Hollywood Babylon – a two-part aside

Crime, sex, addiction, murder and suicide – the golden age of the movies

Front cover from the first French edition of Kenneth Anger's 1965 book Hollywood Babylone. The book's title in pink boldface lettering over a black and white photograph of Jayne Mansfield in a low-cut dress

Cinema is a mature form. Cinema is also, of course, the least mature form there’s ever been. It’s art but it’s also sex and crime and addiction and untimely death. We now know that Hollywood in the 1920s was the absolute apex of American transgression (there’s a film about it). I won’t try to put forward an explanation here. I’ve read many and they’re all pretty thin. There’s nothing intrinsically naughty or fallible about the movies or movie people. Nothing in the Californian water.

We can probably agree that it’s got something to do with the collision of money, ambition and desperation that often accompanies a gold rush. The fact that the movies essentially carried over the economics and the culture and the relaxed morality of Broadway and the circus and the burlesque must be a factor.

But there’s no complete explanation. How come, for instance, that the equally consequential revolution in business and technology centred a few hundred miles north in what we now know as Silicon Valley seems to have produced nothing more transgressive than a wide range of healthful smoothies and several important new meditation techniques? And no, epic financial fraud and weird libertarian cults do not count.

Hollywood’s deep well of wickedness and vanity was essentially a secret until the mid-sixties. It’s not that anyone thought Tinseltown was a church picnic or even as respectable as the other branches of show-business. Audiences were soaking up stories of desperate, unrequited love, divorce and tragic loss in Photoplay and Movie Weekly and in the trashier sections of their daily newspapers, but the truth was hardly present. Wrong-doing was laundered until it resembled ordinary naughtiness, so as to preserve the fragile box-office value of the stars involved. The darker stories had always circulated too – occasionally surfacing in courtrooms and in autobiographies written in old age – but the iron grip of the studios’ publicity departments and the malign control exercised by the moguls over cities and police departments and legislators kept the lid on the darkness for decades.

And the conspiracy of silence was real. No journalist at a respected outlet would go near the stories of drug use, sexual licence, rape and abuse, cruelty and corruption that insiders were aware of, for fear of permanent exile or, worse, losing access to the after-party. Even the famous gossip columnists of the era were essentially authorised chroniclers.

Photograph of film-maker and writer Kenneth Anger, wearing an elaborate brocade cape in the street outside the famous Hollywood Hotel Chateau Marmont. Wikimedia Commons.
Kenneth Anger doing Kenneth Anger

Hollywood Babylon

So it took the passage of several decades and the fearless prurience of a genuine film outsider to bring these stories to light. Kenneth Anger, avant-garde filmmaker, occultist and queer icon, was the man for the job. He wrote a book called Hollywood Babylon. Looking back, it makes perfect sense. Anger was by definition beyond the reach of the studios and the PR machines. He was so far outside the mainstream he was essentially untouchable. We might call him uncancellable. And Anger circumvented the problem of how to get such a book printed by taking it straight to the house of a man known for publishing the unpublishable – Jean-Jacques Pauvert in Paris – the man who brought you the Marquis de Sade and Story of O. Pauvert published various editions of Hollywood Babylone, starting in 1959 (an early French edition will cost you a few quid).

The book’s 1965 American debut, as a ‘brown-wrapper’ edition sold alongside the dirty books, was a disaster – the US edition was banned ten days after publication and was unavailable in its home market for another ten years, when it was published in Rolling Stone Magazine’s imprint – it was by then a hip, transgressive classic (some of the more speculative and/or actionable stories were gone) and began to acquire an audience. I remember the book was a fixture in the small selection of books thought to be a bit edgy – alongside the ‘poetry’ of Jim Morrison and the SCUM Manifesto – that most record shops used to keep at the back when I began frequenting such places.

Anger’s book is not a conventional history. He is not troubled by the niceties of citation or by silly fact-checking. It’s a stream of pithy assertions, usually attributed to sources that can’t possibly be checked (because they’re dead) or to profoundly disreputable publications, lovers, drivers, hat-check girls, various has-beens with an axe to grind and untrustworthy hangers-on. It’s written in the snappy, pulp style of a tabloid:

Professional do-gooders would brand Hollywood a New Babylon whose evil influence rivaled the legendary depravity of the old; banner headlines and holier-than-thou editorials would equate Sex, Dope and Movie Stars. Yet while the country’s organized cranks screamed for blood and boycott, the public, unfazed, flocked to the movies in ever-increasing multitudes.

Respectable film people were scornful. The reviews were awful: “…here is a book without one single redeeming merit. It panders to the absolutely lowest element of the reader. By holding up a mirror to this darker part of ourselves, Mr. Anger has performed a service of sorts, I suppose.” – New York Times, 31 August 1975.

Photograph from Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon showing a scene from Our Dancing Daughters. Joan Crawford, at a crowded black-tie party, dances the Charlston on a table

It opens, though, with what I consider to be the best short essay about the origins of the dream factory, its explosive rate of innovation and its tendency to create and then destroy the stars it depended on that I’ve ever read – worth haunting the charity shops for this bit alone.

When word reached [the filmmakers] that nickelodeon crowds all over the country seemed to be flocking to see favorite movie performers known only as “Little Mary,” “The Biograph Boy” or “The Vitagraph Girl,” the disdained actors, until then thought of as little more than hired help, suddenly acquired ticket-selling importance. The already-famous faces took on names and rapidly-rising salaries: the Star System – a decidedly mixed blessing – was born. For better or for worse, Hollywood would henceforth have to contend with that fatal chimera – the STAR. Overnight the obscure and somewhat disreputable movie performers found themselves propelled to adulation, fame and fortune. They were the new royalty, the Golden People. Some managed to cope and took it in their stride; some did not.

Filmmaker and (rather more careful) historian of the same period Kevin Brownlow – not unused to controversy himself – said he asked Anger what research method he used and was told “mental telepathy, mostly.” Hollywood Babylon is illustrated unevenly but with absolute authenticity, using often jaw-dropping, presumably out-of-copyright photographs, private snapshots and publicity stills that are grainy and poorly-composed but always absolutely compelling.

It’s an unconventional and iconoclastic history of the golden age and its thesis – that human vanity and corruption are not incidental to the Hollywood project but essential to it, that it wasn’t the movies that produced the wickedness but the other way around – is utterly convincing.

  • In part two of this little aside I’ll bring you some excerpts from Hollywood Babylon as they relate to the people discussed in the GROSS reviews so far. There might be some D.W. Griffith, some Lillian Gish, some Mary Pickford…
  • Remarkably, the book is still pretty hard to come by. Both part one and part two – published in 1984 – are out of print. You’ll still find part one in the shops but part two is elusive.
  • Anger’s filmmaking has gained in stature and, when he died earlier this year, aged 96, there were obits in all the respectable outlets.
  • Here’s Anger talking to UCLA students about Aleister Crowley. I desperately want one of those ‘ANGER’ jumpers.
  • There’s not much on the streaming services but there are some Blu-Rays. Scorpio Rising, his much-banned biker bacchanal, is on YouTube. It’s actually quite sweet – and the soundtrack is exceptional.

Dudes in the woods

Robin Hood is a Mediaeval superhero. He doesn’t care much about emancipation, but he loves to skip through the trees.

Gross is every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed.


Banner graphic for GROSS - DOuglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood in silhouette at an arched window. The word 'GROSS' and the year 1922 are overlaid

There’s something cynical about this film. It’s as if it knew it was going to be the first in a multi-decade franchise, as if it knew it was likely to create the template for the action hero; leaping, laughing and slapping entitled aristocrats and bureaucrats around with gusto. Wikipedia calls Fairbanks’ Robin Hood an “…acrobatic champion of the oppressed” which accurately expresses the balance of his interests – his vibe.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the content of this movie. It’s a genuine epic – one of the most expensive movies of the era with a huge cast and elaborate, beautifully-detailed sets and the action is joyful and often breathtaking, with really good slapstick elements that must have had audiences in stitches.

But the storytelling’s pedestrian and – with the possible exception of Sam De Grasse as brooding, bitter falcon-botherer Prince John – the acting’s unevolved. Wallace Beery throws his head back in Kingly laughter and/or fury so often I fear he must have done permanent damage to his poor neck (he was a big star, he probably had access to a full-time neck therapist back in his trailer, though).

Levelling up

Of course, what’s interesting about Robin Hood is the economics. Seriously. Is Robin an expropriative socialist? A liberal redistributionist? An effective altruist? None of the above, obviously. In this version, Robin’s an aristocrat – a feudal lord gone off the rails. He steals bags of coins and throws them randomly into crowds. This is not a planned economy. It’s levelling-up as jape. He returns from his crusade a reformed baron – a merry prankster, really – and then laughs his way around Sherwood, winning hearts and minds with his arbitrary largesse.

In this role, Fairbanks defines one end of the Robin Hood character spectrum. He’s the big-hearted if haphazard philanthropist. It’s all jumping through windows, roughing up countless chain-mail squaddies and swinging from vines (yes, vines). He overcomes the cruelty (and there is some surprising cruelty – torture, whipping, hanging…) of Prince John by means of a series of joyful flashmobs. And his generosity is that of a child – “what use do I have for money? I live in the woods!”

Yes, Magna Carta

We’re a long way from the brooding latter-day Hollywood Robin Hoods who are basically comic-book toughs – rugged individualists in Lincoln green. In Ridley Scott’s 2010 version, from right at the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe hacks his way across a hostile England with no apparent interest in the welfare of the peasantry. His Robin Hood is a big-picture guy, not a skipping-through-the-woods guy and the director dramatically and implausibly inserts him into history: he somehow contributes to the drafting of Magna Carta: (you have do this in a kind of Irish-Scottish-geordie accent for the full Russell Crowe effect) “If your majesty were to offer justice, justice in the form of a charter of liberties, allowing any man to forage for his hearth, to be safe from conviction without cause or prison without charge…” Achievement unlocked.

In the folklore Robin is always a yeoman – a small farmer – stripped of his land and driven into the forest. In later accounts he’s upgraded. He becomes a fallen aristocrat, acquiring the kind of glamour that’s necessary in the movies – usually just back from the crusades but unfairly robbed of his estates, sharing the woods with vagabonds and freedmen. In the middle-ages this class of landless commoner was a major threat to the dominance of the feudal lords.

The idea of an entirely free man – anonymous, unbound, without loyalty to any lord or parish – was terrifying to the elite. Landless men were harassed, imprisoned, transported, classified as vagabonds, criminalised. Harsh local laws kept the landless to the worst of the marginal land or moved them on all together. Later a law was introduced: “…that all Rogues, Vagabonds, and Beggars do on every Sabbath-Day repair to some Church and Chappel, and remain there soberly and orderly, during the time of Divine-Worship.” – a recognisable example of an authoritarian law that’s presented as a benign improvement – in this case to the observation of the Sabbath. The disciplinary yoke was tight, even at the margins.

For the aristocrats Robin of Sherwood is worse – he’s a freedman who commands the loyalty of others – of a private army, in fact. Essentially the ultimate threat to the peace and wealth of the owner class – Robin thrives outside the baronial economy and beyond the parochial pale. He ridicules the feudal status quo and must thus be chased around, fought and expelled from polite society.

Feudalist realism

But Robin is no freedom-fighter, he represents no challenge to the system and offers no alternative. He’s not a lollard or a leveller, not a utopian. He’s just a guy. A dude. He stages incursions, raids, hilarious stunts. He puts rent collectors and lieutenants in the stocks or hangs them by their braces from the trees, he liberates treasure and hands it out to the peasantry but he offers no vision of liberty or even of equity. The adjustments he makes are local, temporary, essentially trivial. Ultimately he marries with all the pomp of a prince and is accepted back into the baronial fold. Game over.

In this, of course, Robin is the model for all the movie action heroes to come – and especially for the superheroes: an over-achiever who rights wrongs, one at a time, one villain at a time. Not a liberator but a cheerful, reactionary hunk with a big heart.

  • I watched the film on YouTube. A decent print with an orchestral score. There’s a Blu-Ray.
  • You can get these reviews in your inbox over on Substack.
  • Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down is brilliant on all the vagabonds and outlaws and radicals who challenged the feudal norm at the time of the English Revolution and could be describing Robin here:
    • “Vagabonds attended no church, belonged to no organized social group. For this reason it seemed almost self-evident to Calvinist theologians that they were ‘a cursed generation’. Not till 1644 did legislation insist that rogues, vagabonds and beggars should be compelled to attend church every Sunday. Such men were almost by definition ideologically unmotivated: they could steal and plunder, but were incapable of concerted revolt.”
  • Wallace Beery, our Richard I, is probably the most interesting (and ghastly) person in the film, although now largely forgotten. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson calls him “the most notable example of the ugly, stupid, boorish man who was as successful in films as heroes or lovers.” This is the feature that made him a big star. The following year there’d be a sequel: Beery’s character was promoted to lead and Robin was gone all together. Between 1914 and 1916, in a series of shorts, he’d played Sweedie, a comic maid, in drag – a character he’d brought with him from vaudeville. On the Sweedie films he met and quickly married a 17 year-old Gloria Swanson – their marriage soon failed and in her autobiography she accuses him of brutally raping her. He’s a footnote in the second volume of scabrous and brilliant Hollywood Babylon – Kenneth Anger calls him, characteristically. “a turd of a toad” – and he was a drinking buddy of gangster Lucky Lucciano. He not only survived the transition to sound but dominated the new form and his highly-lucrative contract with MGM (which lasted for 20 years) made him the world’s highest-paid actor in the early-thirties. Beery made perhaps 200 films and worked until the year of his death in 1949.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • And here’s another top-grossing list.

Learning from old movies

GROSS is my first Substack thing. It’s film reviews, which I hope are funny and interesting and unpretentious.

Logo for Substack newsletter Gross, with an image from The word 'GROSS' in an old-fashioned gothic face is at the left-hand end and a still from 1917 Mary Pickford film The Poor Little Rich Girl at the right-hand end

It’s also my personal low-effort way to learn about the whole span of cinema history. I’m watching every top-grossing film since 1913 and writing them up in a Substack newsletter.

I’ve been doing it for a couple of months now. It’s my Saturday morning treat (like when I was nine or something). I’ve learnt a few things:

  • If I’m honest I was expecting the early part of the journey to be a bit tiresome. I expected to encounter a lot of fairly primitive storytelling from back at the beginning – flat scenes, static cameras, theatrical mugging. This did not happen. Almost everything I’ve watched so far has been in some way impressive or interesting or beautiful – ambitious works, full of love for the form.
  • I expected that for some of these films I wouldn’t find much to say, that they might be entertaining, even beautiful, but not particularly interesting. Also not true. Every one of them has been a jewel of history, culture, politics and technology. Every one brings with it a mind-expanding context, even the really teeth-grindingly awful ones. This horrible, callous 1920 Cecil B. DeMille picture, for instance, tells us so much about morality in the twenties, advances in movie-making tech and about the fate of the big silent stars as sound arrived.
  • I’m also learning about the complex and influential stars of the period – Mary Pickford (the first America’s sweetheart), Mabel Normand (the greatest movie comic you’ve never heard of), Gloria Swanson (the star everyone just called ‘Gloria’) and about the emerging grammar of performance and stardom.
  • I’m surprising myself every week with just how technologically advanced these movies were, just how bold and creative the technicians and creatives behind them were. The jaw-dropping electronic surveillance storyline in 1913’s Traffic in Souls, the vastly ambitious underwater tech developed for 1916’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the imaginative play with light and dark in 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl. Nothing here is small or unambitious – everything is grand and overreaching.
Black and white film stills of Mabel Normand, film comic and director of the silent era and Vladimir Lenin, revolutionary and leader of the Soviet state
Mabel Normand and Vladimir Lenin, together at last

Anyway, sign up on Substack and you’ll receive updates about once a week and you can log in to the website to read all the earlier posts. It’s all going to be free until there’s some kind of audience breakthrough or until I develop a spine. Please tell the film fans in your life about GROSS.

  • I’m relying on a couple of lists of top-grossing films for this exercise. This one and this one. Neither is very reliable (and they seem to disagree) but I think that’s okay. The stakes are low.
  • Here’s a Letterboxd list, where I’m logging all the movies I watch.

Chaps in trouble

We’ve got to 1919. The officer class over-reaches itself and gets stuck on the ice. It’s a disaster but it all works out in the end.

Every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed. Part seven.


It’s not an adventure, most of the really dramatic events are missing, there’s far too much penguin footage and we never get to know any of the main characters – but it’s an astonishing document of Ernest Shackleton’s catastrophic 1914 expedition to the South Pole anyway.

The record we have of this wildly unsuccessful mission and the truly heroic recovery orchestrated by its leader only exists because of the photographer sent along on the boat. Frank Hurley was already an Antarctic veteran when he signed on for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, so he knew something of what to expect.

He took with him a huge amount of absolutely state-of-the-art kit – in the present day he’d have taken crates of drones and GoPros and some kind of virtual reality rig. Everything would have been 8K for the IMAX release (there’d have been a partnership with Apple or the BBC). Hurley’s kit included his bulky ‘cinematograph machine’, a chunky 6-3/4 x 8-1/2″ plate camera and some smaller Kodak cameras, along with various lenses, tripods, and chemicals to process the film.

When Endurance finally sank, Hurley found himself wading into the icy slush that was filling the ship to rescue his exposed plates. And it gets worse: later he had to leave most of his work behind – smashing hundreds of precious glass negatives on the ice so he couldn’t change his mind about which ones to keep. That anything at all survived the arduous journey home and that we have this film to watch is another tribute to Hurley – he seeled his exposed motion picture film and all those glass plates into a tin can and soldered it shut for the journey across the ice and the Southern Ocean.

Four sepia-toned stills from 1he 1914 Shackleton film South. From top left to bottom right: Ernest Shackleton, leader of the expedition; Captain of the Endurance Captain F. Worsley, Lieutenant J. Stenhhouse, Captain of the Ross Sea vessel Aurora; Captain L. Hussey, mateorologist and banjo player

Right at the beginning of this film we meet these four sepia-toned gents. Shackleton himself, the already-famous polar explorer and leader of the expedition to cross the Antarctic (at top left) and three of his senior crew. These gorgeous, fine-grained portraits (made nearly 110 years ago) promise an encounter with the upper-class adventurers aboard Endurance. We’re set up to meet the insouciant officer class tested in the cold. But it never happens.

Hurley wasn’t a storyteller. He had no script and only a reluctant cast. Locations were provided for him by the unfolding disaster of the expedition. He was there to make a high-tech document of the triumphant high-tech crossing of the Antarctic and he plugged on, as the mission collapsed, as the beautiful ultra-modern vessel they relied on was trapped in the ice and gradually destroyed. He created some of the most memorable images of the most forbidding landscape on earth and, incidentally, a record – although a frustratingly incomplete one – of the epic human ingenuity and bloody-mindedness that brought all 28 members of Shackleton’s mission out of the wilderness two years later.

Photographer Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance
Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance

But there’s no story here. The laughing, officer-class chaps in the picture (with their fabulous upper-class teeth) are never this close to the camera again. Nor are the other ranks below them for that matter. Shackleton is seen occasionally, usually shouting instructions from an ice hummock (we learn what an ice hummock is) or through a megaphone from the top of the main-mast. Early on, before the catastrophe, we see lots of charming footage of the crew caring for the 70 sled dogs kept on-board (I’ll leave you to figure out what happened to the dogs after everything had gone wrong) and there’s evidence of a tough work regime on the ship and on the ice.

Early in the film there’s an intertitle that basically gives the game away, though, telling us what we need to know about the recklessness of the upper-class adventurers who brought all this about. It accompanies some amazing footage of a huge pod of seals sailing, let’s face it, in the opposite direction. It says:

Intertitle reads: A phenomenal sight - migration of Crab-eater seals. They knew by instincer that an abnormal season was coming and flocked North to warmer waters before the sea froze over.

So we learn that, on the way in to the ice chaos of the Weddell Sea, these pig-headed Englishmen were actually warned by the locals and yet they carried on, on into the inescapable bay.

Later it’s mostly hard yakka on the ice as the crew try first to rescue their ship and then, as it breaks up and sinks, to rescue themselves. There’s footage of the crew’s increasingly desperate efforts to rescue what they need from the listing and sinking Endurance and they try out a kind of high-tech prototype skidoo but, an intertitle explains, ‘it proved entirely unsatisfactory’. The dogs tumble down to the ice on a tight-stretched sail like passengers escaping an airliner down one of those emergency slides.

So, in narrative terms, it’s kind of a mess, but the film is never less than absolutely engaging. It’s so beautifully filmed – Hurley was an instinctive image-maker and was using an up-to-date camera and the best lenses money could buy. He processed his 35mm film using the Paget process, which applies the various lovely tints we see throughout. God knows how he managed all this on board the Endurance (amazing shots exist of Hurley – on another Antarctic mission – washing his film during processing by trailing a frame in the freezing ocean!).

And he was brave – watch this clip showing the Endurance’s solid Norwegian-made bow cutting through the ice and think about how that shot was obtained, then wait for the end of the clip and you’ll see how. Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, said: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera. He would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” Others called him ‘the mad photographer’ (he went on to be a famous war photographer and is known today for assembling composite images from multiple negatives to achieve the drama he was seeking).

The wildlife footage is good (and it must have been startling for audiences five or six decades before the first Attenborough epic) and would have made a delightful secondary storyline if the expedition had succeeded. As it is, the long sequence of penguins and sea lions at the end is a confusing distraction from the action we know had gone on but see nothing of.

The expedition’s escape from the ice is one of the great 20th Century adventure stories and it involved an 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean in a hastily adapted open lifeboat (these guys named everything – huts, piles of snow, desolate camps – so this boat was called the James Caird after one of the mission’s sponsors). Hurley had to stay behind with the main part of the crew on the wildy inhospitable Elephant Island (they named their hideout under a glacier Camp Wild), so we see nothing of what must have been one of the most remarkable journeys ever undertaken. As a result the film ends in anticlimax and we have to imagine the excitement and the privations of that voyage. Likewise the four separate attempts to rescue the men left behind and Shackleton’s canny begging and deal-making with the Chilean authorities to secure the ships to do it. But there’s something profound about this giant gulf in the story, something essentially emotionally correct – properly tragic – about missing out the trauma – frostbite, hunger, anger and fear – that must really be the heart of this story.

I wanted class-war on the ice, a story about the collision of the modern and the implacable wilderness, a parable of officer-class hubris and bloody-minded courage. I got none of this but the film is glorious anyway – and gives us a preview of a whole new genre of wildlife and habitat storytelling, of filmmakers and adventurers working together to make entertainment, that these days seems to eat up most of our Sunday evenings in front of the box.

  • South is not, you won’t be surprised to learn, the actual top-grossing film of 1919. That was a Lon Chaney organised crime drama called The Miracle Man, which looks like a blast but is now considered lost. South’s listed gross of  $46,865 would have made it a pretty big deal in Britain, though.
  • The astonishing 1999 restoration of South is on the BFI Player (so you can get it on Amazon Prime if you subscribe to the BFI Channel).
  • Ernest Shackleton was nothing if not an officer and a bit of a prig. After their extraordinary escape from the wilderness he withheld medals from four crew-members he labelled as insubordinate or workshy during the expedition, including one heroic figure who was central to the whole effort and accompanied Shackleton on the epic voyage to South Georgia, Harry McNish.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • This is the top-grossing list from which I get South’s gross income.