August 23, 1926: The Old Hollywood Comes of Age

November 19, 2010

Continuing our discussion of Episode 3 of TCM’s “Moguls and Movie Stars”, the 1920s solidified Hollywood as a dazzling new art form that literally took America by storm.

Stars of the golden age of silent cinema blazed their way into American hearts, and scandals ignited the first tabloids. On the one hand, there were the stars with whom America fell in love. Charlie Chaplin and his comedy, Mary Pickford and her personality, Douglas Fairbanks and his swashbucklers, Greta Garbo (pictured at left) and her mystique, Lon Chaney and his myriad disguises, and Clara Bow with her inimitable effervescence all became household names and idols literally overnight.

At the same time, the first major Hollywood scandals gave birth to a new tabloid journalism that gripped a fascinated public.

Fatty Arbuckle, one of the great silent film comedy stars, was accused of murder and went through 3 murder trails before being exonerated with a written apology from the jurors. Unfortunately, Arbuckle’s reputation and self-image had been savaged beyond repair. His career never recovered and neither did he. He became an alcoholic and died. Arbuckle’s pyrrhic victory reminded me of former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan who was indicted for fraud in 1987 and then acquitted. When reporters asked him how he felt, he responded: “Which office do I go to go to so I can get my reputation back?” It also reminded of Winston Churchill’s great quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.”

Greta Garbo, the reigning queen of romantic mystery, disappeared from sight for almost a year, amidst rampant rumors that she had been savagely beaten by her husband, silent film star John Gilbert.

Film director William Desmond Taylor was shot to death in 1922, and a veritable Agatha Christie list of film stars, including Mabel Normand, were questioned and even suspected of the murder, which went unsolved until a deathbed confession by an actress named Margaret Gibson in 1964.

Amidst all these swirling dramas, one star literally towered over all others: Rudolph Valentino. As men admired him and women idolized him, Valentino became the by far the biggest star of the silent film era, mesmerizing audiences in films such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik. When Valentino suddenly died at the age of 31 on august 23, 1926, America mourned the loss of its favorite star with such a huge national outpouring of grief that a memorial service in New York drew a crowd of over 100,000 people and pushed every other story of the day off the front pages of every newspaper in America.

If  the February 3, 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper was “the day music died”, then Valentino’s death was the day that America recognized that Hollywood had become an inseparable aspect of modern culture.

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