In the early 20th century, when young actors arrived with the dream of making it in Hollywood, they often hoped they'd be lucky enough to sign a contract with one of the five major studios. But old Hollywood rules meant that signing a contract for the chance at stardom came at the expense of their private and professional lives.
Old studio rules dictated whom stars could date or marry; placed strict edicts on weight and appearance; and designated which films they could appear in. Actors often signed away the best years of their careers.
Check out these surprising rules of old Hollywood that the biggest movie stars in the world had to follow.
A Studio Could Terminate An Actor's Contract For Breaching A Morality Clause
Image was everything in old Hollywood. Once an actor signed a contract, it meant agreeing to stringent morality clauses. If an actor was caught having an affair or engaging in any kind of unlawful activity, a studio had the right to terminate their contract or even get an actor banned.
Today, we see the biggest stars in Hollywood go to the grocery store in sweatpants and baseball caps. In old Hollywood, that sort of casual attire would not have been tolerated. In fact, when a leading lady stepped out, even if it were to run errands, she needed to be fashionably dressed with full makeup.
On set, the cameras may have stopped rolling when a director yelled "cut." However, old Tinseltown stars never really stopped acting.
- Photo: Our Dancing Daughters/MGM
Studios Often Forced Actors To Change Their Names
A lot of movie stars choose to change their names to make them more show business-friendly. Jennifer Aniston (Jennifer Linn Anastassakis) and Olivia Wilde (Olivia Cockburn) are just a couple of modern-day stage names. Today, it’s the choice of the actor. Perhaps their agent or manager makes the recommendation, but it is still ultimately up to them.
In old Hollywood, once an actor signed a contract with a studio, executives could demand a name change. For example, Cary Grant changed his name from Archibald Leach after Paramount Pictures insisted that the British actor create a whole new Hollywood identity.
Louis B. Mayer signed an Austrian actor named Hedwig Eva Kiesler to a contract with the stipulation that she had to change her name. Mayer made the odd decision to rename her Hedy Lamarr, after a silent film star named Barbara La Marr.
Perhaps the most notorious forced name change happened with a young starlet named Lucille Fay LeSueur. MGM not only wanted to change the actor's name, but the studio also saw an opportunity for publicity. They held a $1,000 public contest to see who could come up with a new name for LeSueur.
The winning name was Joan Crawford, a moniker the actor disliked because she thought it sounded like “crawfish.”
Female Actors Were Not Supposed To Wear Pants
Old Hollywood was all about appearances. Studio heads thought that their female stars should look and behave like glamorous leading ladies. Katharine Hepburn was a pioneer in doing what she wanted. The actor used her fame and talent to get her way.
Hepburn did not wear makeup all the time, and would even do interviews without any makeup on. She also liked to wear pants. However, RKO did not like her in pants because they felt that they were not feminine.
In fact, RKO’s costume department reportedly took Hepburn’s pants away from her. The four-time Oscar winner responded not by putting on a dress but instead prancing around the studio in just her underwear. The renegade insisted that she wouldn’t put any clothes on until her pants were returned.
An Actor Could Not Turn Down A Movie Part
Once an actor signed a contract with a studio, the studio owned the actor usually for a span of seven years. That meant the old studio dictated all the roles that an actor had to take, no matter how much the thespian loathed the part or how awful they thought the script was.
Actor Bette Davis refused to play by the rules of the old studio system. Davis did not think that Warner Bros. was giving her good roles and started to turn them down. Warner Bros. suspended the actor, who then took off to live in England.
Davis sued Warner Bros. in an effort to be let out of her contract. The acclaimed star lost the lawsuit, yet when she returned stateside, the Academy Award winner was given better roles and even offered a higher salary.
But not every Hollywood story ends that well. MGM head Louis B. Mayer reportedly did not get along with silent film star John Gilbert. Mayer had a plan to sabotage Gilbert's career by forcing him to take roles in bad movies. The studio executive knew the movies would be total box office flops, and Mayer's antics contributed to the early demise of Gilbert's career.