Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” captures 1920s Hollywood in all its decadence, vulgarity and excess. Filming in dusty backlots and lavish mansions, Chazelle creates a fever dream of vintage filmmaking through a contemporary lens. But before looking at history through his own lens, Chazelle began with months of intensive research, finding inspiration in real-life Hollywood stars, power brokers and events. And in many cases the early days of filmmaking was Pretty scandalous
“The reality is that these people were working in a no-holds-barred kind of world where an entire industry and city is being built from the ground up, and that takes a certain kind of insanity,” Chazelle says.
According to “Tinseltown” author William J. Mann, the 1920s in particular were a free time. “Before the Production Code was established there was an incredible amount of freedom, and so people had a lot more free ideas about how they could live their lives. Before the Code Hollywood was a haven for free thinkers and free lovers.”
And all that freedom led to a lot of experimentation with sex, alcohol and drugs.
“The early Hollywood scandals were really about managing a kind of discourse about why stars were self-destructing, and the studio system itself was part of the cause,” says “Twilight of the Idols” writer Mark Lynn Anderson. “Contracts were tight and it wasn’t a good labor situation for people who were making some real money.” Such pressure to produce dozens of films a year can cause stars to become dependent on drugs and alcohol, and several stars have died of overdoses at a young age.
Here’s how it went down with some of the people and events depicted in “Babylon,” which stars Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt and opens Dec. 23.
Was there really that many drugs?
There was certainly a drug scene in Hollywood, and there were drug-dealing rings operating in the studios, especially in the early 1920s before William Hess came to town and began cracking down on morals both on and offscreen. While it’s highly unlikely that party guests piled mountains of cocaine on the table for free indulgence, as shown in the film, drugs including cocaine, morphine, heroin, opium and ether – a primary anesthetic that is mentioned in the film – were all on offer.
Reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns, who served as the inspiration for the film’s Eleanor St. John gossip columnist character, remembers “Cecil B. DeMille handing out a psychedelic concoction of hyoscine and morphine at a party,” Mann’s “Tinseltown” reported.
Just like today, drug addiction often began with painkillers given for injuries, as in the case of starving actor Wallace Reid, who died in 1923 at a sanitarium where he was being treated for morphine addiction after a train accident. November 17, 1920, no diversity A drug bust report, possibly Reed’s dealer, is a blind item. “Thomas H. Tyner, aka Claude Walton, aka Bonnie Walton, was taken into custody at a local lot here with seven bundles of heroin on his person, according to the arresting officer. Tyner announced that he was delivering dope to one of the Coast’s best-known male movie stars and was assigned to deliver it a second time to the same star, whose wife hoped to break his habit, authorities said.”
Also in 1920, a huge scandal broke out when Olive Thomas, a flapper for the popular Selznick Picture Company, was found dead in Paris. diversity He reports that he took bichloride of mercury. The New York Times reported that police were looking for evidence of “rumors of a drug and champagne organization” and that “one of those questioned was a former American officer convicted of selling cocaine.”
Since cocaine wasn’t widely banned in the United States until 1922, when Prohibition was introduced in 1920, it’s not surprising that the addictive substance flowed fairly freely down Sunset Boulevard.
The Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Scandal
Although he is only onscreen for a minute or two, the character of Orville Pickwick, a rich, carnal man who laughs when a young woman urinates on his body during the film’s first wild party sequence, appears to have been inspired by Roscoe “Fatty”. Arbuckle. Later during the party scene, Pickwick finds the woman passed out, possibly from some sort of overdose, and shouts “Wake up, wake up!”
Arbuckle, a successful comic actor, was involved in the 1921 death of actress Virginia Rapp. Although Arbuckle was acquitted of rape and accidental murder, the suspicion that she was fatally injured after he was penetrated with a bottle of champagne refused to die. “Babylon” references the urban legend with the subsequent scene of a woman using a bottle.
But while it was never proven that Rapp’s death in the San Francisco hotel room was directly caused by Arbuckle, there was plenty of alcohol flowing around the actor and his friend, despite alcohol being illegal for a full decade. “Fatty Arbuckle was known to have one of the biggest cellars, which meant he had all this alcohol,” Mann says.
“Scandal Hits Industry” on September 16, 1921 diversity Headline about judgment. “Arbuckle Affair Furnishes Capital to Screen Enemies – Hundreds of Exhibitors Cancel ‘Fatty Comedies’.” Arbuckle’s three trials—two ended in hung juries and he was acquitted the third time—brought more scandal to the movie business than the studios managed.
As a result of all this bad press, in 1922, former Republican Party Chairman Hayes was brought in as the first chairman to become an MPA with the goal of cleaning up Hollywood.
“There’s a new sensibility now, people care about morality,” “Babylon” character Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, explains in a scene set in 1929.
“In the middle of the decade, what the studios were learning was how to protect themselves from the press and the public. So the one thing they didn’t have in the early 1920s, at the time of Fatty Arbuckle, the William Desmond Taylor murders — it was only in the middle of the decade when they started getting fixers who could contain these scandals,” Mann said.
In “Babylon,” Flea plays a studio fixer who exclaims, “What a mess!” When he sees the possibly dead woman at the party.
“Any kind of misbehavior at first sight, any kind of wild mob that gets out of control, they’re there to shut down the press or buy off the police, and it becomes an inherent part of the studio system,” Mann says. “Of course there were wild parties—there were always wild parties, but at the end of the decade the studios had them.”
“It’s interesting that the introduction of ethics clauses in contracts like this doesn’t apply to industry executives — it only applies to visible talent who were corporate assets, stars,” Anderson noted.
Clara Bow – Vamp or Victim?
In “Babylon,” Robbie plays Nellie Leroy, an aspiring actress whose character is partially inspired by Clara Bow. Like Bo, Leroy came from a poor background and ended up rocketing to fame.
Dubbed “The It Girl” by St. John’s, Bo became a huge star, but her career nearly ended when she was just 25. Like Robbie’s character, Bo enjoyed gambling and hanging out with the USC football team (which included John Wayne at the time), but her party-girl reputation was further dragged down by accusations of plagiarism against her secretary Daisy DeVoe. Subsequent trials fueled unsubstantiated reports of him being a porn addict.
Under the headline “Clara’s a hard break, says Par.,” Variety reported in 1931 that “Miss Bow’s latest problem with Daisy DeVoe, her former secretary, has been harpooned again in the daily papers ‘because she’s good copy.’ ”
The article continues, “Frenzy and distraught over the trial, the bad publicity she’s been given, and the rigorous rehearsals for last week’s ‘City Streets,’ and the recent operation to remove a piece of cartilage from her jaw, Miss Bo volunteered to ask Parr. For six weeks off.” Although Bo was able to make the transition to talkies better than some actors, the starmaking machinery chewed him up and spat him out in just a few years.
“In the late ’20s we see ethics clauses written into contracts and if you do anything to tarnish the studio’s image you can be fired – it was very vaguely stated that transgressions could happen and of course Clara Bow was the poster child for that. Girl, though she didn’t really do anything wrong,” explained Mann.
Anna Mae Wong – pioneering actress
Li Jun Li plays Lady Fe Zhu in “Babylon,” wearing a top hat and tails like Marlene Dietrich. Her character is inspired by Anna May Wong, the pioneering Chinese American actress who starred alongside Dietrich in “Shanghai Express.”
Robbie’s character says of Lee, “Do you think he swings both ways?” Dietrich claimed to have had romances with Wong, and speculation of his relationships with other women, including Leni Riefenstahl, did some damage to his reputation, but like many things that happened nearly 100 years ago, it is unverifiable that Wong was bisexual.
Lee says he is moving to Europe for better roles in the film, as Wang did when racism made it difficult for him to succeed in Hollywood. Later, after she lost the starring role in “The Good Earth” to a white actress, Daily variety reported in 1937 that Wong “planned to make his permanent home in China and work in native films there.” Wong made a short film based on his years of experience in China.
Was there really a party tunnel with orgies, rats and alligators?
Absolutely not. But there were bootleg booze tunnels running to speakeasies in downtown LA—which could serve as the setting for an illicit encounter or two.
“Babylon” captures the sweeping changes in business with an admittedly exaggerated perspective, but there’s no doubt it was an exciting time.
“A lot of people look back on the silent era and they think of it as this foreign place and this strange planet that we can’t possibly relate to today, and yet it’s important to look at the silent era as a continuation of the 1930s and ’40s. . Production, Distribution , marketing, publicity offices, self-censorship, fixers — all of this was part of the studio system that began in the 1920s,” Mann concludes.