‘Hollywood Babylon’: The most salacious Old Hollywood scandals
Did you know it’s been over eighty years since Dorothy followed the yellow brick road? On August 25, 1939, The Wizard of Oz was released, thus changing the face of cinema forever. The fantasy musical starring Judy Garland alongside Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley (and let’s not forget Toto the dog) won two Academy awards and has gone on to become an icon of American pop culture.
While the story is a fantastical amalgamation of talking lions, flying monkeys, and magical red shoes, behind the scenes a far more sinister tale unfolded. And although some of the set stories are relatively harmless, it’s important to remember this film was made during the dark days of the all-powerful Old Hollywood system, before political correctness and legitimate workplace practices had been put into place.
From sexual depravity, to drug abuse, to literal witch-burning, The Wizard of Oz production details are representative of the sinister side of the Golden Days of Hollywood. We’re here today to look at some of the most messed-up Old Hollywood scandals from this bygone era, so ready yourself for some serious levels of grim. Orgies and Nazis and rape, oh my!
The Munchkins – “An unholy assembly of pimps, hookers, and gamblers”
We’ll start with the Oz, shall we? Some of the most salacious rumors to come from the set of the film are linked to the Munchkin actors’ antics. According to Wizard of Oz Collectables, they earned between $300 and $800 per week (in 1939) and they had big appetites for aggressively drunken behavior, booze-fuelled love fests, and it was reported that an “unholy assembly of pimps, hookers, and gamblers” emerged from the Culver Hotel where the Munchkins stayed during filming.
One of the producers, Mervyn LeRoy, even claimed that “they had orgies in the hotel and we had to have police on about every floor.” Police were called several times to the hotel they were staying at, including an incident where one of the actors allegedly got stuck in a toilet. Other hotel staff members said the actors made money on the side by pimping, begging, and whoring. Yikes!
And to top it all off, there is of course the urban legend of the “munchkin suicide”, whereby in one shot of the film many speculated that you could see one of the actors hanging himself in the background. This was later explained to be a bird spreading its wings, but there are people in the dark corners of the internet who still believe the former to be true.
Clark Gable and the date rape incident
Back in 1935, Loretta Young met a married Clark Gable while shooting Call Of The Wild and the pair went on to share an encounter that resulted in Young’s pregnancy. For decades, she was made to deny rumors that her adopted daughter, Judy, was the result of an affair with Gable, but this was later admitted in a 2000 memoir that was published after her death.
In a 2015 Buzzfeed interview written by Anne Helen Petersen, Young’s daughter-in-law Linda Lewis said that after watching a Larry King Live segment on date rape, Young started asking Lewis and her biographer Edward Funk about what this term meant. Turns out, Clark had done exactly that to Young during their “encounter”.
Peterson stated: “When Lewis was finished describing the act, Young’s response was a revelation: ‘That’s what happened between me and Clark.’” And if that reveal wasn’t disturbing enough, Young had apparently internalized the incident and carried the guilt with her that whole time. (She was eighty-five when she watched the Larry King Live segment.)
“The inability to fend off Gable’s advances constituted a failure on her part – not Gable’s,” wrote Peterson. “She spent the rest of her life trying to compensate for that failure, believing that the guilt was hers and hers alone.”
Clara Bow and the “animal lover” rumors
Clara Bow was an American actress who rose to stardom in silent film during the 1920s and successfully made the transition to the so-called talkies (a.k.a. films with sound) after 1927. Bow was an It girl, a sex symbol, and a woman who personified the Roaring Twenties.
She’s also rumored to have taken part in a number of salacious sex acts, including one of the biggest taboos there is – beastiality.
Off-screen Bow lived up to her reputation, engaging in affairs with actors Gilbert Roland and Gary Cooper, director Victor Fleming, a married doctor named Earl Pearson, and Harry Richman.
However, gossip about her between-the-sheets activities took a perverse turn when the Coast Reporter made claims that suggested she often had sex in public, had threesomes with prostitutes, and turned to animals when no human was at hand to satisfy her desires. She is also rumored to have serviced the entire USC football team (including a young John Wayne).
It’s important to remember that these were rumors printed by a tabloid paper and no doubt hyperbolized at a time when entertainment was not as abundant as it is now. Still, makes for a pretty good Old Hollywood urban legend, wouldn’t you agree?
Charles Laughton a.k.a. The Scatman
Charles Laughton was an English actor best known for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and his Academy Award-winning performance as Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII. However, rumor has it that his private life in reality was just as twisted.
In his book Full Service, Scotty Bowers claimed Laughton had a scat fetish. Apparently, Bowers brought a young man to the actor’s house, where he proceeded to prepare a sandwich while the young man was told to strip naked before the pair disappeared to the bedroom.
When they came back, Bowers saw the sandwich had been smothered in a brown, sticky substance (you get where we’re going with this). Bowers wrote: “It looked like gravy or peanut butter or some sort of sandwich spread.” Laughton finished the alleged sordid act by patting the sheepish-looking guy on the butt, sitting back down, and chomping on his shitty sandwich. Grimy doesn’t even cut it.
Hedy Lamarr’s encounter with Hitler
Some highly shocking revelations were made about the late movie icon Hedy Lamarr in a tell-all biography What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamarr, written by revered film critic Devra Hill. Hedy was married to munitions dealer and prominent fascist Friedrich Mandl, who reportedly threw huge parties where guests including figures like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and German dictator Adolf Hitler attended.
In the book, Hill claims Mandl forced Lamarr to sleep with the besotted Hitler to help his business. Oh yeah, and Lamarr was famously Jewish. “Hitler knew she was Jewish,” she said. “I think he overlooked this because he wanted to get all those munitions from her husband. He also wanted to be with Hedy – she was beautiful.” The Nazi dictator also reportedly even gave Lamarr a cigarette case with a diamond swastika on it.
Fatty Arbuckle and Hollywood’s first scandal
Actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a man of many firsts. He was Hollywood’s first one-million-dollar star, and he was also the central figure in Hollywood’s first major scandal.
Back in 1921 at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, actress Virginia Rappe fell ill at a party hosted by Arbuckle, where she was left screaming in agony on a bed. Later that week, she sadly died. Arbuckle was accused by Rappe’s acquaintance of raping & killing the actress while the two were alone together in his room.
After the first two trials, which resulted in hung juries, Arbuckle was acquitted in the third and was handed a written statement of apology. The cause of death was reported as a ruptured spleen, but due to the scathing testimony from Rappe’s witness and party attendant Maude Delmont who “painted Arbuckle as a nasty person”, rumors speculate that Arbuckle had crushed the girl while they were in bed. However, to this day no one knows exactly what happened in that hotel room.