I don't normally do book reviews since I mostly write about the movie business, but there are these things called books, and some of them are about the movie business.
One such book is Tinseltown by William J. Mann, which won the Edgar Award for Best True Crime book of 2014.
It shows how intertwined the worlds of celebrity, business, and scandal really are, and this goes all the way back to the beginnings of the modern film industry.
This is a book about murder and scandal, but it goes deeper than that, and presents a wider picture of a fledgling industry under siege.
The best way to sum it up is to tell you a little bit about the main characters.
WILLIAM DESMOND TAYLOR
He was one of the most commercially successful and prestigious film directors with the Famous Players-Lasky Company (later Paramount Pictures, and at the time the most prestigious and powerful movie producer-distributor-exhibitor in America, and possibly the world). He had an excellent reputation but in reality, he had secrets that he desperately wanted kept. His unsolved murder in 1922 forms the spine of the book.
Taylor's best friend and confidante. She was also a major comedy star desperately trying to put a past of bad relationships and cocaine abuse behind her. However, the trial of her former co-star, comedian Fatty Arbuckle, on bogus rape and murder charges, and Taylor's murder threatened to destroy her career and her life.
MARY MILES MINTER
A child star turned ingenue who is desperately trying to get out from under the control of her domineering mother. Mary is romantically obsessed with Taylor, a man she could never have, to the point of being his stalker.
MARGARET "GIBBY" GIBSON
A former co-star of Taylor's from his acting days who came close to big-time Hollywood stardom, only to have her shot ruined by her addiction to scuzzy men and easy money. She will do anything to get another shot at stardom, and isn't one to let the law or morality get in her way.
Started life as a penniless orphan from Hungary, Zukor rose to become the head of Famous Players-Lasky. He's also a man under siege (by rivals and enemies both real and imagined) and is desperate to hold onto the company and life he literally built from nothing.
WILL H. HAYS
A former postmaster-general and campaign manager for the Harding administration. He's hired to lead the organization that will become the modern Motion Picture Association of America (that is, the association responsible for the movie ratings system.) His mission? To Hollywood from threats both within and without.
After a series of Hollywood scandals involving sex, drug addiction, and even death, a national moral panic ensued. Crusaders sought to regulate, censor, or even shut down Hollywood.
In this hysterical atmosphere, scapegoat Fatty Arbuckle was unjustly arrested and tried three times for a murder that never happened.
Then Taylor was gunned down in his apartment. The police investigation was hindered by interference from both the studio and the press, who had just realized that Hollywood scandal sold newspapers like nothing before.
Tinseltown takes up three themes: The murder investigation; its effects on the three women in Taylor's life; and its impact on the industry as a whole.
I felt a surprising amount of sympathy, not only for the women caught up in the murder and scandal hysteria, but for Hays and Zukor.
Like many, I'd once viewed Hays as a censorious prig, and Zukor as a ruthless cold-fish only out for himself, but this book showed me that I was wrong.
Hays was, deep down, a true believer in free speech and free markets. He thought movies should be free to show whatever the filmmakers saw fit, because the audience was free to not pay money to see something they didn't like. However, he was all too often forced into playing the censor by outside forces.
Those same forces also drove Zukor to do many of the seemingly heartless things he did. Most of his actions are driven by feelings of inadequacy and a fear that he might lose everything he's struggled to build.
Zukor's fears were not unfounded. We may laugh at do-gooders' threats to move the entire movie industry to Washington, DC, where it would operate under the direct supervision of the US Congress. But remember: These very same campaigners got the prohibition of alcohol written into the American constitution. Alcohol had been a part of the culture for millennia, and the movie industry had only been around a little more than twenty years at this point. So at the time, their threats didn't seem all that ridiculous.
Mann presents an excellent analysis of the crime, the evidence, and things that the investigators didn't see. He presents a compelling theory as to what might have really happened.
By doing so, he provides a look at how our modern obsessions with celebrity, scandal, and power began. The book's fast-paced prose and short punchy chapters elegantly capture the complexities of this time and place.
This story naturally has cinematic qualities. It has murder, sex, scandal, and the sort of big business shenanigans that audiences eat up these days. But while this true crime saga has inspired a novel and a musical, it wouldn't work as a movie.
For Tinseltown to be properly adapted, it has to be done as a TV series: two seasons of 10-13 one-hour episodes each, with season one dealing with events leading up to Taylor's murder, and season two with the investigation and aftermath. Only that approach would do this juicy tale justice.
I highly recommend Tinseltown if you're into movies, murder, and history, and want to understand some of the forces that help make pop culture what it is today. William J. Mann caputres not just the immediate story of the William Desmond Taylor mystery, but the era in which it happens, and presents it with great energy and style.
(Photo credit: Taylorology.com)
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