When Blanche Sweet sang “there’s a tear for every smile in Hollywood” in Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), she wasn’t wrong. Movie people have long been warning starry eyed wannabes to tread carefully if there were coming to Tinseltown full of hopes and dreams. In The Truth About the Movies by the Stars (1924), screenwriter Frank Butler wrote that “From every corner of the earth they come and across the Seven Seas borne on the tireless wings of youthful optimism. Pathetic pilgrims these, struggling on to ultimate disillusion.”
A large part of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022) explores the dark side of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The twenties roared in Hollywood, but there was also something larger at stake for characters in Babylon. Like any audience in front of a film, they were chasing that magic on the screen. They were chasing an idea. After meeting aspiring star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), Manny (Diego Calva) explains his love of the movies as an “escape” where what happens on the big screen is “more important that being real.” Similarly, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) expresses love for film’s ability to help people “feel less alone” enjoying an art form that is captured on celluloid and “printed into history.” There is something transcendent about movies, as well as Hollywood history, especially in the 1920s and 1930s that is eternally fascinating.
Movies were an established form of entertainment, the idea of the movie star became solidified forever, money was flowing, and business was good. Sam Wasson, co-author of Hollywood: The Oral History, told me that 1920s Hollywood was a “period of decadence before the reckoning.” Babylon offers plenty of decadence and debauchery, something readers of Hollywood lore are certainly familiar with.
There have been many legends spun about the Fatty Arbuckle trials, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, Wallace Reid’s drug addiction, Clara Bow’s “it” girl persona, and John Gilbert’s alcoholism. The larger-than-life personas on the big screen often had troublesome personal lives. These people lived large, lived fast, and often met tragic ends. The 1920s was a speedy decade. Some critics have labeled Babylon as an overstuffed film, but the 1920s and early 1930s was a period of an exhausting amount of success, failure, change, and turmoil in Hollywood. Stories like the scene where the assistant director (PJ Byrne) is losing his mind over sound synchronization and the cameraman is passing out in the ‘hot box’ has been similarly regaled by many who were there in the first days of talkies.
1920s Hollywood, like Chazelle’s film, was a steady stream of celebration and mourning. In Babylon we see the New York premiere of The Jazz Singer (1927), which was a major success as depicted. What isn’t shown is that the Warner brothers could not attend the event because their brother Sam had worked himself to death in order to make feature sound synchronization successful. The transition to sound was not kind to everyone in the industry.
Silent star John Gilbert, an inspiration for Pitt’s Jack Conrad, saw scathing reviews for his early talking picture, Redemption (1930). Variety derided the film as “a waste of words” and was certain that “greater injury will be done to the very thing which is [the film’s] one selling point, Gilbert’s star rating.” As Kevin Brownlow wrote in The Parade’s Gone By, Gilbert returned from Europe to learn the fate of his chance of a future in talking pictures and “received a fatal injection of discouragement.”
Such real-world ramifications call up Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), where Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) dishes on her disillusion with sound and how it impacted her career. “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” she declared, the front offices “took the idols and smashed them.” Writers “made a rope of words and strangled this business” where there were no more stars like Fairbanks, Gilbert, or Valentino. Not to mention John Barrymore, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson. Much of Babylon yearns for the glory days, like Norma Desmond did. The days when Valentino danced across her living room. Along with all the Wild West nature of Hollywood in the 1920s, something special was happening.
The grandiose nature of Chazelle’s film embraces the incredible and almost unbelievable stature Hollywood found in the 1920s. Nothing compares to the level of fame achieved by celluloid stars in the roaring decade. Legendary columnist Louella Parsons wrote in 1925 that being around stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford was akin to rubbing elbows with royalty. Her weekly invitation to their home, known as Pickfair, “was comparable to a weekly bid to Buckingham Palace.” Elinor Glyn, a partial inspiration for Babylon’s Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), was “a tigress.” Parsons continued, “she never permitted the picture of the queen of the jungle to leave your mind in her presence.” Glyn made stars, wielded influence, and commanded respect before the likes of Parsons and Hedda Hopper became staples of the industry gossip highway.
The highest paid people in the entire country were in Tinseltown. Money was fast and easy, so was the trouble that came along with it. Babylon gives us a no-holds-barred perspective of a time and place that enjoyed the pinnacle of fame as well as the infamy that rewarded derision from moral crusaders across the country. Perhaps the biggest influence for seeing Hollywood as a true Babylon is Kenneth Anger, who’s minimally reliable Hollywood Babylon (1975) set a template for smearing movie history more effectively than the most-read scandal rag. Anger’s book focuses on Hollywood as “a synonym for sin.” Anger is not prude; however, he revels in the lascivious nature of a time when “scandals exploded like time bombs.” The 1920s was a “delirious decade,” as the massive party that opens Babylon highlights by way of dancing, drugs, alcohol, nudity, sex, and a stomping elephant.
Anger defines Hollywood’s Golden Age as a “lavish picnic on a shaky precipice” where “the road to glory was beset with booby traps.” On the other side of the coin is Hollywood as a “dreamland,” a “home to the Heavenly Bodies, the Glamor Galaxy.” Anger uses full-page photographs to explore the pinnacle of glamour and the trenches of sad Hollywood endings (such a photo of actress Thelma Todd dead in her car). The New York Times described Hollywood Babylon as “a book without one single redeeming merit.” The Los Angeles Times wrote that Anger’s book is “deceptively dishy” but “offers no hint of the moral hangover that it packs. It if never tells as much as you might want to know about the stars, it forces you to confront more than you might be willing to admit about yourself.” Such reviews of Anger’s book may help explain why critics are also split on the Chazelle’s film. Babylon has the same style of content. A mix of glamour, debauchery, decadence, and celebrity that can rub people in opposite directions.
What Babylon offers is a perspective of Hollywood both as a place and as an idea. Following Warners’ success with The Jazz Singer, other studios were pressured to follow suit and change the industry business model that had made the 1920s such an alluring decade. The dreamy optimism of Nellie and Manny, Jack’s fading star, along with reminders that the 20s saw women directors accepted in a way not enjoyed since. The underappreciated African American Jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) highlights that Hollywood was not as progressive as they wanted to be as studios still catered to racist southern audiences. Palmer also aptly observes that the cameras in the film are pointed in the wrong direction, simultaneously acknowledging the interest to feature his band on screen but also in turning the camera to the off-screen shenanigans that, for some, may be more interesting that the films themselves.
Understanding Hollywood as an idea, Babylon operates in a similar headspace as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). It’s a fantasy explored through a real place and time that embraces history while also transcending it. When we watch silent films or read stories from those who were there, it is simultaneously now and then at the same time. The space between the past and the present creates a dreamlike image in our mind as we try to imagine what it was like to be there. This explains some modern touches found in a film that takes place in the 20s and 30s. Babylon is a fantasy about an idea that occurred at the perfect intersection of location and history. As Elinor St. John tells Jack Conrad in the film, “It’s the idea that sticks.” Babylon captures the idea and gives us a fantastical tour through the bedrock of Hollywood’s fascinating culture as it may have, could have, or should have been.