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Who Killed Billy Taylor? Hollywood in the 1920s

Tintseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. By William J. Mann. New York: Harper, 2014.

 

51qHUwKnryL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Who killed Billy Taylor? In 1922, William Desmond Taylor, president of the Motion Pictures Directors Association, was discovered on the floor of his Los Angeles bungalow with a .38 slug lodged in his body. Writer William J. Mann–known for his biographies of Hollywood luminaries–is the latest investigator to finger a culprit. Although be builds a meticulous case for his suspect, he probably won’t convince those invested in a different suspect. It’s of little consequence, as the greater value of Mann’s book lies in its vivid portrayal of Hollywood in the silent era.

 

Celebrity scandals, infidelity, substance abuse, and innuendo are the lifeblood of today’s tabloid- and paparazzi-fueled culture, but those who consider Hollywood to be a modern-day Gomorrah will learn from Mann’s book that it was always thus. His Hollywood is a literal Tintseltown–shiny and glamorous on the surface, but with a tawdry interior of casual sex, rampant drug use, ruthless ambition, backroom abortions, hard drinking, and poorly kept secrets. The biggest difference between then and now is that there were more powerful Americans disgusted by Hollywood immorality than fascinated by it. The history of the 1920s is often poorly refracted through a Jazz Age lens, a perspective that pays too little attention to surging fundamentalism, Prohibition, social intolerance, and the disproportionate political power held by rural conservatives. In short, powerful groups of religious and political moralists sought to cleanse American society and Hollywood was one of their main targets.

 

In 1922, the Hollywood film industry was not yet a decade old and movies themselves not much older. As film historians such as Eileen Bowser, Kevin Brownlaw, William Everson, Peter Kobel, and Stephen Ross have noted, early films were often more risqué than they would become when movies migrated from working-class neighborhoods and into middle-class theaters. Not coincidentally, the industry consolidated into precisely the vertical monopolies attacked by Progressive Era reformers. By 1922, Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Pictures was aptly named and Zukor was so powerful that he was nicknamed “Creepy.” Among Mann’s fascinating insights is Zukor’s megalomaniacal obsession with rival, Marcus Loew, who was as affable as Zukor was cold.

 

Zukor ‘s greatest insight was his realization that changing Hollywood’s image was necessary to fend off regulators and moralists. Hollywood had serious problems, including starlet Mabel Normand’s publicized cocaine addiction, Wallace Reid’s dependence on morphine, the poisoning death of Olive Thomas, and the rape/murder accusation against comic actor Fatty Arbuckle, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Although Arbuckle was acquitted, Zukor sandbagged his career to keep moralists at bay. He also engineered the elevation of Will Hays to the post of president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America in charge of censoring movie content–just enough to get regulators off Zukor’s back. Mann argues that Hays was not the prude of legend. He took his job seriously but, if anything, he was star-struck and prone to follow Zukor’s lead.

 

Director Billy Taylor was a fulcrum around which all that was promising and unseemly about Hollywood revolved. Mabel Normand, the last person known to see Taylor alive, acted in several Taylor films and, depending on whom one asked, was either a dear friend, a former lover, or a murderous revenge-seeker. She certainly kindled the jealousy of Mary Miles Minter, an ingénue in love with and obsessed by Taylor. Minter was also rumored to be a Taylor paramour–troubling, as she would have been just 16 when their alleged affair began. Minter’s stage mother, former Broadway actress Charlotte Selby, believed the scuttlebutt and made numerous threats against Taylor. Margaret Gibson also harbored a grudge; she made four films for Taylor under the name of Patricia Palmer, before he dumped her because of a reprobate life that included running con games, consorting with organized crime, prostitution, and drug use. And Taylor had a passel of secrets of his own, including his birth identity and his bisexuality. The latter cast suspicion upon his flamboyantly gay black valet, but Gibson made a deathbed confession to the murder in 1964. Mann isn’t buying any of those suspects and identifies a different culprit.

 

You will have to judge Mann’s sleuthing ability for yourself, but his is a whale of a tale no matter what you think of his conclusions. This book can be extensively mined by those teaching early film history, though its length (480 pages) probably disqualifies it as an undergraduate text. Call this one a real-life Day of the Locust.

 

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst


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