Review: “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” by Anne Helen Petersen

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There’s always a danger with a popular blogger bringing the material that made them famous online to the written page. The temptation to coast through the literary process and just copy-paste old articles must be strong, especially when said pieces are so exhaustively researched and thoroughly entertaining as Anne Helen Petersen’s celebrity profiles. A genuine doctor of celebrity gossip (she wrote her PhD dissertation on the history of the topic, from the origins of the industry through to modern examples such as TMZ), Petersen made her name online with her wide reaching and fascinating pieces on classic Hollywood stars such as Gloria Swanson and Barbara Stanwyck, detailing the way their careers were moulded by the studio system, how potential scandals were dealt with through careful image management, and the parallels drawn with the modern day business of making stars. These are all available to read on The Hairpin, which gives you a wonderful extension of her first book, because much to my delight, Scandals of Classic Hollywood is 100% new material!

Covering the golden age of Hollywood, from the origins of the industry and first major stars like Mary Pickford to the change in the studio system with the arrival of Method actors such as Brando & Dean, Petersen offers a comprehensive account of some of the film industry’s biggest stars as well as a few who slid into relative obscurity by comparison, such as Dorothy Dandridge. They say you should never see how the sausage is made, but Petersen shows the fascinating process of creating a star, from the spotting of potential to the perfectly groomed image and studio mandated interviews showing the enviable and not at all shocking home lives of celebrities who are just like us.

Studios fed fan magazines just enough details to keep them tantalised while making sure the gossip columnists about town only spread the stories they wanted them to. Potentially career ruining situations such as drug addiction are spun as inspiration redemption stories, adultery brushed over in favour of pushing the next hot star pairing for the studio to profit from, all while trying not to draw the ire of the Hays Code.

Just Clarke Gable & Carole Lombarde eating watermelon. No biggie. (Image from Hairpin)
Just Clarke Gable & Carole Lombarde eating watermelon. No biggie. (Image from Hairpin)

While most connoisseurs of old school Hollywood will be familiar with cases such as Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for the death of Virginia Rappe, or how MGM drugged up a young Judy Garland to keep her working, few will be as familiar with the inner workings of the system that created said stars, and the crafting that went into creating their very specific images. Indeed, it’s those images – Judy the ugly duckling with the heart of gold, the older than her years Lauren Bacall, and the ultimate exotic lothario Valentino – that made potential scandals such minefields. The act of hard partying or adultery may not be that shocking (although both were definite problems during Hays Code era), but when coupled with a star whose entire images rests on their clean-living wholesomeness, it’s harder for the fans to forgive and forget.

It’s all salacious stuff, but Petersen, ever the academic (although she did famously leave teaching to write for Buzzfeed), keeps her focus more on the system itself rather than the scandals. It’s a fascinating microcosm of society at large, one that gives us a stark glimpse into our culture’s attitudes towards men, women, people of colour, sex, marriage, and the concept of stardom at any given time. The prose, while a touch dry at moments, strikes a nice balance between casual and comprehensive. It’s more formal than her blog posts but not exhaustively so (and no capslock, fortunately). While some readers may crave a more juicy tone, there’s plenty here to keep the casual reader entertained. If you enjoy a gander at LaineyGossip or ONTD (guilty as charged) then Scandals of Classic Hollywood will provide you with enough tidbits and historical context to make you the most socially aware gossip at the party.

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