Movies & TV / Columns

Should Hollywood Bring Back the ‘Morals Clause’?

February 15, 2021 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Gina Carano Joss Whedon

We see plenty of talk about celebrities being “cancelled” these days and to some, this might look like it’s a new thing but anyone who knows the story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle can tell you it is not even close. 

I’m sure you’re aware of silent movies greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Legends. “Fatty” Arbuckle was arguably their equal at the time. Not only was he one of the most popular silent era stars, he was one of the best paid and his career was only going up. In 1914, Paramount Pictures paid him $1,000 a day plus twenty-five percent of all profits and complete artistic control. That was a stunning contract at the time and just four years later they offered Arbuckle a three-year, $3 million contract. In today’s money that’s close to $52 million. 

Then scandal hit. 

Arbuckle had a party in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. This is during Prohibition and somehow (wink) he got his hands on some booze to liven up the festivities. At the party was an actress named Virginia Rappé and at some point during the night she was found severely injured in Arbuckle’s suite. Rappé ended up dying from a ruptured bladder and soon after Arbuckle was arrested on rape and murder charges. 

You can imagine how that went over. 

His arrest and details of the crime, both factual and rumored, caused a media storm that had never been seen up to that point. It held the public’s attention through THREE trials and although he was acquitted, even receiving a statement of apology from the jury, the scandal marked the end of Arbuckle’s career. 

Let’s throw some more historical perspective that was going on at that time. To be sure, thanks to Arbuckle’s fame, his situation was most damning and was the first time audiences had the curtain pulled back on the private lives of their favorite stars but you also had a string of other events that changed how things were done in Hollywood.

** 1920, silent film actress Olive Thomas died after accidentally drinking mercury bichloride, her husband, matinee idol Jack Pickford, had been using it as a treatment for syphilis; there were rumors that it had been a suicide.
** 1922, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. which negatively impacted the careers of actresses Mary Miles Minter and former Arbuckle screen partner Mabel Normand.
** 1923, actor/director Wallace Reid’s morphine addiction resulted in his death.
** 1924, actor/writer/director Thomas H. Ince died mysteriously aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht.

So why the history lesson? Thanks to the bad press and backlash from audiences, studios had to take action and Universal Studios made the decision to add a morals clause to contracts. The text of the 1921 Universal Studios clause reads:

“The actor (actress) agrees to conduct himself (herself) with due regard to public conventions and morals and agrees that he (she) will not do or commit anything tending to degrade him (her) in society or bring him (her) into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend the community or outrage public morals or decency, or tending to the prejudice of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company or the motion picture industry. In the event that the actor (actress) violates any term or provision of this paragraph, then the Universal Film Manufacturing Company has the right to cancel and annul this contract by giving five (5) days’ notice to the actor (actress) of its intention to do so.”

Let’s be serious and remember that even after this clause was added to contracts, behavior didn’t change greatly, just the need to hide the celeb’s who made the studio lots of money became essential. That’s the thing. This clause gave studios power over the actor/actress and could threaten them with it. Who was the one who deemed something “immoral behavior”? The studio. That left the perception of what was right or wrong in dangerous hands. 

Let’s fast forward to today and connect a clause like above to the behaviors exposed in the #MeToo movement to views expressed on social media. Would something like this fly? The focus would surely rest on social media and political leanings but, again, the power would be held by the studio and their whims. 

Honestly. it would never fly but I can see the day coming when social media guidelines are included in contracts and penalties for damaging the reputation of the project come into play. What do you think?

On a totally unrelated note, years ago a “Fatty” Arbuckle movie was in the pipeline with a great script and the late Chris Farley was given the nod for the role. Early word is it was going to be a career defining role for Farley, showing his more serious side but we never got to see that because he died before the project got started.