Laughing at limitations: those who pushed boundaries in Old Hollywood

There have been limitations in Hollywood since it’s earliest days – limitations on women, people of colour, LGBT persons, not to mention limitations on how a cinematic performance may be achieved. Though even in the 21st century there is still some way to go, boundaries in Hollywood were being tested as early as the days of the silent film, and the men and women who pushed these expectations deserve to be celebrated.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford - c. 1920 - Ziegfeld Follies Girl - Photo by Alfred Cheney Johnston

Mary Pickford – “the girl with the curls” – photographed in 1920

One of the earliest Hollywood stars, Mary Pickford changed the way film actors were treated forever. Though famed for her image as a ‘sweetheart’ and fragile beauty, Mary proved to be a strong headed businesswoman in the early days of Hollywood and paved the way for stars having a say in their own work. Before Mary, stars weren’t even given billing on the posters for their own films, instead remaining nameless faces for the studios to use for their own profit. Mary changed this, having gained notoriety for her trademark golden curls, and in 1916, having already established herself as a leading actress in early Hollywood cinema, Mary began demanding control over the entirety of her productions, from shooting dates to the script. Her founding of the production company United Artists in 1919 gave actors even more freedom, a revolutionary move in a pre-Studio System world, and one that prompted head of Metro Pictures Richard A. Rowland to observe “The inmates are taking over the asylum”. Though not alone in this endeavor – she was joined by fellow silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks – Pickford’s defiance to be controlled by the studios was revolutionary, especially when you consider the fact that at the time women were get to get the vote.

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino was the definition of SSS (Silent Screen Swagger)

The term ‘sex symbol’ is common throughout Hollywood history and is still used frequently today for stars of both past and present, but the star who began this fixation on the ‘heartthrob’ was Rudolph Valentino. Valentino’s Italian origins gave him a mysterious charm that captivated audiences of early Hollywood cinema, and this obsession with the original Latin Lover provoked an outpouring of passion amongst cinema-goers, unlike anything else the world had ever seen. Before the Roaring Twenties, the 20th Century was a notably conservative time, therefore the open desire expressed by female (and sometimes male) audience members was noted as considerably racy by the press, especially in  pre-Hays Code era. Valentino’s unwillingness to concede to the ‘All-American male’ image opened the discussion of what may be considered masculine or attractive; audiences and studios alike remained loyal to Valentino despite his ‘effeminate’ traits, and his status as the first sex symbol was cemented in the outpouring of grief following his untimely death in 1926 at the age of 31.

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich photographed on the set of Morocco, 1930

Marelene Dietrich was all about duality; she was German but held American citizenship, she openly had romantic relationships with both men and women and she dressed in traditionally masculine clothing while maintaining her feminine beauty. Dietrich’s own admission that she did not dress in male clothing in order to create scandal and therefore fame – “I am sincere in my preference for my men’s clothes – I do not wear them to be sensational…I think I am much more alluring in these clothes” – sparked an openness on the subject of androgyny. Dietrich was arguably the first major celebrity to question hetronormative gender signifiers. Her frequent pairing of a three-piece suit with carefully coiffed hair and porcelain make up was equal parts glamour and power, and did not reject feminine ideals, but rather kept elements she personally preferred and discarded the rest. Her fashion choices were not to make a great statement, but were rather an expression of how she felt most comfortable, which was still as a female; her distaste for overtly feminine clothing came not from a hatred of her own gender, but rather from the fashion itself. Dietrich’s disregard of gender norms was revolutionary in testing what was ‘okay’ in early Hollywood, and – to an extent – the Western world.

James Stewart


James Stewart on the set of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, 1939

James Stewart (please please don’t call him Jimmy, he hated that name) had a career spanning over six decades, only taking a break from acting to fight as a Brigadier General during the Second World War, so it’s no wonder why he is heralded as one of the greatest actors of all time. The brilliance of James Stewart’s acting style is that he – in a sense – created his own style in order to suit him. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, acting could typically be sorted in to one of two categories; Classical acting and Method acting – essentially either externalized expression or internalized expression. James Stewart did neither of these, rather he combined them both to create a wholly realistic expression of emotion. Before Stewart, it was common in Hollywood for actors, still used to the exaggerated acting required by silent cinema, to simply speak their lines and then await their turn to say their next line. James Stewart changed this by reacting, speaking his lines but then continuing between, all the while focusing on the emotion required for the scene in both an internal and external sense. His active army service during World War Two visibly changed his performances. His first film after the Second World War, It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), shows a broken man. The character of George Bailey is a man on the edge of suicide, and Stewart’s performance as George is simply a masterpiece. Just one viewing of the scene in which George prays to God in Martini’s Bar shows how the war has visibly changed Stewart’s performance; he is still the everyman that America fell in love with in Mr Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), but now he has an edge given to him by his reality, and Stewart’s acting style paved the way for a new method of performance in Hollywood.

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel (June 10,1895- October 26, 1952) was an American actress. She was the first African American to win an Academy Award. She won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

Hattie McDaniel photographed in 1940

Though often accused of being an Uncle Tom throughout her career, there is no denying that Hattie McDaniel broke boundaries for African Americans in Hollywood. In 1939, she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), the first African American actor to ever win an Academy Award in any category; a landmark event that confirmed that African American actors were just as worthy of accolades as their Caucasian counterparts. The role of Mammy isn’t even given a proper name, only being referred to as what she is, a ‘mammy’ figure that perpetuated one of many stereotypes that plagued African Americans in the first half of the 20th Century. While there is no denying that McDaniel’s high-profile performance of Mammy conformed to a number of negative stereotypes, the fact remains that it was still a high-profile performance, and one that allowed McDaniel to live a life she could only dream of had she continued to be a maid rather than play one onscreen. It can be viewed that McDaniel’s Oscar win was a bittersweet victory, because although she had shown that people of colour could also be worthy of such an esteemed award, it seemed that this was merely a reward for not openly protesting Hollywood’s racial stereotypes. Nevertheless, Hattie McDaniel accepted her Academy Award at an event to which she was not invited; in a segregated America, McDaniel did not initially recieve an invitation to the ceremony, but the Academy eventually let her in ‘as a favour’, though she still had to sit on a separate table at the room’s edge. To then accept an award in such a hostile environment was somewhat heroic, and a marker for the (still disappointingly low) number of African American Oscar winners that were to come.

Buster Keaton

Never be afraid to look at the world through a different lens.  Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton photographed in The Electric House, 1922

No modern day blockbuster would be complete without some form of stunt, whether it’s an epic car chase or a heroic leap from a tall building. Many actors now rely on stuntmen and women to undertake these dangerous acts for them, with an actor who does their own stunts being a rarity, but this was not always so. Buster Keaton’s early career in Vaudeville allowed him to learn that he could fall and be thrown often with minimal injury, and it was this knowledge combined with his trademark deadpan face that allowed Keaton to become a star of the silent era. Throughout his films, Keaton pushed his stunts to absurdity, often putting himself in situations that may have been fatal to any other performer. He rode the roof of a runaway train in The General (1927), had a 2-tonne house facade fall on him in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and fell from a misjudged leap in Three Ages (1923), all while maintaining the famous Face Of Stone. This combination of such ludicrous physicality with a deadpan face allowed Keaton to display his talent for stunts in an absurdist and self-deprecating manner, a method that has influenced the careers of Jackie Chan and Richard Lewis. Buster Keaton pushed the physical boundaries of Hollywood,  exhibiting what the human body is capable of in the name of entertainment.


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