Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE AND MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD

TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE AND MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD. William J. Mann. HarperCollins; 2014.

Biographer Mann resuscitates the William Desmond Taylor murder case in this recycled but entertaining look at scandals in old Hollywood. Besides actor-director Taylor, who was homely but attracted more people than you would imagine, the players include the "three desperate dames" Mabel Normand, who was Desmond's friend; Mary Miles Minter, who was sure she was in love with the older gay man; and Margaret Gibson, who tried to reinvent herself as "Patricia Palmer" after a prostitution incident. Another major figure in the cast is Darryl Zanuck, who is terrified of scandals during an era when self-appointed moralists and church ladies were coming out of the woodwork to denounce the motion picture industry. Then there's Will Hays, who was appointed to monitor said industry to prevent dreaded government censorship, and Gibson's circle of sleazy friends. not to mention Minter's possibly maniacal mother. Without fictionalizing, Mann tells the story in the style of a novel, which is occasionally awkward, but does build some suspense. While many might dismiss the book as a rehash of old material -- albeit a clever rehash -- Mann does uncover some interesting new information about some of these individuals, and has come up with a new theory as to the identity of Desmond's murderer which makes sense while at the same time involving some slightly far-fetched speculation. Tinseltown does do a good job of recreating the feel of the period, the desperation of many of the people there, and the tireless efforts to prevent an art-destroying censorship due to the interference of self-styled moralists. At least six previous books have been published about this unsolved mystery. Mann is the author of excellent biographies of Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and John Schlesinger, as well as of Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood. NOTE: This review is of an advance reading copy of the book.

Verdict: At the very least a good read with some compelling material. ***.
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