• Weird History

Stories About Old Hollywood That Sound Made Up But Aren't

List RulesVote up the Old Hollywood stories that seem hardest to believe.

The lore of Old Hollywood is an endless mine of entertaining factoids, larger-than-life characters, and memorable stories, be they comic or tragic. You could fill books with all the tidbits about the vintage movie industry that sound stranger than fiction. Here's just a small sampling, in which we learn how certain cinema legends got their stage names, explore the career of the movies' first Chinese American star, and discover that color films were around much longer than we supposed.

Read on for some intriguing trivia about the glory days of the silver screen, and vote up the items that seem less believable than an overly melodramatic screenplay.

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  • Photo: HAP1969 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
    1

    The Highest-Paid Screenwriter Until 1934 Was A Woman

    It's a truism that Hollywood - at least the part behind the camera - has mostly been a male-dominated industry. So, it's somewhat surprising to find that the top screenwriter of the silent era was a woman, and that she branched out into directing as well.

    Frances Marion was the highest-paid member of her profession in the United States from 1915 to 1934, and during a stretch from 1916 to 1919 - while writing exclusively for megastar Mary Pickford - she earned a then-lavish $50,000 a year (closer to $1 million by today's standards).

    Marion made two ventures into directing in 1921, with The Love Light (which starred Pickford) and Just Around the Corner. Though her directing career didn't take off, she continued to write films until the 1940s.

    Marion loved the movie industry and its power players (including not only Pickford, but boy-genius producer Irving Thalberg) loved her. But she had few illusions about the business, either. She was awarded the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big House, and later recalled her feelings upon receiving the famous statuette:

    I saw it as a perfect symbol of the picture business: a powerful athletic body clutching a gleaming sword with half of his head, that part which held his brains, completely sliced off.

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  • Photo: Douglas Natural Color / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    2

    A Color Feature Film Was Released In 1918, But It No Longer Exists

    There's disagreement over whether Cupid Angling was the first color feature film. But given its release in 1918 - a full two decades before the Technicolor Adventures of Robin Hood - it's certainly one of the first.

    The movie was filmed in Douglass Natural Color, a process devised by film producer Leon Douglass. The system would alternate red-orange-dyed and green-blue-dyed frames to give an appearance of naturalistic color.

    There were numerous attempts at color film technology in the early days of movies. Technicolor developed a two-strip process in the 1920s, a step on the way to the famous three-color process used in films like Robin HoodThe Wizard of Oz, and Gone With the Wind.

    Unfortunately, no prints of Cupid Angling are known to survive; it's considered a lost film.

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  • Photo: University of Washington / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    3

    The First Hollywood Star Was Canadian, And Her Name Was Kept Secret

    The first movie star's name was Florence Lawrence, but few people at the time knew it. She was simply known as "The Biograph Girl."

    Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Lawrence grew up in vaudeville and came to the US to start acting in the fledgling motion picture industry. By 1908, she was working at Biograph films, appearing in dozens of shorts directed by pioneer director D.W. Griffith. Fans called her "The Biograph Girl" because she wasn't credited by name on the shorts; early producers didn't want actors to have the kind of fame that might lead them to demand more money.

    In 1910, Lawrence switched to Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company (also known as IMP), and Laemmle trumpeted the poach with a big publicity campaign, including finally crediting Lawrence by name.

    The modern movie star was born, but Lawrence didn't go on to the immense riches of successors like Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin. By the '30s, she was subsisting on charity bit parts from mogul Louis B. Mayer, and in 1938, she took her own life.

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  • Photo: Fox Film Corporation / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    4

    John Wayne Got His Stage Name In A Discussion Between A Director And Studio Head That He Didn’t Attend

    The man who would become movie legend John Wayne started out as a prop boy and extra for the Fox Film Corporation, working his way up to bit parts before he would be cast in his first leading role, in 1930's The Big Trail.

    The film's director, Raoul Walsh, wanted an unknown who could bring to life the rugged, unpolished quality of life in the Old West. The man-who-would-be-John-Wayne first caught Walsh's eye lugging furniture across a soundstage. Walsh recalled:

    [T]he expression on his face was so warm and wholesome that I stopped and watched. I noticed the fine physique of the boy, his careless strength, the grace of his movement.

    The problem was that this particular up-and-coming actor was named Marion Morrison, and having a macho Western leading man named Marion Morrison simply wouldn't do. Walsh and studio head Winfield Sheehan came up with "John Wayne," partly because Sheehan admired American Revolution Gen. Anthony Wayne, and partly because the name seemed suitably masculine.

    There's still some disagreement over whether Sheehan or Walsh had the larger part in coming up with the name, but it's pretty clear Marion Morrison himself had no input, and didn't much care either.

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