There is nothing Hollywood fears as much as a messy public trial.
For movie stars, civil or criminal charges often spell the end of reputation and livelihood. In 1921, the false rape and murder charges against the wonderful knock-about comedian, Roscoe Arbuckle, destroyed his brilliant career—in pre-income tax dollars he earned a million a year—and subsequently drove him to drink and an early grave.
Numerous stars paraded into court in law suits ranging from bigamy to paternity and, of course, ugly divorces, fraud and financial improprieties.
The court photos and breathless newspaper coverage were less than flattering, reducing silver screen legends to a frail, if not sordid, human dimension.
“Los Angeles, Calif. — Mary Pickford tells her story. Photo is of Mary Pickford (Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks) on the witness stand of Judge McLucas’ court where three men are on trial charged with conspiracy to kidnap her.” L.A, Times, July 30, 1925.
Dutch born Jetta Goudal in a Los Angeles court. Cecil B. DeMille fired Goudal for her diva-like ways. Goudal sued him for $101,000 in guaranteed wages, and won. February 6, 1929.
“Betty Bronson, film player, appeared on witness stand in Los Angeles municipal court to testify that an alleged fraudulent motion picture school, to the proprietors of which the prosecution had attributed a statement that they had ‘made her a star,’ had no connection with her career. Miss Bronson said she never had attended any film school or received any lessons in the art of motion picture acting. The school officials were on trial on charges of having accepted fees from various persons, with promises that they would receive positions in motion picture studios.” L.A. Times, October 23, 1929.
Still looking incredibly glamorous, Dolores Del Rio is sworn in, “smartly attired in a black wool crepe dress and an ultra-modern hat.” She was sued for $31,000 by her former attorney, Gunther Lessing, who alleged he hadn’t been paid for his services. The court awarded him $16,000. December 7, 1931.
In July 1940, Lupe Velez charged that fortune-teller Nancy Miller had swindled her out of $2,500. Velez told the LA Times: “I’m really going to fix her up. Number one: I punch her in the nose. Number two: I kick her in the teeth. Number three: I pull her hair.”
In 1945 Joan Barry (left, with baby’s head visible) slapped a paternity suit on Charlie Chaplin. In spite of a blood test proving that he could not have been the father, Chaplin was found guilty. This photo captures the moment the court ordered Chaplin (far right) to stand so the jury could compare his face with the baby’s.