Was 1920s Hollywood really as decadent and lecherous as it appears in “Babylon”?

The film “Babylon” by Damien Chazelle depicted the Hollywood of the 1920s with all its decadence, immorality and excess. Set in dusty backdrops and in stately mansions, Chazelle’s film depicts a feverish dream of old filmmaking through a contemporary lens. But before looking at history through his own lens, Chazelle began by conducting months of intense research, finding inspiration in real-life Hollywood stars, influencers, and events. And in many cases, it was the early days of the movie industry they were Hardcore.

“The truth is, these people were operating in a no-holds-barred world where an entire industry and city is being built from the ground up, and that takes a certain kind of madness,” said Chazelle.

Tinseltown author William J. “There was incredible freedom before Production Code was created, and so people had a freer sense of how to live their lives. Hollywood before Code was a haven for free thinkers and lovers of free people.”

And all this freedom led to a lot of experimentation with sex, booze, and drugs.

“Early Hollywood scandals revolved around managing the discourse on why stars self-destruct, and the studio system itself was part of the reason,” says Marc Lynn Anderson, author of Twilight of the Idols. “The contracts were intense and it wasn’t a good kind of working situation for the stars who were making some real money.” This kind of pressure to produce dozens of movies a year can lead to stars becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol, and many stars die of overdoses at a young age.

Here’s how it really happened with some of the people and events depicted in “Babylon,” starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, and opening December 23.

Were there really that many drugs?

There was definitely a drug scene in Hollywood and drug-dealing gangs operating in the studios, especially in the early 1920s before William Hayes came to town and began cracking down on morality both on and off screen. While it’s highly unlikely that parties offered mountains of cocaine piled on tables for party guests to indulge in freely, as the film depicts, drugs including cocaine, morphine, heroin, opium, and ether – an early drug referenced in the film – were all available. crosswise.

Reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns, who was the inspiration for the character of columnist in the movie Elinor St.

Just like today, drug addiction often begins with painkillers given for an injury, as was the case with the phenomenal actor Wallace Reed, who died in 1923 in a sanitarium where he was being treated for morphine addiction after a train accident. November 17, 1920, issue diverse Reports of a drug bust, most likely Dealer Reed, in a blind item. Tyner, aka Claude Walton, aka Bonnie Walton, was held here on a local lot with seven bundles of heroin on his person, according to the arresting officer. Tyner announced that he had been delivering steroids to one of the most famous male picture stars on the coast, and that this was the second time he had been engaged to deliver the same star, who had reported to his wife in hopes he would break the habit. the authorities.”

Also in 1920, a huge scandal erupted when famous Selznick Picture Company flapper Olive Thomas was found dead in Paris, along with diverse She reported that she had taken mercury dichloride. The New York Times said that police were seeking evidence of “rumors of drug and champagne use” and that “a former US officer, who was sentenced for selling cocaine, was one of those questioned”.

Since cocaine was not widely prohibited in the United States until 1922, while prohibition began in 1920, it is not surprising that the addictive substance was flowing fairly freely down Sunset Boulevard.

Flea, left, as studio arranger and partner, played by Cutty Cuthbert, is examining the damage after a night of hard partying in “Babylon.”
© Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Scandal

Although he only appears onscreen for a minute or two, the character of Orville Pickwick, a rich, fat man who laughs as a young woman urinates on his body during the film’s first wild party sequence, seems loosely 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!”

The successful comedian Arbuckle was implicated in the 1921 death of actress Virginia Rappe. Although Arbuckle was acquitted of wrongfully raping and killing her, the suspicion that she was mortally wounded after he impaled her with a champagne bottle refuses to die. “Babylon” refers to urban legend with a later scene of a bottle being used on a woman.

But although it was never proven that Rapp’s death in a San Francisco hotel room was directly caused by Arbuckle, there was plenty of alcohol flowing around the actor and his friend, even though booze was illegal for the entire decade. “Fatty Arbuckle was known to own one of the largest cellars, which meant he had all that alcohol at his disposal,” says Mann.

“Scandal Hits Industry,” September 16, 1921, diverse Headline about the trial. Arbuckle’s case provides capital for screen enemies – hundreds of exhibitors have canceled ‘greasy comedy’. Arbuckle’s three trials – two to hung juries and he was acquitted the third time – have led to more scandal in the film industry than it can handle. studios.

As a result of all this bad press, in 1922 former GOP chairman Hayes was appointed as the first chair of what would become the MPA, on a mission to clean up Hollywood.

“There’s a new sense now, people care about morality,” explains Manny Torres, the “Babylon” character, played by Diego Calva, in a scene set in 1929.

By the middle of the decade, what the studios are also learning is how to protect themselves from the press and the public. So one thing they didn’t have in the early ’20s was Fatty Arbuckle, William Desmond Taylor was killed — it’s only by the middle of the decade when they start to get Brokers can contain these scandals,” says Mann.

In “Babylon”, Flea plays a studio manager who exclaims “What a goddamn mess!” When he sees the potential dead woman at the party.

“At first sight any kind of misbehavior, any kind of wild party that’s spiraled out of control they’re there to buy the press or buy the cops, that becomes an intrinsic part of the studio system,” Mann says. “There were definitely wild parties—there were always wild parties, but by the end of the decade the studios contained them.”

“It’s interesting that the introduction of an ethics clause into this type of contract doesn’t apply to industry executives — it only applies to visible talent who have been assets to companies, their stars,” Anderson notes.

In Babylon, Margot Robbie plays a free-spirited actress loosely based on Clara Bow and is also inspired by long-haired star Leah LaBoutie, Jane Eagles, Alma Robbins, Thelma Todd, and others.
© Paramount / Courtesy Everett Cole

Clara Bow – Vamp or Victim?

In “Babylon,” Robbie plays Nellie Leroy, an aspiring actress whose character was inspired in part by Clara Bow. Like Bow, LeRoy comes from a poor background and ends up rising to fame.

Dubbed “The It Girl” by St. John’s, Bow became a huge star, but her career was coming to an end by the time she was only 25 years old. Like the character Ruby, Bow enjoyed gambling and hanging out with the USC football team (which at the time included John Wayne), but her party girl reputation was dragged through the mud when her secretary, Daisy DeVoe, was accused of theft. The ensuing trial intensified the unsubstantiated reports of her being a drug addict.

Under the title “Clara Getting a Tough Break, Says Par.” Variety reported in 1931 that “Miss Bow’s recent troubles with Daisy DeVoe, her former secretary, have the dailies bayoneting her again” because she is a good copy. ”

The article continues, “Hysterical and upset about the trial, its poor publicity, and last week’s grueling workout for ‘City Streets,’ plus a recent operation to remove a portion of the cartilage from her jaw, Miss Poe voluntarily asked Barr for a six-week vacation.” Although Bow was able to make the transition to Talkies better than some actors, the star machinery was chewing and spitting them out in just a few years.

“By the end of the ’20s we see moral clauses being written into contracts, and if you do anything that discredits the studio’s image, you could be terminated — it was worded very vaguely in terms of transgressions, and Clara Bow certainly was the poster girl for that, though.” Although she didn’t do anything wrong,” Mann explains.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu, who was a character based on Anna Mae Wong.
© Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Anna Mae Wong – Leading Actress

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in Babylon, wearing a cap and tails like Marlene Dietrich. Her character is based on Anna Mae Wong, the leading Chinese American actress who starred with Dietrich in the movie ‘Shanghai Express’.

Ruby’s character says of Lee, “You think it swings both ways?” Dietrich claimed to have had a love affair with Wong, and speculation about her affairs with other women, including Leni Riefenstahl, did some damage to her reputation, but as with many things that happened nearly 100 years ago, it cannot be verified that Wong was bisexual.

In the film, Lee says she is going to Europe for better roles, as Wong did when racism made it difficult for her to succeed in Hollywood. Later, after losing the title role in The Good Earth to a white actress, Daily assortment It was reported in 1937 that Wong planned to “make her permanent home in China and work there in original pictures.” Wong made a short film based on her experiences during her year in China.

Was there really a ceremonial tunnel with orgies and rats and crocodiles?

of course not. But there were bootleg drink tunnels running for talk in downtown L.A. — which could have served as an bootleg meeting place or two.

“Babylon” captures the massive changes in business from an exaggerated point of view, but there’s no doubt that it was an exciting time.

“A lot of people look at the silent era and think of it as this weird place and this weird planet that we can’t relate to today, and yet it’s important to see the silent era as a continuum of the 1930s and 1940s. Production, distribution, and marketing, Mann concludes. And advertising offices, and self-censors, and fixers – it all started from the entire studio system of the 1920s.

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