10 Scandalous Stars of the Silent Screen
Recently, I found one of my co-workers glued to the Britney-cam live feed on CNN.com. During the ensuing conversation on the ridiculous nature of stars "nowadays," I began to recall the ridiculous (and tragic) behavior of stars "back in the day" as well. Here are 10 celebrities and their scandals you may or may not be familiar with.
1. Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand (1895 - 1930) was one of the most popular comediennes of the silent era. After embarking on a relationship with legendary director Mack Sennett, Normand worked side-by-side with other notable (and scandalous) stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. In 1918, after her relationship with Sennett dissolved, Normand descended into alcoholism and narcotics abuse. Eventually pulling her life back together, Normand became the last person to see director William Desmond Taylor alive (see below), after Taylor was shot and killed only moments after Normand left his Hollywood home. The two had been friends and exchanged literature (yes, literally), and although she was never considered a serious suspect, newspaper rumors ran wild about her drug use and connections with Arbuckle. In 1924 she was involved in another scandal when her chauffeur shot her lover with Normand's own pistol. Never far from the headlines, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 35.
2. Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow (1911-1937), namesake for Nicole Ritchie's baby, seems in many ways to be early cinema's Anna Nicole Smith. Rising to fame at the end of the silent era as a sex symbol of the 1930s, the "Blonde Bombshell" was plagued with scandal all of her short life. Her father was a connected mobster, nude photos were taken of her at the age of 17, and she had a reported abortion of a child fathered by her one-time fiancee William Powell. However, Harlow's most recognized scandal involved her second husband Paul Bern, an intellectual luminary of Hollywood over 22 years her senior. On September 5, 1932 just months after their wedding, Bern was found shot in the head, sprawled in front of a bedroom mirror and drenched in Jean's perfume. A note accompanied his body, which was ruled a suicide, that confirmed rumors Bern suffered from an impotence which he found too embarrassing to live with. Harlow's own death a few years later was again tabloid fodder. Though the official cause of death was from kidney disease that became more aggressive after a string of illnesses, at the time many (untrue) myths suggested Harlow's kidneys were damaged because of beatings from her husband Paul, or that the bleach from her hair had seeped into her brain and killed her.
3. William Desmond Taylor
Director William Desmond Taylor's (1872-1922) death became one of the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Hollywood. Shot in the back in 1922, rumors circulated that the suspects might include Mack Sennett, Rudolph Valentino, and Mabel Normand among other Hollywood notables. Taylor was himself an eccentric figure, abandoning his first wife and children in one of his "mental lapses" thought to be aphasia. During the media frenzy over his murder, many of his friends claimed Taylor had made "delusional" statements, and some feared he might be insane. The Irish-born director of over 50 films became another unfortunate casualty of the Silent Era, which had so many scandals that many movie studios began requiring their actors and directors sign "morality clauses" to their contracts.
4. Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn (1909-1959) set the gold standard for celebrity debauchery. A fan of drinking, fighting and fooling around, he was thrice tried on statutory rape charges and was accused of being a Nazi spy (according to biographer Charles Higham, although subsequent biographies have denounced this particular claim). One of Flynn's most infamous scandals involved his (recently deceased) friend John Barrymore. Flynn's posse stole Barrymore's body from the morgue and propped it up, Weekend at Bernie's style, inside Flynn's home so Flynn could be "greeted" by his old friend. The police didn't find the charade so funny, and neither did the newspapers or public. Flynn's mischief did not end with his death - he is said to be buried with six bottles of whiskey as a parting gift from friends.
5. Barbara La Marr
Barbara La Marr's (1896 - 1926) quote, "life is too short to waste on sleep" (she reportedly only slept two hours a night), seems like it could have been uttered by any number of current Hollywood starlets. Like her later counterparts, La Marr's film career flourished along with her love for the nightlife. However, an addiction to heroin soon took its toll on her as she juggled work schedules and a hyperactive social life. "The Girl Too Beautiful To Live," as the newspapers called her, died suddenly of tuberculosis at the age of 29.
6. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
One of the most notorious scandals of the silent era involved Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887-1933), who was accused of the assault and murder of Virginia Rappe at a party in 1921. Although later acquitted, the incident ruined Arbuckle's career and cast a dark shadow on his Hollywood coevals. Rappe, for her part, was known for her wild behavior and promiscuity, and it is believed that complications from an abortion likely caused her demise. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Arbuckle was accused of misdeed by Maude Delmont (who did not witness any of the alleged crime, despite her reports), known to be involved in extortion, fraud and racketeering. Despite a written apology from the courts for their mismanagement of the case, Arbuckle's career was over. Falling into alcoholism, the formerly beloved actor died at age 46.
7. Charlie Chaplin
A close friend of Fatty Arbuckle's (he borrowed Arbuckle's pants to create his most famous character, "The Tramp"), Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) always lived on the edge of scandal. Eventually forced to leave the country because of alleged Communist sympathies and troubles with the IRS, most of Chaplin's infamy revolved around his relationships with younger girls, many of whom he mentored and went on to marry or embark on relationships with. One biographer even claims Nabokov's "Lolita" was inspired by Chaplin. Additionally, Chaplin was involved with one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries, the death of producer Thomas Ince (the "Father of the Western") aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst in 1924, possibly caused by an argument Chaplin was having with Ince over the actress Marion Davies ...
8. Thelma Todd
Thelma Todd (1905-1935) rose to fame as a comedic actress alongside the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardey, and Buster Keaton. Unfortunately, the "Ice Cream Blonde" died from carbon monoxide poisoning in her car at the age of 30, although the supposed "suicide" was not so clear-cut. With blood at the scene, a high blood-alcohol content, and clean shoes (while the area outside the car was muddy), many believed it to be murder. While the theory was largely ignored by the LAPD, suspects ranged from Todd's highly possessive boyfriend, director Roland West (who was thought to have locked Todd in the garage to keep her from going to a party) to the gangster "Lucky" Luciano, who wanted to involve Todd's club in illegal gambling against her wishes. Roland West was said to have later confessed the murder to a friend, but his only punishment was a closing of ranks by Hollywood's elite so he never worked in motion pictures again.
9-10. Jack Pickford & Olive Thomas
Jack Pickford (1896 - 1933) came from a famous family of silent stars that included his sisters, Mary and Lottie. He worked in bit roles throughout the era, but was most well known for his tabloid romances (and three marriages, to be exact). The first one resulted in the death of his spouse Olive Thomas (1894-1920), a former Ziegfeld girl who had become a movie star. Though their romance was rocky, the two had hoped to repair their relationship with a second honeymoon to Paris. While there, it is rumored that Thomas took cocaine, and later, intoxicated and fatigued, accidentally ingested a large dose of mercury bichloride, which belonged to her husband to treat his syphilis. Accounts vary as to the confusion, but unfortunately the dose was lethal. Rumors circulated about her suicide or murder, but whatever the truth, Olive Thomas was yet another Hollywood starlet who succumbed to deep misfortune.