My Vintage Life: Fatty Arbuckle and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood

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Welcome back! Firstly, sorry to anyone who checked in last week expecting a post. My fiancé flew over at very short notice to help with some visa-related bits and pieces. As I’m sure you’ll understand, I was pretty well taken up enjoying some time with him. It was definitely wonderful to see him, especially after three months apart. But he’s back in the US now so normal service has resumed once again!

On this week’s My Vintage Life, we’re going to be talking about one of the most momentous and yet little remembered events in Hollywood history – the trial of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle for the rape and death of the actress Virginia Rappe. The scandal was truly the first to blacken Hollywood’s image – an image that had been traditionally dominated by the on-screen faces and personalities of its stars. Fatty Arbuckle’s trial was not only remarkable for its sensationalism and widespread coverage within the press. Its ripples also added fuel to a growing perception that Hollywood required some kind of moral and ethical regulation. I talked in my very first My Vintage Life post about pre-Code Hollywood – the Hollywood that existed before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code that restricted what could be shown on screen. The censorship that came about in 1934 through the introduction of the Code can be traced back to the fallout of the accusations at Fatty Arbuckle’s trial and the fact that the mask had now been lifted from the true face of Hollywood.

So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and an exploration of the scandal that felled Hollywood’s biggest star and turned the movie-making industry on its head.

Trigger Warning: This post will be talking about rape and sexual assault. 


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In the early part of the 1900s, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was the definition of a household name. Born in 1887 in Kansas, his talents were discovered early and, by the beginning of the 1900s, Arbuckle was well established as a successful vaudeville actor. By 1909, Arbuckle had broken through into film, playing consistently comedic roles that met with widespread recognition. Despite being known mostly for his size, it was his agility, athleticism, and refusal to be consigned to obtaining cheap laughs that really gained him a position as one of Hollywood’s best known stars. In 1914, Paramount Pictures recognised Arbuckle’s growing reputation and success by making him a salary offer of $1000 per day, in addition to paying him 25 percent of all profits make from his films. By 1918, this was increased to a $3,000,000 contract over three years. Such salaries were unheard of at the time and Fatty Arbuckle became Hollywood’s highest paid actor.

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Inevitably, however, Arbuckle’s success was not destined to last. In 1921, Arbuckle made his way to San Francisco to take a short break from making films. His friend, Fred Fischbach, decided that a party was in order to celebrate Arbuckle’s newest contract with Paramount Pictures and the release of his most recent film Crazy To Marry. The party was held at the St. Francis Hotel and among its attendees was a 26-year old actress called Virginia Rappe. Rappe was not particularly well known for her acting. She had secured some relatively minor roles in the later half of the 1910s and appeared in several films directed by Henry Lehrman, to whom she subsequently became engaged.

Accounts obviously differ as to what precisely occurred during the party at the St. Francis Hotel. What is known, however, is that screams were heard from Room 1219 and Virginia Rappe was found writhing in agony. Within the week, she had died from a ruptured bladder. According to Maude Delmont, who was at the party with Rappe but whose relationship with Rappe remained unclear, Arbuckle had pulled Rappe into Room 1219. When Delmont heard Rappe screaming, she ran to the room and, finding the door locked, proceeded to knock and kick until Arbuckle appeared. Delmont found Rappe on the bed in visible agony and, in Delmont’s version, Rappe told her “Arbuckle did it.” This version of events was picked up and widely distributed by the press, who attributed Rappe’s subsequent death from a ruptured bladder to the weight of Arbuckle’s body pressing down on her while he raped her.

Arbuckle’s version of events offers an alternative account. In his telling, he was at no point actually alone with Rappe. He claimed that he had woken up to a party taking place in the rooms and that, later, Rappe’s drinking had made her hysterical. He subsequently found her vomiting and he, with the help of other party guests, moved her to Room 1219 so that she could recover. Despite Arbuckle’s very different account of events, he was charged with manslaughter and sent to trial.

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Virginia Rappe

The subsequent trials show much not only about the state of Hollywood, but also how little has changed in the way of prosecuting sexual assault. Over the course of three trials – the first two of which resulted in hung juries – Rappe’s sexual history and history with abortions were dissected. Arbuckle’s legal team argued that Rappe suffered from a pre-existing bladder condition, corroborating the fact that doctors had not found any evidence of sexual assault on her body. By the end of the third trial, these arguments had convinced the jury. They were, in fact, so incensed by Arbuckle’s subjugation to trial that they issued a formal apology:

“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from blame.”

This exoneration could not, however, salvage Arbuckle’s reputation. To assist in dealing with the fallout from the trial, the censor Will Hays was hired by Paramount Pictures to navigate the damage done by the scandal. In the immediate aftermath, Hays decided to remove Arbuckle from all films, although within the year Hays changed his mind. Still, Arbuckle never quite recovered from the trial’s impact. In 1933, on the day that Warner Bros approached him with an offer of a contract, Arbuckle died of a heart attack.

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at Trial

The death of Virginia Rappe and surrounding scandal had a lasting impact, both on the personalities involved and on Hollywood at large. Will Hays, who became so integral in the rehabilitation of Paramount Pictures, subsequently took on the job of assisting the rehabilitation of Hollywood at large. By 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code) had been introduced and Hollywood was subjected to industry-wide censorship of the films that it produced. The Code restricted the portrayal of sexual scenarios and bad language, among a whole host of other things deemed worthy of censorship. Despite Arbuckle’s exoneration, Hollywood’s first scandal did lasting damage. It revealed a Hollywood behind the movie screens – one of parties, illegal drinking, sex, and debauchery. For a country where conservatism had demanded the introduction of prohibition, it was perhaps inevitable that such a revelation would sit uncomfortably with the powers-that-be.

Yet, of all the lasting impacts had by the trial of Fatty Arbuckle, there is one that goes generally unmentioned. When reading about the scandal and trying to dissect what actually happened (which remains really difficult to do), it is Virginia Rappe who comes across as the most maligned of all involved. In a scandal that involved a suspected madam (Delmont) and a suspected murdered (Arbuckle), it is difficult to believe – although, not as difficult as it should be – that the dead victim should be the one to find her reputation most destroyed by events. Rappe’s life and lifestyle were torn to shreds during the trial and continued to be questioned even after Arbuckle’s exoneration. Rumours abounded following the trial, suggesting at different times that she had been a prostitute, an alcoholic, carried STDs, and that she had spread pubic lice around Keystone Studios. This type of character assassination remains still too common in trials of sexual assault and rape – it certainly sits uncomfortably with me that, in reading about the Fatty Arbuckle trial, I could recall too many news stories of similar trials where victims are subjected to the most grotesque types of questioning.

Rappe was a figure of her time and, in many respects, a product of the way in which Hollywood did business. If we assume for a moment that the rumours spread about her were true, it says far more about the cultural dynamics at work in and around Hollywood than it does about her personality or, realistically, her choices. Hollywood of the 1920s – and decades onwards – was one in which women were forced to utilise sex and sexuality to get ahead and get noticed. The expectation that women would sleep with producers, directors, and casting officials was a given. To expect, encourage, and subsequently degrade women for using sex to achieve their goals was a power dynamic that dominated film making for much of the 20th century. The experience of Virginia Rappe, both before and after death, is perhaps one of the best examples of how this relationship between sex, power, and movie-making manifested in the first few decades of the 1900s.


If you have any suggestions for future posts, there are a few ways that you can get in touch. Via email at laura@sewforvictory.co.uk or on Instagram and Twitter by tagging me @sewforvictoryuk and using the hashtag #myvintagelife

My Vintage Life: Bradshaw Crandell And The Evolution Of Pin-Up Art

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Happy Friday, love bugs! I hope that you are enjoying the last few days of April. Things are action stations for me right now, trying to sort out my visa so that I can finally head over to my fiancé in the US. It’s all starting to move at long last, which is great! Although this means that I really need to step up the pace on my wedding dress making. I finally got around to taking the photos of my muslin yesterday so watch out for those next week!

Anyway, on to this week’s instalment of My Vintage Life. Since starting Sew for Victory, I often get asked about my sources of inspiration. For anyone who enjoys or admires vintage style, inspiration really is key. I tend to spend a lot of time perusing photos on the internet and watching classic films as easy ways to increase my exposure to a wide variety of vintage fashions. But, for me, probably the most effective way to obtain inspiration is looking through genuine vintage magazines. I’ve collected quite a few over the past 18 months and they provide not only an insight into the every day lives and priorities of women living in decades past, but also a mine of pictures and illustrations that offer a clear portrait of popular fashion choices. The portraits used in, or on the cover of, vintage magazines particularly intrigue me. I’ve always wondered at the stylistic choices made – why a particular cover star has been featured, why the fashion selection has been made, why this or that pose has been chosen. For any popular magazine, such choices are always purposeful.

As I started to dig around for more information, I came across the name Bradshaw Crandell. Crandell was perhaps the most successful magazine cover artist through the 1930s and 1940s, working with an incredible array of Hollywood’s most elite stars to capture their image. His work is pretty astounding and I think taps into what was going on with popular culture at the time. Although Crandell didn’t typically work in what we would identify as the pin-up style (more about this below), I can’t escape the feeling that there are some fairly major overlaps between his art and the proliferation of a pin-up culture. So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and a look at Bradshaw Crandell’s life, legacy, his contribution to the evolution of pin-up art.


 

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John Bradshaw Crandell was born in 1896, in what is identified as the Golden Age of Illustration. This period (late 1800s to early 1900s) was a period of incredible productivity and achievement in book and magazine illustrations, largely a consequence of new technologies that allowed for the cheap, mass reproduction of images. These developments were capitalised upon by professional artists, looking to make a name for themselves in the production of magazine or postcard illustrations for popular consumption. Raphael Kirchner, an Austrian artist, was particularly successful in exploiting the Golden Age with the production of what can be identified as early pin-up postcards and magazine illustrations. His relatively sexualised images of beautiful women were incredibly popular and, as World War I began, particularly favoured by soldiers.

Crandell was very much part of the legacy left by illustrators such as Kirchner. His aptitude for art was recognised early, although he failed to graduate from both Chicago’s School of Art Institute and Wesleyan University. But he never stopped being a student of his craft – he worked relentlessly at the fundamentals and could not abide inaccurate or careless work. This dedication to hard work undoubtedly served Crandell well as he moved forward in his career and, eventually, once he had attained true celebrity status.

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Lana Turner by Bradshaw Crandell (1943)

Crandell’s career truly began in 1921, after he was contracted to create a cover for Judge magazine. Although he had previously been hired to provide illustrations for a Lorraine Hairnets ad, it was his work for Judge that served as a launching pad for his unprecedentedly successful career. In 1925, Crandell created the John Bradshaw Crandell studios but, by 1935, had decided to drop his first name. The new Bradshaw Crandell went on to produce some of the era’s most famous magazine illustrations – including cover portraits featuring Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner (pictured above), Rita Hayworth, and Bette Davis. At the time of World War II, Crandell also turned his hand to producing ads for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Pontiac, amongst others.

By the end of the 1940s, Crandell was virtually a household name. His celebrity portraits, in particular, made him a popular figure – so much so that he was used in an advert for Lord Calvert Whiskey. Crandell died in 1966 but his work is very much remembered – He was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2006.

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Bradshaw Crandell’s Ad for the Women’s Army Corps (1943)

The appeal of Crandell’s work is so interesting to consider. Disclaimer: I know very little about art from an artist’s standpoint. I can’t paint and I’ve never studied art. But it seems to me that Crandell’s portraits and his legacy are not deemed exceptional purely on the basis of his (considerable) talent. Clearly – even to the uninformed among us – he has some serious artistic abilities. What’s interesting to me, however, is thinking about the extent to which Crandell’s legacy exists because of the social and cultural dynamics at play while he was producing his portraits. Essentially: was Crandell just in the right place at the right time?

Crandell is not typically remembered as a pin-up artist. Pin-up art is traditionally identified as portraits or pictures of women that are sexualised (but not pornographic) or incorporate a degree of (usually not so subtle) eroticism. The resurgence of pin-up photography as a contemporary phenomenon means that pretty much everyone can conjure a mental image of what we mean by pin-up art. Little of Crandell’s work portrayed his subjects in this traditional pin-up manner. But he walked a line between the overt eroticism that we now identify with the term ‘pin-up art’ and pictures that, while sexy in their own way, would’ve been acceptable to a more traditional female audience. The origins of the term ‘pin-up’ are enough to inform us of the typical audience for the more sexualised pin-up portraits and illustrations – these were designed as pictures for men to literally ‘pin up’ on their walls, made acceptable by the fact that they were not pornographic but still appealing in their sexual content. The women portrayed in these pictures were sometimes celebrities, sometimes unknown and unnamed girls. Crandell provided a different kind of pin-up to the world.

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Rita Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen by Bradshaw Crandell

What’s truly interesting about Crandell’s work is the manner in which he provides a sort of pin-up that crosses gender lines. With his portraits, Crandell was able to appeal to both the soldiers on the front lines – men who wanted pin-ups of their favourite movie stars – and the women left back at home. When looking at his portrait of Rita Hayworth, for example, her curves and beauty – very much accentuated by Crandell – clearly appeal to a more stereotypically pin-up culture. But Hayworth’s obvious vivacity, and the lack of an overt eroticism in the picture, would make this an appealingly aspirational portrait for women.

While Crandell did occasionally work in a more traditionally erotic pin-up style (see his portrait of Liberty, below), the fact that he is remembered for his celebrity portraits speaks to his success at seizing on the characteristics that made pin-up art so popular and making it his own.

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Spirit of Liberty by Bradshaw Crandell (1940)

I highly recommend taking some time to browse Crandell’s portraits. You’ll end up with a very clear picture of his incredible talent and the way in which he managed to simultaneously defy and subscribe to the pin-up style that dominated popular portraiture during the period. His celebrity portraits provide images that are aspirational in a way that dramatically increased his popular appeal – sexually aspirational for male consumers and providing a type of aesthetical and social aspiration for female consumers. Although the more overtly erotic style of pin-up art would continue to enjoy cultural supremacy, Crandell’s legacy very clearly continues. When we look at the types of celebrity images we often see plastering magazines today, they walk a very similar line to Crandell’s portraits – not alienating in their sexuality but simultaneously aspirational across gender boundaries. It is the ability to obtain this type of popular appeal that can make or break a celebrity and Bradshaw Crandell’s work shows just how successfully images can be used to offer a broad and multifaceted audience exactly what it wants.

My Vintage Life: Lux Radio Theatre

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Thank you all so much for the response to last week’s post on Norma Shearer and pre-Code Hollywood, as well as the introduction of My Vintage Life. It’s been a big week on Sew for Victory with this, plus the launch of the Sew for Victory Book Club. Your comments and support has been fantastic and I’m happy to know that you’re enjoying these new features!

I’ve had an incredibly busy week sewing-wise. On top of finishing the muslin for my wedding dress, I’ve now completed my version of the Baltimore Dress from Decades of Style – I’m planning on posting pictures of the muslin next week and a post about the Baltimore Dress should follow relatively soon after that! One of my secrets to productive sewing is having something great to listen to. An interesting podcast will usually motivate me to get to the sewing table, even when I’m really feeling a loss of motivation. It was on a hunt for something new to enjoy that I came across recordings of the Lux Radio Theatre. I had never heard of this grand radio production that ran from the mid-1930s through to the mid-1950s – this is particularly surprising given that recordings of the programmes are easily accessible online. I started working my way through the recordings and could not escape the feeling that such an incredible treasure trove needed to be talked about! So it’s to the story of the Lux Radio Theatre that we now turn…


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For those living in the 1930s and 1940s, radio provided an essential source of entertainment and information. It’s difficult to imagine, in our era of unprecedented technology, that there was a time when even radio was a luxury. In 1921, there were just five licensed broadcasting stations across the entire US. By 1924, this had increased massively to 500. A similar pattern shows the dramatic growth of radio ownership among American households, increasing from 40 percent in 1930 to 83 percent in 1940. Other than trips to the cinema, radio was everything in the way of entertainment. Comedies, dramas, musical performances – all were broadcast via radio to households across the US. Given these figures, it was perhaps natural that someone would seek to exploit the opportunity to bring together America’s two primary forms of entertainment – radio and film.

The Lux Radio Theatre began broadcasting on 14 October 1934, as one of the most ambitious radio productions in history. The project was a conceptualisation of the Lever Brothers, makers of Lux Soap, who sponsored the programmes for the duration of its production through to 1955 (if you listen to the productions, trust me when I say that you will hear more than you ever could have hoped to about soap and complexions). The show was a weekly hour-long radio broadcast, initially created with the purpose of adapting successful Broadway plays for radio. Each week, actors and actresses would perform these adaptations live in New York before a studio audience, broadcast via radio to – at the show’s peak – an estimated 40 million listeners. During the first two seasons of the show, a number of great Broadway plays were adapted – including Smilin’ Through Berkeley Square and Way Down East.

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The first two year’s of Lux Radio Theatre productions proved a remarkable success – a success upon which the show’s producers and sponsors were determined to capitalise. They decided to broaden the scope of the programme – and widen its audience – by relocating the entire production to Hollywood and, rather than adapt Broadway plays, produce adaptations of successful Hollywood films. From here, incredible success was almost inevitable. On 25 May 1936, the Lux Radio Theatre presented its first programme from its new base in Hollywood, with an adaptation of The Legionnaire and the Lady (based on the film Morocco), starring Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable. Listening to this first adaptation, it is easy to feel why the production was a remarkable coup for all involved. The listener is given the opportunity to hear the most famous Hollywood stars acting live in a condensed and radio-appropriate version of an incredibly successful film. There’s the odd fumbling of words from the actors but this just adds to the sense of being right there, watching these performers do what they do best. Nothing like this had been done before and, in my opinion, modern radio productions would struggle to evoke the same effect on their listeners.

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Cecil B. DeMille

A large part of the Lux Radio Theatre’s success is undoubtedly owed to its long-time host – Cecil B. DeMille. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s worth going and doing a little digging. DeMille was perhaps one of the most interesting figures to work during the period we term ‘classic Hollywood’. He was an incredibly prestigious film maker and is often created as being the founder of American cinema. Lux Radio Theatre brought him on as host when they moved to Hollywood and he stayed with the production for almost a decade. As a man who would’ve been known to almost every movie-going American in the 1930s, DeMille added a definite level of authenticity to the production. When you listen to the episodes that he hosts, he often drops in anecdotes or converses with individuals with whom he has previously worked. At the end of The Legionnaire and The Lady, for example, DeMille introduces Clark Gable with this story:

Host: And now– And now a word about a certain young actor before he steps out on the stage. I want to tell you a little story of him. When I was casting “Madam Satan” six or seven years ago, I was looking for a villain. Somebody had given my script girl a screen test of a young man and she kept dinging the life out of me to see it. I asked her if he was a villain, and she said she thought he could do anything. Eh, so I looked at it and decided he was not a villain, but that he had definite possibilities. So I showed it to the other executives at the studio. When I asked them about the young man a day or so later, they said he never could succeed in pictures. I asked why not. They said, “His ears are too big.” … But evidently– Evidently, those ears were no obstacle to the triumph of Clark Gable.

These types of stories – with which every production is dotted – fantastically heighten the sense that you are listening to the ‘real’ Hollywood – hearing from those figures that stand at the very heart of this flashy, gaudy, and impenetrable metropolis of fame and fortune.

Over the course of its production, the Lux Radio Theatre adapted some of the best known Hollywood films and employed the most famous personalities in starring roles. Mostly, productions attempted to retain the original cast unless the stars were totally unavailable. In many instances, the production of films would be halted temporarily by the studios in order for the stars to be available for recordings of Lux Radio Theatre. Stars such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant, all starred at various points in Lux Radio Theatre productions. This list is only the tip of the iceberg. For many of these stars, however, appearing in the radio adaptations was no simple matter. To actors used to multiple takes for any one scene, the idea of acting live with no second chances was incredibly intimidating. However, the offer of $5000 for an appearance often quelled the fears. In addition, these radio productions offered an opportunity to promote any upcoming projects.

One of my favourite parts of the episode is right at the end, when the main stars of the adaptation come out to speak with the host. There’s typically a bit of back and forth conversation, sometimes a song if one of the stars is a singer, and a promotion of future films. Although these interactions are always scripted – and typically feel so – there’s something truly endearing about them. At the end of the adaptation of Burlesque, for instance, stars Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler talk with Cecil B. DeMille. Although this takes up perhaps just five minutes of the whole episode, it’s incredibly heartwarming listening to this husband and wife acting partnership interact with one another. This, more than anything, truly does give the sense that the listener is somehow penetrating those barriers traditional perceived to stand around Hollywood and its best and brightest.

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That fact that we have access to the recordings of every production of Lux Radio Theatre is incredibly fortunate. The archive of episodes provides potentially days of entertainment for those interested in classic Hollywood or classic radio productions. I can’t quite put across how impactful it is, for someone who is fascinated by the 1930s-1940s Hollywood era, to listen to these live recordings of radio adaptations based on Hollywood’s greatest triumphs. One of the biggest difficulties when researching those periods that we associate with the word ‘vintage’ is, I think, attempting to humanise and bring life to the people and events that we read about. Even watching classic films fails to bring this humanity – as with any actor who does a half decent job, the portrayal of a character on screen will always serve as a kind of wall between the audience and the person behind the actions and words. I read a lot of biographies with the explicit purpose of attempting to understand more of the ‘real’ Hollywood or the ‘real’ actors. The Lux Radio Theatre productions offer a different way of bringing some humanity to these people whose names we all know. The fumbling of words, the demonstrable nerves, and the genuine real-life moments that pervade almost all of the productions shine a new kind of light on the Hollywood of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.


If you want to listen to the Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts for yourself (which you absolutely should!), they are available via public domain from a number of sources. I have been listening via this archive.

 

 

 

My Vintage Life: Norma Shearer and Pre-Code Hollywood

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Welcome to my new weekly post series – My Vintage Life! I’ve been deliberating for a while about how to streamline my vintage lifestyle posts and create something that is a predictable – but hopefully still super interesting – weekly feature. That’s where My Vintage Life comes in! This will be where I post about a whole range of topics related to vintage lifestyle, fashion, and history. I work hard outside of Sew for Victory to remain constantly learning – through podcasts, books, films, and anything I can get my hands on. To me, wearing vintage style is totally connected to a passion for the bigger ‘vintage’ picture. It’s impossible to separate the popular fashion of previous eras from the larger social and cultural dynamics at work – the interplay between all of these different bits and pieces of history is something that I find hugely interesting and love to talk about when I get the opportunity.

I’m hoping that My Vintage Life can serve as a place to write about all things vintage-related. Fingers crossed that these posts will spark an interest in you and perhaps send you into a Google hole for a while! If you have any suggestions for future posts – perhaps a film you’ve watched or a vintage icon you love – please shoot me an email or leave a comment. Alternatively, post on Instagram or Twitter using #myvintagelife and @sewforvictoryuk and I’ll be sure to see you pics!

Anyway, enough of introductions! This first post is dedicated to one of my current fascinations – Norma Shearer and Pre-Code Hollywood.


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Norma Shearer was, in many ways, the quintessential classic Hollywood actress. Beautiful, chic, and – at least in her later films – quietly seductive. She was born in 1902 and entered the film industry in the middle of the Roaring ’20s, while silent cinema still dominated. After a shaky start in the industry, Shearer worked hard to improve on her acting skills and accelerated to stardom following MGMs first official film production, He Who Gets Slapped. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, the entire Hollywood film industry underwent a dramatic shift. Talkies became the new standard and a number of incredibly high profile silent stars struggled with the transition (Marion Davies, for example, who was plagued by a childhood stutter). An aside: if you’re interested in this particular period in Hollywood, definitely watch (or re-watch for the millionth time) ‘Singin’ In The Rain‘. I think it actually does a wonderful job of giving some insight into the high anxiety that talkies brought for both studios and performers. Plus, there’s Gene Kelly and a whole lot of dancing. Norma Shearer shifted to talkies with ease. In fact, it was in the early years of talking films that she made what I would argue are some of her best films.

Up until the introduction of the Hays Code (officially called the Motion Picture Production Code) in 1934, Hollywood was pretty well unregulated with regards to censorship. Local laws attempted to put some restrictions on the types of content that films could include, but it was relatively easy for studios to ignore these regulations without consequence. Between 1929 (when sound pictures became the relative norm) and 1934, this relaxed attitude to censorship was embraced by Hollywood which, in turn, churned out a number of films that included profanity, sex, and violence (although all of these films would seem pretty tame in comparison to what we see on screen today).  This was the period during which Norma Shearer came into her own as an actress portraying promiscuous and sexually liberated women. Her 1930 film The Divorcee is, in my opinion, her best. She is endearing, spirited, and incredibly convincing as a woman who discovers that her husband has had an affair. Her character counters her husband’s infidelity by sleeping with his best friend and, following their divorce, proceeds to really live it up with whole lot of partying and sex. It’s a fantastic film – not least because it is not a film that you would expect to come out of 1930s America. Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress as a result of her performance.

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The Divorcee (1930)

Another amazing pre-Code film starring Shearer is A Free Soul. She stars alongside both Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore and – again, in my opinion – totally outdoes both of them (although Barrymore won an Academy Award for his role and Gable’s performance is largely credited to have put his star on the rise). With regards to Shearer’s role, the clue is very much in the title. She plays another sexually liberated woman who gets involved with a gangster (Gable) – a gangster who her lawyer father has successfully defended in trial. The film doesn’t have the power of The Divorcee (perhaps because all of the mobster stuff just removes it from reality, while The Divorcee feels very rooted in real world emotion and reactions) but it’s still a fantastic watch. Not to mention it is a mine of inspiration for anyone interested in some beautiful 1930s women’s fashion!

For those feminists among us (hopefully everyone reading this), things take something of a downward turn after the introduction of the Hays Code. The Code was created as a response to both the uncensored nature of many Hollywood films and a number of scandals that had plagued Hollywood off-screen – the rape, and subsequent death, of Virginia Rappe and the implication of acclaimed actor Fatty Arbuckle in the crime was perhaps the most notable scandal. The Code introduced a strict set of ethical criteria that all films must follow. Among these were prohibitions of “pointed profanity…this includes the words ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Jesus…,” “any inference of sex perversion,” and “any licentious or suggestive nudity.” The Production Code Administration enforced the Hays Code strictly and Norma Shearer’s film roles began to reflect the censorship that now dominated Hollywood productions.

That’s not to say that she didn’t make some great films. She received critical acclaim for the performances in many of her films and was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award six times in total – two of these nominations, for Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette, came after the enforcement of the Code. But where Shearer had dominated films as the sexually liberated ingenue during the pre-Code period, she was now consigned to playing somewhat more subdued and conventional female roles. The best example of this is her character in The Women (1939). Let me begin by saying that I adore this film. It’s one of my favourites. An all female cast including Joan Crawford – what could be better? If you are able to overlook the fact that literally (and I’m using that word in the correct sense) every conversation is about men, it’s a fantastically progressive film for its time.

The Women

The Women (1939)

It’s actually through The Women that I developed an interest in Norma Shearer. I came to the film after listening to the You Must Remember This podcast series on Joan Crawford (if you haven’t listened to it, you must!). Joan Crawford undoubtedly steals the show in this film. But, looking around for more information, I was amazed to read about Norma Shearer’s cinematic history. In The Women, Shearer plays another wronged wife. Rather than seize her independence in the face of her husband’s pretty shameless infidelity, however, Shearer’s character seems to limp reluctantly towards a divorce. It feels as though the divorce is a consequence of her twisted sense of loyalty (that she must allow her husband to make his choice and give him the freedom to pursue his affair in the hope that he’ll end up coming back to her), rather than a purposeful decision to move forward as her own person. The fact that every scene in the film revolves around the situation between Shearer’s character and her husband only adds to the sense that she is playing subordinate to his will and desires the whole way through. In contrast, Joan Crawford’s character is powerful, ruthless, and awful. But she reflects far more of Shearer’s pre-Code roles than anything subsequent to the enforcement of the Hays Code. And Joan Crawford’s character is by far the most memorable and interesting part of The Women.

I think Norma Shearer is easily one of the most fascinating figures from the period that we’re talking about when we mention ‘classic Hollywood’. But what’s most interesting about her is how dramatically her story represents the shifts that Hollywood went through during the 1920s and 1930s. She saw out the transition from silent films to talkies and continued to make her own successes as Hollywood moved from the pre-Code to the post-Code era. When you watch her films, you’ll see that her talent speaks for itself. But it’s difficult to work through her filmography without feeling that something dramatic was lost after 1934. This is a woman who best dominated the screen when handed the complicated characters – women with obscure motives and muddy pasts, whose men were generally secondary to some bigger picture or larger determination to be free. These types of female characters didn’t disappear completely – Joan Crawford in The Women is a great example. But it took a while for such complex and (at the time) controversial women to once again assume the role of heroine.


If you’re interested in learning more about Norma Shearer or pre-Code Hollywood, there are a number of places that you can look. I’d definitely recommend working through her filmography but, in addition, make sure to check out Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle. It’s a great survey of pre-Code Hollywood in general but it gives special focus to Norma Shearer. Gavin Lambert’s Norma Shearer: A Biography is also a great read!

Check back in next Friday for another My Vintage Life. And remember to direct any suggestions for future posts my way – @sewforvictoryuk on Instagram and Twitter or email me: laura@sewforvictory.co.uk