Essays

“Scores of ‘Starlets’ Like Me… Fifty Bucks a Week’’

Suspensions, Emancipation, and the Second Sex in the 1940s Dream Factory

Kerry McElroy writes about female solidarity and court victory in this fourth series installment of Bette, Marilyn, and #MeToo: What Studio-Era Actresses Can Teach Us About Economics and Rebellion, Post-Weinstein.

This article, focusing on women in Hollywood in the 1940s, covers both some familiar and novel ground. As in previous essays, it highlights some unlikely thinkers and critics of the gendered system that had formed in American cinema by this time.

As always, there are positive examples of women who managed to transcend the abusive system, fight off harassment, and blaze new trails. As the business grew more globally prominent, so did stardom and thus some new opportunities for women. At the same time, the 1940s illuminate the specific and heart-wrenching ways in which some women’s bodies and psyches were destroyed by the system. This article looks specifically at one little-known memoir by a black woman in Hollywood, who made remarkable insights into economics, race, and the realities of the female star. Finally, we end with another landmark legal case in which an actress pushed things forward legally for women.

Immediately following the Second World War, two women intellectuals, famed French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and the lesser-known American sociologist Hortense Powdermaker, became unexpected counterparts. The two were writing at the exact same time about the sociocultural meaning and conditions, respectively, for women in the young Hollywood system.

Hortense Powdermaker (1896-1970), American anthropologist who studied Hollywood, determining that the new culture and industry she called “the dream factory” was both dehumanizing and prone to totalitarianism

 Simone de Beauvoir had a great deal to say about the role of the actress. de Beauvoir was a French intellectual writing The Second Sex, her magnum opus on gender and the condition of women in the mid-1940s. Initially, her work only included the film star as just one more type of feminine archetype. But in her observations from afar, de Beauvoir wound up at some truths surrounding the cultural meaning of the Hollywood woman in the Hollywood system, and thus the Americanness of the star. de Beauvoir came to the same kind of understanding of women’s conditions of labor, forced bodily exploitation, and dehumanization so on topic in today’s #MeToo, Time’s Up moment. de Beauvoir recognized that the woman in Hollywood’s fundamental purpose was in the economic realm, and that this applied in both concrete terms and what she symbolized. The film star, she noted, was “representing capital to exploit in a man’s arms” (741). Even the personal relationship between the star and the producer-Svengali figure lives in the realm of the economic-exploitative. ““The protector who rules the starlet’s life is an older man… by offering his girlfriend pearls and furs, the industrialist or the producer displays his wealth and power through her” (de Beauvoir 620).

Like Bette Davis, de Beauvoir came to the conclusion that the contractually bound Hollywood woman was in a form of bondage, in that she was no longer legally in control of her own body or what was done to her. de Beauvoir wrote, “We know that Hollywood stars fall into slavery. Their bodies are no longer their own; The producer decides on their hair color, weight, figure, and type; teeth are pulled out to change the shape of a cheek” (615). While most people in the world, men and women, were enthralled by the glamour and beauty that Hollywood had to offer, de Beauvoir was already picking up on the grotesque deconstruction and reconstruction mandates for women performers.

It is a rather intriguing coincidence, then, that at the exact same time de Beauvoir was writing on Hollywood actresses from the positions of philosophy and culture, Hortense Powdermaker was doing similar work. She spent four years in Los Angeles embedded with the film community doing interviews and fieldwork. In her 1950 work, Hollywood, The Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-Makers, Powdermaker concluded that a system so dependent upon the buying and selling of people as that of Hollywood, could only be described as totalitarian.

Powdermaker described a grim social system in which sex operated as currency. She wrote, “As in most industries, those in executive positions with decisive power are usually middle-aged or older men” (233). The ability for predatory men to manipulate and sexually coerce was very high. Sexual, financial, and corporate dishonesty were all intertwined. Powdermaker wrote, “Almost no one trusts anyone else, and the executives, particularly, trust no one, not even themselves. Trust is impossible to men whose major drive is to exploit and manipulate other human beings” (303). Powdermaker wound up with a bleak outlook and prescriptive for the industry. Nothing would improve until such time “when power for the sake of dominating other human beings as if they were property ceases to be the major goal and is supplanted by a human form of collaboration” (Powdermaker 303).

The 1940s saw women of various “types” becoming shrewder avoiding exploitation and domination. Maureen O’Hara’s early years in Hollywood in the 1940s are paradigmatic. O’Hara played up both her Catholic faith and her ethnicity to make it clear she simply would not “throw herself on the casting couch,” insisting, “that wasn’t me” (Sheldon). The studio executives reacted to her with a mix of shock and exasperation. They had, in their minds, “purchased” a beautiful female asset, but one who refused to play ball. They described her somewhat petulantly as ¨frozen champagne¨ for her chilly demeanor in contrast to her attractive body (O’Hara 15). An internal studio memo wrote almost wonderingly about her in comparison to other starlets, comparing her to Hollywood’s official censors but as to her own bodily autonomy: “She is her own Hays Office….She is strict about the negligees she wears for the movies” (Barton 158). O’Hara’s canny dealing in Irish stereotypical feminine attributes of the day in her negotiations with the studio system allowed her to avoid some of the sexual exploitation that was rampant within the system.

As always, it is heartening to look at the women who managed to create strong personas and successful, powerful careers against all odds. As women moved into the wartime workforce, the style in films became that of the quick-witted, shoulder-padded career woman, personified by stars like Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell (Rosen; Di Battista).

However in the peak studio era, the portraits and anecdotes of bad treatment and conditions are more prevalent and detailed. The lives of many of the era’s biggest stars offer a grim picture of not only financial injustices but physical and mental abuses. Judy Garland is an excellent example of the extreme pressures on the female-commodity star. Growing up a child star of MGM kept Garland protected from the casting couch and sexual harassment. She was, from the start, too much of a “cash cow” for such treatment. However, she faced constant criticism, particularly as she aged through adolescence on-screen. Studio head Louis B. Mayer consistently criticized Judy Garland as fat and unattractive and only allowed her to maintain a contract if her appearance remained the same after a dramatic diet. In Garland’s case, the abuse was compounded by addiction.  Drugs, namely amphetamines, were pushed upon her by the studio doctors to keep her thin and working 16-hour days. She was then given tranquilizers to sleep (Fricke and Garland).

Garland’s struggles with food, dieting, pills, and body-image were the norm in the peak-era studio system. Another actress who dealt with many of these difficulties was Gene Tierney. Tierney put into words the issues of food and dieting when she succinctly said, “For all of Hollywood’s considerable rewards, I was hungry for most of those twenty years” (28).

But food restriction was only one of the problems Tierney experienced in the system. She was punished for marrying a man of whom the studio disapproved. When Tierney became pregnant “without permission,” she (like many actresses in similar condition) was again punished. While an unmarried starlet would have been forced to have an abortion, the married Tierney was instead financially disciplined. Tierney explains, “your salary was automatically suspended if it became known you were pregnant” (96). In this respect, as we learned from the previous case of Bette Davis, taking suspensions- for marriage, pregnancy, refusing to play bad roles, or any other form of disobedience- had in some ways developed into a principled game of chicken with the studios.

When star Gene Tierney (1920-1991) chose to marry fashion designer Oleg Cassini (1913-2006) against the studio’s wishes for her wholesome image, she was punished financially and ostracized socially as was a common practice of the period.

The levels of abuse and control could also be colored by racial elements. Rita Hayworth was not one of the upper-class women with family backing her in her stances against the studios. She was a working-class Latina from a performing family. She had already been ethnically erased and purposely camouflaged into a white starlet via name change and cosmetic surgery (McLean). Yet she battled authoritarian and tyrannical studio head Harry Cohn, whose interest in her went beyond the typical actress control to a personal level of obsession. Hayworth repeatedly made decisions to date or marry whom she chose, knowing full well they would garner unpaid suspensions but proceeding anyway. She was blunt in expressing her opinion of Cohn and his behavior later in life. Her 1966 recollections of him were detailed and precise. In this one excerpt, a clear picture comes through of financial abuse, exploitation, stalking, and harassment all in one:

“I came back to Columbia because I wanted to work and first, see, I had to finish that goddamn contract, which is how owned me!… Harry Cohn thought of me as one of the people he could exploit and make a lot of money. And I did make a lot of money for him, but not much for me… I used to have to punch a time clock at Columbia… Every day of my life. That’s what it was like. I was under exclusive contract — like they owned me… He felt that he owned me… I think he had my dressing room bugged… He was very possessive of me as a person — he didn’t want me to go out with anybody… So I fought him … You want to know what I think of Harry Cohn? He was a monster” (Hallowell).

In fact, it can be extremely difficult to uncover histories by women in Hollywood correcting the record who are non-white. White women’s voices have been written out of the male records, and so it stands to reason that women of color have been even more erased. Amazingly, there is a remarkable, little-known artifact that intersects Hollywood’s economics, culture, and racism, all while offering a portrait of the young star that decidedly punctures the glamour narrative and showcases the exploitation. This is the 2012 memoir Living With Miss G, by Ava Gardner’s maid and personal assistant, Mearene Jordan. Jordan was Gardner’s employee but also closest confidante, and Jordan lived (all around the world) with Gardner for decades. Jordan’s book is one that is unique in style and self-awareness. In it, she provides a clear image of how even the most high-profile female stars were treated in Hollywood.

As a black woman, Jordan experienced solidarity and anti-racist action from Gardner, as the two navigated white supremacist Hollywood together. Their relationship was remarkable and unique for the Hollywood of the day. As Gardner explained, “Reenie went through the really lean years. She traveled with me and knows more about me than any human being alive—more than my sister, more than any friends…. She knows it all” (Grobel 123). The memories of both women demonstrate precisely how the dynamic between the Hollywood star and her wardrobe mistress or maid was far more blurred and non-hierarchical than one might expect- when all were under control of the same male-capitalist system.

 Gardner was an actress known for her wit and rough-and-tumble attitude, in line with the hard-boiled dame persona that was in vogue in the 1940s. Nevertheless, Gardner demonstrated a recognition of the systemic misogyny on which Hollywood was based. Quoting Gardner, Jordan writes, “Don’t kid yourself that men just think they own women, they know they do!” (11).

As Gardner’s own words shine through Jordan’s memoir, we get a real sense of just how poorly the glamorous global starlet lived in 1940s Hollywood, and where—and to whom—all the money was actually going:

“MGM had scores of ‘starlets’ like me. Fifty bucks a week, and the option to fire you after the first three months or any three months after that if they didn’t like you. It was a constant turn-over. It was cheap labor; okay, it was a job” (Jordan 16).

Going further into the math, Jordan paints a picture ever more out of line with the image of the pampered, wealthy Hollywood star:

“Miss G made two hundred dollars a month. Our share was forty dollars for Miss G and twenty dollars for me. Our total income was sixty dollars a month. I was always mystified by where the rest of Miss G’s salary went. I said to Miss G, “What happens to the other hundred and forty?”…”Rene, in the film business, you have to have a business manager, someone who looks after your funds. You know- taxes, insurances, agent’s fees, investments. My business manager knows what he’s doing” (Jordan 19).

It turned out Jordan had been the savvy one after all in asking after the business manager’s share. Jordan went to clean and babysit at the home of the business manager and his wife, and explained “so that’s how I discovered what an expensive lifestyle they had, whereas Miss G and I scrimped along on bits and pieces” (Jordan 19). In a twist worthy of a short story and certainly reflective of Hollywood’s racial climate, Jordan was treated as the clueless servant and not the perceptive personal assistant she was. The manager and his wife spoke while they thought Jordan was asleep. “Don’t worry about money, darling, It’s rolling in. Those dumb actors don’t know what’s happening to their investments” (Jordan 20). Jordan returned home and told Gardner what she had heard. Finally, Gardner’s family helped her to get her money away from this manager.

Star Ava Gardner (1922-1990) poses with her “maid,” assistant/friend Mearene Jordan (1922-2014). Jordan’s memoir vividly detailed the force of white supremacist Hollywood on woman of color in the studio era.

Another reason times were so horrible for the young Gardner and her companion, Jordan, was because so much of the additional appearance work was free labor, baked into the paltry contract. As Gardner recollected, “I didn’t get a fucking penny extra for any of them. When I did a Lux toilet soap commercial, which I hated, they would send me a box of soap at the end of the month. Reenie would take it to the grocery store and trade it for Ivory. That’s how poor we were” (Grobel 123).

As Gardner said later in life, “‘I thought I was making fifty dollars a week,’ Ava said, the bitter taste still in her mouth, ‘but it turned out to be $35 because twelve weeks of the year you were on layoff. It was white slavery, and it lasted for seventeen years” (Grobel 98). Again alluding to the dance of suspensions already mentioned by Davis, Hayworth, and Tierney, Gardner said simply, “I can refuse and MGM will suspend me- so we don’t eat” (Jordan 21).

Gardner recounted one meeting with Louis B. Mayer at MGM to Jordan. “Mr. Mayer sat at the far end at a big desk. Paintings and photos of the famous race horses he owned were all along the walls…” (Jordan 15). In their discussion, he did not mention the huge windfall MGM had made through the common practice of “renting” Gardner to another studio, with the studios pocketing huge profits and the actors none. As Gardner recounts, “I didn’t mention… that as MGM had rented me out to United Artists… MGM had done very well” (Jordan 15). Mid-century, white male-dominated Hollywood would not have thought that an uneducated actress like Gardner or a mere domestic worker like Jordan would have had a sophisticated understanding of the questionable nature of this system, but they did. As Jordan wrote of MGM, they were “doing great loaning out Miss G without a bonus and at the same time working her on their own productions” (22).

Despite these (and so many other) vivid portraits of economic exploitation, one landmark legal case for actress rights does indeed leave the decade on a bright note. While Bette Davis’s English trial in 1937 was an important moment, Olivia de Havilland’s in 1943 was even more key. It finally and decisively changed the landscape permanently, dealing a major blow to the studio system’s all-powerful, unjust structure. Where Davis had gone to court to defend her right not to play a role and to her own personal home photos, among other things, de Havilland’s case went right to the heart of the legality of the suspension clause. As Davis had rightfully pointed out in her losing 1930s battle, if studios could continue to tack suspension time on to a contract and consider it work owed, that made it “not a legal contract but a life sentence”(Davis 166). In 1943, de Havilland won in California court, when it was ruled that suspensions must have a terminal date (Stipanowich). This case was, finally, an erosion of the all-powerful studio and mogul system and a major blow struck for the rights of actors.

There was an instant understanding from actresses that this was in fact a momentous occasion and gratitude for what de Havilland had accomplished. Davis wrote in her 1960s memoir, “The Emancipation was proclaimed and [what had been] called ‘perpetual slavery’ became a thing of the past. Hollywood actors will forever be in Olivia’s debt” (170). Ironically, de Havilland is both the last living studio-era star and, at 102, still filing lawsuits to protect her name in Hollywood (Carroll).

Olivia de Havilland (1916-), the last of the studio stars still living at age 102, filed the landmark 1943 lawsuit challenging studio suspension and contract practices. Her legal victory changed the industry.

The next article in this series moves into the 1950s—the era of bigger stars, bigger budgets, and bigger bombshells. It will bring in the supreme pop culture star of the twentieth century, Marilyn Monroe, in her own words—as a kind of surprising forerunner of the #MeToo movement and a forgotten proponent of social justice. Finally, its marquee court case will be one in which an actress fought back against the publicity machine and sued the tabloid press. The 1950s saw Hollywood’s power begin to wane for the first time in light of the television revolution. How did this change things for women? And in what new and insidious ways did executives seek to regain control?

References

Barton, Ruth. “Maureen O’Hara: Pirate Queen, Feminist Icon?.” Eire-Ireland 41.1 (2006): 142-168.

Carroll, Rory. “Olivia de Havilland, 101, on suing Feud: TV show put ‘false words in my mouth.’” The Guardian. March 16, 2018.

Davis, Bette. The Lonely Life. New York; Putnam’s, 1962.

de Beauvoir, Simone, Constance Borde, and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage, 2011.

DiBattista, Maria. Fast-talking Dames. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

Fricke, John. Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art and Anecdote. Boston, MA: Bulfinch P., 2003.

Garland, Judy, and Randy Schmidt. Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters. Chicago Review, 2016.

Grobel, Lawrence. Conversations with Ava Gardner. Np: np, 2013.

Hallowell, John. “Rita Hayworth: Hollywood Is Still Her Town, But No One Knows She’s There.” St. Petersburg Times 23 June 1968: np.

Jordan, Mearene. Living with Miss G. Smithfield, NC, USA: Ava Gardner Museum, 2012.

 McLean, Adrienne L.  Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood Stardom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

— “‘I’m a Cansino’: Transformation, Ethnicity, and Authenticity in the Construction of Rita Hayworth, American Love Goddess.” Journal of Film and Video 44, no. 3/4 (Fall 1992): 8-26.

O’Hara, Maureen, and John Nicoletti. ‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography. Simon and Schuster, 2005.

 Powdermaker, Hortense. Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie- Makers. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2013.

Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973.

Sheldon, Michael. “Maureen O’Hara: I wasn’t going to play the whore.” The Telegraph. November 8, 2014.

Stipanowich, Thomas J. “Olivia de Havilland: The actress who took on the studio system and won.” Los Angeles Times. July 1, 2016.

Tierney, Gene, and Mickey Herskowitz. Self-Portrait. New York: Wyden Books, 1979.

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