Headline Hollywood.

Headline Hollywood. – book review

Diane Negra

A Century of Film Scandal

Edited by Adrienne L. McLean and David A. Cook. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2001. $52.00 cloth; $22.00 paper.

As its title implies, McLean and Cook’s new collection of essays on media and scandal addresses a broad spectrum of scandals from the opening to the closing years of the twentieth century. The articles, despite their diversity, are linked by two unifying principles: first, that overt scandals often camouflage covertly scandalous social realities that cannot be directly acknowledged, and second, that the meanings of scandals are never straightforward; rather, as discursive constructions of a particular kind, they need to be subjected to rigorous analysis–as all the contributors do here, asking probing questions about how we know, what we know, and why it seems important to know it. James Lull and Stephen Hinerman’s Media Scandals: Morality and Desire in the Popular Culture Marketplace is an important precursor to this collection–nearly all of the contributors make reference to it. Yet the essays in Headline Hollywood are marked by both scholarly originality and great critical depth, treating subjects that have up till now received little academic attention or investigating familiar subjects in thought-provoking new ways.

The first three essays in the collection focus upon well-known scandals in the era of silent cinema: the Thaw-White Case of 1906, in which Harry Thaw stood trial for the death of architect Stanford White, who had allegedly raped Thaw’s wife, the chorus girl (and later Hollywood actress) Evelyn Nesbit Thaw; the Fatty Arbuckle charges in the death of starlet Virginia Rappe; and the death of film star Wallace Reid. All three essays thus focus on morality, scandalous death, and the leisure industries, raising a set of often interrelated questions regarding the way that early Hollywood sought to safeguard the image capital embodied in its workers and charting a trajectory of growing regulatory control by the industry.

Lee Grieveson’s “The Thaw-White Scandal, The Unwritten Law, and the Scandal of Cinema” notes how the shape of the scandal in the popular press resembled early film melodrama formulas in which an innocent lower-class heroine is ruined by a male villain and then redeemed by a chivalric hero. With the film production in 1907 of The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case, the news story and its cinematic underpinnings merged fully, and moreover, as Grieveson suggests, the film “became a dense transfer point” (29) between the scandal and the emergence of a moral panic about the nature and function of cinema itself. When Thaw’s attorney made the case that his client had been acting out of a condition he termed dementia Americana–a legitimate rage triggered by the desecration of a man’s home–a powerful nexus of concerns with national identity, patriarchy, class, and the public sphere emerged. Meanwhile (and most interestingly), Evelyn Nesbit Thaw became “the first person to capitalize on a scandal to become a film star” (43). Although Grieveson provides a cogent account of the scandal and its import, he gives only passing attention to the issue of Nesbit’s celebrity and the intriguing question of why/how it was positively informed by her role in the events of 1906-7.

In his essay “Fatty Arbuckle and the Black Sox,” Sam Stoloff sketches the fascinating similarities between the 1919 World Series “fix” involving the Chicago White Sox and the career-ending notoriety of the 1921 Arbuckle case. Stoloff makes productive use of Richard Hofstadter’s famous formulation of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” to show how both postwar scandals, in giving “symbolic power and focus to ongoing social and economic conflict” (53), encoded a Manichean world view that shaped them into evidence of a crisis in masculinity facilitated by “Jewish control” in the baseball and film industries and other “multiform anxieties about social decay” (61). By equating their focus on “failures” of national manhood, Stoloff shows how these scandals also crystallized concerns over labor and legitimized labor control activities disguised as necessary “housekeeping measures” through the formation of the Baseball Commissioner’s Office and the Hays Office respectively.

Mark Lynn Anderson’s “Shooting Star” provides an insightful analysis of the uses of Wallace Reid for a film industry concerned with burnishing its image in the wake of events such as the Arbuckle case and more adept at managing scandal than before. Reid’s death, most likely related to his use of heroin, was managed by Hollywood in such a way that “although images of wreckage, waste and ruined efficiency continued to dominate the media coverage of Reid’s addiction, these negative qualities of his stardom were effectively detached from the demands of industrial film production and transferred to the excesses of private life and consumption” (97).

Nancy Cook’s “The Scandal of Race” considers the case of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, star of Paramount’s The Silent Enemy (1930) a film which purported to document the lives of Ojibwa Indians in Canada. Scandal arose in regard to the star, a popular figure in New York society circles, when it was revealed that he was not, as he claimed, a chief from a branch tribe of the Blackfoot, but rather a man of mixed racial background designated “black” in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. Cook’s discussion of his fraudulent ethnic credentials raises questions about sanctioned and unsanctioned modes of passing in Hollywood and in the culture at large. It was perfectly appropriate for Long Lance to impersonate an Ojibwa in a staged documentary, yet it was highly inappropriate to have the elements of the invented biography that crafted his persona as an idealized Indian refuted–the revelation that Long Lance’s ethnicity was not static was deemed scandalous for the way it proved racial boundaries unstable.

With “Ecstasy: Female Sexual, Social, and Cinematic Scandal,” Lucy Fischer moves the volume into the classical period of Hollywood history. Her concern is with the lingering effects of Hedy Lamarr’s participation in Ecstasy, the 1933 Czechoslovakian film whose sexual frankness and attribution to Lamarr of a desiring subjectivity ran the risk of dismantling the passive glamour used in the construction of Lamarr’s star persona. Indeed, in many respects, Lamarr’s later stardom would be anchored by her beautiful but often blank face in a process that threatened to be undermined by the scandalous exposure of her body in Ecstasy. Fischer’s essay, while it sets up many insightful lines of analysis, suffers from a hasty conclusion that fails to fully revisit the issue of scandal that is its central concern.

In “As Red as a Burlesque Queen’s Garters,” Cynthia Baron observes that “scandalous behavior can simply be behavior that is open to attack by members of an opposing ideological position” (144-45). That point is amply demonstrated in her discussion of the 1948 persecution of the Hollywood theater company known as the Actors’ Lab by the California State Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities (the Tenney Committee). Baron forcefully demonstrates that the Committee was able to ascribe a scandalous status to the Actors’ Lab, deeming it a “communist front,” by mobilizing a republican national vision to discredit the participatory citizenship that structured the Lab’s activities. The success of this strategy, Baron contends, is evident in the marginalization of the Actor’s Lab in theater and film histories of anti-Communist persecution, which tend to focus on the Group Theatre and the Actors Studio in New York, while taking little note of the important events of 1948 that she details.

Adrienne McLean’s “The Cinderella Princess and the Instrument of Evil” is a measured reconsideration of the standard account that the Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman infidelity scandals of 1949-50 produced two opposite outcomes related to the contrasting star personae of Hayworth and Bergman. McLean demonstrates that it is an oversimplification to say that Hayworth’s career was energized by the scandal because she played loose women in her screen roles while Bergman was castigated because of her pre-scandal image of saintliness. Numerous factors influenced public discourse on the scandals both in the long and short term, including the willingness of spouses to grant divorces to each of the stars, debates over the moral status of Stromboli (1950), and Hayworth’s recuperation into the Cinderella role through her marriage to Prince Aly Khan.

Many of the McLean’s concerns are extended in Erik Hedling’s “European Echoes of Hollywood Scandal.” He shows that established American scandals of various kinds do not transfer their meanings wholesale and are often “recast and reframed in a different cultural context” (191). When Bergman and Rossellini arrived in Sweden in 1955 to stage a production of the oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, they presented an opportunity for the press to use Bergman as a locus for ongoing debates about the social and aesthetic status of cinema and its relationship to other “higher” art forms, as well as the status of an emigrant “native daughter” cast elsewhere as a “fallen woman.” In considering the ways that scandal can be culturally transferred and reinterpreted to serve local interests, Hedling makes a compelling case; however, in foregrounding as source material the newspapers and prominent cultural journals that largely attacked Bergman while noting only briefly the women’s weeklies that celebrated the star, he runs the risk of replicating the same marginalizing strategies he means to critique.

In “Systematizing Scandal,” Mary Desjardins turns attention to the scandal magazines of the 1950s and their strategies for systematizing the production of scandalous discourse about Hollywood film stars. Such magazines came to prominence in the 1950s in part because, as studio power waned in the wake of the Paramount Decree, they could “sustain plausible fictions about stars at a time when it was no longer clear that the official voices of Hollywood could do so” (208). They could often insulate themselves from legal action through canny use of tipsters, composite facts, and state-of-the-art surveillance methods, yet those very practices also made them an unavoidable “Other” in 1950s California, where the state itself practiced similar strategies and was eager to compensate for this through a vigorous display of concern–the prosecution of the scandal sheets–for its citizens’ privacy rights.

In a star study of Jane Fonda entitled “Barbarella Goes Radical,” Susan McLeland delineates several phases of the star’s celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s to better sketch the emergent contrasts between her early sex-kitten image that largely generated “a mutely compliant body” (233) and her later political radicalism. This shocking transformation registered as a crisis of voice (her radio broadcasts into North Vietnam gained their subversive force because they featured a Fonda who was scandalously disembodied). McLeland asserts that once her political radicalism had subsided, Fonda’s films tended to tie the intellectual or moral awakening of her characters to sexual transformation in such a way that her subversive voice was re-contained. This reintegration process would then culminate with Fonda’s reconciliation with her father and marriage to media magnate Ted Turner in the 1980s, and her re-production as a body through her workout videos.

Peter Lehman and William Luhr’s contribution, “What Business Does a Critic Have Asking if Blake Edwards Is Gay?,” expands the authors’ work on Edwards to track the implications of the director’s rumored homosexuality for a critical engagement with his films. They provide an interesting exploration of how some viewers may insulate themselves from the films’ critical exploration of gender norms by asserting that this material emanates first and foremost from a gay director, and conclude that were it to be established that Edwards is gay (though he says he is not), the critiques of white heterosexual male authority in his films would ring differently,” shift[ing] from that of a brutally honest heterosexual acknowledging failures, fears and doubts to that of a closet homosexual or bisexual hiding both within the films and his public persona the reality of his sexuality” (268).

The final essay in the collection, “Hollywood Goes to Washington,” by James Castonguay, focuses upon the 1997 film Wag the Dog and its relationship to what might be deemed the scandalous presidential “texts” of Bill Clinton. Much as Juliet Flower MacCannell has powerfully suggested that “In the articles for impeachment for Clinton, Nixon’s short-circuited impeachment was being replayed as fantasy–and as farce,” (1) Castonguay shows how the feminized masculinity embodied by Clinton motivated a sexual scandal that was in many ways geared toward the correction of a transgressive presidential masculinity and the restoration of more traditionally authoritative interests. In a discussion of the uncanny resemblances between Monicagate, the 1998 and 1999 air strikes against Iraq, Sudan, and Yugoslavia, and the film and the signifying functions its title came to perform, Castonguay argues that contemporary political and media scandals operate hypertextually. Thus Wag the Dog presented itself as a timely and trenchant critique of such developments even while it was itself implicated in the hypercommodified forms of global scandal so prevalent in postmodern media culture.

This very engaging book illuminates in a variety of ways the fact that what scandalizes in one era versus another has often to do with the ability of a scandal to pull into focus resonant and timely cultural, moral, and ideological dilemmas. Its breadth and scope make it a useful source for scholars of silent, classical, and postclassical film history.

Diane Negra is Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio, TV and Film at the University of North Texas. She is the author of Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom and co-editor of A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema (2002).


(1.) Juliet Flower MacCannell, “Politics in the Age of Sex: Clinton, Leadership, Love,” Cultural Critique 46 (Fall 2000), 251.

COPYRIGHT 2002 University of California Press

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