13 Surprising Facts About Old Hollywood

Old Hollywood wasn't necessarily as glamorous as we think it was.
Old Hollywood wasn't necessarily as glamorous as we think it was. / DBenitostock/Moment/Getty Images

From Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s infamous feud to the Vatican newspaper’s investigation of Shirley Temple to the time John Barrymore’s friends allegedly smuggled his corpse out of a morgue, here are some of the most surprising, scandalous, and entertaining anecdotes from early 20th-century Hollywood, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. Asbestos was used as fake snow in films.

If you’re a movie lover, you can probably picture the scene from The Wizard of Oz where a blanket of snow falls over Dorothy lying in a poppy field. But did you know that the fake snow dumped on the actors was actually asbestos? 

The carcinogenic mineral was a common substitute for snowflakes in filmmaking until shortly after World War II. A staggering 1000 pounds of the toxic material brought the snowy landscapes of Quebec to life in 1936’s The Country Doctor. It was also used in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. 

 2. Thomas Edison spearheaded a virtual monopoly on motion pictures.

Edison's Black Maria, the world's first film production studio.
Edison's Black Maria, the world's first film production studio. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Southern California’s clement weather and wide open spaces made it an ideal location for the film industry to set up shop in the early 20th century. It was also about as far as you could get from Thomas Edison.

After building the world’s first film production studio in New Jersey in the early 1890s, Edison churned out patented inventions related to making and showing movies. Then, in 1908, he spearheaded the creation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, an East Coast association where all the major patent-holders in the film industry pooled their resources. It was essentially a monopoly, and aspiring filmmakers could hardly lift a finger without fearing a lawsuit for patent infringement.

It was harder to enforce patent laws over such a great distance, and West Coast judges were also less amenable to Edison and his cohort. Sure enough, fiilmmakers started migrating to SoCal.

 3. The Hollywood sign once said “Hollywoodland.”

In 1923, the Hollywood sign was erected on Mount Lee—but not to promote Hollywood. That year, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler had built a luxury housing development called Hollywoodland. To publicize it, he fashioned a 43-foot-tall sign that spelled out its name, illuminated with some 4000 light bulbs.

The sign had fallen into disrepair by the 1940s; the H wasn’t even upright anymore. But instead of tearing it down, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce saw an opportunity. Making a deal with the city of Los Angeles, it did away with the last four letters, patched up the Hollywood part, and gave it a new life as a welcome sign of sorts—for the city itself, and the glamorous world of entertainment it had come to represent.

4. The Thirty Mile Zone inspired TMZ’s name.

By the time the revamped Hollywood sign was getting its close up, labor unions had already popped up to protect stage workers’ rights—and in 1934, an official “studio zone” was established. If studios filmed inside that circle, it was considered a local shoot, and workers (in those days, for these purposes, mostly extras) were on their own for basics like food and transportation. If workers had to show up for a shoot outside the zone, on the other hand, the studio had to provide those things. In 1970, the circle’s radius was expanded from 6 to 30 miles, generating a new nickname: the thirty mile zone. That’s where the internet tabloid TMZ got its name.

 5. Shirley Temple sometimes wore dentures to hide missing baby teeth.

Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

As Shirley Temple gained fame for films like Baby Take a Bow and Wee Willie Winkie, some people grew skeptical that such a mature and talented child could even exist. They also found it suspicious that she was never seen on screen with missing baby teeth.

A rumor spread across Europe that Temple was actually an adult with dwarfism. For some reason, the Vatican’s newspaper saw fit to investigate the matter itself, and sent Father Silvio Massante to pay Temple a visit. After a thorough quizzing—which included going through a book of Old Master paintings, for an unknown purpose—he was satisfied that she was actually a child. As for the case of the missing baby teeth, filmmakers had filled the holes with any number of items deemed camera-ready, including temporary dentures.

 6. The black box was an awful method of disciplining child actors.

Shirley Temple also experienced a method of keeping child actors in line that would definitely be illegal today: the black box. In the early 1930s, she and a couple dozen other kids starred in Baby Burlesks, in which the child actors would parody scenes from adult movies. Temple’s roles in the film were originally played by Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Dolores del Río.

If Temple or any of the other pint-sized stars misbehaved, they’d get shut into a cramped sound box cooled by a big ice block—which also happened to be the only place to sit. As Temple later wrote in her memoir Child Star, “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche. Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble.” 

 7. Adults found strange (and borderline cruel) ways to get kid actors to cry.

The adults on film sets also adopted unconventional methods of making child actors cry in emotional scenes. For Margaret O’Brien, who played the little sister of Judy Garland’s character in Meet Me in St. Louis, competition was key. 

As O’Brien recounted in 2014, “June Allyson and I were in competition as the best criers on the MGM lot. We were called the town criers of MGM. So when I was having trouble crying, my mother came over to me and she said, ‘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.”

That motherly manipulation was positively kind compared to what Jackie Cooper endured while filming 1931’s Skippy. To elicit tears from his 8-year-old actor, director Norman Taurog told Cooper his dog would be taken to the pound, and then had someone fire a gun in the distance so Cooper would think his dog got shot. Cooper later recalled the incident in his autobiography Please Don’t Shoot My Dog: “I began sobbing, so hysterically that it was almost too much for the scene. Norman had to quiet me down by saying that 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.”

 8. Tippi Hedren had to deal with real birds while filming.

In short, things weren’t always great for kids on set. Or for adults. One example: Tippi Hedren didn’t exactly have to fake her fear during the climactic avian attack in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. They were real birds.

For five days, bird handlers literally threw ravens, doves, and pigeons right at Hedren. At one point, they even tied some to her outfit. The birds pecked at her incessantly, and the experience was so harrowing and exhausting that a doctor had to coerce Hitchcock into giving her a week off to recover. Cary Grant, who witnessed part of the shoot, told Hedren she was the bravest woman he’d ever seen. 

Hitchcock and Hedren worked together again for the 1964 thriller Marnie, and for Hedren, the shoot was even more harrowing. In her 2016 memoir, she revealed that Hitchcock had sexually assaulted her on set and threatened to ruin her career when she resisted. An ugly, but unfortunately far from isolated, moment in Hollywood history.

 9. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had a legendary feud.

Davis and Crawford in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?'
Davis and Crawford in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' / United Archives/GettyImages

If Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s top claim to fame was for acting, their second was for hating each other. Their feud was so legendary that it inspired a TV show in 2017, starring Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis.

The beef allegedly began in 1933, when the release of Davis’s movie Ex-Lady was eclipsed by the news that Crawford was divorcing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. To add insult to injury, Crawford’s next husband was actor Franchot Tone, whom Davis was in love with. More than 50 years later, Davis said, “I have never forgiven her for that, and never will.”

The two stars continued slighting each other offscreen until the early 1960s, when they finally got a chance to duke it out on the same set. Both starred in the 1962 thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

While filming a scene where Davis’s character attacks Crawford’s, Davis clocked her rival in the head with a little too much gusto. In a later scene, when Davis had to drag Crawford’s limp body around, Crawford purposely botched takes and may have even weighed her costume down to make it harder on Davis.

When Crawford died in 1977, Davis is said to have spouted this possibly apocryphal sick burn: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

 10. MGM held a contest to choose Lucille Fay LeSueur’s stage name.

Long before Joan Crawford became Joan Crawford, she was Lucille Fay LeSueur. Studios didn’t exactly downplay that they made Hollywood hopefuls adopt stage names—but in Crawford’s case, MGM literally ran a public contest promising a cash prize to whoever submitted the winning name. Joan Arden was the first choice, but as the official story goes, another actress already went by that name, and MGM settled on Joan Crawford. Though the name eventually grew on her, Crawford initially hated how much it sounded like crawfish.

Film historian Jeanine Basinger actually pointed to a different reason for MGM to avoid the name Joan Arden. Apparently, two separate people had submitted the name to the studio, meaning MGM would have been on the hook for two separate $1000 prizes. Crawford, for her part, was apparently never disabused of the potentially dishonest story behind her stage name.

 11. Lauren Bacall gave the Rat Pack its name.

Other monikers arose more organically, like “the Rat Pack.” According to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s son, Stephen, his mother coined the phrase. Bogart and friends were having an especially debauched week in Las Vegas, and Bacall said, “You look like a goddamn rat pack.”

These days, the Rat Pack generally refers to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. But Sinatra was the only member who’d been there from the beginning. At its inception, the Rat Pack comprised Sinatra, Bogart, Judy Garland, and David Niven, along with some other pals. 

 12. The Motion Picture Code self-censored Hollywood.

Bogart and Bacall starred in four movies together during the 1940s, but they never kissed onscreen for longer than a few seconds. In fact, nobody kissed on screen for longer than a few seconds during that era. From the ’30s through the mid-’60s, Hollywood followed the Motion Picture Production Code, which banned, among other things, “excessive and lustful kissing.” Though it didn’t specify a time limit, three seconds was the unofficial standard. So if you’re ever watching a Golden Age classic and wondering why the romantic leads keep pausing to walk and/or talk between kisses, that’s why. 

 13. According to legend, John Barrymore took a posthumous jaunt.

John Barrymore
John Barrymore. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

For every proven story from Tinseltown’s 20th-century heyday, there’s an abundance of legends that we’ll probably never know the truth about. One of the wildest ones involved actor John Barrymore: Supposedly, after Barrymore died in 1942, his friends stole his corpse from the morgue and brought it back to Errol Flynn’s house. 

According to Flynn’s ghostwritten memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he came home to find Barrymore propped up in Flynn’s favorite chair: “He looked puffed, white, bloodless. They hadn’t embalmed him yet. I let out a delirious scream.” Director Raoul Walsh, who was behind the prank, largely corroborated Flynn’s account in his 1974 memoir, Each Man In His Time.

John’s granddaughter Drew Barrymore even confirmed the story during an appearance on Hot Ones in 2020. But Will Fowler, the son of John Barrymore's friend and biographer Gene Fowler, always told a different story: he and his father spent the whole night with Barrymore’s corpse in the morgue, and it never left their sight.

Gregory William Mank, author of Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and the Bundy Drive Boys, thinks Flynn probably made it all up, and Walsh went along with it for fun. As Mank told Mental Floss in 2020, “Flynn worshiped Barrymore, and he created this wacky corpse-swiping saga to give his idol a resurrection of [sorts], temporary though it was.”