Film History: William Haines

Photographers Unknown, Twelve Men During the Day

Born in Staunton, Virginia in January of 1900, Charles William Haines was an American actor and interior designer. He was the third child of seven siblings, two of which died in infancy, born to George Adam Haines, a cigar maker, and Laura Virginia (Matthews) Haines. He became fascinated at an early age with motion pictures and stage performances. 

At the age of fourteen, William Haines ran away from home accompanied by an unidentified young man. They both gained employment at the DuPont factory in Hopewell, Virginia, where they earned fifty dollars a week producing nitrocellulose which in its finished form is used for photography. Tracked by the police, Haines made an arrangement with his parents where he could remain in Hopewell and, with his earnings, send support to his family. The two boys remained in Hopewell until the 1915 fire which destroyed most of the city. 

Haines relocated to New York City until 1917, when a family crisis caused him to move to his family’s new home in Richmond, Virginia, to lend financial and emotional support. With the family’s recovery in 1919, Haines returned to New York City and settled in the growing gay community of Greenwich Village. He worked at various odd jobs and eventually gained employment as a model. Haines entered the Goldwyn Pictures’s contest, “New Faces of 1922”, and was discovered by Bijou Fernandez, a silent film actress and theatrical agent. Signed to a forty dollar per week contract with Goldwyn Pictures, he traveled to Hollywood in March of 1922 along with fellow contestant Eleanor Boardman.

William Haines initially played uncredited roles; his first significant casting was a high-profile role in director King Vidor’s 1923 silent drama “Three Wise Fools”, for which he received positive notices in reviews. This was followed in the same year by another significant role in Fox Studios’s silent western “The Desert Outlaw”. In 1924, MGM lent Haines to Columbia Pictures for a five-picture deal. The first of these films, the 1924 crime film “The Midnight Express” received excellent reviews. 

Haines had his first major personal success with the starring role in MGM’s 1926 silent drama “Brown of Harvard”. The character he played, a young arrogant man later humbled, was a role he would repeat for the next several years. On a publicity trip to New York City in 1926, Haines met James Shields. He convinced Shields to move to Los Angeles and promised to secure him work as an extra in films. Haines and Shields began living together and saw themselves as a committed couple. Although many actors in the film industry knew of their commitment, Haines never publicly affirmed his sexuality and there was no mention of their relationship in the press.

William Haines next appeared in two successful films, the 1925 comedy-drama “Little Annie Rooney”, co-starring with Mary Pickford, and the 1926 comedy “Show People”, co-starring with Marion Davies. He was one of the top five box-office stars from 1928 to 1932. With the advent of sound in film, Haines was able, with elocution lessons, to make the transition and maintain his star status. His first starring role in a full-sound film was the 1929 romance  “Navy Blues” for MGM; this was followed by the 1930 western parody “Way Out West”. At this point in his career, Haines was listed as the top box-office attraction in the country. 

Haines’s films began to drop at the box-office by the late 1930s. MGM canceled his contract in 1931 and, later, brought him back to the studio as a featured player with a reduced salary. Haines next starred in the film, “Just a Gigolo”; but that production failed to turn his slipping ratings. The MGM Studio finally terminated Haines’s contract with the studio in early 1933. 

The termination of Haines was the result of multiple factors.  With the depression, studios were very concerned about their films’ profit margins; Haines was aging and had not successfully completed his transition from his early “Brown of Harvard” persona; and Haines, despite not affirming his sexuality publicly, did not agree to a studio-supported lavender marriage as other gay actors had done. The impending Hays Production Code and the decreasing profits from Haines’s films put pressure on the studio and made it difficult for MGM to continue placing him in starring roles.

William Haines’s final two films were produced in 1934 by Mascot Pictures, a studio known for producing serials and B-movies. The first was the romantic comedy “Young and Beautiful”, which starred Haines opposite actress Judith Allen, and the second was a war-romance film “The Marines Are Coming”, in which Haines played opposite Conrad Nagel and Esther Ralston. Although Haines still received offers from minor studios, he made the decision to retire from acting and commit himself to his and Shield’s interior design business. Over his acting career, Haines had appeared appeared in fifty-four films, the majority of which were in starring roles.

In 1930, William Haines and James Shield had begun a successful dual career as interior designers and antique dealers. Hand-painted wallpaper, ottoman tables, and low to the ground sitting rooms became signature pieces of their work. Their antiques and artwork were loaned for film stage sets, including Haines’s personal paintings for Tara’s interior walls in “Gone With the Wind”. Among their clients were friends such as Gloria Swanson, George Cukor, Carole Lombard, and Joan Crawford.  In 1937, Haines was hired to decorate the estate of studio executive Jack L. Warner.  In the late 1930s through an introduction made by Joan Crawford, Haines and Shield decorated Villa Valentino, a secluded estate owned by Tom Lyle Williams, the founder of Maybelline Cosmetics, and his life-long partner Emery Shaver.

Haines and Shield settled in the Hollywood community of Brentwood and, except for a brief period of Haines’s service during World War II, they remained together and ran their prosperous business. By the time of their retirement in the early 1970s, their clients included socialite and philanthropist Betsy Bloomingdale and Governor Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Haines was also hired to redecorate London’s Winfield House, the official United States embassy residence, by the U.S. Ambassador Walter Annenberg.

William Haines and James Shield remained together in a relationship for forty-seven years. They enjoyed a high position in Hollywood for decades, supported by many loyal friends. On December 26th of 1973, William Haines died, at the age of seventy-three, from lung cancer in Santa Monica, California. Shortly afterward on March 6th of 1974, James Shield, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dressed in Haines’s pajamas, wrote a note about his loneliness, and took an overdose of sleeping pills. They are interred side by side in Santa Monica’s Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery. For his contribution to the motion-picture industry, William Haines has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at number 7012.

Third Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, Louis B Mayer, William Haines, Marion Davis, and James Shields at the Premiere of “A Tailor Made Man”, March 1931

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