Karina Longworth has long ridden the swells of writing about Hollywood, whether as an early movie blogger at Cinematical and Spout, long-form reviewer at LA Weekly, author (Phaidon books on Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and George Lucas), or podcaster at the Panoply network and now Slate. And in her latest book, “Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood,” she looks back at how women rose to power in a time when the only hope was to please the men who got there first.
“Seduction” fashions a revisionist feminist Hollywood narrative by using notorious womanizer and RKO mogul producer Hughes as a way to examine 10 actresses caught in his maw from the 1920s through the 1950s. These include Katharine Hepburn and Jane Russell (for whom Hughes famously fashioned an aeronautic brassiere), and Ida Lupino, who turned herself from a teen blond bombshell into a top actress, writer and director. All found success by doing something women have done since the dawn of Hollywood: deferring to men. “It’s a portrait of what Hollywood was like for women in the classical era,” Longworth said.
The book is a compelling read, and is a kind of offshoot from her popular weekly podcast “You Must Remember This,” in which she takes deep dives into “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” Series range from Hollywood’s dead blondes, the fates of horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and insightful looks at stars like Lena Horne and Ava Gardner, or Hollywood couples like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra.
In addition to bringing listeners fresh details on Hollywood lore, Longworth’s podcast communicates a warmth and immediacy to history that’s up to a century old. When recounting the untimely death of Lombard in an airplane crash, Longworth choked up as she was recording. She left it in, she told me in a phone interview: “I wasn’t expecting it. I knew I found that story personally very moving, more emotional than any Clark Gable film I’ve ever seen has made me feel — the idea of him waiting in a hotel room, drinking, knowing his wife is dead, waiting for the confirmation.”
All those hours delving into Hollywood archives, the Academy Library, and history books (one favorite is Otto Friedrich’s “City of Nets”) also taught Longworth to regard every source with healthy skepticism. (Here’s a list of film books she has used as a resource.)
“I got to the point as I was researching my book that I feel that I have to question everything,” she said. “But the whole point of the podcast has always been reading every source I can find about something and presenting the conflicting stories, to use my knowledge of the period and common sense to figure out the most likely true thing, understanding that in most cases the people are not available to speak to. So what you have to do is take the facts that are available and use your imagination a little bit.”
Longworth sees herself as a contemporary woman “looking back at the past to figure out what the female point of view of these events might have been,” she said. When doing the series on Charles Manson, Longworth couldn’t avoid the pattern of misogyny in the whole climate around the murders. “I would have felt empathetic toward Sharon Tate even if she hadn’t been murdered,” she said. “She was not in a great situation, considering her husband’s attitude toward their marriage. Of course the murders were gruesome and horrific; I felt sick to my stomach writing about her and Polanski.” Did Quentin Tarantino take advantage of her research for his new movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?” “I haven’t heard anything from him,” she said.
Thus, it’s no surprise that Longworth would emerge with a strong take on how the Hollywood studio machine manipulated and often destroyed many women as they sought stardom. That disturbing pattern emerged as she recounted countless stories of starlets moving west who were badly used by the men in power, whether partners, executives or producers.
Check out the excerpt below from “Seduction” on actress-director Ida Lupino.
From SEDUCTION by Karina Longworth, published by Custom House. Copyright © 2018 by Karina Longworth. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
BY T H E S P R I N G O F 1950, Ida Lupino was widely championed as Hollywood’s first actress turned director of the sound era. That March, she was invited to present the Best Director prize at the Academy Awards. Winner Joseph Mankiewicz, in his speech, affectionately referred to the presenter as “the only woman in the Directors Guild, and the prettiest.”
That fall, Ida’s finest work as a director would hit movie theaters. Outrage starred Mala Powers, a raven-haired nineteen-year-old whose casting Hughes had personally approved, as Ann, a bookkeeper at a lumber yard who is raped after hours by the guy she buys coffee from every morning. Not Wanted’s credits had played over a flash-forward to the film’s heroine at her most desperate and broken, and here, again, Lupino began the film by showing Powers at her most vulnerable, limp- ing through the streets, totally alone. The director then flashes back to show Ann two days earlier, happy and vibrant, buying two slices of chocolate cake from a coffee counter vendor. The vendor makes an aggressive pass at her, and, like a girl who hears such things every day, she rolls her eyes and goes on with her life. That life includes a boy- friend, Jim, who tells her while they eat the cake that he’s been given a raise, and they can finally get married.
Ann’s American-girl dream is crushed the next evening. She gets off work late and begins to walk home alone. The coffee counter guy lies in wait for her. She walks alone through the darkened mill where she works, whistling. The coffee guy calls out to her, “Hey, beautiful!” She doesn’t stop. He follows her. She starts to become aware that some- thing doesn’t feel right. The camera, facing Powers, dollies back as she quickens her pace. The coffee guy rounds a corner and becomes visible behind her, in the middle of the frame. He whistles, and she freezes, as does the camera. She turns around, looks at him, looks around, and then starts to run. He follows her. She looks for somewhere to hide, banging on the windows of an abandoned building. In her nervous- ness, she knocks over a metal trash can, which gives him a clue as to where to find her. Lupino switches to an overhead camera to track Ann as she runs through a maze of empty, industrial streets. A taxi speeds around a corner and she frantically tries to hail it, to no avail. Outside a trucking company, she’s able to rig a truck horn to blare. This gets the attention of a man in the upper window of the business, who looks out to see what’s going on. What he can’t see from his vantage point is what we’ve already seen: she has tripped and fallen, and her stalker has caught up with her.
In the aftermath of the attack, Ann becomes hysterical. She can’t stop defending herself, as though it were her fault. “I couldn’t get away!” she cries. “I couldn’t move!” The next day, she decides to pre- tend like everything is normal and fine. But on her walk to work it feels like everyone is staring at her, that everyone knows and all they can think when they look at her is, “That’s the girl who got herself raped.” From here, Outrage becomes a psychological thriller, with Lupino using creative editing and sound design to amplify her heroine’s PTSD. All the conditions are in place for Ann’s quick recovery—she has people who care about her, her family and coworkers want to help, and her fiancée still wants to marry her—but startlingly, she can’t handle all of this kind attention, because she feels so broken inside. Without telling anyone, she gets on a bus and skips town. She essentially becomes a fugitive and starts a new identity in a new town, where, when a man flirts too aggressively with her, she becomes consumed with the delusion that he’s her rapist, and she nearly kills him.
Outrage deals with a uniquely female situation in a uniquely empathetic way. After such a violation, it asks, how could a woman learn how to be around men again, to trust them, to let them touch her? How would you get out of the psychological head space that it was you who did something wrong? How do you stop running? In Ann’s case, it’s a purely platonic man friend who restores her faith in male goodness and puts her on the road to recovery. The ultimate thesis of the film is that women are not sex objects, and treating them as such—through full-on sexual assault, unwanted sexual advances, or even just con- descending commentary—has lasting consequences. Outrage is not perfectly enlightened by modern standards, but in a Hollywood era in which the top female star was pinup queen Betty Grable—and especially at RKO, where the bulk of Hughes’s creative decisions stemmed from his own sex drive—the film was revolutionary.
Outrage received some rave reviews. “It is a picture that every par- ent, as well as every woman, should see . . . the story hits home to every family in that such an occurrence might happen anytime to any girl or woman,” wrote Shirle Duggan in the Los Angeles Examiner, singling out Ida for her direction. The Los Angeles Daily News, Hollywood Citizen- News, and the trade paper Film Daily all approved, as well. But the two biggest trade publications threw cold water on Ida’s accomplish- ment. In what seemed like a misreading of the film’s plot, The Holly- wood Reporter’s review accused Ida of exploiting “rape as motivation for an old-fashioned ‘find happiness on the land’ drama.” If Outrage were a “clean-cut essay with strong educational overtones,” added the Reporter’s critic, “its sordid theme of criminal attack might have more justification.” The Variety review was also dismissive: “Over- directed in many instances by Ida Lupino, there will be many who will take issue with her interpretation of the girl’s reaction to her plight. Film throughout lacks any elements of entertainment in its de- sire to sock over a depressing message. Hard selling will be required here, with expected grosses slim.” Variety did not report extensively on Outrage’s grosses—perhaps because there was nothing of note to report—but the movie had come in so far under budget that it didn’t need to gross big.
Ida Lupino’s popularity in Hollywood was untainted by her boy-friend (and eventual husband) Howard Duff having been branded a “communist sympathizer” by the witch-hunting press. In July 1950, two months before Outrage was released, Duff had been one of 151 entertainers whose names were named in the pamphlet Red Channels, which was as close to an official list as was actually printed during what became known as the Blacklist era. Duff soon thereafter lost his job as the star of the popular radio serial The Adventures of Sam Spade. Duff didn’t understand why he had been targeted; like so many others who were the subject of finger-pointing during this era, he had been a liberal Democrat since the time when the country had been united in a hate for fascism, but he had never been a registered Communist.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t any evidence that the McCarthyites could use against him. Under Hughes’s direction, RKO subscribed to a service provided by an outfit calling itself the American Library of Information (ALI). This was a racket run by the Better America Foundation, which compiled bare-bones dossiers on potential subversives. Few reports included information beyond mentions of the subject in various Communist publications, or the fact that the suspect had sub- scribed to such publications, often two decades earlier. RKO received a report from ALI on Howard Duff in March 1952 (a year in which the studio paid $1,500 for ALI’s services, up 50 percent from the previous year). Duff was accused of having subscribed to People’s World in 1939 (and only 1939), as well as having publicly supported the Hollywood Ten and the Committee for the First Amendment, the all-star band also including stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which had organized a trip to Washington to support the Ten at their hearings.
Lupino would claim that she personally visited her “buddies at the FBI” to ensure protection for Duff and another man to whom she was close who had been unfairly targeted, actor John “Julie” Garfield. This visit is not documented in the portions of Lupino’s FBI file made avail- able through a Freedom of Information Act request. If she did reach out to the FBI on Garfield’s behalf, it seems her intervention could only do so much. Garfield, unable to work in studio movies, had gone back to New York, where he was doing theater, and drinking heavily. Aware that he was not doing well, Lupino went to New York to see Garfield in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, but he didn’t perform that night, and when she went to check on him, he seemed to be a shell of the exuberant character he used to be—not just in bad health, but weak in spirit. Ida told Julie that she had spoken to the FBI on his behalf. He asked her to hold his hand as he drifted off to sleep. She did, and then went home to Hollywood determined to find a movie role for her friend, to help bring him back from the brink.
The problem was that Ida was under contract to make movies at RKO, and RKO was run by an increasingly eccentric, head-traumatized megamillionaire who had become obsessed with eradicating Communists from the film industry. On a base level, Communists posed the same kind of threat in Hughes’s racist mind as black people and all the “others” he disliked and feared, while also firing up Hughes’s capitalist imagination, in more ways than one. Not only did the reds threaten Hughes’s ability to operate unchecked in a free marketplace, but in aligning himself with the anti-Communist cause, he also spotted an opportunity to shore up credibility with the power brokers who provided him with lucrative military contracts. In keeping with his lifelong germophobia, Hughes treated the supposed Communist infiltration of RKO like an infestation: he essentially tented the lot.
On April 5, Hughes released a statement announcing he was shutting down production at RKO, putting one hundred employees on “leave of absence” while he made sure that none of them were tainted. “The plain fact is they are innocent victims of the Communist problem in Hollywood,” Hughes said in a statement. “It is my determination to make RKO the one studio in Hollywood where the work of Communist sympathizers is not used.”
By this point, Jarrico had filed suit against RKO and Hughes, seeking lost income and punitive damages. He alleged that Hughes, who had claimed that he had suspended production at RKO in order to hunt Communists, was actually trying to distract from the fact that his studio was running at a loss and Hughes was clueless as to how to turn it around. It was an open secret in Hollywood that RKO was having trouble producing enough content to be profitable, and it was apparent that Hughes and his current publicists, Perry Lieber at RKO and the outside firm Carl Byoir and Associates, were running damage control. For every column that hinted at RKO’s troubles, there’d be an obviously planted item in another paper enthusing about the impressive slate of RKO attractions on the horizon, such as one in Film Daily in February 1952 suggesting that independent productions like Clash by Night (featuring Marilyn Monroe) and Jet Pilot represented “the most potent product this studio has ever prepped for early distribution at any one time in its history.”
Jarrico’s allegation was probably, at least in part, true, but it was perceived as a desperate move in a climate in which Hughes’s zero tolerance earned him plaudits from on high. Representative Donald Jackson of HUAC praised Hughes for his stance on Jarrico at a Kiwanis Club lunch in Los Angeles, and on the Senate floor, Richard Nixon declared that Hughes had earned the “approval of every man and woman who believes that forces of subversion must be wiped out.” In March, a Los Angeles Times editorial lauded Hughes’s hard-line stance on Jarrico specifically and Communists in general, predicting, “If the Screen Writers Guild calls a strike on such an issue, it will not have the sympathy of the public, nor deserve it. Most Americans will agree with Hughes that a writer who declined, before the Un-American Activities Committee, to answer a question as to his Communist affiliation on the ground that to answer might incriminate or degrade him thereby certified his unfitness for any employment that would bring his name before the public.”
Hughes’s campaign to exterminate Communists in the film industry had an intended audience outside Hollywood. In June 1953, gossip columnist Jimmie Fidler reported on his radio show that Hughes was “dickering with the war department for the first commercial contract to manufacture atomic weapons.” This was just gossip—but given the overall political climate, Hughes would have been wise to believe that his fortunes as a government defense contractor were related to the overall perception of him as a good American.
Whether Hughes knew it or not, the FBI had on the record a differing opinion as to his merits as a citizen. Just a few months earlier, an internal Bureau memo noted that a source, whose name they redacted but who from context appears to have been a high-ranking executive at TWA, had described Hughes as “an unscrupulous individual who at times acts like a screwball and paranoiac, to the extent that it is conceivable that he might even be capable of murder.” In this light, it seems likely that the RKO shutdown was a publicity stunt aimed at selling the image of Hughes as a man who put country over company, thus bolstering a Hughes business that was worth much more financially than the movie studio ever could be.
Six weeks after Hughes shut down RKO, John Garfield died in bed, at the age of thirty-nine. The official cause of death was cited as a heart attack, but many close to him believed that being blacklisted had pushed his already weak heart to the brink, sapping him of the will to live. The passing of this once-beloved star did nothing to pause the persecution of “un-Americans.” At the time, it was anathema to mention the human cost of the Blacklist, lest one wanted to see their own name blackened, and their own opportunities diminished.
Hughes did not openly punish Lupino for her associations with those under a cloud of suspicion, but he didn’t make it easy for her, either. Throughout her time under contract to RKO, Hughes rejected many of her movie ideas. He put the kibosh on potential films about Mexican Americans (for whom Hughes had no empathy) and the atomic bomb (regarding which Hughes had conflicts of interest as a military contractor). Then, right after Garfield’s death, when Ida was pregnant with Duff ’s child, her script for a film about gambling addiction was rejected, too. The excuse given was that the subject matter was not commercial. Lupino had made an unfortunate mistake in timing, pro- posing her casino movie just a few months after the release of The Las Vegas Story, which lost more than half a million dollars for the studio, and had wider reverberations than any other bad, money-losing movie that year.