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Stars struck: Scandals, struggles with excess in Hollywood not new

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/11/2014 (1526 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Celebrity scandals, public relations spin, and reversals of stars' fortunes are nothing new.

As Anne Helen Petersen's well-researched and readable history of classic Hollywood celebrity scandals shows, the types of transgressions have not changed. The language of "gin jollification parties" and "vice rings" may sound old-fashioned, but the Hollywood stars of the first decades of the 20th century were often as addicted to fame, drugs, sex, and money as those today.

The difference is that early Hollywood studios were all-powerful. Before TMZ, Twitter, camera phones and blogs, stars' excesses and transgressions could be hushed up, smoothed over, and re-packaged into whatever image the public desired: faithful wife, seductive lothario, good-time girl, or teen rebel.

And if the scandal was too much for the studio, the celebrities' stars would fall with a thud. The rumours of Fatty Arbuckle's sexual abuse, eventually proven false in court, were irrecuperable. He went from being the biggest star in Hollywood in the 1910s to a pariah by the 1920s.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/11/2014 (1526 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Celebrity scandals, public relations spin, and reversals of stars' fortunes are nothing new.

As Anne Helen Petersen's well-researched and readable history of classic Hollywood celebrity scandals shows, the types of transgressions have not changed. The language of "gin jollification parties" and "vice rings" may sound old-fashioned, but the Hollywood stars of the first decades of the 20th century were often as addicted to fame, drugs, sex, and money as those today.

A 1937 photograph of child actress-singer Judy Garland.

CP

A 1937 photograph of child actress-singer Judy Garland.

The difference is that early Hollywood studios were all-powerful. Before TMZ, Twitter, camera phones and blogs, stars' excesses and transgressions could be hushed up, smoothed over, and re-packaged into whatever image the public desired: faithful wife, seductive lothario, good-time girl, or teen rebel.

And if the scandal was too much for the studio, the celebrities' stars would fall with a thud. The rumours of Fatty Arbuckle's sexual abuse, eventually proven false in court, were irrecuperable. He went from being the biggest star in Hollywood in the 1910s to a pariah by the 1920s.

Other stars committed "long suicide" on screen. Audiences watched Montgomery Clift's perfectly handsome face become ravaged by a car accident and then drug and alcohol addiction. Today we understand the toll it must have taken on him to be a closeted gay man. Dorothy Dandridge refused to take roles in which an African-American woman was servile, only to end up embodying the very stereotype she hated in Porgy and Bess.

Only Mae West seems to have survived early Hollywood intact, leaving it for a theatre career in New York, with plenty of boyfriends and money.

By telling their stories, Petersen shows how star images "seem to so precisely replicate the cultural temperature of a time." How the scandals played in their moment versus how we view them now — with hindsight, new research, and changing attitudes — also tells us a lot about the present.

Petersen has a PhD from the University of Texas-Austin in star studies — a sub-field of media and cultural studies — and worked as a contract professor for several years. After trying and failing to get a tenure-track university job, she quite publicly abandoned her academic ambitions. Now she writes long features at the New York office of BuzzFeed.

Some of the chapters first appeared as Classic Scandals essays at the popular feminist website The Hairpin, and on Petersen's blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style. However, the book contains plenty of new material and is written in a more serious style.

Actor Clark Gable.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Actor Clark Gable.

Petersen's academic training gives the book intellectual weight, but she also knows how to tell a good story. The chapters are organized chronologically into volumes prefaced by short overviews: Twilight of the Idols, Silent Sex Symbols, The Blonde Menace, Old Loves, Broken by the System, and Three Angry Men.

More than a summary of salacious events, this book is a cultural analysis of what each scandal reveals about the American public then and now. Petersen is at her best analyzing gender, race, and sexuality. Mae West's forthrightness about sex fit with the Roosevelt era's tenor of "facing things" during the worst of the Depression. Marlon Brando's "animal sex appeal" was a function of the working-class masculinity he performed on- and off-screen. Judy Garland was never able to outgrow the asexual "ugly duckling" role of her teens.

Petersen also gives a sense of the real people behind the celebrity image. Humphrey Bogart hated phoneys and racists; he also hated dinner parties so much that he had the dining room in his house removed. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard loved to pull pranks on one another. Jean Harlow dyed her platinum hair red to be taken more seriously.

As much as this is a collection of 15 individual stories, it also tells a larger story. Many of the celebrities had humble origins in the Midwest and re-made themselves in Hollywood.

Once there, they were signed to studio contracts that variously protected, exploited, and stifled them. Those who could not conform often slipped into depression and addiction. Some survived or had post-Hollywood careers, but many dreamed of retiring to the farm life of their childhood.

This book should be of interest to anyone who follows celebrity culture, sexual politics, or American popular history. It's also a great read for film buffs, who will inevitably want to track down these stars' performances to get a glimpse of the magic quality Petersen suggests they all had.

 

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the University of Winnipeg's English department. Her PhD research was on 1930s politics and popular culture.

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History

Updated on Saturday, November 15, 2014 at 8:11 AM CST: Formatting.

November 17, 2014 at 4:15 PM: Corrects authors last name to Petersen.

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