Is there any value on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon?

I just recently finished reading Kenneth Anger’s infamous Hollywood Babylon, something of a sensational gossip rag in book form published in the mid 1960s. There is no denying it makes for an entertaining read; Anger’s writing style is thrilling, if not exploitive. He seems to channel a very strong catty, kitschy voice of a jaded Hollywood columnist. It is important to note though, that this book is highly fictionalized. Though some facts here and there are true, most of it is pure fantasy passed off as Hollywood scandals and secrets from a golden age. Anger also pushes the envelope of “decency” by including many images of dead celebrities, or at least, death scenes… something that is ethically questionable. Many have successfully debunked many of his claims (then again, that shouldn’t be too difficult, anyone who knows anything about Anger is probably aware that he is a little kooky… apparently his research method was “mental telepathy”). Still, I’d argue that some of the debunking is just as entertaining as Anger’s exposé itself, if not a little too serious.

This one in particular is a well researched and exposed analysis of Anger’s claims (the blogger also tackles the sequel Hollywood Babylon II);

http://www.forgetthetalkies.com/2008/08/why-hollywood-babylon-sucksand-what.html

It is especially impressive as some of what Anger says is so outrageous and so clearly fabricated, that you might as well be arguing with a Holocaust deniers… or someone who claims that yellow is actually blue. The strength of her argument comes in exposing the very basic facts that Anger muddles, he is constantly using the wrong dates, names, and omitting or twisting facts to suit his purpose… (or more likely, the fact muddling is just a demonstration of his carelessness). Facts don’t seem to be of interest to him. Also, the blogger’s great knowledge of silent film history actually makes her tearing apart of Anger’s claims quite educational. That’s as much a warning as it is a recommendation, learning can be a dangerous thing indeed.

I would be interested in knowing some of the sources for the facts she presents though, something like this jumps out at me (not that I doubt the validity);

Then Anger claims his lawyers were bad for portraying Rappe as ‘loose’ having slept around all around the world. Umm…she had no less then 6 abortions by age 16 and a botched abortion is likely what killed her. She wasn’t the virginal saint Hearst made her out to be.

How does one actually know how many abortions someone has had, especially during an era where there would be no medical record? It is anecdotal evidence, and even if Rappe herself is that one to claim this, Hala Pickford (blogger), also establishes her as a con-artist.

Also, some of the sly moralizing and insinuation of Virginia’s sexual promiscuity strike me as being in somewhat poor taste. Not even necessarily because she died at such a young age, it just strikes me as being nearly as exploitive in nature as Anger’s own writing style. It’s really nit-picking though, it doesn’t bother me all that much.

There is a brief discussion of Louise Brooks, which I find interesting, since she has always been a favourite of mine. Brooks is generally an interesting case of comparison, because in her later years, she also wrote a book about Hollywood. It’s not as outrageous as Anger’s, but I wonder how far she stretches the truth. I personally find her essays fascinating, notably her discussion of Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo… in Brooks’ case though; I don’t think it’s as much a twisting of facts or truths, but an attempt at a persuasive essay and an examination of changing cultural trends within the industry. The book in question is called Lulu in Hollywood, and I think it’s worth reading. From what I do know of Brooks though, she is somewhat questionable as a source for facts.

Hala Pickford only really debunks the silent stories and stars, but it does not take a rocket scientist to assume that the stories about talkie stars are just as exaggerated and falsified. I can’t say I found Anger’s book as offensive as she, and many others claim to, but perhaps that is because I think it has a strange kind of value.

I am actually unsure as to why I feel this way, because Hollywood Babylon has perpetuated some very nasty rumours about some good and talented people over the years. Maybe that’s why I find it fascinating. Is there any value in the book? It is essentially a book of veiled illusions, just nasty ones, rather than the sweet sugar and spice ones that we tend to associate with “yesteryears”. Though my interpretation is probably detached from Anger’s intention (I can only speculate as to why he’d want to write and publish this book), I think its cult status speaks volumes for the values of our society. Even assuming most people approach it as fictional, why the appeal? Why do we still read it? Why do we relish in the debauchery and exploitation that he presents?

Anger’s approach actually reminds me, in part, to Haneke’s filmmaking. It may seem like a stretch, but for anyone who has seen or read about Haneke’s work, it is obvious that he is constantly attempting to deconstruct the lies and manipulation of the various artistic mediums.

Haneke says,

Manipulation is constant in the media. Even the images of ‘reality’ on television are manipulated. The difference in this film is that the manipulation is there to make you aware that you are being manipulated, that you can be manipulated.

Though Haneke’s work can be somewhat forceful, his ideas are sound. I think we underestimate the power of medium, and while we may be wary of what we read on the Internet or on Fox News, we are often far too accepting of most of what is said. Somehow, if it has been published in a book it is more respectable than if it was simply published in a magazine. Or a documentary is always to be preferred intellectually over a work of fiction. These ideas are inherently flawed, and it is essential that we be critical of the world around us.

Then again, we must never forget the value of kitsch. What a miserable world we would live in without the seedy and tasteless. I don’t personally take much joy in such outlets as TMZ or Perez Hilton, though I occasionally find them perversely entertaining. To ignore to dismiss exploitation and immoral arts would be to deny ourselves both pleasure and insight.

Some questions:

What do you think of Hollywood Babylon?

How do you feel about Anger’s use of “death” images?

What do you think of Kenneth Anger, as both a writer and filmmaker?

8 responses to “Is there any value on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon?

  1. The original Hollywood Babylon was written when Anger was living in France in the late 50s and had no money. It came into being for no other reason than to make some quick cash (the same is equally true of the sequel). “Exploitation” is the word (and the 1990s TV series was even worse, cos it didn’t even have the virtue of being entertaining, just crap). That said, I’m unaware of any lawsuits related to the book, apart from those launched against pirate editions of the book and an unauthorised film adaptation made around 1970; as some of the people in the book would’ve still been alive when it was published, I’m sure they could’ve fired off defamation suits had they wanted.

    As for Anger himself, he’s one of my favourite artists and, like a number of my favourite artists, a fairly ghastly human being. His own life story is chock full of deceptions (right down to his very name and date of birth), and though I’ve never investigated the book in detail I wouldn’t be too surprised if it were the same. That said, he actually did have a relative who worked behind the scenes at the studios in the 1930s and 1940s, and so maybe she told him some of those stories originally, and maybe there was some truth in at least some of them. And in the end I’m not sure HB is really on a lower moral level than the tabloid magazines and scandal sheets of that era; maybe it just seems worse because a book seems more authoritative than a magazine or something. But at any rate I don’t think Anger invented the sort of tabloid gossip industry we have now, it was thriving long before he was even born…

  2. I’m not claiming that Anger invented it, in fact, he references numerous times two of the most notorious gossip columnists of the classical era (the only one that comes to mind off the top of my head is Hedda Hopper). There is another “chapter” devoted also to a gossip rag that really uses the same kind of debased language and graphic imagery as he does, that was eventually dissolved BECAUSE of the numerous defamation suits filed against it.

    The fact that it’s a book, as I briefly reference and you pick up on, gives it an all together new and different quality. Despite it’s beginnings as a means of grabbing cash (which is not surprising)it has taken on a very strong, if not small, cult following over the years. Many of the strange rumours about classic Hollywood either emerged or were popularized by the book, and it has had a rather wide impact in that sense.

    Also, some of the facts are true, just very very few of them. Anger was also a child actor, working in films like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).

  3. It’s been several years since I read the book, but I own a copy and have read the blog article that debunks a number of his claims. My understanding was always that a lot of the research (what research there was) was based on gossip columns from the periods covered, which already renders the claims suspect.

    Honestly, Anger’s a filmmaker I’ve never explored in much depth yet find very interesting. He segues into a lot of the occult, queer, and underground culture I like exploring.

  4. Well hello! I wrote that article many moons ago, and it could be updated and a little more concise, though the facts are solid. Most of what I got either came from reliable websites (such as Court TV which is now Tru TV) or from reliable books (Clara Bow biography, etc).

    Virginia was a cross between the two and it was something I’ve eternally been waiting to update. There are 2 Fatty Arbuckle biographies out there, both from 20 some years ago. Both are so/so in the quality department. Both assert the ‘Virginia=whore’ theme. That came from Roscoe’s lawyers I do believe and your right, you can’t prove things like that (though she did have a hell of a reputation according to others, but again can’t prove with medical records or the like.) Its like when Nita Naldi said Natacha Rambova had 3 abortions, you can’t prove it…but the source isn’t too bad either. Or like when Valentino’s yacht captain said Rudy and Nita had a loud affair…possible, but impossible to prove in some scientific sort of way. One just has to do the best they can sometimes.

    Back to Virginia, a woman (who now loathes my guts thanks to a certain vengeful Valentino hoarder) named Joan Meyers researched the Fatty Arbuckle case in depth and found a TON of new information, stuff that has never been released (example: there were 2 jurors who wanted to find him guilty, and one was a man. The usual story goes it was just a woman). Joan intended on putting it in book form 2 or so years ago but I guess that fell through and a year or so ago it was to become a website. So far its still unpublished. And THAT was what I was waiting for. Until then either someone new will have to retrace her steps (which I believe took many years), or will have to stick with the generally accepted ‘new truth’ that Fatty was innocent and Virginia a whore.

    I still think he was innocent, and she was probably still well…loose. But to what degree I am not sure.

    As for Hollywood Babylon it is the worst piece of crap ever and quite easy to debunk. Sure I can’t prove Virginia had abortions, but I (or anyone else) can easily prove Rudy didn’t have 2 lesbian wives, the coke bottle never happened, and Marie Prevost did not have a bronx honk (and was not, even by Anger’s own photo, eaten by her dog.) Other things such as the opening insinuating Lillian and Dorothy Gish were incestuous lesbians well…that says it all for the factuality of this book.

  5. Sorry for the late response, I’ve been a bit busy with school… I really appreciate all the research you’ve done, and your follow-up to my own concerns. As I said, it was nit-picking… I highly doubt her reputation wasn’t warranted. It’s rare that those things are. Even for something so absolutely outrageous,which Anger’s piece certainly is, I think having someone like you take it apart is very valuable as both a learning tool and a means of analyzing the media that surrounds us. Kudos! I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on your site, I really love your writing.

  6. I own both books, finding them at a library made me search and become intrigue by silent stars and their films. It is trashy and some of the pictures are shocking, but I found it enterteining if you take it for what it is.
    I really enjoy it and read it from time to time, as for the lady defending fatty, I would not put my hand in the fire for anyone and as we see in present day it is very easy to use and discard a “loose” woman, especially when the perpetrator is in a position of power, I’m just saying that everything is not black and white, and it is possible that he was guilty. Just because her reputation was horrible, or maybe she was even a prostitute does not make her immune to abuse or rape.

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