Hollywood in the silent era was a bigger deal than it is now.
For one thing, the movies exercised more influence on the American culture then. By the early 1920s, half of all Americans attended the movies every week, a figure that would grow to 90% by 1930. It was still a new thing and there weren’t many entertainment alternatives—television was far in the future and radio was in its bare infancy.
Today’s A-listers pale in comparison to the silent stars. They come nowhere near the popularity, glamor, or influence of a Mary Pickford or a Charlie Chaplin, a Gloria Swanson or a Rudolph Valentino. Studios wielded more influence as well. Los Angeles politicians and police deferred to studio heads like Adolph Zukor of Famous Players-Lasky, the number one studio, and went out of their way to protect the industry because it was so vital to the economy. And studios put out way more films then. Famous Players cranked out hits like Valentino’s The Sheik, a film so popular that it added a word to the popular lexicon, inspired an eponymous brand of condoms, inspired the most famous song of the Jazz Age, The Sheik of Araby, and spawned a film sub-genre about Arab men (portrayed by white actors) who seduced or raped adventurous white women in desert tents.
Tinseltown scandals were bigger then, too. A major scandal rocked the film colony every year between 1920 through 1924. Yellow journalism had a lot to do with inflaming the situation, especially in the newspapers of its inventor and most enthusiastic practitioner, William Randolph Hearst.
The first highly-publicized Hollywood scandal, the September 1920 drug overdose death of archetypal movie flapper Olive Thomas—she had starred in The Flapper earlier that year—had excited the yellow press and shocked the public, but it was nothing compared to what came next: The Arbuckle Affair.
A year after Olive Thomas’ death, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the rotund king of farce comedy, was charged with manslaughter in the death of a struggling actress named Virginia Rappe. Arbuckle’s popularity rivaled that of Charlie Chaplain. He’d recently signed the most lucrative movie contract ever with Famous Players-Lasky.
At trial, the prosecution contended that during a raucous Labor Day weekend party at the posh St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, Arbuckle had raped Virginia, causing her death by peritonitis. What actually happened depends upon which variation of the story a person believes. As invariably happens with celebrity deaths, there are plenty of theories to choose from. The full truth is lost to history in boozy memories, political ambitions, sensationalized newspaper fiction, self-serving lies and half-truths, false statements made under duress, and facts twisted to fit pre-conceived notions.
Two of Hearst’s papers, the San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Examiner, led the media frenzy with an avalanche of front-page articles under screaming headlines. The incendiary coverage, generally reflecting the prosecution’s portrayal of Arbuckle as a sexual predator, convinced a large swath of middle America of the actor’s guilt before any facts had come out. Overnight he went from a lovable clown to the public face of Hollywood debauchery and a film colony pariah.
The media circus dragged on for seven months and three manslaughter trials between November 1921 and April 1922 with two hung juries and finally an acquittal. But it was too late. Even if he hadn’t raped and killed Virginia, some reasoned, Arbuckle had committed lewd conduct and violated the Volstead Act. Many people thought he got what he deserved.
“Maybe three trials couldn’t prove that Arbuckle was guilty,” said Gloria Swanson, “but nobody in town ever thought he was all that innocent.”
At any rate, he lost his mansion, his cars, his livelihood, and most of his fortune to the lawyers. He died in his sleep in 1933.
Time has only partially clarified the affair. If anyone recognizes Arbuckle’s name today it’s as the man who raped and killed a woman with a bottle, a lie invented by a contemporary reporter and revived decades later in Kenneth Anger’s entertaining, best-selling, and comically inaccurate book, Hollywood Babylon. Contemporary papers had generally portrayed Virginia Rappe as naïve and innocent, but Arbuckle’s counsel smeared her character with exaggerations. Authors in recent decades seeking to exonerate Arbuckle have treated her with even less respect, portraying her as an alcoholic, opportunistic slut and Hollywood parasite. More recent biographers have sought to rehabilitate Virginia’s reputation, depicting her as an independent modern woman, pointing out her previously unsung accomplishments in the nascent fashion industry of the 1910s. Authors have suggested that she actually died of complications from a botched abortion or a chronic cystitis condition, perhaps exacerbated by alcohol and multiple abortions. Who knows.
The only sure thing about the Arbuckle affair is that it devastated everyone involved except the lawyers, the reporters, and William Randolph Hearst. The scandal, Hearst boasted, "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania.”
It seemed impossible that Hearst could top the rumpus he created around Arbuckle, but he did.
At the height of the Arbuckle affair, news broke on what would become an even bigger scandal and the most notorious Hollywood mystery of all, the baffling and still unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, a noted director for Famous Players-Lasky.
Taylor's valet arrived at his employer’s stylish bungalow one morning in February 1922 to find the director dead on the floor from a gunshot wound to the back. The valet ran shouting into the courtyard outside. Taylor’s neighbors, most also in the motion picture business, soon filled the bungalow and trampled on the evidence. Agnes Ayres, Valentino’s co-star in The Sheik, was one; another was Edna Purviance, Chaplain’s long-time leading lady. Someone telephoned Charles Eyton, general manager of Famous Players. Hoping to prevent a replay of the Arbuckle fiasco, he rushed to the scene with some underlings and tried to sanitize the place of embarrassing materials. The first detective at the scene deferred to the studio bigshot and didn’t interfere. Eyton and company removed some bootleg liquor and correspondence, but missed a few important items, chief among them a scented love letter and filmy nightgown belonging to screen ingénue Mary Miles Minter, another Famous Player.
Police determined that Taylor had been shot the night before after walking his friend, Mabel Normand, famed comedy queen and frequent Arbuckle collaborator, to her car; someone apparently ambushed him when he returned to his bungalow. A neighbor saw a man calmly emerging from Taylor’s door after hearing what she thought was a gunshot.
The story instantly blew up. The cops had no shortage of motives or suspects.
The juiciest theory, the one most promoted by the yellow papers, involved a purported love triangle between Minter, Taylor, and Normand. In reality, other than Minter’s unrequited crush on the director (thirty years her senior), the love triangle didn’t exist. Taylor, most likely gay or bi, apparently loved Mabel as a friend, as she claimed. But the papers manufactured a sex scandal and ruined the careers of both actresses—Mary because her love letters to Taylor shattered her virginal screen image, Mabel because her struggles with cocaine came to light.
The Taylor scandal generated even more outrageous hype and fake news than Arbuckle’s. Wallace Smith of Hearst’s Chicago American reported that a gay, opium-smoking Hollywood sex cult had murdered Taylor, ostensibly their leader, for violating some sacred oath.
Other reporters took it upon themselves to solve the mystery. Three weeks after the murder, a Hearst reporter and some cohorts—Chicago mob thugs--kidnapped Taylor’s valet, a gay black man named Henry Peavey. Convinced Peavey knew more about the murder than he was telling, they held him at the offices of the Los Angeles Examiner for twelve hours. That night they took Peavey to the Hollywood Forever cemetery and tried to frighten him into confessing. A thug covered in a white sheet emerged from behind Taylor’s tomb. Peavey laughed. Among other oversights, the perpetrators had neglected to give Taylor’s apparition the pronounced British accent the man had in life. The NAACP filed a complaint over the incident but Hearst’s people got away with it.
The police quickly cleared Minter, Normand and Peavey, but they had a plethora of other suspects. The list is long to this day.
Some detectives and film colony insiders—and many current case aficionados—consider Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby, the prime suspect. Determined to protect Mary’s image, Shelby, a quintessential stage mother who got rich from and lived vicariously through her famous daughter, was known to threaten men who got too close to Mary, including Taylor, with a .38 revolver. This happened to be the same type of gun as the murder weapon.
Another leading suspect then and now is Taylor’s former valet, Edward Sands, a man with a long record who had previously stolen money from Taylor, burglarized his bungalow, and wrecked the director’s car. Despite an intense nation-wide manhunt, the cops never located Sands.
The police never suspected Margaret Gibson, a Famous Player-Lasky actress who had once worked with Taylor, but she allegedly confessed to the crime on her deathbed in the 1960s. Margaret, out of work at the time, may have helped set up Taylor in a blackmail scheme, leading to the director’s death at the hands of a con man.
Another widespread theory is that drug dealers murdered Taylor in retaliation for his efforts to keep Mabel off of drugs.
There are plenty of other theories to choose from. One of these has ties to the Fritzie Mann case through one of her dance mentors, Theodore Kosloff, a Russian ballet dancer, silent film star, and choreographer for Cecile B. Demille at Famous Players. The story involves the drug angle, the Black Hand, the KKK, and a series of articles in a popular movie fan magazine. It represents a missed opportunity for yellow journalists to drum up another Hollywood scandal, but that’s a story for another post.
Just as the Taylor scandal finally began to subside, the ordeal of another A-list Famous Player rocked Tinseltown and unleashed a fresh firestorm of publicity. Wallace Reid epitomized the All-American image the studios sought to project, the antithesis of an Arbuckle, an image shattered when the public learned of the actor's morphine habit. The studio tried to keep Reid's struggles out of the papers, but then Reid’s wife checked him into a sanitarium and went public. He died on January 18, 1923 from complications of his addiction.
News of Reid’s death appeared on front pages alongside that of Fritzie Mann. Fritzie’s case, with its multiple Hollywood connections, offered the hint of a new film colony scandal and some of the papers used this angle to play it up.
The fifth and final major Hollywood scandal of the early 1920s occurred in November 1924 when William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida, dropped anchor in San Diego Bay filled to the gunwales with Tinseltown luminaries. There is no reliable record of the passenger list but it’s thought to include Hearst, Marion Davies (Hearst’s mistress), Charlie Chaplain, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, actresses Aileen Pringle, Julanne Johnston, Jacqueline Logan and Seena Owen, actor-dancer Theodore Kosloff, and producer-director Thomas Ince.
The Oneida entered port after Ince become gravely ill. A water taxi delivered him and a doctor ashore. The pair boarded a train for L.A., but Ince’s condition deteriorated to the point that they were forced to stop at the Hotel Del Mar. Ince died a few days later at home in L.A. Although the official cause of death was heart failure, the Los Angeles Times, the main rival of Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner, proposed a different theory: “Movie Producer Shot Aboard Hearst Yacht!” The story goes that Hearst had mistakenly shot Ince while aiming at Chaplin, who he suspected of having an affair with Davies. Hearst managed to squelch the initial reports, but rumors persist to this day.
San Diego DA Chester Kempley conducted a cursory investigation of Ince’s death. He spoke to a La Jolla doctor and a nurse who had attended to Ince during his stay at the Hotel Del Mar. Ince had blamed his condition on the copious amounts of bad alcohol he’d consumed aboard the yacht, not a gunshot wound to the head.
As with the Taylor and Arbuckle scandals, there are plenty of theories about what happened onboard the Oneida. The play The Cat’s Meow and a 2001 film of the same name starring Kirsten Dunst as Davies portrays Ince’s death as an accident during Hearst's attempted murder of Chaplain. Whatever happened aboard the Oneida, the episode caused Hearst considerable angst, a small measure of poetic justice, perhaps, for the lives his papers had ruined.
The scandals made Hollywood the epicenter of a brewing culture war. Traditionalists reacted badly to Jazz Age frivolity and liberalism and blamed film colony denizens for a lot of it. Emboldened by the negative press, moral reform groups went looking for evidence of Tinseltown depravity and either found it or invented it.
During the Arbuckle affair, Capt. J.H. Pelletier of the Los Angeles Morals Efficiency Association, for instance, claimed he’d discovered a group of Hollywood luminaries known as the “Live One Hundred,” also known as “Arbuckle’s crowd.” The group held drug- and alcohol-fueled Bacchanalian parties, he claimed, rituals akin to black masses, and orgies “without equal in the history of America” at their palatial mansions. Such bizarre reports rarely included names, nor did they produce witnesses or evidence or lead to indictments, but confirmed the worst pre-conceived notions about the film colony.
The publicity surrounding the scandals prompted Congress into action. Following the Taylor scandal, Democratic Senator Henry Myers of Montana denounced Hollywood in fiery speeches on the Senate floor and introduced legislation proposing to investigate the industry and censor their films. Movies were the only form of amusement within the means of millions, Myers argued, and bestowed upon young people much of their education. The studios wielded this power irresponsibly for profit without regard for the impact on youthful minds, he said. The film colony was a place “where debauchery, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation and free love seem to be conspicuous,” Myers declared, and its stars low-lifes who didn’t know what to do with their new-found wealth. There were also proposals to disband the film colony altogether or at least forcibly move it to the east coast so lawmakers could keep a better eye on it.
Ironically, a movie had driven the resurgence of one of the most strident critics of Hollywood, the Ku Klux Klan. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, reinforced racist stereotypes about African Americans, glorified the Klan as patriotic heroes, and inspired the preacher who became the organization’s imperial wizard. The focus of the new iteration of the KKK shifted somewhat to meet the needs of the moment; the Klan of the 1920s held as much enmity for Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and Jazz Age liberalism as it did blacks, though its focus varied by region. The southern California Klan, for instance, often singled-out Mexicans for persecution. The new KKK fancied itself the arbiter of patriotism, morality and the law, seeking to impose its views through intimidation, occasionally meting out vigilante justice. It would grow to over four million members by its peak in the mid-1920s. Hollywood, as a town largely founded and run by immigrant Jews, employing stars who, in the Klan’s view, flouted decency on screen and in their private lives, embodied everything the group despised. The Klan particularly loathed one of the more conspicuous symbols of the changing times depicted on the silver screen, the modern woman.