TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE, AND MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD

(William J Mann; 463 pages; HARPER BOOKS/HARPER-COLLINS PUBLISHERS; 2014)

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William J Mann’s new book is an historical, scholarly and meticulously researched look at the earliest days of Hollywood that reads like one of the best murder mysteries you’re likely to come across this year. The story delves into the lengths that an entire industry would go to to cover up a scandal… any scandal. As “moving pictures” or “flickers,” as they were called, began to take hold of a public looking for the next new thing in entertainment, there were no rules; churches and civic groups didn’t like that and began crusades to censor the industry in hopes of crippling it to the point that it would fold in upon itself and just go away. Those moguls who were making money hand over fist were, naturally, not inclined to let that happen.

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

Beginning in 1917, and through 1923, drugs, suicide, murder, rape and lasciviousness of every nature befell the motion picture industry, as the hard-living individuals who appeared on the nation’s silver screens carried on their private lives. In retrospect, these things were happening in virtually every walk of life but, the utility worker down the street stepping out on his wife wasn’t as glamorous or newsworthy as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s reportedly drunken soiree where a young actress named Virginia Rappe was one of the guests. Arbuckle was, famously, accused of raping the young woman in a drunken stupor, his enormous weight causing her bladder to rupture, leading to her death. The courts (and three separate juries – the first two unable to come to a verdict) eventually acquitted Arbuckle of all charges, but his career was, ostensibly, over from the time he opened the door of his hotel room to the revelers on that day in September, 1921 when Virginia Rappe took ill. He was brought back to Paramount Studios on a probationary status; the studio released one of the movies Fatty had made before his arrest and all seemed well… until the 1920s’ version of the thought police threatened to close down every theater that would show such filth as a Fatty Arbuckle comedy. The Roscoe Arbuckle story and trial play as a backdrop to the real tale here.

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

Hollywood, in the ’20s, was a very different place than it is today; the movie industry was definitely more concerned with the public’s opinions of their stars. Paying off newspaper editors to keep their stars’ names out of the headlines, covering up evidence and flat out lying to the authorities was standard operating procedures from studio heads (one, in particular, Adolph Zukor of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount, was especially adept at keeping the tarnish off of his stars). One of the foremost directors of this early era of movie-making was William Desmond Taylor; Billy, as the ladies called him, worked for Zukor. Sometime around eight in the evening of February 1, 1922, Taylor was murdered in his home. The list of suspects in the crime was a crowded one, including stars and former stars of the film industry, friends, employees and former employees of the deceased, the haves and the have-nots and the power players of the Hollywood movie machine. The murder was virtually forgotten until 1964, when one of the original suspects made a dying confession to the son of a neighbor; still, it took years of digging and research before a definitive answer to an eighty year-old mystery could be laid to rest. As ghoulish as it may sound, the fun of this story is wading through the murder and the depravity that led to it. Mann is a master storyteller, delivering a riveting look at the early twentieth century’s movers and hustlers, all the while never losing sight of the facts of the case; sometimes those facts and the wildly over-the-top personalities involved seem far to bizarre to be a true crime story.

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

The suspects include the four notable women in Taylor’s life: Mabel Normand, a hard-living comedy actress (she was alternately known as was “the Queen of Comedy” and “the Female Chaplin”), best known for a series of films co-starring Arbuckle and a very public dalliance with cocaine and other illicit drugs, including bootleg liquor (it was, after all, the height of prohibition); Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, a struggling actress and two-bit scam artist who fell out of favor at the major studios after being arrested for prostitution in 1917, the first of the many scandals to hit the industry over the next six years (she tried to reinvent herself by trimming five years off her age and calling herself Patricia Palmer… she was marginally more successful); Mary Miles Minter, a teenage beauty touted as the “next Mary Pickford,” with an all-consuming schoolgirl crush on Taylor; Charlotte Shelby, a bullying stage mother who had forbidden her daughter, Mary, to see Taylor and threatened Taylor, telling him to keep away from her meal-ticket. Most of the circumstantial evidence suggested that Mary Minter’s mother was the guilty party, a fact exacerbated by a district attorney seemingly protecting her at every turn in the case. As much as the life and foibles of William Desmond Taylor are laid bare here, Mann, likewise, does his due diligence in uncovering even the minutest detail in the lives of these four remarkable women; no stone is left unturned.

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

Other candidates included Edward Sands, Taylor’s former valet, who was fired for forgery and other indiscretions (some believed Sands had been blackmailing the director, who’s secret life – lives, actually – would have destroyed him and embroiled the studio in another scandal); Don Osborn, “Blackie” Madsen or any of the other two-bit thugs and confidence men that “Gibby” took up with in her never-ending effort to be “somebody,” which to her, meant someone with an endless supply of cash; an unknown drug dealer that Taylor threw out of Normand’s house after the man tried to sell dope to the recovering addict; one of the many religious zealots who saw Taylor’s life and work as morally abhorrent. Some of the suspects were dismissed out of hand, particularly the cute, little eighteen year-old, Mary Minter, because… well, who ever heard of a little girl killing someone? Others were investigated and cleared, including the first suspect, Taylor’s then-current valet, Henry Peavey; that scenario seemed to make the most sense initially, as Peavy had a record (for soliciting young men for sexual purposes… not only was that illegal, it was “send-a-guy-to-Hell” immoral) and, of course, he was black.

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

As Mann relates all of the available information, peeling away the layers of cover-ups, lies, innuendo and downright fiction, he breathes life into the long-dead bones of, not only Taylor, but everyone related in any way to the concentric circle of his influence. Obviously, there is much more to this story than I’ve related here; my job is to pique your interest about the book without giving everything away. Any fan of the silent film era, of historic insights into the years leading up to the dawn of what became known as “the Roaring ’20s,” or of a good old murder mystery will find much to like about TINSELTOWN. It would have been very easy to turn this story into a boring, sterile thesis, offering the facts and nothing but the facts in a very precise, analytical fashion. But, then, who would want to read something like that? Certainly not me! Thankfully, William J Mann understood that and, without ignoring evidence and substance in favor of literary glitz, has written what is generally referred to as a “page-turner.”


FLESH EATERS: A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE

(SUPERIOR VIADUCT/RHINO ENTERTAINMENT/SLASH RECORDS/RUBY RECORDS; reissue, 2014; original release, 1981)

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In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Los Angeles (and, in truth, most of California, from San Francisco and south, to San Diego) was a particularly fertile environment for musicians… Punk was just coming into its own in the City of the Angels, permutating into its various sub-genres: Rockabilly (as exemplified by X and the Blasters), Hardcore (bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys led that charge), Goth or Horror Punk (Christian Death and True Sounds of Liberty – TSOL – spearheaded that style, adding even darker elements to a Misfits-style sound). There were others, of course… and then there was Flesh Eaters, the musical vision of acerbic poet Chris D (Desjardins), an amalgam of everything that was happening in the punk scene, circa 1981. Chris’ dark outlook and seemingly anti-social personality made being a Flesh Eater an adventurous (torturous?) affair and players came and went on a fairly regular basis.

Flesh Eaters (Dave Alvin, John Doe, Chris D, Steve Berlin, DJ Bonebrake, Bill Bateman) (photo credit: SCOTT LINDGREN)

Flesh Eaters (Dave Alvin, John Doe, Chris D, Steve Berlin, DJ Bonebrake, Bill Bateman) (photo credit: SCOTT LINDGREN)

By the time Chris D had written what would soon become his greatest musical achievement, his Flesh Eaters were a veritable super-group of LA punk musicians: guitarist Dave Alvin and his Blasters cohorts, drummer Bill Bateman and sax-man Steve Berlin (who would go on to greater fame as a member of Los Lobos); John Doe and DJ Bonebrake, from X, played bass and various percussion instruments, respectively. These men were (and are) all well-respected musicians in their own rights, but when they convened to record A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE, the stars aligned to produce a 37 minute blast of punk perfection. The original album was released on Desjardins’ own Ruby Records before it was enfolded into the Slash Records stable. This latest re-release comes from the esoteric Superior Viaduct imprint (which is also reissuing the second Ruby Records release, the Gun Club’s debut album, FIRE OF LOVE) and is available in glorious vinyl and a limited CD release. So, as I’ve waxed (somewhat) poetic about the record, I’m sure that, like Bugs Bunny, you’re wondering, “What’s all the hub-bub… bub?”

Flesh Eaters live (John Doe, Bill Bateman, Dave Alvin, Chris D, Steve Berlin) (photo credit: DAVID ARNOFF)

Flesh Eaters live (John Doe, Bill Bateman, Dave Alvin, Chris D, Steve Berlin) (photo credit: DAVID ARNOFF)

Side one starts strong with “Digging My Grave” as Chris’ controlled rage vocals add to an already disjointed, ominous feel. The primary instrumental impetus comes from Berlin’s sax and Bonebrake’s marimba… yeah, you heard right: Marimba, an instrument very rarely heard in rock music at all, forget about the Gothic punk stew that A MINUTE TO PRAY… offers up. There are a couple of beautifully discordant sax squonk solos from Berlin that add just the right vibe. “Pray ’til You Sweat” is highlighted by a very cool guitar signature from Dave Alvin and a typically dismal lyric from Chris D: “You gotta stop riding the brakes/You gotta stop robbing the cradle/Cock the gun, pull the trigger/What you got is one dead singer.” As the name implies, “River of Fever” is a fever dream of horror and depravity; and, aren’t those the best kind? Quite possibly the truest punk song on the album, the tune is an exercise in speed and precision, with a chorus that laments (or glories in… you’re never quite sure with Desjardins), “My hands are folded across my chest/My hands are folded and I’m at rest.” “Satan’s Stomp” was recorded live-in-studio, with a slightly cavernous sound, which works well on this particular track. Bateman and Doe (with an assist from DJ Bonebrake, no doubt) propel the tune forward with minimalist approaches on guitar and sax for accompaniament. The chorus is punk-fast with the majority of the nearly six minute song feeling more like a New Orleans jazz funeral until everything collapses into a deconstructive crescendo of noise before the drum and bass coda return for the final 40 seconds. Halfway through, and… what an amazing slab of pure, raw, rock and roll savagery!

Flesh Eaters (Chris D, DJ Bonebrake, Dave Alvin, John Doe, Steve Berlin, Bill Bateman) (photo credit: SCOTT LINDGREN)

Flesh Eaters (Chris D, DJ Bonebrake, Dave Alvin, John Doe, Steve Berlin, Bill Bateman) (photo credit: SCOTT LINDGREN)

What is, arguably, the most melodic tune on the album opens side two. “See You In the Boneyard” is a total ebb and flow of power and aggression, a Judas betrayal of remorse and condemnation, with lines like: “You see something different/When it’s time to carry a cross.” “So Long” is kinda like something from Rank and File or Doe’s and Bonebrake’s other band, X. Chris D’s vocals continue to be a raw nerve croak, sounding creepy and rather threatening, especially here, where the theme seems to be – at the very least – murder or – more likely – murder/suicide. Or gardening… the song could be about gardening. A John Doe/X leftover from 1977, “Cyrano de Berger’s Back” is a retelling of the love triangle of Christian, Roxane and Cyrano’s proboscis. Where the original X demo (which finally saw the light of day on Rhino’s LOS ANGELES reissue in 2001) was bright and somehow happy, this version is as dark and bleak (and wonderful) as the rest of the record. The lyrical content (and, maybe the vocals a bit, as well) of the seven minute long (!) album closer, “Divine Horseman,” puts me in mind of another street poet, Jim Carroll; however, where Carroll’s poems/songs were dark around the edges, Desjardins’ seem to be black from the core out. The song starts with a rather noirish sax passage that leads straight into a strident, punk-cum-metal Alvin guitar riff. Pounding drums from Bill Bateman and that insistent guitar never falter throughout as the bass and sax add interesting textures along with the marimba and maracas. The lyrics are very horror-themed but, at least in my mind, closer to ROSEMARY’S BABY, “Let’s have a baby with the Prince of Lies” than what the final lines reveal: “I still love you/I know what you are/Loup Garou.” Like Michael Landon always said, “You gotta love a good werewolf in love story.” And, you gotta love an album as ground-breaking as A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE. Records like this don’t come around every day or, for that matter, come back around every day so – as I’m wont to say: “Go ye forth and consume!” Both configurations are available at the usual places, my favorite of which is a staggering beast commonly referred to as a “record store.” You can also remain disconnected from all human interaction and order it directly from www.superiorviaduct.com.


BEYOND THE TROPHY

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/NEW FILMS INTERNATIONAL (99 minutes/Rated R); 2014)

BEYOND THE TROPHY

BEYOND THE TROPHY is certainly an enjoyable roller coaster ride of a flick, kinda like GOODFELLAS or THE GODFATHER filtered through that bizarre Woody Allen mockumentary, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (the TV show, not that stupid movie). Okay… I know that may make the movie sound like an inept free-for-all, with good-intentioned “bad guys” and imbecilic and boorishly corrupt police and, yeah, there is a bit of that going on but, I think it’s more of the general vibe of the film than an actual plot description (although, at one point, one of the characters does say, “I’m told that you have an offer that I cannot refuse”). It is, I suppose, a cautionary tale about power and how far a man will go to obtain that elusive “trophy.”

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Michael Madsen) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Michael Madsen) (publicity still)

The story begins at the end, with the narrator (Cole Lambert, greasily played by Michael Madsen, the kingpin of the Los Angeles mob) explaining that the little scenario was actually set in motion seven months earlier. Flash back those seven months and, after he introduces himself and his chief rivalas, Lambert intones, “Hey, welcome to Los Angeles, gangster capitol of the Western world. And, I can prove it. Alright, so this is what happened, best as I remember it. This is based on actual events, so… the names and identities have all been changed… to protect the guilty, to protect the innocent or, to protect me.” And so begins the chronicle of a seven month downward spiral of a good cop slowly going bad.

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud) (publicity still)

What follows is a confounding, semi-circular tale of lies, deceit, shady business dealings, gangsters (Lambert’s LA faction and a Las Vegas faction run by Gino, played by Robert Miano), mobsters (of the Russian and Cuban varieties), crooked cops, young idealistic cops, undercover cops, strippers, underage strippers, undercover strippers, car chases, shoot outs and – most confusing of all – cops double-crossing other cops who are busy double-crossing the bad guys who are double-crossing the cops so that they can double-cross the other bad guys who are double-crossing… I think you get the idea. You gotta have uninterrupted time (a little over 90 minutes) to watch BEYOND THE TROPHY or you will never be able to keep all of the underhanded dealings straight in your head. Situations and partners change so quickly that even the slightest distraction will have you lost in the nether-regions of some obscure sub-plot. But, then, that’s half the fun of watching. Most of the characters are so sleazy, you may spend some gray matter thinking up a cool demise for each.

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud and Michael Masini) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud and Michael Masini) (publicity still)

As undercover police officers Danny (Michael Masini) and Terry (Stephen Cloud) are outed to their crime “bosses,” Gino and Cole are forced to team up, taking down the Russian mob czar and several of their own double-dealing underlings in an attempt to get at the cops. In the middle of all of this is Gino’s one true love, Angela (Ali Costello), who he presents to Danny in an effort to get the semi-crooked cop to tip his hand. Of course, as is often the case, Angela and Danny fall for each other, effectively adding another double-cross to the double-cross attempted by Gino. The Russian mob, having been infiltrated by Terry (he’s married to the bosses niece) and Officer Chastity Bachman (Brooke Newton), the daughter of Detective Sergeant Bachman (Eric Roberts), who may or may not be on the take for one or more of the criminal elements involved. By the end of the movie, there is one man left standing, with a surprise ending that – given the backstabbing throughout – no one will see coming (at least, I didn’t).

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Eric Roberts) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Eric Roberts) (publicity still)

Bottom line for BEYOND THE TROPHY: I wasn’t sure after the first 10 minutes or so if I would even make it through the whole thing. However, I stuck with it and glad I did. The story is an ingenious take on the gangster genre and is thoroughly entertaining. Just don’t get distracted while you’re watching!