They called them the Roaring Twenties, and few places roared louder than Hollywood.
This scrub-littered corner of California was home to big dreams and bigger appetites, a place where the Wild West lived on and grew wilder. Snow wasn’t in the sun-drenched hills, but on coffee tables. Sex lived not behind the bedroom door, but the ballroom floor. A sweeter, innocent time? Don’t make me laugh.
Perhaps one could expect little more from an industry still so young, so new. Dreams were stamped on celluloid here, and the people that made them were blessed with a kind of immortality. They were stars, these first denizens of the silent screen—untouchable and glorious. By the 1920s, the film industry itself was in its adolescence—unfettered by any guardian, with the house to itself.
Perhaps it’s fitting that this particular story begins at a party, high in the hills.
Manny Torres arrives with an elephant literally in tow. The livestock truck (with probably less horsepower than today’s Honda Accord) nearly slid down the hill before it finally crawled up. Manny smelled of sweat and feces and elephant, but he was quickly drafted into backroom duty anyway—donning a tux to make sure that the party went smoothly and its loaded attendees stayed happy and drunk.
Nellie LaRoy arrives in a stolen car, driving smack into a statue that she insists hopped out of nowhere. She’s not on the guest list, but that’s not going to stop her. She’ll find her way in. Fate demands it. She’s not in Hollywood to try to be a star, Nellie tells Manny. “You either are one or you’re not. I am.”
Jack Conrad arrives on a wave of attention as always, adulation lapping ‘round his ankles like the tide. His wife leaves the party before even entering it—divorce soon to crash in her wake. But no matter. Tonight, Jack is It—life of the party, stealer of scenes. At a party with a literal elephant, he’s still the biggest star.
But change is coming to this glittering galaxy, an earthquake just down the road from the San Andreas. It’s called sound. And when the industry feels it rumble outward, not everyone will be left standing. It comes with a roar all its own.
Of all the characters we meet in Babylon, Manny might be the most decent, the most down to earth. The son of Mexican immigrants, Hollywood attracts him because he wants to be a part of “something that lasts, something that means something.”
His work ultimately does mean something. He gives a talented Black jazz player a chance to wow audiences on screen, not just behind the cameras, for instance. And he seems to have an understanding of the medium’s power and potential. When he’s forced to make cruel decisions, he clearly feels bad about it.
But he’s at his most caring when it comes to Nellie. He’s perpetually protective of her and (without giving too much away) saves her from one scrape after another—sometimes at huge risk to himself.
We can offer a bit of a golf clap to Jack Cramer for giving Manny his start in the business (though you get the vibe that he’s about as conscious of that kindness as a motorboat towing a water skier).
An exotic performer named Lady Fay Zhu fearlessly saves someone from a rattlesnake and helps her family’s business when she can.
And perhaps we can offer a bit of praise to some protestors and the moviegoing public, oddly enough. “There’s a new sensibility now,” Manny tells someone as Babylon moves into the mid-1930s. “People care about morals.” And while he says that like it’s a bad thing, we know differently.
We should start with the movie’s title here. The name Babylon is intentionally aiming at a biblical vibe: It’s a place of unbridled hedonism and sin that, perhaps, can’t see the writing on the wall. Perhaps it’s telling that in the first party we see, a reveler wearing an oversized devil’s head is conspicuous.
And that’s not the only biblical allusion we’re treated to. As Hollywood transitions into sound, we see a scene featuring the song “Singing in the Rain” (a popular song in 1929 and into the 1930s, long before the Hollywood musical). The singers, dressed in raincoats, stand in front of a huge painting of Noah’s ark—likely a bit of visual foreshadowing that Silent-Era Hollywood (and all its vices) is about to be swept away.
A director offers a lament to God during a filming delay: “You gave us such beautiful light and we f—ing squandered it,” he says. We hear some references to Hollywood being “magical.” There’s a reference to someone being Jewish.
The party mentioned in the introduction is filled with countless people in various stages of undress. We see several—perhaps dozens—of topless women. Some wear no clothes at all, and people in various corners (which we mainly see in a flashback) look as if they’re engaged in various sexual acts. (While brief, the scenes feel pornographically explicit.) Both same-sex and opposite-sex couples are pretty free to show their (ahem) affections for each other. In an upstairs bedroom, another explicit sexual tryst involves someone urinating on another person.
The party’s audience quiets down long enough to hear a breathless, titillating song from Lady Fay Zhu, a bisexual/lesbian entertainer who whisper-sings a song that centers on a bit of female anatomy. She strides through the party, as if selecting someone to seduce, and she ultimately shares a passionate kiss with a woman. It’s part of the act, and their “relationship” goes no farther.
Zhu does eventually embark on a fairly steady relationship with another actress—one that begins with a passionate kiss in the desert. We later see newspaper photos of the two women holding hands in a field, images that ultimately spell the end of Zhu’s employment with a studio. (The studio fires her due to moviegoers’ changing moral attitudes and the scandal that might hurt one of the studio’s biggest stars.).
Nellie’s growing stardom is predicated on her sexuality. She introduces herself at the same party by wearing a next-to-nothing outfit (the “neckline” of which sinks down to her waist) and her ridiculously sultry, seductive dancing. She’s given a part as a sexual bauble in a Western, where she’s asked to dance on the bar. She uses her sexuality (and acting chops) to turn the movie—where she calls herself a “wild child” and tells the cowboys she was voted the “least-dressed woman” at one point—into a star vehicle for her.
Subsequent roles play up her tawdry sexuality, and her personal appearances feature her wearing a variety of barely-concealing outfits—presaging the Kardashians by nearly a century. Her frustrated overshadowed co-star accuses her of “icing her nipples” so they’ll be more visible to the camera—something that Nellie denies but secretly does. She attends a party wearing just a pair of overalls (sans shirt) with the entire football team from the University of Southern California in tow (most of whom are dressed only in their underwear and with lewd pictures and messages scrawled across their chests).
In a scene depicting, both literally and metaphorically, a Hollywood underworld, various people are engaged in all manner of degrading activities for the people watching; the rooms go by at a pretty big clip, but we can tell that onlookers are being titillated by scantily-clad fighting females and a place featuring mostly undressed dwarfs and farm animals.
We see characters kiss, both on and off screen. Jack takes a tumble into a pool in his underwear. (When he gets out, the material clings a bit to his rear.) Publicity shots and movie posters depict women in some very revealing garments. We see sexual toys.
That underworld lair mentioned in the section above is filled with literal violent “acts.” The women fighting in a cage seem covered in mud or blood (or possibly both). An alligator guards an entrance to the most taboo room—where a man will eat anything for cash. (The man plucks a live rat out of a box and gobbles it up.) A man is killed in that underground space—skewered in the neck with a spike-covered mace. (The place is filled with seemingly Medieval torture weapons and vaguely sado-masochistic decorations.) We see the blood pour out of the wound as the man slumps to the ground.
A woman “fights” a rattlesnake in the desert. The rattlesnake technically wins, biting the woman’s neck and rendering her unconscious. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory: Someone slices the snake’s body off, rips the still-attached head from the woman’s neck, eyes the pink blood-and-venom mixture oozing from the women’s neck and begins to suck it and spit it out.
A man commits suicide with a gun. While the shooting takes place off-camera, we see the blood hit the bathroom wall. (Another man kills himself off-camera, too.) A hitman guns down two men, splashing a kitchen’s walls with blood. (Other characters are threatened.) Guns are fired elsewhere. Someone dies from heat.
A massive medieval movie scene ends with several very real injuries and at least one death. (An extra lies on the movie set, impaled by a flag-adorned pole.) Guns are fired. Automobiles crash into things. An elephant sends people running. We hear of an actress who dies at a heartbreakingly young age. Someone falls off a roof and into a pool.
We hear roughly 165 uses of the f-word and another 30 or so of the s-word. Oh, and there’s at least one c-word in the mix, too. No surprise Babylon has plenty of other, lesser profanities in the mix—nearly all of them, actually—including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “h—,” “p-ssy,” “pr–k” and probably a few I didn’t have time to write down. God’s name is misused at least seven times (five of them with “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused four times.
Hollywood’s silent-era hedonism was powered by two things, it would seem from Babylon: hubris and illegal substances.
Technically, alcohol was an illegal substance at the time, too, with Prohibition in place since 1920. But that didn’t matter, it seems, to anyone in the film industry. Countless people drink a variety of substances, and some get raging drunk to the point of unconsciousness. In one scene, Jack—who’s been drinking constantly on set during a delay in filming—needs help to stagger up a hill to where a scene’s to be shot. He can barely stand and nearly tosses his cookies before the camera starts rolling. And then, when the scene begins, he performs perfectly.
And that’s far from the only substance being passed around. Nellie and Manny bond while snorting cocaine in a back room. Nellie is constantly getting illicit substances from an on-set drug dealer, sometimes popping pills to help calm her nerves. (He presumably has another job on set, as well, but it seems most everyone knows why he’s really in demand.) A man, whom the movie suggests almost subsists on chemicals, puts makeup on his face to hide just how gray and pasty it actually is.
The opening party is full of banned substances, and one person apparently dies from it. (We see the mostly naked body with gunk crusted around her mouth. The main concern seems to be how to dispose of the body without anyone—including partygoers and police—being alerted to what’s happened.)
Characters smoke cigarettes and cigars.
And on and on it goes.
As the elephant is being taking to the party (mentioned in the introduction), she suffers a very serious stomach emergency. Her handler gets sprayed with vats of diarrhea (and we’re subjected to a very anatomical shot of the elephant’s backside, too).
A talented Black jazz performer successfully breaks color barriers, moving from behind the camera to in front of it as he entertains audiences with his skill. But in one movie, the color of his skin is lighter than many of his jazz-playing cohorts, and he’s forced to wear shoe polish on his face so that audiences—not able to detect the difference in hue—won’t be shocked at the appearance of an interracial band.
Someone goes to a posh party and, in an aggressive act, crams as much food into her mouth as messily as she can. Before she leaves, she winds up projectile-vomiting all over the host and his carpet.
Nellie has a gambling problem, and she falls under the sway of a very dangerous criminal and his gang—putting herself and others in peril.
A couple of people try to pay off a debt using fake movie money. Moviemakers use asbestos as snow.
In the book of Revelation, we meet a woman called Babylon, sitting on a seven-headed beast and holding a “golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.” I’m sure many a Bible reader has stumbled across the description and thought to him/herself, “What’s that all about?”
Some might have a similar, confused reaction to this dizzying, often slightly insane, movie.
First, let’s give some credit where it’s due. Babylon has its attractions. Taking place in the frenetic, chaotic, anything-goes environment of a powerful fledgling industry, Babylon gives us a sense of the era’s charms as well as its decadence. Jack often trumpets this new “art” (though it was hardly that at the time) as a powerful force for good, and Hollywood’s advertised as the greatest place on Earth. You can see what Jack sees beneath its many (many) vices: the beauty and wonder and satisfaction that comes from weaving dreams with borrowed cameras and paper sets. The possibilities that burble underneath the surface.
We should also acknowledge that, for all of Jack’s optimistic ruminations, Babylon isn’t meant to trumpet Hollywood’s past beauties as much as it is to castigate it for its excesses. This is, indeed, a place of depravity—so full of titillation that a prostitute holding a golden cup and riding a horrific beast would blend right in.
But naturally, therein lies the problem. Or, rather, problems.
Babylon is as crass and raw and titillating and intentionally disgusting movie as I’ve seen this year. It joins many a film seeking to point to a given culture’s excesses and spends hours (in this movie’s case, more than three hours) showing you just how bad it can be. “Wow, isn’t that horrible?” it says. “Now, come this way and take a look at this!”
In the opening scenes, a police officer tells Manny and his crew that you can’t “drive an elephant without a permit.” This movie has some elephantine-sized issues. And discerning viewers might want to drive the other way.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.