While most classic films trick audiences into thinking that Old Hollywood was squeaky clean under it’s surface. There were plenty of classic Hollywood stars that held some decidedly backwards values. Racism has always been an issue, and it pervaded Hollywood at it’s roots. Join Facts Verse as we take a look at classic Hollywood stars that were terribly racist off-camera.
The average audience member thinks of the innocent face of Old Hollywood. A few actors epitomize this quite like James Stewart. Known colloquially as Jimmy, James had a long and healthy career in the entertainment industry that started before the days of World War II before blossoming into something even greater after it. James served in the war, and his father before him had served in World War I. When James returned from the war, he feared that he was going to have a hard time returning to his career with all of the traction that he had lost. While this was an issue initially, James eventually grew to become a bigger star than ever.
Of course, some of James’ most iconic roles include his turns in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. As well as his appearances in the Alfred Hitchcock films Vertigo and Rear Window. Those later films showcased a slightly darker side to James Stewart. And while his performances in the prior two features were more emblematic of the beloved actor’s public persona as a whole. However, beneath James’ nice-guy demeanor and lovable drawl, there was a streak of racism and general xenophobia.
James Stewart’s nice-guy demeanor doesn’t necessarily seem to have been a complete illusion. As most of those who knew the man personally and worked with him closely claimed that he was just as nice when the cameras weren’t rolling as he was when they were. However, this is likely because James made sure to surround himself with people who were like-minded and white! There was a black costar that accused James Stewart of racism while the two were working on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Famous director John Ford directed the feature, while the actor that accused James of racism was Woody Strode.
Those who wish to forgive the deceased James Stewart of the more backwards tendencies that he held during his lifetime attribute the man’s racism to his upbringing. James grew up in a small town in Indiana, and there was nary a non-white in sight. James not afforded the opportunity to see many African-Americans during his childhood years. And these opportunities didn’t increase all that much when James ventured out to Princeton to receive his higher education.
Besides James’ apparent distrust of African-Americans, the actor was also seemingly distrusting of Jews. It seems that James Stewart was simply xenophobic in general. And this xenophobia also caused him to develop a fairly close relationship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Both James and J. Edgar Hoover shared similar conservative values, and this caused James to become J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man when it came time to hunt down communists in Hollywood. James Stewart acted as an informant for the FBI director in many situations. While J. Edgar Hoover didn’t care about James’ claims that the Mafia was trying to take over Hollywood. He was all ears when it came time for the actor to spill the beans about his communist costars.
James Stewart was a good friend of Henry Fonda’s before Hollywood’s Second Red Scare. When Henry found out that James was working as an informant for J. Edgar Hoover, the two stopped talking for many years. Despite all of these problematic aspects of James Stewart, the actor remains a beloved Old Hollywood icon in the eyes of most people. Join Facts Verse as we take a look at classic Hollywood stars that were terribly racist off-camera.
I Love Lucy’s William Frawley’s legacy has plagued with complaints that the comedic actor was as much of a curmudgeon off the screen as he was on it. And which is part of why he played his grumpy characters so well! However, while fans can brush off the facts that William was pretty much always drunk. And also didn’t always get along with his coworkers, audiences may be more hesitant to brush off the hard-to-ignore reality that William was a bit of a racist.
It was William Frawley’s knack for playing curmudgeonly characters that got him hired by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to play the part of Fred Mertz on the aforementioned I Love Lucy. By that point in William’s career, the veteran vaudevillian performer had already been working for many years. And had developed a reputation for being hard to work with. This reputation almost caused William to lose out on the role of Fred Mertz. Thankfully, Desi Arnaz’s gut instinct kicked in and made him demand William’s inclusion.
Desi Arnaz certainly knew what he was doing by hiring William Frawley to play the part of Fred Mertz. And as the role became the actor’s most iconic. Though William drunk throughout much of I Love Lucy’s filming. The actor managed to curtail much of his problematic behavior in order to make shoots go smoothly. Most claim that he was a bit of a misogynist. While William couldn’t be rude to Lucille Ball because she was his boss. He could be rude to the actress that portrayed his on-screen wife, which was Vivian Vance.
William Frawley and Vivian Vance reportedly got into it constantly on the set of I Love Lucy. But these incidents consisted mostly of innocent bickering. On the less innocent side of things was William’s racism. And as the actor said to have thrown around racial slurs liberally. Today, that kind of thing wouldn’t fly, but William came from a time and place where people simply allowed and encouraged to treat women and minorities differently. Besides William’s penchant for racism and misogyny, the alcoholic actor also infamously punched Clifton Webb in the face on Broadway.
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Similar to the aforementioned James Stewart, John Wayne was an Old Hollywood legend that was an avid Conservative and patriot. However, unlike James, John didn’t have an authentic nice-guy demeanor that makes this hard truth easier to go down in retrospect. The bulk of the modern-day controversy surrounding Western legend John Wayne stems from an interview that the Hollywood veteran gave with the publication Playboy in a now-notorious 1971 issue.
Whereas the racism allegations against James Stewart and William Frawley mostly stem from second-hand accounts. The racism of John Wayne can viewed by anyone who wants to see it by simply revisiting that 1971 Playboy interview. In it, John Wayne does such things as outright condone white supremacy. And refuse to express remorse about slavery, and make flagrant use of homophobic slurs.
According to John Wayne, there’s no reason that he should ever have had to think about the fact that African-Americans were historically enslaved. While one might think that the actor was simply trying to make a point about the fact that he wasn’t directly involved in slavery. As it had abolished years before his birth. His support of general white supremacy suggests that there may be more to the actor’s refusal to express any remorse about historical slavery.
John’s support of white supremacy in his Playboy interview came with the adage that he only believed white supremacy was necessary until African-Americans received a proper education. However, it’s unsure what exactly would have constituted a proper amount of education in the actor’s eyes. His use of homophobic slurs came about when it was time to discuss the film Midnight Cowboy. And which had recently made waves in Hollywood. Of course, the largely conservative John Wayne was not remotely a fan of the cutting-edge film.
Perhaps because of the excessively flagrant and well-documented nature of the late John Wayne’s problematic values. The actor’s legacy has damaged since his passing much more than the legacies of the stars previously mentioned in this video. John graduated from the University of Southern California. Recently, an exhibit at the college honoring the actor removed as a result of student protests. And with these protests inspired by the actor’s Playboy interview. Some have also attempted to have the actor’s name removed from John Wayne Airport in Orange Country. Though these attempts have continuously failed.
Finally, let’s take a look at classic star Walter Brennan! Of the stars that we’ve mentioned in this video, Walter Brennan is arguably the one that is currently talked about the least. However, the star was a pretty big deal back in his day! Walter won several Academy Awards over his lifetime, and appeared in such classics as The Westerner and Sergeant York. Walter also worked with the aforementioned John Wayne in a handful of classic films, such as Rio Bravo.
Like William Frawley, Walter Brennan made a name for himself playing characters that were generally curmudgeonly. Also like William, these curmudgeonly tendencies were typically matched in the actor’s real-life behavior. Like James Stewart, Walter was a Hollywood legend that detested communism. However, Walter took his detesting of communism a step further by branding anyone who held any liberal beliefs whatsoever as such.
The most problematic aspect of Walter Brennan is probably the fact that he hung around with members of the John Birch Society. And which is notoriously in favor of segregation. The actor also reportedly expressed joy when it was announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
There were many Old Hollywood stars that held racist values, including the aforementioned four. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Henry Fonda refused to talk to James Stewart for several years after the latter ratted out several Hollywood communists to J. Edgar Hoover during the industry’s Second Red Scare. And that an exhibit honoring John Wayne has been removed from the University of Southern California due to the actor’s flagrant racism? As always, like this video to show your support. And subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!