Monday, January 26, 2015

"Tinseltown" by William J. Mann (2014)

There is something unique about reading a book which has no conclusion. The 1922 murder of Billy Taylor has never been solved. And that’s the pleasure in this type of book; you can read it and draw your own conclusion. Then you can read it again and convict somebody else; and never be wrong either time.

Who killed William Desmond Taylor, the President of the Motion Pictures Directors Association? That’s a question which has been bandied about Hollywood since his death in 1922. What makes the case so hard to crack? Well, it could be that so many people had so many reasons to kill him. He wasn’t a bad man, really. Just a fellow caught up in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time in the history of entertainment.

Hollywood was fairly new in 1922, and author William J. Mann paints a concise and compact picture of its history; from the first film efforts in New York and New Jersey, to the first film studios, stars and early scandals of Hollywood. Little has changed over the course of almost a century in Tinseltown. The actors and actresses who died from drug overdoses; as well as the ones caught up in sex scandals back then were just the first of a long unbroken line of broken lives that chronicle the history of Hollywood.

There were 3 actresses involved in this scandal, which is also the story of the rivalry between 2 ex business partners; Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew; who were embattled in a struggle for the control of the film industry, from the making of the film and its distribution, all the way through to the ownership of the theaters where the films would be shown. Had the book been only about these 2 men it would have been enough to hold the interest of the reader.

But, even as these 2 titans raced literally to the top; both would build skyscrapers in New York City, with theaters on the ground floor; they faced a battle of public opinion over the influence of moving pictures on the morals of the nation. Zukor’s building still survives at 1501 Broadway, although the theater is long gone. His daughter would marry Loews son; much to the chagrin of her father. These men were so different, yet possessed the same desire to rule. The big difference was that Loew was compassionate and well loved by all who worked with him; while Zukor was detested and feared by all who worked for him. One was a tyrant; while the other was more akin to the captain of a team.

Both men found themselves facing public outrage over the drug use and violence which seemed to continually be pouring out of Tinseltown in the years after the First World War and the advent of the talkies. These were the troubles that brought about the first movie codes; issued by the Hays Office. William Hays was an odd man, too. He was lured into the position of being Hollywood’s first real censor from his government job, and was even paid by Zukor’s studio. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! .

At first Hays was compliant and willing to do whatever the studio bosses required of him to keep his $100,000 a year position. But as the scandals became increasingly frequent, and the public outrage grew, Hays was finally forced to take a stand on the side of the “decency leagues” and really perform the job he was paid to do. This aspect of the book sheds light on the history of Motion Picture Codes and how they came to be.

There is also the murder itself, which is the core of the book. Three young actresses; Mabel Normand, Mary Minter and Margaret Gibson; are all connected to the victim in one way or another. But the one most suspected of the murder is the 19 year old actress Mary Miles Minter, who had been in love with the older Desmond Taylor for some time. He kept her at arm’s length, careful not to upset the girl, while also remaining mindful of her mother; a woman who had on occasion threatened to kill him if he did not stay away from her daughter.

That was a pretty big request on her part, considering that her daughter worked with the older man. It was also rumored that she was in love with Taylor herself. The prevailing theory was that she had discovered them flagrante de lecto and killed him. Her gun was discarded by the grandmother, who made a special trip to Louisiana to dispose of it in the Bayou. The gun had been given to Mary’s mother by the Chief of Police in Hollywood, who was rumored to be having an affair with her. But there was a secret which Mr. Taylor held very close; rendering his own affair with either woman unlikely at the very least.

Mabel Normand was a recovering cocaine addict. She was aided and befriended by Taylor, who had even gotten into some shouting matches with the blood sucking dealers who would come to her home to leave drugs for her. His life had been threatened by at least one of them, and so this was another avenue of investigation.

Then there was Margaret Gibson who had a checkered past. She had been arrested in a raid on a drug house where she was working as a kimono clad dancer.  Rumors were that this was also a brothel. She had managed to wriggle out of a conviction, though her reputation was already tarnished by the time of Taylor’s killing. Her connection to him, along with the unsavory con artists and bunko operators with whom she lived, also led the police to believe that he was the victim of blackmailers. He did; after all; have a big secret to hide.

The author makes an analogy of the events depicted here to the book “The Day of the Locusts.” In that book; later made into a very bad film with Donald Sutherland; the author likens the people who come to Hollywood to prey upon the successful ones as locusts. This group of people is composed of those who come to Hollywood to achieve stardom but fail to attain that elusive prize, instead becoming part of the nefarious atmosphere of Tinseltown, replete with "hangers on."

This is a very detailed book which has been extensively annotated and researched. Not only does it explore the various aspects of the crime at hand, it also gives a great insight into the early days of the studios and how they merged and grew. Written in a highly entertaining fashion the book moves along almost like a film noir story. The big difference, of course, is that this story is deliciously real.

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