Tag Archives: early Hollywood

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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A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

I would not change the beginning for anything.”

Author Darcy O’Brien (1939-1998) was best known for books on true crime, including Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. While I’ve read about the case, I won’t be reading that book about a couple of sickos who hunted, tortured and killed women in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Given that O’Brien produced a seminal book on those brutal murderers, it’s practically impossible to align that part of O’Brien’s career with A Way of Life, Like Any Other, his wonderfully lighthearted book told by a young man, the sole offspring of unstable Hollywood film stars. O’Brien was the child of silent star George O’Brien and actress Marguerite Churchill, and while no doubt O’Brien incorporated many experiences from his real life into the book, some major differences exist.

Our unnamed narrator begins by recollecting the golden years of his early childhood which was spent mostly at Casa Fiesta, a ranch in the Malibu hills owned by his father. It’s here that the narrator lives an almost dream childhood. He’s the cosseted son of Hollywood film stars, and while his surroundings are real, there’s still a sense of fabrication–as though someone somewhere has sketched an idea of stage-set perfection, but as always in the book, the narrator’s parents behave inappropriately, and we see that sneaking into the scene even in these halcyon days:

I would not change the beginning for anything. I had an electric car, a starched white nanny, a pony, a bed modeled after that of Napoleon’s son, and I was baptized by the archbishop of the diocese. I wore hats and sucked on a little pipe.

The only child surrounded by various Hollywood luminaries, the narrator’s role, even in early childhood, seemed to cast him as part of the entertainment, a miniature adult. The first crack in this picture appears when the narrator is seven and his mother begins talking longingly about New York. Meanwhile the boy’s father, George, lives the acting roles he loves by dressing as a cowboy all in black and riding his horse “just like the old padres” even when he’s off the set. There’s a telling moment when George decides to take a grueling four day trek by horse to Santa Barbara which is ended by a stay in a luxury hotel, an expensive meal, and a drive home in a Lincoln.

The war intervenes in everyone’s lives, and after that, nothing is the same.

Life turned round on Mother and Dad, and stripped them of their goods and pleasures. It was not the war that did it, but by the end of the war everything had changed.

The marriage between the narrator’s parents sours and peels apart. At first, the pre-teen narrator lives with his needy, hysteric mother in Los Angeles, and their roles, in terms of maturity and responsibility are reversed; he’s her confidant throughout her many love affairs, her nurse when she attempts suicide and her 12-year-old bartender for the parties she throws. A long, steady stream of unsuitable men pass though their lives:

Mr. Johnny Standfast, whose real name turned out to be Reilly, and who had been a handball partner of my father’s at the Hollywood Athletic Club, came to stay for a week, but the old magic didn’t click. He left with a black eye. The man who invented the Hawaiian shirt ran strong for almost a year. He would fly in from Honolulu and take us to expensive restaurants. We were going to live on his yacht. Life would be an endless cruise. Then he began to notice mother’s drinking, and one morning he had to drive me to school because she couldn’t get up. Mother said she hated the sun anyway. She had had enough of it with my father.

Aging and losing her looks, the narrator’s mother confesses that she’s spent her life “looking for the perfect man, the perfect love.” After a series of disastrous relationships, the ‘perfect’ man turns out to be Anatol, a short Russian sculptor, a “compact rhino of a man” who works for Disney, but this regular paycheck supports Anatol’s real love–statues of “mythological creatures performing sexual acts of every description.”

As his mother’s life sinks into alcohol-soaked drama, eventually the narrator returns to live with his father.  George, “his money almost gone, his wife gone altogether, his motion picture career apparently behind him,”  lives “in diminished circumstances,“with his ex-wife’s mother, a strange arrangement laced with disgust:

She watched him pining and growing fatter and behaving more and more peculiarly. He had fallen into a religious mania, attending mass and taking holy communion every morning, participating in every sort of church function–novenas, missions, Holy Name Society breakfasts. The Ladies’ Alter Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacrament bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member. He twirled the cage at bingo, he raffled automobiles and turkeys. When the parish sedan was broken down or otherwise in use, he chauffeured the priests on their errands of mercy. He never missed a funeral. Because of his physic and the glamour that still trailed from him, he was in great demand as a pallbearer.

With “the Navy and the Church” now the “twin props of his existence,” George’s ex-mother-in-law addresses him derisively as Captain, yet this militarism invades the household with George granting her military status and promoting her rank periodically.

Within a month of Mother’s desertion she was made Chief Petty Officer, and soon afterwards Chief Engineer and First Mate. Yet her climb in status was accompanied by no improvement in her decorum. She flouted military discipline, rising and retiring in defiance of the Order of the Day; defacing the labels he so painstakingly affixed to every cupboard, closet, and drawer; taking out the garbage on the windward side of the house; refusing to stand watch, causing many a sleepless night for him; battening down the hatch to her compartment so that it was impossible for him to carry out his inspection rounds; countermanding his orders for provisions

George trying to run his ex-mother-in-law’s house to military standards is, of course, very eccentric, but the behaviour goes deeper and addresses George’s need to bring status, order and some meaning to his life. No wonder then that the narrator imagines he’s found greener pastures when he moves in with the son of a famous director, but if he’s hoping to find the stability that has so far eluded him, he still has lessons to learn. Affluence does not equal stability, and neither is it a replacement.

Upstairs, Mr Caliban’s bedroom was done in a Genghis Kahn motif, all read, black, and silver with weapons on the walls and full set of Mongolian armour standing in a corner. Mr. Caliban used the armor to hang his suits on, when he came home from work and changed into his relaxing clothes. Mrs. Caliban’s bedroom knocked your eyes out. It was entirely chartreuse, the walls the rug, the bedspread, everything. The bed was a four-poster job and the chartreuse hangings had been made to order by some nuns in France.

This story could have been written with anger, resentment and bitterness, but there’s none of that here. A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a coming-of-age story told by a young man who grows up & matures in spite of his many problems. While never critical of his parents, the narrator instead matures to understanding and acceptance, approaching his damaged parents with empathy & humour, and part of the book’s magically light tone is created by the narrator’s initially naïve explanations of the unfiltered adult life which surrounds him. He grows up listening to a running commentary of his father’s faults, but there’s one painful moment when he sees his father’s weak character unadorned by movie screen presence or Navy bluster, and it’s a scene of painful truth.

For Max’s review 

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No Mother to Guide Her by Anita Loos

“No more does one see Gloria Swansons in Hollywood; there are no more Joan Crawfords. The stars of today consort in supermarkets with Beverly Hills housewives whom they ape. And today’s most glamorous set boasts of itself as a ‘rat pack.'”

As a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, I am no stranger to the name of novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, Anita Loos. Two of her best-remembered books are: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Her name crops up  in a long list of screenplays impossible to list here, but I’ll include : How to Marry a Millionaire, A Red-Headed Woman, The Girl from Missouri. It’s no wonder I associate the name Anita Loos with sparkling dialogue, so when I saw that No Mother To Guide Her was one of the Prion Humour Classics, I decided to read it.

The novel was originally published in 1961, and the story is told by the now elderly Elmer Bliss. He begins his reminiscences of the film star Viola Lake after hearing that she is a resident of the Motion Picture Country Club in Van Nuys–a name that’s  “been trumped up by the ever merciful Acting Profession to glamorize a refuge for indigent film folk.” Elmer knew Viola in her “heyday” when she owned a   “million-dollar English mansion, the thatched roof of which had been especially constructed in the Cotswold Country and imported piecemeal, to the Film Capital.” Elmer hasn’t seen Viola in years, but after he hears her address, he knows she’s living in poverty.

Thoughts of Viola bring back the past. Elmer recounts his early life in New York and how he eventually found himself in Hollywood writing a column called Hollywood Tidings. The column serves as both a puff piece and also as an image-makeover spot for stars whose sullied reputations need a bit of propping up. The funny thing is that Elmer believes in his job, and believes he’s doing good by providing false public images of Hollywood’s troubled stars. He takes his job so seriously that he will not brook any negative publicity whatsoever about Hollywood or its residents:

Cynics love to say that the public cares only to read of sordid things. but I, for one, do not believe it. My column was successful right from the start, though I told only of the good, the true the beautiful.

This outlook on life places him on the opposing side of rival columnist Lansing Marshall, and the two men spar occasionally over sundry matters, but then the capture of serial killer Calvin Barco brings matters to a head. Film star Viola Lake is involved in the case and the trial promises to reveal juicy tidbits of this actress’s life. Marshall threatens to expose every sordid detail, and Bliss goes on a campaign to protect Viola Lake and her good name.

This is all very quaint. Elmer Bliss is incredibly naive and old-fashioned. While the book’s title, No Mother to Guide her refers to Viola Lake, it’s impossible to overlook that poor Elmer lives with a mother who guides him far too much. She sees Viola Lake as a threat, and although that may be true, Elmer’s mother is very likely to see any woman as a threat to her authority.

No Mother to Guide Her isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. It’s amusing in its quaintness with the ongoing joke that Elmer is clueless in every respect. This is a Hollywood that is seeped in scandal–none of it mentioned in the book of course, but there was the hideous murder of Thelma Todd, the suicide (if indeed it was) of Jean Harlow’s husband Paul Bern, and the Fatty Arbuckle case. Hollywood was never an innocent place. It was just kept clean for public consumption, and in the case of this novel, Elmer is seen as a convenient vessel to market innocence since he believes in it himself 100%. The humour, therefore, comes from the fact that Elmer is a naive idiot–just think of the sort of comedy roles Bob Hope played in the Road films, and you will understand what I mean.

Structurally the novel has some problems–Viola Lake’s reputation is threatened by her involvement in the Barco trial, and yet her connection is flimsy at best. The murders were somewhat unsavoury and treated with a flippancy that jars with the story’s innocent humour. Coincidentally I recently watched Red Skelton in Merton of the Movies, the story of an innocent country bumpkin who longs to be a Hollywood star. Meeting his screen idol (played by Gloria Grahame) turns out to be a horrible disappointment. Merton and Elmer Bliss could be the same character. 

I’ve read several of the Prion Humour Classics titles (Augustus Carp Esq., by Himself, and A Melon for Ecstasy) and No Mother To Guide Her didn’t really compare. It was amusing, a light read, nostalgic and quaint–which may or may not be much of a recommendation.

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