It’s been interesting watching the success This American Life’s Serial podcast this year, and all of the subsequent “if you like Serial, check out ___” features. Especially since Serial mostly combines true crime, courtroom drama, and police procedurals, rich genres that have been popular since… well, probably forever. Hey, everyone loves a good murder mystery. And on that note, if you like real-life murder mysteries and/or rich (and richly-researched) accounts of Hollywood in its extravagant heyday, you should definitely check out Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, new in narrative non-fiction from novelist, biographer, and historian William J. Mann.
Simultaneously a true crime investigation and a historical account of some of the key figures in early Hollywood (especially the early battles between producers and would-be censors prior to the creation of the MPAA), the hub around which radiate Tinseltown‘s various spokes is the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Working backwards from this center, Mann offers historical context and rich profiles of all the players, including Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, Will H. Hays (the namesake of the infamous Hays Code which preceded the MPAA), actresses Margaret Gibby Gibson and Mary Miles Minter, and assorted police officers, film types, and “locusts,” that peculiarly 20th century phenomenon of fame-seekers who came to Hollywood hoping to be stars only to turn to petty crime when it didn’t work out.
With shades of Devil In The White City (though with a much less overwrought style of prose, in my opinion), Mann dives headlong into his subject, a murder that was one of Hollywood’s first scandals (following closely on the heels of Fatty Arbuckle’s blackballing in the wake of the Virginia Rappe case, which is also covered in Tinseltown). The Taylor murder has been written about handful of times before, but never before “solved” as compellingly as in Tinseltown. Not that an “answer” was necessarily the point, since Mann builds so many cinematic scenes on the way to his conclusion that it’s no surprise to learn that he’s been in talks to turn it into a miniseries. My favorite scene involves Taylor’s black valet being interrogated by some knuckleheads from the FBI who are convinced that he knows something. Under the assumption that “negroes are inherently fearful of ghosts,” they drive the valet through a cemetery while one of their pals runs around with a sheet over his head pretending to be Taylor’s ghost, while the valet just shakes his head at their idiocy. Who knew real life could so closely resemble Scooby Doo?
Anyway, when I finished the book I thought the Hollywood-centric subject matter would make it a perfect first choice for this book feature I’d been wanting to do, and I got in touch with William J. Mann, whom I talked to by phone last week.
FILMDRUNK: Tinseltown is sort of a history told through the lens of this true crime story. With Serial becoming this big phenomenon, do you think people are more interested in true crime now?
Mann: Yeah, I mean I think it’s always been a popular genre but I do think there’s– I was really pleased that Harper Collins decided to promote this book as true crime, and in fact when I wander through Barnes and Noble, that’s where I find it. And that’s great, because if they had marketed it in film studies or Hollywood history or something, I think that wouldn’t have been the way to go. So, to answer your question, yes, and I think people are responding to stories that are real, and true, and historical. And in this case, told like a novel to really bring the story out.
FILMDRUNK: The central part of this book is William Desmond Taylor’s unsolved murder, and by the end of it, you come up with at least a pretty convincing theory as to who did it. If you’d done all that research without finding a compelling answer, would you still have written the book?
Mann: Yeah, because when I started, I didn’t know if I’d find the killer. I just wanted to bring that period of Hollywood to life, and my first goal was to tell the story about the scandals. Originally I thought I would probably go into more about Fatty Arbuckle and Olive Thomas and Wally Reed, I thought I would really tell of those scandal stories, but I realized that took away from the story. I would give them too much story, so I didn’t really know who the killer was at that point, but I figured I can always leave it ambiguous. But as I got going and I began doing more and more research, I began saying, “No, it seems like this is what happened,” and it just kept becoming more and more clear to me. So I am glad that I was actually able to end it with my own theory.
FILMDRUNK: On the note of Fatty Arbuckle [who was famously accused of the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, eventually acquitted, but blackballed from Hollywood anyway] one of the big things that I kept thinking about after I read the book was how the court of public opinion has evolved since then. Do you see any parallels between Arbuckle and Bill Cosby? Are there lessons we’ve learned from that, or maybe false lessons that we shouldn’t have?
Mann: I mean, I think we’ve waited an awfully long time for poor Fatty. I think he was still alive for so many decades after that, I think now people kind of say, “Well, whether or not, I mean, there was never really much evidence against Fatty.” You know, we weren’t there that night in San Francisco with Fatty Arbuckle and we certainly weren’t in the rooms with Bill Cosby and these ladies. But there seems to be quite a bit more evidence against Bill Cosby. But then, I’m glad I’m not sitting on the jury.
FILMDRUNK: You talk about the Hays Code in the book and I’d always associated that with censorship and I assumed that the guy who came up with it was this conservative, church kind of guy, but then in the book he’s not like that at all–
Mann: He was. He was a conservative church guy, but I think there was more to him than that presumption.
FILMDRUNK: Right. And did you know about that when you started writing or was that sort of a surprise that came out of your research?
Mann: Yeah, no I didn’t know that. I had the same initial biases that you did, and was actually pleasantly surprised to realize what a decent guy he was. I mean later on, in the ’30s, he really perpetuated and had to kind of agree to the setup of the production code administration, which began censoring films actively, enforcing the production code, but it was never him that did that either. I think that’s important to remember, he never actually did any censoring. That was Joseph Green who was the head of the production code administration working under Hays. So Hays never was the censor even though that’s what they tried to set him up as being. He was actually a guy who believed in freedom of expression and really not sitting in judgment of anyone. He turned out to be a real breath of fresh air which I needed because the more I learned about Adolph Zukor, the more I realized he needed a kind of a counter balance in the story.
FILMDRUNK: Before I read [Tinseltown] I was reading One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson, and one of the things he touches on is how big the idea of spectacle was in the ’20s, where it was becoming this huge thing, that people were only just starting to understand. How much do you think that played into the Arbuckle Scandal and then the Taylor murder?
Mann: I think it’s not surprising that those scandals happened once the economy was better. People had money to buy these tapes and magazines again. Because there was a pretty steep recession right after the war and it really didn’t– the roaring ’20s really didn’t start to roar until about 1922. So that was the moment, I think, when newspapers realized, “Hey, we can make a big deal out of this.” At the same time, as you point out, that’s the ride of the spectacle film, that’s DeMille making Kings Of Kings and all of that. So it’s by the middle part and the later part of the ’20s, and it gets huge.
FILMDRUNK: Right, so do you think scandals are bigger news when the economy is better in general?
Mann: Yeah, probably. I mean, they certainly were– the scandal happened at that critical moment as the economy was getting better. It wasn’t quite as strong as it would get in say, ’24, ’25. But by ’22 things were getting better, people were going back to movies, and I think people were going back to work. So I think, yeah, you need money to run a scandal. I think that certainly helped it.
FILMDRUNK: And what do you think about our appetite for scandal in the ’20s versus now? Do we like a scandal more, or less? Are we less immature, or more?
Mann: Well, it’s different, obviously, because we’re talking about different platforms, and different kinds of celebrities. But in fact, what struck me researching and writing this book was how very similar it really is. The celebrities were becoming more famous for their off-screen behavior and antics than they were for anything they did on-screen. Zukor was a capitalist who believed in “too big to fail,” he was trying to gobble up all– consolidate all the companies under one big banner. The religious conservatives were saying that Hollywood values were destroying the fabric of America. So in some ways, it’s the same thing. We had the same sorts of discussions, and the same– it’s just obviously in a much more concentrated way then, because there was the movies and that was it. Now we’ve got movies but we’ve also got various forms of television whether it be cable, or Netflix, or internet, YouTube and people who do nothing but make YouTube videos and they’re famous. The appetite for scandal is, I think, exactly the same, except we have so much more of it. So many more platforms.
FILMDRUNK: You’ve reading a lot of books with gay themes and about homosexuality and early Hollywood. And now it seems like there’s actors who are out — like Neil Patrick Harris where they’re out and they play straight characters and audiences are willing to accept them in straight roles. Is there still pressure for gay actors to stay closeted? Is that gone? Is it changing? How do you think that’s changed?
Mann: Well, I think it is changing. But I still think we haven’t yet hit that tipping point where a big leading man can – Neil Patrick Harris is a great example – I think he’s broken down a lot of doors. But there’s still that moment I think people still think of, “Should we go that far?” I just read today about the lead – I don’t watch the show; I’ve seen a little bit of it – The Walking Dead. And I guess there’s been this teaser for the last couple of seasons that the lead character might actually be gay. And then he announced no, he’s not. And all I could do was picture there must have been some boardroom meeting where they said, “Should we go that direction?” And then they said, “No, no, don’t!” So I still think there’s a little bit of trepidation, but I think it’s breaking down and I think we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. I mean, changes that I’ve seen since I started working and writing about Hollywood have been enormous. If that keeps up I think we’ll get there eventually.
FILMDRUNK: Right, and, I mean, do you think that– like, certain actors that are sort of out but– they’re out in everything but name, where it’s Travolta or Kevin Spacey, is that just something they don’t want to say — like, they don’t want to put a point on it so maybe someone’s aunt in the Midwest can still sort of–
Mann: Yeah, who knows what the reason is. I think Travolta’s got some really strange reasons about why he’s in the closet, which might have to do with Scientology. I don’t know, but I wonder. But Spacey’s an interesting example because he’s got a great career, he’s a great actor, he just– you know, there is still a mentality among some people that it’s somehow private. That’s what Jodie Foster has always kind of complained about, that it was somehow, “This is my personal life. I don’t want to talk about it.” Well, you know, I don’t talk about the personal life between my husband and I either. But I do admit that I have a husband.
Mann: So, you know, I think that’s the distinction that some people still struggle to make, is if somehow this essential part of who you are is private. I mean, we don’t know anything about Meryl Streep’s personal life, but we do know she’s straight. So… that’s the difference. Some of these actors, you know, “No, I don’t want to know about your personal life. But I do kind of want to know if you have a husband or wife.”
FILMDRUNK: And once they’re already successful, I mean, do you think it sort of behooves them to be out, or, you know, should we just let it go and understand that that’s part of their business that they’re protecting?
Mann: My philosophy has always been that I just think we should treat everyone equally. So as a journalist if I’m going to write about someone, I’m not going to jump through hoops to protect some secret that they have if I’m not doing that for somebody else. So I’m not looking to ‘out’ anyone necessarily, but I’m not looking to treat anyone differently than I would somebody else.
FILMDRUNK: So at the beginning of your book, you write that you’re not inventing dialogue or thoughts for any of the characters, and that’s something that a lot of non-fiction writers have done, going all the way back to Truman Capote and I really like that you put that in there that all of this came from written or published accounts of all the things that the characters think or say. It seems like it must have been an insane amount of research. Where all did you get sources for everything? And did you have a system for keeping track of it all? How did you manage it all?
Mann: We had lots and lots of boxes with file folders, and cross-referenced, and all of that. I have to admit that I was hugely inspired by In Cold Blood and all of that. But Capote, it was a non-fiction novel and he did admit to making parts of it up. I didn’t want to do that. I was much more influenced by The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, which was a complete work of non-fiction – where he said something very similar in the beginning, which says, “I didn’t make anything up. And dialogue– if anything’s in quotation marks, it means they actually said it.” He found interviews in which they said that. So that was really important to me, was to stay true to that and I had to find anecdotes and stories where there was enough detail within those stories that I could say, “I can actually recreate those moments. There’s enough material here that I can tell this in a dramatic way rather than to extend that kind of static, journalistic account.”
FILMDRUNK: On that note, there’s that scene where the cops were driving I think it was Taylor’s valet, where they’re driving him through a cemetery and one guy has the sheet over his head, which is incredible. Where did that account come from?
Mann: Well there were some newspaper reports about it. But very fortunately, there was a journalist who was a writer at the first Los Angeles Examiner, who wrote about it in her memoir. And so she wrote about it in pretty graphic detail. I would say looking as her as the source on that. You know, she was there. She was in the car.
FILMDRUNK: How daunting is it to write a history like this that’s been written about a bunch of times? Like, I imagined that there are gangs of academics sort of waiting to kick holes in everything.
Mann: Right. You know there are some of these people who don’t want a mystery like this solved. How many times have people said they found Jack the Ripper? And then there are some people going, “No that’s wrong.” Because everybody hopes that they’re going to be the one to write it. And if it was solved, it would take some of the fun out of it. So I’ve always said, “Look, I’m happy to talk about other theories and if you’ve got evidence, let’s see it,” because I have put mine out there. It’s not like I have some secret evidence that I’m not revealing. It’s all there.
FILMDRUNK: Was there anything that you had trouble accessing for Tinseltown, or did you have special access, anything? What was the process of that like?
Mann: No, what was so great about writing about this is that everybody is dead. I can get permission from anybody. I didn’t have to beg anybody for an interview. I was lucky to find some grandchildren and great-grandchildren still alive of various people, but, I mean, the big thing for me was trying for the FBI records, which was– nobody else had ever thought to get before. And I kept sending letter after letter to the FBI, Freedom of Information request saying, ‘Do you have anything on William Desmond Taylor?’ Came back nothing. Over and over it came back nothing, because the FBI only really got started around 1921-22.
FILDMRUNK: How did that work? You just send off a letter and you wait and one day a giant envelope arrives in your mail?
Mann: Exactly, exactly. You fill out a form, an FOIA form, Freedom of Information Act, and you send it in, and it’s really kind of a crap shoot. You know, “Well I don’t know if I’m going to get anything.” And it does, it takes three, four, five, six months to hear back from them. So I started doing this early and often, and I’d go to the post office, my post office box, and there’d be a letter from the FBI. Just a small legal sized envelope – black. And I’d notice just a slip inside that said nothing was wrong [with the request]. Then one time I went and saw this huge mail envelope stuffed full with material.
FILMDRUNK: Another thing that was really interesting to me was Patty Palmer/Gibby Gibson [an actress in the book who had a scandal and changed her name to distance herself from it]. How easy was it for people to just sort of change their name and reinvent themselves in the ’20s?
Mann: It was pretty easy. because those movies weren’t expected to be shown again. When a movie was released in those days you expected it to play for about a year and a half because it would play in the big cities first and then it would go off into the hinterlands and they would play for another year-and-a-half or so but then it was done. At the time they just had these negatives that they would just wear themselves to death and they would just be cast away. And in the case of somebody like Gibby Gibson slash Patricia Palmer, she was making these films for these low grade independent concerns that didn’t have the theater connections. They were going to play in second rank theaters in small towns around the country, and then they would disappear. So it wasn’t like people had IMDB to say, “Who was that, that was in that movie two years ago?” So it was pretty easy for her to do that – but it was also pretty audacious too, because people still had photoplay magazines in their house where they could say, “Doesn’t Patricia Palmer look like Margaret Gibson?” It was a gutsy thing to to, but also not completely unimaginable.
FILMDRUNK: Do you think that Hollywood in the ’20s is more interesting than, say, Hollywood in the ’50s?
Mann: Oh, I think every year it has an interest all its own. You know, in the ’50s, it’s interesting what filmmakers are doing to kind of subvert the, you know, the code, and you know, the darkness of the McCarthy Era. So films were reflecting that and subverting that. Every era is interesting in its own way. But, what makes the ’20s so exciting is that it was so new and they were completely charting new territory and, you know, there were no role models. There were no precedents to follow. And so everybody was kind of making it up as they went along.
FILMDRUNK: Right, and I notice they made a lot of movies about making movies back then too, is that just because those were the props they happened to have lying around?
Mann: Yeah you’re right. I think it will always be that way because Hollywood is obsessed with itself. It’s a narcissistic place, and they’re always making movies about making movies because they think it’s the most interesting thing in the world and a lot of people agree so they keep doing that.
FILMDRUNK: So have you been doing a lot of press for the book?
Mann: Yeah, it’s really almost been non-stop since October 14th. It’s really been kind of crazy, but good. In a good way.
FILMDRUNK: Like a full book tour and everything?
Mann: Yeah, the book tour, and now we’re developing it as a TV series. I’ve been to lots of crazy meetings, they seem to go on forever, but it’s all good, it’s all good.
FILMDRUNK: That’s great, when I was reading it I was like, “This has to become a movie or a show or something.” Do you know where the show might go yet?
Mann: We’ve got one place very interested, but nothing has been signed yet. We’ve got a director who is very interested. It’s being developed by Aaron Kaplan with Kapital Entertainment, and he’s got a number of hit shows on television right now. So he’s got a lot of people who he’s talking to, but nothing has been signed yet. When it does, we’ll let everybody know.
The idea is – what they’re talking about right now – is a similar format to True Detective. The first season is [William Desmond Taylor’s] story, then next season would be a different story, but still with the title “Tinseltown.” So there’s plenty of scandals in Hollywood to keep going.
FILMDRUNK: Around the time of Tinseltown, the trend was huge theaters, where people were building the biggest and the best theaters with the biggest screens and the most seats, and it was the idea of this huge spectacle. And nowadays it seems like it’s gradually evolving back smaller and smaller, away from the huge spectacle, more towards things that you watch at home by yourself, almost like the old boxes Edison made where you turned the crank. Do you think about where that trend is going or why? Do you have any insight on that?
Mann: Well yes; I hadn’t actually thought of it in that way, but you’re right. Even though our television screens are getting bigger, we’re basically getting home theaters now that kind of resemble the old Nickelodeon. They would be a smaller screen with a smaller number of people watching it. But at the same time, I think the best analogy for today is the early 1970s when there was such a filmmaker-driven creative explosion in film making. And yet creative producers, people like Robert Evans, and people who were actually thinking about movies, and how to tell stories, and how to change the form. And we’re seeing that on television now, with Breaking Bad, and Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards, and everything else.
In fact, it was why I decided to go with Tinseltown as a television series, because I felt it was more the zeitgeist. It was really, this is how you tell stories. This is what people who love movies and moving images, this is what people are talking about now. They’re not talking about movies because that’s just all superheroes [laughter]. There was a couple of really interested people who wanted to do this as a film. I said, “You know, I think two-and-a-half hours, even three hours, isn’t enough. I mean, we want to see– this is big, and this is sprawling, and there’s characters, and there’s lots of different stories, and that’s how you do it.” Like True Detective, I think it’s brilliant. The filmmaking that’s going on right now is the new golden age. And it’s not about theatrical releases. It’s about these limited series. Series that run for two, three, four and maybe five seasons. But that’s it. That’s how long it’s supposed to run.
FILMDRUNK: And even the movies, they’re trying to steal the sort of serialized format by breaking the features into more and more parts. I don’t even know how many parts the Hunger Games has now.
Mann: Yeah. Right. But even Hunger Games, it’s kind of comic bookish – the whole story. I mean it’s great for what it is. And you’re right it’s about bigger story but the kind of smaller, human, psychological– I mean I guess there’s psychology going on in Hunger Games but the really innovative stuff is taking place on small screens. It’s on Netflix, it’s on HBO, it’s on Showtime or it’s even on AMC.
FILMDRUNK: It seems like they have to do away with those interesting smaller moments in favor of the broader stuff when you convert it to a movie because you lose the time to explore side stories and things like that.
Mann: Right. And it’s the people who are going to movies tend to be younger. They tend to be going to the movies for that big Dolby Surround Sound experience. If you think there is an audience that would go back to the theaters and if a film came out that was really interesting, like a Midnight Cowboy, something along that quality, or The Godfather came back to the movies.