Hollywood hides its ghosts better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there rattling around in their unquiet graves. Take a walk on Mulholland Drive during the witching hour, between when the club lights go down and the sun comes back up, and you’re as likely to see River Phoenix passing out pamphlets warning against the dangers of drug abuse as Sharon Tate, dress stained with flowers of red, searching for her lost child. There’s plenty of shallow glitz and fake tits, don’t get me wrong, but no matter how much neon light they put up there will always be darkness. Of that you can be certain.
If you’ve ever read, or heard of, Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” you’ll feel in familiar territory. “Return to Babylon” covers the scandals of pre-talkie era Hollywood in a semi-organized narrative, zipping through the lives of early stars such as Fatty Arbuckle, Clara Bow, William Desmond Taylor and Lupe Velez. Where it parts ways with Anger’s bitchy rumour mongering is that “Return” treats the scandals of early Hollywood with the same sort of giddy reverence that Catholic schoolchildren give Old Testament scripture. It’s not surprising since the two have a lot in common. The blood and sex and sacrifice are all there, as are the messiahs and the saints, the martyrs and the sinners. If you’re a true believer, then it’s more than just rumour and innuendo about people who are long dead and lost to the past, but something living and dirty and raw and bloody. It fills you with horror and delight in equal measure and you just cannot look away. If you don’t believe it’s true, and think it’s all just silly nonsense, you still can’t look away because it’s so over the top and entertaining. So just as the Bible can only be adequately summed up in fire and brimstone sermons delivered by lunatics in the throes of religious fervour, Hollywood can only be summed up in short, soundless, black and white reels spliced together at a quick pace, each an incomplete anecdote, each giving you the impression that you’re privy to view the secret history of the place in some dim editing room inside a long forgotten studio building. You can’t see it all just by looking at one part, you have to look at many parts, only that way can you grasp the grand design of the thing. Nor does it matter if any of it is historically accurate because while facts are a good way to get to know the truth, legends are a much better way to understand it in context.
The look of this production is as authentic as can be without going back in time and hiring D.W. Griffith to direct and some of the actors and actresses were born to play these parts. They may not be perfect doppelgangers, Debi Mazar is a much better looking lady than Gloria Swanson ever was for example, but they embody the spirit of who they play well enough.
“Babylon” is fun and quirky and never boring. There’s a lot of whimsy and humour here. Then again, the difference between comedy and tragedy is that things are a lot funnier when the people involved have been dead for 80 years. One scene that still has me laughing is the one where Rudolf Valentino’s father comments on the anachronism of him being there before Valentino goes to America, what with the fact that he died 6 years before.
The 70 minute running time mostly flies by, though I felt it dragging a little bit towards the end, but I’m more inclined to think that this was my own impatience when faced with watching a silent movie than a specific flaw of the work itself. There were a few moments where I saw through the ruse and it didn’t look quite as period correct as the film wanted to, but most of the time it’s a dead ringer for something made in the twenties, and that’s good enough for me.
Nobody makes silent films anymore, at least not any good ones. It’s a question of timing really. A silent film has a different rhythm than a talkie and most modern filmmakers just don’t have the cinematic literacy to make it work. “Return” is a good one, or at the very least one that I enjoyed throughout.