silent stars

D.W. Griffith, the Gish Sisters and the origin of "Hollywood Babylon" (Fake News: Fact Checking Hollywood Babylon Episode 1) by Karina Longworth

Hollywood Babylon Cover.jpg

Listen and download this episode, or find on Apple Podcasts.

This season will interrogate a book that is considered by many to be the urtext of salacious movieland gossip: Hollywood Babylon. Written by Kenneth Anger, a child actor turned director of experimental queer art films, Hollywood Babylon has been derided by some readers as a work of dangerous libel for its embellishments and, in some cases, outright fictions about real people and events. (Originally published in France in 1959, the book was not widely available in the US until 1975). Others have celebrated Anger’s bitchy tome as the ultimate, camp trolling of the movie industry and all of its sordid hypocrisy and corruption. Over the course of a two-part season (with part one exploring the silent era and part two, to come later in 2018, stretching from the 1930s into the late 1960s), we will examine some of the stories Anger tells and the way he tells them, and we’ll try to figure out the real story. Throughout, we’ll talk about how the seemingly contemporary concept of “fake news” has played a key role in Hollywood’s star-making (and star-destroying) apparatus from the industry’s earliest days, and how such practices mutated through the work of counter-narrators like Anger and beyond.

The phrase “Hollywood Babylon” entered the vernacular thanks to D.W. Griffith, one of Hollywood’s first great directors, who followed up the racist smash The Birth of a Nation with a less-successful historical epic called Intolerance. Anger’s use of that film’s Babylon set, which was left to stand and decay for years after the film came and went, as the structuring image of his gossip bible, helps to set the ironic tone of the book. But what of Anger’s accusations that Griffith was a known pedophile, and that his stars, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, were incestuous?

D.W. Griffith on set, c. 1918

D.W. Griffith on set, c. 1918

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, c. 1920

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, c. 1920



This episode is a response to, and includes a brief excerpt from, Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger.

The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow

From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell

The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War by Dick Lehr

Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life by Charles Affron

D.W. Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel  

Sunshine And Shadow by Mary Pickford

Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story by David W. Menefee

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

“From Movie to Masterpiece” by Denison Clift, Oakland Tribune, April 28 1918, Page 18


Original music was composed for this episode by Evan Viola. Most of the rest of music used in this episode, with the exception of the intro and outro, was sourced from royalty-free music libraries and licensed music collections. The intro includes a clip from the film Casablanca. The outro song this week is "Sister Like You" by The Auteurs.

Excerpts from the following songs were used throughout the episode:

Black and White Memories 3 - Martin Hall

Say It Is So - Magnus Ringblom

The Old House - Håkan Eriksson

Chamber String Rock - Håkan Eriksson

Sophisticated Gentlemen - Magnus Ringblom

The Smoke Room - Gunnar Johnsén  

Jazz and Blue Piano 1 - Jonaton Jarpehag 

Finkelstein’s Walk in the Rain - Per-Anders Nilsson 


Our special guest this week is TS Faull, who read from Hollywood Babylon. TS last appeared on You Must Remember This episode 49 in our "Charles Manson's Hollywood" season, in which he played Kenneth Anger. 

This episode was written, narrated and produced by Karina Longworth.

Editors: Sam Dingman and Jacob Smith.

Research and production assistant: Lindsey D. Schoenholtz.

Social media assistant: Brendan Whalen.

Logo design: Teddy Blanks

Kenneth Anger on the set of  Lucifer Rising , 1970

Kenneth Anger on the set of Lucifer Rising, 1970

YMRT #17 Theda Bara, Hollywood's First Sex Symbol by Karina Longworth

Find this episode on iTunes

Theda Bara might be the most significant celebrity pioneer whose movies you’ve never seen. She was the movie industry’s first sex symbol; the first femme fatale; the first silent film actress to have a fictional identity invented for her by publicists and sold through a receptive media to a public who was happy to be conned; and she might have been America’s first homegrown goth.  She was one of the three biggest stars in Hollywood during her heyday — the other two being Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford — but by the early 1920s, the Victorian sexual panic she represented was way passé, thanks to the rise of the flapper, and Bara couldn’t get a job. Today most of her films are lost, and culturally she’s all but been forgotten. In this episode, we’ll trace her life and brief, bright career, and talk about what it was like to be a working actress, one of the most famous women in the world, and the embodiment of an intentionally scary fantasy during the very first days of Hollywood.

Show Notes!

There are two biographies on ThedaBara. Both of them (kind of weirdly) were published in 1996. Eve Golden’s Vamp is the livelier read, and it seems to pop up in a lot of bibliographies. But there is also ThedaBara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmographyby Ronald Ginini. Vamp has one of the most famous photos of Bara on its cover; I believe that photo was one of the ones taken by Jack Freundlich, as discussed in this episode. A great source on Fruendlich’s work, with Bara and beyond, is Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography by David S. Shields. Still was an important background resource for my own book on Hollywood still photography, Hollywood Frame by Frame

Here is a link to all of the Richard Avedon photos of Marilyn Monroe as former Hollywood sex symbols, and this is the Theda shot:

Other sources I consulted while working on this episode include Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By; Louise Brooks’Lulu in Hollywood; and Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

Download this episode (click the download button on the player)


“Preludes for Piano 2” by George Gershwin

“You Could Never Tell” by The Horrors

“Atmosphere” by Joy Division

“Untitled” by Body/Head

“Undercover Vampire Policeman” by Chris Zabriskie

“Readers! Do You Read?” by Chris Zabriskie

“Ball and Biscuit” by The White Stripes

“Surprise Ending” by Helium

“Baby Vampire Made Me” by Helium

“Rub ’Til It Bleeds” by PJ Harvey

“Benbient” by canton

“Ceremony” by New Order, covered by Galaxie 500

“Damned if She Do” by The Kills

“Gymnopedie No. 3” by Eric Satie, performed by Kevin MacLeod

“Rock My Boat” by DNTEL