19 Wild Facts About Old Hollywood And How Messed Up It Was

Here are some amazing favorite facts about Old Hollywood. Here are some of the wild, dark, and really messed-up results.

1. Actresses were so concerned with maintaining their beauty that Joan Crawford had her back teeth removed to help accentuate her cheekbones.

This whole process was discussed in the book Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud and was ultimately illustrated in Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Feud, where Jessica Lange starred as Joan Crawford. It was also rumored that Marlene Dietrich had her top molars removed for the same reasons as Crawford.

2. Crawford also soaked her eyes in boric acid every week to make them “sparkle” on camera.

wikipedia / Public Domain / en.wikipedia.org

In her autobiography My Way of Life, she wrote about her beauty routines. Once a week, she’d steam her face, apply a mask, and soak her eyes in boric acid, casually instructing, “While the masque is working, place pads soaked in witch hazel and boric acid over your eyelids and put on your favorite music.”

It should go without saying, but please don’t do this.

3. When child actors misbehaved on set, they were occasionally sent to “the black box” where they were forced to sit on a literal block of ice as punishment.

20th Century Fox, MGM

As an adult, Shirley Temple recalled the events, saying, “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche.”

4. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, live birds were tied to Tippi Hedren and also thrown at her while filming the iconic attic scene.

Universal Pictures

Hedren was originally told that the birds would be fake, but there were mechanical issues, so real birds had to be swapped in. Upon visiting the set and seeing the filming circumstances, Cary Grant said to Hedren: “You’re the bravest woman I’ve ever seen.”

5. Gene Kelly insulted Debbie Reynolds’ dancing so much while filming Singin’ in the Rain that she once hid from everyone under a piano, crying.


Reynolds only had a few months to learn what Gene Kelly had been doing his whole life, yet he “came to rehearsals and criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement.” She also worked so hard that her feet literally started bleeding.

One day she had enough and hid under a piano on the studio lot, crying, and Fred Astaire found her. He started working with her on the dance routines: “I watched in awe as Fred worked on his routines to the point of frustration and anger. I realized that if it was hard for Fred Astaire, dancing was hard for everyone.”

6. And Audrey Hepburn felt pressured to maintain her signature “doe-eyed” look, which was achieved by painstakingly separating each eyelash with a safety pin.


In the book Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit, Hepburn’s son revealed that her makeup artist Alberto de Rossi was in charge of maintaining this look: “Alberto is really the one who created the legendary ‘Audrey Hepburn eyes,’ in a slow process of applying mascara and then separating each eyelash with a safety pin.”

7. Jackie Cooper couldn’t make himself cry while filming a particular scene in Skippy, so the director threatened to have Cooper’s dog killed if he couldn’t produce tears.

Paramount Pictures

The film’s director, Norman Taurog, was also Cooper’s uncle. Cooper wrote in his autobiography that the whole exchange was traumatizing for him: “I could visualize my dog, bloody from that one awful shot. I began sobbing so hysterically that it was almost too much for the scene. [Taurog] had to quiet me down by saying perhaps my dog had survived the shot, that if I hurried and calmed down a little and did the scene the way he wanted, we would go see if my dog was still alive.”

Cooper earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for that role in 1931. He was nine years old. To this day, he’s still the youngest Best Actor nominee in the history of the Academy Awards.

8. And Margaret O’Brien’s mother would get her to cry on command while filming the sad scenes in Meet Me in St. Louis by telling her that her rival actor on the MGM lot was a better crier than her.

Vincente Minelli (Judy Garland’s husband) wrote in his book that he got Margaret to cry by telling her that her dog died, but Margaret said that neither her mom nor Judy Garland would stand for that sort of thing.

Instead, she said: “The way they got me to cry is that June Allyson and I were in competition as the best criers on the MGM lot. So when I was having trouble crying, my mother would come over to me and say, ‘I’ll have the makeup man put the false tears down your face, but June is such a great, great actress – she always cries real tears.’ And then I started crying because I couldn’t let June win the competition.”

9. Morality clauses were added to studio contracts that made actresses get abortions and stay unmarried, in order to “prevent stars from destroying their value through scandal.”

Wikipedia / Public Domain / en.wikipedia.org, 20th Century Fox

The studio thought that having a child would ruin an actresses’ reputation: they wouldn’t be perceived as glamorous – for example, a child would “compromise Dorothy Dandridge’s image while portraying the sexy Carmen Jones” – and box office numbers would subsequently suffer.

Stars like Lana Turner, Judy Garland, and Jeanette McDonald were sent to hospitals for abortions under the guise of things like appendectomies and ear infections. It was also rumored that this morality clause prevented Jean Harlow from marrying William Powell.

10. These morality clauses also forced gay and lesbian actors into sham marriages with people of the opposite sex, in order to help hide their sexualities.

Warner Bros., Wikipedia / Creative Commons / en.wikipedia.org

This part of the clause revolved around not “forfeiting the respect of the public.” A breach of the contract meant that an actor would lose his or her salary. Even worse, being outed almost certainly marked the end of your career.

For example, according to Rock Hudson’s biography All That Heaven Allows, Confident Magazine, a tabloid paper, had planned on outing him: “Henry Wilson (Hudson’s agent) knew that there was only one way to silence all of the rumors about Hudson’s homosexuality. It was time for Rock to get married. And fast.” Hudson immediately married Phyllis Gates, but they divorced a couple of years later. Hudson’s sexuality remained a secret for the most part until the end of his life when he was diagnosed with AIDS. He died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 59.

11. In the ’20s and ’30s, movie sets actually used asbestos to give off the illusion of snow. Some actors, like Steve McQueen, got very sick later in life and believed it contributed to their deaths.

MGM, Paramount Pictures

McQueen died in 1980. He had pleural mesothelioma, cancer that’s associated with asbestos exposure. He attributed his sickness to his time on movie sets and in the military, where he was also in contact with asbestos.

12. The Conquerer was filmed extremely close to nuclear testing grounds, but the government said it would be safe to shoot there. Years later, most of the cast and crew developed some type of cancer from radiation exposure.

RKO Radio Pictures

The movie was filmed near a nuclear weapons testing site in the Utah desert, and even though the government said it would be safe, the cast and crew were still exposed to radiation. It also didn’t help that 60 tons of dirt from the location was later shipped to Hollywood for reshoots.

There were about 220 cast and crew members on location. Nearly half of them developed some type of cancer within the next two decades, and 46 died from the disease, including John Wayne: “In a group this size, you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set would hold up even in a court of law.”

—Danielle Kilburn, Facebook

13. In The Wizard of Oz, the green makeup used for Margaret Hamilton’s costume as the Wicked Witch of the West was so toxic that she was on a strict liquid diet while filming.


Jack Young, one of the movie’s makeup artists, revealed that the green paint that covered Hamilton’s body was actually toxic because it had copper in it: “Every night when I was taking off the Witch’s makeup, I would make sure that her face was thoroughly clean. Spotlessly clean. Because you don’t take chances with green.”

14. And Buddy Ebsen was the original Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, but the aluminum dust from the makeup nearly killed him, so he was replaced by Jack Haley.

Wikipedia / Fair Use / en.wikipedia.org / CBS

Ebsen, who you might recognize as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, was ultimately hospitalized and forced out of Oz‘s production. When Jack Haley replaced him, they started using a safer aluminum paste as makeup. Ebsen claimed to have breathing problems for the rest of his life because of “that damned movie.”

15. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were pitted against each other so severely that filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was unbearable for everyone involved. Davis even kicked Crawford so hard during one scene that she needed stitches.

Warner Bros. Pictures

In interviews, Davis always praised Crawford’s work ethic, but at the end of the day they just weren’t a good fit together: “As far as making the film with her, she was on time, she knew her lines, and she basically was a pro. But we’re very different kinds of women.”

16. And Joan Crawford retaliated by putting weights in her own pockets before shooting a scene where Davis had to carry the character’s body. This caused Davis to strain her back.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Years later, Davis got the last word. A reporter wanted a quote from her about Crawford’s recent death, and Davis nastily responded: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

17. Silent film star Harold Lloyd was doing a publicity shoot for Haunted Spooks when a prop bomb (which turned out to be a real bomb) went off, instantly removing his thumb and index finger.

Wikipedia / Public Domain / en.wikipedia.org / Pathé Exchange

Lloyd was posing for a shot on set, and “he remarked to the photographer that, for a fake, the bomb was producing an awful lot of smoke.” A few seconds later, the bomb actually exploded. It “blew the photographer clear across the room, injuring his assistant, and taking off the roof.” Lloyd lost two fingers on his right hand and was blinded for several months.


18. Hattie McDaniel was the first black person to be nominated for an Oscar, but in 1940 the hotel that hosted the awards had a strict “no blacks” policy. Gone with the Wind‘s producer had to call in a special favor just so McDaniel could enter the building, but they still made her sit in the back.


The 12th Academy Awards were held in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, which wasn’t officially integrated until 1959. There were two Gone with the Wind tables at the ceremony that year: one in the front for the cast, featuring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, and one in the very back for Hattie McDaniel, an escort, and her assistant. McDaniel ultimately won the Oscar that night, becoming the first black person to do so.

19. And Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were consistently forced to take “pep pills” and sleeping pills so they could work 72 hours straight and then crash for a few hours before filming more scenes.


This happened with a lot of Old Hollywood actors, but most people associate it with Judy Garland. As her star power grew, the MGM studio doctors started prescribing her pills to “control both her weight and her energy levels.”

Garland told biographer Paul Donnelly that the studio gave her and Mickey Rooney the pills “to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted, then knock us out with sleeping pills, then after four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling, but it was a way of life for us.”

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