When most of us think about silent-era Hollywood, we imagine actors and actresses acting respectably, unlike like the tabloid fodder that exists today. However, if the history of Hollywood is truthfully examined, we find that many of the stereotypes we have in our minds are just that—stereotypes. This list attempts to dispel any misconceptions about the silent era that you may have.
10 Drug Use And Drug Deaths Were Surprisingly CommonCocaine
While many of us think that silent Hollywood was drug-free because of antiquated ideas about drug use, drugs were actually frequently used. Wallace Reid was one of the biggest romantic stars of the silent era. He was known as “the screen’s most perfect lover” and starred in over 200 films before his death.
9 Adultery, Divorce, And Sensational ‘Headline’ Relationships Were Common1920s Scandal
While divorce for most couples during the early 20th century was unthinkable, it was actually quite frequent for many of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and just like today, fan magazines were there to cover every last detail. One of the most prominent celebrity marriages from the silent era was that of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, both the biggest stars of their time. Pickford met Fairbanks in 1915, and they soon struck up a friendship.
8 Morality Clauses Ruled Stars’ LivesContract
As mentioned previously, stars indulged in affairs frequently, but according to their contracts, doing so could kill their careers. Many contracts had what was known as a “morality clause.” The clause stated that a star could be released from their contracts if they were to engage in “adulterous conduct or immoral relations.” Often, the studio bosses didn’t care what the stars did as long as their affairs didn’t become public.
7 Homosexuality Was More Or Less NormalHomosexuality
We all know that homosexuals have had a hard time for most of the previous century. Nevertheless, many of silent Hollywood’s biggest stars were homosexual, and most of their adoring fans were none the wiser. Ramon Novarro, the star of the 1925 epic Ben-Hur, was every girl’s dream. He was handsome, talented, and a bachelor, but he harbored a secret which he would take to the grave: He was homosexual. It was common knowledge in the Hollywood celebrity community, but none of his fans knew.
6 Silent Hollywood And The Government Were Very Intertwined
While many actors and actresses today often serve as activists and advocates or even hold offices in government, Hollywood was never so entwined with the workings of the government as it was during the silent era. For the later half of the 1910s, America was sucked into World War I. Before the US entered the war in 1917, many of Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers were vocal pacifists.
5 Fan Magazines Were Just As Important As They Are TodayPhotoplay
Fan magazines have been around since almost the birth of cinema. The first fan magazine was Photoplay, which began operating in 1911. It was an immediate success. Other publishers followed suit, forming other fan magazines like Motion Picture Magazine the same year and Picture Play in 1915. In the days before the Internet, fan magazines were often the only access that readers had to the private lives of their favorite celebrities.
4 Silent Films Were Criticized More Than Most Movies TodayCritic
Today, many film historians and critics consider silent films to be some of the most beautiful artistic expressions of the past century. The pantomime and cinema itself is now seen as its own distinct art form. However, while most serious film fans today call recent films classless and unoriginal, critics of the past derided silent films as even more crass.
3 The Studio System Was Started By Independent FilmmakersHollywood
Today, when we think of mainstream Hollywood, we think of big companies making big films for big profits and nothing more. It may come as a surprise to many that the entire reason that films are made in Hollywood comes from a few independent filmmakers who were brave enough to go against the then-established industry. In the early days of silent films, Thomas Edison’s film company, along with the other biggest companies, formed the Motion Picture Patent Company, or “the Trust,” in 1908.
2 Early Silent Films Had Some Heavy Subject MatterShocked 1920s Moviegoer
While many of us have seen a Hollywood film that deals with intense subjects, many of us have not watched a silent film dealing with subjects that are still quite taboo today. Such films have, in fact, existed since the very early days of silent Hollywood.
1 The Studio Heads Controlled EverythingIrving Thalberg
Today, most stars do whatever they please and have total control over their careers, but the studio heads of the silent era had an almost comical level of control over their stars. They could destroy a film star’s career on a whim, as was the case with romantic actor John Gilbert. Gilbert was one of the highest-grossing stars of the silent era, but he’d earned the dislike of MGM head Louis B. Mayer. Mayer insulted Gilbert, causing him to attack, a move which would cost his career.