WHEN HOLLYWOOD WAS REALLY BAD
By Simon Edge
Lindsay Lohan's childishness has landed her in jail but her behaviour is nothing compared to the lawless sinners of cinema's true golden age.
CRUSHED AT AN ORGY
Roscoe Arbuckle, known to the world by his nickname Fatty, was a massive – in all senses – star of the silent cinema in the 1910s and one of the highest paid.
But his career was destroyed when a would-be starlet called Virginia Rappe died of a ruptured bladder after a weekend orgy he threw in San Francisco in 1921. The 19-stone Arbuckle was accused of raping and accidentally killing her and he was tried three times for manslaughter.
Although he was eventually acquitted his films were banned and he was dogged for the rest of his short life (he died in 1933) by lurid rumours about what precisely had happened to Rappe. One of the most gruesome was that he had raped her and then crushed her with his great weight.
HOT TODDY OUT COLD
Thelma Todd was a blonde bombshell ex-beauty queen who forged a successful career playing comedy roles opposite Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, including in the latter’s classic film Monkey Business.
Known as Hot Toddy to her friends she also ran a racy restaurant-cum-nightclub called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café which was popular with celebrities and tourists.
When she was found lifeless in her car outside her beach-front house on a December morning in 1935 there were immediate suspicions she had been murdered by gangsters with designs on her club.
Her death was eventually ruled to be an accident caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. But the cursory nature of the investigation by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office – a notoriously corrupt institution – allowed the rumours of foul play to persist to this day.
Paul Kelly was a child actor from the silent era who was busy developing an adult career as a leading man when he was arrested in 1927 for the manslaughter of stage song-and-dance man Ray Raymond.
Raymond was the violent husband of Kelly’s lover Dorothy Mackaye. He had found out about the affair and come to blows with Kelly but ended up the loser: two days after the fight he died of a brain hemorrhage.
Although his alcoholism was found to be a factor in Raymond’s death Kelly was convicted and served two years in the notorious San Quentin prison. Amazingly his career survived and he became a successful Hollywood character actor in the Thirties and Forties as well as winning a coveted Tony award on Broadway.
His relationship with Dorothy also survived his imprisonment. They married after his release but their happiness was short-lived. She died in a car crash in 1940.
A BEVY OF SUSPECTS
When police arrived at a Hollywood murder scene in 1922 they found that several Paramount studio executives had got there first. The film bosses were busy burning documents in a fireplace while the film star Mabel Normand – instantly recognisable as the leading lady in many of Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedies – was rummaging through the victim’s desk.
The dead man was her lover, bachelor director William Desmond Taylor, who was helping her battle cocaine addiction. Normand’s career teetered after she was briefly suspected of the murder and then completely crashed the following year when her chauffeur shot and wounded a millionaire oil broker with her pistol. She died of TB seven years later, aged 37. Taylor had also been sleeping with another young actress, Mary Miles Minter. Her reputation was badly tarnished by the revelations about her private life and her career did not survive. Her pushy stage mother Charlotte Shelby was also suspected of the crime and bribed three different district attorneys to keep her name out of the case.
In 1964, however, yet another of Taylor’s actresses from the silent era, Margaret Gibson, made a death bed confession to the murder. No motive is recorded. The only witness to the confession had never heard of Taylor and was too distracted by the immediate crisis of her heart attack to pay proper attention.
SKULDUGGERY AT SEA
In 1924 the media magnate William Randolph Hearst – one of the richest and most powerful men in America – hosted a glittering cruise on his luxury yacht off the coast of southern California.
Guests included Charlie Chaplin, future gossip columnist Louella Parsons and Hearst’s mistress, the silent film star Marion Davies. But another guest, the movie producer and western pioneer Thomas Ince, was taken ill on board and died shortly afterwards. He was cremated without an inquest before his wife even knew he was dead.
This crude attempt at a cover-up was bound to fuel rumours of foul play. A theory duly emerged that Hearst himself had shot the dead man. According to this version of events – dramatised in the film The Cat’s Meow starring Kirsten Dunst and Eddie Izzard – the jealous tycoon had mistaken Ince for Chaplin, who had been sleeping with Davies.
Hearst’s biographer believes the real reason for the cover-up was the vast amount of drinking taking place.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
The silent-film heart-throb John Gilbert, a famous lover of Greta Garbo, rivalled Rudolph Valentino as a box-office draw.
One night he burst drunkenly into a Beverly Hills police station waving a revolver and shouting that someone had tried to kill him. He was disarmed, locked up and the next morning a judge jailed him for a week.
But studio mogul Louis B Mayer needed Gilbert on the set of his latest film. He got on the phone to the judge and the sentence was instantly quashed.
NAKED WITH A GUN
Paul Bern, the film producer husband of platinum blonde superstar Jean Harlow, was found dead at their home in Beverly Hills in 1932. He was naked with a bullet hole in his head. Security staff from MGM studios were on the scene before the police, leading to widespread suspicion of the “suicide note” left near the body.
The story put out by the studio, that Bern had shot himself because he was impotent, was indeed fabricated by Louis B Mayer to protect Harlow’s career. Writers investigating the case later concluded that Bern had been murdered by a deranged former girlfriend.
Harlow’s career continued unharmed but she died of kidney failure in 1937 aged only 26.
A TANGLED TALE
In 1958 police were called to the Beverly Hills home of Lana Turner, who had recently revived her glittering career with an Oscar nomination for the blockbuster Peyton Place.
They found her hoodlum lover Johnny Stompanato stabbed to death in an upstairs room. Turner, once nicknamed The Sweater Girl, begged the chief of police to let her claim responsibility but her 14-year-old daughter Cheryl had already confessed.
At a sensational trial Cheryl said that she had heard the violent Stompanato threaten to kill her mother and she grabbed a knife from the kitchen to try to protect Lana. She was released after the jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
Cheryl had already been repeatedly raped by her mother’s fourth husband, Tarzan star Lex Barker. She went off the rails after the trial and ended up in a delinquents’ home before prospering as a Palm Springs estate agent.
Did a drunken Clark Gable run over and kill a pedestrian on Hollywood Boulevard? The story has persisted for years. The incident was supposedly covered up when MGM paid a minor executive to go to prison in his place.
This is almost certainly an urban myth and the most that Gable hit was a tree. On the other hand, the future Hollywood director John Huston did kill a pedestrian on Sunset Boulevard in 1933 and no charges were pressed. One biographer claims that Huston’s actor father Walter persuaded Louis B Mayer to pay to have the matter suppressed.
**I've read so many books and articles that really highlighted how powerful the studio heads and PR men were. They took care of everything. Nothing got out. I think that's the appeal at the time; the stars were untouchable and iconic which equaled dollars. Now after a few years when stories come out, we see some were heavily flawed and distraught, caught up in the Hollywood Machine that was the Golden Era. Stardom came at a price. Sad, really.
I've read somewhere that the Arbuckle scandal was his downfall and that he was framed and never recovered emotionally. Also interestingly absent from this article was the death of Ted Healy, vaudeville veteran and Three Stooges founder. There are strong rumors that Wallace Beery was responsible for his death during a barroom brawl. Knowing Beery's temper this could be a possibility.
Any scandals you can think of?