The decade of the 1920s was an era of new liberty for American women. As older sufferagettes celebrated the vote, younger women were at work in a new area - sexual freedom. Skirts shortened, along with hair. The new woman wore makeup and smoked cigarettes. Perhaps underneath the average woman kept to the same sexual morals as her foremothers, but she now felt free to advertise that she was intrinsically a sexual being. The more conservative elements of American society found this change in mores shocking and frightening.
One of the proponents of this new morality was, of course, Hollywood. The movie capital was a sink of sexual iniquity. In the view of social conservatives, the system was a threat to the morality of innocent young ladies across America. When a girl came to Hollywood to try her luck as a star, she was likely to fall into sin, with a capital S.
This view of Hollywood produced a cottage industry of moral hand-wringing, often combined with teasing details of just what exactly these poor virgins had to suffer through. Exposes often focused on young women who found themselves not only down on their luck, but forced into immoral situations. Readers of popular journals and exposes found that it seemed like the only way to achieve success was through vice - the good, pure girl might win on the screen, but not off it. According to this view, women are always unwilling sexual objects - they cave in to pressure only when there is no other way to further their careers. (Often they are depicted as leaving behind families that are dependent in some measure on their financial contributions, thus connecting woman with the concept of "home" in the familiar way.)
The murder of William Desmond Taylor unleashed a storm of "revelations" about the dirty deeds going on in Hollywood. Ed Roberts, the former editor of Photoplay Journal, penned the scandalous "The Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Hollywood Vice." Most of Roberts' stories are thinly camouflaged retellings of the real misdeeds of Hollywood's denizens. Yet the stories that concentrate on "virtuous" women are obviously not meant as true stories - the story of the fallen woman of Hollywood has already become an archetype.
The book contains the story of a poor partygoer, the simply named "Jane Evans," who complains that "There surely must be some way of getting into the movies without stooping below one's own level." Poor Jane, of course, finds out the hard way that getting ahead means giving up virtue. (The chapter is entitled "Strip Poker and Paddle Parties.") The ultra-innocent Jane is invited to a midnight "business call." After writing a letter to her mother, she dresses up and is off to the den of sin, where she is met by a rush of drunken men and women who impatiently wait for the boss (lurking upstairs) to finish his quarrel with his latest mistress. Eventually they get sick of waiting:
After getting the cards out (the lubricants mercifully stay in the background), a game of strip poker begins. Jane is disturbed, and is almost torn out of her clothes when she refuses to take off more than a shoe:
Fortunately, Jane and her luscious arm are saved by the boss, who descends from his quarrel just in the nick of time. It seems that Jane has met "one of screenland's noblemen." Alas, it turns out that the boss is keeping Jane fresh for the main event of the evening - an orgy, complete with booze and dope. Jane finally flees when it becomes apparent that her hosts are attempting to prostitute her - a pastime that Jane finds out is completely natural to the other female guests, who see it as a nice way to pick up twenty dollars. Poor Jane, disillusioned, "walked and ran until she was a dozen blocks away. It was broad daylight when she reached home."
American girls were not only being lured into wicked ways, they were being lured by foreigners. The purity of American womanhood was under threat from strange elements. The story that closes the collection has for its protagonist a Southern girl, called "Atlanta" by the author. This paragon of "normal" American virtue comes to the office of a Hollywood magnate with a letter of introduction from her mother. The pure young lady is looked over by the "dark" Mr. Junius, who "mumbled something of an anathema in a language that Atlanta did not understand" when the telephone rings. The obviously Jewish (though this is never stated) Mr. Junius intimates that Atlanta got her letter of introduction by sleeping with her theater manager, locks her in his office, comments on her figure, and flat-out tells her that she'll have to sleep with him to get a job:
Finally, Mr. Junius insults Atlanta's mother, at which point she gets angry enough to threaten him with her hatpin. Mr. Junius gives up at that point and lets her out, but not before threatening:
Roberts suggests that, by keeping her virtue, Atlanta loses the prospect of a film career:
The poor girl who wanted to get ahead in show business but gave up to keep her morality was one thing. The girl who caved in to pressure was another. One of the most frightening prospects of these women was that their stories did not inevitably end in ruin - and that, even if they did not succeed on the silver screen, a life of vice might be preferable to one of dull virtue.
In a 1914 article, actress Irene Wallace gives the usual sermon on girls who refused to give up their virginity to lecherous riff-raff, but ends the article with an example of a girl who "did." This girl is living with an advertising manager for a film company, and freely admits that she is not in love with her lover. Her narrative strikes a note of independence - "He is alone in the world and so am I. He is a nice chap, rather more like a pal. We don't want to get married because we don't know how long this liking for each other will continue." This life may not be the ideal one, but the interviewee contrasts it with the conventional life of womanly virtue and finds it an acceptable substitute:
Theodore Dreiser himself strikes the same note, emphasizing the element of personal choice that the actress acquires. He argues that girls who come to Hollywood often do so for the kind of sexual adventures that await them, not in spite of them:
Clearly, instead of being preyed upon, the young ladies of Hollywood were sticking around the town because they enjoyed sexual experience. It was not a question of trading a maidenhead to keep a starving family out of the gutter, but rather sex for its own sake that kept women in Hollywood. This view, despite its unsentimentality, eventually would prove more threatening to "traditional" morality.