In 1999, Alex Monty Canawati and his producer found a factory sealed bag of 16mm black and white Ilford film on Hollywood Boulevard. Using this, Canawati and his team began Birth of Babylon, which won Best Short Film at the Arpa Foundation film festival in 2001. This short silent film depicts the infamous, still officially unsolved murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor (played by Jack Atlantis). The Taylor murder involved a who’s who list of Hollywood celebrities as suspects. Among those were Mary Miles Minter (Devora Lillian) and Mabel Normand (Morganne Picard). Although no one was charged, the highly publicized investigation effectively destroyed the careers of the two actresses connected to the case (in 1964 silent actress Margaret Gibson confessed to the killing of Taylor on her deathbed). The Taylor murder came a mere five months after the Roscoe Arbuckle rape scandal and was followed by the drug-related deaths of silent stars Olive Thomas and Barbara La Marr (Wendy Caron), prompting Hollywood to write morality clauses into its contracts. This regulation eventually gave birth to the Hayes Code.
Canawati had attended the University of Southern California and discovered a fascination for silent film aesthetics and Kenneth Anger. Apart from Guy Maddin, Canawati was the only filmmaker of note producing silent films a full decade before the populist, Academy Award winning The Artist (2011). However, Canawati was not content with Birth as a short and wanted to expand it into a feature, encompassing far more than a single representative event of silent cinema. Due to financial struggles, Return to Babylon (2013) took over a decade to see fruition. It has been worth the wait.
Far from a mere nostalgia piece, Return to Babylon sports a beautiful ensemble cast, an authentic love of craft, and almost surreal, Catholic reverence for Hollywood’s silent era, which makes this Canawati’s own take, as opposed to Anger’s “dripping with cynicism” version of Hollywood Babylon. Canawati does not judge his subjects, and imbues his film with an all too rare and refreshing aesthetic joy.
True to the tenets of silent film, Return to Babylon is episodic, opening (and closing) with the notorious vamp Theda Bara (played by Sylvia B. Suarez) gazing into her crystal ball. It almost plays like an “Inner Sanctum” episode, with a real-life silent actress serving as the introductory host. Canawati stamps the flow of his film with idiosyncratic verve, making these episodes feel like jazz miniatures. Like Kurt Weill (a jazzy period composer whose music is utilized in the film), Canawati is prone to moments of seductive dissonance. In the opening, this dissonance takes the form of bursting legendary bubbles, yet one senses Canawati’s sincere embrace of the truth behind (what the sur-titles refer to as) “Hollywood: Metropolis of make believe.”
“It” girl Clara Bow (Jennifer Tilly) is one of the funnest of the silent sex kittens because her short career was replete with jaw-dropping scandals (most of which were true). Tilly, with an astute actor’s instinct, realizes this and makes for a commanding, humorous presence. Although her appearance is brief, it may be one of this underrated actress’ best performances.
The crystal ball often serves as a silent film iris (with surreal imagery, including a ghost fairy) introducing us to the likes of Alla Nazimova (Laura Harring), Louise Brooks (Shiva Rose), Josephine Baker (Rolanda Watts) and the tragic Alma Rubens (Marina Bakica). Canawati uses the music intelligently, juxtaposing Tchaikovsky’s manic-depressive “Swan Lake” with the read of Rubens’ imaginary lines. In addition to Tchaikovsky, Return to Babylon is a lucid example of artful eclecticism: Beethoven’s “Symphony Seven”, Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, Liszt’s ““Totentanz”, Brahms’ “German Requiem” and Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” all make the film as enjoyable to listen to as it is to watch.
Theda’s crystal abruptly transports us to the egomaniacal Erich Von Stroheim (Robert Sherman), and the doomed pair of Roscoe Arbuckle (Brett Ashy) and Virginia Rappe (Ione Skye). The tensions between Gloria Swanson (Debi Mazar) and studio head Adolf Zukor (Michael Goldman) are bitingly funny, as is Zuckor’s secretary, Mrs. Peabody (Tippi Hedren) and her trusty typewriter fending off an octet of silent stars nervous about transitioning to sound.
Even more whimsical pathos comes in the Lupe Velez vignette (featuring Maria Conchita Alonso, who also produced this feature). The hot-tempered Mexican spitfire took on Hollywood’s biggest studs, such as Tarzan Johnny Wiesmuller (Kevin Dailey, losing his loincloth) and Gary Cooper (Shane Markland) before her suicide as a pregnant, unwed Hollywood has been.
Canawati himself takes on the role of the enigmatic Rudolf Valentino, tragically short lived, disastrously married to three lesbians, yet dying at the right time (just before the coming of sound, which would undoubtedly have destroyed his career).
There is much more to Return to Babylon. Canwati is taking it to festivals and planning a DVD version with extended paranormal scenes. Already the film shows that essential silent film milieu: an ethereal, long dead, imaginary world.
Celluloid Babylon, glorious glamorous
Goal of ambitious
And vicious and clamorous
These were the infamous
Striving, conniving to gain recognition,
Fighting for fame
In the flickering fiction
(Spectral dance flickering )
Pickfords and Chaplins,
DeMilles and the Gishes,
Peers in the kingdom of
Visions and wishes
Drama, a city full,
Tragic and pitiful,
Bunk, junk, and genius
Absurd and stupendous,
Shoddy and cheap…
And astoundingly splendid.
Donald Benson, “Hollywood”