Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. History is jam-packed with examples of this truism. From George Washington to Phineas Gage, a whole lot of what we know about the past does not stand up to close scrutiny.
The silent era is particularly prone to these wild rumors, it seems. It stands to reason. Lack of mass communication, lost films, fan magazine exaggerations, fading memories, artistic temperaments… It would be amazing if there weren’t a few rumors and outright lies in the mix.
(Pictured above: My opinion of how some silent film historians look.)
Well, in this four-part series, I am going to be discussing how misinformation can spread from four sources: Silent era veterans, film historians, user-edited websites and blogs, and contemporary fan magazines. Today’s focus will be on the moguls, stars and directors whose memories may not be all that they seem.
I should state before beginning this that I am not a big follower of silent star’s personal lives. I know enough to write my reviews but as to who romanced who… Well, all I can say is that I do not really care so long as they didn’t scare the horses.
So this is me when the conversation gets… personal.
What they are saying: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret love child with Marilyn Monroe because she lied about her age and besides she had a time machine and…
What I hear: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret lovezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
And off I go to my happy place.
All of these rumors lead to the big question: Who can you trust? Well, surely the people who were there can be believed, right? Right? Oh, you poor innocent kid.
Before you jump to conclusions based on what a silent veteran tells a journalist or historian, stop and consider the evidence. Some questions to ask when an interviewed star, director or member of the crew makes an eyebrow-raising claim:
1. Is there any corroborating evidence? (Scripts, photos, train tickets…) Do other silent era figures have similar accounts?
2. Do they have anything to gain from their story? Are they saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear? Are they claiming credit for something important? Are they polishing their reputations or engaging in myth building? (Refer back to question 1)
3. Are they speaking about another silent era figure? Do they have a past with them? Do they have a reason to paint this person as a louse or a saint? Was there a divorce, a custody battle or a paternity suit? Were there nasty contract negotiations? Are they friends with their target’s ex?
4. Does the story mutate or get better with each passing interview? Does it match what they said earlier in life. (Remember that later interviews may be more accurate since the interviewee may have less to lose and fewer people to worry about offending.)
5. Have they been incorrect about other matters before? Are they known to fib or hold grudges?
It can be somewhat upsetting to realize that a very persuasive and heartfelt interview was all part of an act. It can be especially upsetting if it is a star you admire. However, I think viewing the star in question as a real human being actually makes them more interesting and admirable, not less. Looking at a star with an honest, open attitude is not an attack.
This is an attack:
One of the most infamous examples of this unreliability can be found with Lina Basquette, Sam Warner’s widow. Most silent movie fans know the story: Her acting career was in the dumps in the 1937 when she got a call from the Third Reich. It seemed that the fuehrer was a fan. So off she went to Germany where she found Hitler to be a bit grabby for her taste. She kicked him in his naughty bits, said her grandfather was Jewish anyway and fled.
Miss Basquette was by all accounts a perfectly charming interview subject. Feisty and fun to talk to and a natural storyteller. And the Hitler story was too good to pass up. So, it was printed and repeated and presented as the gospel truth. It had everything: A plucky American girl busting Hitler in a very tender spot, what’s not to love?
The problem is that there is zero corroborating evidence that this actually occurred. No ticket stubs from the journey, no letters to or from Germany, no UFA letterhead, no postcards from Munich, no diaries from the date in question, no friends or family who recall her trip, no passenger lists with her name. The first commercial transatlantic flight was made in 1938 so the alleged trip would been by ship following a long train journey from California to New York. That kind of trip would generate a nice stack of paperwork. None has surfaced. (Ship passenger lists are incredibly valuable. For example, they show us when Rudolph Valentino came to America.)
Further, Basquette’s half-sister, dancer and model Marge Champion, said that the first she heard of the story was in the 1970s, some forty years after the event in question. She further intimated that her sister had a way of playing fast and loose with the facts. Miss Basquette also claimed to have been a secret agent in South America, though she was never quite clear as to which side she was working for.
Kind of takes the wind out of the story, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that it is impossible that it occurred, though I find it highly unlikely. What I am saying is that film writers need a small caveat before they repeat the tale. You know something like, “Miss Basquette stated that (insert Hitler narrative here). However, no supporting evidence has surfaced.”
(While some major news outlets recited the Hitler narrative in their obituaries, others chose to politely ignore it. A wise decision.)
The same goes for Eleanor Boardman’s recollection of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer and the latter vowing revenge. Mayer is a very common bogeyman in these sort of tales. (His great-niece, Alicia Mayer, has an excellent blog called Hollywood Essays, which debunks many of the common myths.) While hardly a saint, he was not the devil that many of the stars make him out to be. The problem with Boardman’s account? Mayer had dealt in scrap metal before becoming a movie mogul. The guy was tough. And we are to believe that he was slugged by an employee and took it? (Scott Eyman thoroughly takes apart this rumor in his wonderful biography, Lion of Hollywood.) Boardman similarly stuck her foot in her mouth regarding Cecil B. DeMille and Julia Faye. I pretty much take all her interviews with a dose of healthy skepticism.
Please also be on the lookout for “dog whistle” antisemitism in tales of woe. Very common if you know what to look for. No, I will not be listing stereotypes here. Also, you would do well to memorize the common targets of odd rumors. Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Mabel Normand, the list goes on…
On a final note, be particularly wary of accounts that rely on conspiracies. Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Very true. Most conspiracy theories fall apart because said conspiracy relies too much on numerous people keeping their mouths shut. It may be easier to believe that a star’s career tanked because of a wicked scheme but the truth is usually far more complex.