Tinseltown in the Fifties: an alarming picture

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Of all the revelations about the MGM publicity department in the days that it was run by Howard Strickling, the most startling is surely the one concerning "mammary equipment". In the 1930s and 1940s, the MGM studio publicists controlled every aspect of the stars' public lives - and often ruled their private lives, too. "We told stars what they could say, and they did what we said because they knew we knew best," Strickling - the son of a grocery-store owner who became the head of publicity at MGM in 1930 and stayed with the studio for two decades - boasted.

His colleague Sam Marx was later to reveal that MGM's wardrobe department was full of "realistic rubber breasts, naturally in pairs, with perfect aureoles and nipples, carrying the name of those for whom they were designed. They hid from their fans any hint that nature had left them underprivileged."

But junior publicists didn't just help shape actresses' busts. They learned to forge the stars' signatures so that they could send signed photographs to fans. They policed interviews (sadly, they still do), screened the stars' phone calls and oversaw their social lives. If a male star was thought to have homosexual tendencies, they would quickly fix him up with some likely lady. If a starlet became pregnant out of wedlock, they would dispatch her on some "foreign tour".

"Escorts were provided, romances promoted or destroyed, elopements supervised and marriages arranged or rent asunder," Marx writes in Mayer And Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints.

All of this was relatively harmless. Far more alarming is the fact that the publicists were able to hush up wrongdoings, accidental or otherwise, of the contract players. Using a mix of bribery and intimidation, they managed to hide the true stories behind rapes, suicides, murders and drug busts. "They (the studios) could cover up murder. You could literally have somebody killed and it wouldn't be in the papers," the veteran screenwriter Budd Schulberg (whose father, BP Schulberg, ran Paramount in the early 1930s) commented.

There was something utterly paradoxical about MGM's attitude toward its stars. On the one hand, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford et al were the cynosures. They were immensely well-paid and lived what appeared to be ultra-glamorous lives. On the other, they were treated as if they were children. The studio regularly employed spies to keep tabs on them. Those who fell from favour were treated brutally. They were employed on seven-year contracts and were obliged to appear in whatever film the studio chose for them. "Here's your next picture," MGM's "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg used to tell his actors as he handed them a script, without even deigning to ask their opinion.

Hollywoodland, a new feature starring Adrien Brody and Ben Affleck, exposes Strickling and his fellows. Affleck plays a real-life minor Hollywood star called George Reeves, who gained unlikely celebrity by playing Superman on television. He yearned to be taken seriously and had very mixed feelings at becoming a kiddy idol in a series sponsored by a breakfast-cereal manufacturer. In June 1959, he was discovered dead in his bedroom with a gunshot wound to the head. The official line was that he had committed suicide, but a huge amount of evidence was suppressed. Many believe he was killed.

The mystery of Reeves' death is the starting point for Hollywoodland. In flashback, we're shown how Reeves had started an affair with an older woman, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of a studio bigshot called Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), who was notorious as Louis B Mayer's enforcer. Unfaithful himself, Eddie loved his wife and wanted her to be happy, even if it was with another man. That could have been provocation enough for him to act when Reeves left Toni for the much younger Leonore Lemmon. The film, directed by Allen Coulter (best known for his work on The Sopranos and Sex And The City) interweaves Reeves's story with that of a hapless detective, played by Brody.

Hollywoodland provokes some intriguing questions. Imagine that the old Hollywood publicity machine was intact and Strickling was still in action today. "Mel Gibson wouldn't have happened," says the film's producer, Glenn Williamson, of the Mad Max star's anti-Semitic rant on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Strickling had a genius for suppressing stories that embarrassed the studio stars. It helped that he had close contacts in the Los Angeles Police Department and that coroners and doctors were also in his pocket. So were the press. In return for what they thought were "exclusives" (although these may just have been bland bit of gossip dreamed up by Strickling and his army of publicists), they would not to ask too many embarrassing questions.

"The studios really did control the town," says Coulter. "The chief of police of Culver City was also the chief of police of MGM. They exerted tremendous control over their players, over the town and the criminal justice system."

There is a long list of Hollywood "scandals" in which the reality and the reported version - the one sanctioned by the publicists - appear to be at odds. These range from the shooting of the film-maker Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht (explored in Peter Bogdanovich's film The Cat's Meow) to the unlikely suicide of Jean Harlow's husband Paul Bern. Such books as Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II and EJ Fleming's recent The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and The MGM Publicity Machine are full of such stories.

The difference today is that those stories now surface instantly. In the internet era, if a star has too much to drink and gets arrested, or goes out driving and hits an old lady, the world knows about it hours, or even minutes, later. Ironically, this doesn't necessarily affect the stars' standing. In some cases, it can even enhance it. "Hell, no. If it isn't murder or child pornography and they can make a dollar, you're still in the game," Nick Nolte told me during an interview to promote The Good Thief (2002), his first film after he was arrested for drunk driving, when I asked if the roles were drying up in the wake of his "disgrace. He seemed surprised as such a naive question.

As Fleming points out at the end of The Fixers, by the late 1950s the system was changing. "Tabloid journals were erupting almost weekly, filling a seemingly insatiable interest for information about the stars' personal problems." Somehow, though, the exposés didn't reduce the stars' allure in the slightest. If anything, all the stories about their misdeeds served to humanise them and to make them yet more popular.

Publicists still strive to exercise the same level of control as in the days when the MGM PR machine was running at full throttle. Journalists interviewing actors are made to sign embargo forms and warned not to touch on certain subjects. The difference now is the studios no longer exercise anything like the level of control they once did. As Coulter puts it, Hollywood has changed beyond recognition since the days "when an entire town was based on that kind of power"

The final irony about Strickling's efforts at suppression and spin is that he ultimately only succeeded in making the stories he quashed all the more intriguing. There is now a mini-industry of writers, historians and fans speculating as to whether Reeves really did commit suicide, or who fired the shot that killed Harlow's husband. In trying to kill the scandal, he fed the myths.

'Hollywoodland' is at the London Film Festival on 2 November. EJ Fleming's 'The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and The MGM Publicity Machine', is published by McFarland and Company