The Outdated Studio Rules That Old Hollywood Stars Had To Obey

During the Old Hollywood era, actors could become huge stars overnight if they got signed with one of a handful of major studios. While it seems like a glamorous lifestyle, there were strict studio rules that made actors’ real lives less carefree than they seemed. The studio could control everything from the actor’s weight to who they dated! Contracts were often long and gave the studio control over what movies the actor performed in. As these rules show, there was an ugly side to Hollywood hiding beneath that glorious silver screen.

Actors Couldn’t Turn Down A Role

Bette Davis in the Role of Margo Channing
Getty Images
Getty Images

These days, if an actor you love stars in a movie you couldn’t stand, the first question that comes to mind is why did they agree to that role? Back in the Old Hollywood days, the answer was because their contract forced them to do it.

Studios used to have complete control over what work an actor did. A prime example is Bette Davis, who wasn’t afraid to turn down roles that Warner Bros. wanted her to do. As a result, the company suspended the actress. Though Bette lost a lawsuit she filed against them, the ordeal led Warner Bros. to offer her better roles.

Performers Would Pay For Their Sick Days

Judy Garland
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

While gig workers miss out on earnings when sick, many employed individuals still are paid while sick. When it came to Old Hollywood, they would actually charge performers if they couldn’t work. Such was the case when Judy Garland starred in Meet Me in St. Louis.

MGM reportedly charged her $100,000 for having a total of 16 sick days. The worst part is that she was sick due to long workdays and extreme diets, both of which the studio fueled!

Actresses Couldn’t Wear Pants

Katharine Hepburn
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Getty Images

In the decades of Old Hollywood, it still wasn’t common for women to wear pants. It was seen as too masculine and was condemned by major studios. One Hollywood star who famously defied this rule was Katharine Hepburn.

Reportedly, RKO Pictures had a member of the costume department snag Hepburn’s pants so she couldn’t wear them. The star retaliated by remaining in her underpants until they caved. Katharine also famously went without makeup in interviews, which was another Hollywood no-no at the time.

Studios Could Force Actors To Change Their Name

Actor Cary Grant on Balcony in Paris
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Getty Images

Part of being under the tyranny of the Old Hollywood studios was being essentially owned by them. As such, they could force actors to change their name for the sake of branding or marketability. For example, Paramount demanded that British actor Archibald Leach change his name to create distance for his history as a performer.

They wanted to create his persona from the bottom up, so Archibald became the Cary Grant that many of us know today. MGM famously held a competition to see who could come up with the best name for starlet Lucille Fay LeSueur. The winning name was Joan Crawford.

Plastic Surgery Was Sometimes A Requirement

Rita Hayworth Portrait Session
Earl Theisen/Getty Images
Earl Theisen/Getty Images

If the studio could control an actor’s name, why wouldn’t they also have a say in the actor’s face! Performers would be pressured to obtain a certain look, which was often only possible through plastic surgery. Case in point, Rita Hayworth’s altered hairline.

The actress underwent electrolysis treatment to move her hairline back significantly for a more marketable look that would please Columbia Studios. The result gave her the appearance of having a more broad forehead, which was the look back then. To top it off, Rita died her hair from black to red and changed her name, which was originally Margarita Cansino.

Studios Had A Say In Actor’s Love Lives

Mickey Rooney And Judy Garland In 'Strike Up The Band'
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Who actors date can play a role in their fame by stirring up publicity around both figures, particularly when two celebrities are involved. Back in the day, studios would actually capitalize on this by controlling who their performers were with.

One famous case was that of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The pair starred in Babes in Arms together, and they acted like a couple in real life while promoting the film. Judy ended up really falling for Mickey, but he wasn’t genuinely interested. Studios also interfered heavily in who Sammy Davis Jr. and Rock Hudson were involved with.

Producers Would Sometimes Start Rumors For Marketing

Carl Laemmle Leaves The UK
Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Similar to how studios wanted their actors’ love lives to be marketable, they would also sometimes create fabricated stories about them for the sake of hype. Such was the case when producer Carl Laemmle spread a rumor that actress Florence Lawrence was hit by a streetcar.

The rumor spread like wildfire as audiences began to wonder if they’d ever see Florence again. So when she appeared in Laemmle’s upcoming film, fans were quick to swarm to the theater.

Contracts Often Had A Morality Clause

Clara Bow
Otto Dyar/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Otto Dyar/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

During the times of Old Hollywood, contracts were binding in ways that didn’t just apply to the performer’s professional life. Their personal life was just as important. Thus, the contracts typically had a morality clause.

If a studio believed the performer to be doing something immoral, such as cheating on a spouse, then they could terminate the contract. The irony is that there were plenty of immoral rules that studios would implement on their performers. For example, Paramount fired actress Clara Bow after the mounting pressure caused her to have a nervous breakdown!

The Studio Could Prevent An Actor From Marrying

Actress Jean Harlow and William Powell in a scene from the movie
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

The mortality clause of an actor’s contract allowed studios to insert absurd rules that sometimes had nothing to do with good behavior. One such rule was forbidding the performer from getting married.

That was the case with Jean Harlow’s contract with MGM, who couldn’t marry her beau William Powell because of the rule. The reason behind such a ridiculous clause was to preserve her appeal. MGM worried that Jean wouldn’t be as attractive to audiences if they knew she was taken in real life.

Contracts Had Penalties For Getting Pregnant

Ava Gardner
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

There were a few reasons that studios went out of their way to prevent their actresses from becoming pregnant. For one, they didn’t want to postpone filming due to maternity leave. Additionally, it would impact the actress’ physique and her reputation.

Similar to how they didn’t want stars getting married, they didn’t want a leading lady to lose desirability due to motherhood, especially out of wedlock. In her autobiography, actress Ava Gardner wrote, “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies.”

Studios Did Allow Adoptions

Loretta Young
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Though contracts often prevented pregnancies, there was a loophole that actresses started to take advantage of. The actress was allowed to adopt. For that reason, some stars would go that route instead to start a family without suffering contractual penalties.

Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor both adopted children, for instance. Loretta Young used the loophole to keep her pregnancy hidden. She pretended to have an illness and then staged the adoption of her biological daughter!

Contracts Typically Lasted Several Years

Audrey Hepburn an Gary Cooper Signing Contract
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Getty Images

Some of the tight contractual rules wouldn’t be so terrible if they at least expired after a few months, or even a year. Studios would lock in performers with four to seven-year-long contracts to ensure that they could hang on to their “star power” for a long period of time.

It was also common for studios to sign new talent. That way, they could mold them into a money-making machine and benefit from the star’s rise to fame.

Actors Had To Be “Loaned” Out To Other Studios

Elizabeth Taylor
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Another reason why studios would opt for longer contracts is to bind the actors so they couldn’t work for other companies. That meant that the actor had very little say in the trajectory of their own career. There was one exception that Elizabeth Taylor was famous for implementing.

She would negotiate with studios to get them to “loan” her out to other companies. This way, she could work on projects she wanted to do even if they weren’t within her contractual obligations. Still, the idea of someone being on “loan” reaffirms their treatment as property.

Actresses Were Contractually Bound To A Certain Weight

Marlene Dietrich
Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images
Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

Actresses not only had to have a certain physique to get signed, but they also had to maintain that weight while they worked. Those who gained weight risked losing their contract. Furthermore, studios could decide if they wanted an actress to slim down even more.

Such was the case with Judy Garland, who was forced to drop weight after her breakout role in The Wizard of Oz. MGM reportedly put her on a diet of chicken soup and black coffee. Similarly, Marlene Dietrich allegedly had to drop 15 pounds for the movie The Blue Angel.

Actresses Had To Hide Their Athleticism

Katharine Hepburn playing tennis.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While it may seem like Old Hollywood stars were effortlessly beautiful, they actually bent over backward to look the way they did, literally. Not only would they stick to studio-controlled restrictive diets and resort to plastic surgery, but they also worked out.

Back in those days, women weren’t so widely accepted in the athletic world. As a result, they kept their fitness regimes hush. In reality, Katharine Hepburn was a lover of tennis and swimming, and Marilyn Monroe liked to lift weights!

Actors Had To Cater To The Press

Warner And Wyman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In more recent years, some actors will sometimes wear costumes or keep their heads down to avoid the press. In Old Hollywood days, such behavior could get an actor in trouble with their studio. They had to have their brave faces on all the time and cater to the press.

This might mean staging a photo op or simply looking carefree and glamorous, even when they were caught unexpectedly. That’s why celebrities always had to look their best, even in their free time.

Studio Assistants Would Act As Spies

Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

To ensure that their actors were behaving properly at all times, studio assistants would double as spies. Each actor would be appointed their own assistant, but really the assistant was the one who had the actor wrapped around their finger.

They would report back to the studio with any information that might impact the actor’s image. One actor who suffered the brunt of this distrust was Judy Garland. She reportedly had a nanny who was secretly reporting to her studio.

Movie Promotions Could Impact Personal Decisions

Wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Conrad Hilton Jr.
Getty Images
Getty Images

As we’ve seen, studio rules were largely based on marketability. Since stars’ were under the limelight all the time, studios could use this to their advantage to help promote films. That’s what happened when Elizabeth Taylor married Conrad Hilton.

Studios typically would have been worried about a marriage impacting her attractiveness in a movie. However, the wedding was planned so it came out around the same time as her movie Father of the Bride. MGM paid for the wedding, and in return the couple allowed it to be a public spectacle for the sake of marketing the movie.

Films Had Strict Production Codes

Lucille Ball And Desi Arnaz In 'I Love Lucy'
CBS/Getty Images
CBS/Getty Images

During the days of Old Hollywood, film censorship was at an all-time high. As a result, actors had to adhere to strict production codes. One such code limited on-screen kisses to no more than three seconds long.

Another one stated that couples couldn’t be completely horizontal during romantic scenes. One of the more obvious rules was that couples couldn’t share a bed on film. That’s why Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball had matching twin beds in I Love Lucy, even though they were married in real life!

Performers Had To Continue Taking Classes

Lauren Bacall
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

As we mentioned, studios would often look for new talent that they could build into stardom. Whether they were established or not, it was common for actors to continue taking classes while they were working with a studio.

The studio would require them to study in whatever areas would make them more suitable for roles. For example, Lauren Bacall started taking voice lessons after she signed with Warner Bros. This was how she developed the sultry voice that she became known for on the silver screen.

Actors Would Star In Smaller Roles First

Sharon Tate
Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Even though studios were constantly looking for the next big star, they weren’t going to thrust a newbie straight into the big leagues. The studio had to make sure that the actor would not only look the part but also that they knew how to work the camera.

For this reason, they would typically have newer actors appear in small parts, to begin with. Such was the case when Sharon Tate landed the supporting role of Janet Trego in The Beverly Hillbillies.

Studios Often Overworked Their Actors

Judy Garland and David Rose Holding Hands
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Getty Images

As we’ve seen, the studio’s either rejection or acceptance of marriage had everything to do with how it would impact marketing. While MGM paid for Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to promote their film, they had a very different reaction to Judy Garland’s marriage to composer David Rose.

To show their disapproval of the decision, the studio forced Judy to come back to work 24 hours after her wedding! That meant Judy and David couldn’t even have a honeymoon right after they tied the knot. Even more unfair was that Judy’s next marriage, to Vincente Minnelli, was allegedly a studio sham.