“If you didn’t sleep with them you didn’t get the part,” the dancer Agnes de Mille would later recall about the Shubert brothers. “The Shuberts ran a brothel: Let them sue me.”
The phrase casting couch became linked to the Shuberts, at least in retrospect, as the etymologist Peter Tamony discovered. As recorded in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Tamony collected a usage example from 1931, describing an event that “happened some time ago, long before the casting couches were thrown out of the Shubert Building.”
By then, however, the idea of the casting couch had moved out west to Hollywood. In a 1920 article in Photoplay magazine, a New York journalist reported on “immorality in camera-land,” where “young women are not advanced in their chosen profession unless they submit to the advances of studio managers, directors, or influential male stars.”
The phrase casting couch had evidently not yet become part of Hollywood parlance, since it doesn’t appear in the Photoplay article. But in 1924, a silent stag film may have been responsible for introducing the expression to a wide audience. The film was titled The Casting Couch, and it featured the stereotypical scenario of an actress auditioning for a role and giving in to the salacious demands of the casting director. (It’s hard to know for sure if the title of the film actually dates to 1924, since the surviving prints of such “blue” movies have often been heavily edited after the fact.)
In her 1989 history of pornography, Hard Core, Linda Williams calls The Casting Couch “a classic of the genre,” quoting the wry “moral” on the movie’s final intertitle: “The only way to become a star is to get under a good director and work your way up.” Still, the phrase casting couch might have been considered a little too risqué for consumption beyond the prurient stag-film audience at that point.
That changed by the end of the Roaring ’20s, as sexually suggestive language worked its way into the mainstream. In 1929, Max Lief, a writer for the New York Daily News, published Hangover: A Novel of Broadway Manners, and the flap copy featured some colorful slang: “From wisecracker to highjacker, from 15-and-5 taxi driver to five-dollar cover nightclub pirate, from beminked showgirl to casting-couch producer—the ladder is long, but the dizzying denizens of the Gland Canyon known as Broadway somehow climb it.” (That’s right, a nickname for Broadway was “the Gland Canyon.”)
Five years later, in 1934, casting couch was considered a harmless enough phrase that it could be casually dropped into a newspaper column about Hollywood. The word sleuth Barry Popik uncovered an example from April of that year written by the syndicated gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky: “The casting couch song: ‘You oughta be in pictures.’” (The song “You Oughta Be in Pictures” had just become something of a Hollywood anthem after Rudy Vallee made it a hit.) Skolsky, as Popik notes, was responsible for circulating an even more famous bit of movie-business slang: The earliest known example of “Oscar” as a nickname for the Academy Award appeared in a March 1934 Skolsky column.