Kenneth Anger explores Hollywood's darkest recesses in his landmark tell-all.
Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon is the grandaddy of all Tinseltown exposés. It was published in 1965, banned ten days later, and shelved until 1975. It's exactly as advertised, outing everybody that was anybody for everything. Entire chunks are devoted to Charlie Chaplain, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, Fatty Arbuckle and other cinematic luminaries. Some of its claims have been proved false—for instance the assertion that Lupe Velez died with her head in a toilet, and that Clara Bow screwed the USC football team (we doubt anyone really believed that one, even back then). But other tales are basically true, including accounts of various legal run-ins and feuds.
Anger's writing is uneven, but at its most effective mirrors the type of pure tabloid style that influenced the likes of James Ellroy and others. Besides the salacious gossip the book has a ton of rare celeb photos, and those are of real worth. We've uploaded a bunch below. They came from a digital edition because our little paperback was too fragile to get on a scanner. By the way, don't feel as if we're working overtime on our website this Christmas morning—we uploaded everything in advance and are actually nowhere near a computer today. We're glad you took a minute to drop by. Copious vintage Hollywood below.
And you think America is polarized today.
The iconic polar bear rug. What can you say about them? Well, it's not a good look nowadays, but back then people thought these sorts of decorations were quite chic. When did that end? Possibly shortly after the three-hundredth Playboy model posed on one, or when many people began to see trophy hunting as the obsession of vain and unsavory millionaires. One of those two. Personally, we blame Hefner. In the shot above Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay take polar bear style to its pinnacle. Just look at that room. Besides the bear they have a copper ceiling, satin curtains, and a white shag rug. It's a pimp's wet dream and all of it must have cost a fortune. We like to imagine what the look on Jayne's face would have been if anyone walked in with a brimming glass of red wine. We bet she'd have turned whiter than the bear.
We have more photos in the same vein below. If you need help identifying the stars, their names are in our keywords in order of appearance. Looking at the entire collection, we tend to wonder if there were three or four bears that ended up in all the photos. You know, like bears owned by certain photography studios or prop departments. Just saying, a couple of them look suspiciously similar. But on the other hand, how different from each other do bears really look? You'll notice that the poor creatures were generally posed to look fierce. But by contrast Inger Stevens' bear, just below, strikes us as a bit reflective and melancholy, which is understandable. Elizabeth Montgomery, meanwhile, gets extra points for wearing her bear. We have twenty-plus images below, including another shot of Mansfield, sans Hargitay.
No I won't turn to the left. This is my good side.
Above you see the legendary Jean Harlow in an awesome MGM promo shot made for the pre-code gangster film The Beast of the City, a movie often (but mistakenly) called a film noir. Harlow plays a gun moll who gets involved in an affair with a cop. The movie came out in 1932, which dates the photo as from that year or the end of the previous year.
Let me have one last kiss before you go out there, so I can enjoy your face the way it was.
W.R. Burnett followed up his 1929 gangster novel Little Caesar with 1930’s Iron Man, the story of a boxer named Kid Mason who is laid low not by his ring opponents but by the machinations of unsavory hangers on and a femme fatale—who’s unfortuntately also his wife. We showed you the hardback dust jacket to this a while back. This paperback from Avon goes full pulp with the teaser, promising a “toboggan-slide of passion, a headlong express that rips through the heavens and plunges to the bottom of hell.” That sounds fun, and indeed it was well reviewed, and was adapted into a film in 1931 with Lew Ayres as Mason and Jean Harlow as his wife. The cover art is uncredited.
Confidential goes full throttle on the high seas.
On this Confidential from February 1965 the publishers give their cut-and-paste artists a month off and grace the cover with a simple portrait of Brigitte Bardot and her famed pout. Inside the editors air out her love life in a way that today would be called slut shaming—pretty much stock-in-trade for Confidential. The suggestion is she won’t come to the U.S. to act because she’s busy Morockin’ around the clock with Moroccan-born producer Bob Zaguri. Elsewhere in the issue you get Romy Schneider, Jean Harlow, Alain Delon, Peter O’Toole, love behind the Iron Curtain, and an outraged report on pharmaceutical companies marking up medicines 200%, 500%, even 7,000%. Yes, medicines cost too much in the U.S. even back then. But don’t take our word for it. Take Confidential’s—their story ends by declaring that drug companies have Americans by the balls and the only way to avoid the drug price racket is to not get sick.
But moving on, as we mentioned last week, we wanted to look at tabloid attitudes toward gay culture, and this issue has two articles along those lines. The first involves gay cruises off the Florida coast, an activity Confidential informs readers was devised as a way to avoid Dade County vice cops. Once the boats were in international waters therewas no law, local or federal, which could be applied against shipboard activities. We’ll come back to that in a sec. The other story involves what Confidential describes as the middlesex—i.e. people who lack strong masculine or feminine characteristics. The story is concerned with this only as a social issue and makes no mention of physically intersex persons who genetically are neither male nor female.
For Confidential the issue is simple—men are no longer macho enough and women are no longer (submissively) alluring enough. Of course, gay men are the ultimate villains here, and to make the topic emotional for readers Confidential paints a picture of an America devoid of Jayne Mansfields and Lana Turners. The article’s author Harold Cimoli sums it up this way: “As female busts and hips grow ever narrower even Playboy may have trouble keeping its broad-watchers supplied with bosomy playmates.” And there’s also this tidbit: “Designers of both types of clothing are poaching unforgivably on the styles of each other. The main hope must be the evolution of an entirely new style of ensemble for these new phenomena and a new branch of the industry to supply it.” Were they really this comically worried about visual identification issues? Of course they were—what could be more disturbing to guardians of a prevailing social structure than people managing to wriggle out of their pre-assigned boxes?
The story on gay cruises is a bit more typical of mid-century tabloids—it’s just a takedown piece. Gay men are blithely described as “lavender lads,” “minces,” and other words we wouldn’t dare dirty our website with. The effusiveness of the magazine’s hateful and sneerful terminology suggestsjust how certain Confidential editors were that homosexuality was completely beyond the pale. And yet, nearly every issue harped on the subject, either directly or indirectly. For instance, here we get full reportage on a maritime cabaret show featuring drag queens, followed by detailed descriptions of music, dancing, and gambling. You’d almost think the writer Gaye Bird—nice, right?—was actually there.
The cruise is eventually reported to the boat rental agency in Miami, whose owner vows that he will never again allow his vessels to be used for such debauchery. The response from the organizer of the cruises was this: “There are approximately one-hundred thousand boats or ships of some sort or another. I think we’ll be able to find some way to balance supply and demand.” Ouch—zinged right in the Econ 101s. Doubtless Confidential expected the congressional switchboard to light up over this outrageous appropriation of boats meant for exclusively heterosexual usage, but whether it happened we can’t say—the story ends there. And Confidential readers were left to endure thirty days of disquiet until the next gay bashing issue came out. We won't wait quite that long—we'll explore this subject in another tabloid soon. More scans below.
You’re a spoiled boy, Tommy. You want things and you’re not content until you get them.
One thing about writing Pulp Intl. is it gives us an excuse to fill in blanks in our movie résumé. The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, and Joan Blondell, was one such blank—until last night. A rags-to-riches-to-ruin story, it was one of the earliest gangster flicks, one that was a big hit but which had suffered the scissors of Hays Code censors. It’s always interesting to note the scenes cut from a post-Code movie, because those say the most about attitudes of the times. For example, the scene in which Cagney is measured for a suit by a gay tailor differs in no discernable way from such scenes in today’s movies. There’s macho discomfort by the lead and effeminate fussing by the tailor that leads to the inevitable inseam measuring, all played for cheap humor. We don’t condemn or endorse this sort of thing—it’s just fascinating to see how little has changed in eighty some years. Two other scenes were cut due to sexual suggestiveness, and those are also quite interesting to watch.
But what’s most important of course is James Cagney, and he is indeed amazing as Tom Powers, a kid whose ambition propels him toward the big cash and high risk of the Chicago bootlegging underworld. Not only was The Public Enemy a career-solidifying role for Cagney; it brought Jean Harlow to the notice of a much wider audience than she had reached up to that point. Her true breakout would come months later in The Platinum Blonde, but to be blunt, it’s lucky for her she had Howard Hughes molding her career, because her performance in The Public Enemy could have killed her chances to land a starring role. To a certain extent, she’s supposed to be damaged goods, someone who isn’t ever particularly fazed or impressed or emotive, but the scenes she should ignite—like the one in which she tells Cagney he’s just a spoiled boy—feel like rehearsals for later, better work. Contemporary reviewers agreed, panning her performance, but Harlow doesn’t damage the film. She isn’t really given much to work with, so watch this for Cagney, who scorches. The Public Enemy premiered in the U.S. today in 1931.
The Lowdown proves that it deserves its name.
We’re jumping right into our treasure trove of newly arrived tabloids today with a glance at this issue of The Lowdown published in March 1965. On the cover you see Jean Harlow, Carroll Baker, and Ed Sullivan. We talked about Baker recently and there she is in that crazy gown again (below)—or is she? No, on close examination this is yet another version of the dress. Clearly, the photo was shot on a different night than all the others because her hair and jewelry are different. But the actual dress also looks slightly different from both the Oleg Cassini and Pierre Balmain iterations. A reference in the story clears things up at least a little: “Transparency gowns are another of her big passions and she often wears them.” There you have it. Half naked was a fairly standard look for Carroll Baker. They just don’t make stars like they used to.
You might be curious what the article is about. On the cover the header reads: “The Night Carroll Baker Played a Call Girl,” but on the inside, it says: “The Night Carroll Baker Played a Harlot!” The story goes that she wanted to research her role as a prostitute in the movie Sylvia, so sheventured down to Tijuana, Mexico, toured a few brothels, and somehow disappeared alone for two hours: “We don’t know what happened in the house in Mexico or what sights she could have barged in on, but that is bouncy Miss Baker’s bit.” Lost in a Mexican whorehouse. The mind reels. Do we buy it? Not for a minute.
The other story of note asks: “How Hot Was Jean Harlow’s Sex Life?” Well, let's take an up close look and find out. In 1932 when Harlow was 21 years old she married Paul Bern, a director and screenwriter. Bern apparently had never done well in the sex department due entirely to his own lack of passion, and his shyness was well known. To him Harlow supposedly represented a chance at true sexual fulfillment. If the most desired woman in Hollywood couldn’t rouse his slumbering libido, nobody could. According to The Lowdown, Bern failed on the wedding night. Here’s what the text says:
In the wee hours of the morning, Jean’s agent [Arthur] Landau received a frantic call from her asking that he come and get her immediately. When [they] got to Landau’s home, according to the agent, Jean stripped off her filmy wedding nightgown to reveal her beautiful body a mass of welts and bruises. “Her back and buttocks were covered with bruises. Therewas one especially bad bruise directly over her kidneys.” The implication here is because Harlow died several years later of kidney failure that she incurred the fatal damage during that wedding night beating. It gets weirder—brace yourselves. Landau goes to Paul Bern’s house, geared for a confrontation:
The bridegroom of some eleven hours was [snip] sprawled nude and drunk on the floor of his den. Silently hating the man at his feet, Landau wanted to kick the slight, pasty body of Bern. Instead he rolled the unconscious man to his back to discover what had never been suspected by anybody in the industry. Paul Bern had the sack and penis of an infant boy. The story goes on to explain that the entire mess was hushed up for the sake of Harlow’s career. Two months later Bern committed suicide via a bullet through the brain. One more excerpt:
Paul had prepared himself for death by removing all his clothing and stood before the dressing room mirror. [snip] And, staring at his tormented body, he pulled the trigger. The nudity added a sexual element to his suicide that encouraged a spectrum of interpretations of his farewell note:
“Dearest dear, unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done to you and to wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you. Paul.
You understand that last night was only a comedy.”
What was the comedy? Harlow said nothing to the press. But according to Arthur Landau, she told him Paul Bern had spent $200 on a device to increase his manhood. Wearing the contraption he had entered their bedroom intent on finally consummating their marriage. This hope was doomed from the start and the whole plan turned into such a tragic farce that both he and Jean finally gave way to hysterical laughter. That’s probably one of the sadder stories you’ll ever hear. Is it true? It appeared in a biography about Harlow, but we can never know. We can, however, at least answer the question posed by The Lowdown’s story header. No—Jean Harlow’s sex life was not hot at all.
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