Thursday, June 24, 2021

William Haines and Jimmie Shields: The Happiest Marriage in Hollywood

Today Williams Haines is not a well-known name, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was one of the best known movie stars. He appeared in such movies as Brown of Harvard (1926), Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928), and A Tailor Made Man (1931). He topped the Quigley Poll, a survey of film exhibitors in 1930 and ranked in the top five box office stars from 1928 to 1932. It was in 1933 that he walked away from his career and never acted again.

William Haines was working as a male model when he was discovered through "New Faces of 1922" contest conducted by Goldwyn Pictures.  He was signed to a $40 a week contract by Goldwyn Pictures. While he had a substantial role in Three Wise Fools (1923), for the most part Mr. Haines found himself stuck in minor roles at Goldwyn Pictures. His next significant role would only come when he was lent to Fox for The Desert Outlaw (1923).

It was in 1924 that Loew's Theatres incorporated acquired Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures and merged the three studios to form MGM. That same year MGM lent William Haines to Columbia for a five picture deal. Columbia was impressed enough by Mr. Haines to make an offer to buy his contract, but MGM refused. William Haines's fortunes at MGM would change. He played a significant role in Little Annie Rooney (1925), starring Mary Pickford. In 1926 he would have another significant role in Brown of Harvard (1926). In fact, Brown of Harvard would establish the course of the rest of his career. It was the first time he would play the type of role for which he was best known, that of the wisecracking, arrogant, young man.

Nineteen twenty-six would prove to be an important year for William Haines in another, perhaps even more important way. It was that year while he made a publicity trip to New York City. While there he met Jimmie Shields. William Haines convinced Jimmie Shields to return with him to Hollywood with the hope of getting work as an extra. The two fell in love and began living together. Although they were clearly committed to each other, the press on the time did not remark on their relationship.

In the meantime, William Haines's career continued to rise. He starred in West Point (1928) and later appeared in The Smart Set (1928). He played opposite Marion Davies in Show People (1928). William Haines successfully made the transition to talkies. His first partially talking film was Alias Jimmie Valentine, which proved to be a success. His first entirely talking film was Navy Blues (1929). Over the next few years he found success in such films as Way Out West (1930), A Tailor Made Man (1931), New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), and Are You Listening (1932). 

Unfortunately, as William Haines's career continued to prosper, Hollywood was changing. Virginia Rappe's death in 1921 (of which Roscoe Arbuckle was accused), the murder of William Desmond Taylor, and various other scandals had convinced some across the country that Hollywood was a place of sin and decadence. At the same time, there were those who were growing concerned about the content of movies made at the time. In 1934 the Catholic Legion of Decency, later renamed the National Legion of Decency, was organized in order to identify objectionable material in motion pictures for Catholics. Other religious groups and moral watchdogs also expressed concern over the content of movies being made at the time. Ultimately, the outcry would result in stricter enforcement of the Production Code, bring the Pre-Code Era to an end in 1934.

Sadly, the moral panic over the content of motion pictures would even have an impact on the personal lives of stars. At the time homosexuality was considered to be immoral. It then in 1933 that Louis B. Mayer gave William Haines a choice. Mr. Haines could continue his career if he entered a lavender marriage, a marriage with a member of the opposite sex meant to conceal the sexual orientation of one or both people involved. If Mr. Haines continued his relationship with Jimmie Shields, then his acting career was over. William Haines chose Jimmie Shields, to whom he regarded himself as being married.

William Haines would appear in Mascot Pictures' Young and Beautiful (1934) and The Marines Are Coming (1934) before giving up acting entirely. William Haines and Jimmie Shields then opened their own interior design firm, at which they proved to be very successful. They worked for such clients as Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Marion Davies, George Cuckor, Jack Warner, and Ronald Reagan. So successful was William Haines Designs that the company continues to exist to this day.

Ultimately, William Haines and Jimmie Shields remained together for 47 years, outlasting many other Hollywood unions. Joan Crawford called Messrs. Haines and Shields's relationship, "the happiest marriage in Hollywood. William Haines died on December 26 1973 at the age of 73 from lung cancer. Jimmie Shields was overcome by grief. It was on March 6 1974 that he took an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving behind a note, "Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely."

William Haines and Jimmie Shields were openly gay at a time when it was dangerous to be so. Furthermore, William Haines refused to compromise himself simply to continue his career. Being openly gay was an enormous act of courage at the time. Refusing to give up his relationship in some ways even more so. William Haines was truly a pioneer, and many years ahead of his time.

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