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Silent Scandals

To some viewers, silent movies feel like ancient relics: Herky-jerky flickers starring Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino or Lillian Gish. Hammy actors pantomiming over-the-top emotions. Criminally inept Keystone Kops in slapstick comedy shorts. Yet in the 1920s, five scandals sent shockwaves through Hollywood, and later resulted in the Production Code of rules created to censor screen content.

Scandal #1: Popular actress Olive Thomas married Jack Pickford, brother of global superstar Mary Pickford. Olive and Jack were notorious for partying like it was their job, fighting like feral cats, and burning their twentysomething candles at both ends. On September 5, 1920, they returned to a Paris hotel at 3AM after painting the town red. Jack went to bed. Olive stepped into the darkened bathroom to drink what she thought was a sleeping potion. Suddenly, Olive cried out in pain: She had swallowed Jack’s mercury-based, topical syphilis medicine. Olive died five days later. Was it suicide? Murder? A terrible accident? One thing’s for sure: Newspapers made a killing on the tragedy.

Scandal #2: A year later, hugely popular comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle threw a three-day party in a San Francisco hotel suite. When it ended, actress Virginia Rappe was dead – and Roscoe was charged with manslaughter. Having cashed in on the Olive Thomas story, the Hearst media empire raced to exploit Roscoe’s legal woes. Three trials and two hung juries later, Roscoe was found not guilty by a jury that rendered its verdict in just five minutes, and issued a statement decrying the “great injustice...done him.” It was too little, too late. Roscoe’s career was in ruins.

Scandal #3: On February 1, 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was fatally shot in his home. Among the suspects: Mary Miles Minter, a teen star obsessed with Taylor; Mary’s mother, who reportedly either wanted Taylor for herself or to punish him for his alleged affair with Mary; drug dealers who resented Taylor’s efforts to help actress Mabel Normand kick her drug habit...the list goes on and on. A century after Taylor’s murder, this whodunit is still unsolved. But at the time, the slaying stoked a growing chorus of reformers and church groups demanding that Tinseltown clean up its act or risk national boycotts of its films.

Scandal #4: In 1923, millions of fans were stunned by the death of handsome leading man Wallace Reid, nicknamed “The Perfect Lover.” A clean-cut, All-American heartthrob, Reid had secretly battled a morphine addiction that began after sustaining an injury while shooting a movie. Reid met his end in a sanitarium, the victim of complications from his drug use. He was 31 years old.

Scandal #5: Show biz was rocked once more in 1924 by the demise of producer Thomas Ince during a birthday bash on a yacht owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. (You could call Hearst’s involvement karmic payback for the fortune he scored dishing celebrity dirt.) Depending on who you asked, Ince died from acute indigestion, a heart attack, or a bullet to the head. His body was quickly cremated, and like the Thomas, Arbuckle and Taylor cases, Ince’s death remains shrouded in mystery.

In the next edition of Classic Hollywood, I’ll reveal how these five scandals helped turn the U.S. Postmaster General into a censorship czar – and unleashed the naughty tsunami known as the Pre-Code Hollywood era.

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