If you choose to write about the silent era or indeed about any kind of movie history, sooner or later you’ll come across the “curse” of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. This two-volume set is, for many writers, the most influential source of old Hollywood history. Indeed, many websites and authors cull their facts and/or opinions from Anger’s books.
They’re very entertaining books. Sort of “The National Enquirer” of movie lore. I own both volumes and I find them to be ghoulishly lovable and loads of fun to peruse. Who can resist the lure of a “tell-all” book that names the darkest “secrets” of old Hollywood. What blogger can resist quoting Hollywood Babylon as an authoritative source? What writer of one of those “Hollywood scandal” books can resist repeating Anger’s stories verbatim?
Too bad it’s all of a inch of malarkey. At best, it’s gossip without a basis. At worst, it’s pure fabrication. Roscoe Arbuckle DID NOT rape a girl with a coke bottle. Silent star Milton Sills DID NOT commit suicide by driving his car off a cliff. Jean Harlow’s husband, Paul Bern, did not kill himself after trying to have intimate relations on his honeymoon night with a phony phallus. Yet most of these stories are accepted as fact and have been thought to be so for so long that they might as well be. As the old “Liberty Valance” adage goes: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Using Hollywood Babylon as a source is lazy scholarship and a disservice to your reader. Yes, it’s fascinating and Anger’s suggestion of a hint of a “Doom Book” of silent film personalities led me to write a novel using it as a plot point. Yes, all credit to Kenneth Anger–but to say that such a thing actually existed in books like “The Dark Side of Hollywood” is to give credence to a pile of crap. Misrepresentation of such stories is shameful and rips off the reader.
Yet the Curse of Hollywood Babylon continues to thrive and probably will for some time. Read it. You’ll love it. Just keep in mind that it was meant for entertainment as a not as a bible of what actually happened.
I have spoken.