Essays · Movies

How Old Hollywood Made America Believe It Was The American Dream Factory

Back when you could just move out to the coast and become a big star.
By  · Published on July 5th, 2017

Back when you could just move out to the coast and become a big star.

To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.

Thousands traveled to Hollywood during the Golden Age to get their big break thinking the American Dream was alive in Los Angeles, many were disappointed. Through fake origin stories of stars who made it and constant supply of hope, Old Hollywood gave the impression that anyone could become a star if they dropped everything and traveled to California.

Though the hard work as presented in the The American Dream is required to be successful in Hollywood, something they kept a secret was that luck and timing had perhaps a bigger part in whether someone became a star. The fact that anyone who worked hard enough could become as successful as Katherine Hepburn was a farce and the process Studios made actors go through to gain that fame, as in the star system, sometimes tore them apart.

The star system was born

In response to audiences wanting to know about the lives of actors in their movies, studios had actors visit theaters where their movies played. They also printed magazines like The Motion Picture Story Magazine, which made way for fan magazines. Fan magazines furthered the public’s interest in their lives off the screen while also mythologizing the actors and actresses.

Studio heads needed to make sure the actors didn’t gain too much power in their newfound popularity, so they developed contracts that limited their careers and personal lives. By this time silent films led to “talkies” and the people on screen looked even more real than ever before. The idea that the actors on screen weren’t always the beautiful, graceful people they were in movies was unbelievable to audiences. However, the process of producing the stars they saw on screen was a lot of work.

“A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I’d have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest . . . We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting.” – Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM.

Of the many people who flocked to Hollywood to become actors and actresses, only a few ever became as successful as the stars the studios created. Luck was the most valuable player in the makings of a star, even though all those who became stars projected the idea that hard work was the sole reason they became successful. If they were lucky enough to have a studio interested in them, actors would be forced into a contract that gave the studio power to control the roles they played, the people they were associated with, and even their past.

It was incredibly common for studios to completely fabricate the backstories of their new stars to uphold the larger-than-life status they needed to be interesting to audiences. Even their names were changed by studios. One of the most interesting incidents of this was with Joan Crawford. Born Lucille LeSueur, she had a rough upbringing that was completely erased in publicity when she became an actress.

After making up that she was the product of a wealthy, typical American family, MGM needed a better name for her. They made the quest for a celebrity name into a promotion stunt by sending out ads for audiences to send in possible names for her as a contest. One ad read: “Tiring of the social life of a debutante, she left home to become an actress. You can help her attain her life’s ambition by selecting a good name for her, and at the same time, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio will reward you with a large amount of cash.”

Joan Crawford in ‘Grand Hotel’

This reinvention is exactly what people like Joan Crawford wanted. They had horrible lives they wanted to erase. They wanted to become a new person, a better person. However this process only contributed to the unreal images of actors and actresses that were fed to the public as authentic. It was the creation of a persona and the end of the person.

The star system is best represented on screen in the 1937 version of A Star is Born. It shows the public’s naive view of Hollywood through the protagonist, Esther’s dreams of becoming a star like the people she sees on the screen. Her grandmother sympathizes with Esther’s dreams because she sees they are the same as her dreams to come to America as a young immigrant. She sends Esther traveling to Hollywood with a head full of hope, only to find that it is harder than she is led to believe from the outside. The studio changes her name, her past, and even intrudes on her marriage to an actor in his downward spiral from being a star.

What’s remarkable about that version of A Star is Born, co-written by Dorothy Parker, is that it shows the misconceptions of Hollywood with Esther and the toll acting takes on her husband. It also shows that no matter how hard you worked, your fate was still in the hands of the rich studio heads. Even with the most realistic portrayal of the Hollywood studio system at that time, Esther is still lucky enough to have made it, even if it wasn’t easy. Her story still holds the allure that inspires more people to continue to come to Hollywood.

The fallen star

The image of the fallen star is all too familiar to us now because the system that created some of the most beloved stars, like Judy Garland, also drove them to their tragic ending. This is especially true to the Old Hollywood star system.

If the creation of a movie star meant reinventing the person into someone they weren’t, it also meant oppressing the person they really were. In changing the person who came to Hollywood, that meant that the person you were did have a hand in whether you become successful, not just hard work like the American Dream states. Studios could cover up their unmarketable qualities publicly, but that didn’t necessarily mean they went away. Montgomery Clift is the perfect example of this.

Montgomery Clift in ‘The Big Lift’

From his breakthrough performance in The Search, it was clear that Clift had a talent unlike most actors of the era. His extremely good looks and quiet thoughtfulness in his early roles helped build the symbol of post-war society. Clift always played the rough outsider that never quite fit into the worlds he was placed in. This reoccurring character on screen started to be associated with the real Clift. He was able to finagle a contract that would allow him to have control over his roles and tried to spend as much time away from Hollywood as his career would allow, but his personal life still became a problem.

Everyone wanted to know who this mysterious young star was involved with, so the tabloids continued to pry on his personal life. The truth, however, could have ruined his career if it became public. Clift’s sexuality is debated between bisexuality and homosexuality, but what is certain is that his queerness was a fault in the public’s mind. He spent his life hiding his sexuality, even going through therapy to suppress it, as the lovely Karina Longworth tells in her podcast episode dedicated to Clift’s life and his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor.

His efforts to separate himself with any feminine qualities so that his sexuality would remain a secret led to his rough, masculine persona that he felt constrained him. The pressure to uphold his image and the toll that acting in roles of the misunderstood man took on Clift forced him to turn to alcohol and pills for solace. Almost as quickly as he became a star, he dependent on a cocktail of various pills to function day to day.

What may be more famous than his early, promising career would be Clift’s accident that deemed his life afterward as “The Long Suicide of Montgomery Clift.”After a night of drinking at Taylor’s house, Clift tried to drive home, which resulted in a violent accident that smashed his face. The most intricate part in his stardom was his face, and it would never look the same, no matter how hard he worked.

Clift only had somewhat of a career thanks to his friend Liz Taylor, who made sure he would finish filming his role in Raintree County as her costar after his accident. Now dealing with constant pain and shunned by many of his Hollywood acquaintances, Clift drank even more. In her last film, Marilyn Monroe said Clift was “the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am” on the set of The Misfits. His drinking eventually led to his death in 1965.

Montgomery Clift’s tale is an infamous one, but somehow it didn’t tarnish Hollywood’s methods enough for people to stop believing dreams can come true there. To audiences, the mistakes Clift made that ruined his career would never happen to them if they had a chance in Hollywood. Until the studio system was eradicated, it was always something wrong with the person if they failed, not the process they were forced into by the studios. The positive stories of discovery, like Lana Turner’s who was plucked from a diner to star in movies, were the stories that stuck with people because that is all they heard. No one ever heard the stories of the minorities turned away because Hollywood only offered them a few types of roles, and even then they were willing to hire white people to play them too.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_