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Hollywood Babylon - Kenneth Anger

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Genre: Biography / Author: Kenneth Anger, Kenneth Anger / Edition: Reissue / Mass Market Paperback / 448 Pages / Book is published 1998-08-01 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

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    4 Reviews
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      07.03.2011 15:07
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      Dubious but fun Hollywood gossip

      Hollywood Babylon is a trashy cult book about Hollywood scandals and 'secrets' from the 1900s onwards. It was written by 'experimental' underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger and first published in French in 1959. I'd never heard of him myself until I picked up this book but Anger was once a child actor and apparently culled together all the stories he'd heard and picked up about the darker and seamier side of the film industry, a world of 'cocaine-crazed comedies' and 'amoral extravagances'. The book, which was somewhat ahead of its time with its fixation on lurid tittle tattle involving celebrities, only appeared in the United States in 1975 after being banned in the sixties. Hollywood Babylon is witty and morbidly compelling at times but not to be taken too seriously. Anger was desperate for money at the time he wrote it and it could be construed as a piece of experimental art itself rather than a legitimate book. Many of its claims have been completely debunked and the book is said to have created a number of urban myths that have no basis whatsoever in reality, like the story here that the actress Clara Bow once slept with an entire American Football team.

      'The shadow of Babylon had fallen over Hollywood,' writes Anger. 'A serpent spell in code cuneiform; scandal was waiting, just out of Billy Bitzer's camera range. The already famous faces took on names and rapidly-rising salaries: the Star System - a very mixed blessing - was born. For better or for worse, Hollywood would henceforth have to contend with that fatal chimera - the STAR.' The book is rather macabre at times with details on Jayne Mansfield's car crash and the Black Dahlia murder case and there are some distasteful photographs too, all of which serve to give the book a slightly creepy atmosphere. There are chapters on all manner of things like the Gish sisters sleeping with each other, Rudolph Valentino being gay, Charlie Chaplin's penchant for underage girls. This is mostly nonsense and distorted by the author but written in an entertaining if hardly tasteful fashion. The inaccurate and speculative nature of much of the book is of course part of its appeal because most people can't resist urban legends and salacious gossip but a lot of this is not difficult to see through.

      I have no idea what Errol Flynn got up to in his private life but I do know that Fatty Arbuckle did not die a broken and ruined man as Anger says here. Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was a famous silent comedian and a friend and mentor to people like Buster Keaton and Chaplin. In 1921 he held a party in his hotel suite and a woman there named Virginia Rappé fell ill, dying four days later from peritonitis. Arkbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter with lurid stories swirling around that he'd assaulted the woman and was some sex crazed monster in real life. He was in fact completely innocent and acquitted in six minutes at the final trial. Hollywood was reluctant to put Arbuckle's name on anything afterwards officially but he did direct films under an assumed name and work with Chaplin and Keaton again and many others who stood by him. He was eventually offered a 3 film contract by a studio and died a happy - and innocent - man. Anger's chapter here about Arbuckle is full of inaccurate details about his films and life and completely disregards the fact that he was cleared of any charges and received an apology from both the courts and the film industry before he died.

      Hollywood Babylon became something of an underground classic when it finally got a permanent airing in an English language version. The United States was a more cynical place in the era of Watergate and not adverse to a bit of mud slinging at Hollywood and famous icons. Some of the mysteries surrounding the deaths of stars are trawled through here and there are some interesting cases. One in particular is the death of Thelma Todd in 1935. Todd was a beautiful blonde actress (nicknamed 'Hot Toddy' by her friends) who had worked with the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy. She was found dead behind the wheel of her car, an apparent suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Was this really the case though? Anger points to blood found on her mouth, supporting a theory that foul play was at work and her body was cremated and therefore prevented a second autopsy by investigators. Was Todd being blackmailed by someone? Did she get mixed up with some dodgy people? Was it just a case of suicide, the blood caused by her slumping and hitting her mouth on the steering wheel? Was there no blood at all, the Thelma Todd conspiracy theories having 75% of their origins in this book!? We'll never know but it's undeniably absorbing to read about cases like this.

      Other delights here include the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the death of Lupe Vélez, and a truly outrageous assertion by the author on the death of Ramon Novarro that is absolute cobblers. Anger claims Novarro was the lover of Rudolph Valentino. According to this book, not only was Valentino gay, his wives were all lesbians! I found there where quite a lot of celebrities I'd never actually heard of in the book but it's interesting to learn a bit more about them even if you do have to take the accounts of their exploits with a big lorry load of salt. Hollywood Babylon is mostly codswallop but as far as rumour mongering and trash goes this is actually a lot of fun at times and at the time of writing you can pick up a used copy of this for under a fiver. Caveat emptor.

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        25.08.2002 20:00
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        "Hollywood Babylon" is a truly fantastic and sometimes harrowing read. The book takes grim delight in revealing the rapid and sad downfalls of actors and actresses caught in the Hollywood machine. Scandals, drug addiction, manic depression, rape and suicide are some of the reasons for the descent into the abyss of some great Hollywood icons. The book is basically a smorgasbord of human weakness caught in the headlights of the media and the disapproving public. The book wants to destroy the "star" myth and tell the reader that actors and actresses who are revered are really only the same as us but living under the influence of human excess. Hollywood is the new Sodom and Gomorrah. Kenneth Anger is a famous film director who was a former child star. The book was written as an expose on Hollywood because some of the stories needed to be told. Some of the stories are sad but some are mysterious and even funny. The book was first published in Paris and it became an underground hit. I bought the book for £ 7:99 in my local Waterstone's. If the book were made into a film I would hire David Lynch because the book has a tone that verges on the bizarre but also comedic. The book reminds me of "Sunset Boulevard" and Lynch's own "Mullholland Drive". I will quote the opening introduction because it sums up the book perfectly and it is also wonderfully written: " Welcome to Hollywood-made manic in it's heyday by "joy powder" and cocaine crazed comedies…seduced by vamping heroin heroines…shaken by Fatty Arbuckle's orgiastic excesses and Errol Flynn's amoral extravagances…stunned by Marilyn Monroe's tragic suicide and by Sharon Tate's brutal murder. Take a walk down "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams", where the sex goddesses, the starlet's, the matinee idols, the American aristocracy and Mafia meet.
        Here-as it's never been shown before-is the scalding reality behind the glittering façade of America's dream factory-the true stories and darkest secrets behind the lurid headlines that have-for more than seven decades-titillated the world and electrified the nation". Now does that sound superb or does that not? The book also contains some truly disturbing photographs ranging from an eternally sleeping Marilyn Monroe to a minging drug-addled Judy Garland. Kenneth Anger's lurid style of writing is straightforward but verges on the sometimes malicious and gossiping. Never the less the book is a fascinating read that offers little facts but lot's of hearsay. The book starts with a picture of a decaying film set and begins with the silent stars and Hollywood first official casualty-a Ziegfield girl named Olive Thomas who committed suicide in Paris. She was a rising star of the silent screen and the 20-year old drank mercury and died in excruciating pain. Kenneth Anger delves into the story with a morbid fascination has he reveals all kinds of "poison bon-bons"- a quote from the New York Times. It seems Olive Thomas was far the "virginal blonde" but a drug addict with a mentally ill husband. The viperous nature of Anger is wickedly funny. The book also includes one of Hollwyood's oldest mysteries. Who killed Thomas Ince? Thomas Ince was a film producer who died in mysterious circumstances on a yacht. Thomas Ince was shot by William Randolph Heart when he caught Charlie Chaplin with Marion Davies (Hearst's wife) together. Hearst reached for his gun and aimed at Chaplin but Ince got in the way and caught the bullet meant for Charlie. That is the story that Anger believes. It is also interesting to note that this story has been turned into a film called "The Cat's Meow". This is one of Hollywood's most-darkest secr
        ets. The murder was covered up and everybody involved never speaking of it. Ince was cremated straight away but one eyewitness saw Ince's corpse and said; "That's the first heart attack I have ever seen that was caused by a bullet in the head". "Hollywood Babylon" covers the first seven decades of Hollywood's past and it is an amazing ride through a nightmare that ends in death and destruction (usually self-induced). If you like dark and sometimes depressing stories then this is definitely for you. The book is tragic and funny. It makes you that little less armoured with the actors and actresses. Hollywood can chew you up and spit you out in spectacular fashion. The book also shows how lonely and sad the people are behind their glamorous facades. One tragic actress wanted to commit suicide, so she swallowed a bottle of pills and fell asleep. She woke up and vomited all over her bathroom slipped on the sick and cracked her head open on the toilet bowl. Sad isn't it?

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          09.05.2001 05:22
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          Kenneth Anger is the kind of guy you want to be sitting next to at a party, unless of course, you don't like gossip of the most salacious kind. The keeper of old Hollywood's sleaze stories, he sits you down and lets you have it right between the eyes. Civilised people? Pah! Role models for a nation? Phooey! More than mere mortals? Don't make him laugh. Little has escaped the film industry's version of J Edgar Hoover, except that this fount of all seedy knowledge genuinely loves and cares for dear old tinseltown. A child actor himself, he'll briefly boast of his appearance in "Midsummer's Night Dream", but it's not necessarily the acting side of things that his books are about. Growing up in Hollywood, his hobby was visiting cemetaries, and paying a personal homage to his heroes from the silver screen who have resided therein since their obscenely early ages. And here lies the heart of his work. It's about demise. The demise of stars, their careers, their lives, their morals and their grasp of reality. Hollywood Babylon I and II are catalogues of the deaths, accidental or otherwise, from major stars to bit part players from the days of silent movies up until the 50's and 60's, although concentrating more on the early days till the 1940's. Alongside the physical destruction of the film stars, it charts the outrageous living and lifestyles that led to their decline, or in some case, where it should have led to their decline. It also points out the flip side of the glamourous coins, so handsomely paid for and portrayed by the studio bosses, the bad points about people and all the naughty little secrets that, as long as they stayed hidden, wouldn't stop them from living just how they damn well pleased. It would be unfair to let you think that this is just trashy gossip from cover to cover. His love of Hollywood and the impact his town has had on the entire world is something he&
          #39;s very proud of. The early Hollywood years are clearly his favourite times when everything was budding, full of promise and magic, and the awesome potential of this mass entertainment was just beginning to hit home. His writing is laid back in style, dripping with sarscasm and dismissive of anyone who he felt wasn't really trying. It's compelling reading, not just because you can't quite believe the content of what he's telling you, but it's so candid that you can't help but be sucked into the void of celebrity voyeurism. Littered with photographs, the Hollywood Babylon books are a real tribute to the man's dedication to his passion. The pornographic photographs of Joan Crawford, taken from stills footage of the cheapie skinflicks she did on her way to becoming famous, are quite shocking, but that's nothing compared to the shots of a very dead Jayne Mansfield in her car wreck, which although not explicit or graphic, are still quite appalling. There are other shots of deceased stars in situ, but if this kind of thing could be done with any dignity at all, Kenneth Anger just about manages it. These books are the sum of the man called Kenneth Anger. An underground film director himself, he speaks with an authority and knowledge that you wouldn't question about the subject of Hollywood and it's films. The books are as bizzare as he is, they are as breathtaking in their honesty as he is, they are as compulsive as he is. He doesn't just delight in telling you how tacky it is, he thrives on wrenching down those filmy curtains that blow gently in the breeze during the love scenes (one foot on the floor, please) and exposing it for all the tawdry, sly, manipulating seething mass that it was. Is? ******* Hollywood Babylon I - published 1975 by Dell. ISBN information: 0-440-15325-5 Hollywood Babylon II - published 1984 by Arrow. ISBN information: 0-09-9451107. <
          br>(Not found in many bookshops, but I have seen it on sale in the Museum Of the Moving Image bookshop on the Southbank. Enjoy!)

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            09.04.2001 20:45
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            There’s always something about the scandals of the past. Somehow whatever emerges from today's blaze, celeb-saturated media is never quite as fascinating as the half-remembered, half-covered up affairs of yesteryear- horrors that seem all the more shocking today for the utter innocence that surrounded them. In recent years there's been a glut of posthumous exposes but still the grand-daddy of them all remains Hollywood Babylon. Written by Kenneth Anger, former child actor and notable underground filmmaker, this no holds barred account of Hollywood scandals was originally published in Paris before cult success meant it eventually worked its way (in a reprinted form) back across the Atlantic. Anger seemed determined to blow the roof off Hollywood's bland self image and so HB is a high spirited whirl through incidents such as Fatty Arbuckle's murder trial, Charlie Chaplin's procession of pregnant underage brides, Frances Farmer's crack-up, the on-set orgies of Erich Von Stroheim, Valentino's "pink powder puff" rumours, and endless anonymous drug over-doses and pathetically grandiose suicides. The only thing that might deaden the impact is it's focus on stars of the silent era, many of whom are familiar only to dedicated cineastes these days- their falls from grace are less dramatic as reader is unaware of their previously exalted status. For this reason I found the sequel Hollywood Babylon 2 more interesting as it covers recognisable subjects from the 40s, 50s and 60s. (Anger is currently trying to publish a third volume.) Holly Baby (as Anger calls it) is an easy to read book and his gleeful, wicked prose renders each expose strangely compelling. While its short chapters and episodic nature means it often resembles the scandal rags where much of its material was derived. HB is a good book to dip into rather then read in one go -indeed too much exposure to it's human frailties is bit like watching
            Channel 5 24 hours a day. Its also amply illustrated with absurd and repulsive photographs, either candid studio stills or police shots of famous death scenes: Bugsy Seigel, decapitated Jayne Mansfield and her dead dog, Sharon Tates' house etc. Though their impact is somewhat limited by publisher Dell's most recent edition of the book in tiny pocket size. Much has been written about HB's non-truthful nature and its worth taking a lot of it with a pinch of salt- although many stories have been verified by time (like Marlene Dietrich's "sewing circle" of lesbian girlfriends and Errol Flynn's sexploits.) But it doesn’t matter much if its long dormant scandals are true as this a book about gossip as much as it documents it. Anger writes potted histories of entertainment columnists like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper and the grubby reign of Confidential magazine which (with its wide-scale employment of prostitutes as "researchers") was more like a blackmail operation than journalism- offering victims the opportunity to "buy back" exposes for a large fee. While the reprints of articles and headlines from contemporary newspapers shows that the scandal press has always existed, an inevitable spin-off alongside the studios' sanitised publicity departments. In many ways Holly Baby resembles an collection of modern folklore or Hollywood urban myth. (The likes of Lupe Velez's toilet suicide has been cherished by kitsch merchants for decades.) The book's blurb describes it as containing Hollywood's "best kept secrets" but essentially the contents of HB were always the worst kept secrets. Anger has compiled the unsubstantiated rumours that had long been repeated among the inhabitants of Tinsel Town and recorded them, creating an unlikely oral history of Los Angeles. Much of the contents of Hollywood Babylon have already entered popular consciousness through one form or
            another- Chaplin's 15 year old wife Lilita being the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov's most famous novel. While HB has been influential in its own right, much of the material- the sordid, complex connections between stars, moguls, gangsters, hookers and politicians- now tend to be documented in serious novels like James Ellroy’s LA Confidential and John Gregory Dunne's Playland with their quasi fictional treatment of the same sources. Like those books Hollywood Babylon also shares a commendable distaste for the hypocrisies of America's moral arbitrators and the likes of Louella and Hedda who tried to mask their muck raking with outrage or sentimentality. At least Anger's honest and he knows he's just dishing dirt. But despite the sometimes viciousness of HB, Anger often reveals a grudging affection for Hollywood's "Golden Age", especially compared to is lukewarm scandals of recent times. In its own cracked way Hollywood Babylon is a tribute to the dream factory's possibilities and only adds to rather than detracts from Tinsel Town's image

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            Recalls the tragic fates of many movie stars who believed in the dream factory called Hollywood.