If you’re a clapper loader, propmaster, foley, gaffer, grip, or best boy, making a jump cut, match cut, smash cut, contrast cut, L-cut, form cut, continuity cut, or swish pan; blocking a tracking shot, dolly shot, Steadicam shot, pull-back shot, point of view shot, over-the-shoulder shot, reverse shot, long shot, follow shot, bridging shot, master shot, freeze frame shot, establishing shot, dutch tilt, or insert shot; fading, wiping, or dissolving; or you’re just concerned with the mise-en-scene of your diegesis and looking for some depth-of-field, load another canister into the trivia roundup.
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1. In 1919, the Chicago “Black Sox” famously threw the World Series. In response to growing concerns about the influence of organized gambling in baseball, the powers-that-be gave hard-as-nails federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis carte blanche to “clean up the game” (actual name, actual mountain). Answering to no one, Landis brandished his banhammer with brio, bringing a new sheen of consummate professionalism to America’s pastime.
I bring up baseball only as an analogy to 1920s Hollywood, which was rocked by scandal and earned the consternation of pro-censorship religious leaders concerned about moral turpitude and finding a constitutionally allowable target following a 1915 Supreme Court ruling did not grant free-speech privileges to motion pictures. Looking to improve their moral standing—or at least the appearance of it—movie executives followed the Landis/baseball model and hired William Harrison Hays, onetime RNC chair, onetime Postmaster General, and conservative Presbyterian deacon, to “clean up the pictures.”
Hays instituted the Motion Picture Production Code (“affectionately” called the Hays Code) in 1930. The code outlined the 36 morally inappropriate topics/themes—11 “Don’ts” and 25 “Be Carefuls”—that movies were to avoid, in order to avert censorship and meet with MPPC approval. Topics to avoid included “branding of humans or animals,” “surgical operations,” “miscegenation,” and “white slavery” (every other kind of slavery is A-OK though; full code here, I suggest you peruse it).
Hays was replaced in 1934 by Albert Breen, the Judge Dredd of censorship: he changed filmed scenes and scripts to suit his ascetic morality, mandated that Betty Boop change into a dowdy house dress, mandated that on-screen kisses last no more than 3 seconds, and ensured that the nonmatrimonial love of Rick and Ilsa remained unconsummated at the end of Casablanca (god, I hope there’s a director’s cut somewhere with Rick and Ilsa boning behind a storage shed on the tarmac). The Judeo-Christian morality of the code led one academic describe it as “a homily that sought to yoke Catholic doctrine to Hollywood formula,” resulting in “…a Jewish owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America,” proving that indeed, America truly is a melting pot. The code died in 1968, whence it was replaced by the MPAA rating system. Please see This Film is Not Yet Rated for more information on that particular atrocity.
So what were the “scandals” that contributed to the adoption of Hays Code?
2. Olive Thomas (1894-1920) was named “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” at the age of 14 and began modelling, later becoming a Ziegfeld follies showgirl and silent film star. With a reputation as a party girl, in 1916 she married Jack Pickford (brother of uber-famous Mary Pickford, to receive further attention in a future roundup). Pickford, even by the standards of Hollywood’s degenerate glitterati, had a legendary reputation for womanizing and, to paraphrase an HST quote, excessive consumption of almost every drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD. Pickford’s relationship with Thomas was volatile and unstable, oscillating wildly between love, hate, passion, and anger. During a 1920 trip to Paris, Thomas accidentally (maybe?) drank from a bottle of mercury bichloride prescribed to treat Jack’s raging syphilis (mercury has a centuries-long history as a venereal disease cure-all). She died several days later, kicking off a frenzy of media speculation about her husband’s role in her death.
3. Wallace Reid was a silent film actor, director, writer, cinematographer, and producer most famous for starring as a thrill-seeking racecar driver in a series of films, including the fabulously named Excuse my Dust. Did you know racecar is a palindrome? Whilst filming in 1919, he was injured in a train accident and subsequently developed a serious morphine addiction, from which he died in 1923 while undergoing “treatment” at a sanitarium. Tragic, because he looked amazing in a straw boater.
4. William Desmond Taylor, famed silent film director, was shot in the back by person or persons unknown in the early morning of February 2, 1922. A crowd gathered around his body, and a “doctor” claimed he had died of a stomach hemorrhage. The doctor was never seen again and it wasn’t until several hours later that the body was rolled over and the bullet wound in his back was discovered. That’s some top-notch police work. His murder remains unsolved to this day, though the cast of suspects is full of colorful characters: “Edward F. Sands”, Taylor’s personal assistant who had been convicted of forgery, embezzlement, and deserting the Army multiple times (each time under an assumed identity); Henry Peavey, Sands’s replacement, and known for garish golf outfits; actress Mabel Normand, possibly Taylor’s lover, but deep in the throes of cocaine dependency that Taylor sought to cure her of; Mary Miles Minter, 19-year old child star, perhaps slightly “off” and with an unrequited love for Taylor (she bore the brunt of the subsequent “scandal,” as her love letters to Taylor were printed in the paper); and finally, Minter’s archetypal overbearing stage mother who is considered by most to be the prime suspect. She had a pistol matching the type that killed Taylor which she threw into a swamp; she also spent years outside the US, presumably in hopes of avoiding arrest. The whole story is bizarre.
5. The Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal involved a dead woman, America’s most beloved obese physical comic, a series of rape and manslaughter trials, and an unending fount of sensationalized stories hinting at depraved sexual practices of the Hollywood elite. In 1921, Fatty Arbuckle was famous and wealthy, and along with some friends rented a few hotel rooms in San Francisco for a Labor Day party. This has nothing to do with anything, but it is funny: Arbuckle was reluctant to party because he was in too much pain after suffering serious burns to his asscheck. At the party, things took a bad turn.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Arbuckle returned from the “party room” to his own room and found actress Virginia Rappe semi-conscious and vomiting in his bathroom. Believing her drunk, he moved her to the bed, asked for help from her friend, and retrieved some ice water to try and rouse her. When that didn’t work, the doctors were called, who also thought her drunk. She was not hospitalized until two days later (top-notch medical work), at which time Rappe’s companion told the doctor that Arbuckle had raped her. There was no evidence of this, and Rappe died shortly thereafter of a ruptured bladder. Police argued the anatomically-impossible theory that Rappe’s injury occurred when Fatty had hefted his considerable girth on top of her, thus traumatizing her viscera. Media reports eventually (d)evolved into accusations of Arbuckle’s (ahem) sexual improprieties with a Coke bottle, a story that’s now hung around for decades.
The case probably wouldn’t have gone to trial, so scant was the evidence, but for a politically ambitious DA. The jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal, so Arbuckle was tried a second time, where his defense—either from excessive confidence or as a performance art piece—elected to neither put Arbuckle on the stand nor make a closing argument. That jury deadlocked 10-2 for conviction, so he was tried a third time. The evidence wasn’t even circumstantial: witnesses were lying (many accused the DA of blackmail), and doctors believed Rappe’s death was the result of a chronic condition (cystitis, possibly irritated by a botched abortion), not trauma. The closest thing to evidence was a semiconscious Rappe saying “What did Roscoe do to me?”, with the “what” never specified, and disagreement about whether she ever actually named Arbuckle. That’s exactly the same evidence that got Richard Kimble in trouble.
The jury acquitted Fatty, and wrote him a letter of apology for his having been tried in the first place. The Hearst-fueled yellow-journalism media frenzy surrounding the case ensured that whether guilty or innocent, Arbuckle’s career wouldn’t recover: his movies had been banned, his estranged wife had been shot at while entering the courtroom, his $1 million contract (roughly $72 billion adjusted for inflation) was gone, he wouldn’t act in another movie for over a decade, and he would direct only a few under a pseudonym. He also had to pay a $500 fine for violating the Volstead Act. And Rappe was still dead. Of course, had anyone recognized she wasn’t just soused but in serious need of medical attention, she might have survived, and Arbuckle might then still be remembered as a beloved corpulent comic actor and not a cultural touchstone for sexual depravity, and maybe the Hays Code might never have been implemented. What a shitshow. There’s a deliriously good recap of the larger politics of the Arbuckle affair here that’s got far more contextualized information than my cleft nonsense.
6. Hearst didn’t just monger scandal, he lived it. In 1924, he held a party on his yacht, attended by mega-star (actor, producer, “Father of the Western”) Thomas Ince. Ince died shortly thereafter, under mysterious circumstances. The “cover-up” account has Ince being shot in the head by Hearst, an event reported in early editions of at least one newspaper—“Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht”—before vanishing in the afternoon edition. Hearst, oddly, claimed that Ince had taken ill while visiting his palatial San Simeon estate—a statement explicitly contradicted by the facts and requested by no one. Doth Heartht protetht too much?
At the time of Ince’s death Hearst was engaged in a love triangle with Charlie Chaplin and actress Marion Davies. It’s believed by some that Hearst came across those two en flagrante delicto aboard the yacht, and Ince was shot in the aftermath—either accidentally while trying to stop the argument, accidentally by a shot going through the floor, or intentionally by an angered Hearst. Ince’s body was then surreptitiously offloaded, cremated, and his wife sent to Europe, while Hearst kept the truth out of the papers, a skill he excelled at. The “official story,” in contrast, is that Ince briefly visited the yacht but left with acute indigestion, and succumbed several days later to heart failure. The truth…who knows? But I certainly find it plausible that Hearst could kill a man with no repercussions, and my brain is melting down thinking about a hypothetical world in which uber-star Charlie Chaplin was shot in the head and killed by uber-magnate Hearst while on Hearst’s stately pleasure craft. Lifestyles of the rich and famous!
7. Random film trivia, actual titles of films noir department: 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, Satan Met a Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Destination Murder, I Married a Communist, I Was a Communist for the FBI, The Sun Sets at Dawn (???), Female Jungle, Finger Man, Please Murder Me, Plunder Road (where’s Weird Al on that one?). and, finally, incredibly: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.