Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

HISTORY LESSON: The Feinberg Brothers

Silent films? Not so silent.

When the motion pictures of the early days were played in movie houses, and later movie palaces, patrons not only got to indulge in the visual aesthetic splendor, adventure, and romance, but their ears were entertained by a nearby musician tickling the ivories of the piano or organ. Songs played were those popular in the era, and each was chosen particularly to fit the mood of a given sequence. Of course, there were also several songs written specifically for films, which in turn became popular hits.

While this music provided a pleasant distraction and enhanced the experience of the motion picture viewing, what few know is that, beyond the dialogue, there was much more going on behind the scenes that the audience would never hear. In order to enhance the performance of the actors, or to evoke certain emotions, movie studios would often hire musicians to play songs while they filmed! (Below is a picture taken of the musicians playing on the set of Fred Niblo's Dream of Love). Clara Bow, for example, always requested that "Rock-a-bye Baby" be played when she had to do a harrowing, crying scene. (The background of this is both interesting and sad. Clara lost a friend in childhood who was burned to death, and this song always reminded her of him. Just hearing the music brought up the dormant sorrows of her childhood, which in turn made her performances more touching and authentic). 

While their work was uncredited, these musicians were "instrumental" (sorry) in creating a specific environment for the actors they worked with. But when sound came in, set musicians went out! The transition must have been difficult for performers, who up until then had had an easy go-to for emotional provokation. They were now forced to rely soley on imagination to get their performances across. This is one of the reasons that the histrionic, dream-like quality of silent film performances differs so greatly from the more nuanced and natural acting style that was to come with sound. The actors that could make the transition prevailed, and the rest disappeared into celluloid history.

Two musician/brothers, Sam and Jack Feinberg, did quite of bit of on-set performing before the advent of sound. In particular, they did a great deal of work on films alongside Lon Chaney. The films they worked with him on were:
   1. Thunder (1929)    
   2. West of Zanzibar (1928)
   3. While the City Sleeps (1928)
   4. Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
   5. London After Midnight (1927)
   6. Mockery (1927)
   7. The Unknown (1927)
   8. Mr. Wu (1927)
   9. The Blackbird (1926)

                                               They even had cameo roles in While the City Sleeps. Apparently, Chaney, who was an accomplished, untrained dancer, enjoyed singing, dancing and cracking up with the brothers in between takes. John Feinberg is remembered in particular for his famous violin, crafted by Rembert Wurlitzer, which he managed to get over 100 celebrities to sign, including dignitaries, politicians, and movie stars. Even the most elusive celebrities were so fond of John that they would make an exception to their "no autographs" rule and pick up a pen. Lon Chaney was a very private man, giving out few autographed photos in his lifetime, and then only to good friends. It is therefore exceptional that his name graces the violin, as does the ever enigmatic Greta Garbo's (below on the set of Romance).

Other people who signed the notorious violin include: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jean Harlow, Herbert Hoover, Charles Lindberg, Albert Einstein, Buster Keaton, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, etc. The violin still exists, and was  sold at a Christie's auction as recently as 1991, (for I believe $50,000). It is indeed a great historical piece, one that told many stories in its owner's life, and continues to do so after his death. I have no photo of the true violin, but below is another Wurlitzer production that must be close in design. The actual instrument was 23 inches in length.

*** Update: I recently learned that the fabulous Geraldine Farrar, opera singer and movie star, was supposedly the first film performer to request mood music to enhance her performances for the camera.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

For those movie buffs living within the Los Angeles area, there is one place you must go ASAP! It turns out that the 4th floor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences houses a rotating display featuring a different subject every few months. Currently, they have dedicated their attention to Irving Thalberg, MGM's boy wonder (above). 

I randomly stumbled upon this fact when trying to track down the location of Lon Chaney's makeup case. As his #1 fan, I learned that upon his death his wife, Hazel, donated it to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, which displays it in its California History section in the basement from time to time. Further correspondence with the museum informed me that there are in fact 2 makeup bags: a smaller one, which will be on display at the museum for one day only- Sunday the 25th of October- to members only, and the larger more famous one (above), currently on loan to the Academy for the Thalberg display. The small case was basically Chaney's start-up kit at Universal, whereas the larger bag was used when he was at MGM and, by then, considered a makeup pro. Because the Thalberg display is !!FREE!! I opted to go there, and I was not disappointed. Chaney was the first star of the first film Thalberg made at MGM, He Who Gets Slapped.

In addition to displaying Chaney's famous bag, which still contains spirit gum, false hair, etc, the Thalberg showcase also has the wig Chaney wore as the old woman in both the silent and sound version of The Unholy Three and the glass cover he wore on his eye in The Road to Mandalay. But Chaney isn't the only actor from MGM's lot featured here! In addition, there are several film clips playing from MGM's top films of the Thalberg era, and photographs and film stills of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, etc. Norma Shearer, Thalberg's wife, is also heavily featured, and the hat with the mechanized bird (right) that she wore in Marie Antoinette is there to admire.

There are many other costumes and set pieces to see, including the leather get-up Ramon Novarro wore in Ben-Hur (left) and one of the black suits Leslie Howard wore in Romeo and Juliet. (Howard, by the way, was a very tiny man)! Different letters of correspondence between Thalberg and other MGM big-wigs, an invitation to his funeral, and other documents are posted within glass cases for visitors to read as well. It is truly an amazing collection, and I was surprised at all of the Hollywood artifacts present in one small space. I found myself getting quite emotional looking at all of the intricate pieces that helped create Hollywood history. And again, it is totally free, so if you haven't gone I suggest you do. It is a great way to spend an afternoon. 

The Thalberg display will be there only a little over a month longer, ending on December 17th. When you enter the building, go to the desk and you will be given a pass. Take the elevator up to the 4th floor, and voila! After you're done, you can stop in the main lobby and check out their collection of movie posters. As always, happy hunting!!!

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
8949 Wilshire Blvd, 4th Floor
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Hours: M-F 10-5, Sat. and Sun 12-6

Friday, October 16, 2009

PERSONAL NOTE: Gene Kelly is a Sexpot!

I was sick this past week. Very, VERY sick. Confined to my bed, there was nothing for me to do but stare at the ceiling or the television, so I opted for the latter. In my codeine induced delirium, I was having trouble picking a movie to watch, so I thought to myself, "Hey, I should just go through my DVD collection alphabetically, watching one film of each letter..." (I got to N in 4 days, by the way). First up was Anchors Aweigh, which had been sitting in my stash collecting dust since I bought it. It was my first time seeing the film, and now I am kicking myself for waiting so long to watch such a gem!

I have never considered myself a huge musical fan, but after watching this film I may be a classifiable junkie. Aside from noticing the enjoyable story, catchy tunes, and the extreme skinniness of Frank "Blue Eyes" Sinatra, I was left with one very clear impression: Gene Kelly is phenomenal! Not just as an actor, a singer, or a dancer, but as a man who so easily blends all three categories into one charismatic goldmine of masculinity and grace that he makes all other men look like boys.

It's strange, for I have seen Singin' in the Rain, Cover Girl, etc, but never before have I been so impressed by Kelly's profound athleticism. He doesn't jump, he soars; he doesn't dance, he destroys! He can take the entire frame and fill it up with his own virile frame like it's some kind of magic trick. Then there is the thing I can't put my finger on, which is his incredible essence, his power. Unlike Astaire, whom I equally adore, Kelly leads not with an endearing bashfulness, but with a profound confidence. Both men are graceful, talented, cocky in their own way, but Astaire is innocent and classic, while Kelly is seductive and modern. Indeed, there was one scene at the beginning of Anchors when Kelly is on the phone with his never seen "booty-call," Lola, and as he sensuously strokes the receiver I found myself going, "Whoa! How did that make it past the censors?!?!" 

Perhaps I am not well-versed enough in Kelly's filmography, but I felt that this role was a bit of a departure for him. I always thought of him as a "nice guy," a "gentleman," the "boy-next-door-who-dances." In this film he is a bit more dangerous. He plays the lady killer, ironically opposite the innocent Frank Sinatra character (haha). While he is not a rogue by any means, he has more edge, even if he proves to be more talk than action. He's a bad boy, but the bad boy who is a lover and not a fighter. The typical macho, Alpha male in the package of a graceful body and a trustworthy face, Kelly could have gone on to play truly dangerous men. His immediate likability would make him the perfect predator. I know Kelly did perform in some dramas, and I am interested to see how they turned out.

In any case, if you haven't seen Anchors Aweigh, I suggest you do posthaste, if only for the famous dance sequence Gene Kelly does with the cartoon mouse Jerry of "Tom and Jerry"- (another great thing about Kelly was his innovative way of using technology to expand the possibilities of dance, such as the scene in which he dances with himself in split-screen in Cover Girl). In the mean time, if you have any other good Kelly movies to recommend, I'm all ears!

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I am currently reading The Story of Hollywood by Gregory Paul Williams. I am already coming across several little tidbits I find interesting... and amusing! Here are some of the better ones that I would like to share with you!

> In the very, VERY beginning of Hollywood, before paved streets and neighborhoods, the few settlers who ventured into the fairly wild territory began setting up camp and establishing the first homesteads. A mere four years into CA statehood, small homes and farms began popping up. One of these homes belonged to the eccentric "Greek George." He lived in an adobe in what is now the Hollywood Bowl by the swamp. What made him so "eccentric?" He owned camels! In true, Hollywood fashion, he used these animals as a means to deliver mail and supplies. 

There was controversy and drama raging in the hills of California from the early get-go. When the first settlers were establishing their homes, there was trouble brewing between the Californios, who had traveled to and lived in the area longer, and the new American immigrants. The Californios were often usurped of their unregistered land by the new movers and shakers, which led to many (obvious) ill-feelings and rivalries. From 1863-1874, Tiburcio Vasquez (right) became a hero when he robbed the snobby new Americans, pillaging their farms and livestock. He never stole from his fellow Californios, who rooted for him in his endeavors. He was like the Hollywood Robin Hood, and many consider him to be the inspiration behind the future Douglas Fairbanks character, Zorro! 

Many of you are familiar with the fact that Hollywood was originally called "Hollywoodland." This is because it was started as a real estate development by Harvey Wilcox (left), whose wife, Daeida (bottom left), came up with the name when talking with someone who owned an estate in Hollywood, IL. She loved the implied unity of "nature and culture," and Harvey approved, so he named his newly constructed subdivision after it. Harvey even named some streets for himself and his wife: Wilcox and Dae Avenues. There were two children that always crossed their property on the way to school at Sunset and Gordon, and Harvey and Daeida thought it would be cute to name streets after them as well: Ivar and Selma! Vine Street, in addition, was named for the fact that it bordered a vineyard.

More to follow...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Classic Cinema Survey

A Noodle in a Haystack started this survey. Keep it going!

1. What is your all-time favorite Clark Gable movie?
Gone with the Wind. He gets better and better every time I watch it. He should have won the Oscar!!!

2. Do you like Joan Crawford best as a comedienne or a drama-queen?
Drama-Queen for sure! Just saw Humoresque and loved her in it!

3. In your opinion, should Ginger Rogers have made more musicals post-Fred Astaire?
I think she could have and would have been fabulous, but I think she needed to try something new. She is great in everything, so it doesn't really matter!!!

4. I promise not to cause you bodily (or any other serious) harm if you don't agree with me on this one. So please be honest: do you like Elizabeth Taylor? Hm?
I do. When she is good, she's fantastic. But I have seen some mediocre performances come out of the girl. I will love her forever for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf alone!

5. Who is your favorite off-screen Hollywood couple?
Clark and Carole... obvi!

6. How about onscreen Hollywood couple?
Irene Dunne and Cary Grant.

7. Favorite Jean Arthur movie?
Mr.Deeds Goes to Town.

8. What was the first Gregory Peck movie you saw?
To Kill A Mockingbird.

9. What film made you fall in love with Alfred Hitchcock? (And for those of you that say, "I don't like Hitchcock" -- what is wrong with you?!)
Psycho!!! It was my first, and you never forget your first!

10. What is your favorite book-to-movie adaption?
The Phantom of the Opera

11. Do you prefer Shirley Temple as a little girl or as a teenager?
Little girl. She was the cutest kid ever!

12. Favorite character actor?
Peter Lorre. Creepy and spectacular!

13. Favorite Barbara Stanwyck role?
Eugenia in The Lady Eve. Hysterical.

14. Who is your favorite of Cary Grant's leading ladies?
Ingrid Bergman. Gorgeous and talented!

15. Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?
Joan. Bette is great, but Joan was fierce!

16. What actors and/or actresses do you think are underrated?
Errol Flynn. He was more than a man in tights, but a thoughtful and talented actor. I think Marilyn is underestimated too. She was a "movie star," so her comedic abilities are all too often written off.

17. What actors and/or actresses do you think are overrated?
 Sharon Stone!!! HAHAHA!

18. Do you watch movies made pre-1980 exclusively, or do you spice up your viewing-fare with newer films?
I watch all eras. My favorite is early silents through pre-code, but there are still wonderful movies made every year!

19. Is there an actor/actress who you have seen in a film and immediately loved? If so, who?
Jean Harlow. There is nothing to not like about her.

20. Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?
Hm, toughy. I'm going with Astaire, if only for Top Hat!

21. Favorite Ginger Rogers drama?
Kitty Foyle.

22. If you wrote a screenplay, who would be in your dream cast and what roles would they play? (Mixing actors and actresses from different generations is allowed: any person from any point in their career.)
Only my close friends will get this, but as I have assigned each pal a movie star doppleganger, this is who would star in the story of my life-
Me: Carole Lombard, Mom: Katharine Hepburn, Dad: Lionel Barrymore, Bro: Gregory Peck, Sis: Joan Crawford, Grandma: Kim Novak.
The cast of friends would be as follows- Mindy: Bette Davis, Jessica: Josephine Baker, T: Errol Flynn, Joey: Tyrone Power, Dana: Barbara Stanwyck, Rachel: Marion Davies, Stephanie: Loretta Young, Rita: Lupe Velez, Chad: Jack Lemmon, Monica: Grace Kelly. All roles will be age appropriate.

23. Favorite actress?
Carole Lombard.

25. Favorite actor?
Lon Chaney.

26. And now, the last question. What is your favorite movie from each of these genres:

Drama: Sunset Boulevard.

Romance: Casablanca.


Musical: Calamity Jane.


Comedy: Some Like It Hot.


Western: The Searchers.


Hitchcock (he has a genre all to himself): Rear Window

Monday, October 5, 2009

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Old Town Music Hall

To any and all classic movie lovers living in or planning on visiting the Los Angeles area, I discovered a charming venue that shows classic films! The Old Town Music Hall is a rare gem! Tucked away in the heart of downtown El Segundo, this tiny but glorious theater plays silent and sound films from the silent-golden years, as well as featuring musical acts on various nights. Tickets for movies are only $8, and they include the whole classic movie palace experience. Shows begin at 8:15pm Fri & Sat evenings, or 2:30pm Sat and Sun afternoons. The presentation begins with a musical introduction on the Mighty Wurlitzer, followed by a brief sing-a-long, (should you dare), a comedy short, a brief intermission, and finally, the feature film. If the movie is a silent film, then the organist plays live throughout the screening.

I went for the first time this past weekend when I discovered that a favorite of mine, Top Hat, would be playing. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised at the old-fashioned decor and ambience, the friendliness of the staff and clientele, and the fact that it wasn't overly crowded!!! It was a little cheesy at times, I will admit, with the singing and the elder folk-- who at times would talk a little too loudly during the movie-- but it was not enough to dampen the experience. The total time of the show was less than three hours, and I was on my way with a smile on my face!

The good news is that every Halloween they play the Lon Chaney classic The Phantom of the Opera, with live musical accompaniment of course. It will play all Halloween weekend this year at the usual times. 

Because it is a small, secret venue, which has been operating for over 40 years, they seem to be in a little financial trouble and are always grateful for donations. If you have a few extra bucks to send their way, they truly appreciate it, and it will do much to preserve an El Segundo and cinematic staple. Places like this don't exist anymore, so we can't lose this one as well!!!

Please swing by and check it out if you are the true cinema buff. You will more than get your money's worth. DVDs are great, but there is nothing like seeing an old movie on the big screen... the way LB Mayer et al intended!!! 

140 Richmond Street
El Segundo, CA 90245

Thursday, October 1, 2009


On the morning of February 2, 1922, William Desmond Taylor was lying peacefully on his back in his 202 Alvarado Street Bungalow in Los Angeles, CA. A handsome, fashionable man and famed film director, his appearance was immaculate. Not a hair was out of place, his arms were neatly at his sides, and his face was serene. At 7:30, his houseman Henry Peavey reported for work as usual, and he was quite surprised when he found his boss lying so quietly. On the floor. With an overturned chair on one of his legs. Henry drew closer. Bill wasn't breathing. Henry ran from the bungalow! Soon, all of the neighbors, including Edna Purviance, David and Faith MacLean, and Hazel Gillon heard the frightened black man screaming that his boss was dead.

Who killed Bill Taylor??? When the police first arrived at 8am that morning-- after the studio PR department, of course-- they didn't think WDT had been killed at all. He had suffered from severe stomach cramps for which he took milk of magnesia, and it was assumed that he had suffered a fatal hemorrhage. However, when the coroners lifted his body, they discovered a pool of blood on the carpet and a bullet in Bill's back. Because the entry wound did not match the hole in his jacket, it was clear that Bill had had his arms raised in surrender when he was shot. One hour after detectives had ruled his death one of natural causes, they re-opened the case. It was murder.

And so, the media mayhem began. Rumors ran wild, conspiracies were concocted, and suspects piled up like Saturday night ticket stubs. The shot that killed William Desmond Taylor became the shot heard 'round Hollywood. In time, myth and fiction would bury the truth, innocent people would be crucified, and poor, poor Bill would lie dead without redemption. It was rumored that the crazed finger-pointing that resulted was a calculated attempt to draw attention away from the real killer and the LAPD's massive cover up, as well as to utilize the opportunity to take down two movie stars that studios no longer considered worthy investments--
Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter. Before the search for truth was corrupted, and there were honorable detectives tirelessly looking for answers, the entire city was on the hunt for a ruthless, cold-blooded killer. What was found, and not found, made Hollywood history.


Evidence found at the scene went as follows:

  • WDT was shot at close range with a .38 snub nosed revolver. The bullet passed through his lungs, hit his collarbone, and stopped beneath the skin of his lower neck.

  • Cigarette butts were found behind the bungalow, where the killer presumably waited for the right opportunity to make his/her move.

  • The killing was not the result of a robbery, for Bill had $78 in his pocket, a diamond ring oh his finger, and a $2000 platinum watch on his wrist.

  • Throughout the house were numerous letters, photographs, and gifts from both Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter.

  • A set of keys was found, but they mysteriously fit none of the locks.

  • Witnesses and neighbors in the court, David and Faith MacLean, heard shuffling footsteps behind the bungalow at 7:40pm.

  • David reported hearing what sounded like a muffled shot between 8 and 8:15pm.

  • Faith saw a man, or a woman dressed as a man, leaving the building not long after. He or she was about 5'10" and of medium build, wearing a long coat.

  • Witness Hazel Gillon would later testify to seeing a dark figure depart.

As time passed, questionable and even completely fabricated evidence would also come into play. It was falsely reported that Mabel Normand had been at the bungalow the morning of Feb. 2, searching for love letters she had written to Bill. Untrue. Studio employee Charles Eyton was later sent by the studio to retrieve incriminating evidence, and he grabbed some of Mabel's letters. When he found them to be completely harmless, he turned them over to police. Mabel was not there that morning. A piece of lingerie was also found, bearing the insignia MMM, apparently belonging to Mary Miles Minter. Mary denied the existence of such an article, and after it was found, it just as quickly disappeared. This led to rumors that Bill had a large closet upstairs filled with pornographic photos and underwear belonging to major Hollywood starlets. Also false.

Another mystery came in the form of a handkerchief, which was rumored to be lying on the floor beside WDT with the monogram "S." A neighborhood doctor randomly appeared and offered his services to the police. After making his false diagnosis of "death by natural causes," the doctor quickly disappeared. The hanky went with him. It was also reported that 2 Hartley Service Station attendants and 1 Redline train conductor had testified to seeing a man that matched Faith MacLean's "description" the night of the murder, who  in both cases asked directions to Bill's house. Due to the fact that Faith's remembrance of the culprit was vague at best, it is difficult to accept their corroborations. From the beginning, it was clear that someone was tampering with evidence, feeding phony information to the press, and keeping the public away from the truth.

Suspects were aplenty. At the top of the list were Mabel and Mary, who by now the public was certain were both having a torrid affair with WDT. Normand would staunchly defend her platonic relationship with Bill, though Mary would never deny her feelings for the director, whom she claimed to love. The infamous love triangle, which suggested one of the women had killed her lover out of jealousy, would ruin the careers of both women, whom studios failed to protect.

Mabel (right) had in fact been the last to see Bill alive. She had come over to his home around 6:45 the evening of February 1, to pick up a book he'd bought for her. She waited outside for a few minutes in her lilac limousine as Bill finished up a phone call. Then, she went inside with her peanuts and popcorn and enjoyed a night of relaxation and conversation with her good friend. By 7:45, Bill had walked Mabel out to her car, she pressed her lips to her window, and kissed her pal farewell. (The lipstick smudge she left would later be used as evidence in her favor). After she was questioned, Mabel was fully exonerated of all suspicion because of her lack of motive as well as the alibi provided by both her chauffeur and her maid. She was completely innocent, yet the stigma of "murderess" would stick with her the rest of her life. Since she had a history of drug addiction, people also started spreading rumors that the bag of peanuts she had brought over to WDT's was actually cocaine.

Mary (left) was also (legally) let off the hook. Despite her numerous love letters, no motive could be found. It seemed she had truly loved Bill.  Her abili for that evening was corroborated by both her sister, Margaret, and her grandmother, Julia, who confirmed that she had been reading The Cruise of the South Sea Island to them at the time of the murder. Her little pink neglige did manage to forever label her as a tramp, and her work in films came to a screeching halt. The other suspects were the following:

  • Henry Peavey, houseman: Along with the immediate suspicion he garnered for being the one to find Bill's body, Henry had a prior arrest for public indecency in park for soliciting young men. Ironically, Bill was supposed to testify on his behalf the day his body was found.

  • An Army Officer: When Bill fought in WWI, it was rumored that he testified against a fellow officer at a court martial. Some speculated that the said officer returned to take his revenge on the suddenly famous director.

  • Drug Dealers: Bill made it part of his mission to make a war on the dope ring. He personally took it upon himself to send his troubled friend Mabel to a sanatorium for rehabilitation for her growing addiction. It was theorized that some miffed leaders of the drug ring wanted to shut the revolutionary man up.

  • Charlotte Shelby: The mother of Mary Miles Minter, she was a greedy, possessive woman, who was known to both own a gun and use it to threaten her daughter's suitors.

  • Ada Tanner: Ada was the wife of Bill's brother, Dennis, who had skipped town on her many years ago. When she received a tip that Dennis was working with her rich brother in Hollywood, she came running with her hand out. Bill paid her monthly checks on Dennis's behalf. Did it prove to be too little?

  • And the most mysterious: Edward Sands. Ed was WDT's secretary, who some believed was actually his brother Dennis, living under a false identity. Though this proved to be untrue, it did appear that Ed had been blackmailing Bill. He then skipped town with $5000 in forged checks and many of Bill's valuables, which were later found at a pawn shop. Ed was found dead 6 weeks after Bill's murder with a self-inflicted bullet in his brain. Guilt for thievery or murder???

The list went on and on, and by 1923 there were 300 suspects, most of whom were "confessing Sams," unbalanced individuals who wanted their name in the papers. The case grew stranger and stranger as the years passed, with the facts becoming increasingly jumbled. Digging into WDT's past unearthed many ghosts as well, and people were shocked to learn that the compassionate gentleman was not all that he had appeared to be.

Born April 26, 1867 in Carlow, Ireland, William Deane Tanner (pictured right on set of "Captain Alvarez") was a modest and bashful youth with a penchant for the arts. His father, a gruff British Major, envisioned a different life for Bill in the army. At 15, content no longer, Bill broke his engagement to Eva Shannon and left to pursue a career on the stage. By the age of 17, his father had tracked him down and sent him to Runnymeade, a ranch that rehabilitated disobedient youths. After "serving his time" there, he left home for good. He struggled through odd jobs, even ironically serving in the military. By the time he was 34, he was living in New York, married to Ethel Harrison, actress, and working in an antique shop. He then abruptly disappeared with $500, Ethel divorced him, citing infidelity as the cause, and a few years later he had re-emerged as an actor and director in Hollywood, CA. (Many consider his masterpiece to be Huckleberry Finn).

At first glance, this would make Bill seem like an irresponsible cad, but in truth he remained on good terms with ex-wife Ethel and his daughter Daisy Deane Tanner, whom he supported financially even after Ethel remarried. He also put Daisy through school. What reason, then, could he possibly have for leaving them? And why would Ethel be so understanding of it? The answer was discovered by none other than King Vidor when he was researching the murder for a movie he wanted to make. According to Vidor's findings, William Desmond Taylor was a homosexual. No longer being able to hide the truth from himself or his family, he and his wife amicably split, and he took the blame of infidelity in order to  save Ethel the shame and embarrassment.  This was the information Edward Sands had been blackmailing him with.

His sexual orientation was corroborated by many of those who worked with him and knew him well. WDT was always described as being gentlemanly, respectful, and consummately professional. He was never a "lady chaser," and in Hollywood, a hot-shot director like himself could have had his pick of many a beauty. It was also said that the awkward argument he got into one evening before the murder at the athletic club occurred because friends Marshall Neilan, Jimmy Kirkwood, and Tony Moreno confronted him about his sexuality. Friend and set decorator George Hopkins was also a homosexual, and he told Vidor that he was sent to Bill's house the morning of the murder specifically to clean up any incriminating evidence that would point to his homosexuality. The notorious pink nightie was planted by the studios, who wanted to protect the director's reputation as a ladies' man, and their own reputation as well. The mystery keys the police found belonged to the home of Bill's lover, and there was even a hotel room Bill rented, supposedly for Henry Peavey, that he actually used for himself and his male guests. Henry Peavey, who was in fact not a homosexual, was arrested for soliciting men on Bill's behalf, which is why Bill was going to testify for him. The debacle had been his fault, and he was guilt-ridden. This also equally explains the platonic relationship Mabel and Bill had with each other.


It does, however, leave curious Bill's relationship with Mary Miles Minter. It turns out that Mary was not his lover, but a lovesick, little girl who was rumored to stalk the caring director in the hopes that he would offer her salvation from her controlling mother. The rumored love triangle was a bust-- complete publicity. However, Vidor also found another bit of evidence that had been buried. Three of Mary Miles Minter's hairs had been found on WDT's body!!! How and why was this covered up!? It turns out that it was not Mary whom the police were trying to protect, but her mother, Charlotte Shelby, who had easily bought the corrupt District Attorney Thomas Woolwine's silence. It was the evil, manipulative Mama Shelby who had killed Bill Taylor. Here are the facts:

Mary never wanted to be an actress, but when Charlotte, who had always favored elder daughter Margaret (pictured at left with Charlotte), saw Mary's natural talent, she decided to use her daughter as a meal ticket all the way to Hollywood. In her claustrophobic clutches, Mary was always looking for a way out. She had an affair with Jimmy Kirkwood, whom she hoped would rescue her. All he got her was pregnant, which of course led to Charlotte's insistence on an abortion. Not much later, Mary fell for the sturdy, fatherly, and compassionate Taylor, whom more than one actor relied on as a trustworthy confidante and pillar of strength. She was head over heels for the sensitive man, who for once stood up to her mother and protected her. He wasn't afraid of Charlotte, but he should have been.

Charlotte felt cornered. If WDT gave Mary the strength to break out on her own, Charlotte would lose her easy income and expensive lifestyle. It was known that Charlotte carried a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver. When pushed to the limit, Mary had even tried to kill herself with it. She fired into her mouth three times, but the safety was luckily on. Charlotte had also driven to Bill's before and threatened him with the gun, but he failed to get the message.

On the evening of February 1, Charlotte locked her disobedient daughter in her bedroom. Julia, Mary's grandmother, who was the only one to ever really love her, let her out, and Mary high-tailed it over to Bill's. Charlotte was enraged and started searching everywhere for Mary. She started at Marjorie Berger's, who was the accountant Bill and Mary shared. Marjorie called Bill after her "interrogation" to alert him to be on his guard, and this is whom he was on the phone with when Mabel drove up for their night together. Hiding upstairs all this time, unbeknown to Mabel, was Mary. Hovering somewhere behind the bungalow, was Charlotte. When Mabel left, and Bill walked her to her car, Charlotte made her move and slipped in. This was her only opportunity, as all of Bill's doors automatically locked when they closed. Bill waved goodbye to Mabel and re-entered his home, not knowing the evil awaiting him inside. We'll never know what exactly occurred once he closed the bungalow door behind him, but within minutes, he was dead.

Charlotte and Mary both fled the scene, which would account for differing descriptions of the culprit's appearance. Later, Adela Rogers St. Johns would claim that Faith MacLean did in fact accurately i.d. Charlotte as the man/woman leaving the scene that night. Charlotte created the false alibi that Mary had been reading to her grandmother and sister all night, which Julia obligingly corroborated to protect her innocent granddaughter. For herself, Charlotte claimed that she had been having dinner that night with Carl Stockdale, who just happened to be a close, personal friend of D.A. Woolwine's.

It would have been easy to pin the murder on Charlotte had she not had Woolwine in her pocket. On the morning of Feb. 2, Charlotte called Marjorie Berger between 7 and 7:30 and told her about Bill's death. Her gloating clouded her thinking, for this was a dead giveaway. Henry Peavey did not find Bill until 7:30, so how could Charlotte have known he was dead? She made the same mistake at 8am when the police were just arriving at the scene. This time she told her chauffeur, Charles Eyton, about the murder, then handed him her .38 and told him to empty to bullets.

The whole mess was hushed up by Woolwine, who was paid handsomely for his silence by Charlotte, with Mary's hard earned money of course. All incriminating evidence disappeared and the facts were altered when given to the public. Even the description of the crime scene was false. Apparently, Bill's body had not been as immaculately composed as originally described. His face may have been peaceful, but there was blood on his nose. His arms and legs were also in more disarray and lay not perfectly at his sides. While studio publicity cleaned up Bill's image, they didn't stop the dirtying of Mary's, who was left alone, jobless, and soon, all but insane. Charlotte on the other hand was fine. Even when daughter Margaret sued her mother in later years, testifying that she had been forced by Mama to give false testimony in the WDT case, no arrests were ever made. The payoffs continued when future D.A. Buron Fitts found the murder weapon, which Julia was supposed to get rid of. Fitts, one of the most corrupt SOBs that ever lived, offered to destroy all evidence once and for all if paid a hefty sum. He killed himself in 1973 with a .38.

With one shot, Charlotte took down Bill Taylor, Mabel Normand, and Mary Miles Minter, who once said: "My mother killed everything I ever loved." Who would have known she was being literal? Of course, Mary remained unwaveringly loyal to her mother, never uttering the truth of what happened to anyone. She even came to believe her own lies. Family was all she had left, after all. After Charlotte died, there were those who theorized that she faked her own death and still stalked  her then overweight and mentally unstable daughter Mary, who in later life was a recluse suffering from diabetes. Whether alive or dead, Charlotte continued to haunt her.
Photo taken by the coroner

William Desmond Taylor rests now at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in the Cathedral Mausoleum. But he does not rest in peace. His story is but one of many ghosts that haunt the diabolical place called Tinsel Town-- so pretty, so dangerous. With all the major players now dead, how can justice ever be done? I suppose simply by honoring the gifted director and his plentiful contribution to cinematic artistry, which is one thing that will thankfully never die.

*Update: I just encountered information regarding Margaret Gibson aka Patricia Palmer et al, a silent screen actress who reportedly confessed to Will's murder on her deathbed in 1964. As she was involved in extortion, and knew and worked with Taylor, the motive would seem to lean toward blackmail-gone-wrong, if she did in fact pull the trigger. I still stand by the aforementioned theory of my article, as I am not familiar enough with the evidence surrounding Gibson's plea, but will keep you posted as I learn more. Was her confession the raving of a delirious old woman, or is there truth??? (There is more information about her at To be continued...