Don’t be fooled. I’m still reading Tim Powers’ Medusa’s Web and Old Hollywood plays a major part in the Gothic sensibility of the novel. To discuss all the films with a Gothic flavour that the great Hollywood studios put out over the years would require at least a couple of chapters, if not an entire volume, all to itself. Here, I just want to look at the lure of old Hollywood, and how Tinsel-Town came to have a dark side that was all its own. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of Hollywood Babylon, you’ll see what I mean.
Hollywood in the 1920s was rife with wild parties – if you could get in – starlets, drugs, sex and drink galore. Probably no different to the 1970s, except that the spangles were real and for the majority, it really was another world. Even a feel-good musical like Singing In The Rain hints at this – Cathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) has come to LA to become an actress, but starts off as a chorus girl entertaining guests at a studio party. Her acting career stutters after she upsets the studio’s big star, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen), who then resolves to make sure Selden “never works in this town again”. The crucial part of the film’s plot deals with Selden protecting Lamont’s career by sacrificing her own, ghost-singing and speaking Lamont’s lines in the early talking pictures. Marni Nixon made a similar career, lending her singing voice to Deborah Kerr in The King and I (amongst other films).
It wasn’t easy being a film star in those days.
Even today, Los Angeles is the City of Dreams; the film industry creates dreams, and everyone wants to be in the business. Virtually every waitress or coffee shop barista has an audition coming up or a script they’re working on. There are more people than there are roles, and even my (just about scraped) pass at Economics A Level knows that supply is far outstripping demand. The studios are ruthless, hearts get broken and illusions are shattered. Hollywood is, after all, about illusion – nothing in the cinema is real, it’s all smoke and mirrors in the end.
It’s intriguing to me that this notion creates a very gothic sensibility, particularly with some of the older black and white movies. I love the old Universal horror movies, some of which are still quite terrifying because they allow the imagination to fill in the gaps – which is how good horror works, after all. And I really like how Powers weaves this into his novel. The old bits of film set that are scattered around the house render it more sinister than I suppose it is – but then I find circuses creepy too, and that’s a whole other story entirely! The references to the caption screens on silent films that Claimaine and Ariel quote to each other starts has a distinct edge to it, hinting at hypnosis, a Svengali relationship, that probably doesn’t otherwise exist. Indeed, a minor character informs Ariel that “doing spiders” was a big thing in Hollywood studio parties in the 1920s – hinting at the decadence of the period.
It’s always been known that there was a dark side to the film industry, but it’s interesting to see it being used as a Gothic motif.