Golden Hollywood: Imitation of Life

Movie stars haven’t changed much. Or have they? The world still hungers to know about their every move. In the insightful new book on the Golden Age of Hollywood, The Star Machine, author Jeanine Basinger reveals that the old days of stardom were like a fiefdom in the film land kingdom. Lana Turner, in particular, was a legend who lived up to every bit of her star quality. Here, in an exclusive, we take a look at tantalizing Turner and her peer group of stars who were bigger than life.

Star Studded

“If you are a movie star, leave your house looking like a movie star. And if you are not a movie star, you should stillleave your house looking like a movie star,” commanded Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio kingpin Louis B. Mayer to his 1940s contract star and swimming sensation Esther Williams. He told her this when he learned she had made the mistake of leaving home one night and was spotted without the appropriate make-up and movie star clothes that was always expected of the studio’s top actors. Especially the biggest money-making stars like Williams. She learned, like so many others before her and since, that it’s all about beautifully maintaining the studio’s financial investment: its talent roster. It was a lesson that applied to all the actors who had studio contracts from the 1920s through the late 1950s: if a star was property of one of the big studios like MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, RKO, Columbia or even the lesser studios, they quickly realized they would have to toe the line or face an early career death. An actor was created and could be destroyed on a whim by the powers that be.

It was a simple process in the flesh factory that cranked out hundreds of movies a year to satiate a star-hungry public: discovery, screen test, the makeover and then publicity, also known as the build-up. After the star was molded came the casting of the type of star the public might “buy” from the actor’s performance. It was an endeavor that was willingly endured by fresh scrubbed kids from faraway places who were dropped off the bus at Hollywood and Vine on a daily basis. Everyone wanted a shot at stardom. Who wouldn’t? Back then, if they didn’t, they stayed on the farm because Hollywood was only for those who hungered stardom as if it was oxygen.

In The Star Machine, author Jeanine Basinger intensely explores her subject matter of yesterday’s entertainment industry’s devotion to glamour and allure - and the vast machination it took to make it happen. She gets to the heart of the delicate matter of delicate egos, which always has been and always will be the foundation of both Hollywood’s fear factor and to a greater extent, its success. With in-depth profiles on some of the era’s brightest stars like Errol Flynn, Loretta Young, Tyrone Power, Norma Shearer, Deanna Durbin, Lana Turner, to name a few, the book allows the reader to feel as if he could reach out and touch the quality of the stars and their studio team of bosses of the era.

Star Billing

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little” was the reported casting note on dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire’s screen test. Entertainment is a tough business and demands its talents also be tough. That’s why Hollywood, according to Basinger, was keeping the wheels in financial motion with creating new, exciting and different types of actors being at their most glamorous on screen. Make-up, strategic lighting, clever photography, chic up-to-the-minute fashions…along with some good acting thrown in for good measure was really all it took states Basinger. Grace Kelly, who had a short but meteoric career in the 1950’s saw through the facade later in her career. She was known to tell a friend before she married Prince Rainer of Monaco and became Princess Grace, "I'll tell you one of the reasons I'm ready to leave. When I first came to Hollywood five years ago, my makeup call was at eight in the morning. On this movie it's been put back to seven-thirty. Every day I see Joan Crawford, who's been in makeup since five, and Loretta Young, who's been there since four in the morning. I'll be goddamned if I'm going to stay in a business where I have to get up earlier and earlier and it takes longer and longer for me to get in front of a camera."

A woman’s face in the Hollywood of that era, and a man’s face for that matter, was the key to the actor’s future. Way before the current rage of aesthetic plastic surgery and American Idol, what a viewer saw on screen was what they got. And they got a great deal. For 1950s and 1960s heartthrob Rock Hudson, his assessment was frank, ““Nobody is discovered. Ever. Publicity departments loved to say that Lana Turner was discovered sitting at a soda fountain counter, drinking a chocolate soda ... It isn't true. I mean, there are too many interesting-looking people on Earth for that to ever happen.”

Still, with all the interesting looking people in the world, according to Hudson’s opinion, Basinger states that one would be hard pressed to replicate the dewy beauty of 20th Century-Fox ingénue Gene Tierney. Also, it would be tough to match the powerful profile on rogue Errol Flynn, the tuxedo-clad elegance of Tyrone Power, Clark Gable or Gary Cooper, and certainly the beauty of Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, or Ginger Rogers seemed heavenly to the international spectrum of their fans compared than the people they saw around them on a daily basis. But, it wasn’t just Middle America going to the see the movie in that era, it was the very rich and the very poor who idolized and patterned their lives after what they saw on screen. Or, at least aspired to it.

Whatever the level of success or talent, once stars reached the pinnacle in their career, it was de rigueur for them to suddenly became modest about how they achieved their fame. In fact, some seemed to feel a bit shy about it. Audrey Hepburn was certainly coy about her talent and said, “I was asked to act when I couldn't act. I was asked to sing Funny Face when I couldn't sing and dance with Fred Astaire when I couldn't dance - and do all kinds of things I wasn't prepared for. Then I tried like mad to cope with it.” Lauren Bacall, who went from teen fashion model on Harper’s Bazaar to 1940s bombshell extraordinaire, commented, “I used to tremble from nerves so badly that the only way I could hold my head steady was to lower my chin practically to my chest and look up at Bogie. That was the beginning of The Look.” Ava Gardner was just as succinct in remembering the one dimensionality of what it sometimes took to achieve a contract, “After my screen test, the director clapped his hands gleefully and yelled: ‘She can't talk! She can't act! She's sensational!’”

Star Turn

Fan magazines of the day pandered to the stars and their lives and supplied grist for the fan mill. Just like now. According to Basinger, they were canned interviews with hack Filmland writers who churned out stories by the hundreds. But they were crucial to feeding the star machine. The periodicals provided the inside scoop on the stars for just 10 cents an issue, about the same as the price of admission to a double feature, a cartoon and a newsreel during the Golden Age.

With titles like Modern Screen, Photoplay, Movie Mirror and dozens more, these publications’ articles were as insipid as their headlines, such as “How I Stay Normal in Hollywood”, “Found: One Happy Actress” and even, “My Husband Is My Best Friend.” See, they’re just like you are is what the stories seemed to convey. At least, that’s what the magazines inferred. But, in reality, stars were harder working. Working girl on the screen as much as in real life, Joan Crawford’s roles that took her from struggling secretary to boss’s wife in about ninety minutes of on-screen time, once said that, “Hollywood is like life, you face it with the sum total of your equipment”, and “You have to be self-reliant and strong to survive in this town. Otherwise you will be destroyed.” And she did it all while wearingAdrian’s couture fashions that a genuine career woman could never afford.

Child star turned-consistent-problem-actress Judy Garland agreed and recalled that, “I was born at the age of 12 on a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. [MGM] had us working days and nights on end. They'd give us pep-up pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they'd take us to the studio hospital and knock us cold with sleeping pills... Then after four hours they'd wake us up and give us the pep-up pills again so we could work another seventy-two hours in a row.” All the stars worked hard for their money… starting with a $75 dollar a week six month contract to almost $5000 a week at the top of their game with an Oscar or two under their belt.” Her frequent co-star and pint size leading man Mickey Rooney also recalled that he and Garland would wake up in beds next to each other at the studio’s nursing station, recovering from all the upper and downer medication it took to complete a film on such grueling production schedules. Gene Tierney agreed that it was a business primarily for the young by saying, “There were days that I worked all the time, without a layoff, or a rest, finishing one picture and reporting for another sometimes on the same day.”

Star Bright

Texan Ginger Rogers, on the other hand, represented actors who were in the majority of feeling lucky to not only be employed at all during the era’s hard-hitting economic times, but also in such an exciting industry. She said about her time at RKO Studios, “The '30s were such a pretty time. I know it was a bad time for an awful lot of people, but not for me. I remember the whole atmosphere, the ambiance of the '30s with a glow because success was knocking at my door. I got toCalifornia in '32, just in time to do Gold Diggers of 1933, where I sang We're In the Money. She also recounted, “It was a whole new life for me. I was excited about it. It was happy and beautiful and gay and interesting. I was surrounded by marvelous people, all the top people of our industry.”

Megawatt MGM star Robert Taylor‘s insouciant attitude was similar to Rogers’ when he expressed, “"Acting is the easiest job in the world, and I'm the luckiest guy. All I have to do is be at the studio on time, and know my lines. The wardrobe department tells me what to wear, the assistant director tells me where to go, the director tells me what to do. What could be easier?” Spencer Tracy was more exacting in his advice to new actors he worked with by saying, “Show up. Know your lines. And, don’t bump into the furniture.”

As Gloria Swanson’s character Norma Desmond spoke in 1950’s film Sunset Boulevard, “they had faces then.” Robert Joubert, who was a hairdresser at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the 1950s and 1960s also knew about faces… and hair. He shared with us, “It was a great time to be alive. For gosh sakes, stars knew how to be glamorous then.”

Ava Gardner also recalled her inner yearning for what represented the glamour of what a movie star presented – even by another movie star - by saying, “Maybe I just didn't have the temperament for stardom. I'll never forget seeing Bette Davis at the Hilton in Madrid. I went up to her and said, ‘Miss Davis, I'm Ava Gardner and I'm a great fan of yours.’ And do you know, she behaved exactly as I wanted her to behave. ‘Of course you are, my dear,’ she said. ‘Of course you are.’ And she swept on. Now that's a star.”

The Star Machine shares a time capsule of the magnificent highs and lows that affected the industry and the nation. In his 1970 Honorary Oscar™ acceptance speech, Cary Grant, a leading man for five decades perhaps put it best by saying, “You know that I've never been a joiner or a member of any particular social set, but I've been privileged to be a part of Hollywood's most glorious era."

Famous Quotes on Golden Hollywood:

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon and On Moonlight Bay- I loved doing those films. You know, if life could be like it was in those movies, it would be beautiful, wouldn’t it?” Doris Day

"It isn't what they say about you, it's what they whisper." Errol Flynn

“What I'd really like to say about stardom is that it gave me everything I never wanted.” Ava Gardner

“If I’m a star, then the people made me a star.” Marilyn Monroe

“I never think of myself as an icon. What is in other people's minds is not in my mind. I just do my thing.” Audrey Hepburn

“My toughest role is growing up.” Elizabeth Taylor