Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Babylon, the Star-Studded New Movie About Early Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie play silent-film actors disrupted by talkies. Was it really all this scandalous?

A woman in 1920s dress is lifted by a crowd amid a party with hats, streamers, and confetti.
Paramount Pictures

Babylon tracks the rise and fall of the men and women who transformed the American film industry into the mass-culture Goliath known as “Hollywood,” and the sleepy desert town of Los Angeles into a new kind of sprawling metropolis. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the film is shot in gloriously color-saturated CinemaScope, as cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer Florencia Martin deliver a visual smörgåsbord that painstakingly recreates the early world of moviemaking. Featuring a proverbial “cast of thousands” (an advertising slogan fittingly dreamed up for the movie Ben-Hur in 1926, about when Babylon opens), the film tracks characters played by stars Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, stalwarts Jean Smart and Tobey Maguire, relative newcomers Li Jun Li, Diego Calva, and Jovan Adepo, and enough extras to satisfy Cecil B. DeMille.

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Critics have already questioned the accuracy of Chazelle’s extravaganza, calling it a hot mess and bad history. But Babylon’s spectacular presentation is miles better than any other picture before it on the subject of Hollywood’s birth during the Roaring Twenties and the industry’s transition from the silents to the talkies after The Jazz Singer’s success in 1927. Many of the freshest insights from historical research about Los Angeles’ bohemian roots and the relative prevalence of women and racial minorities working in the industry made their way onto the screen.

Oddly, for a film historian, my biggest complaint about Babylon is not the places where it diverges from the historical record—plausible creative license must have its due. But the film feels at times too burdened by its commitment to showing us this new picture of early moviemaking, forgetting the necessity of imposing a strong narrative on the inevitably overwhelming messiness of the past. Babylon also raises important questions—like, what happened to all the people it depicts working behind the camera on the sets it lovingly creates? —that receive only the vaguest of answers. Still, anyone eager to check out the ethnically diverse, often gender-bending band of misfits who actually powered early Hollywood’s rise will revel in this film that drips with the period’s feel and look (even when nary a bobbed head is in sight).

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Was Early Hollywood Really a Continuous Party, Like in Babylon

Definitely—for some. Prohibition-era rules about alcohol in “wet” urban centers like Los Angeles quickly led most people to drink more, not less. Drinking suddenly took on the frisson of a dangerous and fashionable sport, even for “the ladies” (who had never attended saloons). Drug use was rampant at the movie studios, and elsewhere, because opium and its derivatives like heroin, morphine, and cocaine had all been widely available until the passage of the Harrison Act of 1914, and remained fairly easy to get due to lax enforcement in the following decade. Actor Wallace Reid, in one example, famously died trying to kick his addiction to morphine, which he used after sustaining an injury filming a stunt (another common occurrence). Drug use on sets was bad enough that the studio Famous Players/Paramount invited federal agents to root out its sources, with little success.

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At its best, Babylon conveys the free-floating, magic bubble where “the flickers” lived and worked while creating a new art form that had made them richer and more famous faster than anyone could have dreamed. No doubt this isolation at times promoted bohemian excess. At its worst, the movie suggests that everyone partied this hard all the time. If this had been true, Hollywood could not have become such a massively successful business so fast, catapulting to a position as the fourth-largest industry in the U.S.—behind only steel, automobiles, and railroads—by 1920, and Los Angeles would not have ballooned so quickly.

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Was Los Angeles Really as Freewheeling and Violent as Babylon Suggests?

The milieu of Babylon, particularly at the film’s end, is staggeringly violent, and the atmosphere is tense and volatile. That’s grounded in history. Los Angeles exploded with the sights and sounds of a modern Wild West as it shot to become California’s largest city between 1910 and 1920, as the flickers settled there. In the period of the film, Los Angelenos experienced more burglaries and a greater homicide rate than any other city. Guns were the instruments of choice for murderers, who were overwhelmingly young, white American men who—like the flickers themselves—had recently moved there from elsewhere in the country. So many rootless transplants in a city with few civic structures often spelled mayhem and corruption.

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Who Was Margot Robbie’s Character, Nellie LaRoy, Based On?

Margot Robbie’s character is based on Clara Bow. Director Chazelle was smart to fictionalize the names of his characters (except for producer Irving Thalberg). This saved the director quibbles from people like me and also reflects how often the best historical fiction uses multiple sources.

While promoting Babylon, Robbie has spoken about how her research on Bow’s life shaped her interpretation of Nellie LaRoy. “She had probably the most horrific childhood I can imagine,” Robbie says she learned. All true. The actress was raised in an impoverished Brooklyn tenement (changed to New Jersey in the film because of the borough’s now globally cool brand). Bow’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who once tried to kill her; her alcoholic father may have been sexually abusive. One of Robbie’s best scenes—in which she easily cries, over and over, all different ways, on the set—reflects Bow’s reputation as an “emotion machine.” As in the movie, Bow famously explained this talent by saying: “All I have to do is think of home.”

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In a small but important role, Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John, a cross between “Hollywood’s Mother Confessor,” journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, and the British romance novelist who invented the idea of the “It Girl,” Elinor Glyn. These were the only two people in Hollywood who tried, unsuccessfully, to mentor and protect Clara Bow.

The film rips much of Nellie LaRoy’s characterization almost straight from the history books about Bow’s life. Robbie plays her with the ferocious edge associated with one of the silent era’s most popular stars. The first It Girl and the Jazz Age’s definitive sex symbol, Bow was a symbol of hope for her millions of hardscrabble fans—a message underscored throughout Babylon. Like Bow, LaRoy is a scandalous dresser who makes no attempt—unlike so many other movie folk, including Pitt’s character—to disguise that she had recently “risen from the gutter,” as Bow’s real-life mentor Glyn said. LaRoy is bisexual, but all we know for sure was that Bow was an open sexual omnivore. So, who knows?

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In Babylon, LaRoy’s wild behavior leads her to self-destruction. In real life, exhaustion and the continued uproar over Bow’s sexually liberated lifestyle drove her from Hollywood in 1933 to protect her mental health. A rich woman, she settled down with Western actor Rex Bell on a Nevada ranch.

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What About Brad Pitt’s Character, Jack Conrad? Who Was He Supposed to Be? 

Jack Conrad’s story closely resembles actor John Gilbert’s life. Gilbert, who is now largely forgotten, was an enormously talented and popular leading man who married four different actresses and romanced many others (like Greta Garbo). Like the character on the screen, Gilbert failed to escape his frequent typecasting as a great lover in costume dramas. Also like Pitt’s character, Gilbert’s tony image as a star concealed his difficult beginnings.

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Gilbert’s demise was less spectacular than Conrad’s in Babylon, but Gilbert also failed to make the transition to sound, mostly because of studio politics. He died of complications stemming from his alcoholism in 1936, at age 38. Given Chazelle’s interpretation of the 1920s as one of doomed excess—a staple story about the decade—it follows that Robbie’s and Pitt’s on-screen characters mostly depart from their real-life counterparts in that they meet even more tragic ends.

Did So Many People Who Weren’t Straight White Men Really Make Movies Back Then?

Absolutely. White women directed, produced, and edited movies during the silent film era in numbers not equaled until recently—or at all. Actresses like Robbie—who is also an incredibly successful producer since co-founding LuckyChap Entertainment in 2014—today enjoy some of the freedom to create their own parts that women had before the old studio system took hold in the 1930s. Olivia Hamilton (also a producer for Babylon) used director Dorothy Arzner—who directed Bow’s successful transition to sound in The Wild Party (1929)—as a model for her character, Ruth Adler, who discovers Nellie LaRoy, playing the role with an aplomb associated with a female director who was one of many.

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Silent films both attracted and allowed actors from many different ethnic, racial, and language backgrounds to appear on screen. The period featured more notable actors of Asian descent than would be found until decades later, including Sessue Hayakawa, Philip Ahn, and one of the greatest cinematographers in Hollywood history, James Wong Howe, who appears in Babylon in a bit part played by Alexandre Chen. Li Jun Li plays a character based on Anna May Wong, a native Angeleno who appeared in over 60 movies, most famously alongside her friend Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express in 1932. Wong’s frustration with typecasting and the mounting discrimination she faced in Hollywood led to her spending long periods abroad in China and working in Europe, as the character does in the movie.

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Sound created a brief opening through which jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith climbed. But Jovan Adepo’s trumpet-playing Sidney Palmer in Babylon was likely modeled on less famous Los Angeles-based performers like Curtis Mosby and Les Hite, who would have felt pressure to use burned cork to darken their complexions to fit racist stereotypes, as the character in the film does.

Chazelle based Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, on several real people, including René Cardona, a Cuban immigrant who became a producer and (like several notable Latino people in the industry) later left to work in Mexican cinema during its Golden Age.

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And Was Early Hollywood Really So Accepting of LGBTQ People? 

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Yes again! The film has LaRoy indulge in a steamy romance with Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu, who’s depicted as a lesbian. No one in their milieu bats an eye when they first hook up in public—and really, how could they, given the bacchanalian debauchery on regular display among many of the theoretically straight people? Most of the first film actors emerged from an urban theatrical culture that was unusually accepting of—or at least tolerant toward—what we know as bisexual, gay, and queer people today. One of the silent era’s biggest stars, William Haines, lived with his same-sex partner, as did director Dorothy Arzner. The movie press hinted at queer behavior in ways that a growing urban subculture understood.

This level of openness became impossible to sustain by the 1930s, after the end of the fictional world of Babylon, when the industry agreed to self-censorship under the Production Code. Written by a Catholic priest, the code reflected the dominant mores of the moral majority—who persecuted homosexuality with increasing vigor—and banned both “sexual perversion” (queer behavior) and “miscegenation” (romantic relations between people of different races) on screen for decades.

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