Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act


The steady murmur of opposition that had kept up since the turn of the century grew into a shout after World War I. The principal reason was not any worsening of the movies themselves but a succession of scandals and innuendoes involving the off-screen behavior of the people who made them. The industry had moved to Hollywood during the teens; its success brought tens of thousands of hopefuls to the Los Angeles area. There weren’t enough jobs to go around, of course, and most of the newcomers ended up as drifters or worse. But still they referred to themselves as actors or extras; as a result, newspapers continually carried reports of “movie stars” caught in raids on brothels or marijuana parties.


Not all the scandals were bogus, though. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, an enormously successful—and enormous—comic actor, rented a San Francisco hotel suite over Labor Day, 1921, and filled it with women and bootleg whisky. It was a boisterous affair, until one of the revelers, a little-known actress, was found in a bedroom, in torn clothing and severe pain. She died four days later of peritonitis; witnesses placed Arbuckle with her behind locked doors, and he was tried for manslaughter. After two mistrials he was acquitted, but the damage had been done: the public believed the comedian had crushed the maiden to death. Paramount withdrew his films from distribution, and his career was ruined.

While Arbuckle’s first trial was in progress, another scandal hit the headlines—the director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered. The mystery of his death has never been solved, but during the investigation it was revealed that Taylor had had affairs with the popular actresses Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minier, that he had connections with the drug trade, and that on coming to Hollywood he had changed his name and adopted a whole new identity. These were preceded and followed by a string of similar incidents: Wallace Reid announced that he was a drug addict and was confined to a sanitarium; Olive Thomas was found poisoned in a Paris hotel room; and even Mary Pickford—“America’s Sweetheart”—was involved in a questionable divorce. Hollywood seemed to be a hotbed of dissolution; the nation couldn’t help thinking, as a book called The Sins of Hollywood put it, that “there is something about the pictures which seems to make men and women less human, more animal-like.”


The censorship forces girded their loins. Their arguments were summed up in a strange tract put out by one of their leaders, the Reverend William Sheaf e Chase, under the snappy title of Catechism on Motion Pictures in Inter-State Commerce: Shall This Inter-State Business, Dangerous to Morals and Politics, Be Nationally Controlled, a Trust Prevented and an Attack Upon Free Government Be Thwarted? Like a catechism, it was in the form of questions: “Shall no effective control be exercised over these Jews to prevent their showing such pictures as will bring them the greatest financial returns, irrespective of the moral injury they inflict upon the public?” and answers: “It is a crime too hideous for consideration to seize the idle, playful moments of a child in his most impressionable age and show him scenes of saf ecracking, drunken debauchery, sensuous love-making, abduction, and arson.” Between 1920 and 1922, resolutions condemning sinfulness in films were passed by the Southern Baptist Conference, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Christian Endeavor organizations. In 1921 alone, nearly one hundred censorship bills were introduced in the legislatures of thirty-seven states.


Still more alarming to the studios was the looming specter of federal censorship—it would open the door for stricter measures, and for regulation of the industry’s near-monopolistic marketing and distribution practices. In 1920 and 1921, several congressmen proposed investigation or regulation of movies. One of them, South Dakota senator Henry L. Myers, referred on the Senate floor to Arbuckle, Taylor, and Rudolph Valentine and concluded, “At Hollywood, California, is a colony of these people, where debauchery, riotous living, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation, free love seem to be conspicuous.”