When it comes to the history of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are few sources audiences love more than You Must Remember This podcast host Karina Longworth.
Longworth, who launched the podcast devoted to the “secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century,” expands her reach with a new book titled Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom, inspired by episodes of the podcast. The book, which hits shelves Nov. 13, examines the interplay between gender, sex, and power through the lives of actresses who came into the orbit of the playboy-inventor-businessman-aviator-director-producer Howard Hughes.
The book, which started as a sporadic series titled “The Many Loves of Howard Hughes,” deconstructs the mythology around one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic figures to examine the challenges and limited means of power many actresses had in what is known as the Golden Age of Hollywood.
“The amount of time that Hughes spent in Hollywood, about 1925 until the end of the 1950s, is exactly what historians refer to as the classical Hollywood era. This is the time when the studio system was at its peak,” Longworth tells EW of her decision to use Hughes’ life as a framing device. “It’s a happy coincidence that Howard Hughes’ entire film career runs in parallel to this period and everything that he experienced in Hollywood has a resonance for actresses. He was involved with all of these actresses — either professionally or, in most cases, romantically.”
Though the book was heavily in motion by this juncture, Longworth says her thesis statement for the work coalesced in the wake of the 2016 election. “I woke up angry and with these ideas in my head about how we can’t just continue to tell the same old stories about playboys,” she says. “We can’t continue to just lionize men for the number of their sexual conquests. We have to start thinking about who the women are, who are being quote unquote conquered and what their experience of that is like.”
Longworth’s book is a deep dive into the lives of a wide array of Hollywood actresses, many of them well-remembered as Golden Age stars and others whose names have largely been resigned to the pages of history books. And there’s no Hollywood history without Hollywood’s greatest product — movies. With that in mind, EW asked Longworth to recommend 10 films to pair with the book, allowing readers a deeper glimpse into the careers and output of the figures in Seduction. Here is what Longworth suggested:
Souls for Sale (1923)
This silent comedy was directed by Rupert Hughes, Howard Hughes’ uncle, who plays a main role in the early pages of the book. It was his standing and success in Hollywood that propelled a young Hughes to give the film industry a try. A young woman, Remember ‘Mem’ Steddon (Eleanor Boardman), runs away from her husband while en route to Los Angeles, stumbles onto a movie set, and eventually decides to make a go at stardom. “It’s a really interesting portrait of the time in which it was made,” says Longworth. “Rupert Hughes was a writer and a director who was vehemently against film censorship. He felt like Hollywood in the 1920s, like [with] the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, had been given a bad rap. He set out to make this film to show the positive aspects of Hollywood. It’s kind of a white-washing of Hollywood in 1923, but I think it comes from a really good-hearted place. In addition to being a very entertaining silent film comedy, it has this meta element where it’s actually functioning as a documentary of what Hollywood looked like in 1923. Because it’s shot on actual studio lots and there are cameos from people like Charlie Chaplin who were at the top of the industry at the time.”
Available to rent on: iTunes
Red Dust (1932)
Many credit Howard Hughes with discovering Hollywood’s original platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow and launching her into the public eye with a sizzling role in Hell’s Angels. Longworth cites Red Dust as one of Harlow’s best works. Harlow stars as fallen woman Vantine, caught in a love triangle with plantation manager Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) and society lady Barbara Willis (Mary Astor). “Jean Harlow is the woman who kind of washes up ashore at the plantation, and it’s heavily implied that she’s a prostitute, that she’s running away from something bad somewhere else. She has this affair with Clark Gable, and then, a wealthy couple shows up with the wife played by Mary Astor. Gable immediately falls in love with Mary Astor who is a refined, classy lady contrasted with Jean Harlow’s lower class, apparently promiscuous woman,” explains Longworth. “It’s a really interesting example of Jean Harlow’s persona as someone who is overtly sexual, but is also really good-hearted and is maybe a better person than the person who is a more upstanding citizen.”
Available to rent on: YouTube, iTunes
Christopher Strong (1933)
Hepburn was one of the great loves of Hughes’ life, with the two carrying on a relationship for over two years that ended with Hepburn’s rejection of Hughes’ marriage proposal. When her career faltered in the late 1930s after being labeled “box office poison,” Hughes was instrumental in helping her return to Hollywood. Longworth selects an early career entry for Hepburn, Christopher Strong. “She’s a dashing lady aviatrix who gets involved with a married man, and the film is directed by Dorothy Arzner, who was the top female director of this time and one of the very few female directors to have sustained careers in 20th century Hollywood,” says Longworth. “It’s a really interesting story of a woman who is the ‘other woman’ from the woman’s perspective. There’s a lot of stuff that I write about in the book in terms of the ambiguous gender persona of Katharine Hepburn, and this film deals a lot with the idea of a woman who is on the border between femininity and masculinity. It’s fascinating and really ahead of its time.”
Available to stream on: FilmStruck
Kitty Foyle (1940)
Ginger Rogers, best known for her song-and-dance films opposite Fred Astaire, is yet another actress who was courted by Hughes and ultimately rejected his vision for a life of imprisoned domesticity. “People remember Ginger Rogers for her singing and dancing movies with Fred Astaire, and this is a movie in which there’s no singing or dancing. It’s a straight melodrama. Politically, it’s extremely conservative. I personally find some of the ideas in it involving shaming single mothers to be pretty toxic, but it is one of those films that’s a really fascinating document of it its time,” says Longworth of Kitty Foyle, which earned Rogers her Oscar. “The performance Ginger Rogers gives in it is truly incredible. She’s playing several distinct facets of the same woman, and the way she delineates how this woman behaves when she’s with different people in different situations, it’s really advanced acting. She’s somebody who is appreciated for being a great dancer and a good singer but is not really talked about as a great actress. This is one of those movies that people are like, ‘Well, she’s got the Oscar for her whole body of work,’ but if you actually watch the movie I think you’ll see she gives an award-worthy performance in it.”
Available to rent on: YouTube, iTunes
Long before The Aviator and Rules Don’t Apply took a direct look at Hughes, there was Caught, a film noir about a crazed multimillionaire who essentially imprisons his new wife in their home — a story that rang true for several of Hughes’ love interests. Directed by Max Ophüls, the film was intended as revenge on Hughes for Ophüls’ firing from a Hughes’ produced film. “Ophüls decided he would get revenge on Hughes by making a movie about him. He hired a screenwriter to talk to women who had been involved with Hughes or had known Hughes and write this portrait of a woman who married a rich guy, who in the film is played by Robert Ryan, who physically resembles Hughes quite a bit,” explains Longworth. “It takes these facts about Howard Hughes, and it manipulates them so that Howard Hughes couldn’t sue. You have almost a watercolor portrait of Howard Hughes — it has some recognizability, but it also has an impressionistic style to it.”
Available on DVD/Blu-ray
While Ida Lupino had a brief fling with Hughes as a young teenage starlet, her career benefitted most greatly from her relationship with him in the 1950s when Hughes signed Lupino and her husband/producing partner Collier Young to a three-picture deal at RKO. In a rather provocative move for a noted misogynist, Hughes gave Lupino the opportunity to direct when few other women were granted such an opportunity within the Hollywood studio system. “Outrage is the best film she directed,” says Longworth. “It is about a woman who is raped on her walk home from work at night. Most of the movie is about her dealing with the fallout of that emotionally and socially, and the PTSD that follows the attack. Certainly nobody was making movies with kind of topic sensitively in the 1950s, and honestly, I haven’t seen a movie that deals with post-traumatic stress in this way that is anywhere near as accurate as this film, including films that are being made today.” Longworth also notes that Lupino was not only revolutionary merely in her power as a Hollywood director, but in her ability to tackle taboo, provocative subjects like rape and bigamy. “Ida Lupino as the director is taking an issue that is about women being mistreated by men, and she’s directing it in this really savvy way where men can watch the film and not feel like they’re being hated on,” says Longworth. “She’s smuggling these feminist ideas into a shape that doesn’t necessarily look offensive to people who would not be receptive to feminist ideas.”
Available only at special screenings
Where Danger Lives (1950)
Longworth cites film noir Where Danger Lives as one of the only good films in Faith Domergue’s career. Domergue was yet another notable Hughes mistress. “He became involved with her when she was a teenager and he basically took over her life for several years and over that time kept promising her that he was going to make her a movie star,” explains Longworth. “He never did, but she did get to appear in this film noir made at RKO. She stars opposite Robert Mitchum and gives a really great, crazy femme fatale performance. It’s just a really fun, dark film noir.” Domergue stars as an attempted suicide victim who takes Mitchum’s Jeff Cameron for a wild ride involving infidelity, murder, and more.
Available on DVD
His Kind of Woman (1951)
Though Hughes’ record as the owner of RKO is largely overshadowed by his mismanagement of the once-great studio that ultimately led to its demise, he did produce a string of memorable film noirs, including His Kind of Woman, a vehicle for Jane Russell. Alongside Jean Harlow, Russell was Hughes’ greatest success when it came to manufacturing movie stars (notably, Russell was a brunette but Hughes was obsessed with her busty body shape). “Jane Russell starred in a number of films at RKO produced by Howard Hughes and all of them he was very concerned with making sure that she embodied his specific sexual ideal. He was more concerned with that than necessarily making a good movie,” says Longworth. “His Kind of Woman is actually the best movie he produced. It’s a film noir, but it’s also a comedy. It’s also an action adventure film, and it’s a spoof on Hollywood. Vincent Price is in it. He gives a really funny, interesting performance. It’s really indicative of the movies that Howard Hughes made at RKO where he was into making something that was strange and blended genres and was ahead of its time in its post-modern attitude.”
Available to rent on: Amazon, iTunes
Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
Come Back, Little Sheba features another notable Hughes’ flame — Terry Moore. Moore, who is the only figure in Longworth’s book still alive, famously has maintained that she and Hughes were secretly married onboard a ship in 1949. “After he died, she basically made a claim on his estate. Because she has done that, she’s an easy target for criticism, but something people have forgotten or maybe never knew was that she was a serious actress in the 1950s and she worked with Elia Kazan,” notes Longworth. “She made this film Come Back, Little Sheba which shows her to be a pretty serious method actress. She stars opposite Burt Lancaster. She plays a college girl who is a boarder in the house he shares with his frumpy older wife (Shirley Booth). And 1950s repressed sexual panic ensues.” Moore earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her work in this drama based on a William Inge play of the same name.
Available to stream on: Kanopy
Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952)
This dark domestic drama stars Jean Peters, the woman known as Hughes’ second wife (if we don’t count Moore’s claim). Peters infamously lived a life of seclusion at the behest of Hughes and saw her career suffer because of his controlling, manipulative ways. “It takes place in a turn-of-the-20th century small-town Illinois. She plays the new wife of a man who has promised her that they’re going to settle down in Chicago, but they just have to be in this small town for a short time while he saves money, but actually, he’s been lying to her the whole time. He just wants to stay in the small town,” explains Longworth. “For the first 45 minutes of the movie, it’s about what this housewife’s life is like adapting to this small town on the belief that someday her and husband are going to leave and have the life that she thinks they both really want. She becomes slowly disillusioned and realizes the extent to which she’s been lied to. It’s a really, really interesting dark Americana melodrama, but it also kind of eerily prefigured the experience she would have married to Howard Hughes.”
Available on DVD