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. With 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.” (By the way, that is his actual name, and it’s an actual mountain). Answering to no one, Landis bandished the banhammer with brio, exiling anyone and everyone who was even suspected of commingling with gamblers, restoring the luster of America’s sullied pastime.
I bring up baseball here as an analogy to 1920s Hollywood, beset by scandal and targeted by pro-censorship religious leaders deeply concerned about moral turpitude. Following a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that, mysteriously, did not grant free-speech privileges to motion pictures, “moral leaders” had constitutionally-approved leverage over Hollywood. Hoping to improve their image, movie executives followed the baseball/Landis model: they 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. It outlined 36 morally inappropriate topics and themes—11 “Don’ts” and 25 “Be Carefuls”—that movies were to avoid so as to satisfy the MPPC and avert censorship. Censor-worthy topics included “branding of humans or animals,” “surgical operations,” “miscegenation,” and “white slavery” (all other kinds of slavery are a-ok). The full code is here, I suggest you peruse it).
Hays was replaced in 1934 by Albert Breen, a possibly even more priggish and officious moralizer. Breen was the Judge Dredd of censorship: he changed already-filmed scenes and to-be-filmed 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 (now I desperately hope there’s a director’s cut 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. 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?
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2. Olive Thomas (1894-1920) was named “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” at the age of 14, leading to a career in modelling, as a Ziegfeld follies showgirl, and eventually silent film star. At 22, she married Jack Pickford, an actor and director. Even by the standards of Hollywood’s degenerate glitterati, Pickford had a legendary reputation for womanizing and excessive consumption of almost every drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD (to paraphrase Hunter Thompson). The Pickford/Thomas pairing was volatile and unstable, a wildly oscillating pendulum swinging between love, hate, passion, and anger. While on a trip to Paris in 1920, Thomas drank from a bottle of mercury bichloride prescribed to treat Jack’s raging syphilis. She died several days later, kicking off a frenzy of media speculation about whether her death was accidental, suicide, or murder. Pickford married twice more, dying in 1933 due to complications of alcoholism.
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3. Actor, director, writer, cinematographer, producer, and possibly the only person in world history to look good in a straw boater, Wallace Reid was most famous for starring as a thrill-seeking racecar driver in a series of films, including the delightfully titled Excuse My Dust. Also, did you know racecar is a palindrome? While filming in 1919, Reid was injured in a train accident, causing him to later develop a serious morphine addiction, from which he died in 1923.
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” said he’d died of a stomach hemorrhage. The doctor was never seen again, and it took several hours before the body was rolled over and the bullet wound discovered, which is some top-notch police work. His murder remains unsolved to this day, though the cast of suspects reads like the start of an Agatha Christie novel:
- “Edward F. Sands,” Taylor’s erstwhile personal assistant, previously convicted of forgery, embezzlement, and deserting the army multiple times under multiple identities.
- Henry Peavey, Sands’s replacement, known for wearing garish golf outfits
- Mabel Normand, an actress and possibly Taylor’s lover; purportedly deep in the throes of a cocaine dependency Taylor was hoping to cure her of
- Mary Miles Minter, 19-year old but slightly “off” starlet, with an unrequited love for Taylor; her love letters to Taylor were published in the aftermath, and she bore the brunt of the scandal
- Minter’s mother, an archetypal overbearing stage parent and considered by most the prime suspect. She owned a pistol of the type that killed Taylor which she threw into a swamp before fleeing the US for years.
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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 a continuous stream of sensationalized stories hinting at depraved sexual practices of the Hollywood elite.
The absurd, deadly, and sad sequence of events begins with Arbuckle renting a few hotel rooms in San Francisco for Labor Day festivities—although, supposedly and unrelatedly, Arbuckle was reluctant to party because he was in pain after suffering serious burns to his asscheek. To the best the story can be cobbled together, Arbuckle returned from the “party room” to his own room and found actress Virginia Rappe semi-conscious and vomiting in the bathroom. Believing she was drunk, Arbuckle moved her to the bed, called a friend for help, and gathered some ice water to rouse her. That didn’t work, and doctors were called, who also thought she was drunk. Rappe was not hospitalized until two days later, at which time Rappe’s companion at the party suggested that Arbuckle had raped her. There was no evidence for this, and Rappe’s death was due to a ruptured bladder. Police argued the anatomically-impossible theory that Fatty had hefted his considerable girth on top of Rappe, traumatizing her viscera. They arrested him, and media reports eventually devolved into accusations of Arbuckle’s…sexual improprieties, we’ll say…with a Coke bottle, a story that’s now hung around for decades.
Probably the case never would have gone to trial if not for a politically ambitious DA hoping to make a name for himself. When the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal, Arbuckle was tried a second time. 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. It’s worth pointing out that the evidence here wasn’t even circumstantial: witness were blatantly lying while accusing the DA of blackmailing them into damning testimony, and doctors believed Rappe’s death was the result of a chronic condition and not trauma. The only thing the prosecution had was a semi-conscious Rappe saying “What did Roscoe do to me?” with the “what” never specified, and a disagreement about whether she actually named Arbuckle. That’s exactly the same evidence that got Richard Kimble wrongly convicted.
The third jury acquitted Fatty, and wrote him a collective apology letter for his having been tried in the first place. The Hearst-fueled media frenzy, though, virtually ensured that Arbuckle’s career was over, whether innocent or guilty. His movies had been banned, his estranged wife was shot entering the courtroom, his $1 million contract was torn up, he wouldn’t appear in another movie for over a decade, and only direct a few under a pseudonym. On top of all that, he received a $500 fine for violating the Volstead Act, and Rappe was still dead. Had anyone, Arbuckle and the first set of doctors included, realized that she was not drunk but seriously ill, she might have survived, and Arbuckle might be remembered as a beloved corpulent comic actor and not a cultural touchstone for sexual depravity. Perhaps even the Hays Code might never have been implemented. 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.
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6. WR Hearst didn’t just monger scandal, he also lived it. In 1924, Thomas Ince—an actor, producer, and “Father of the Western”—died in mysterious circumstances shortly after attending a bacchanal on Hearst’s yacht. By the “there was a cover-up” account, Ince was shot in the head by Hearst, an event actually reported in early editions of at least newspaper—Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht—before vanishing from later editions. Hearst, strangely, claimed that Ince had taken ill while visiting his San Simeon estate, a statement explicitly contradicted by everyone who’d seen Ince on the yacht, and a statement requested by no one. Doth Heartht protetht too much?
Hearst was, at the time, engaged in a love triangle with Charlie Chaplin and the actress Marion Davies. The story goes that Hearst came across those two en flagrante delicto on his yacht, and Ince was shot in the aftermath—perhaps while trying to stop an argument, perhaps accidentally by a ricocheting bullet, or perhaps intentionally by an angry Hearst. His body was then surreptitiously offloaded, cremated, and his wife sent off to Europe while Hearst ensured a news blackout. The “official” story holds that Ince left the yacht with acute indigestion and succumbed days later to heart failure.
The truth? I have absolutely zero idea, but think it’s revealing of something about Hearst that it seems utterly plausible he could kill a legitimately famous movie star with no repercussions. Also, my brain is melting imagining a hypothetical world in which uber-star Charlie Chaplin is murdered by uber-magnate Hearst. Champagne dreams!
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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, and, finally, incredibly: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.