TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE, & MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD by William J. Mann, Harper Books, $16.99 US / $21 CAN
I don't normally do book reviews since I mostly write about the movie business, but there are these things called books, and some of them are about the movie business.
One such book is Tinseltown by William J. Mann which won the Edgar Award for Best True Crime book of 2014. It's a book that shows how intertwined the worlds of celebrity, business, and scandal really were, and how it goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the modern film industry that we know today.
Now the main crux of the book is a story of murder and scandal, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that, and presents a wider picture of a fledgling industry under siege. The best way to blurb it is to tell you a little bit about the main characters.
WILLIAM DESMOND TAYLOR: He was one of the most commercially successful and prestigious film directors for the Famous Players-Lasky Company (later Paramount Pictures). He was a man with a reputation for being a man of excellent character and probity, but he had secrets that he desperately wanted kept, and it's his unsolved murder in 1922 that forms the central crux of the book.
MABEL NORMAND: Was Taylor's best friend and confidante. She was also one of the biggest comedy stars in Hollywood, and was desperately trying to put a past of bad relationships and cocaine abuse behind her. However, the trial of her former co-star Fatty Arbuckle on bogus rape and murder charges, and the murder of her best friend threatened to destroy her career and her life.
MARY MILES MINTER: A Famous Players child star growing up into an ingenue desperately trying to get out from under the control of her domineering mother Charlotte Shelby. She's romantically obsessed with Taylor, to the point of practically stalking a man she could never have.
MARGARET "GIBBY" GIBSON: A former co-star of Taylor's from his acting days who came close to big-time Hollywood stardom, only to have her shot ruined by her fondness for scuzzy men and easy money. She will do anything to get another shot at stardom, and isn't one to let the law or morality get in her way.
ADOLPH ZUKOR: Started life as a penniless orphan from Hungary, and rose to become the head of Famous Players-Lasky, which at the time was the biggest, most prestigious, and most powerful movie producer-distributor-exhibitor in America, and by extension the world. He's also a man under siege, who is desperate to hold onto the company and life he literally built from nothing.
WILL H. HAYS: A former postmaster-general and campaign manager for the Harding administration. He's hired to lead the organization that will become the modern MPAA, and his mission is to save Hollywood from threats both within and without, and boy-oh-boy were there threats.
A series of scandals had rocked Hollywood, involving sex, drug addiction, and even death. This sparked a movement to regulate, censor, or even shut down Hollywood that became downright hysterical when Fatty Arbuckle was unjustly tried for a murder that never happened. It got even worse when Taylor was gunned down in his apartment and the police investigation, hindered by interference by both the studio, and the press who had just realized that Hollywood scandal sold newspapers like nothing before. That takes the book on three tracks. There's the investigation into the murder itself, the effects it was having on three women in Taylor's life Mabel, Mary & Margaret, and the effect on the industry as a whole, as witnessed by Will Hays and Adolph Zukor.
One thing I found surprising was the amount of sympathy I felt, not only for the women caught up in the murder and scandal hysteria, but for Hays and Zukor.
Like many I viewed Hays as a censorious prig, and Zukor as a ruthless cold-fish only out for himself, but this book showed me that I was wrong. (Yes, that happens rarely) You see Hays was deep down a true believer in free speech and free markets. He thought that movies should be free to show whatever they wanted, because the audience was free to not pay money to see something they didn't like. However he was all too often forced into playing the censor by outside forces.
Those same forces also drove Zukor to do many of the seemingly ruthless and heartless things. Yes, he's shown doing many things driven by ego, but most of the stuff he does is driven by inadequacy and a fear that he might lose everything he's struggled build.
Zukor's fears were not unfounded. We may look at the threats by the morality campaigners to have the government seize the entire movie industry, and move it to Washington where it would operate under the supervision of the US congress as ridiculous, but you have to remember that it was these exact same campaigners that got the Prohibition of alcohol written into the American constitution. Alcohol had been a part of the culture for millennia before the country had even been founded, and the movie industry had only been around a little more than twenty years at this point. When you look at it from that point of view those threats don't seem all that ridiculous.
But back to the book.
Mann does an excellent job presenting a very careful analysis of the crime, the evidence, and things that the investigators didn't see, and presents a pretty compelling theory as to what might have really happened.
He also presents where our modern obsessions with celebrity, scandal, and power begin, and is written with a fast paced style that manages to elegantly capture the complexities of this time and place
Now the story naturally has cinematic qualities. It has murder, sex, scandal, and the sort of big business shenanigans that audiences eat up these days. But it wouldn't work as a movie.
For this to be properly adapted, it has to be done as a TV series. While a relatively slim volume at a little over 400 pages, the story is just too damn big and broad to do justice to with a 2-3 hour feature film, or even a two or three episode miniseries. You could two seasons of 10-13 one-hour episodes each, with season one dealing with events leading up to Taylor's murder, and season 2 with the investigation & aftermath, and then you might get the story right.
But back to the book.
I would suggest picking this up if you're into movies, murder, and history. William J. Mann manages to capture not just the story, but the era, and presents it with great energy and style.