Often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, the era from the 1930s through the 1960s was dominated by the studio system, where movie studios produced films on their own lots and put talent under long-term contracts to work exclusively with them. Often these contracts contained a “morality clause,” which forced talent to behave certain ways offscreen so that they could maintain their onscreen persona with the masses. Of course, these clauses forbade any acts of homosexuality. For iconic stars like Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, this meant fake marriages and relationships, and secretive measures to disguise any homosexual activities they engaged in.
One man who helped these stars be who they really were, at least in terms of their sexuality, was George Albert “Scotty” Bowers, a former marine who worked out of a gas station and became, essentially, a pimp to the stars. Bowers released a memoir in 2012, Full Service, and now a documentary about him, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, directed by Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Studio 54), is showing in limited release around L.A., the very city where it all took place 70 years ago. L.A. Weekly caught up with Tyrnauer to discuss Bowers and the film.
L.A. WEEKLY: Can you describe what your film is about, for those unfamiliar?
MATT TYRNAUER: Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is my cinema vérité film about Scotty Bowers, who is sometimes referred to as the pimp to the stars. He was a handsome, charming Marine, who, at the end of World War II, opened a brothel in the Richfield Oil Station at the corner of Hollywood and Van Ness, which was just a few blocks from all of the great studios. And out of this gas station, he presided over a world of covert sexual assignations, often same-sex and often between his gas station boys or other marines and some of the greatest names in the history of show business.
What made you interested in doing a documentary on Scotty?
I like to tell stories from odd and unexpected angles. And I like to tell stories about closed universes that everyone thinks they know about, but they don't really know the full story. So the Scotty Bowers narrative seemed to be perfect fodder for me. I first began to hear about Scotty and the gas station years ago when I was writing long-form features for Vanity Fair, and old-time movieland people would allude to this mysterious gas station. The first person to mention it to me was the great talk show host Merv Griffin, who apparently lived a double life and never came out. When I did a long profile on him for Vanity Fair, he offhand mentioned to me this gas station on Hollywood Boulevard where you used to go to get into trouble, which was his euphemism, I gathered, for same-sex liaisons happening there. So I made a note — well, this is interesting, explore later.
Can you share any stories on classic movie stars who weren't in the documentary?
I think the biggest movie star not to be named in the film that Scotty had a lot to do with was Tyrone Power, who was in the top tier of his generation. He had a swashbuckling image, was one of the most beautiful of all the male leading men, but his sexuality was a very different story than the characters he portrayed onscreen would lead you to believe. Scotty met him in the Marine Corps. They were both in the Marines in World War II and Scotty had a very elaborate sexual relationship with Power.
But I think this is an interesting thing, because it gives light to the whole myth of the macho straight Marine. Here these guys were two really handsome men who enlisted in the Marines during World War II and both went to the South Pacific to fight battles. But when they were back in San Diego, they were having all sorts of same-sex encounters. It's remarkable that these things have remained under wraps and are only whispered about 70, 80 years after the fact.
Vincent Price, who was one of the most successful actors in the history of Hollywood and known for his genre-breaking work in horror movies, was also covertly gay and a close friend of Scotty's. He's not mentioned in the film just because it's a 90-minute film … so a lot of very famous, great figures ended up on the cutting-room floor. But one amusing anecdote Scotty tells is that on the wedding night of Vincent Price to Coral Browne, Scotty spent the night with Vincent Price and Coral Browne spent the night with another actress in an adjacent room.
Is there any story or revelation that surprised you personally when you heard about it?
There were a couple actors who I think are great who just had very extreme tastes. One was John Dall, the star of [Hitchcock's] Rope, who was apparently into extreme S&M. Scotty used to bring him into the canyons of Los Angeles during heavy rains and tie him upside down from a tree and then cut him down. Dall would like to be almost drowned by the mudslides that were rolling down the hills. I mean, this is just such an outlandish, unexpected thing to hear about anyone, but Dall's characters onscreen always seemed a little kinky underneath it all, so I thought that was an interesting, obscure [story].
John Carradine, who is one of the greatest actors of his generation, also had very extreme tastes of the heterosexual variety. There were stories about elaborate pulleys and hoisting mechanisms that I thought were remarkable.
It seems Scotty [also had] relationships with the whole array of character actors who played “sissies,” and the two greatest of that generation were Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn. They were in hundreds of movies, always playing sissy characters. The documentary Celluloid Closet has a great section on “The Sissy,” and it turns out, sure enough, these guys were gay offscreen and Scotty was hanging out with them on a — seems like — weekly basis. So it was fascinating to me that the onscreen sissies who were forced by the system to play these kind of weak, gay pansy types were indeed gay in real life. And Scotty was friends with all of them.
As an out gay man, can you speak a little bit about what the story meant to you?
I see this film as a political film, really. It has a lot of salacious material in it because it's about sex, and it has a lot of Hollywood material because it's about Hollywood. But underneath it all, I think there's a very strong political scheme, which is that it explores a world very different from our own right now where same sexuality was not something that could be openly discussed or openly practiced in most of the country or the world. To be gay was something to be deeply ashamed of. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were morals clauses in all the studio contracts. The movie industry had decided that it was going to create a wholesome American myth and send that out to the rest of the world. And it self-policed itself very strictly, partially through these moral clauses. [These clauses] made it very risky for movie stars or anyone who was senior in the movie business to be overtly gay or lesbian. You would be fired, you would be ruined.
At the same time, the Los Angeles Police Department was operating a vice squad whose main occupation was the humiliation, extortion and ruining of gay and lesbian people's lives, oftentimes in collusion with the press. So Hollywood's homophobia had implications and consequences well beyond the city limits of Hollywood itself. It was projecting this propagandized image of straight, white relationships being the only kind that were morally acceptable. For me as a filmmaker, much less a gay filmmaker, I thought that this story was a very important one to explore. Because those things are very different now and are much better, current generations must know the dark history that preceded our own in order to understand the enormous strides that we've made and to stop the clock from turning backward.
How do you see where Hollywood is now compared to back then in terms of straight-washing everything?
Well, I think there's really no comparison because on the surface, people can be out and gay and there are no morals clauses as pertain to sexuality. So the world was very different then. I am quoting Scotty when I say that society has changed enormously. There still is an incredible urge to straight-wash Hollywood history. [Since the film's been released], on social media and in some cases in the press, people are pushing back against Scotty's revelations, labeling them Hollywood shenanigans and/or lies. I corroborate everything in the movie and you see the corroboration onscreen. [Yet] there's a real urge to straight-wash the history of Hollywood, which shows you how persistent these Hollywood myths and legends are.
I have nothing against the Golden Age of Hollywood. In fact, I'm fairly obsessed with it. I think that classic Hollywood films are among the greatest films ever made and probably will be among the greatest films ever to be made. But if you take the history of Hollywood seriously, to straight-wash it and deny the true nature of the people who built the mythic city and are responsible for the glorious legend is ridiculous and insidious. If you consider Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to be figures of importance, then we have to know their full biographies. We can't know a heterosexual-only biography of these people. It does a disservice to everyone.
Scotty & the Secret History of Hollywood is now playing in limited release throughout Los Angeles. Check local listings for theaters and times.