Hollywood Babylon: Biographies of the Golden Age of Cinema

Petworth LibraryStaff Picks

Hollywood Babylon: Biographies of the Golden Age of Cinema

There’s something wrong in Hollywood

Everyone loves a good story. The Golden Age of cinema, filmmaking during the 1910s - 1960s, was no exception. Tinseltown was, and still is, in the business of mythmaking and -- from the “lowly” assistant to the matinee idol -- everyone had a tale of victory and calamity, intrigue that attracted (or was generated by) the rumor mill. These Hollywood hopefuls wrestled against studio-contrived standards that transcended the screen and into the collective consciousness. Peruse these astonishing biographies and accompanying films which intersect with our cultural, racial and cinematic history. Now, roll the camera aaaand action! 

Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle 
“In those days, we only had each other.” This captivating biography, which opens in the early part of the twentieth century and spans six decades, revisits the Black film communities forged by segregation. Film historian Bogle compiles numerous interviews and one-hundred photographs to jauntily profile a cast of legendary performers and ancillary players -- among them the first Black “break-out star” Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, and Dorothy Dandridge, plus stylists, talent scouts, and more.
Watch: Lena Horne makes her film
début as aspiring singer Ethel Andrews in the 1938 musical The Duke is Tops (available via Access Video on Demand). 

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth
Film critic, journalist and podcast host of “You Must Remember This” investigates the talented actresses that were pulled into the orbit of millionaire and movie mogul Howard Hughes. Longworth fastidiously recounts a forty-year period (1920s -1960s) during which the film director pursued, surveilled, and exploited Hollywood’s ambitious leading ladies: Ava Gardner, Katherine Hepburn, Lana Turner, and dozens of unknown actresses whose names never made it onto the marquee. A compelling and exhaustively researched book, sourced from correspondence, newspaper clippings, and other archival materials on how Hughes and other men in positions of power benefited from institutionalized sexism.
Watch: Ava Gardner headlines in the 1952 Technicolor adventure Snows of Kilimanjaro (
available via Access Video on Demand). 

Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom by Priscilla Peña Ovalle 
In a thought-provoking multidisciplinary study, the cinema and media studies scholar dissects the careers of five “Latinas in motion” (dancers turned actresses) beginning in the 1920s and 1930s with Dolores Del Rio, Carmen Miranda, Rita Hayworth (Casino), and Rita Moreno, and concluding in the 2000s with Jennifer Lopez. Peña Ovalle unpacks the potency of stereotypes, specifically how brown female bodies are exoticized and racially conflated to a state of “inbetween-ness.” An incredible resource of textual and cultural analysis that will appeal to readers with an interest in dance, gender studies and film.
Watch: The 1932 romance Bird of Paradise, in which Dolores Del Rio is cast as the daughter of a Polynesian chief (
available via Kanopy). 

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
On February 1, 1922, president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, William Desmond Taylor, was shot and killed. Who pulled the trigger? In this evocative true-crime narrative, Hollywood chronicler Mann pours over FBI files and police reports, attempting to solve the murder that remains a cold case almost a century later. On his list of potential suspects are professed devoted friends, screen idols and movie barons, and petty thieves and gangsters. The gripping who-done-it dovetails with an especially colorful period of film history; censorship and “morality clause” contracts were the byproduct of the “Roaring Twenties” when salacious cinema ran amok.
Watch: Sex, Censorship, and the Silver Screen: The Early Decades, a 2007 documentary about the formation of Hays censorship codes with appearances by Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, and others (
available via Access Video on Demand).

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara
Emerging from the murky waters comes...the creature from the black lagoon! But how many know the woman behind the iconic “Gill-Man” monster? Trailblazing special effects artist Milicent Patrick is the focus of this fascinating biography from screenwriter and producer Mallory O’Meara. With conversational and brassy prose, O’Meara traces Patrick’s career-making stops in El Paso, Texas, Disney Studios (in 1938 Patrick was the first female animator), and behind the scenes of the science-fiction movie Lagoon. The author speaks with great candor about how Patrick’s career derailed by jealousy and misogyny has paralleled her own working in modern-day Los Angeles.
Watch: An amphibious giant is detected by scientists exploring the Amazon in the 1954 cult classic (
available via DVD). 

Looking for more nonfiction about bygone Hollywood? Check out 2019 Read Feed Mr. DeMille, I'm Ready for My Close-Up.