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Babylon: Was 1920s Hollywood really as seedy as it was in the movie?

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Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” captures 1920s Hollywood in all its decadence, debauchery and excess. Filming on dusty backlots and in sumptuous mansions, Chazelle creates a fever dream of vintage filmmaking through a contemporary lens. But before looking at the story through her own lens, Chazelle started by doing months of intensive research, finding inspiration from Hollywood stars, power brokers and real-life events. And, in many cases, the early days of cinema they were pretty scandalous.

“The reality is that these people were operating in a barrier-free kind of world where an entire industry and city were being built from scratch, and that takes a certain kind of madness,” Chazelle said.

The 1920s, in particular, were a freer time, says “Tinseltown” author William J. Mann. “There was incredible freedom before the production code was established, so people had a much freer sense of how they could live their lives. Hollywood before the code was a paradise for free thinkers and free lovers.”

And all that freedom led to a lot of experimentation with sex, drink and drugs.

“The early Hollywood scandals are really about managing the discourse about why stars are self-destructing, and the studio system itself was part of the reason,” says “Twilight of the Idols” author Mark Lynn Anderson. “The contracts were intense and it wasn’t a good kind of employment situation for stars who were making real money.” That kind of pressure to make dozens of movies a year can lead to stars becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol, and several stars have died of overdoses at an early age.

See how some of the people and events depicted in “Babylon,” starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, and opening Dec. 23, really played out.

Were there really that many drugs?

There was definitely a drug scene in Hollywood and drug trafficking rings operating in the studios, especially in the early 1920’s before William Hays came to town and started cracking down on morals both on and off screen. While it’s highly unlikely that parties offered mountains of cocaine piled on tables for party guests to freely indulge in, as the film depicts, drugs such as cocaine, morphine, heroin, opium, and ether – an ancient anesthetic mentioned in the film – all went in offer.

Reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns, who served as the inspiration for the gossip columnist persona of Elinor St. John, remembered “Cecil B. DeMille passing out a psychedelic combination of hyoscine and morphine at parties,” reports Mann’s “Tinseltown.”

As today, drug addiction often began with painkillers administered for an injury, as was the case with handsome actor Wallace Reid, who died in 1923 in a sanitarium where he was being treated for morphine addiction after a train accident. The November 17, 1920 issue of Variety reports of a drug bust, presumably from Reid’s dealer, in a blind item. “Thomas H. Tyner, aka Claude Walton, aka Bonnie Walton, was taken into custody here at a local lot with seven packets of heroin on him, according to the arresting officer. Tyner stated that he was delivering the drug to one of the most well-known male movie stars on the coast and that it was the second time he had been hired to deliver the same star, whose wife in the hope that he would break the habit, authorities said.”

Also in 1920, a major scandal erupted when the popular Selznick Picture Company flapper, Olive Thomas, was found dead in Paris, with Variety reporting having ingested mercury bichloride. The New York Times said police were seeking evidence about “rumors of drug and champagne orgies” and that “a former US officer, convicted of selling cocaine, was one of those questioned.”

Since cocaine wasn’t widely banned in the United States until 1922, while Prohibition began in 1920, it’s not surprising that addictive substances were flowing freely along Sunset Boulevard.

Flea, left, as a studio repairman and associate, played by Cutty Cuthbert, surveys the damage after a wild night of partying in “Babylon.”
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Scandal

Though he’s only on screen for a minute or two, Orville Pickwick’s character, a burly rich man who laughs as a young woman urinates on his body during the film’s first wild party sequence, appears to have been loosely inspired by Roscoe.” Fatty” Arbuckle. Later, during the party scene, Pickwick finds the woman passed out, presumably from some sort of overdose, and yells “wake up, wake up!”

Successful comic actor Arbuckle was implicated in the 1921 death of actress Virginia Rappe. Although Arbuckle was acquitted of accidentally raping and killing her, the suspect that she was fatally wounded after he penetrated her with a bottle of champagne refuses to die. “Babylon” references the urban legend with a later scene of a bottle being used on a woman.

But while it was never proven that Rappe’s death in a San Francisco hotel room was directly caused by Arbuckle, there was plenty of alcohol circulating between the actor and his friend, despite drinking being illegal for the entire decade. “Fatty Arbuckle was known for having one of the biggest cellars, which meant he had all this alcohol at his disposal,” says Mann.

“Scandal strikes industry,” he roared on September 16, 1921, Variety headline on the trial. “Arbuckle Affair Provides Capital to Screen Enemies – Hundreds of Showrunners Cancel ‘Fatty Comedies’.” Arbuckle’s three trials — two ended in tied juries and he was acquitted a third time — brought more scandal to the movie industry than the studios could handle.

As a result of all this bad press, in 1922, former Republican party chairman Hays was hired as the first president of what would become the MPA, with a mission to clean up Hollywood.

“There’s a new sensibility now, people care about morals,” explains “Babylon” character Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, in a scene set in 1929.

“By the middle of the decade, what studios are also learning is how to protect themselves from the press and the public. So one thing they didn’t have in the early 1920s, the time of Fatty Arbuckle, the murder of William Desmond Taylor – it’s only in the middle of the decade that they start to get agents who can contain these scandals,” says Mann.

In “Babylon”, Flea plays a studio repairman who exclaims “What a bloody mess!” when he sees the presumed dead woman at the party.

“At the first glance of any kind of bad behavior, any kind of wild party that gets out of hand, they’re there to bribe the press or the police and that becomes an intrinsic part of the studio system,” says Mann. “Certainly there were wild parties – there were always wild parties, but by the end of the decade the studios contained them.”

“It is interesting to note that the introduction of the morality clause in this type of contract does not apply to industry executives – it only applies to visible talent who were corporate assets, stars,” points out Anderson.

In “Babylon,” Margot Robbie plays a free-spirited actress loosely based on Clara Bow and also inspired by Jeanne Eagels, Alma Rubens, Thelma Todd, and others.
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Col.

Clara Bow – Vampire or Victim?

In “Babylon,” Robbie plays Nellie LeRoy, an aspiring actress whose character is partly inspired by Clara Bow. Like Bow, LeRoy comes from a poor background and quickly rises to fame.

Dubbed “The It Girl” by St. Johns, Bow became a huge star, but her career was almost over when she was just 25. Like the character of Robbie, Bow enjoyed playing and hanging out with the USC football team (which included John Wayne at the time), but her party girl reputation was further dragged through the mud when she accused her secretary Daisy DeVoe of theft. The ensuing trial added to unsubstantiated reports that she was a promiscuous drug addict.

Under the headline “Clara Taking a Hard Chance Says Par.”, Variety reported in 1931 that “Miss Late Troubles Bow with Daisy DeVoe, her former secretary, had the daily papers again harpoon her ‘because she’s a good copy. 🇧🇷

The article continues: “Hysterical and upset over the trial, bad publicity given to her and last week’s grueling rehearsals for ‘City Streets,’ plus a recent operation removing a piece of cartilage from her jaw, Ms. Bow willingly asked for Par. for a six-week vacation.” While Bow managed to make the transition to talkies better than some actors, the star-making machine chewed her up and spit her out in just a few short years.

“In the late ’20s you see morals clauses being written into contracts and if you did something to offend the studio’s image it could be terminated – it was worded very loosely about what transgressions that could be and certainly Clara Bow was the girl- propaganda for it, even though she really didn’t do anything wrong,” explains Mann.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu, whose character was inspired by Anna May Wong.
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Anna May Wong – Pioneer Actress

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in “Babylon”, dressed in a top hat and tailcoat like Marlene Dietrich. Her character is inspired by Anna May Wong, the pioneering Chinese-American actress who starred with Dietrich in “Shanghai Express”.

Robbie’s character says of Li, “Do you think she swings both ways?” Dietrich claimed to have had an affair with Wong, and speculation about his relationships with other women, including Leni Riefenstahl, has damaged his reputation, but like many things that happened nearly 100 years ago, it is unverifiable that Wong was bisexual.

Li says in the film that he is heading to Europe for better roles, as Wong did when racism hampered his success in Hollywood. Later, after she lost the lead role in “The Good Earth” to a white actress, daily variety reported in 1937 that Wong planned to “make his permanent home in China and work there on native pictures”. Wong made a short film based on his experiences during his year in China.

Was there really a party tunnel with orgies, rats and alligators?

Absolutely not. But there were tunnels of illegal booze leading to speakeasies in downtown LA – which could have served as the setting for an illicit tryst or two.

“Babylon” captures the big changes in business with admittedly exaggerated vision, but there’s no doubting that it was an exciting time.

“A lot of people look at the silent age and think of it as a foreign place and a strange planet that we can’t relate to today, but it’s important to see the film age as a continuum through the 1930s and 1940s. The production, the distribution, the marketing, the publicity offices, the self-censorship, the tinkerers – all that the entirety of the studio system began in the 1920s, ”concludes Mann.