Jane Alice Peters, the future Carole Lombard, hadn't yet reached her teens when she appeared with Monte Blue in the long-lost film "A Perfect Crime" in early 1921. (Note a copy of the Saturday Evening Post on the floor; the film was based on a story that ran in the magazine. Was it early product placement from director Allan Dwan, or an inside joke?)
Jane, who Dwan -- in need of a young girl for his latest film -- discovered playing with neighborhood boys, was among the millions who loved movies, and among the many who dreamed of movie stardom. But within a year of this film's release, two incidents occurred that gave the adolescent film industry an unfortunate jolt.
In September, beloved comedic actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was charged in the death of a young woman in a San Francisco hotel, reportedly after some sordid sexual relations. While he was acquitted in court, he had already lost the trial of public opinion, and after a few years in exile, he had to use his talent as a director, using a pseudonym.
Then, 90 years ago today, a filmland notable was found dead in his home. His killer was never found, but the carnage led to the downfall of two star careers and suddenly, to much of America, Hollywood was not synonymous with Mount Olympus, but Sodom and Gomorrah.
We are referring to the murder of director William Desmond Taylor.
That's a clipping from the Springfield (Mass.) Republican of Feb. 3, 1922. Press coverage of the killing, especially in the Hearst and the growing tabloid press, became all the more lurid when two of filmdom's most popular females were connected to the case:
Mary Miles Minter was one of the top stars of the late teens and early '20s, with an on-screen persona somewhat similar to Mary Pickford; Lombard biographer Larry Swindell says Minter was among the favorite stars of Jane Peters at this time. However, Minter had been in a few films Taylor had directed, and many believed they were having an affair despite their vast age difference (as 1922 began, she was 19, he was 49). This reportedly did not sit well with Minter's mother, Charlotte Shelby, a woman who in her desire to live vicariously through her daughter's success, sort of presaged Jean Harlow's mother.
Mabel Normand was the top comedic star of her time, gaining renown in a number of Mack Sennett films, several co-starring Arbuckle. She came close to marrying Sennett, but it never reached fruition. By the early '20s, she was seeing Taylor, and in fact was the last person to visit him at his South Alvarado Street home. This was also the time she had developed a severe drug habit, and there were rumors that Taylor was trying to get Normand off the habit.
The question of "who did it" enveloped not just the film community, but Los Angeles, indeed the nation. Here's a Times story on the search from Feb. 3:
The killer was never found, although several books -- all with differing conclusions -- have been written on the topic. (In the final years of his life, director King Vidor did some sleuthing on the matter.) Several websites have examined Taylor, his mysterious backstory (he was actually an Irish emigrant who walked out on his first wife in New York, changed his name and created a new identity before entering film) and related topics, "Taylorology" (http://www.silent-movies.com/Taylorology) and a Taylor blog (http://williamdesmondtaylor.wordpress.com), both fine ways to honor a man who made some excellent films but, like contemporary Thomas Ince, is these days better known (if known at all) for how he died rather than how he lived.
Health problems continued to plague Normand, who died in 1930. Minter's implication in the scandal effectively ended her career, although she continued making films into 1923; she soon became a recluse, developed diabetes and died in August 1984. However, in 1970, she was interviewed by author Charles Higham, and here, in two parts totaling about 10 minutes, are her audio recollections of the event (including her meeting with Normand), partnered with snippets from her movies that underscore Minter's appeal to audiences of the time:
It's intriguing to think what was going through the mind of not only Jane Alice Peters, but her mother, Elizabeth Peters, in the wake of not only the Taylor murder, but all that was subsequently uncovered. Throughout much of the country, there was an immediate backlash towards movies, which the industry tried to counter (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/220882.html). Had the Peters family still been in Indiana, without firsthand exposure to movie people, perhaps Elizabeth might have been reluctant to encourage Jane into films.
But such folk were all over the place (future screenwriter and director Delmer Daves, a few years older than Jane, lived up the street from her in 1920). Jane's experience in "A Perfect Crime" wasn't all that big, but it enabled the family to see what the business was all about -- a business, every bit as much as the retail or financial work Jane's older brothers were either getting into or on the verge. What happened with Taylor could have happened in any line of work, and was an anomaly to begin with.
However, mother did tell daughter to get a few more years' schooling before embarking on a genuine movie career, which Jane dutifully did until late 1924, when she began a new life for herself as Carole Lombard.