Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor (NBM/ComicsLit)

famous-header.jpgThe 1922 death of a Hollywood heavy forms the basis for this real-life murder mystery, the latest in Rick Geary’s series "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder."





80 pgs., B & W; $15.95

(W & A: Rick Geary)

You may not recognize the name of William Desmond Taylor, but if you’ve ever watched an American movie made before the mid-1960’s you’ve been exposed to his legacy. Taylor’s still-unsolved 1922 murder was one of several Hollywood scandals which led to the establishment of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Fearful of public backlash against the perceived immorality of the movie business, the MPAA initiated and enforced a set of censorship guidelines which, among other things, caused on-screen married couples to sleep in twin beds, removed all traces of homosexuality from the film versions of Tennessee Williams’ plays and required that the titular character in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 film Bad Seed be struck by lightning in order to reassure audiences that she did not get away with her crimes.

If you’d been living in America in the 1920’s you would almost certainly have heard of Taylor, a successful actor and director in the burgeoning Hollywood film industry. Even if you had no interest in films, his murder was headline news all over the country and the public appetite for celebrity scandal kept it alive for months. If you’re reading this review you probably weren’t alive in 1922, but you can experience vicariously the thrill of Taylor’s murder through Rick Geary’s Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor. It’s the second volume in his series A Treasury of XXth Century Murder (the first covered the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby) and is a positive delight to read. Geary has a knack for presenting just the right amount of detail about this much-studied case, while his clear line drawings, rectangular layouts and penchant for changing locations with every frame recall the illustrated scandal sheets of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Geary begins by setting the scene, complete with maps. Hollywood at the turn of the 20th century was a sleepy farming village in the foothills of Los Angeles. That soon changed as early movie producers set up shop to take advantage of the fair weather, variety of natural landscapes, and distance from the East Coast and Thomas Edison’s patent lawyers. Hollywood’s relative proximity of the Mexican border also came in handy when Edison’s enforcers decided to pay a call.

The cover to Famous Players by Rick Geary.Mabel Normand was a comedienne for Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios in the ‘teens and ‘twenties while Taylor and ingénue Mary Miles Minter both worked for Lasky-Famous Players. All three were prospering in their careers until the evening of February 2, 1922, when Taylor’s corpse, neatly arranged on his living room floor at 404B Alvorado Street, was discovered by his cook and valet Henry Peavey. The police make no attempt to secure the crime scene, allowing the general public to enter the house and studio representatives to remove anything "which might reflect poorly on the deceased or the studio." A person claiming to be a doctor handles Taylor’s body, declares the cause of death to be a heart attack or hemorrhage, and vanishes never to be seen again. When Taylor’s body is moved, a gunshot wound is discovered in his back which is later ruled to be the cause of death. With such marvelous police work, is it any wonder the case was never solved?

Like any good reporter Geary then backtracks to establish Taylor’s activities on the previous day, which include a social visit from Mabel Normand in the early evening. Normand leaves his house around 7 pm and his servant Peavey leaves around 7:30 in order to be home before the 8:00 pm curfew which Los Angeles enforced on African Americans. Neighbors later report hearing and seeing all sorts of things that evening, including a heavily bundled up person leaving Taylor’s residence with a "mincing" step. Over 300 people eventually confess to the murder but no one is ever convicted of it.

As may be typical when you look closely at anyone’s life, Taylor’s was full of deceptions and half-truths and unusual coincidences. His real name was William Cunningham Deane-Tanner and he was an Irish immigrant who experienced some success on the stage before marrying a Floradora girl and working in an antique store financed by his wealthy father-in-law. But the marriage did not work out, with domestic tensions no doubt exacerbated by Taylor’s homosexuality or bisexuality, and in 1908 he took all the cash from the till and disappeared. Taylor turned up in Hollywood four years later, where he worked as an actor and director. He also served in the British Army during World War I before returning to Hollywood to become head of the Motion Pictures Directors Association. One of his protégés was the rising star Mary Miles Minter who, despite her carefully-cultivated image of innocence, had been around the block a few times, may have had a crush on Taylor, and had access to her mother’s revolver.

There’s more, of course, but you’ll have to read it in Geary’s volume. Reading Famous Players is almost like going back in time and reading the Police Gazette except that Famous Players is better written and Illustrated. Geary provides a nice overview of the case as well as sketching in some background about early Hollywood, and he has the dramatist’s instinct for maintaining the reader’s interest by carefully timing the release of crucial information.

Each chapter of Famous Players is introduced by a "Stars of the Photoplay" image of a famous actor of the day, one of which has a notable connection with Taylor. Gloria Swanson’s greatest creation, Norma Desmond, was named after William Desmond Taylor and Mabel Normand. The name was aptly chosen, as Desmond’s fictional life in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard encompasses the glory days of the silents while coming to a conclusion even more lurid than anything in either Taylor’s or Norman’s careers. | Sarah Boslaugh

See the related links below for a 5-page preview of Famous Players, courtesy of PLAYBACK:stl.

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