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THE HAPPIEST MARRIAGE IN HOLLYWOOD: The Story of William Haines and Jimmy Shields

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

In 1933, a young and successful actor lost his job in Hollywood. His name had been featured in many wildly popular hits in the 1920s, and his appeal was so great that he had been one of the lucky ones to make the transition to sound. The public loved him, and his contemporaries loved him. He was a huge moneymaker at the studio. So what could have prompted Louis B. Mayer to let him go so abruptly?

Louis B. Mayer called William Haines into his office one day in 1933, to deliver him an ultimatum. He had been seen with a man, and to quiet rumors about his sexuality, Mayer wanted Haines to enter into a “lavender marriage” that would save the studio from public scandal. If he did not, Mayer would have to let him go. Haines looked Mayer straight in the eye and stated “But I am already married.” He was referring to his relationship of 7 years with his partner, a man named Jimmy Shields.

Gay classic Hollywood is a topic that is little discussed in mainstream circles, and its neglect in general discourse has led to surprise from an unaware public when they hear of the gay community’s thriving existence in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The beautiful 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet works to ease that surprise and clarify misunderstandings, and it has become essential viewing for anyone interested in the inner workings of Hollywood. But for many, the vibrant gay community of classic Hollywood remains an enigma, and many of the stars who were part of that community have sadly disappeared into obscurity.

For William Haines, the decision to allow his career to lapse was an easy one.

Born in Staunton, VA, Haines became enamored with the movies at a young age. After winning the “New Faces of 1922” contest, he traveled to Hollywood to begin his movie career, which took off the following year with his first film Three Wise Fools at Goldwyn Pictures (a studio that would merge with Metro in 1924 to become Metro Goldwyn Mayer). The studio was impressed with him, and began building him as a star. By 1926 he was an established name, and his role in Brown of Harvard (1926) cemented his onscreen persona as a young man “too big for his britches” that ultimately comes around.

On a publicity trip to New York during the same year, Haines met Jimmy Shields for the first time. It is unclear exactly how they met, but scholars believe that Jimmy may have been down on his luck, working as a prostitute on the streets of New York. Haines picked him up, telling him that he would bring Jimmy out to Hollywood to work as an extra, and soon they fell in love and were living together as a couple.

With Joan Crawford and her husband, Al Steele.

Haines and Shields were very well-liked in Hollywood, counting Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and Gloria Swanson as close friends. They were invited to all the parties around town, treated just as any other couple would be, with no attention to their sexuality.

Haines, with his melodic and pleasing voice, made an easy transition to sound. The public still flocked to his pictures. But the country remained very religious and intolerant of “alternative lifestyles,” and Louis B. Mayer knew this. If MGM were to keep William Haines on and the public got a hold of the fact that he was in a long-term, committed relationship with a man, it could spell ruin for the studio. By this time, Haines and Shields were inseparable. They were married in everything but name, and Haines refused to give Jimmy up for the sake of his career. So he opted to be fired, and his film career was over.

This could have easily meant financial and emotional disaster for Haines and Shields. But drawing on the huge affection that their Hollywood friends felt for them, they decided to go into business together and open William Haines Designs, an interior decorating company that became very successful. They gave free decorating advice to their friends, and many became loyal clients. Joan Crawford, unhappy with the dark look of her home, hired her good friends to do a complete overhaul and transform it into a softer and more sophisticated style. Crawford was one of Haines and Shields’ oldest and dearest friends, and she called their relationship “the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”

Joan Crawford in the home designed by William Haines and Jimmy Shields.

In 1936, Haines and Shields were staying at their beach home in Manhattan when they were accosted, dragged outside and beaten by 100 members of the Ku Klux Klan, after a neighbor accused the two of propositioning her son. The accusations were wildly unfounded, and the scandal infuriated those who knew the couple well. Marion Davies, another very close friend, pleaded with her companion William Randolph Hearst to use his influence to make sure the neighbor was prosecuted and punished for what she had said about Haines and Shields. But ultimately, Haines and Shields did not press charges, and they were cleared of all wrongdoing due to lack of evidence against them.

The two continued their design business until the early 1970s. Haines’ death from lung cancer came shortly thereafter, in 1973, and after 47 years of companionship, Jimmy Shields could not go on. He slipped into Haines’ pajamas, took a bottle of pills, and wrote a note:

Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.

They are buried next to each other at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.

A true Hollywood love story.

If you haven’t seen The Celluloid Closet, I would highly recommend it. It is available on Netflix, and it is a loving and informative tribute to a part of Hollywood history that is sadly and unfairly overlooked.

See you next time!

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TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Polly of the Circus (1932)

Upon my return from Los Angeles early this morning, I was thrilled to find my Warner Archive titles waiting for me in the mail, thus allowing me to begin my new collaboration with the Warner Archive sooner than I had anticipated. I had initially projected that “Treasures From the Warner Archive” would begin in June, but I don’t see any reason for waiting any longer than necessary. So without further ado, this is the first installment in this series. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a delightful pre-Code, featuring a young Clark Gable and Marion Davies in one of her best roles–it’s a balancing act of love, passion and virtue in Polly of the Circus.

The film begins with a debate about a circus billboard in a small, conservative town as Polly (Marion Davies), the featured act in the circus, is pictured on a billboard wearing only her leotard. This offends the local townspeople and the police insist on her legs being covered, which leads to elaborate drapings over her legs on every billboard in town. Polly objects to this, and takes up her objections with the minister (Clark Gable), who ignores her and the drapings remain. At the opening night of the circus, Polly is heckled by an audience member about the billboards, which causes her to lose her focus and fall 50 feet from the trapeze.

She is gravely injured, and the minister, Mr. Hartley, takes her in to heal her. During her convalescence, Polly and Mr. Hartley fall deeply in love and eventually marry. His uncle, also a minister, objects to her marrying a circus girl, as does the church, and Mr. Hartley is stuck between the woman he loves and the ministry he has spent his whole life training for. He is left with limited options, as divorcing Polly would be a sure way to be excommunicated from the church. Polly, seeing his pain, does the only thing she thinks she can–she leaves him and rejoins the circus. Severely depressed, facing the stunt that left her injured before, she says to her friend “If I’m supposed to make it, I’ll make it.” Just then, Mr. Hartley appears below her, calling to her excitedly. He has chosen to live openly with her. She smiles broadly. “I’ll make it!” she cries, as she pulls off the stunt with perfection. She joins Mr. Hartley at the bottom of the trapeze, as the movie ends.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

I have seen a great many Marion Davies movies, and Polly of the Circus stands as one of my personal favorites. Not only is it a close examination on the timeless issue of it means to be torn between two serious life choices, but it is also a deft and clever pre-Code, with delightfully suggestive dialogue and witty double-entendres. One of my favorite lines of the movie is one in which Mr. Hartley and Polly are getting to know each other, discussing what it means for Mr. Hartley to be a minister. Polly says “Well I suppose even a minister has his moments. But of course your wife would have to sleep in the woodshed…during Lent.”

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Mr. Hartley laughs heartily at this, showing the audience that we all know exactly what she means. It is a movie that doesn’t overpower the audience, but one that leaves a rich aftertaste when the movie is finished.

Polly of the Circus is the first of two movies that Marion Davies did with Clark Gable, and this one is considered the better of the two. In 1934, Cosmopolitan Pictures (the production company with which Marion was affiliated) moved from MGM to Warner Bros., and Marion made 4 movies there before she retired in 1937. Her second-to-last film at Warner Bros. was one entitled Cain and Mabel, one for which Cosmopolitan boss William Randolph Hearst had high hopes. It was a multi-million dollar production, and again teamed Marion Davies and Clark Gable (on loan from MGM), two stars that were almost guaranteed to bring the studio a profit. However, Hearst overestimated the potential of the production, and Cain and Mabel failed to make a profit. It was a terrible blow to the studio, and its failure at the box office is tragic because, in retrospect, it is indeed a fun movie to watch. The Warner Archive has also made Cain and Mabel available on demand, and that is one that I will be reviewing in the future. Stay tuned!

But as much as I love Cain and Mabel, it is Polly of the Circus that is closer to my heart. A beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a circus is a winning combination, and the movie delivers. I am so glad that the Warner Archive has made it available, and that I could talk about it here.

If you would like to order Polly of the Circus, here is the link to its page on the Warner Archive. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment in this series, when I will talk about Barbara Stanwyck in The Woman in Red.

See you next time!

The Romantic Comedy Blogathon: EVER SINCE EVE (1937)

Ever Since Eve

For my own entry in the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Carole & Co. and myself, I have decided to focus on a lesser-known but undoubtedly very funny comedy by the name of Ever Since Eve, made at Warner Bros. in 1937. This was the second time Marion Davies and Robert Montgomery appeared onscreen together (the first was in Blondie of the Follies five years prior) and this movie also marks the final film appearance of Marion Davies.

Ever Since Eve tells the story of Marge, a young secretary who, unable to find a job due to her attractiveness, dresses down and immediately finds employment as an assistant to writer Robert Montgomery. But ultimately when he sees, quite by accident, how she really looks, he falls for her and we are treated to a joyous and clever spectacle of mistaken identities for the remainder of the movie, highlighted by Marion Davies’ comedic talent and that of the delightful Patsy Kelly, who plays her roommate.

Patsy Kelly, a veteran character actress who often played wisecracking maids or roommates, is a gem. Though she is not referenced often, her face is familiar to the vast majority of people familiar with 1930s Hollywood because of the memorable characters she creates and the boisterous energy she exudes onscreen. Kelly has a penchant for stealing the show in any movie she’s in, and this is no exception. Her smart-aleck line delivery and almost manic characters make for a winning combination, and she has some of the best moments in the movie. Ever Since Eve was her 14th movie, and she continued acting through the 1970s in movies like Merrily We Live, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, and even appeared in the classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.

Though by today’s standards the basic plot structure of Ever Since Eve, revolving around physical beauty as a factor in whether or not a woman was hired, might be considered rather misogynistic, it oddly doesn’t seem to matter in this film. The comedy is so sharp and the mistaken identities so expertly crafted that one gets the sense of a Shakespearean comedy of errors. The dialogue is witty and the ensemble work is masterful. Ever Since Eve is a great movie.

Despite a widespread publicity campaign, Ever Since Eve didn’t get the attention that Warner Bros. thought it would get upon its initial release. Combined with three prior Marion Davies movies that failed to live up to box office expectations at Warner Bros., this seemed to be the logical end of the line for Marion’s career at the studio. In addition, William Randolph Hearst, companion to Marion Davies and head of Cosmopolitan Productions at Warner Bros., was having severe financial difficulties. Marion thought, for the sake of her beloved “W.R.”, this would be a good time for her leave the movies and act as his full-time companion and caretaker. And that she did, devoting herself to taking care of Hearst, never leaving his side until the day he died. It is said that Marion Davies was one of the kindest, most generous people in all of Hollywood. And this act of sacrificing her film career to take care of her companion confirms it.

Marion and Hearst were together for 32 years, until his death in 1951.

Ever Since Eve is a true delight. I leave you with a fun scene.

This has been an entry in the Romantic Comedy Blogathon. See you next time!

 

Romantic Comedy Blogathon Starts Tomorrow!

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May is upon us, readers, and you know what that means–it’s time for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon! Co-hosted by Backlots and Vince over at Carole & Co., the Romantic Comedy Blogathon runs from May 1-May 6 and is an opportunity for bloggers to swoon over their favorite romantic comedies and give us all a taste of that romance that classic Hollywood did so well.

We have a huge list of participants this year and we’re still accepting requests, so if you have something you would like to submit, let us know! This is shaping up to be a monumental blogathon, and I’m so excited to read all the entries.

For participants, there are two ways you may submit your post:

  • When your post is finished, link to this post. We will then post your link live on Backlots and Carole & Co. so all of our readers can go to your blog and read the entry.
  • Leave your link as a comment on this post.

In past blogathons I have accepted email submissions, but I find that sometimes emails get lost, so to keep all the submissions in one place I would like to have the entries linked or left as comments. My sanity thanks you!

Marion Davies in THE PATSY sums up how many entries we’re expecting.

If you have any further questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or email me or Vince, but if not…see you tomorrow for the Romantic Comedy Blogathon!

The Work of Ruth Harriet Louise: Breaking Ground for Women in Photography

Ruth Harriet Louise, self portrait.

When one thinks of classic Hollywood glamour photography, there are a select few names that come to mind immediately. George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull are two of the most recognizable photographers of the era, and their work stands out as an exquisite capturing of what classic Hollywood means. But there is a name that is often egregiously overlooked, one that deserves to stand on equal footing with the immortal Hurrell and Bull–and that is Ruth Harriet Louise, MGM studio photographer from 1925-1930 and the first major female photographer in Hollywood.

Though her Hollywood career lasted only 5 years, Louise’s photographic technique set the stage for what Hurrell would make famous–and indeed, many of her photographs have the angelic, ethereal quality that is the hallmark of Hurrell. Others, however, are sweetly playful, capturing the essence of her subjects in diverse and versatile ways.

Greta Garbo, by Ruth Harriet Louise.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Born Ruth Goldstein, a rabbi’s daughter, in 1903, she began taking photographs as a child and was soon spotted by New York photographer Nickolas Muray for whom she began an apprenticeship. At age 22, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her brother (Mark Sandrich, future director of several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies) and opened up a portrait studio of her own near Hollywood and Vine. But shortly thereafter, her work was spotted by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios in Culver City, who asked her to come work as a professional portrait photographer at MGM, where she became an integral part of the photography department and one of the most sought-after photographers on the lot.

Marion Davies, 1927.

In  an era when bonds between a star and a photographer were cherished, Louise thrived as the favored photographer of many of the MGM stars. She got a great deal of work from stars who specifically requested her–stars like Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Greta Garbo–and her own star in the photographic world shone brightly for the 5 years she was on the MGM lot.

Hollywood at this time was very much controlled by male talent behind the scenes. Excepting a handful of extremely talented women–such as Louise and directors Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber–Hollywood history in the 1920s was dominated by men. In an industry that valued women primarily as objects, working in what was considered a “man’s role” was fickle. It was in this vein that in 1930, when Ruth Harriet Louise’s contract at MGM expired, it was not renewed. Louis B. Mayer cited the fact that Norma Shearer, the top star at the time, preferred the work of George Hurrell, who had also been hired at MGM and subsequently became the head of the department.

Retirement was, however, already on the horizon for Louise. She married director Leigh Jason shortly thereafter, and the couple had two children. When they tried for a third in 1940, it was disastrous–the labor came too fast and too soon, and the hospital was helpless. The baby died…and Louise died of complications. A sad and sudden end to a remarkable short life.

Ruth Harriet Louise’s photographic legacy lives on in her magnificent portraits of some of the most iconic early MGM stars. Here are a few of my favorite portraits of hers.

See you next time!

Buster Keaton, 1929.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Greta Garbo, 1929.

SHOW PEOPLE (1928) and the Rise of Self-Reflection in Hollywood

Marion Davies and real-life director King Vidor in a scene from “Show People.”

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

For many decades, Hollywood has been fascinated with movies about movies. Ranging from the highest celebrations of Hollywood stardom (Singin’ In the Rain) to analyses of the most terrible tragedies of the industry (A Star is Born), the films that come out of this penchant for self-examination consistently do extremely well at the box office to this day, often winning major industry awards and proving that audiences and critics alike share this passion for “Hollywood on Hollywood.”

Singin’ In the Rain (1952), about the coming of sound to Hollywood, has earned a place as the only musical in the top 10 of “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies” list.

Argo (2012), about a plot to rescue Iranian hostages by creating a blockbuster Hollywood movie, won the Oscar for Best Picture last year.

Self-awareness in movies dates back to the earliest days of cinema.  Mack Sennett often appeared as himself in the Keystone Kops movies, acknowledging the disconnect between reality and the movies and making an attempt to sew them together to create a fluid illusion for the audience member. In “The Playhouse” (1921), Buster Keaton attends a show in which he plays all the parts. He (as his character) quips “This Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show!” This was a nudge to the audience, a peek over the 4th wall to let the audience know that Keaton is aware of himself as an actor.

Building on these early indications of self-awareness, the first full-scale “Hollywood on Hollywood” movie appeared in 1928 with the King Vidor comedy Show People, about the transformation of a young country girl  into a major movie star. Starring Marion Davies and based on the early career of Gloria Swanson, Show People is a thorough and intelligent look at the complexities of stardom, and its quality rivals that of the later movies who drew from its precedent. It is truly a movie that, despite the passage of 85 years, solidly stands the test of time.

Peggy Pepper is the young Georgia girl who wants to be in movies, so her father drives her out to Hollywood where she lands a contract as a comedic bit player, often getting squirts in the face with seltzer water. She befriends a fellow comedic actor named Billy Boone, and they act together in low-budget films while remaining best of friends offscreen. At the screening of her first movie, Peggy gets an autograph request from none other than Charlie Chaplin (playing himself in a cameo) and promptly faints. Several other stars make cameos in the film, including Marion Davies herself. When Peggy sees Marion Davies, she reacts with disdain, an extremely clever demonstration of the film’s self-awareness.

Marion Davies as “Marion Davies.”

Soon, Peggy is signed to “High Art Studios,” where she becomes a big star and slowly loses touch with society as her ego grows. She shuns Billy Boone as a lower-class actor, even though he tries desperately to maintain their friendship and bring her back to reality. She runs into him on a film set and reacts coldly to him, until he squirts her with seltzer water like he used to in their low-budget films together. She becomes enraged and storms off.

Shortly thereafter, she is informed by her studio head that theaters around the country are pulling her movies because her image is becoming too snooty. She is about to get married to a fake count Andre Telefair, when Billy bursts in and squirts her in the face with seltzer water, then throws a pie in the face of the fake count. This brings Peggy to her senses, and she and Billy make up. Peggy’s next movie is set in a World War I village, and she convinces director King Vidor (the real life director of Show People), to hire Billy as her new leading man, as a surprise. Billy is thrilled to see that Peggy is his leading lady, and the film ends as Peggy and Billy kiss on the set of their new movie together.

Show People is one of the finest silent movies to come out of the 1920s. It is strikingly modern, and could easily have been made today, needing very few changes. Though it is a comedy, one can see the influence it had on such later Hollywood on Hollywood movies such as A Star is Born, chronicling a male actor’s assistance to an actress, and that star witnessing her rise over his. It is said that this movie is loosely based on the career of Gloria Swanson, who later starred in her own Academy Award-winning film about Hollywood–the incomparable Sunset Boulevard.

See you next time!