My Vintage Life: Christmas in Hollywood

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With Christmas just gone and New Year’s fast approaching, now is the time for thick blankets, hot chocolate, and a favourite black-and-white film on the TV. I – like so many others – absolutely love December and everything that comes with it. But there is truly nothing better about the season than the opportunity to pull out some of the best festive movies for a viewing. Would it, after all, truly be Christmas without an opportunity to let Bing Crosby make us feel all the feels in White Christmas? We owe a lot to classic Hollywood for helping us usher in some festive spirit and feel the joy that the holidays bring (troubling family members and potential catastrophes aside).

While I’m well acquainted with the best seasonal films to emerge out of early Hollywood, I’ve been wondering about how exactly Hollywood recognised the Christmas period outside of creating some really great movies. So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and an exploration of Christmas in Hollywood.


Since the 1920s, Hollywood has rung in the festive season with incredible extravagance. Following a campaign by retail merchants to increase Christmas business, businessman Harry Blaine and the Hollywood Boulevard Association reached an agreement on the annual transformation of Hollywood Boulevard into Santa Claus Lane. Beginning in 1928, the Boulevard became a wonderland for prospective shoppers and tourists coming to view the elaborate lights display and daily parade. The parade – at the time known as the Hollywood Santa Parade or the Santa Claus Lane Parade) – still takes place as an annual event.

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Actress Mary Pickford putting up the Santa Claus Lane sign

As historian Nathan Masters describes Santa Claus Lane:

“The first year, 100 living firs were dug up from the forest near Big Bear and placed along Hollywood Blvd. in wooden planters. Once fully dressed in nearly 10,000 incandescent light bulbs, the trees lit the path for a nightly parade. Joined on his sleigh by a silver screen star, Santa Claus greeted passerby as a team of six live reindeer pulled him down the boulevard. After New Year’s Day, the trees were replanted on the grounds of the Hollywood Bowl. 

In later years, metallic decorations replaced the living trees. Drawings of film stars’ faces smiled at shoppers from the center of tin wreaths hung from lampposts. Whimsical, shiny toy Christmas trees blinked with colorful lights. At the annual promotion’s peak, organizers boasted that Hollywood Blvd. was the most brightly lit street in the nation.”

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Other notable features of Santa Claus Lane included imitation fireplaces and 4-feet high papier-mache Santa Claus heads (not at all terrifying, I’m sure). As an interesting side note, the song ‘Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)’ was inspired by Hollywood Boulevard’s transformation into Santa Claus Lane and the daily procession of Santa and his reindeer.

Parade

Beyond Hollywood’s physical transformation, the studios also picked up on the publicity potential afforded by the Christmas season. Filmmakers capitalised on moviegoers’ festive spirit through the production of great films – White Christmas (1954), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) remain some of the best known – but also through the marketing of their greatest stars. The late 1920s onwards marked a dramatic transformation in the way that studios presented their stars – starting to sell films to the general public through the reputation of their performers. A studio’s contracted stars became integrally tied to the success of its films and, as such, Christmas became an opportunity for studios to thrust their actors even more forcefully into the public eye. Alongside the production of holiday films featuring prominent names, studios also worked with their actors to release carefully staged publicity shots. Here are a couple of my favourite examples:

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Ava Gardner

Loretta Young

Loretta Young

The history of Hollywood at Christmas is a reminder that they had more to offer than some, admittedly amazing, films. The nature of ‘Tinseltown’ is one that was firmly established in the 1920s, with a desire to drag business away from surrounding retail areas and towards Hollywood’s main strip. And these are traditions that are continuing – albeit in slightly adjusted forms – over 80 years later.

So with Christmas just gone and New Year’s around the corner, pull out your favourite old films, look up some seasonal Hollywood photos (there are some real *crackers*) and enjoy the best of what December has left for us. However – and whether or not – you’ve celebrated, I’m sending you all the best wishes for the rest of the holiday period and hoping that you have a wonderful long New Year’s weekend!

 

 

My Vintage Life: The Hollywood Canteen

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We’re finally returning to a normal blogging schedule after a month of intense disruption. It’s been a crazy time. Between packing up my life in the UK, adjusting to life in the US, and putting together a wedding in 4 weeks, I’ve been incredibly distracted! It has been a classic case of taking on too much. For that reason, I also decided not to make my wedding dress. With everything else going on, I’ve had such little time to work on it, added to which I botched it in a way that will make continuing incredibly difficult and time-consuming. With only a week to go until the wedding, I’m all about minimising the stress at this point! I’ll be posting next week about the entire fiasco and closing my series of posts on making your own wedding dress with how to avoid ending up in the place that I did. Even without a me-made dress, I’ll be sure to post some pictures on here after the day for those of you who have been following my journey!

In an effort to pull myself out of wedding mode, I decided to get back into blogging mode with a new My Vintage Life post. These are always such a lot of fun for me to write – I love having the opportunity to research such fantastically interesting quirks of eras past and (hopefully) peak your interest through these posts. Of all the stories that I’ve come across in my vintage journey, one in particular sparked my fascination. The events surrounding the establishment and running of the Hollywood Canteen, a club that provided food and entertainment to US servicemen, are genuinely some of the most interesting tales in classic Hollywood’s lengthy list of incredible accounts.

So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and the story of how Hollywood’s intersection with World War II produced a site where celebrity met fan, frivolity met fear, and political progress met conservative resistance.


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The Hollywood Canteen was opened on 3rd October 1942 as the creation of Bette Davis and John Garfield. Looking to establish a base to which allied servicemen could flock for evenings of entertainment, Davis and Garfield approached the president of the Music Corporation of America, Jules Stein, for help creating and funding the operation. By all accounts, Stein was fundamental to the success of the project despite his position as a somewhat behind-the-scenes personality. As Bette Davis described it:

“Jules Stein, up to this time, was seldom ever seen. Few people even knew what he looked like. He preferred to live this way. It was a big decision when he said he would head the financial committee. He would have to alter his way of life. Without his hard work, advice, and investments of our funds the Hollywood Canteen could not have been successful, to say nothing of the work of his wife, Doris, who I asked to be the head of the committee for the hostesses necessary for dancing partners for the servicemen. When the canteen was no longer needed after V-J Day, $500,000 remained in the canteen account. These monies were the result of Jules’ ideas. A great source of revenue came from a film he urged Warner Bros. to make called Hollywood Canteen, a large percentage of which was allotted by Mr. Warner to the canteen itself. With the remaining monies a foundation was formed, and to this day contributions are made to worthy projects dealing with the armed forces.”

Despite the popular personalities that dominated ideas of how the Canteen was conceived and run, it was undoubtedly the work of multiple minds. The work to establish the Canteen came to fruition and, as desired by Davis and Garfield, successfully provided a place where servicemen could associate with Hollywood’s biggest stars, dance, eat, and try to forget impending assignments overseas.

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Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth performing their magic act at the Canteen

It’s important to remember, however, how central Stein was to the operation of the Canteen. Responsible for the financing of the project, Stein not only had to fund its creation but also find money and donations to support the hefty expenses that came with day-to-day running. 50 percent of the Canteen’s food was donated, relying on a series of fundraisers in order to raise the money necessary to provide the rest. Since the servicemen went through 4,000 loaves of bread, 400 pounds of butter and 30,000 gallons of punch per month, finding the funds to provide such massive quantities was incredibly necessary. In order to navigate ration restrictions on meat, the Canteen’s head chef – Chef Milani – was forced to write to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding action:

“The Hollywood Canteen will not be able to provide the necessary amount of meat for the servicemen unless we are able to secure an allotment exception permit immediately. Will you please help us secure this permit by directing this wire to the proper authorities with your O.K.? God bless you.”

Needless to say, the Hollywood Canteen received its permit.

The Hollywood Canteen did much for the way Hollywood’s activities in World War II were perceived. By having major stars – including Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, and Hedy Lamarr – work voluntarily at the Canteen – serving food, signing autographs, and dancing with patrons – the Canteen bridged the gap between these distant celebrities and the men giving their lives for the allied cause. It advanced the idea that, not only was Hollywood fully behind US engagement in WWII, but also that the celebrities themselves were prepared to give their time to boost morale and work in service of those men serving the country at large. To control any potential ‘personal’ mishaps, the Canteen came with strict rules about romantic assignations between the hostesses (both famous and not) and those visiting the Canteen. Although there are accounts suggesting that, in a number of cases, romances did develop, there is nothing to indicated that the Canteen became a site of sexual mayhem.

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Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth working at the Hollywood Canteen

The Canteen was a revolutionary project in a number of ways. Not only did it provide a place for celebrity civilians and allied soldiers to mix on equal terms, it also served as a site of (relative) racial tolerance. Bette Davis immediately shut down the notion that the Hollywood Canteen would enforce a segregation policy. And, for the most part, the Canteen operated without racial incident. If such incidents did occur, the Canteen’s managers had instructed the band to play the national anthem, something that occurred only twice during the Canteen’s existence. It must be observed, however, that operating without segregation did not mean that the Canteen functioned as a site of racial equality. The managers made sure to recruit black hostesses to ensure that black servicemen were tended to by women of their own race and vice versa. Although, in 1940s America, Bette Davis’ decision on the side of tolerance was undoubtedly a forward-thinking move, it would be troubling to suggest that the Canteen totally avoided continuing a tradition of informal and customary segregation. That said, entertainers of all races were welcome to perform before the troops and renowned performers Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong were amongst the most celebrated.

The Hollywood Canteen was an incredibly successful initiative that undoubtedly boosted the morale of all who attended. It offered an opportunity for men, plagued by the thought of walking into the battle, to escape – however briefly. They could mix with celebrities as equals, eat, drink, and share in camaraderie. One of the most fascinating things about the Canteen is its true authenticity. There is little evidence to suggest the project boasted false successes or claimed an impact that it didn’t have. Instead, everything points to an initiative that delivered over and above what it set out to achieve. The 1944 Warner Bros. film Hollywood Canteen, although undeniably a staged and overly positivised account of the Canteen’s operation, is not so far from the mark in showing how fantastically the club boosted the morale of its soldiers and offered Hollywood stars an opportunity to demonstrate their gratitude. The fact that more than 3000 individuals – including celebrities, musicians, dancers, and publicists – had signed up to volunteer at the Canteen before it even opened its doors, shows just how keen people were to offer some form of service to those men ultimately giving their lives for the country. Here, the soldiers were treated like individuals. The millionth guest – Sgt. Carl Bell – attended the venue on 15th September 1943 and, as a prize, was offered both a kiss from Betty Grable and escort by Marlene Dietrich. Stories of stars going out of their way to make guests feel special and valued abound.

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Bette Davis in the film ‘Hollywood Canteen’ (1944)

As war initiatives go, the Hollywood Canteen was undeniably one of the best conceived and most successful. Although it is undoubtedly the case that the Canteen offered at least some opportunity for Hollywood to massage its own ego, there is too much contradictory anecdotal evidence to believe that this was the only motive at play. From 3 October 1942 to 22 November 1945, the Hollywood Canteen operated as a place of hope, fun, and freedom. It provided an invaluable reprieve for those preparing to walk into some of the most horrifying events in history. While the Canteen did not stop a war or save the men who walked through its doors, it reminded its guests that a country stood behind them. And, for that alone, the Hollywood Canteen will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s most generous acts.


For more information on the Hollywood Canteen, I would recommend watching the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen. There are also numerous videos and documentary extracts on Youtube. Another fantastic resource is the book The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced with the Most Beautiful Girls in the World by Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence.

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.

Virginia Rappe

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