Sleep, My Love: The Perils of Being a Hollywood Actress

04/20/2015 01:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

How many of these "Golden Age of Hollywood" stories do you remember?

  • A beautiful teenage model comes to Hollywood and is immediately taken under the wing of a powerful man almost three times her senior. When they marry, she is 19. He is 51.
  • A successful young woman marries her true love, but her overbearing mother refuses to acknowledge the marriage, and prevents the newlyweds from even living together.
  • Another successful beauty falls into a relationship with a brutish man. A mysterious injury, the result of being accidentally hit on the head with a hair dryer, results in brain damage, and the young woman's career is derailed.
  • A man uses sleeping pills and hypnosis to try and coerce his wife into suicide so that he may marry his mistress.

I'm guessing if you recognize any of these stories, it is likely to be the last one. It was a movie called Sleep, My Love, made in 1948 by director Douglas Sirk. Sirk, who had come from Germany at the dawn of World War II, was still relatively new to Hollywood, but he would soon become a leading director of female-based melodrama. The movies he directed throughout the 1950s, culminating with Imitation of Life (1959) would eventually come to be recognized as among the most polished and significant films of their generation. Sleep, My Love revealed his career-long interest in put-upon women, though unlike his later movies, it was couched in the language of film noir.

The movie is pretty good. Rather preposterous in places, but still involving. It stars Claudette Colbert as the tormented wife, and she is a little too hysterical for my tastes. It also has Robert Cummings as her ultimate savior, a role the mild-mannered, comically-oriented Cummings was not the best suited for. But both leads are adequate. And it has a deliciously evil Don Ameche as the scheming husband, Hazel Brooks as his smoky-voiced young mistress, and a fine small comic turn from Rita Johnson as the heroine's ditzy friend. All in all, a good one to seek out, especially if you are a fan of noir.

But I don't really want to talk about Sleep, My Love. I want to talk about the first three stories. If you didn't recognize them, don't feel bad. They are not movie plots. They are the actual real-life stories of the three principle actresses in Sleep, My Love: Hazel Brooks, Claudette Colbert and Rita Johnson.

Hazel Brooks' glamorous looks caught the attention of MGM and the studio wasted little time in bringing the teenager to Hollywood. She almost immediately met Cedric Gibbons, the head of Art Direction at the studio. Gibbons was 49. 14 years earlier, when Hazel was four years old, Gibbons had been the original designer of the Oscar statuette. Rumors of the marriage between the starlet and the veteran art director circulated in Hollywood for some time before it became publicly recognized, when Brooks was 19.

Claudette Colbert was a big star. She won the Oscar in 1935 for It Happened One Night and became a leading lady in screwball comedy throughout the decade. She also was a capable dramatic actress, though she remained at heart a comedienne. She met actor Norman Foster when they were both breaking into the film business in the late twenties and fell in love. However, Claudette's mother, Jeanne Chauchoin, refused to allow Norman to move into her house, and she refused to let Claudette move out. As you might expect, this put a strain on the marriage, and as their careers developed in different directions (Norman would never become more than a supporting player, but he did develop a career as a director), they divorced seven years after marrying.

Rita Johnson has the story most suited for a movie plot. As chronicled by Matt Weinstock in The Booby-Trapped Life of Rita Johnson, no one in Hollywood really believed the "hair dryer" story. There were many rumors that Rita had been the victim of physical abuse, but the police report at the time brushed away any such allegations. Though they noted multiple bruises, the police concluded that there was no evidence of a beating. It was all the hair dryer's doing. This happened on September 6, 1948, just seven months after Sleep, My Love opened, and it is difficult to watch her bubbly performance without being reminded of the fate that would soon befall her.

It is no secret that the goings-on behind the scenes on a Hollywood set are often times more interesting than the silly concoctions dreamed up by screenwriters. But I am struck by how the movie, Sleep, My Love, with its very typical set-up involving a female victimized by one man and championed by another, features three actresses who despite their successes, had to live parts of their lives in the thrall of others. In Sirk's movie, the heroine is ultimately rescued by the good guy. Of course, real life does not always follow such a neat script.

In Hazel Brooks' case, there is a mixed outcome. What we know is that her career never blossomed like many thought it would after 1948, and that this appeared to have disappointed her. We also know that, regardless of the age difference, she remained seemingly happily married to Cedric Gibbons until his death 16 years later.

After divorcing Norman Foster, Claudette Colbert would become one of the leading actresses in all of Hollywood. Despite her success, it appears that Claudette never really broke free of her mother's control, ceding aspects of both her personal and professional life to Jeanne Chauchoin.

There was no rescue in the cards for Rita Johnson. She never fully recovered from her hair dryer incident. Movie roles grew smaller and smaller, and she began drinking more and more. She would die from a brain hemorrhage in 1965, at the age of 52.

So now it is 2015 and the movies and performers of 1948 are a distant memory. Surely today, successful actresses are not manipulated and controlled to the extent that they once were, back in the Golden Age. And yet, how much do we really know? Or more to the point, how much do we really want to know? We prefer our endangered women to be onscreen, where there rescue can be assured by the proper screenplay. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

(And I didn't even mention Lillian Randolph, an actress most noted for playing Annie the maid in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), who has a one-scene role in Sleep, My Love as -- you probably guessed it -- a maid. Randolph, who amongst her 100 film credits, played a wide assortment of maids, and provided the voice for Mammy Two-Shoes in the original Tom and Jerry cartoons, faced a whole different set of restrictions as an African American actress. But that's the subject for another discussion.)