Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood – “Book Banter” Review
By Stuart Nulman –mtltimes.ca
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann (Harper, $34.99)
The early days of Hollywood as a movie capitol wasn’t exactly an “age of innocence”.
During the height of the silent movie era of the 1910s and 20s, Hollywood wasn’t only cranking out two-reelers for every nickleodeon and budding movie theatre across North America; it was a haven for decadence, debauchery and drug addiction for its first crop of movie stars.
However, as the 1920s began, the excesses practiced by many of these silent era stars started to catch up with them, and much of it to damaging effect. There was the rape/murder trial of comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1921; then in 1922 was the shooting death of film director William Desmond Taylor; and then there was the untimely death of morphine addicted popular film actor Wallace Reid in 1923. It’s the middle incident, and the scandalous ripple effects it caused, that’s the focus of William J. Mann’s excellent book Tinseltown.
Taylor was a handsome and popular director, who made a string of successful pictures for the Famous Players-Lasky studio (the precursor to Paramount Pictures), and was becoming a player in early Hollywood as a result of his role as President of the Motion Picture Directors Association. But when his prone body was found lying in the living of his Hollywood bungalow on the morning of February 3, 1922, dead from a single gun shot wound, it started a scandal of monstrous proportions that would shake up the movie colony, and precipitate a widespread campaign by politicians, studio chiefs and church groups to clean up Hollywood from its immoral depths.
The Taylor murder case and its ripple effects take up the majority of the narrative of Tinseltown. Mann digs up the sordid affair that the murder case created. Taylor had a shady past that included a previous marriage and child whom he abandoned for a career in the movies, and above all, he had “affairs” with three Hollywood starlets: Keystone Studios comedienne Mabel Normand (who was emotionally fragile and a drug addict), Mary Miles Minter (who had a manipulative, destructive stage mother named Charlotte Shelby), and Margaret “Gibby” Gibson (who was picked up for prostitution early in her career and resorted to raising money through extortion scams with a group of two-bit gangsters, so that she can produce and distribute her own movies).
The murder of William Desmond Taylor has remained unsolved for over 90 years; however, Mann – through exhaustive research of police records and evidence – gives the reader a scenario of whom he believes fired that fatal shot at Taylor on that February night in 1922. And after reading through the book and what he has gathered, Mann’s reconstruction of the murder and whom he believes committed it actually makes a lot of sense and can bring the case to a satisfying conclusion (which he believes, was precipitated by a deathbed confession from Gibson in 1964).
As well, Mann gives a secondary focus to the absolute power some of the early movie moguls had on the industry at that time. In particular, he shines the spotlight on Famous Players-Lasky founder Adolph Zukor, who came from Hungary a poor Jewish refugee and by the early 1920s built a powerful movie empire.
Feared and despised by his employees (whom they referred to as “Creepy” behind his back) Zukor spent his time gaining more power and wealth, not to mention trying to outdo his rival, the more well-liked and highly respected Marcus Loew of Metro Pictures, with the number of theatrical properties he acquired, not to mention building the tallest office building in New York (35 floors high) just blocks away from Loew’s New York headquarters. Also, Zukor had the power and influence to make and break careers. This was evident following the Tayor murder, in which he made Famous Players employees to go to Taylor’s home following the murder to gather his personal papers, so that reporters won’t get their hands on them and report on his salacious past. As well, Zukor was the force behind hiring former Postmaster General Will H. Hays as Hollywood’s official censor, and even reversed Hays’ decision following Fatty Arbuckle’s acquittal to allow his pictures to return to general release and allow him to star in future pictures (even though at the time Arbuckle was one of Paramount’s top stars, and his first picture that was released following the trial was making a lot of money at the box office).
Tinseltown is a fascinating book about the sad, tragic near moral decline and fall of Hollywood during its infancy, which was accentuated by three major scandals that were filled with love, passion, drugs and murder, and how the powers that be in the police precincts and boardrooms of the movie capitol did everything humanly possible to bring back its glimmer and glamour, no matter what the cost was.
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Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at email@example.com.