Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Truth, Lies & Myths Behind “Babylon”

“Every Man and Every Woman is a Star” — Aleister Crowley

With “Babylon” now available for anyone to watch VOD following its disappointing theatrical run, I wanted to chime in about some of my thoughts on the film and why I feel it didn’t receive the proper reception from the industry as many thought it would receive.

Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” begins in 1926, a bizarre year in the scope of Hollywood history. Though the city and movie industry was at a cultural and economical high, there was a sense of something ominous looming in the future. Perhaps it was the untimely death of Rudolf Valentino, the original Latin Lover, or the talk of sound technology creeping on the horizon. The film is set during the last years of Hollywood’s silent era through the introduction of regulated morality amongst the studio system in the 1930s. The film attempts to display the raunchier, underground side of Hollywood that the general public may not be aware of. Too often, we think of this era, adits films, as simple or primitive, while they showcased mind-bogglingly creative film techniques to tell some of the most unique and provocative stories ever committed to celluloid. Within “Babylon’s” over three-hour runtime, audiences are taken through several stories and characters from real-life events. Some of these stories are true and indicative of the kind of business that went on in the City of Angels in the 1920s, while others are myths, legends, and flat-out lies. Still, these false stories that have persisted for almost a hundred years are just as emblematic as those that are true, shaping how the industry has been remembered throughout its history.

In the film’s title, Chazelle makes an overt allusion to the Salacious Bible of Tinseltown Gossip, “Hollywood Babylon,” written by experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Even to those unfamiliar with the era, it is easy to surmise that the claims made by Anger are entirely fictional, which I doubt Anger would dispute. The book is more an examination of the sort of larger-than-life mythology that Hollywood’s power was built on, with a few references to Aleister Crowley and the Occult sprinkled in. Why Anger chose that ancient city for the title of his book, a city that traded hands many times through the violent succession of empires, is most likely traceable to D.W. Griffith’s follow-up to “The Birth of a Nation,” the historical epic “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages,” which features a striking sequence within Babylon’s walls. The production value for this sequence, let alone the film, was astronomical, and the sets colossal. In the book’s first chapter, Anger refers to Griffith (dubbed the “God of Hollywood”) and his request for plaster white elephants as decoration for the Babylon set, “and white elephants he got.” This imagery of the ancient world recreated through early twentieth-century production techniques is clearly present within “Babylon’s” bacchanal introduction, in which our cast of characters congregates at a drug-fuelled orgy with a real-life elephant as the main attraction.

Within the film’s dramatis personae are the shadows of real-life figures. Nellie Le Roy, for example, played by Margot Robbie, is a clear reference to “It Girl” Clara Bow, the feisty, foul-mouthed redhead who dominated the late silent era. While Bow had begun her career in the early 1920s as a teenager, her fate is similar to Le Roy due to addiction and gambling, and personality clashes that failed to successfully transition to the sound era. Whether Bow’s Brooklyn accent contributed to her demise is rumored but not proven. As alluded to in “Babylon,” Bow likely did have an affair with “Wings” co-star Gary Cooper, while her tryst with the entire USC Trojans football team, as reported by Anger, is probably untrue.

Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt, is an amalgamation of several male actors whose career downfalls would inspire tragic stories like “A Star is Born.” While his acting roles are closer to those of the ultimate swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, his trajectory resembles that of silent heartthrob John Gilbert. Gilbert was a megastar during the mid to late 1920s and was particularly known for his romantic films with Greta Garbo, whose name is tossed around from time to time during the film’s runtime. But as the Talkies entered the scene, Garbo, who had a deep voice adorned with a Swedish accent, flourished while Gilbert plummeted. Similar to Conrad, Gilbert had a significant drinking problem that led to his early death in 1936. The exact reason why his star began to dim with the coming of sound has been the subject of many theories. His voice may have been considered too debonair for a leading man, as audiences were reported to have chuckled at his early sound roles (as they do in “Babylon“). Those who are more conspiratorially minded believe his career was sabotaged by MGM studio head and perpetual supervillain Louis B. Mayer, whom Gilbert reportedly punched in the face after Mayer made lewd remarks about Garbo. As pointed out by Elinor St. John, herself an amalgamation of tabloid titans Elinor Glyn, Hedda Hopper, and Louella Parsons and played by Jean Smart, there was no true reason for his downfall; it was just his time.

During the film’s opening scene, audiences are introduced to Lady Fay Zhu, played by Li Jun Li, an unemployed actress, working title-card writer, and occasional cabaret performer at the city’s wildest parties. Fay represents the multi-faceted roles many people had during the industry’s early days, especially women. It was not unusual for an actor to be a director, producer, and screenwriter on their own films. At this time, women had careers behind the scenes in ways that would become almost obsolete in the following decades. This is also represented by the character of Ruth Adler, a director of Nellie’s early films whose historical origins can be traced to such notable figures as Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner. As a struggling actress, Fay reflects the career of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, an essential figure of the silent and pre-code eras whose talent was unfortunately restricted to stereotypical roles in films with less than stellar portrayals of Asian-American women. Like Fay, Wong eventually took her talents to Europe, where her sapphic dalliances with several notable women damaged her reputation. When the audience first meets Fay at the opening party, she performs a crude cabaret number in a top hat, coat, and tails. Her stroll around the room and kiss with a young woman is taken almost step-for-step from the 1930 Josef Von Sternberg film “Morocco,” a love story starring Gary Cooper as a deployed soldier and Marlene Dietrich as a cabaret singer. The controversy of the same-sex kiss back in 1930 has only helped the film’s legacy over ninety years later and is evidence of Dietrich’s fairly open attitude about her bisexuality. While Dietrich’s androgynous style and sexuality had little detrimental effect on her career, this could not be said for every star of the time. 

During a scene in which Irving Thalberg, the real-life producer behind some of MGM’s greatest decisions, is going through the roster of stars at the studio to decide who can stay and go based on their vocal performance, he mentions the name William Haines, a leading man of the silent era known for romantic comedies who was openly gay amongst friends and colleagues. Haines was in a long-term, committed relationship with a man from the time he was working at MGM to his death in 1973. Reportedly, Haines was dismissed from MGM (by Mayer) due to his unwillingness to marry a female colleague and ultimately became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after interior designers. The outside pressure for studios to clean up both their films and the stars they housed is a factor that “Babylon” took straight from the history books.

Throughout the film, there are several allusions to people, films, and scandals of this era. There are also some brilliant references to the unique production techniques of early Hollywood. Silent film shoots were, in fact, often accompanied by a small number of musicians to set the “mood” for the actors, as they do for Nellie’s first shoot. One of the film’s most gut-busting scenes, in which several dozen actors sing “Singing in the Rain” in slickers in front of a Noah’s Ark backdrop, is based on a real-life sequence from the “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” in which MGM’s most prominent stars partook in dramatic and musical vignettes to show off the studio’s newest sound technology. During a scene depicting Nellie’s attempt at building a more “serious” acting reputation, she dons an eighteenth-century French court gown and wig, an obvious allusion to a similar scene featuring Jean Hagen in the 1952 musical, “Singin’ in the Rain.” As Nellie rehearses her lines during the scene, another actress in the same costume goes over the lines in Spanish. This was an authentic replication of early sound film production, in which the same film was shot with the same sets and story, with actors reciting the dialogue in different languages. Without subtitle technology, this allowed studios to release films in multiple linguistic markets. This was especially popular in Europe, where a film would often be filmed in three languages at once.

With all the film’s allusions to history, it does make some missteps that may mislead the modern audience in its understanding of the era and its people. Many of the characters, especially the women and especially Nellie, dress in ways that are totally unrealistic for the time period. While many filmmakers make deliberately anachronistic choices to emphasize a connection between the modern era and the time they are portraying (e.g., “Marie Antoinette,” “Edward II,” “Swoon”), the reliance on modern costumes to portray Nellie’s rebellious nature reads as a mistrust of the audience to understand Nellie’s character based on her behavior alone, as if we need a constant visual reminder. There is a way to depict a woman who is sexually liberated that is accurate to the time period without implying that the real women of this era, who subscribed to classic stylistic choices, could not be independent or in control of their sexuality. Of all the film’s errors, one stands out as truly misunderstanding the environment in which the movies of the silent era were consumed by audiences. Once Nellie has worked her way into the premiere of her first film, she and the rest of the audience watch her performance on screen, and it is dead quiet. Well, of course, it is a silent movie. But that is a retronym, a term created in retrospect after the era was over. And it’s technically incorrect. While the films themselves did not have synchronized audio, they were never exhibited in total silence, especially at a Los Angeles movie premiere. There may have been an accompanying orchestra, band, and maybe live actors reciting dialogue for the audience. Even in a small town picture house, there would have been a local pianist whose job was to play along with the film’s action (à la Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog“). Why Chazelle decided to portray the exhibition of so-called silent pictures incorrectly is unknown, but it ultimately creates a great distance and misunderstanding between modern and past audiences. 

Throughout the film, several names are dropped by characters in an attempt to cement the film in some sort of quasi-reality: Chaplin, Keaton, Shearer, Swanson, Lloyd, Valentino, and Davies (to name a few). This era of film history is so rich and dynamic, so full of myths, legends, and rumors, that there is no end to the stories one can uncover about the people and events that took place in this city during this time. Naturally, things will be overlooked, skewed, and misrepresented for dramatic and artistic effect. Kenneth Anger was certainly not afraid of purposefully misrepresenting history to get to the true nature of a city and industry. What Anger and Chazelle clearly both understand is that these stories, real or fake, hold a sort of otherworldly power and influence over the way we remember the films themselves and the people who made them.

Have you seen “Babylon” yet? If so, what did you think? Do you think it got exactly what it deserved during its awards season run or do you think it deserved more? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account, be sure to check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here and vote on the 2022 NBP Film Award nominations here.

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Eve O’Dea
Eve O’Dea
M.A. student of film preservation. Contributor to In Session Film. Old Hollywood enthusiast.

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