Newstalk Ireland, 12-13 May 2012
William Desmond Taylor (born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner in Carlow,
Ireland, was a successful film director who worked with some of the great stars of the silent era, including Mary Pickford,
Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand, and Mary Miles Minter. On February 1, 1922, his body was found inside his bungalow in downtown
Los Angeles, having been shot in the back with a small calibre pistol. More than a dozen individuals were suspected of having
committed the crime, but the case was left unsolved due to lack of evidence. It was widely suspected that the Hollywood studio
bosses had used their influence to have the case buried; if certain aspects of it had been exposed, their reputation could
have been ruined.
Marc Ivan O'Gorman's drama-documentary had the action taking place over a single
day, with broadcaster Ed McNamara (Bruce Barker) presenting a music programme on a local radio station. However the entertainment
was repeatedly interrupted by McNamara telling listeners that they would be going over to downtown Los Angeles to listen to
intrepid reporter Charlie Riley (Dermot McGuinness), who was trying to find out exactly what happened to Taylor. Riley was
certainly a brave person, doggedly asking questions to the police and to the various suspects, despite repeated attempts to
scare him off. Charlotte Shelby (Mags McAuliffe), the mother of Mary Miles Minter (Susan Zalouf) shot at him with the gun
that was widely thought to have been the murder weapon.
Interspersed with these dramatized reconstructions of what happened were comments
from a variety of experts, including film historians Kevin Brownlow and Mark Wanamaker, and scholar Ruth Barton. They provided
much-needed context to the affair; making listeners aware of how Hollywood at that time was a close-knit community in which
everyone knew everyone else. No one wanted to talk for fear of destroying themselves and their reputations. Rather they wanted
to sustain the dream-world, in which they could assume new identities at will and make a success of their lives.
The drama was illustrated with period tunes that reinforced the prevailing values
of that time. Billie Holiday's "Ain't Nobody's Business," suggested the fact that the studios wanted to keep the whole affair
under wraps, to ensure their future. Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown's "Singin' in the Rain" - although published in 1929,
seven years after Taylor's murder - emphasized the idea of Hollywood as a dream factory, from which uncomfortable realities
had been conveniently erased.
O'Gorman (who also directed this production for Tinpot and Cleverality Productions)
produced a convincing piece of work, even though I'm not sure about his conclusion that the Taylor case "changed Hollywood
forever." Many subsequent scandals - for example, involving Errol Flynn (who was accused of having sex with an underage girl),
and Humphrey Bogart (whose wife Mayo Mathot stabbed him in the shoulder during a drunken brawl) - were also left unexplained,
as a result of the publicity departments' work. Hollywood was and ever shall be a place of dreams: nothing should ever be
allowed to dispel them.