Hollywood in the 1920s
“We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!”
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, 1950
There are people who insist that the 1920s were Hollywood’s first and last golden age and everything that came after was an anticlimax. They aren’t talking about the films, a lot of which are now unwatchable except as curiosities, (Seriously, who actually laughs at Charlie Chaplin films these days?) but the stars. Hollywood’s concept of glamour was still evolving and it fell to the stars to set the rules. They didn’t have a Hays Code to impose a sterile creativity on films, the gossip magazines didn’t intrude deeply into private lives except through very subtle innuendo and it was still possible to be scandalous. A woman who smoked, drank and went through several husbands in as many years was dangerous, in a glamorous way of talking.
Gloria Swanson’s most famous role was as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, where she played the public persona of Gloria Swanson the silent movie goddess; isolated, imperious and trapped in a fantasy entirely constructed by popular culture. “I am big. It's the pictures that got small,” she says with something between a sniff and a snarl. Perhaps, but as Sunset Boulevard made plain, worshipping the past is another way of consigning it to oblivion.
What’s left to say about this man? No other actor from the silent era has had his mythology analysed in such minute detail and by corollary, the known facts about his life. Still, when you look at his films now the effect they had at the time becomes a wonder. Was it really true that women fainted in their seats when he batted his eyelids on screen? Watch one of his films now and it’s not mere cynicism to think that says less about Valentino’s screen presence than it does about a psychic emptiness in American women’s lives. And suddenly it makes sense that a generation on, their daughters needed to swallow a handful of pills just to push a shopping trolley down an aisle.
Speaking of oblivion and lost classics (which we are) Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon was once essential reading and still ought to be. Written in a tone of bitchy mock outrage, it wallowed joyously in the sordid gossip we might have missed. Here’s one story Anger didn’t cover but only because it came to light after the book was published. At the beginning of the 1930s Howard Hughes and Billie Dove were an item until he suddenly called things off. People speculated – he was one of the world’s richest men, she considered the world’s most popular actress - but neither Hughes nor Dove made any public comment. Some time after disease obsessed Hughes’ grotesque death in 1976 a friend named William Haines spilled the juice. One weekend golf pro (We’ll get to that.) Roy Wilder told Hughes that he had been treated for the pox, the next weekend Hughes discovered Wilder and Dove testing the suspension in the back of his Rolls Royce saloon. He – Hughes - swore never to touch the actress again. What does this story tell us? Well, it’s revealing that Dove’s infidelity bothered Hughes’ neurosis more than his emotions - how very Hollywood - and interesting, I suppose, that behind the glamorous façade of their relationship, Dove needed more than the man who had everything could give her. And then there is the golf pro. In the depths of the Depression some men could do quite well for themselves without having what anyone else would call a real job. That’s heartening. But what’s really telling is that when the ‘truth’ finally comes to light we’re mostly unimpressed. It seems trivial. Are we really more sophisticated or just inured by decades of trashy behaviour by the glamorous elite?
Here’s another detail about Billie Dove. When Harlem jazz singer Eleanor Harris needed a pseudonym she took the first name of her favourite actress and her acknowledged father’s surname and became Billie Holiday. If you ever had to sum up the image of America in the 1920s with a single photo, this one of Billie Dove would suffice. Tackily glamorous, ditzy and excessive, a woman who doesn’t have time to stop and think, forget about settling down. Odd really that she is almost forgotten these days.
If you were white and had a gift, Hollywood had a place for you. It didn’t care where you came from. One of the rewards of becoming heavyweight champion was that studios would quickly turn up offering a handsome cheque for a film guaranteed to be forgotten within days of its release. Jack Dempsey’s credits include KO for Cupid, Society Knockout and Health Farm Wallop, though the clips available for The Prizefighter and the Lady suggest he wasn’t just a monosyllabic piece of window dressing. Throughout his reign as champion he was close to Hollywood, having married Estelle Taylor who appeared in films such as The Ten Commandments and The Whip Woman (The plot doesn’t meet expectations). This Ross Card is dated between 1925 and 1926, when Dempsey was touring Europe. You can guess the photographer was German. The Americans preferred Dempsey to look fierce and unkempt and wouldn’t have approved of their hero with slick backed hair and in evening clothes.
The Sheik (and his son) was just one of dozens of oriental fantasies produced during the silent era but it was also the most popular, generating parodies from the moment it was released. In 1927 Bebe Daniels starred in She’s a Sheik, which only slightly changed the standard plotline of a beautiful woman needing rescuing from a desert tent Like several other actresses here she started out very young, playing her first role before the cameras when she was seven and appeared alongside Harold Lloyd in some of his comedies when she was fourteen. Her career was erratic, dropped by a studio and picked up by another that made her a star again before interest waned and another studio came along. In 1921 she was briefly jailed for accumulating unpaid speeding fines and on her release made The Speed Girl, about a woman whose love of fast cars couldn’t be restrained by the law. Press photos show an orchestra serenading Ms Daniels from outside her cell.
When Drew Barrymore started going off the deep end in the 1990s gossip columnists were relatively gentle - gossip columnists being the type who watch a car crash and shout, ‘someone should call an ambulance!’ - because, they reminded us, she was John Barrymore’s grand-daughter, so what did you expect? Barrymore (John) was a notorious drunk in an era when it was still possible to eke out a little sympathy and be acclaimed as a genius by excess in itself, but was he a great actor? Well he was one of the first who was identified by playing Shakespearean roles on film, even if those films are usually and wisely brushed off as pretty ordinary. Barrymore’s decline was rapid and has been blamed on tainted bootleg liquor he drank during Prohibition. His most infamous role was played after his death when someone stole his body from the funeral home and planted it in his old buddy Errol Flynn’s house. It’s another one of those stories with so many culprits sworn to by so many ‘who were there’ that it begins to sound like you couldn’t care less.
Speaking of Hollywood Babylon, this brings us to Clara Bow and a story that in 1927 she bedded the entire University of Southern California football team including one Marion Morrison, who for obvious reasons would change his name to John Wayne. During her relatively brief acting career Clara Bow was the subject of an encyclopaedia’s worth of sex rumours; the football team story seems one of the mildest. Why? It seems she never cared too much for Hollywood’s pretensions or her public image. She was an early sex symbol but of a particular kind; frank and down to earth without much hint of feminine weakness. In other words, the all American girl was capable of expressing her own sexuality. That, you think, is what really offended certain sensibilities.
While John Wayne was still running up and down a football pitch, in the 1920s there were two great stars of the western, Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, and both could claim to have been real cowboys, or as close as a man could get without wearing a six gun and a tin star. Gibson had been a champion rodeo rider before heading to Hollywood with the idea of becoming a stuntman. Soon enough he was starring in such forgotten films as The Four Bit Man, The Rattler’s Hiss, Ridin’ Wild and 40 Horse Hawkins. When John Ford was just starting out as a director, Hoot Gibson was one of his preferred actors. Even though Gibson made a relatively straight transition to sound, Ford discovered Wayne, who had everything Gibson did save the authentic background.
Clara Bow and John Wayne in a sweaty locker room, John Barrymore’s corpse in Errol Flynn’s living room, Gloria Swanson going through husbands like they were cheeses in a Parisian fromagerie; thank the lord for Mary Pickford, who bought some dignity and taste to the scene. Her star burned as brightly as Bow’s, she was equal in her independence and set on getting things her way yet was protected from gossip and manufactured scandal. If you are wondering why, this photo says a lot. Does she look like the type to take on a football team? Stories suggest she wasn’t quite the ever gracious and elegant society queen she was portrayed as but like Bill Clinton and John Gotti she was adept at deflecting her accusers.
And speaking of political leaders with squalid reputations, and Italian crime bosses, this brings us to Anita Page. One measurement of a star’s value was the amount of fan mail received each week and at the end of the 1920s Page was getting it by the truckload. One of her most ardent worshippers was Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. Though Page responded to his letters and received an offer of marriage, it soon became inappropriate for her publicity machine and she was asked to stop. Mussolini didn’t however and it later emerged that Page’s mother was regularly sending him signed photographs, no doubt hoping her daughter would marry into power and respectability. But this is not the strangest story of Page’s life. In 1933 she retired from acting – she was 23 years old – and quickly vanished from public consciousness, until 1996 when she started appearing in a series of trashy horror films. Journalists lined up to interview one of the last surviving actors of the silent age and she was happy to oblige. Now in her nineties, cocooned in an LA bungalow, attended to by a retinue of pretty gay actors and wrapped in 1920s gowns, she was Norma Desmond in the flesh.
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