You’ve Got Time to Do Your “Babylon” Homework

As a film lover, you’re going to set aside part of your Christmas to New Years vacation to catch Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” the three hour epic set during Hollywood — and America’s — most debauched epoch (until now), the silent cinema/Jazz Age 1920s.

That’s an era when Greater Los Angeles was lesser Los Angeles, and part of the fun of an entire entertainment industry’s fleeing (motion picture patent policing) to the undeveloped, orange-groves empty real estate of the Wild West Coast was the ethos that “anything goes” wasn’t just a future Cole Porter pop hit.

Under-policed and uninhibited, Hollywoodland hadn’t become Hollywood, but the myth-making for the dream factory was well underway. The machinery to publicize and sanitize “the system” and tidy it up for American consumption was yet to come. In the interim, the orgiastic excesses of an unregulated industry made a lot of people who’d never had money obscenely rich, omnipotently powerful and desperate to shake off the endless frenetic sunrise to sundown days of film production with hairier and wilder indulgences.

Prohibition Era? You’d never know it. Moral Policing? It wasn’t invented in Iran, you know.

But in LaLaLand, things were different. Depraved? Debauched? Ancient Rome had nothing on these hard-partying, orgy-crazed, accident-prone, life-is-short hedonists. Neither did ancient Babylon.

Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” appears to be the inspiration for the film’s title. Read it. Scandals that studios and entertainment empires got so very good at covering up were laid bare in this seminal piece of Tinseltown scandal-mongering. Under-sourced and unfiltered, first-published in France and then — in 1965, the US — it dug deep into the gossip of the era, the Hollywood lore of “deviant” behavior, drugs, sex and covered-up deaths dating from that pre-Golden Age age of gilded excess and golden showers.

When I was a kid the book itself was so salacious and shocking that you couldn’t get your hands on it until you got to university. Which I did.

It will help the viewer of Chazelle’s film get a taste for the tasteless, the tacky and the titillating of the “Pre Code” era.

If you’ve never read Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of their Own,” it’s another early Hollywood history — a “How the Jews Invented Hollywood” that captures the flavor of that era and the touchy Eastern European Jews who colonized and to a large degree took over the film business, and became more American than Americans in their later efforts to keep its image wholesome.

They had their work cut out for them with this mob.

You’ll want to know something about Fatty Arbuckle, what he did (or didn’t) do, what destroyed him and why the motion picture industry felt a need to tidy up its image, when everybody who was anybody seemed like a role model for the Madonnas, Kardashians, Weinsteins and Armie Hammers of the future.

Brush up on Louise Brooks and other icons of the “flapper” era film business. Clara Bow is another figure to be familiar with, especially the most infamous story attached to her life and career.

If there’s a movie about “The Wild Child” of the cinematic 1920s, you’re going to want to know who might have been the inspiration for that “Babylon” character.

Read a little something about Anna May Wong, an early era Asian actress, hemmed in by what Hollywood would let her do. Chinese-American and LGBTQ filmmaker Esther Eng might be a helpful figure to have on your gaydar/raydar.

Women directed in early Hollywood. Some of them were lesbians. Shocked? Read up on that and be amazed.

Learning something about Garbo and Dietrich and their sexuality will add to your appreciation of the “Babylon” milieu.

The life and career of silent screen superstar John Gilbert and media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his paramour Marian Davies, depicted in “Mank,” are also worth knowing about as prep for “Babylon.”

Watch “Mank,” if you haven’t. And if you’ve never seen “Singing in the Rain,” it’s long past time. It is Hollywood’s affectionate, sanitized and lightly-self-mocking look back at the panic, chaos and industry-technology-career-and-life shattering change that hit the movies, all at once, when the cinema learned to “talk.”

A more frenetic and fraught version of that abrupt transition is part of the timeline of “Babylon.”

Every heard of Louella Parsons? America’s first and perhaps most infamous celebrity gossip? There’s a “Designing Woman” who could be her prototype in the picture.

Did you see Ryan Murphy’s salacious “Hollywood,” the TV miniseries that takes “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” as its starting point? It waded into a later era (1940s and 50s) and underlined it with all the gay goings on in the last days when the studio system could cover up that sort of shocking-to-the-rest-of-America sexuality.

It’ll be helpful to have seen “Hollywoodland,” set in the same era as “Hollywood ” and about a much-later scandal — the death of the first TV “Superman,” George Reeves.

And if you’ve not seen Apple TV’s “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues,” dive in. There’s a composite figure in “Babylon” who is reminiscent of Louis — a Hollywood mainstay, back in the day — and other Black jazzmen who made it onto the screen in that era.

That’s one of the fascinating subtexts of “Babylon.” It’s another “new” history — quite ahistorical, with most every name changed — that sets out to return events that have been scrubbed-out and major figures and indeed whole corners of the population who have been “erased” from Hollywood and American history to their proper place within the story of early Hollywood at its craziest, most Bacchanalian and a lot more diverse than we’ve been allowed to remember.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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