During Hollywood’s golden age, movie studios wielded so much power, influence and control over its contacted actors that rarely a scandal ever went public.
Of course, they weren’t just stars—they were assets. And to protect their golden eggs, old Hollywood’s execs used “fixers” to circumvent the airing of dirty laundry.
Fixers were charged with making sure affairs, homosexuality, knocked-up ingénues, bad behavior, arrests and other skeletons remained in the closet. To keep cursory parties in line—that being witnesses, extortionists, jilted lovers, opportunists, gossip reporters and anyone else who might blab—they would use money or muscle to gain cooperation.
These thugs in suits and the talent they protected are the inspiration behind the Coen Brothers’ new film “Hail, Caesar!”—a comedy that follows 1950s Capital Pictures executive and studio fixer Eddie Mannix, who must resolve a whopper of a problem, and then some, without courting controversy.
In the trailer released early in October ahead of its release next year, the fictional Capital studio’s big star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, has gone missing and it’s assumed that the boozy actor is in a drunken stupor until a ransom note arrives from a group of communists claiming to have kidnapped him. “Hail, Caesar!” — a movie within a movie — is “a prestige picture with one of the biggest stars in the world,” a character in the trailer says. Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is the star of the sand-and-sword epic and appears to be channeling old-timey “prestige picture” sensations Tony Curtis of “Spartacus” or Richard Burton of “Cleopatra” — both acclaimed actors were notorious alcoholics.
The Infamous Eddie Mannix
As in many Coen films, there’s no shortage of obtuse players adding to the mayhem — and some of those characters are inspired by real-life actors and Tinseltown insiders of Hollywood’s heyday. None are more so obvious than “Hail, Caesar!” fixer Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, who shares the same name of one of MGM’s most infamous fixers. The former bouncer-turned-vice-president reigned over the lives of movie stars during MGM’s storied years, a position he held from 1924-1948, as the studio churned out hits with stars like Clark Gable and Judy Garland.
Under MGM cofounder Louis B. Mayer, Mannix and other fixers maintained the reputations of the studio and its stable of contracted stars.
When MGM producer Paul Bern was found shot dead in 1932 — believed to be murdered by his ex-common law wife Dorothy Millette (who later plunged to her death off a ferry) — it was speculated the studio staged Bern’s death scene to look like a suicide. A crime of passion would have engulfed MGM in a firestorm of unfavorable publicity because Bern was married to its biggest star at the time, Jean Harlow. She starred in six films opposite Clark Gable.
Speaking of Gable, he had a child out of wedlock in 1935 with Loretta Young, his costar in “The Call of the Wild.” It was their first film together and a snowstorm that halted production gave them plenty of time to get to know each other better. Gable was married at the time of the affair and the subsequent lovechild he had with Young, so the studio arranged an elaborate cover-up that was kept secret for more than 65 years.
Young, an Oscar winner, went into hiding in Europe during her pregnancy, only to re-emerge 19 months later with a daughter whom she claimed to have adopted. It wasn’t until she was age 23 that Young told her daughter Judy Lewis the truth — that she was her own biological child and Gable was her father. Young publicly acknowledged it in an authorized biography that she arranged to have published after her death in 2000.
More truths about the studio’s fix-its have come out of the closet after its stars have kicked the bucket.
Cheery actor Van Johnson’s ex-wife revealed upon his death in 2008 that he was gay and their marriage was a sham set up by MGM. “They needed their ‘big star’ to be married to quell rumors about his sexual preferences and unfortunately,” she said in a statement, “I was ‘It’—the only woman he would marry.” Johnson was friends with Lucille Ball, who helped the once-struggling actor by introducing him to MGM casting director Billy Grady. He was also a friend of Judy Garland, his costar in “In the Good Old Summertime.”
Garland, who scored an MGM contract aged 13, was said to have been plied with amphetamines to stay awake and barbiturates to sleep at night to maintain her busy schedule as one of the studio’s most prized young stars. She never shook the habit.
As Garland’s drug dependence got worse, Mannix allegedly attempted to intervene when he spotted one of her drug dealers on an MGM lot. According to E.J. Fleming’s “The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Srickling and the MGM Publicity Machine,” he threated to drop the dope peddler off the top of a ferris wheel stationed at the studio. The dealer bolted and never returned, but Garland was plagued by addiction and died aged 47 of barbiturates overdose.
Mannix also came to the rescue for Garland’s onscreen partner of 10 MGM films, Mickey Rooney. Though he maintained a public “boy next door persona” with his gnomish looks, red hair and diminutive 5ft 2in frame, behind closed doors he was a tramp. “He went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge,” his first wife–the stunning Ava Gardner revealed in a series of recorded interviews in “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.”
Not yet a full-fledged star, Gardner was a contracted MGM actress with bit parts who married the studio’s hitmaker Rooney in 1942–only to divorce one year later after discovering he was a serial cheater.
On the same night she kicked him out of their home, Mannix came knocking on her door with some advice, delivered in an intimidating manner, of course, that if she cited adultery in divorce papers, her Hollywood dreams would be over.
“Everybody was scared of Mannix,” Gardner explained in the interview. She told him that she would claim “incompatibility” instead. “I think you should,” Mannix responded.
Still, as a fixer, scandal couldn’t escape Mannix’s personal life.
When “Adventures of Superman” star George Reeves was found dead at 45 from a shotgun blast to his head, it was whispered that Mannix — who was rumored to have mafia connections — had the actor rubbed out in 1959 after an eight-year love affair gone wrong between Superman Reeves and Mannix’s wife Toni. Fingerprints were never found on the weapon. Police ruled the death a suicide. The same year of Reeves’ death, Mannix, 68, had survived multiple heart attacks and became bound to a wheelchair. Another heart attack ended his life on Aug. 30, 1963. He was aged 72. MGM actresses Loretta Young and Rosalind Russell are his companions at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Even though the drama surrounding the circumstances of his own infamy is enough to play out in a long feature form — and it did in 2006’s “Hollywoodland” with Bob Haskins as Mannix — “Hail, Caesar!” examines the more colorful calamities surrounding what a fixer does as the movie studio’s public relations savior.
In the upcoming comedy, Tilda Swinton takes on another character whose identity remains unchanged. The Oscar winner stars as Hedda Hopper, a former actress turned gossip reporter whose syndicated column reached nearly 35 million readers. Hopper’s significance in Hollywood—spilling the dirt on the industry from 1940 until her death in 1966—was wide reaching and often incurred the wrath of the names she put in ink. Actress Joan Bennett sent Hopper a skunk and “Citizen Kane” actor Joseph Cotten literally kicked her in the rear. That she was such an influential figure at the time, she appears in another film about Hollywood’s golden era—played by Helen Mirren in “Trumbo,” released in October.
Of course, a gaffe can be just as damning as any gossip column. MGM’s Esther Williams inadvertently broadcast news of an unexpected pregnancy to the entire West Coast over a ham radio while informing the studio that she had a bun in the oven. The “Million Dollar Mermaid” actress appears to be the inspiration for the character DeeAnna Moran, played by Scarlett Johansson, as Capital’s big aqua-musicals starlet (films featuring synchronized swimming routines) who is knocked-up and unmarried.
Scandal Meets McCarthyism
With “Hail, Caesar!” taking place during the height of McCarthyism, it parallels the charges of un-Americanism that rocked Hollywood stars during the period. Channing Tatum plays a sailor uniform-loving singer-dancer-actor a la Gene Kelly who defects to the Soviet Union. “He loves communism because they (have) great uniforms,” Dolph Lundgren, who stars opposite Tatum as a submarine commander, revealed to Creativescreenwriting.com. In reality, Kelly—who famously donned a sailor suit in “Anchors Aweigh”—experienced a close call with the fearsome McCarthy Blacklist when his wife Betsy Blair, also an actor, was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer in 1955. She was almost pulled from a part in “Marty” until Kelly, a moneymaker for MGM, used his influence by threatening to drop out of “It’s Always Fair Weather.”
“Hail, Caesar!” features a star-studded cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand, opening Feb. 5, 2016. Watch the trailer below.