Historic Hollywood scandals were mired in filth, debauchery, and depravity. Some scandals are timeless: The Fatty Arbuckle trial, the Black Dahlia, and the Sharon Tate murder are still well-known decades after they occurred. Others, however, have faded into obscurity, even though the public indulged in their salaciousness during their heyday.
1. Errol Flynn and the Two Underage Girls
Errol Flynn, who played roles ranging from Robin Hood to Captain Blood and more, once found himself standing trial for statutory rape. The accusations surfaced in late 1942, when two underage girls came forward to press charges. Betty Hansen said that she was accosted at the Bel Air home of Flynn’s friend Frederick McEvoy, while Peggy Satterlee said the incident took place on Flynn’s yacht.
The case went to trial in early 1943, and after a heated trial that included Flynn’s lawyer accusing both girls of affairs with married men and other indiscretions (including an illegal abortion that Satterlee allegedly had), Flynn was acquitted. However, the widespread coverage of the trial did long term damage to his image, both on and off-screen.
2. Joan Crawford’s Appearance in a Pornographic Film
Before Joan Crawford was a big-screen superstar, she was what most girls new to Hollywood were in those days – hungry for parts. During her teenage years, she allegedly appeared in a pornographic film titled Velvet Lips. When Crawford became an MGM star, the studio supposedly sent out its notorious fixer, Eddie Mannix (who was alternatively listed as MGM general manager or comptroller over the years) to find, acquire, and destroy the negatives of Velvet Lips.
There are two versions of the story as to how Mannix managed the job. One says that he simply paid $100,000 for the negatives and destroyed them, while also tracking down and destroying all prints of the film. The second, and more enjoyable story, is that he partnered with the mob to negotiate the purchase of the negatives, who talked the holders down to $25,000 by offering them the option of simply being shot down instead.
Whichever version of the story is real, Crawford’s FBI file says that the film did exist, citing a “high police authority.” When Crawford left MGM in 1943, she wrote the studio a personal check for $50,000, an amount that many believe was a reimbursement of the studio’s expenses incurred in destroying Velvet Lips.
3. MGM Got Judy Garland Hooked on Diet Pills
Judy Garland, probably best known for her beautiful voice and her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, signed with MGM when she was just a 13-year-old starting out singing in vaudeville under her real name, Frances Gumm. She first appeared on screen in 1936’s Pigskin Parade, a musical comedy about college football coaches, and MGM execs were already chiding her about her weight. They told her she looked like a “fat little pig with pigtails” and placed her on a forced diet, something that would be commonplace for her career.
The studio restricted her calories so heavily that fell into cycles of starving and binging. In 1938, a MGM exec told her that she was so fat she looked like a monster, and when she was 18, Louis Mayer himself allowed her to consume only black coffee and chicken soup, along with 80 cigarettes and diet pills every four hours to reduce her appetite (these pills were commonplace at the time for child stars). This kept the weight off, but anytime she stopped dieting, her weight would skyrocket. Studio managers would send memos on her daily eating, including notes like “Garland gained 10 pounds. Costumes refitted,” and “Judy sneaked out between takes seven and eight this afternoon and had a malted milk.”
She never shook the addiction to pills and eating, and it affected her health the rest of her life. She died of a barbituate overdose in a London hotel room on June 22, 1969 at age 47.
4. Charlie Chaplin’s Teenage Wives
Charlie Chaplin was one of, if not the biggest star of the silent film era. His portrayal of a caricatured version of Adolf Hitler in 1940’s The Little Dictator is probably his most recognizable work, although most would also be familiar with his on-screen persona as the Little Tramp, the man with a toothbrush mustache, bowler hat, a cane, and a funny walk.
But what is lesser known about Chaplin is his attraction to younger women – much younger women. He first married in 1918, when he was 29, to 16-year-old Mildred Harris. That marriage lasted only 2 years, and four years later, he married another 16-year-old, Lita Grey. That marriage ended in 1927 thanks to a widely publicized divorce case that led to some women’s clubs managing to get Chaplain’s movies banned in some states. His third wife was 20 when they began dating in 1931, and they married in 1936, splitting in a divorce six years later. Along the way in 1941, 21-year-old aspiring actress Joan Barry filed a paternity suit in which she claimed Chaplin had fathered her daughter. Although a blood test showed that Chaplain was not the father, he lost the ensuing court case.
Chaplain is also rumored to have been one of the first to use the so-called “casting couch” audition. According to Complex article, film historian Kevin Browning claims, “Charles would only communicate with the actress he was auditioning via caption cards and mime, supposedly to test their ability to ‘perform’ in silent movies. The cards would become ever more lewd and suggestive as he got them to undress, and he would fondle their breasts in an exaggerated silent movie acting manner… eventually, he would get them to stand naked and throw custard pies at them…”
Finally, in 1943, at age 54, Chaplain married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, and their marraige lasted until his death in 1977.
5. Frank Sinatra’s Mob Ties
Old Blues Eyes is well known for his silver tongue and long-running acting gigs, but he may be the most mob-connected celebrity to ever set foot in Hollywood. His ties to the Mafia began at birth, as his uncle Bob Garavante was a part of Willie Moretti’s gang. Throughout his life, his close association with the mob would continue, from playing mob-owned clubs to a long-running friendship with West Coast boss Benny “Bugsy” Siegel.
His flirtation with the mob culminated in a trip to Havana, Cuba in February of 1947 where Sinatra was photographed leaving a plane carrying a large square case. During that trip he spent time with deported mobster Lucky Luciana, sang and entertain visting mafia members, and was amply rewarded with women and money. However, the trip was reported in American news and culminated in a 4 AM hearing with a Senate comittee in which a visibly nervous Sinatra testifying that he didn’t know what business those men were in.
His ties to the mob are so well-known that many speculate that Mario Puzo based the character of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather directly on Sinatra. While the part Sinatra got in From Here to Eternity was a big break for him (as it likely saved his career), it was more the result of him looking more Italian than his main competitor Eli Wallach, and his willingness to work for an expenses-only rate of $1,000 a week that likely secured him the work.