Updated: 03/13/2013

Film, Radio and TV - 4


 

Module 4

 

 

Scandals,

Sex and the

Depression

 

 


The Hollywood Scandals

>>Along with the huge profits during these boom years of Hollywood came many excesses. Tabloid newspapers tried to outdo each other in reporting, and to some degree making up, stories about the extravagant lifestyles and decadent lives of producers, directors, and actors. It's what people wanted to read. It's what sold newspapers.

Hollywood was "sin city" and much of it was true.

But then as now, the most popular and profitable news outlets are the ones that slant the news toward what people want to hear and believe.

>>The first widely publicized scandal started with a party in San Francisco hosted by "Fatty" (Roscoe) Arbuckle a popularFatty Arbuckle comedy star.  As the party was ending, model Virginia Rappe was rushed to the hospital with stomach pains.

She subsequently died and Arbuckle was charged with murder.

The first reports (which sold many newspapers) said she died as a result of Arbuckle raping her  But later it was found that the cause of death was peritonitis resulting from preexisting health conditions involving alcohol and apparently a botched abortion which had taken place days or weeks earlier. 

Still, Arbuckle was charged in her death.  After three trials—two ending with hung juries—Arbuckle was acquitted. In the case of one hung jury a woman juror -- the lone holdout -- said she knew even before the trail that Arbuckle was guilty and nothing would not change her mind.

By this time Arbuckle had been fully condemned by attention-grabbing headlines and by Will Hayes. (See Hayes code below.) To serve that end evidence was disregarded and distorted, if not made up.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle's friends simply saw him as a gentle and harmless individual who got caught up in an unfortunate situation.

After his acquittal, Arbuckle owed $700,000 in legal fees (millions in today's dollars) and he had to sell almost everything he had to try to pay off his debt.

Although cleared of all criminal charges, the scandal destroyed his career. On April 18, 1922, six days after Arbuckle's acquittal, Hays and his MPPA voted to ban Arbuckle from ever working in U.S. movies again.

After the jury had heard the evidence in what turned out to be Arbuckle's acquittal, they wrote him a personal letter affirming his innocence and apologizing for what he had endured in the three financially and emotionally devastating trials.

Arbuckle died at the age of 46.

The second scandal involved well known film director, William Taylor, who was found murdered in his home. Numerous suspects emerged but the evidence was never sufficient to convict anyone.

As with the Arbuckle debacle, the tabloids had a field day giving readers what they wanted to believe. The Catholic Legion of Decency announced a boycott of many, if not all, Hollywood films -- proclaiming it a "sin" to see them.

At this point studio "bottom lines" were being impacted and something had to be done. But the major studios were hardly above moral reproach, themselves. To bolster ticket sales they had been turning out movies that included horrific violence, foul language, and blatant sexuality. The public was outraged and demanded that something be done.
 

The Hayes Code Takes Effect

>>Fearing a riled-up public, which they thought might lead to government censorship, the movie moguls decided that they should act quickly to adopt some form of self-regulation.

In 1922, Will Hayes, an ex-postmaster general and former Republican Party Chairman, was appointed to head what was to become the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPA).

Hayes' conservative views were well known, and although he didn't have a spotless life himself, he was seen as insurance against a conservative backlash.  

One of the first things Hayes did was ban all of Arbuckle's films, even though Arbuckle had not been found guilty of any crime.

Hayes felt his job included not only determining what was proper film content, but overseeing the private lives of stars. His MPPA Production Code (also called "the Hayes Code") of do's and don'ts was issued in 1930.

To be acceptable for showing, films had to display the group's Production Code Administration (PCA) seal of approval at the beginning of films. The code was so strict that many of today's G-rated movies would have been rejected.

Hayes and his assistant issued more than 28,000 rulings covering what was and was not acceptable in films. Lists of scores of forbidden words were issued.

Screen kisses were reduced from a maximum of four seconds to no more than one and one-half seconds. The Hays Commission  even went to far as to ban scenes showing people milking cows.

Money vs. Morals 

>>During the 1930s, the bottom fell out of financial markets in the United States and movie revenues dropped.

Although this was partly due to the stock market crash of 1929, the problem was intensified by the fact that studios had overextended themselves financially.

To bring in patrons during these times many theaters started showing double features and drastically cutting admission prices. Some theaters even featured bingo games. Even so, something more was needed. 

>>To keep the studios afloat during these difficult times, studios ignored the very code they championed and started pursuing more risqué story lines.

Although few like to admit it, without the added revenues of the decidedly more risqué content, Hollywood wouldn't have survived the depression years.

It would not be an exaggeration to say "sex saved Hollywood."

>>One of the more outspoken actresses of the day was the Rubenesque Mae West (who few would classify as a sex symbol by today's standards).

One of her most provocative lines —"Why don't you come up and see me sometime"— was said to co-star Cary Grant. Hayes and conservative audience members were aghast that such a suggestion would be uttered in a film.

>>As soon as the film industry was on more solid financial footing—due in no small measure to her efforts—Mae West was banned from making films.

>>Turning to a very different topic. during this difficult era, Walt Disney started the only successful new studio.  In 1928, Disney released Steamboat Willie, the first animated sound cartoon. Disney, who was only 26 years old, had to sell his car to finance the sound track.

>>In 1932, color film technology arrived.  Although artists had been creating color effects for some time by hand painting individual film frames, a Disney short film, called Flowers and Trees, was the first film to be in "real" color.

A few years later, Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film, at a cost of $2.25 million—more than the cost of most extravaganzas of that period.

This film not only established the Disney company (now one of the largest media conglomerates in the world), but also introduced the animated film genre.
 

First Hollywood, Then the World

>>With the arrival of sound, Hollywood soon became "the film capital of the world." The Hollywood model of moviemaking established during this era consists of four elements that are still used to define films.

  • The genre, or the type of film (such as western, comedy, romance, musical, animated, action/adventure, mystery/suspense, science fiction, horror, gangster, and the dark, seedy, and the sometimes bleak film noir.)
     
  • The narrative, or the story that is told.
     
  • The discourse, or how the story is told; and the
     
  • Author/director, the personal perspective and influence of the director who interprets the film in his or her own unique way.

>>By 1930, 95% of Hollywood films were "talkies" and audiences had all but stopped going to see silent films.

Many popular silent stars were forgotten, and many new names were appearing on theater marquees; people like Clark Gable, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart.

It took a few years, but producers and directors adjusted to the demands of sound (and, just as importantly, sound technology adjusted to their needs) and films regained the level of production sophistication that they had exhibited during the silent era.

At this point, a new genre of film was born, the musical, and a genre that was previously popular, slapstick, physical comedy, almost vanished.

>>During the 1930s, romantic comedy and gangster films became popular. In 1938, the boundaries of suspense and mystery took a major step forward with the work of Alfred Hitchcock, the British director, best known for the original version of the film Psycho. You've probably seen or heard about the famous shower scene where your imagination takes over.  His other classics include 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, North By Northwest, and Vertigo (photo on the right).

 

Gone With the Wind

Sets Box Office Records

>>This brings us to 1939, when one of the biggest hits of all time was produced by David O. Selznick, Gone With the Wind. This civil war epic marked the first time the color process was lavishly and expertly used.

Attesting to the ageless appeal of this classic film is the fact that more than 50 years later CBS would pay $25 million for broadcast rights. Gone With the Wind has an amazing range of success elements expertly packed into one film, and it is the exception to the notion that old films have a hard time holding the interest of modern audiences.

Another famous utterance that was soon regretted:

"I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable [shown here] who'sGone With the Wind falling on his face and not Gary Cooper." (Said by Gary Cooper, a famous star at the time who turned down the lead in  Gone With the Wind, which became the most successful film in history.)


>>Gone With the Wind is historically significant for many reasons, among them the kiss (recall that only very brief kisses were allowed by Hayes Code), and the memorable and controversial line at the end of the film: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Swear words were forbidden in films in those days, but in the story this was a decisive indication that Rhett Butler had finally given up on Scarlett O'Hara and he no longer cared what happened to her.

In 2005, the American Film Institute voted this line the number one movie line of all time.

>>In terms of content and innovations, however, Citizen Kane, produced two years later by Orson Welles, is considered the most notable U.S. film every made.

However, the film was not a box office success. Although it introduced innovations that went on to influence filmmaking for decades, it was ahead of its time. Audiences simply weren't ready.

 

You Mean Men Used

to Wear Those Things?

>>No discussion of film history would be complete if it did not mention how Clark Gable managed to virtually destroy the undershirt industry in the United States with one simple action.

In the 1934 film, It Happened One Night, Gable took off his shirt revealing that he wasn't wearing an undershirt!  (You have to realize that wearing undershirts at that time was simply "a given" for men.)

Overnight, it seems that men in the country decided that undershirts were not necessary after all—and that was the end of that little accessory.  

Too bad we can't get rid of neckties that easily!




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