I don’t remember how I discovered Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood series over on the Hairpin. But I do remember devouring the latest entries during downtime at my job as a secretary. Petersen let contemporary fans like myself experience the restrictive glamour of stars under the old studio system. She did it with a clever, confidential voice that benefitted from hindsight, and I found the results fascinating. Her blog was a weekly read.
The book is more of the same, which feels familiar but oddly not enough. It’s divided into multiple parts, each focusing on a classic Hollywood phenotype, with chapters about separate stars (in other words, long-format essays akin to one of the Hairpin pieces). Much of it is ground already tread in the Hairpin, which I expected to some degree. However, the book was a quick read, and it left me feeling unsatisfied. Make of that what you will.
This is also pretty obviously going to appeal to a very niche audience (of which I am obviously a member). Petersen approaches gossip that’s up to a hundred years old with an academic’s interest, but a blogger’s voice. That’s appealing to me. While contemporary audiences lap up gossip about today’s stars, it’s easy to assume that I’m not “one of them,” even as I devour a chapter about Mae West’s bawdy career. Again, Petersen is concerned with what this interest in stardom says about the film industry and society at large. That’s certainly a subject worth tackling. However, I found myself constantly questioning my own motives for reading this book. Was I couching my own schadenfreude in academic curiosity? The lives these stars led (at least the ones Petersen focuses on) were pretty tragic. Was I consuming them (again) for further entertainment? The answer is, probably. I do get a vicarious thrill from reading about these stars, much like their contemporary audiences did, much like we get from our own stars today. Gossip is appealing for a reason, and apparently, it’s timeless.