Thursday, 20 April 2017

Guy Bolton on Hollywood Scandals

My first novel The Pictures centres on a studio fixer hired to cover-up the apparent suicide of one of the producers of The Wizard of Oz. So when people ask me about it usually they want to know if it’s based on a true story.

The answer is complex. Yes, and no, I say.

“Was the producer of The Wizard of Oz found dead at his home?” No. “Is Jonathan Craine a real Detective?” Afraid not.  “Was there a Hollywood star called Gale Goodwin?” Sorry, I made her up.

At this point my disappointed audience might make one last plea: “Were there even any scandals and cover-ups in Hollywood at the time?”

Oh yes, more than one. So many you wouldn’t even believe me if I told you.

Indeed, as I began researching my novel I quickly realised that the truth, as the adage goes, was stranger than fiction. Sure, there were rumours and gossip about movie stars then as there is now: Clark Gable had an illegitimate lovechild; Errol Flynn was accused of statutory rape; Spencer Tracy was an alcoholic; Judy Garland was addicted to prescription drugs. But the starting point for my plot was actually MGM megastar Jean Harlow and her producer husband Paul Bern, both of whom died under mysterious circumstances in the early thirties. 

On paper, theirs was an unlikely partnership. Harlow was a wild-child who happened to be one of the most successful movie stars of her generation. Bern was introverted writer-producer twenty years her senior. So when the newly married Paul Bern was discovered naked in his bedroom, shot in the head by a .38 calibre pistol besides a questionable suicide note, naturally the movie studio was desperate to protect their star.

Studio police were on the scene before even the LAPD. MGM’s Head of Publicity (the inspiration for my Russell Peterson) released press stories that painted Jean Harlow as a victim of a troubled marriage. Of course, the District Attorney chosen to handle the inquest happened to have close ties to MGM Chief Louis B. Mayer – he was an important donator to the DA’s re-election campaign. Not only did the District Attorney rule that Paul Bern’s death was suicide, he even went so far as stating that Paul Bern suffered from impotence, giving motive to him killing himself and helping to whitewash anything that might threaten Harlow’s image.

A few years later Jean Harlow herself was dead; gossip columnists speculated that Harlow had died of alcoholism, maybe even a botched abortion or venereal disease. In the end, the official line was that she died from kidney failure. She was 26 years old.

Rumours around Harlow and Bern’s premature deaths persist to this day. Delving deeper, I discovered that our studio-friendly District Attorney was later indicted for bribery and perjury and in a twist of fate took his own life with a pistol to the head. But what the case really highlighted to me was the obscene influence the studios at the time had on the press and judicial system. It was the first of many examples.

One of the saddest scandals I came across was the rape of a 20- year-old dancer by an MGM sales executive in 1937, a tragic tale detailed in Vanity Fair by David Stenn and later turned into a documentary Girl 27. Dancer and bit-part actress Patricia Douglas filed a landmark lawsuit against MGM when she claimed she was raped at an MGM sales convention. The tabloids soon discovered that the “sales convention” was actually a lavish Wild West themed party MGM put on for its national sales teams. After all, MGM was celebrating their success and survival in the depression, coming out as the only major studio to make profits year-on-year.

For the studio, an accusation of rape against its staff was bad enough. But as the story began to make headlines nationwide, the real fear lay in the public’s perception of MGM as a the home of wholesome family entertainment in the face of reports that it was throwing depraved parties filled with free liquor and underage girls.

The studio used its press influence to launch a smear campaign against Patricia Douglas, going as far as hiring private investigators to follow her and dig up dirt. Inevitably, the DA (still the same friend from the Paul Bern inquest), sympathetic to MGM’s situation, used his position to block action against the rapist. Douglas’ case fell apart.

In The Pictures, I have my own studio party and my own sad turn of events. But nothing would ever match up to what happened to Patricia Douglas. She soon fled  Hollywood and spent most of her life alone. In interviews shortly before she died she admitted she never truly recovered from the ordeal.

Drugs. Unruly stars. Debauched parties. The influence of studios on press and the justice system. The consistent and unashamed exploitation of women. I could go on. The Golden Age of Hollywood was founded on a bedrock of sin and corruption.

But perhaps what’s most interesting is that these key plot-points and themes are as relevant now as they have always been. In many ways, the scandals of 1930s Hollywood were no different to anything you might read in the paper today.

THE PICTURES by Guy Bolton is published by PointBlank, hardback £14.99
The Pictures a noir thriller, is set in Hollywood in 1939.  World-weary Jonathan Craine is a detective at the LAPD who has spent his entire career as a studio ‘fixer', covering up crimes of the studio players to protect the billion-dollar industry that built Los Angeles. When one of the producers of The Wizard of Oz is found dead under suspicious circumstances, Craine must make sure the incident passes without scandal and that the deceased's widow, the beautiful starlet Gale Goodwin, comes through the ordeal with her reputation unscathed.  But against his better instincts, Craine finds himself increasingly drawn to Gale. And when a series of unsavoury truths begin to surface, Craine finds himself at the centre of a conspiracy involving a Chicago crime syndicate, a prostitution racket and a set of stolen pictures that could hold the key to unravelling the mystery.

You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @gpbolton

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