I feel like a survivor from an age that people no longer understand… America was such a different place then.– Olivia de Havilland, The Independent, 2009
Olivia de Havilland, who passed away at the age of 104 just a couple days ago, was probably the last living icon from the so-called “Golden Age” Hollywood. As it turns out, quite coincidentally, the very day she died I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937)—one of her most famous films—for the first time over dinner. You see, out of both curiosity and a mild sense that I need to address some cultural blind spots, I’ve recently started watching a bunch of famous movies from the 30s and 40s.
America was truly “a different place then,” especially if you go by the idealized version of life represented in popular film. The most obvious on-screen differences were of course the more conservative sexual mores, much stricter gender and class roles, and the utter lack of racial or cultural diversity. Yet the movies I’ve seen so far—a few of which have been foreign films—have actually been more interesting and more diverse in style and subject matter than I thought they’d be, even if they are at times extremely problematic. So I’ve started doing a little amateur research about the era and I wanted to share a little of what I’ve found. Much of this will be old hat to those well-versed in the films of the era, but for a newbie like me, it’s fascinating stuff.
1.) The big Hollywood studios used to control just about every aspect of the film industry in the U.S. as well as the lives of their leading actors/actresses.
Depending on how you slice it, the “Golden Age” of Hollywood lasted from either the 1910s to the 1960s or more narrowly from about 1927-28 to about 1948-49. The first film ever shot in Hollywood was completed 1910, but the first feature length “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, didn’t come out until 1927. In the 30s, growth in the industry skyrocketed, but with power increasingly concentrated among a few businesses at the top. In 1948, the Supreme Court’s ruling against Paramount in the landmark antitrust case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 U.S. 131 led to the break-up of the major Hollywood studio conglomerates, which for two decades prior had controlled just about every possible aspect of the film industry in the U.S. Here’s a basic overview of the studio system:
Between late 1928, when RCA’s David Sarnoff engineered the creation of the RKO studio, and the end of 1949, when Paramount divested its theater chain—roughly the period considered Hollywood’s Golden Age—there were eight Hollywood studios commonly regarded as the “majors”. Of these eight, the so-called Big Five were integrated conglomerates, combining ownership of a production studio, distribution division, and substantial theater chain, and contracting with performers and filmmaking personnel: Loew’s/MGM, Paramount, Fox (which became 20th Century-Fox after a 1935 merger), Warner Bros., and RKO. The remaining majors were sometimes referred to as the “Little Three” or “major minor” studios. Two—Universal and Columbia—were organized similarly to the Big Five, except for the fact that they never owned more than small theater circuits (a consistently reliable source of profits)… During the 1930s, the eight majors averaged a total of 358 feature film releases a year; in the 1940s, the four largest companies shifted more of their resources toward high-budget productions and away from B movies, bringing the yearly average down to 288 for the decade.
Among the significant characteristics of the Golden Age was the stability of the Hollywood majors, their hierarchy, and their near-complete domination of the box office. At the midpoint of the Golden Age, 1939, the Big Five had market shares ranging from 22% (MGM) to 9% (RKO); each of the Little Three had around a 7% share. In sum, the eight majors controlled 95% of the market.
“Classical Hollywood cinema” as a narrative and visual style largely continued through the 1950s, with late-comers like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and many more dominating the screen and eventually coming to represent the “Golden Age” in the public’s imagination. But the studio system itself as constituted since the late 1920s—the engine behind Hollywood’s “Golden Age”—ended around 1950 due to the government’s antitrust efforts as well as the advent of TV. Apart from directly forcing Paramount to split into two companies, the Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling also led to an increase in the number of independent movie theaters, producers, and studios, which in turn resulted in the “weakening of the (Hays) Production Code, because of the rise of independent and ‘art house’ theaters which showed foreign or independent films made outside of the Code’s jurisdiction.” (More about the Code in a minute.)
It’s hard to overstate the power that the big Hollywood studios had over the film industry during the 30s and 40s. Not only did they control the production and distribution of films, but they owned the theater chains that played the films and effectively controlled the lives of the actors and actresses that starred in them. Actors and actresses were required to sign long-term contracts that made it so they couldn’t work with other studios unless given special permission. They couldn’t refuse parts they were offered, had to be willing to change their names and often their appearances, and had to adhere to often quite strict rules in their personal lives in order to uphold the wholesome public images the studios wanted to project. Of course, all manner of debauchery went on behind the scenes, but when it came to promoting films, public image was what mattered to the studios.
In 2009, Olivia de Havilland described what it was like being a “star” in this system: “[Y]ou were a great celebrity but also a slave… I had to present myself to make-up by 6.30 am and work until late in the evening… I had to make five movies in my first year… [W]hatever private life you had left to you didn’t belong to you but the studio publicists.” You can read some more about the often insane rules Hollywood stars had to follow here.
2.) The “Hays Code,” which set the rules for film content, was crazy strict and explicitly racist.
The studios also exerted influence through the infamous Hays Code, the informal name for The Motion Picture Production Code, which dramatically limited the content of films during the “Golden Age”. The Code was adopted in 1930 and enforced from about 1934. The 1948 Supreme Court decision ultimately weakened the power of the Code in the years that followed, but in the interim, it proved an extremely powerful tool by which the big studios strictly policed the filmmaking art in the U.S. Here’s a fascinating snapshot of some of the many Hays Code restrictions from TVtropes.org:
- Crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light. If someone performed an immoral act, they had to be punished on screen, resulting in numerous cases of Adaptational Karma…
- Films could only present “correct standards of life” (for the times) unless the plot called for something else.
- One strange repercussion of this rule: some directors avoided taking on films that centered on poverty, as it could have conflicted with the Code.
- The law had to be respected and upheld.
- Cartoons could occasionally get away with breaking the law…
- Nudity and overt portrayals and references to sexual behavior (even between consenting adults) could not be shown.
- Under this rule, [even] the aftermath of sexual activity—pregnancy and the resulting childbirth—weren’t allowed. …
- Although depicting men and women in bed together wasn’t strictly forbidden—it was in the “be careful” section, rather than the “don’t” section—Sleeping Single became a universal trope thanks to this rule, and it remained such until the 1960s.
- It was necessary in all romantic scenes for a woman to have at least one foot on the floor, to prevent love scenes in bed…
- Religion could never be depicted in a mocking manner…
- Drug use… could not be shown unless the plot called for it.
- Under the first version of the Code, drug use was allowed only if the story was a cautionary tale against drug abuse, or if the druggie got what they deserved for doing it in the first place… Illegal narcotics were strictly prohibited, no matter what the circumstances.
- All detailed (that is, imitable) depiction of crime had to be removed. This included lockpicking, safe-cracking, or the mixing of chemicals to make explosives.
- Films could not use revenge as a theme or premise in stories set during modern times, since it could be seen as glorifying violence (specifically murder).
- The Code made exceptions for historical settings—particularly where there was no law to punish the offender…
- Topics considered “perverse” could not be discussed or depicted in any way. Such topics included—but were not limited to— homosexuality, miscegenation (interracial relationships), bestiality, and venereal diseases.
- Studios used the explicitly racist ban on depicting miscegenation to justify the exclusion of non-white actors from employment…
- The sanctity of marriage had to be upheld.
- The Code is often credited [incorrectly] as creating the Comedy of Remarriage genre, as an act of infidelity wouldn’t actually count as infidelity if the leads were (temporarily) divorced…
- Blasphemy—including using the name of God as an expletive or exclamation—was not allowed. Using the word “God” was allowed, but only if used in a reverent tone or meaning. In addition, profanity of any kind was prohibited…
- The United States flag was to be treated with utmost respect. Other flags, not so much.
Ultimately, given these restrictions, one has to wonder about our use of the phrase “Golden Age” to describe this period of filmmaking. Perhaps it was a “Golden Age” for the male gaze, or for traditional gender roles. Perhaps it was a “Golden Age” for white supremacy – people of color were of course almost completely absent from most films during this time period, and were mercilessly caricatured, stereotyped, and demeaned on the rare occasions when they had meaningful film roles during the 30s and 40s. In other words, it certainly wasn’t a “Golden Age” for everyone.
3.) TV helped spur dramatic changes in the film industry.
To be sure, the major studios of the era produced some incredible films, despite the now so glaring problems with much of the content. But there were also a ton of mediocre movies being made—or you might say, churned out like industrial meat. As Life magazine later summarized, “It wasn’t good entertainment and it wasn’t art, and most of the movies produced had a uniform mediocrity, but they were also uniformly profitable… The million-dollar mediocrity was the very backbone of Hollywood.”
Of course, the big TV companies would eventually perfect the mass-production of ‘uniformly mediocre’ screen entertainment, but during the Great Depression and the Second World War, even mediocre movies probably served a valuable social function as a leading source of public distraction. It was certainly a harrowing time and regular doses of Hollywood fluff surely helped many people endure it all. FDR once said of Shirley Temple, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” In an era when home entertainment was dominated by radio, movie theaters spread like wildfire: “By 1939 there were 15,000 movie theaters in the United States, more than banks; the number of theaters per capita was twice that of the mid-1980s.”
The growth of television eventually brought screen-based entertainment into American homes and helped hasten the massive changes in the film industry that marked the end of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. The first major TV shows started coming out in the late 1940s, shows like The Lone Ranger (1949-1957), Fireside Theatre (1949-1958), and The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971), followed soon by shows like I Love Lucy (1951-1957), Dragnet (1951-1959), and Gunsmoke (1955-1975). In tandem with the U.S. economy, television boomed in the post-war period: “The number of television sets in use rose from 6,000 in 1946 to some 12 million by 1951. No new invention entered American homes faster than black and white television sets; by 1955 half of all U.S. homes had one.”
Not surprisingly, the rapid growth of television took a toll on the film industry. As Olivia de Havilland put it, “Hollywood became a very depressing place in the early 1950s… The golden age had obviously ended and television had ended it. Where studios were making 100 movies a year in the 1930s, they were now making 25 or 10. There was a sense of terminal decline, of great depression.” I think it makes sense with this context to mark the end of the so-called “Golden Age” of Hollywood at somewhere around 1950 rather than 1960. With this slightly arbitrary time frame in mind, let’s look at just a few more interesting things about this era and the actors/actresses that defined it.
4.) The real names of many “Golden Age” stars were very different from their stage names.
To this day, many celebrities still adopt stage names—often as a way to hide their less-conventional or less-catchy-sounding birth names. I’m sure we could all think of contemporary examples (Jonathan Leibowitz, anyone?). But the sheer number of major “Golden Age” actors and actresses that dramatically changed their names is remarkable to me. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
- Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens
- Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters
- Cary Grant was born Archibald Alec Leach
- Claudette Colbert was born Émilie Claudette Chauchoin
- Donna Reed was born Donna Belle Mullenger
- Doris Day was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff
- Edward G. Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg
- Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz
- Fredric March was born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel
- George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum
- Ginger Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath
- Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson
- Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler
- Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky
- Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene
- Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur
- Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland
- John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison
- Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm
- Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch
- Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske
- Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith
- Mickey Rooney was born Ninnian Joseph Yule Jr.
- Paul Muni was born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund
- Peter Lorre was born László Löwenstein
- Robert Taylor was born Spangler Arlington Brugh
- Susan Hayward was born Edythe Marrenner
- Veronica Lake was born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman
What strikes me most about this list is just how many of these well-known actors and actresses were clearly from non-Anglo backgrounds. Taken together, it’s clear that many of them changed their names—and were likely pressured to do so—as a way to mask their otherness, their immigrant-ness. This is actually quite sad, first because they felt pressured to hide their identities, but also because it robbed the public of countless immigrant icons during the 30s and 40s and made the country blind to its own heterogeneity, even the heterogeneity of famous white people.
5.) Many leading actors and actresses were paired together in movies again and again, and a number ended up marrying each other.
As I scrolled through lists of famous movies from the 30s and 40s to make my own watchlist, I noticed something that will no doubt be obvious to most folks but never quite hit home to me—the big studios used the same leading actors and actresses again and again, and often in pairs. In fact, looking back there is something slightly incestuous about how often members of this cluster of leading men and women took turns playing opposite each other in just about every movie genre imaginable, and how many of them either dated/slept with each other or married each other.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of major on-screen power couples, ranked by the number of films they appeared in together:
- 13 – Myrna Loy and William Powell
- 10 – Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
- 9 – Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon
- 9 – Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
- 8 – Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy
- 8 – Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney
- 6 – Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weismuller
- 6 – Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn
- 5 – Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne
- 5 – Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford
- 4 – Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart
And while only God knows how many of Hollywood’s leading actors and actresses slept together, here at least is a non-exhaustive list of those off-screen couples that were married at some point:
- Clark Gable was married to Carole Lombard
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was married to Joan Crawford
- Henry Fonda was married to Margaret Sullavan
- Humphrey Bogart was of course married to Lauren Bacall
- Laurence Olivier was married to Vivien Leigh
- Lew Ayres was married to Ginger Rogers
- Mickey Rooney was married to Ava Gardner
- Orson Welles was married to Rita Hayworth
- Robert Taylor was married to Barbara Stanwyck
- Spencer Tracy was unofficially married to Katherine Hepburn
- William Powell was married to Carole Lombard
Of course, if you study the private lives and relationships of many of these and other stars of the time, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for many of them—the stereotype about celebrity relationships all too often holds up: their private lives were typically messy, ugly, often disturbing, and sometimes tragic.
6.) The leading actors and actresses of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” were astonishingly prolific.
Perhaps the most striking thing I’ve learned about Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was just how prolific the leading actors and actresses were during the 30s and 40s—and by extension, how productive the major studios were. I made a list of the major stars that kept popping up again and again and I eventually decided to rank them by the number of feature length films they were in between 1930 and 1950.
Of course, there were a number of famous stars that had most of their film credits either before 1930 (e.g., Charlie Chaplin) or after 1950 (e.g., Marlon Brando, Doris Day, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Grace Kelly, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier) and thus don’t show up on the list below, or have an artificially low ranking (e.g., Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, etc.). There were also some lesser-known stars that had extremely high numbers of film credits because they played in many non-leading roles. For the same reason, I may well have missed some lesser-known stars that were nevertheless prolific actors/actresses. Finally, I chose not to count appearances in short films, unauthorized film compilations, or films in which the actor/actress appears but is uncredited.
With all that in mind, here are the 101 leading actors and actresses (bold) from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood ranked according to the number of feature length films they were in between 1930-1950:
- 97 – John Wayne (1907–1979)
- 74 – Lionel Barrymore (1878–1954)
- 74 – Walter Brennan (1894–1974)
- 72 – Myrna Loy (1905–1993)
- 69 – Gene Autry (1907–1998)
- 68 – Mickey Rooney (1920–2014)
- 66 – Porter Hall (1888–1953)
- 61 – Basil Rathbone (1892–1967)
- 60 – Bette Davis (1908–1989)
- 60 – Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957)
- 60 – Peter Lorre (1904–1964)
- 59 – Barbara Stanwyck (1907–1990)
- 59 – Bela Lugosi (1882–1956)
- 58 – Ginger Rogers (1911–1995)
- 56 – Spencer Tracy (1900–1967)
- 55 – Lew Ayres (1908–1996)
- 54 – Cary Grant (1904–1986)
- 54 – Fred MacMurray (1908–1991) (first in 1935)
- 53 – Ann Sheridan (1915–1967)
- 53 – Claudette Colbert (1903–1996)
- 53 – Gary Cooper (1901–1961)
- 51 – Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973)
- 50 – Clark Gable (1901–1960)
- 50 – Maureen O’Sullivan (1911–1998)
- 50 – Walter Pidgeon (1897–1984)
- 50 – William Powell (1892–1984)
- 49 – Frederic March (1897–1975)
- 47 – Lucille Ball (1911–1989)
- 46 – Bing Crosby (1903–1977)
- 45 – Rita Hayworth (1918–1987)
- 44 – Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909–2000)
- 44 – James Cagney (1899–1986)
- 43 – Jane Wyman (1917–2007)
- 43 – Walter Huston (1883–1950)
- 42 – Betty Grable (1916–1973)
- 42 – Robert Taylor (1911–1969)
- 40 – Henry Fonda (1905–1982) (first in 1935)
- 39 – Carole Lombard (1908–1942) (died in 1942)
- 39 – Joan Crawford (1904/8?–1977)
- 38 – Irene Dunne (1898–1990)
- 38 – Rosalind Russell (1907–1976)
- 38 – Shirley Temple (1928–2014)
- 36 – James Stewart (1908–1997) (first in 1935)
- 35 – Olivia de Havilland (1916–2020)
- 34 – Errol Flynn (1909–1959)
- 32 – Alice Faye (1915–1998)
- 32 – Lana Turner (1921–1995) (first in 1937)
- 31 – Robert Mitchum (1917–1997)
- 30 – Jeanette Macdonald (1903–1965)
- 29 – Jean Arthur (1900–1991)
- 28 – Bob Hope (1903–2003) (first in 1938)
- 28 – Susan Hayward (1917–1975) (first in 1938)
- 27 – Judy Garland (1922–1969) (first in 1936)
- 27 – Leslie Howard (1893–1943) (died in 1943)
- 27 – Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015) (first in 1938)
- 26 – Glenn Ford (1916–2006) (first in 1939)
- 26 – Katherine Hepburn (1907–2003)
- 26 – Laurence Olivier (1907–1989)
- 25 – Abbott and Costello (1897–1974 and 1906–1959)
- 25 – Buster Keaton (1895–1966) (most work prior to 1930)
- 25 – Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982) (first in 1935)
- 25 – Joan Fontaine (1917–2013) (first in 1935)
- 25 – Laurel and Hardy (1890–1965 and 1892–1957)
- 25 – Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992)
- 24 – Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000)
- 24 – Jean Harlow (1911–1937) (died in 1937)
- 23 – Veronica Lake (1922–1973) (first in 1939)
- 22 – Fred Astaire (1899–1987)
- 22 – Pricilla Lane (1915–1995) (first in 1937)
- 21 – Donna Reed (1921–1986) (first in 1941)
- 21 – Red Skelton (1913–1997)
- 21 – William Holden (1918–1981) (first in 1938)
- 20 – Gene Tierney (1920–1991) (first in 1940)
- 20 – Jack Benny (1894–1974)
- 19 – Paul Muni (1895–1967)
- 19 – Will Rogers (1879–1935) (died in 1935)
- 18 – Nelson Eddy (1901–1967)
- 16 – Greer Garson (1904–1996)
- 16 – Johnny Weissmuller (1904–1984)
- 16 – Joseph Cotton (1905–1994) (first in 1938)
- 16 – Margaret Sullavan (1909–1960)
- 16 – Norma Shearer (1902–1983)
- 15 – Gene Kelly (1912–1996) (first in 1942)
- 15 – George Burns (1896–1996)
- 15 – Greta Garbo (1905–1990)
- 14 – Vivian Leigh (1913–1967) (first in 1935)
- 13 – The Three Stooges (Moe, Larry, Curly)
- 13 – Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo)
- 13 – Orson Welles (1915–1985) (13) (first in 1941)
- 13 – Paul Robeson (1898–1976)
- 12 – Lena Horne (1917–2010) (first in 1938)
- 12 – Luise Rainer (1910–2014)
- 12 – Gregory Peck (1916–2003) (12) (first in 1944)
- 12 – Deborah Kerr (1921–2007) (first in 1941)
- 12 – Ava Gardner (1922–1990) (first in 1943)
- 11 – Mary Pickford (1892–1979) (most work prior to 1930)
- 10 – Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011) (first in 1942)
- 10 – Burt Lancaster (1913–1994) (10) (first in 1946)
- 9 – Mae West (1893–1980)
- 8 – Kirk Douglas (1916–2020) (8) (first in 1946)
- 6 – Lauren Bacall (1924–2014) (first in 1944)
What a list, right? John Wayne freaking dominated the movies! How does a person act in 97 full-length movies in 20 years? That’s 4.85 movies a year! Incredible. With all due respect, he must have been in a lot of crappy films. All told, the ratio of male to female stars on this list is basically even, though men tend to dominate the upper-end of the list. There were 26 stars who had over 50 feature-length film credits to their name during this 20-year time period, but only seven of them were women. In addition, as far as I can see, there are only two people of color that made this list—Paul Robeson and Lena Horne. I may have neglected to include others simply out of my own ignorance, but it does go to show you just how thoroughly Hollywood iced out actors and actresses of color during this time period.
Anyway, this past week’s worth of amateur research has turned up some interesting insights about a fascinating period in American culture. I look forward to sharing some more thoughts as I continue to work my way through some of the most well-regarded films from the era. For now: rest in peace, Olivia de Havilland, the last living person from the above list.