Old Hollywood

12 Outrageous Abuses of Old Hollywood's Studio System 

Ann Casano
Updated July 14, 2020 3.6M views 12 items

The lights, the glitz, the glamor! When we think of Old Hollywood, we think of blonde bombshells and handsome leading men living an extravagant, amazing life of wealth and celebrity. However, that’s not really how it was. Back then, the major studios ruled Hollywood. They controlled every part of their stars' lives, from what they wore to whom they married. But there’s much more to the story. Here are some of the most outrageous abuses of old Hollywood's studio system.

An anonymous actress once said, “Abortions were our birth control.” That’s how common they were in the time of the classic Hollywood studio system. And most of the time, actresses were forced to get them because of the contract they signed. Studios wanted to keep their sex symbols - well, sexy. So pregnancy and even marriage were often completely off the table.

Studios forced men to cover up their sexuality with sham marriages. Child actors were force-fed uppers to keep them peppy, then given downers to make them sleep. Actors with "ethnic" names or backgrounds were forced to make up entire new identities. The audience just got to see the motion picture in the theater; the literal blood and sacrifice of the actors and actresses on the big screen was all left on the cutting room floor...

back to page 1
Jean Harlow Was Not Allowed to Get Married
Jean Harlow Was Not Allo... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list 12 Outrageous Abuses of Old Hollywood's Studio System
Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

One of the original "blonde bombshells," Jean Harlow signed a morality clause with MGM that forbade her to get married to William Powell - the obvious theory being a woman is much sexier to the common man if she remains single.

The actress also reportedly became pregnant from an affair. According to E.J. Fleming's The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and the MGM Publicity Machine, someone by the name of "Mrs. Jean Carpenter" checked into Good Shepherd Hospital, "to get some rest." In the name of total Hollywood discretion, "Mrs. Carpenter" was only seen by private doctors.

Louis B. Mayer Purposefully Ruined John Gilbert's Career
Louis B. Mayer Purposefu... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list 12 Outrageous Abuses of Old Hollywood's Studio System
Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Louis B. Mayer was the co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios. He had a great eye for talent and made MGM one of the biggest movie studios of old Hollywood. Mayer was also totally ruthless. When silent cinema was transitioning to sound, Mayer needed to dump actor John Gilbert - he was too expensive and the men often clashed over both creative and financial matters.

In order to make sure that Gilbert did not make the transition to talkies, Mayer planted stories in fan magazines stating that the actor's high-pitched voice was causing great distress on the movie lot. Mayer also cast Gilbert in several films that he knew were complete bombs. After the bad press and poor reviews, Gilbert left MGM in 1933. He is considered one of the most popular actors to never make the talkie transition.

The Studio Demanded That Dorothy Dandridge Have an Abortion
The Studio Demanded That... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list 12 Outrageous Abuses of Old Hollywood's Studio System
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Many called the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge "the Black Marilyn Monroe." The flawless-looking actress became a star in the Otto Preminger film Carmen Jones (1954). The relationship between actress and director became sexual and resulted in a pregnancy.

Preminger refused to leave his wife in order to marry his pregnant mistress. According to Scandals of Classic Hollywood, the studio demanded that Dandridge get an abortion. The studio wanted Dandridge to remain a sex symbol. Additionally, she was mixed race and Preminger was white. Miscegenation laws in 1955 were still in existence in several states, making it illegal for mixed race couples to marry.

Ava Gardner Had an Abortion Because of MGM's Penalty Clauses
Ava Gardner Had an Abort... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list 12 Outrageous Abuses of Old Hollywood's Studio System
Photo: zapdelight/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ava Gardner had an abortion when she was married to Frank Sinatra (her third husband, they were married from 1951-1957). Old Blue Eyes reportedly did not know about the procedure. Gardner was forced to have the abortion because of MGM's penalty clauses against their star actresses having babies.

According to Jane Ellen Wayne's tell-all, The Golden Girls of MGM, Gardner said, "If I had one, my salary would be cut off. So how could I make a living? Frank was broke and my future movies were going to take me all over the world. I couldn’t have a baby with that sort of thing going on. MGM made all the arrangements for me to fly to London. Someone from the studio was with me all the time. The abortion was hush hush...very discreet."