Film writer and historian Dina Di Mambro has just released a new book delving into Hollywood’s seamier side with shocking and often lurid stories of the real passions and tragedies of Hollywood players away from the benign confines of the studio. I was privileged to receive a preview copy recently.
The period 1922 to 2001 is Di Mambro’s focus, with chapters on William Desmond Taylor, Thomas Ince, Jean Harlow, Thelma Todd, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, George Reeves, Gig Young, Bob Crane, Natalie Wood, Robert Blake, and mobster Mickey Cohen. Names like George Raft, Johnny Stompanato, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin feature also, and mostly through darkened lenses. The chapter on Mickey Cohen features a recent exclusive and revealing interview with a close associate of the mobster. Scattered throughout are 100 rare b&w photos of the ‘usual suspects’.
I found the first chapter on the mysterious murder in 1922 of film director William Desmond Taylor particularly interesting. The story has all the elements of a film noir scenario: ambition, sex, mystery, jealousy, murder, and the connivance of studio bosses in confounding police by removing evidence from the crime scene. When Taylor’s body was discovered the cops were called only after studio heavies had cased the joint. This seems to have been the big studios’ modus operandi whenever there was the hint of scandal.
Though Di Mambro does not mention it, this murder mystery was the basis of an obscure b-movie titled Hollywood Story made in 1952 by b-auteur William Castle. While the movie reaches a fictional conclusion, it follows the circumstances of the real-life event closely, and holds up some Hollywood types to less than flattering scrutiny. In the film Richard Conte plays a producer in LA who wants to make a movie about the murder of a big silent movie director 20 odd years before, and his delving into the past has violent consequences. A b-effort with noir atmospherics that plays well as a whodunit.
An interesting aspect of Taylor’s back story is that before hitting Hollywood he mysteriously walked out on his wife and child one day never to return. He turned up in Hollywood in 1914, where he directed a string of silents up until his mysterious death. There is an interesting segue here with what is known as the “Flitcraft Parable” in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. As a sidebar to the plot Sam Spade relates a story about a realtor and family man in Tacoma who one day went out to lunch and never returned. It turned out that on the day he disappeared he had narrowly escaped death when a heavy beam from a construction site fell 8 stories on to the pavement just missing him. A typically noir moment. As Spade put it : “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”
The oversize paperback of 258 pages printed on good quality paper and with a glossy cover is pretty good value at less than US$15 from Amazon and can be purchased here.