(Not So) Shockingly Bohemian

The “liberalism” of Hollywood has long been a point of discussion for cultural critics, film historians, and “conscientious objectors.” All of this has to do with the films’ depiction of violence, drug/alcohol use, religion, and, of course, sex. At the same time, the behavior of the “Hollywood elite” has also been a point of contention for outside observers. Yet as a significant audience was scandalized by offensive behavior, just as many flocked to it. In his book, Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream, Brett L. Abrams discusses how Hollywood actually marketed this scandalous sexual behavior to sell its product.

Abrams discusses three types of transgressive sexuality, adultery, cross-dressing, and homosexuality. Of course, it’s easy to see how the inclusion of the former with the latter two will be troublesome to some readers. However, Abrams is simply considering these three modes of behavior as ways in which stars and crew defied widely-accepted sexual and gender norms throughout the studio era. Abrams writes, “[…The] bohemians embodied the pleasures of the forbidden and the taboo” (4). At the same time, Abrams focuses his attention on the venues in which this transgressive behavior was often acted out: nightclubs, public Hollywood parties, private Hollywood parties, the Hollywood star’s home, and behind the scenes of Hollywood productions. Abrams contrasts coverage of these Hollywood places and events with similar accounts from locations across the country. Though these modes of transgressive behavior took place in all locations and at a variety of times, Abrams narrows his discussion of one particular mode in each location. Abrams’ book is an important contribution to the study of film history as it reveals Hollywood’s self-awareness and an eagerness on the part of many viewers and fans to participate in transgressive behavior by consuming the stories and images that Hollywood released. Abrams consults a variety of sources for his analysis of these bohemians and their behavior. He considers trade press (Photoplay, Moving Picture World), traditional print journalism, and, interestingly enough, Hollywood novels and films…that is, fictional narratives about the industry that draw from real-world parallels. One of my few concerns with Abrams’ book is his hesitation to “name names,” and by that I mean not the bohemian stars themselves but the names of the historians to which he so frequently refers, who make bold claims about the stars’ identity and sexual behavior. Far too often, I had to look back to the footnotes to see what author he was referring to. However, Abrams’ study is also important because it reveals the origins of so much of our media obsession with stars today and the value we place on sexuality. In many ways, it makes a good companion piece to Pete Wards’ Gods Behaving Badly. Read on for a further summary of the book.

Abrams’ discussion of Hollywood nightlife in the first chapter focuses on the popularity of gender-bending cross dressers, female impersonators and women in men’s clothing. Female impersonation shows were extremely popular and highly publicized until the 1940s or so. Stars from Broadway and Vaudeville made their way to Hollywood and its nightclubs. Abrams writes, “[…Female] impersonators became one of the first groups of proven performers from another entertainment field to receive contracts and star in motion pictures” (18). Stars included Karyl Norman and Julian Eltinge. The coverage of these stars and their performances, Abrams adds, “associated Hollywood nightlife with the fantasy of seeing people who defied the typical clothing style for women” (29). What is an important reminder here is just how shocking it was for women to don pants and suits. Stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Greta Garbo quite literally paved the way for more contemporary fashions. Abrams also argues that it was an influential part of lesbian subculture as well before it became mainstream (37). Abrams’ discussion of fan reaction to female impersonators also applies to women who dressed like men: “If one of their [the fans’] favorite stars was friendly with female impersonators, the reader would continue to identify with the star, thus assuming the star’s position of friend of the female impersonator” (40). One wonders how closely the decline in the popularity of female impersonation shows was linked to the arrival of World War II and the demands of “manliness” and patriotism.

In the second chapter, Abrams discusses ways in which reporters covered stars’ behavior at public Hollywood parties and movie premiers. What were they wearing? Who did they show up with? Who did the leave with? What did they say? How did they behave? Much of their behavior (that of the bohemians) was coded and the press and the studios were more than happy to revel in that coded behavior/language. Stars that form the center of this chapter include Ramon Navarro (accusations of homosexuality) and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (two of the most notorious adulterers in Hollywood history). Surprisingly, at this time, such behavior did not rob stars of very good salaries or big-budget movies (74).

Abrams’ third chapter analyzes private Hollywood parties and the (often) illicit sexual behavior that took place there. Here, he draws heavily on novels and films about Hollywood. Abrams writes, “This perception of the Hollywood private party as a highly sexual place was widely held. […] The images [of private parties] also provided audiences the excitement of vicariously witnessing other people experience wish fulfillment” (78, 79). Chief among the scandalous parties was the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle incident in which the actor was eventually acquitted of raping and murdering Virginia Rappe. Unlike Arbuckle, who never made it back, Abrams writes, “The sexual outlaws in Hollywood private parties did not start sparks that led to significant threats to either the movie industry or to the conception of Hollywood. Instead, the images promoted the Hollywood private party as an exciting place where audience members might catch glimpses of movie stars making love in their real lives” (85). Abrams continues, “[…If] he were so inclined, a man attending a Hollywood party could leave with another man’s date. He could even leave with another woman’s date” (85). Central to his discussion in this chapter are the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, and Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova.

In Chapter 4, Abrams analyzes portrayals of and features on stars’ homes, both their features and decorations and the ways in which the stars conducted themselves while at home. The stars entertained guests and lovers of the same and opposite sexes. Here, Abrams is concerned with “chic bachelorhood,” be it of the male or female variety, and “odd bedfellow digs.” The former deals with stars who live the single life, especially those who had little concern for living with the opposite sex, or anyone of any gender for that matter. The latter concerned wealthy same-sex stars who lived together because they either loved one another’s company or were physically attracted to each other. Abrams begins the chapter with an interesting discussion of the home in American popular culture and its ability to convey gender and social norms. Hollywood homes also conveyed the bohemians’ sexuality and relationship status (121). Abrams’ discussion of Alla Nazimova, Greta Garbo, Mercedes De Acosta, and Cary Grant and Randolph Scott‘s homes is especially telling. What is most interesting here, as in the subsequent chapter, are the ways in which female stars and behind-the-scenes crew (writers, directors, artists, etc.) earned and flaunted their wealth and fame in a male-dominated culture, even as they had to negotiate questions about their lifestyles that came from a distinctly male point-of-view.

In the fifth chapter, Abrams discusses life behind the scenes on Hollywood productions and the ways in which the bohemians (stars and crew alike) conducted themselves at the workplace. Much like nightclubs or Hollywood parties, the press and the studios would tout illicit behavior during production in the promotion of these films. Like homes, dressing rooms became places of refuge or location for “covert affairs.” Like other illicit relationships, a bohemian star often became “close” to their designers, stylists, set designers, and makeup artists. These latter technicians were often just as bohemian in their tastes and sexuality as their on-screen counterparts. Abrams adds, “Hollywood publicity materials depicted three main characteristics behind the scenes. It appeared as a place where stars lived luxuriously, where workers formed a family environment, and where a man and woman could find romance [not necessarily with each other, of course]” (165). Abrams discusses artists and crew like Orry Kelly and Dorothy Arzner at length.

Abrams concludes that these bohemians toyed with “crossing the boundaries of culturally acceptable gender and sexual interests and activities […and] associated the taboo and pleasure of experiencing the forbidden with specific places in Hollywood” (193). He also, like me, questions, the inclusion of adulterers in addition to homosexuals and cross-dressers in Hollywood’s promotion of bohemian behavior (193). Nevertheless, Abrams argues that these bohemians not only transgressed past sexual mores but have shaped current norms and practices today. He also briefly traces how portrayals of bohemians that once “praised” or “uplifted” their behavior dramatically shifted to show them as pitiful or deranged characters (196). More so than ever before, our current media provides “audiences with ever-increasing information about the romantic and sexual interests of celebrities and public figures” (197). Abrams does a most insightful job of showing us where it all began.

It doesn’t get more bohemian than this: