Book Review: Two New Books on Hollywood Scandals

What it's About: The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in this juicy, untold Hollywood story: an addictive true tale of ambition, scandal, intrigue, murder, and the creation of the modern film industry. By 1920, the movies had suddenly become America’s new favorite pastime, and one of the nation’s largest industries. Never before had a medium possessed such power to influence. Yet Hollywood’s glittering ascendency was threatened by a string of headline-grabbing tragedies—including the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a legendary crime that has remained unsolved until now.

My thoughts:  I've been obsessed with the murder of William Desmond Taylor ever since I first read about the case in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (a book that is much reviled by contemporary historians but which was manna from heaven to a teenager who loved classic Hollywood films).  Over the years, I've read Sidney Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers as well as Robert Giroux's book Deed of Death.  Both of these authors came to different conclusions about who the killer was, so I was eager to read William J. Mann's take on the case.  I've enjoyed his books in the past, in particular his biographies of Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. 

I have to be honest, at first I was a little disappointed.  The book opens up with a bang literally, detailing the discovery of Taylor's body by his valet Henry Peavey.  The book then flashes back and gives a wealth of detail about the current state of Hollywood leading up to the murder, including the death of Olive Thomas, the arrest and trial of Fatty Arbuckle and the installment of Will Hay's as the new watchdog over Hollywood's morals (at least on film).  I wasn't quite sure where Mann was going with all this, although most of it was interesting. I admit that I skimmed through most of the stuff about Adolph Zukor.  I was more interested in Fatty Arbuckle and learning more details about Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter.  Unfortunately Mann skims over their back stories for the most part, as well as Desmond Taylor's life before he hit Hollywood.

The book really got going when Mann writes about Patricia Palmer aka Margaret Gibson or Gibby and her struggle to make it in Hollywood, and how her life dovetails and intersects with William Desmond Taylor.  I don't want to spoil it for anyone picking up the book who knows nothing about the unsolved murder of Taylor, but Mann comes up with probably the most plausible theory about of anyone who has written about the case in the last almost 100 years since Taylor was murdered.  He gives a wealth of detail about the inner workings of Hollywood at the time, not just at the major studios but also on Poverty Row, the studios who cranked out the low-low budget films.  He also details the excesses and drug use that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time which might come as a revelation to some who believe that no one was doing drugs until the 1960's and 1970's like my dad. 

I won't lie, this book clocks in at a whopping almost 500 pages but once I got started reading, I couldn't put it down. I actually stayed up late on Sunday to finish the book, because I had to know what Mann's conclusion was. 

Title: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema

Author:  Anne Helen Petersen 
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (September 30, 2014)
  • How Acquired:  Net Galley

What it's About:  Gossip meets history—a compulsively readable collection of Hollywood's most notorious clashes and controversies in the spirit of Hollywood Babylon. Believe it or not, America's fascination with celebrity culture was thriving well before the days of TMZ, Perez Hilton, Charlie Sheen's breakdown and allegations against Woody Allen. And the stars of yesteryear? They weren’t always the saints that we make them out to be. BuzzFeed columnist Anne Helen Petersen is here to set the record straight with Scandals of Classic Hollywood.

My thoughts:  This was a fun, interesting read that is more about the reaction of Hollywood and the nation to the various scandals and less about the scandals themselves. Anne Helen Petersen has clearly done her research, admittedly spending hours reading the original reports on the scandals in the movie magazines of the period.  She gives a good overview of the reasons why the scandals were so potent and the damage that was done to the stars because of the scandal.  I quibble a bit with her conclusion in the Clara Bow chapter, she seems to be dismissive of the struggles that Bow went through in her early childhood and her mental illness.

I found it fascinating to read the chapters on Dorothy Dandridge and Montgomery Clift in particular, although I wasn't really sure why she was included in the book.  Her career demise seemed to say more about the lack of roles for black actresses in the 1950's, particularly for a woman like Dandridge who was seen as more of a sex symbol due to her role in Carmen Jones. Clift's life didn't seem to contain much scandal either apart from his having to hide his homosexuality like many other Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.  Clift's career was derailed by his drug and alcohol abuse. 

I was intrigued by the scandals she left out (although perhaps she's saving them for book 2?) such as Loretta Young, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin's penchant for young girls, Ingrid Bergman etc. The book is slightly schizophrenic as it veers uneasily between a juicy, gossipy take and a more academic tone (Petersen has a PhD). There's also a dearth of photographs in the book.  Now I know from experience that photographs are expensive, which is why I only have about 15 of them in my own book rather than 35) but it would have helped to have some photos apart from the ones on the cover. 

Still for newbies to old Hollywood (and that includes pretty much anyone under the age of 35) this is a great book to start with.  Hopefully readers who purchase this book will then go on to purchase full length biographies of the subjects in the book.


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