Big, gigantic age difference between an actor and his leading lady in classic films has never been something that eyelashes were batted at. Everyone looks at pairings like Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits or William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man movie and knows that there’s an age gap. Hell, Humphrey Bogart starred with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not when she was 19 and he was pushing 50, and then they fell in love and got married. It happens in modern film, too, but you do get a lot more people pointing out the May/December nature of romances in films now than you do with films from back in the day. Of course the actresses were frequently younger than their leading men. In classic Hollywood, actors were allowed to age and still play the leading man roles they were taking when they were in their 20s. But in most cases, once an actress passed 35 she was considered too old. So Clark Gable was allowed to play leading man for about 30 years. But instead of having Joan Crawford at his side for all those decades, it was a revolving door of young actresses.
But again, nobody really takes too much notice of this. Because, though young compared to their love interest, these actresses are still adults. They’re still women.
Well…… in most cases.
And in some cases….. you have two of the more famous actresses of their day who were pretty much still kids when they started playing romantic interests to older men.
Loretta Young hit Hollywood in 1917 when she was just four years old. She spent the next five years appearing in “extra” roles. She returned to the screen in 1927, a more mature 14. The next year she got her first starring role in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, playing the love interest to 45 year old Lon Chaney. She was 15.
Of course, it being a Lon Chaney film, the sad but heroic clown does not win the woman he loves. He instead selflessly sacrifices himself so she can be with the younger man she really loves. That younger man was Nils Asther. And he was 31.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh helped to catapult Young into stardom, and the teenager became an instant leading lady. She took on several leading roles the next year. The studio was smart though, and paired the now 16 year old young with a 19 year old Dougls Fairbanks, Jr. in more than one film. However, in 1930 she was back in a May/December situation. In The Truth About Youth, 17 year old Young was paired with Conrad Tearle, who was 35 years her senior. She was also paired with Grant Withers in The Second Floor Mystery. He was 11 years older than Young. And in this case, life imitated art. Young and Withers eloped after filming ended. Of course, the marriage didn’t last and Young, a strict catholic, had it annulled.
Young was one of the lucky ones. Her film career as a leading lady remained strong through the 1950s.
About ten years after Loretta Young got her big break in Hollywood, another very young actress broke onto the scene. Linda Darnell, however, didn’t go through extra work and bit roles before she was discovered. In 1939, Darnell was cast in her first film, Hotel for Women, in a starring role with second billing. In the same year, she starred as Tyrone Powers’ wife in Daytime Wife. Power was 25. Darnell was 16. She starred with Power again the next year in The Mark of Zorro and Brigham Young, and again in 1941 in Blood and Sand. In 1940, she made the film Stardust, which was partially based on her experience in Hollywood. For the film, 17 year old Darnell was paired with 28 year old John Payne. In that same year, she was also paired with 35 year old Henry Fonda in Chad Hanna.
Like Young, life imitated art for Darnell in her taste in men. She had a longtime affair with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in A Letter to Three Wives. He was 17 years her senior.
Unfortunately for Darnell, she didn’t have Young’s luck in her career. Due to her aging, and being dicked around by the studio (and dumped by Mankiewicz), her career began to fade in the 1950s. She died in a house fire in 1965 at just 41 years old.
Either nobody noticed that these stars were still kids when they were playing leading ladies, or nobody cared. Today, something like that really wouldn’t go over well. Imagine if AnnaSophie Robb was cast in a romance film opposite Sean Penn, and no issue was made of the difference in age. People would go totally apeshit. Eyebrows raised in 2005 when Edward Norton romanced Evan Rachel Wood in Down in the Valley. Wood was a completely legal 18, but there was nearly a 20 year age difference. Hmm…. and people say we were more prudish back then…