Hollywood Babylon

Director: Van Guylder
Roger Gentry, Myron Griffin, Uschi Digard

When I was quite young, I first heard the famous song Hooray For Hollywood from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Though I was at a very tender age hearing that song for the first time, there was something deep within me that acknowledged one of the messages that the song was giving to its audience - that Hollywood was a place of real magic, where dreams can come true and can reward the dreamers with fortune of various kinds. As I grew older, I learned more about that magical place, and for some time I kept believing what I had first thought when I was much younger. There were so many people I kept coming across on the silver screen and the small screen that seemed to have it all. The first and most obvious were the actors in the productions that I watched. Boy, I though, it must be really great to pretend to be someone else, and in return get riches and recognition beyond your wildest dreams. Though going to Hollywood and becoming an actor myself seemed a lot of hard work, especially since I was not blessed with the good looks that the most famous actors all seemed to have. But as I continued to grow, I learned that there seemed to be a place for any type of person in Hollywood. Someone has to write all those movies and television shows, and you don't have to be a good looker to be a writer. And you can not only get big bucks, you have a chance to be recognized by your peers and the public when it's the award season. And there are a lot of other Hollywood positions that can get you fame and wealth beyond your wildest dreams, from being a director to being a make-up artist.

Yes, at first glance it seems that Hollywood is a magical place, where dreams come true all the time. But I eventually learned that there is a dark side to Hollywood. The industry has a lot of secrets that for various reasons they don't want the public to know. Let me give you an example of a secret that for decades Hollywood insiders didn't want to let out. It was with actor Rock Hudson, who had a personal secret he desperately wanted no one in the public to know. One day, during a press conference, Hudson was confronted by a reporter that seemed to threaten to expose his secret. In front of other members of the press, the reporter told Hudson that she had a personal question to ask him. Hudson and the rest of the room were silent. The reporter went on to say that it was something that had been whispered around for many years, and she wanted confirmation. Hudson and the other reporters continued their uncomfortable silence. Then the reporter asked the big question: "Is it true that your teeth are capped?" Apparently that's a true story, and I told it to add some humor to this review, but I think you know the real big secret Hudson had was that he was gay - a secret that would have ruined his career if it had been exposed all those years ago. It would have been ammunition to all those holier-than-thous who label Hollywood as an immoral place. There certainly have been many dark secrets that the major studios before, during, and after the production code days have tried to keep secret, with varying success. They range from Buster Keaton's bouts of drunkenness to Robert Mitchum being arrested for possession of marijuana.

No matter how hard the studios tried to keep the dark side of the industry a secret, word always seemed to eventually come out. Eventually, avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger Hollywood Babylonmanaged to gather a lot of stories about the dark side of Hollywood - some well known, some not so known - and in 1965 published a book of these true stories, with a lot of juicy photographs inserted in. That book was Hollywood Babylon, and it caused such a furor when it was first released that it was banned within days of its release. Years later it got reprinted (and it's still in print today), but before it was reprinted, some enterprising filmmakers decided to cash in on the still-fresh controversy and make an (apparently unauthorized) film adaptation of Anger's book, also called Hollywood Babylon. When I found a copy of the movie in a dusty pawn shop, I thought I had some serious sleaze in my hands since it promised to be a live action look at sin and vice in Hollywood. The movie starts off innocently, with various black and white stock footage shots of the Los Angeles area decades earlier. A narrator speaks: "This was Hollywood, once considered a sprawling suburb of Los Angeles... In 1916, however, it was just a junction of dirt roads and a scattering of orange groves. If there was sin, it was not to be seen." The movie then cuts to footage from D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (specifically, from The Babylonian Story segment), and the narrator continues. "Scandalous sin, for what was going on in a studio on Sunset Boulevard was merely play-acting, a Babylonian orgy involving hundreds, nay, thousands of extras and actors...This passion play was titled Intolerance, and it set the tone for Tinsel Town."

A little after this point, the opening credits start to unfold, while in the background we see newly shot footage of antique cars driving up to a Hollywood mansion and dropping off people in period dress. When the credits are finished, we get to see the inside of the mansion, specifically the dining room where the newly arrived people have gathered. As the guests feast, the narrator speaks again: "Meet the golden people! Rich beyond dream! Idolized and worshipped by common folk world over. They were the producers, stars, and money lenders to an industry. An autograph from any one of them could send shivers down the backs of yous and mes of the period." At this point, I thought that the movie would start to identify by name some of these "golden people". But instead, a few seconds later the movie jumps ahead to a later time in this party, where all the guests are still in the dining room - but now without most (or all) their clothes and getting into various sexual activities. The narrator shuts up for about a minute as the director shows us the "golden people" cavorting about in various stages of undress. When it finally sinks in the audience's mind that "golden people" HAVE SEX, the narrator speaks again. "Yes, these are the anointed ones, tapped on the shoulder by fame. As undisciplined as the raw jungle beast.... It's hard to believe a simple smile from one of them could make the day for a waitress, a garage mechanic, or even a movie studio head. If mom and dad could only see them now!" To make these facts sink into the audience's head again, the camera lingers more on these nude and semi-nude "golden people".

In case you are wondering, that above segment of the movie never does get around to naming those particular "golden people". The only clues are that they were ahead of their time since they sport 1970s hairstyles and haircuts. The movie eventually moves on to the next segment, which like the opening is accomplished by stock footage. We see footage of Model T Fords coming off the assembly line. We see footage of the war (World War I) that was currently raging in Europe, as well as what was happening on the homefront. Eventually, the narrator starts to connect all this stock footage and history to Hollywood by telling us that Hollywood started to grind out "like sausages" war-related movies. Like what? Sorry, we're not told. Then we are told that "well-known" movie stars appeared at rallies to sell war bonds. Stars like who? Sorry, we are not told. While more stock footage of the war plays out, the narrator then goes on to tell us what the American forces faced in Europe during the war, and the parades they proudly marched in once the war was over. What's the point of all this? Sorry, we're not told. Though I was pretty sure at this point it was all padding.

Finally, the movie gets to examining its first directly identified Hollywod celebrity - Charlie Chaplin. Curiously, Chaplin's name is never said out loud in this segment. Instead, we are treated to a lengthy clip from his movie The Gold Rush. "He was later destined to become a principle in Hollywood Babylon's most sensational divorce conflict," the narrator eventually says. I admit that at this point, my interest was a little perked. I waited to hear what this divorce was all about. But almost immediately after that point, the movie drops this topic and moves to its next segment! The action moves to Paris, where the narrator tells us about a covered-up scandal involving... well, he does not tell us who we are about to see in the movie's recreation. We see a butler enter a hotel room where he sees a woman lying still on a couch. The butler goes to the body to investigate, and discovers (after taking off the loose article of clothing covering her nakedness) that the woman is dead. The narrator eventually identifies the woman as Olive Thomas, silent screen star who took an overdose of drugs. (Though my subsequent research of Thomas revealed that Thomas actually died in a hospital, not in a hotel room.) The narrator then spends the next few minutes going into depth about Thomas' background, of the orgies and drugs she supposedly indulged in, while more footage of people in 1970s haircuts gather together in a living room while indulging in various soft core sex acts.

Eventually, the movie moves to its next subject - silent screen star Wallace Reid. And the movie moves back to showing stock footage, though not much of Reid, probably because so many of his movies have been lost in time. The narrator tells us that the gruelling pace of his movies took its toll on Reid, and because of that he eventually became a morphine addict in 1920. (Though my subsequent research on Reid revealed he started on morphine at least a year earlier. And not because of the hectic pace of his movies, but because he was injured in an accident.) The narrator goes on to tell us that Reid's wife later blamed the crowd that he hung out with - a crowd that we get to see in a supposed recreation. We see about a dozen people walk out of a mansion to a pool in the back yard. The people quickly start to get into various stages of undress and start diving into the pool. As we see these party people enjoying themselves, the narrator talks at length about the Reid tragedy and what these bad influential people did to the poor star. "If only the studio knew the monster they were building," the narrator at one point tells us. Eventually, Reid's wife comes out on the balcony to speak to one of these people, a man who is quickly identified as being Wallace Reid. Good thing she did, because the actor playing Reid looks nothing like the real life actor.

After some more splashing around in the pool, the movie goes to its next subject, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The movie seems to assume that we are familiar with him, because it only spends about thirty seconds explaining his rise from a lowly plumber spotted by Max Sennett to a highly paid movie star. (Though my subsequent research on Arbuckle revealed that he was an accomplished stage performer before he moved to motion pictures.) The movie gets right down to business right after those thirty seconds, to the scandal that finished his career. That was a hotel party in 1921 when he was accused of raping and killing actress Virginia Rappe. While the general feeling today is that Arbuckle was totally innocent of the crime, try telling that to the makers of this movie. With the recreation onscreen and the breathless narration, the movie leads us to believe that Arbuckle had had his eye on Rappe for a long time, and finally made his move during that party. Bringing Rappe to an empty bedroom, Arbuckle and Rappe are seen taking off all of their clothes and getting right down to business. After the act, Rappe basically says she hasn't had enough, so a worn-out Arbuckle suggests using a champagne bottle to finish the job. As Arbuckle uses the champagne bottle, the narrator tells us, "If only his fans could see their fat jolly star now!" Yes, this scene is just as tasteless as it sounds, and it gives the whole segment an unsavory quality. However, I will give this to the segment: In the role of Arbuckle, they managed to cast someone who looked like the famous star. Sort of.

What I have told you so far is just about the first half hour of Hollywood Babylon. A lot of the remaining fifty or so minutes consists of even more lazy use of stock footage for lengthy periods while a narrator (sometimes) speaks. But in fairness, there are also more recreations of various Hollywood star scandals. We get to see Charlie Chaplin (still unnamed, probably because he was still alive when this movie was made) bare-assed while having vigorous sex with an underage girl, and after marrying the girl is seen trying to persuade her to give him oral sex. We see Rudolph Valentino indulge in his habit of watching lesbian couples going at it. And Theda Bara is seen getting into a cat fight with her naked lesbian lover, but several seconds later getting turned on enough to start licking her lover's breast. Now, I have to admit that last mentioned moment did give me a little unintended amusement, and there were other moments here and there in the movie that made me smile slightly. But for the most part, the movie is a big bore. As I indicated earlier, there's extremely little in the way of production values here; much of the movie comes across as improvised on the spot with what little was at hand at the time. The aforementioned use of stock footage is depended on too much, giving the already cheap movie an even cheaper and tackier feeling. The seedy feeling of the entire enterprise also makes it hard to believe many of the stories that are told with narration or with newly filmed recreations; even before doing post-viewing research, I had severe doubts of what I was told actually happened the way the movie claims. I realize all this may not matter to viewers looking for some cheap erotic thrills, but there's none of that here. Yes, there are many scenes involving sex and nudity, but under the direction of Van Guylder, these scenes don't come across the least bit erotic. The technique Guylder seems to rely on more often than not is just stepping back and letting the actors figure out what to do on their own. There's no atmosphere or heat generated, just a tired feeling. Indeed, though the movie is somewhat short, I felt worn out and exhausted at the end instead of excited and illuminated. And having made that summary, I feel I don't have to babble on any longer about Hollywood Babylon, except to say this is definitely one time to read the book rather than see the movie.

(Posted July 24, 2018)

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See also: Jabberwalk, Mondo Mod, That's Black Entertainment