‘Tinseltown,’ ‘Classic Hollywood,’ and the Secret, Sexy History of Movie Scandals

“To the boys and the girls of the land these mock heroes and heroines have been pictured and painted, for box office purposes, as the living symbol of all the virtues,” Ed Roberts wrote in 1922. “Privately they have lived, and are still living, lives of wild debauchery.” Roberts, a former editor of the movie magazine Photoplay, wrote those words in the introduction of The Sins of Hollywood: An Exposé of Movie Vice, a slender volume that cast a decidedly more cynical eye on the stars of Tinseltown than the worshipful periodical where he’d previously worked. Cataloging and detailing the gossipy whispers surrounding such figures as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Rudolph Valentino, and Mabel Normand, Sins was aimed squarely at a public starving for dirty details, imagining their silver-screen faves drifting through Hollywood’s wild gin riots and cocaine soirees and outrageous orgies, readers simultaneously tsk-tsking their indulgences and living vicariously through them.

The book’s style — all unsubstantiated rumors and winking photos — and forbidden air (it was deemed too obscene for distribution by mail) was replicated, nearly half a century later, by cult filmmaker and movie-colony kid Kenneth Anger, whose wildly popular Hollywood Babylon was a widely-circulated collection of half-truths, hearsay, crime scene photos, slander, and hyperbole. Under chapter titles like “Heroin Heroines,” “Charlie’s Nymphs,” “Chop-Suicide,” and “Peep Show Peccadillos,” Anger’s book followed the tradition of not only The Sins of Hollywood and its ilk, but the scandal magazines (like Confidential, Hush-Hush, Whisper, and On the Q.T.) that came between them. “Scandals exploded like time bombs throughout the delirious decade of ‘Wonderful Nonsense,’ as screen career after career was destroyed,” Anger wrote in the introduction, seemingly unaware that in many cases, the inaccuracies he reprinted (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle assaulting Virginia Rappe with a Coke or champagne bottle; Clara Bow servicing the entire USC football team, including a young John Wayne, at “gangbanging weekend parties”) would be accepted as fact, destroying those careers all over again.

Yet it seems a course correction is in the works, in the form of a sub-sub-genre of blogging, podcasting, and nonfiction writing that revisits the scandals of Hollywood’s early years with an eye toward scholarship rather than sensationalism. Anne Helen Petersen proclaims that the aim of her new book Scandals of Classic Hollywood “is not simply to titillate, nor is it to propagate old, worn-out rumors. Rather, it will rescue gossip, the study of stars, and scandal from the cultural wastebasket.” That’s a pretty ambitious goal for a single volume, particularly one as glancing as this one; indeed, the problem with Peterson’s book is that it’s not as novel as it thinks it is. The slim chapters barely scratch the surface of these riveting, complicated stories — stories that books like Simon Louvisch’s Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin, Greg Merritt’s Room 1219, and William J. Mann’s new (and wonderful) Tinseltown dig into with thoughtful analysis and meticulous precision.

Book cover, 'Scandals of Classic Hollywood'But Scandals does serve as a serviceable primer — and something of a mission statement for this trend in writing on classic Hollywood. Silent movie scholars like Kevin Brownlow (The Parade’s Gone By) and David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) are exhaustively thorough and intellectually engaged, yet seem reluctant to lower themselves to wrestling with these elements of silent cinema history. But as Peterson writes, “these scandals are more than just smut. They’re history lessons… lessons in the way stars come to embody a culture’s hopes and aspirations and the harshness with which they’re treated when they fail to meet expectations.”

Certainly no one learned that lesson with greater swiftness or force than Roscoe Arbuckle, a silent comic whose lucrative career (his box office receipts were second only to Chaplin) came to an abrupt halt over Labor Day weekend, 1921, when he was accused of assaulting actress and model Virgina Rappe, who died a few days thereafter. After two mistrials, he was acquitted (with a formal apology from his jury), but the damage was done — he would never work in Hollywood again under his own name, and his was the first in a series of scandals that put the nascent movie industry itself in peril. Its subsequent recovery, under the watchful eye of morality czar Will Hayes and the iron fist of studio PR departments, has been told; the story of what actually happened at Arbuckle’s Labor Day party, less so, perhaps because it’s all but impossible for us to know, perhaps because we don’t want to. Merritt’s Room 1219 takes its central mystery as a challenge, thus functioning (and succeeding) as not only a cultural history, but a compelling and convincing whodunit.

Book cover, 'Tinseltown'Mann takes a similar approach in Tinseltown, which tackles one of the silent era’s most notorious unsolved crimes, the murder of actor/director William Desmond Taylor. The Taylor story, which includes beloved ingénues, shifty underworld types, closeted homosexuality, extortion, abortion, bootleg booze, and Hollywood smack addicts, is appropriately framed and told by author Mann as a page-turning City of Angels crime yarn in the James Ellroy mold. And, like Room 1219, Mann ups the ante by claiming (with conviction) to solve the Taylor murder, resulting in a volume that somehow pulls off an unlikely fusion of scholarly film history, true crime paperback, and beach read.

The market, interest, and appeal of books like Scandals, Room 1219, and Tinseltown can, at least to some degree, be explained by a hunger for new angles, for fresh ways to consider an era of cultural history that has been chronicled ad nauseam (how many more times do film fans actually want to read about, say, the making of Intolerance?). And the distance from which they’re being written affects not only the exhaustiveness of the information — both Room 1219 and Tinseltown benefit greatly from declassified documents, rediscovered diaries, and the like — but how they’re situated within the greater story of both the film industry and America as a whole. That the Sins of Hollywoods and Hollywood Babylons and Confidentials weren’t capable of that kind of big-picture thinking is no less surprising than the scuzziness with which TMZ and The National Enquirer approach analogous contemporary stars and stories.

As Petersen writes, “By familiarizing ourselves with the contours of stardom and scandal that shaped the past, we can see how they shape the present.” The American public has, without interruption, maintained an insatiable thirst for dirt on what Senator Henry Lee Myers called (in a 1922 denouncement of Arbuckle from the Senate floor) “a colony of these people, where debauchery, riotous living, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation, [and] free love seem to be conspicuous.” They’ll condemn celebrities with righteous indignation — after consuming the minutia of their sordid lives with anthropological glee. The issues of misogyny and privacy raised by the recent outbreak of Hollywood photo-hacking are crucial, but the dissemination of those photos also follows the pattern of a consistent desire, within a certain segment of gawkers and fanatics and starfuckers, to devour every personal detail of celebrities’ “debauchery” and “riotous living.” The impulse is the same; only the technology (and through the technology, the access) has changed.

Nearly a century after the scandals of Arbuckle, Taylor, Clara Bow, and Mae West, the secret history of Hollywood is still being written. Memories fail, witnesses pass, secrets drift out of our grasp, yet these remarkable books construct a narrative, connect it with what we know, and demand that we break it all apart and put it back together again. It took this long to fully understand what these stories were and what they meant. Only time will tell how far we’ll have to get from the current cultural moment to fully understand its particulars — and its implications.