later-- the first case ending in a 7-5 split in Charlie's favor and the second in a 9-3 split in his favor-- and the judge made the final call: Charlie would pay Joan $5000 in damages and pay Carol $75/mo. until her 21st birthday.

Charlie would spend his career portraying the underdog in the hopes
 of inspiring a better, more understanding world. He would not
find this role as rewarding in reality.

During this mayhem, Charlie had wed Oona and, after the case, the remainder of his life would mostly be spent quietly abroad in Switzerland, as he was ousted from his own country, due to his supposed commie affiliations. The case severely hurt his reputation, and he was heartbroken that the welcoming land of opportunity had so harshly slapped him in the face. Joan would surprisingly marry and move to Pennsylvania, but she was soon institutionalized when her mental illness was diagnosed. While Charlie wasn't Carol's father, it is still uncertain which witness's version of the sexual relationship between Charlie and Joan was true, but it was probably a blending of both. In this court case, both the plaintiff and the defendant were guilty in many different respects, yet Charlie wound up paying the price for the one accusation of which he was innocent. Oh, justice...

The ladies got into their share of trouble too. Mary Astor was a Hollywood beauty (left) of great repute and talent. Landing roles opposite the likes of Douglas Fairbanks in Don Q. Son of Zorro, she too would act opposite lover John Barrymore in Beau Brummel and Don Juan. The two initiated a romance, despite her parents' objections, due to her tender age of 17. After John spurned her for his third wife, Dolores Costello-- incidentally before Don Juan was filmed-- Mary was deeply grieved. Her tempestuous relationship with her controlling, greedy, and sometimes abusive parents made her only want to rebel more, and she finally found consolation in the arms of first husband Kenneth Hawks. When he shockingly died in a plane crash, Mary was further plummeted into despair. Her nervous breakdown required medical attention, which brought Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, husband #2, into her life. Her life seemed to be repairing itself, and her career was sailing along smoothly with an easy transition to the talkies. Yet, as a woman of passion and pain, Mary found herself unsatisfied in her union, the only blessing from which was her beloved daughter, Marilyn. When friend Miriam Hopkins introduced her to playwright George F. Kauffman, Mary was smitten by his intelligence and surprising charm. An energetic affair ensued, which Mary mistakenly recorded in her diary. Unfortunately, the good doctor accidentally found her blue journal and its explicit, purple pages and filed for divorce. Mary, unhappy in the marriage, did not contest the dissolution. However Franklyn got petty and, having taken the diary, blackmailed her for custody of their daughter, lest its titillating contents be unleashed!

Mary may have been a sorry wife, but a bad mother she was not, and she refused to take the bait. She counter-sued Franklyn, who was engaging in his own vengeful parade of sexual encounters after, and perhaps even before, his April 1935 suit. As expected, Franklyn tried to introduce the diary as evidence in his case, but the judge was so scandalized by the few pages he'd perused that he refused to admit it in court. Despite this, and probably at Franklyn's hand, excerpts were still leaked to the press, further humiliating Mary and damaging her reputation. Yet, she did not back down. While Franklyn had his claims against her, she also had her witnesses against his reputation. Marilyn's nurse even testified to the plethora of women who had been gracing Frank's bed, all before the eyes of their innocent daughter. In the end, the court ruled against Frank, and Mary received custody of Marilyn. Her career surprisingly did not falter, especially after her smash hit as the diabolical femme fatale of The Maltese Falcon-- the audience perhaps enjoyed watching her play, what they assumed, was her sinister self. Ironically, she would be best remembered in her later years for her mature, maternal roles in films like Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women. She would suffer several more heartbreaks in a life that was far from easy. The rough road that she tread makes it somewhat understandable why she had come to confide her worries, joys, and tragedies in her faithful diary. It also makes one sad at the idea that she felt she had no living soul to truly confide in or whom she could trust with the truth. In the end, the diary betrayed her too, and she never got it back. Deemed too pornographic, the judge had it incinerated. (With daughter, Marilyn, right).

Clara Bow had star quality: energy, playfulness, sexuality, and a bit of naughtiness (see left). Unfortunately, these were also the things that threatened her stardom. A woman with a sad past of familial insanity and sexual abuse, Clara's warmth and need to be loved resulted in a string of sexual relationships that gained her quite the reputation. Richard Toomey would say with a twinge of pity that rumors were always circulating about her, and how "she laid everything but the linoleum." At first, audiences liked her spark and vivacity. She was a flapper! She was expected to live rebelliously and unapologetically! But, with every trend comes a backlash, and soon the popular press turned on her and her sinful ways, particularly after they got her into legal trouble. In all of her flings, Clara had one simple rule: no married men. She wasn't going to mess around with a man who had a wife and children. However, after an appendectomy, she found herself being attended to by a handsome, Texan intern: Earl Pearson. Clara was smitten. Earl, unfortunately, was married, but he had separated from his wife, hence his presence in Los Angeles. As he conveniently claimed that his wife was just one of those awful, nagging, cold-hearted broads, (pause for eye-roll), and as he had no children, Clara reneged on her personal oath and indulged in an affair with him. What followed was a divorce suit from Elizabeth Pearson with Clara listed as the correspondent who had alienated her husband's affections. Mrs. Pearson was seeking $150,000 in damages. With Paramount's help, Clara was able to crawl out from under the financial burden, and wound up paying a total of $56,000 to keep her name out of the suit, which Elizabeth changed to divorce by reason of "Failure to Provide" on the philandering Earl's part. Though word eventually got out about the scandal, Clara had avoided court this time, but another vengeful female would soon take her before the judge.

The argument this time resulted from yet another love triangle... but an unexpected one. After dating no-good Harry Richman, Clara had had the good fortune of meeting and falling in love with the nurturing and loving Rex Bell. As her relationship with him grew, she grew too, and her reliance on the other people in her life began to diminish, especially after Rex started weeding out the bad seeds. Clara had been supporting her repulsive, alcoholic father, Robert, paying for the care and maintenance of her mentally-ill aunts, and had too been bled dry by her business manager, Bogart Rogers. For this reason, the wealthy movie starlet rarely had any dough, despite the fact that she never really spent any on herself. Before Rex came along, her number one trusted advisor was former hairstylist and later personal secretary Daisy DeVoe. Daisy had been a friend and confidante to Clara, had taken the reins of her finances, and had finally improved her meager savings. However, when Rex entered the picture, Daisy felt herself being overshadowed and edged out-- she had, after all, secured a very comfy position for herself with Clara. Rex, for his part, didn't trust her. Daisy was very possessive and secretive about Clara's expenses, and Rex couldn't help but wonder if she was skimming some off the top. When he tested her loyalty, Daisy disappeared with Clara's checkbook, her personal correspondence to past lovers-- including Pearlman-- and her business records. Rex saw this as proof enough-- Daisy was fleecing Clara!

Feeling that Rex had wrongly turned Clara against her, Daisy was irate. In a heated moment, she opted for revenge and blackmailed Clara for $125,000 or else her love letters and private business would be released for all the world to see. Clara was devastated at the betrayal, and when Daisy tried to undo her impetuous move and asked for her job back, Clara unceremoniously slammed the door in her face. With a police escort, Rex was able to obtain Clara's possessions from Daisy, and her former friend was hauled to jail-- although, strangely, she had not yet been charged. (D.A.Buron Fitts didn't trifle with silly things like legal rights). Soon enough, 37 counts of grand theft were handed down upon her, as there were curious check stubs by Daisy's hand that had all been made out to Daisy herself. Daisy would claim that this was all business, that Clara trusted her with all of her finances and also encouraged Daisy to buy gifts for herself and others. "There was nothing underhanded about it," she pleaded. Because Daisy had managed to put almost a quarter of a million dollars into a private trust for Clara, it appears that the damsel in distress clearly had been doing her job. Certainly, she may have taken a little for herself, but the consensus over the years has been that she was indeed innocent and the whole issue had resulted from an unfortunate misunderstanding between herself and Rex and the power struggle they were indulging in over Clara's life.

Clara tries to put on a happy face during the trial with the help of true love, Rex Bell.

At the time, the jury disagreed, and it was alleged that Daisy had knowingly embezzled at least $35,000 from her supposedly beloved employer. The People vs. DeVoe was another low moment for Crisis-a-day-Clara, and proof that in this world, she couldn't trust anyone. Despite this, she still felt bad for her friend. Though she believed Daisy had indeed betrayed her-- penning some 100 curious and presumably fraudulent checks-- her loyalty urged her to ask the judge for some leniency in the punishment, which at worst could be up to 350 years in prison. The verdict was not easy to assert, as Clara's business methods were clearly unorthodox, and as such Daisy had nothing to protect her but her own testimony. The furs and jewels Daisy had bought herself also worked against her as evidence of her unethical financial tactics. Daisy was hysterical in court and had a great many of the jury men and women sobbing along with her. Nonetheless, she was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Clara had lost her friend but, more importantly, her faith in humanity. Her reputation further ruined by Daisy's public besmirching of her sexual character, Clara and Rex abandoned Hollywood for Nevada, but the broken-hearted Clara would end her days in solitude under the care of a nurse and estranged from her family and her once loving public.

Tyrone Power defends his innocence in Witness for the Prosecution.
Spoiler alert: like most celebs, he did it.

Naughty, naughty, naughty Hollywood. It is hard to sometimes pity the comeuppance our saucy stars get when they seem to go about brazenly asking for trouble. Perhaps, in a way, they deserve to sometimes have their impenetrability threatened, if only to cut them back down to human size. The succession of ill luck, to poor choices, to bad choices, to  the"are you crazy" actions some of them indulge in, makes their final landing place in the courtroom seem obvious in retrospect. Certainly, many of them took those moments sitting in the witness box to ask themselves, "Man, how did I get here?" or "If only I hadn't..." In any case, while the instant human reaction is to retaliate, time heals all wounds, and in the end, we have embraced our stars again, despite-- and perhaps even because of-- their immoral behavior, which makes them that much more appealing. It is amazing what a few decades can do. Perhaps it merely takes awhile for us to see the hypocrisy of our own judgment, as founded as it may be at the time.  We all have dirty laundry, skeletons in the closet, and little black books we should have burned long ago. The only difference is that our secrets aren't displayed as entertainment on such a large scale. The aforementioned sad lot didn't expect so much of their "entertaining" to be performed off camera and in the press. Luckily for them, the integrity of their work outweighed the integrity of their actions. In any case, Chaplin is still our comedic Jesus, and Clara remains our ball-busting Eve. We don't buy tickets to see vanilla innocence, now do we?

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