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how Babylon conquers Hollywood in the 1920s

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In his latest film, Babylon, director Damien Chazelle presents a very different vision of the homeland of the American film industry than in his Oscar-winning 2016 film, La La Land.

Rather than a romantic, wistful homage to the dream of Hollywood stardom and success, Babylon reveals the nightmarish underside of the 1920s dream factory. Telling the rise and (mostly) fall stories of a group of aspiring movie celebrities against the backdrop of social, cultural, and technological change in the new, modern, 20th-century America, the film has both relevance and resonance today.

Hollywood in the roaring twenties

The Roaring Twenties – an era of prosperity and consumption, of cultural ferment and innovation – put Hollywood on the map. Filmmaking became an economic powerhouse. With the financial center in New York and the manufacturing center in California, the industry consolidated from many small companies to eight large companies, such as Warner Brothers, Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox. The major studios achieved near-monopolistic control, stretching from production through distribution to exhibition, producing thousands of films for ever-growing audiences at home and abroad.

Chazelle is quite right about Hollywood history in this defining decade. The development of the star system, which produced and sold the films as star vehicles and created celebrity icons with millions of fans, is shown from the start, with an over-the-top party that is at once lavishly gaudy and ostentatiously outrageous. At the party, we meet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a young star on the cusp of her big break, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an established star, two characters loosely based on the tragic lives of Clara. Bow and John Gilbert.

The excess and debauchery of Hollywood as captured by Babylon (2023).
Paramount Pictures

Drugs, booze and sexual debauchery are on full display at the party and lead to the death of a young actress, a tragedy reminiscent of the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal of 1921. An incredibly popular and well-paid comedy star at the time, Arbuckle was charged with rape and tried for manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe. Although he was eventually acquitted, the scandal ended Arbuckle’s career and exposed the fringe behind-the-scenes reality of what came to be dubbed “Hollywood Babylon.”

Newspaper scan of the outcome of the infamous Roscoe Arbuckle third trial.
Wikimedia Commons

Morality and scandal in Hollywood

The Arbuckle scandal and others that followed sparked public outcry and political calls for a “moral makeover” in Hollywood. The studios added “moral clauses” to employees’ contracts, allowing the studios to fire an employee for social or sexual inappropriateness or causing a public scandal.

They formed a trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and hired former Republican National Committee chairman Will Hays to run it. Hays promised to clean up the films and promoted a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” and then the 1930 Production Code (informally known as the Hays Code), to avoid profanity, nudity, sex and “mockery of the clergy”. appearance. not appear on the screen.

This crackdown on movie content was part of a wider conservative backlash as the United States entered the modern era. In 1920 most Americans lived in cities. Consumer culture and popular culture flourished. Women had the right to vote. And European immigration and African-American migration had highlighted a more multicultural America. Many Americans feared and resisted these changes, and they sought to restore cultural homogeneity and control, including over the film industry.

Read more: Chinese-American actresses Soo Yong and Anna May Wong: Contrasting battle for recognition in Hollywood

From silence to sound

These culture wars are a profound reflection of our current one, with social groups – in this case conservative and liberal Americans – vying and battling over whose values ​​and beliefs will dominate the culture.

But the plot of Babylon instead focuses on the motion picture industry’s transition from silent to sound film and the impact of that change for stars of the silent era. Chazelle introduces accurate sound by including Al Jolson in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. The wildly enthusiastic audience reception for the film shattered the confident assumption of those who thought sound would be a passing fad.

The industry switched to the new technology, at great cost, and just before the Great Depression hit. Investments in microphones, soundproofing studios and cinema cabling and the hiring of new technicians and screenwriters continued. Actors without the right voice, accent or diction didn’t make it. Chazelle handles this story well with a mix of humor, showing the difficulties of filming on the new sound stages, and heartbreak, as the careers of the main characters, Robbie’s LaRoy and Pitt’s Conrad, crash and burn.

From poor to rich

The other characters of Babylon represent important aspects of the films in the 1920s. The rise of Manny Torres (Diego Calva) from studio gofer to producer reflects the opportunities available to Latino filmmakers, such as René Cardona, and that rags-to-riches can still happen in the studio era. Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton), a director modeled after the pioneering Dorothy Arzner, alludes to the prominence of women as writers, editors and directors in early Hollywood.

Chazelle also emphasizes the crucial role gossip columnists played in publicizing Hollywood, its movies, stars, and fantasies. Elinor St John (Jean Smart) unsentimentally agrees to be characterized as a “cockroach”. While the real-life inspiration for her character, British writer Elinor Glyn, would have disagreed, the gossip fed on industry crumbs and outlived even the most celebrated stars.

Two additional characters are very important to the film and its greater historical significance. An African American jazz musician, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) pay their respects to Louis Armstrong and Anna Mae Wong. The film’s blatant treatment of the characters by the studios—Palmer must perform in blackface and Lady Zhu cannot be cast as an actress—exposes the racism and sexism that dominated Hollywood for most of its history.

Mexican actor Ramón Novarro and Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong in a publicity photo for the film Across to Singapore (1928).

Under pressure from inside and outside, the industry is beginning to change. However, these small steps have enraged today’s cultural conservatives. For example, the casting of Halle Bailey, an African-American actress-singer in the live-action The Little Mermaid due out this year, caused a storm of racist reactions. As was the case 100 years ago, Hollywood is once again at the center of America’s culture wars.

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