Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

But in fact Billy had been a blank screen, onto which Mabel, and so many others, had projected their own hopes and needs.”

While William J. Mann’s non fiction book Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood centres on the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the sensational 1922 murder is set against the backdrop of censorship, scandal and the shifting times. Mann argues that a constellation of dark events which include the death of Olive Thomas, the Fatty Arbuckle trials, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor all paved the road to the establishment of censorship and fed support for the various ‘moral’ crusaders who saw Hollywood as a den of iniquity which threatened the morals of the audience. The book is essential reading for any readers interested in early Hollywood and the development of the Hays Code.

TinseltownThis was an era when “thirty-five million Americans–one out of three–went to the movies at least once a week.” Everyone agreed–politicians, fans, film moguls, and moral crusaders–that the film industry was impacting culture, and this resulted in a range of opinions and a figurative tug-of-war between the opposing camps on the subject of censorship. Film moguls, such as Hungarian immigrant and founder of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor, and Marcus Loew, founder of MGM, for example, were loath to hand over censorship power to any outsiders, and for a period, the film industry self-regulated. This is where William Desmond Taylor comes in as an important figure. He was “well regarded in the film colony” but was a “bit of a cipher.” An “ardent defender against the increasing calls for censorship,” he was a stalwart, well-respected spokesperson for the film industry. His death and the subsequent scandal were building blocks in the road to film censorship. The “murder of Taylor–the man who’d once argued for the decency and integrity of Tinseltown–ratcheted the campaign of the reformers up to new levels.”

The book delves into the months leading up to the crime–Taylor’s increased nervousness and the spate of burglaries at his home. The night of the murder is detailed along with various eye-witness accounts, information regarding the removal of evidence by the general manager of Paramount Pictures, and the initial bungling of the case (Taylor was first thought to have died of natural causes.)  Four women are part of the author’s dissection of the crime: actress Mabel Normand whose cocaine habit (rumoured to be around 2,000 a month) was a matter for the press, Margaret Gibson, who reinvented herself as Pamela Palmer following her arrest in Little Tokyo for prostitution, former child star Mary Miles Minter and her formidable mother, Mrs. Shelby.

There’s so much intriguing information raised here: why, for example was Mrs. Shelby repeatedly given a layer of protection by Woolwine, the DA, and why was Margaret “Gibby” Gibson rehired repeatedly by film producer Jesse Lasky and the Famous Players Corporation against the odds?

With an utterly undistinguished filmography, a record for prostitution, and a desire to form a company that would compete with Famous Players, Gibby should have been a pariah in Lasky’s office. But instead she had now been hired for a second major feature at the biggest, most prestigious studio in the industry.

Author William J. Mann offers plenty of explanation for the events. The personalities of these long-dead people leap from the pages–from Zukor’s megalomania, the sacrifice of Fatty Arbuckle to a vicious witch-hunt, Will Hays’ drive to become independent from the movie moguls, Margaret Gibson’s history of involvement with the criminal element to Mabel Normand’s gentle determination to defy the gossip mongers and survive without scandal. In this compelling book, Mann creates a cogent argument that William Desmond Taylor’s past was involved in the solution to his murder. A must-read for fans of early Hollywood.

Included in the book is a chapter devoted to a confession to the murder and another much-appreciated chapter:”What Happened to Everyone Else.” The author also explains his sources: letters telegrams, FBI files, police reports, news accounts, production records and emphasizes that he “did not venture unbidden into the minds of my subjects. When I write ‘how terribly she missed him’ or ‘Zukor seethed,’ these descriptions are based in interviews or memoirs by the subject on question, wherein such feelings, attitudes, or motivations were disclosed or can be deduced.” I appreciated this clarification. Too many books in this genre tend to offer the thoughts of characters, and as a reader I’m left wondering what really happened and what is made up. Finally the author also acknowledges his debt to http://www.taylorology.com.

And so out had come the censor’s shears. In Pennsylvania, state-appointed moral guardians had even snipped out scenes of a “woman making baby clothes, on the ground that children believe that babies are brought by the stork.” What was next? asked the New York Times. “Will it be a crime to show a picture of a man giving his wife a Christmas present on the ground that it tends to destroy faith in Santa Claus?”

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12 Comments

Filed under Mann William J, Non Fiction

12 responses to “Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

  1. I find the connecting events such as the murder of Taylor and others to the film censorship movement to be real food for thought. It highlights the importance of examining these events which many might define as trivial.

    With all that sad, reading about these things can also be alot of fun 🙂

  2. Wild times. Nowadays seems almost tame compared to that time.
    Sounds like a really good book.

  3. This sounds like a great book. Have you read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls? I guess you have…but if not, it gives a riveting insight into the 70s era.

  4. leroyhunter

    An endlessly fascinating era. Overlaps with some of Ellroy’s concerns, and I also spotted what looked like a possible companion piece to this: LA Noir, The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. It looked good, despite the OTT subtitle.

    To Caroline’s point, it’s interesting to compare this era with ours and consider what (if anything) has changed. The scandals of golden-era Hollywood are common knowledge now, as are the lengths that vested interests went to to conceal them. I guess the assumption is that such concealment isn’t possible now (or in recent times), but I wonder. Powerful, famous, wealthy people will almost inevitably misbehave and equally inevitably try to achieve impunity. The lo-carb scandals that are now part of the accepted news cycle quite possibly act to conceal much more serious misdeeds. Or am I too cynical?
    .

    • No I don’t think you’re cynical at all. I think we are fed celebrity ‘news’ per the publicists. There’s a film that goes into this. Spanish: Bigas Luna’s Di di Hollywood. Now that’s an interesting portrayal of the industry. Most of the celebrity stories are, as you say, lo-carb nonsense.
      I think the biggest difference between then and now has to be the censorship issue. I’ve always dismissed Hays because of the whole censorship issue, but here we see a three-dimensional person who actually argued for Fatty Arbuckle’s return to the screen, but he was shot down. Hays had secrets of his own too.

  5. Fascinating. I don’t know much about Hollywood in that era, so I always appreciate your posts about it.
    Reading your posts, I have the impression to be in a book by Chandler or Elroy.

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