The "morality clause" required actresses to "fix" the problem of pregnancies resulting from illicit affairs
Classic Hollywood star Loretta Young led a successful acting career from 1917-1961, earning two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her achievements in film and television. Her entire career, however, could have ended prematurely for rebelling against the “morality clause” enforced by studios to ensure young actresses did not bring scandal upon themselves.
What this meant is that famous “bombshells” were not allowed to have illicit affairs and if they did, abortion was the only option to “fix” the problem. According to a recent article by Vanity Fair, “an unintended pregnancy would not only bring shame to these top box-office earners—it would violate studio policy.”
Most Hollywood actresses during this time period did whatever was necessary to save their career. Classic icons of cinema Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Judy Garland were all forced into abortions in order to maintain their desirability. Studio directors claimed that audiences wanted these women to be “pristine” and being a mother would tarnish that image. Cari Beauchamp wrote, “[I]t was a common assumption that glamorous stars would not be popular if they had children.”
This is why some actresses were even forbidden to get married. Jean Harlow, for example, “couldn’t wed William Powell because ‘MGM had written a clause into her contract forbidding her to marry.’”
This was the world that baptized Catholic Loretta Young was going into. Early on in her career she was working on a movie with Clark Gable (The Call of the Wild) and fell in love with her co-star and unexpectedly became pregnant with his child.
According to her daughter-in-law, Young explained to her years later what had happened. In the midst of filming the movie, “while the film crew was traveling back to Hollywood by train…Gable sneaked into Young’s personal, overnight compartment, and took advantage of her… She was so humiliated…and what she would do when she was humiliated was just ‘on with the show.’ Because she had been trained since the age of 3, you put a good face on it, and you go forward. She knew she’d have to continue working with him.”
After Young discovered she was pregnant, she and Gable kept the incident extremely quiet and under wraps. The studio pressured her to have an abortion, but Young refused, deciding to take extraordinary measures to cover everything up, hoping that she could still have her career and be a mother.
Young staged “an overwhelming number of public events and interviews in the early months of her pregnancy in hopes of explaining her later need for rest. She then planned a weeks-long trip overseas with her mother. When she returned the press was told that she had fallen ill.”
She gave birth to her child (Judy) in a secretive cottage in Los Angeles and gave her newborn child to an orphanage, naming her after Saint Jude, patron saint of difficult situations. Later, Young “adopted” her own 19-month-old child. This exact scenario is was what inspired directors Joel and Ethan Coen in their movie Hail, Caesar!, when Scarlett Johansson’s character is forced to sign an agreement to give her child up to a professional “fall man,” who will then allow her to adopt the child after some time has passed.
Young decided not to tell her daughter the truth until shortly before her own marriage. Judy was disappointed by the many lies she was told growing up and wished she had known the truth all along.
After giving birth to Judy, Young would eventually marry producer Tom Lewis and have two sons, Peter and Christopher. She later devoted herself to many Catholic charities and remained a member of Good Shepherd Parish.
In the end, Hollywood stars then and now are pressured by studios to do the unthinkable to save their careers. What Loretta Young did could have cost her everything and her decision to keep everything quiet, even from her own daughter, still had its own consequences. Thankfully, however, it was Young’s Catholic faith that reminded her about the importance to protect life at all costs, risking everything to save a life instead of ending it.