We’ve come a long way from the days of cigarettes and cigars being socially acceptable in a public place, however that wasn’t the case 50 years ago – and old Hollywood movies show this. In these movies, smoking was actually very chic! I mean, what was a Hollywood glamor girl without holding a chrome plated cigarette case? And who was James Bond without a cigarette casually dangling from his mouth? Nowadays, however, the health hazards of smoking have made this look much less common.
9. Massive age gaps
Romantic relationships between 2 people at vastly different ages is not inherently wrong, providing that both parties are above the age of consent. However, it was almost a trend in classic Hollywood movies. While the movies often shied away from commenting on the age gap between their romantic leads, it’s not difficult to see how much older and grayer Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn’s male costars often were. Although this is still a practice in today’s Hollywood movies, it is nowhere near as noticeable.
8. Reno divorces
Back in the day, divorce wasn’t only frowned upon, it was also much harder to get one. Reno became a symbolic location in Old Hollywood as the place where people went when they needed a ‘get out of jail free card’ from marriage. It was generally used in comic effect in movies like ‘The Women’, where a divorce was the perfect love story. Reno is now completely outdated due to its more relaxed procedures, but it did make for some great drama!
7. Monochrome casting
It’s no secret that Old Hollywood was very white, and monochrome casting is the perfect way to describe this – where they had ensembles that are the same race, at least visibly. It’s essentially a form of screen segregation. Real-life segregation laws and Production Code rules against miscegenation made people fear that too many people of colour in a cast would jeopardize box office earnings. While monochrome casting still exists in some ways, it’s especially rare that it goes without criticism.
6. Casual misogyny
Sexism in old movies? Why, the scandal! No matter how big female stars got, they were still on screen competing for mean, being treated badly by men, and being subservient to men. If they weren’t being seduced, they were being infantilized or downright brutalized. Many classic movies used violence against women for comedic effect, although the line between slapstick humor and glamorising abuse is pretty blurred. Like most things, casual misogyny didn’t die, it just changed form.
5. Colonial Heroes
Hollywood movies are the great maker of American myths, and nothing says American Myth like stories about white people manifesting their destiny from sea to shining sea. For years, Hollywood pumped out period pieces about John Wayne and how he fought off Native Americans and his frontier families, but the movies would fail to say why the Native Americans were so angry! Unfortunately, the decline of this movie-type is due to diminishing box office returns and the advent of TV rather than political correctness.
4. Casual homophobia
It’s a myth that gay characters weren’t included in classic Hollywood films – they were, their sexuality was just hidden to appease the censors. Even before the Production Code, when homosexuality was allowed to be more visible, it was often just used as a punchline. And when queerness was allowed to be more visible, it was treated as a joke at best, and something hopeless and violent at worst. Queer characters have been given more dignity on screen today, but there’s still a long way to go.
3. Casual attitudes toward slavery
If studios made Westerns because they were so cheap, they made Southern-set period dramas because they were prestigious. ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘Song of the South’ both paint a nostalgic picture of the past and they severely underplay the lived conditions of enslaved people. The slaves in these movies always seem fairly happy yo be a white man’s property or figure of entertainment. But the reality is that even if a director did want to show the truth, back then it would have been denied due to the Production Code.
2. Casual racism
While the American screen was no stranger to virulent and blatant racism, it also portrayed subtler forms in classic Hollywood. Subtler, at least, to white audiences. Those people of color that did make it into early movies were often subject to insensitive remarks, even from the characters we’re meant to like. Foreign characters were often treated with suspicion or exoticism that disrespectfully flattens cultures into one-note. Although things have improved, things only started to change around the 1990s.
1. Blackface, brownface, and yellowface
Actors playing those of a different race or ethnicity is bad enough, but movie stars being made to adopt the skin colours and features of different races was actually common in old Hollywood. Blackface was featured in the first all-taking motion picture starring Al Johnson. Luise Rainer actually won an Oscar for playing an East Asian woman in ‘The Good Earth’ and the classic ‘Holiday Inn’ even has a prominent blackface number. If a movie star was to do this today, it would be a disaster.