Karina Longworth Fact-Checks Hollywood Babylon

On Film / The Daily — Jul 10, 2018
The Babylonian set for D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916)

Did D. W. Griffith have a thing for young, waif-like girls? And was the relationship between two of his biggest stars, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, more than sisterly? These are among the questions Karina Longworth tackles in the first episode of Fake News: Fact Checking Hollywood Babylon. This two-part series marks the return of her outstanding podcast, You Must Remember This, after an eight-month hiatus. For over four years now, Longworth has been telling captivating stories from “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” giving fresh narrative drive to events you thought you knew all about, such as the Hollywood blacklist, or tracking the parallel lives and divergent fates of Jane Fonda and Breathless star Jean Seberg.

Now Longworth turns to Hollywood Babylon, that “urtext of salacious movieland gossip.” The book, first published in France in 1959 but not widely available in the U.S. until 1975, is a collection of tall tales that experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger (Fireworks, Scorpio Rising) had heard growing up in Tinseltown and then shaped into essays for French magazines. Longworth tells Vulture’s Nicholas Quah that what she’s seeking to address in the current two-part season are “the additions, implications, and slants Anger imposes on real events which twist them into fiction that in many cases is unfair to the person or persons the stories concern—and which then became part of their canonical legend.”

In the second episode, she takes on Anger’s version of one of the first major Hollywood scandals, the death of Olive Thomas, star of The Flapper (1920) and wife of Jack Pickford, Mary’s younger brother. Thomas was only twenty-five when, one night in Paris, she consumed a poisonous liquid—presumably by accident.

New episodes will appear each Monday over the next several weeks, and anyone new to You Must Remember This who finds Longworth’s storytelling irresistibly addictive may want to dip into the podcast’s archives. My personal recommendation would be to start with Charles Manson’s Hollywood, a riveting series that not only conjures the chaos and overall sense of impending doom in the late 1960s but also traces an array of startling connections between seemingly disparate cultural figures of the era.

In the meantime, we now know why that hiatus was so long. Longworth, a former film editor for the LA Weekly and the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep, has been researching and writing a new book. Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood will be out in November.

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