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100 years of movie stars: The golden years

In the dark decades of the 1930s and 1940s, the stars of the big screen shone more brightly than ever, explains Geoffrey Macnab

Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was a wildly contradictory place – and its stars reflected this.

On the one hand, in the early 1930s, the “golden age of turbulence”, Mae West, Jean Harlow, James Cagney and the Marx brothers were transgressive and risqué. This was the Depression era, and the sense of reckless desperation could be felt in musicals, gangster films and screwball comedies alike.

But it was also the period in which Hollywood’s tendency toward self-censorship became evident. The so-called Hays Code had existed since the late 1920s, but its enforcement now became stricter. Husbands and wives weren’t to be shown together in bed, and kisses weren’t to last for more than 10 seconds – to mention just two of its edicts.

Audiences in this era had similarly mixed tastes. They liked hard-nosed stars such as Cagney andHumphrey Bogart. But they also cherished more homely figures: upstanding all- Americans such as Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and girl next-door types such as Deanna Durbin. Greta Garbo was still in her regal pomp at MGM, but the child star Shirley Temple was just as popular.

Some stars managed to belong to two worlds at once. In The Wizard Of Oz, Judy Garland looked a little like a Shirley Temple type as she hoofed off down the Yellow Brick Road – but as soon as she started to sing, you realised that this was no demure kid.

Hollywood’s contract system was strictly enforced, and actors were told by their studios how to behave. Even so, the era was characterised by its huge number of formidable female stars. Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck weren’t the types to be pushed around by the studio bosses. Even more modest actresses, such as Olivia de Havilland, were prepared to fight a system that rewarded them generously while depriving them of any chance to mould their own careers.

The 1940s were a golden age for British stars. Actresses such as Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Phyllis Calvert were just as popular with the British fans as any of their Hollywood rivals.

France, too, had its stars – the rugged Jean Gabin, the glamorous Michèle Morgan – while Germany had Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich.

Of course, the best of the talent was lured over to Hollywood. The Vienna-born Hedy Lamarr had caused a sensation when she appeared naked in the Czech director Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy in 1933. The scandal soon propelled her to Hollywood. That was where Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman and countless others ended up too.

In New York, the 1930s saw the flourishing of the Group Theatre, which developed a Stanislavski-influenced naturalistic acting style that would later (via Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio) have a huge influence on screen acting. But while members such as John Garfield and Franchot Tone were developing a more introspective style of screen performance, other vaudeville trained stars – notably Cagney – still performed in wildly expressionistic fashion.

By the end of the 1940s, this era of cinematic riches seemed to be drawing to a close. Antitrust legislation barred the big studios from controlling distribution and exhibition, while the looming threat of television put the skids under Hollywood’s finances. Yet the star system, at least, would continue to flourish.