There’s a lot to digest in Damien Chazelle’s overstuffed Hollywood epic, “Babylon.” The story of three disparate movie denziens (played by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva) trying to survive the transition between the silent era and the talkies boasts some stellar performances, but what people might remember after the credits roll is just how wild Chazelle’s hedonistic world is. As he sees it, the silent era of Hollywood is packed to bursting with orgies, dancing, booze, woozy elephants, and a lot of nudity. Oh, and a ton of cocaine.
To many modern-day viewers, cocaine is likely more synonymous with ’80s excess than the supposed glamour of the ’20s. Movies like “Goodfellas” and “Less Than Zero” present cocaine as a party drug of a more contemporary era, so it’s understandable that it would show up in Chazelle’s film, particularly its raucous opening party sequence, as the filmmaker threads historical accuracies with his own special skew.
But would it really be the drug of choice for the Clara Bow-esque Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie)?
“It makes for a compelling story,” Fritzi Kramer, silent film aficionado and owner of the popular silent era website Movies Silently, told IndieWire via Zoom. Cocaine, as Kramer points out, was certainly a popular drug during the era, both on-screen and off, but it wasn’t often the drug of choice for the stars of the ’20s.
So is the cocaine use in “Babylon” exaggerated? Well, to an extent.
In 1914, president William Taft declared cocaine public enemy No. 1 and the passage of the Harrison Act that same year tightly regulated its sale and distribution. By the ’30s, it had severely declined in usage and would be considered a passé drug by the ’50s. But from the 1910s to the early ’20s, there was access to it, but it had to compete with a lot of other drugs that stars could get somewhat easier.
Make no mistake, drug use was heavy during the 1910s and into the ’20s. At the time, silent era Hollywood was actually entering two distinct drug periods, with most drugs being legal until 1916. Kramer explained that cocaine was certainly in the public consciousness, but was far from what most silent stars were using.
“Cocaine was definitely in, and you could definitely find it,” she said. “But I would say that you’re going to see morphine much, much more often, and opium also.”
Much of that was aided by availability and access. In the case of morphine, doctors often over-prescribed it. Silent film actress Alma Rubens admitted in her autobiography “Alma Rubens: Silent Snowbird,” that her cocaine dealer was her dentist, who she’d eventually engage in a side business with. Rubens would be arrested for cocaine possession and morphine smuggling in 1931.
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
Probably the death best associated with morphine addiction in the Old Hollywood era is that of Wallace Reid, labeled by Motion Picture Magazine as “the world’s most perfect lover.” Reid was provided morphine to overcome an injury sustained in a train wreck and quickly became addicted. He would die, at the age of 31, in a sanatorium attempting to get clean in 1923.
The dangers of morphine were also reflected in the films of the time. The 1916 feature “The Devil’s Needle” saw acclaimed silent film actress Norma Talmadge shoot up morphine on-screen, and the 1923 lost film “Human Wreckage,” produced by Reid’s widow Dorothy Davenport, also looked at the perils of morphine.
Films of the silent era routinely used drug use as a plot point. In fact, up until the early ’20s, some drug films were comical, such as 1916’s “The Mystery of the Leaping Fish,” where action star Douglas Fairbanks powders his nose with cocaine. By the arrival of the ’20s, drug films came to have a more moralizing element as well as a clear-cut bad guy: Chinese opium smugglers.
“There was [a] racial element [to opium] so they could bring in Orientalism,” Kramer said. “The Chinese regalia they thought was very attractive. They could have a white actor playing the Chinese characters.” Even in Fairbanks’ film, he both shoots up morphine and battles opium smugglers before consuming the very drug he was fighting against.
So is the depiction of the silent era in “Babylon” how it truly was? As Kramer lays out, there was as a broad spectrum of experiences for film stars of the time. Some had a lot of fun (with some extra medicinal help) and some played it safe.
“Alma Rubens [was] doing any drugs she could find and, on the other hand, there was an actress called Mignon Anderson. She was not a huge star, but [historian] Anthony Slide interviewed her, and she was shocked that the next-door neighbors were living together without being married,” Kramer said.
The hedonism of the era is visually arresting for modern audiences, but it’s a small part of why the silent film era has endured. The real question: Where are all the morphine addicts, Damien Chazelle?
Paramount will release “Babylon” Friday, December 23 in theaters.