Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Published:  October 14th, 2014
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood
By: William J. Mann
Harper Collins
ISBN-13:  9780062242167

By the 1920s, the movies had suddenly become America's new favorite pastime, and one of the nation's largest industries.  Never before had a medium posessed such power to influence.  Yet Hollywood's glittering ascendency was threatened by a string of headline-grabbing tragedies -- including the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Director's Association, a legendary crime that has remained unsolved until now.

In a fiendishly involving narrative, bestselling Hollywood chronicler William J. Mann draws on a rich host of sources, including recently released FBI files, to unpack the story of the enigmatic Taylor and the diverse cast that surrounded him -- including three beautiful, ambitious actresses; a grasping stage mother; a devoted valet; and a gang of two-bit thugs, any of whom might have fired the fatal bullet.  And overseeing this entire landscape of intrigue was Adolph Zukor, the brilliant and ruthless founder of Paramount, locked in a struggle for control of the industry and desperate to conceal the truth about the crime.  Along the way, Mann brings to life Los Angeles in the Roaring Twenties: a sparkling yet schizophrenic town filled with party girls, drug dealers, religious zealots, newly-minted legends and starlets already past their prime -- a dangerous place where the powerful could run afoul of the desperate.

A true story recreated with the suspense of a novel, Tinseltown is the work of a storyteller at the peak of his powers -- and the solution to a crime that has stumped detectives and historians for nearly a century.


       As someone who loves film history, and has more than a passing interest in the Silent Film Era, some of the names in this book weren't unfamiliar to me (Adolph Zukor, Mabel Normand, Marcus Loew, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Will Hays) - others I had never heard of until this book (William Desmond Taylor, Mary Miles Minter, Margaret "Gibby" Gibson).  Considering I had never even heard of this murder/scandal except in passing when watching Kevin Brownlow's excellent documentary, "Hollywood: Pioneers," it sounded fascinating to me personally.  It reads just like I want my non-fiction to: like a novel instead of a textbook.  The scene is well set, with Mann traveling sixteen months back in time, to the events preceding the murder in the lives of those involved, and the other major players in Hollywood either affected by scandal (movie stars) or trying to avoid it (moguls).  There is some especially interesting stuff about the pursuits of Adolph Zukor, the co-head of Famous Players-Lasky who eventually founded Paramount Pictures, to monopolize the profits of the industry.  The view into the "boy's club" of the moguls, who were in competition often and didn't even like each other really, and the way they banded together against the censorship of the women's church groups and temperance unions was especially interesting to read about.  The power plays to avoid the collapse of the movies based on censorship (and their considerable fortunes) eventually led to the moguls hiring government official Will Hays to be the voice of morality in the movies (really their way of circumventing the govt. actually)! 
     The chain of events leading to the murder leaves us with a few scenarios.  Did teenaged actress Mary Miles Minter, practically delusional in her affections, kill Taylor?  Or was it her raging stage mother, Charlotte Shelby, who had threatened Taylor on a few occasions, and who was known to become violently angry?  Also in the pool of suspects, a former valet who had played fast and loose with Taylor's property and knew some of his secrets (including a secret family and possible male lover), another actress Mabel Normand (although not so much her as her former cocaine dealers), and Margaret "Gibby" Gibson, a former colleague of Taylor's who had fallen on hard times after an arrest in a brothel ruined her career, and in with a group of low-life, petty "bunco" thieves.  We are given plenty of background on everyone, their interactions with Taylor, the evidence the police were going on, and all of them had reasons to committ the murder.  But the investigation was doomed from the start.  Before the house was even declared a crime scene, the body had been moved around, studio people had stolen all of Taylor's personal papers from upstairs and the D.A., a possible lover of Shelby's, protected her & Mary from questioning, tampered with the evidence in lockup (lots of it disappearing).  Shelby's mother disposed of her gun, possibly a murder weapon, before the police could get ahold of it.  None of the people in this book led happy lives, most of them being semi-tragic to completely tragic figures of film history.
       I will not spoil the conclusion that Mann comes to, suffice it to say that I think it is kind of a convenient leap, but at the same time it makes sense.  Also, the deathbed "confession" would make no sense as a false one.  The person had absolutely NOTHING to gain from it at that point in time!  All the connections are there, whereas the evidence for the popular favorite suspect doesn't quite add up the way it should, if it were the correct answer to the question (at least the way the evidence is presented).  I will agree with other readers that the over-stressing of Zukor's short stature, megalomania, and absolute base lack of any human emotion (according to Mann anyway, from what I can tell) did get overused and annoying.  It did diminish my enjoyment of the narrative at several points.  It became redundant.  Althought the juxtaposition of Zukor with his rival Loew, and even Will Hays when it came to dealing with the scandals, Arbuckle's ongoing trials especially, was an intriguing piece of psychology.  I also think that Desmond Taylor could have been more fleshed out, even if that meant sacrificing some of the side-narrative.  I didn't feel like I really knew him, even by the time the end of the book rolled around.  All in all, a highly enjoyable read that will not necessarily leave you with the answers promised in the blurb.  But I had such a darn interesting time I didn't really care.  Besides with all the tampering and how many years have passed, it's probably unsolvable at this point, at least with true evidentiary certainty of any kind.  On a side note, now I want to read more from Mann and at least one biography on Mabel Normand and one on Fatty Arbuckle!  I also need to get ahold of a non-review copy of this to look at the pictures!  Recommended for fellow lovers of true crime and the REAL Old Hollywood (before the talkies).  :D

VERDICT:  4/5  Stars

* received this book from Harper Collinson Edelweiss.  No favors or money were exchanged for this review.  This book was published on October 14th, 2014.*

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are much appreciated and I always read them with a smile on my face! :) While I appreciate the thought, this an award-free blog as well. I just don't have the time to keep up with it. Thank you for my smiles and please share your thoughts! Also, sorry for the Captcha, but I've been getting a lot of spam lately!