All Rise! Hollywood & the Herald Go to Court

Christina Rice, Senior Librarian, Photo Collection,
Charlie Chaplin at the witness stand as the defendant in a paternity suit

There were two types of stories the Los Angeles Herald loved to cover – celebrity and scandal. If the two subjects happened to be merged under the same headline, that was even better.

The Los Angeles Herald, a daily newspaper, was published in one form or another for well over one hundred years, falling under the Hearst banner for at least sixty-five of them. From 1873-1989, reporters and photographers from the paper covered, among other things, the arrival of railroads to the region, two locally hosted Olympic Games, the nation’s first mayoral recall, the murder of a woman who came to be known as the "Black Dahlia," struggles for civil rights along with civil unrest – and many, many court cases.

The Herald was also around for the birth and rise of the local film industry, which became synonymous with the word "Hollywood." The fabled movie studios may have been scattered throughout the region and over city lines, but those nine letters emblazoned on the side of the hill came to stand for the industry itself.  With Hollywood came mesmerizing movie stars. As it turned out, those movie stars spent a lot of time in court and the Herald was always around to make sure its readership didn’t miss out.

Actor Raymond Burr prepares to film a scene for the "Perry Mason" television show.

Autograph seekers gather at the entrance of the county courthouse as Ramond Burr prepares to film a scene for the popular television series Perry Mason.

It didn’t matter why a particular star was heading into a courthouse. Paternity, child custody, adoption, copyright infringement, divorce, studio battles, assault, manslaughter, or murder were all of interest and worthy of a photographic record. It didn't even need to be a particularly big star to pique the interest of the newspaper. As long as a person had a few movie titles under his or her belt and had been noticed by Jimmy Starr, the paper’s gossip columnist, they were worthy of some coverage. Sometimes, a star might even be photographed at the court doing what they did best - acting, as was the case when the Herald turned their cameras on Raymond Burr who was shooting an episode of the popular Perry Mason television show at the downtown courthouse.

In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Public Library acquired the "photo morgue" from the Los Angeles Herald whose photos span from the 1920s-1962 along with the images from the merged Los Angeles Herald Examiner (1962-1989). Just a brief dip into this treasure trove of approximately 2.2 million photos quickly reveals how much the paper loved local celebrity court cases.

Mary Pickford signing the final papers for the adoption of her son, Ronald Charles Rogers.

Mary Pickford sits beside Judge Georgia Bullock as she signs the final papers for the adoption of her son, Ronald Charles Rogers. 

Of course, the brighter stars and bigger scandals were always favored by the newspaper. Ann Dvorak's lawsuit against Warner Bros. may have only resulted in a couple of photos coming out of the dark room. Charlie Chaplin's paternity woes however, produced a collection of well over one hundred images. To most readers, Mary Pickford was America's Sweetheart, but her courthouse appearance to sign adoption papers was only worthy of a lone image. On the other hand, Errol Flynn's statutory rape case used up a considerable amount of developing chemicals.

Images of a bored Sally Rand yawning during her assault trial, or Elizabeth Taylor appearing in divorce court for the first of seven times may be viewed with a degree of humor, though it's also important to acknowledge the gravity in the photos as well. Roscoe Arbuckle's career was destroyed by the allegations that he was responsible for the death of Virginia Rappe, even though he was eventually acquitted. The sight of Busby Berkeley being wheeled into a courtroom on a stretcher may initially seem absurd, but his injuries from a car crash were serious, and his alleged action of driving while under the influence resulted in the deaths of three people.

Maria Montez demonstrating for the judge how astrology played into her lawsuit against producer Seymour Nebenzal for back payment.

Maria Montez offers to demonstrate for the judge how astrology played into her lawsuit against producer Seymour Nebenzal for back payment. 

Of course, it’s ok to chuckle at Maria Montez's attempt to draw up a judge’s astrological chart in the middle of a case. The Herald would probably agree. 

The exhibit "All Rise! Hollywood & the Herald Go to Court" is now on display in the History & Genealogy Department through June 30, 2014. 

Christina Rice is author of Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel (University Press of Kentucky)

(Top photo: A stone-faced Charlie Chaplin takes the witness stand as the defendant in a paternity suit brought upon him by aspiring actress Joan Barry.)