The Casting Couch Perverts Who Peddled Fairy Tales

tags: Hollywood, sexual harassment

Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

The Casting Couch is as old as Hollywood and as inescapable as bad reviews.

Journalists keep blaming many different initiators of this demeaning show business “audition.” Suspects include Mack Sennett of the Keystone Comedies; Samuel Goldwyn, the G in MGM; Louis B. Mayer, the second M in MGM; Howard Hughes the studio head, aviator and germaphobic billionaire;Jack Warner of Warner Brothers;  and Benny Thau, the MGM casting whiz whose casting couch, some say, “was the busiest in Hollywood.” The talent agent, Henry Willson, may have invented the gay casting couch. If victory has a thousand fathers, power and perversion do too.

All these powerful men had many affairs with young ambitious hotties hoping to become movie stars. The most frequently mentioned of these pioneering phallocrats in the movie business, however, are Harry Cohn and Darryl Zanuck. Their stories are typical – and reveal the sick mix of sex and power obscured in a haze of all-American hypocrisy that explain the rise of the entertainment industry’s perverse, pervasive rite of passage.

Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures Corporation, was part of the Eastern European Jewish mogulocracy that came from nowhere and invented Hollywood. Born to poor immigrant Jews in New York City in 1891, by 1919 he was in “the business.”  Cohn was a tyrant. His temper was his chosen tool for getting his way. Listening devices throughout his studio helped him eavesdrop on subordinates – and a sound system allowed him to blast anyone who annoyed him. He was so unpleasant that the comedian Red Skelton, noting how crowded his funeral was in 1958, quipped: “It proves what Harry always said: give the public what they want – and they’ll come out for it.”

Cohn gave the public what they wanted – yet helped elevate their tastes too. Films like Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington entertained and enlightened. All the King’s Men remains a brilliant look at American political crudeness and demagoguery. ...

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