When Blanche Sweet sang “there’s a tear for every smile in Hollywood.” Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), she wasn’t wrong. Movie people have long been warning starry-eyed wannabes to be careful as they come to Tinseltown full of hopes and dreams. In The truth about the movies by the stars (1924), screenwriter Frank Butler wrote: “From every corner of the earth they come and across the Seven Seas – borne on the tireless wings of youthful optimism. Pathetic pilgrims this, struggling to ultimate disillusionment.
Much of Damien Chazelle Babylon (2022) explores the dark side of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The 1920s roared in Hollywood, but something bigger was at stake for the characters as well Babylon. Like any audience for a movie, they chased that magic on screen. They were chasing an idea. After meeting aspiring star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), Manny (Diego Calva) explains his love of movies as an “escape” where what’s happening on the big screen is “more important than being real.” Similarly, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) expresses his love for film’s ability to help people “feel less alone” by enjoying an art form captured on celluloid and “imprinted in history”. There is something transcendent about movies, as well as Hollywood history, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, that is eternally fascinating.
Movies were an established form of entertainment, the idea of the movie star was solidified forever, money was flowing and business was booming. Sam Wasson, co-author of Hollywood: The Oral Historytold me Hollywood in the 1920s was a “period of pre-reckoning decadence.” Babylon offers plenty of decadence and debauchery, something readers of Hollywood lore are sure to be familiar with.
Many legends have been spun about the Fatty Arbuckle trials, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, Wallace Reid’s drug addiction, Clara Bow’s “it” girl persona, and John Gilbert’s alcoholism. The larger-than-life personas on the big screen often had difficult personal lives. These people lived big, lived fast, and often met tragic endings. The 1920s was a fast decade. Some critics have labeled Babylon like a crowded movie, but the 1920s and early 1930s were a period of an exhausting amount of success, failure, change and turmoil in Hollywood. Stories like the scene where the assistant director (PJ Byrne) loses his mind over sound syncing and the cameraman passes out in the ‘hot box’ has been similarly received by many who were around in the early days of talkies.
Hollywood in the 1920s, like Chazelle’s film, was a steady stream of partying and mourning. In Babylon we see the New York premiere of The jazz singer (1927), which was a great success, as pictured. What is not shown is that the Warner brothers were unable to attend the event because their brother Sam had worked himself to death trying to make the feature film sound synchronization a success. The move to sound hasn’t gone down well with everyone in the industry.
Silent star John Gilbert, an inspiration for Pitt’s Jack Conrad, saw scathing reviews for his early talking picture, Salvation (1930). Variety derided the film as “a waste of words” and assured that “more damage will be done to that which is [the film’s] one selling point, Gilbert’s star rating. As Kevin Brownlow wrote The parade is overGilbert returned from Europe to learn the fate of his chance at a future in talking pictures and “received a fatal injection of discouragement.”
Such real-world ramifications call Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd (1950), in which Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) talks about her disillusionment with sound and how it affected her career. “I’m big, it’s the pictures that got small,” she declared, the front offices “took the idols and smashed them.” Writers “twinned words and strangled this business” where there were no stars like Fairbanks, Gilbert, or Valentino. Not to mention John Barrymore, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson. A lot of Babylon longs for the glory days, like Norma Desmond did. The days when Valentino danced around her living room. Along with all the Wild West character of 1920s Hollywood, something special happened.
The grandiose nature of Chazelle’s film embraces the incredible and almost unbelievable stature Hollywood found in the 1920s. Nothing compares to the level of fame celluloid stars achieved in the roaring decade. Legendary columnist Louella Parsons wrote in 1925 that being around stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford was akin to royalty. Her weekly invitation to their home, known as Pickfair, “was akin to a weekly bid for Buckingham Palace.” Elinor Glyn, a partial inspiration for Babylon‘s Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), was “a tigress.” Parsons continued, “She never let the picture of the Queen of the Jungle leave your mind in her presence.” Glyn made stars, wielded influence and commanded respect before the likes of Parsons and Hedda Hopper became staples of the gossip highway.
The highest paid people in the country lived in Tinseltown. Money was quick and easy, as were the problems that came with it. Babylon gives us an unbounded perspective of a time and place that enjoyed the pinnacle of fame, as well as the disgrace that rewarded derision from moral crusaders across the land. Perhaps the biggest influence for seeing Hollywood as a true Babylon is Kenneth Anger, who is minimally trustworthy Hollywood Babylon (1975) established a template for smearing film history more effectively than the most widely read scandal rag. Anger’s book focuses on Hollywood as “a synonym for sin.” Anger is not prudish; however, he enjoys the lecherous nature of a time when “scandals exploded like time bombs.” The 1920s were a “frenzied decade,” as the huge party opens Babylon highlights through dancing, drugs, alcohol, nudity, sex and a stomping elephant.
Fury describes the Golden Age of Hollywood as a “lavish picnic on a shaky precipice” where “the road to glory was booby-trapped.” On the other side of the coin, Hollywood stands as a “dreamland,” a “home of the celestial bodies, the glamor system.” Anger uses full-page photos to explore the pinnacle of glamor and the trenches of sad Hollywood endings (such as a photo of actress Thelma Todd dead in her car). The New York Times described Hollywood Babylon as “a book without a single redeeming merit.” The Los Angeles Times wrote that Anger’s book is “deceptively mischievous” but “offers no hint of the moral hangover it carries. If it never tells as much as you’d like to know about the stars, it forces you to face more than you may be willing to admit about yourself Such reviews of Anger’s book may help explain why critics are also divided on Chazelle’s film. Babylon has the same style of content. A mix of glamour, debauchery, decadence and celebrity that can rub people in opposite directions.
What Babylon offers is a perspective of Hollywood, both as a place and an idea. After the success of Warners with The jazz singer, other studios were pressured to follow suit and change the industry business model that had made the 1920s such an attractive decade. The dreamy optimism of Nellie and Manny, Jack’s fading star, along with memories of the acceptance of women directors in the 1920s in a way that hasn’t been fun since. Underrated African-American jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) insists that Hollywood wasn’t as progressive as they wanted it to be, as studios still catered to racist Southern audiences. Palmer also aptly notes that the cameras in the film are pointed in the wrong direction, simultaneously acknowledging the interest in showing his band on screen, but also focusing the camera on the off-screen shenanigans that may be more interesting to some. are than the movie. movies themselves.
Understanding Hollywood as an idea, Babylon operates in a similar headspace to Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a time in Hollywood (2019). It is a fantasy explored through a real place and time that embraces and transcends history. When we watch silent movies or read stories from those who were there, it’s now and then at the same time. The space between the past and the present creates a dreamy image in our minds as we try to imagine what it was like to be there. This explains some modern touches in a film set in the 1920s and 1930s. Babylon is a fantasy about an idea born at the perfect intersection of location and history. As Elinor St. John tells Jack Conrad in the movie, “It’s the idea that sticks.” Babylon summarizes the idea and gives us a fantastic tour of the foundation of Hollywood’s fascinating culture as it could have been, could have been or should have been.