Debunking Hollywood Babylon

If you’re at all interested in Hollywood history — by which I don’t mean the nuts-and-bolts of how any given classic film was made, or the ups and downs of the business, but rather the stories of the people behind the films and the business, the ones we revere, sometimes the ones we deplore, and especially those we’ve forgotten — then you owe it yourself to check out a podcast called You Must Remember This. I’ve been following it for about a year and a half now after first learning about it from Wil Wheaton, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

The podcast’s host, film journalist Karina Longworth, does two cycles or “seasons” per year, and each season is themed around a single topic that reveals “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” to borrow from the show’s prologue. These histories can range from a comparison of the lives and careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, to the evolution of Jane Fonda from a sex kitten to a political lightning rod, to the McCarthy-era blacklist. (Personally, I started listening during a season called “Dead Blondes,” about all the blonde sex symbols who’ve met untimely and sometimes horrific endings.) The show is very well researched and documented, with source notes and photographs available for each episode on a related blog. It truly is a treasure trove for dedicated movie buffs, or even just people who enjoy a good story.

The current season is of particular interest because I have a personal connection to the topic.

Way back in my teens, I stumbled across a tattered paperback book called Hollywood Babylon in a thrift store. Its author is a guy named Kenneth Anger, which is an apt name considering the book turned out to be 200-some pages of someone grinding a very large ax. Babylon is one of those works that seeks to destroy plaster idols and press hot buttons, and it does that very effectively as it recounts some of the saddest and most sordid tales of Hollywood lore in the cruelest manner possible. It was in the pages of Hollywood Babylon that I first heard the tale of washed-up Peg Entwhistle hurling herself off the “H” of the Hollywood sign… of Lupe Valez’ ignominious suicide (according to Anger, the Latina star had wanted to die in a beautiful, carefully staged scene on her bed, but became sick to her stomach and ended up drowning in her toilet after vomiting)… of va-va-voom girl Jayne Mansfield being decapitated in a car accident and permanently traumatizing the policeman who found her head… of Errol Flynn’s trial for statutory rape and the rumors that he was a Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton’s character in The Rocketeer is based on this version of Flynn, if you didn’t know)… and most shockingly to me, at that time anyhow, of silent-era comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for raping a woman with a Coke bottle, causing so much internal damage that she subsequently died. (I don’t know why the Coke bottle thing troubled me more than the gory mental images of Valez or Jayne Mansfield, but I remember that it did.)

Hollywood Babylon outraged me when I read it. Not because its stories were taboo or breaking down the glamorous facade of the movies’ golden age, but because it was just so damn mean-spirited. Something about the tone of the writing suggested that Anger was having a good laugh at the thought of all those pretty people being cut down to size, and he wanted the reader to have one too. And if you were shocked instead of amused, well… Anger struck me as the sort of smirking asshole who would just laugh harder and louder. I’ve never had much use for the provocateur types who get off on riling people up just to see if they can.

Moreover, I had a hunch that a lot of what I was reading in that book was horseshit. Even in my teen years, when I was admittedly naive about, well, everything, Babylon smelled off to me. And yet I knew that many of the stories Anger told were out there in the culture, accepted by people who either didn’t know better or wanted to believe the worst about all those immoral movie folk. And that made me angry, too.

The whole experience of reading that book was highly unpleasant, and I very quickly got rid of the damn thing, after which I took a long shower.

Now, getting back to You Must Remember This, the latest season of the podcast, titled “Fake News,” is dedicated to refuting Hollywood Babylon, or at least pointing out the places where Anger exaggerated or insinuated things that aren’t supported by facts, and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s weirdly vindicating to hear this stuff, as if some great injustice is finally being corrected, even though the urban legends promulgated by Anger have been debunked before in various places. Besides, like I said earlier, these stories, the real stories, are just plain interesting.

You can listen to You Must Remember This yourself through the official website or iTunes, or I imagine any place else you go to hear podcasts, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s a great show.

And no, Fatty Arbuckle did not rape Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The autopsy showed no evidence of a sexual assault, and Arbuckle was acquitted. Not that that saved his career, sadly…

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