WEIRDLAND: Golden Age of Hollywood in "Café Society"

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Golden Age of Hollywood in "Café Society"

Café Society opts for a more hopeless romantic narrative, albeit one that doesn’t feel as alert or developed as its predecessor. The film begins in 1930s Los Angeles, making for a speedy introduction to the luscious cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, whose warm palette helps capture the spirit of the Golden Age of Hollywood. A young Jewish New Yorker named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Tinseltown with hopes of finding a job within the film industry via his big shot agent Uncle Phil (Steve Carell). (One can immediately draw the parallels to Allen and his own experiences, especially once the director lends his voice to the part of narrator). Kristen Stewart's character claims that she prefers being “life-sized,” but as the story fast-forwards into the future, we see her succumb to the “Café Society” lifestyle. She becomes the name-dropping, nightclubbing and catty-gossiping socialite she once used to mock with Bobby. As Bobby laments, “It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.” Source:

"Abortions were our birth control,” an anonymous actress once said about the common procedure’s place in Hollywood from the 1920s through the 1950s. While patriarchal political powers connive to block women’s legal access to abortion in 21st century America, in Old Hollywood, abortions were far more standard and far more accessible than they often are today—more like aspirin, or appendectomies. How and why did a procedure that was taboo and illegal at the time become so ordinary—at least, among a certain set? From the very infancy of America’s film industry, abortions were necessary body maintenance for women in the spotlight. Birth control, including prophylactics, were about as new as “stars” themselves—movie performers who went overnight from being “Little Mary” or “The Vitagraph Girl” to “America’s Sweetheart” or “Sex Goddess.”

“These newly wealthy men and women didn’t know how to control their money, their bodies, or their lives, spending, cavorting, and reveling in excess,” writes Anne Helen Petersen in Scandals of Classic Hollywood. In the working environment of the Hollywood studio system, society’s 19th-century sexual segregation had fallen away. Women—flappers, It girls, sirens and seductresses—were spared their destiny in the kitchen. And so it became necessary for the studios to implement reformatory measures to prevent stars from destroying their value through scandal. In 1922, Will H. Hays introduced mandatory “morality clauses” into stars’ contracts. Consequently an unintended pregnancy would not only bring shame to these top box-office earners—it would violate studio policy. “It was a common assumption that glamorous stars would not be popular if they had children,” writes Cari Beauchamp in Old Hollywood, Without Lying Down.

These clauses may have extended to an actress’s right to marry. According to Petersen, rumor had it that “Blonde Bombshell” Jean Harlow couldn’t wed William Powell because “MGM had written a clause into her contract forbidding her to marry”—a wife couldn’t be a “bombshell,” after all. When Harlow became pregnant from the affair, she called MGM head of publicity Howard Strickling in a panic. Shortly thereafter, according to E.J. Fleming in The Fixers, “Mrs. Jean Carpenter” entered Good Shepherd Hospital “to get some rest.” She was seen only by her private doctors and nurses in room 826, the same room she had occupied the year before for an “appendectomy.”

In the 1930s, vamp and man-eating thespian Tallulah Bankhead got “abortions like other women got permanent waves,” biographer Lee Israel quips in Miss Tallulah Bankhead. When virtuous singing sensation Jeanette McDonald found herself pregnant in 1935, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer told Strickling to “get rid of the problem.” McDonald soon checked into a hospital with an “ear infection,” according to The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM publicity machine.

In 1931 Joan Crawford, estranged from her husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr., became pregnant with what she believed was Clark Gable’s child and Strickling arranged for an abortion. Rather than reveal the truth, Crawford told Fairbanks that during the filming of Rain on Catalina Island, she slipped on the deck of a ship and lost the baby.

Crawford’s rival Bette Davis also willingly chose to have abortions for the sake of her career. If she’d had a child in 1934, she told her biographer Charlotte Chandler in The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, she would’ve “missed the biggest role in her life thus far”—that of Mildred in Of Human Bondage, which earned Davis her first Oscar nomination. Other great parts—“Jezebel, Judith, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Margo Channing”—may not have followed, either. “But I didn’t miss any of these roles, and I didn’t miss having a family,” she said. Later in life, Davis had three children.

Her first child, Barbara Davis Sherry—known as B.D.—was born when Davis was 39. As biographer Whitney Stine notes in I’d Love to Kiss You-- Conversations with Bette Davis, “she was proud of the fact that, after her abortions, she could have a baby at last and a career, because her mother had always insisted that she couldn’t have both. She never tired of reminding her mother that she could be a mother and an actress.” Source:

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