Babylon takes us back to a time of Hollywood past – but there are many films worth checking out before and after…
This Friday sees the release of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon in the UK. Following his successes with Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2017), and First Man (2018), the Academy award-winning director now dives into a cinematic world that I so desperately love: classic Hollywood.
Babylon is a hedonistic tale of Hollywood in the late 1920s, as the film industry moved from silent films into the era of talkies. Starring Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, it follows two upcoming movie stars as they are thrown into the depraved and excessive world of Hollywood.
Chazelle’s polarising three-hour feature has wowed and stunned critics with its tale of debauchery. Before you venture into this epic, there are some other films you may wish to view first. Whether they directly inspired Chazelle’s movie, or denote the era well, this list is a must before Babylon.
Honourable Mention: Winner of three Oscars including Best Picture, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) is a tale of a silent movie star struggling in the advent of sound. As good as it may be, it is a bit too modern for this list.
As well as this, Dudley Murphy’s short film Black And Tan Fantasy (1929), based on the work of Duke Ellington, has also been cited by Chazelle as inspiration for Babylon. The short follows performing artists during the Harlem Renaissance in New York.
Dir. D.W. Griffith
D.W. Griffith is infamously known for his much derided, and terribly racist movie Birth Of A Nation (1915). Griffith’s work inspired riots all across America.
In response, he crafted Intolerance (1917) – a silent film in response to his critics who he felt misaligned his work. Featuring Lillian Gish, the story follows a young woman who is separated from her husband and baby thanks to prejudice. The tale is interwoven through other moments in history where intolerance occurred including the fall of Babylon, birth of Christ and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
It is understandable that many might chose to skip Griffith’s work, owing to the director’s history but Intolerance is both a grand epic movie and an intricate depiction of prejudice throughout different eras. The message and meaning intertwined into the movie feel indelible and precedent even now. Gish is also absolutely compelling to watch.
Intolerance also gives scope to the kind of mammoth movies Hollywood was creating in the 1910s and 1920s. Chazelle has noted that it inspired the battle scenes within Babylon.
The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)
Dir. Raoul Walsh
Douglas Fairbanks was best known for his swashbuckling silent films and being the epitomes silent movie star of the 1920s. Though Fairbanks is best known for his work as Robin Hood and Zorro, it’s The Thief Of Bagdad that I wish to highlight.
Extremely loosely adapted from One Thousand And One Nights, the story revolves around a thief who falls in love with the daughter of Caliph. The Thief Of Bagdad is one of Fairbanks’ own favourite films and it is truly an enchanting adventure with impressive stunts and skills shown by the actor and the production team. It is a magical watch and boasts impressive special effects including a flying carpet and monsters.
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon features allusion to both Fairbanks, and the brilliant Anna May Wong, who was catapulted into stardom thanks to her supporting role in Thief Of Bagdad.
The Merry Widow (1925)
Dir Erich von Stronheim.
There have been many version of Franz Lehar’s 1905 operetta including a fantastic Ernst Lubitsch musical with Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier in 1934.
However, there was a brilliant silent film version which shot John Gilbert, aka the king of the glower, to acclaim. The Merry Widow revolves around a prince who must who must woo a wealthy woman he jilted once to save his country from an economical crash.
John Gilbert and Mae Murray are delightful in the main roles. Gilbert sparks joy with his gleeful glints and smouldering looks whilst Murray is tremendous.
It has been reported that Brad Pitt’s character Jack Conrad was highly inspired as well by Gilbert who sadly saw his career decline when silent pictures gave way to talkies. Though many contemporary critics argue that it was largely due to studio politics, Gilbert was mocked heavily by reviewers and audiences for his hammy performance in His Glorious Night (1929), which was later parodied in Singin’ In The Rain. A rumour spread that Gilbert possessed a squeaky voice, which wasn’t true at all. In fact, his voice was soft but quiet low.
He would announce his retirement in 1933, though thanks to Greta Garbo, he would star alongside her in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina. Gilbert’s last film was in 1934 with The Captain Hates The Sea.
However, if you want to see Gilbert in the height of his prowess, then most definitely watch The Merry Widow. It also boasts supporting roles from little known actors Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.
Children Of Paradise (1945)
Dir. Michel Carné
A young courtesan and actress has men fall desperately in love with her in Michel Carné’s masterpiece.
The breathtaking grand scale of Michel Carné’s work is an absolute paragon of artistry. It weaves the lives of its characters through the trials and tribulations of living, surviving, loving, and thriving. All the while they take the stage to amuse and delight audiences and viewers alike.
The movie was filmed over several years, with shooting taking place during the German occupation of France in World War II. Yet it transports us to the early 1800s, delicately weaving the woes and wonders of its characters over time.
Children Of Paradise is a universal triumph. The masterpiece was once voted the Best Film Ever by French critics. Even Marlon Brando cited it as “maybe the best movie ever made.” Speaking with the Academy, Chazelle hoped to “transpose the ideas of life and art interacting,” from Carne’s theatrical epic. (Source: https://aframe.oscars.org/what-to-watch/post/damien-chazelle-5-films-that-inspired-babylon)
The Wild Party (1929)
Dir. Dorothy Arzner
In Babylon, Margot Robbie’s Nellie is heavily influenced starlet Clara Bow. The actress, known as “The It Girl” in the roaring 20s made a name for herself in silent movies such as Man Trap (1926) and Wings (1927.)
For this list, however, I’m going to suggest pre-Code delight The Wild Party (1929). The film follows Bow as a college student who haplessly falls in love with her professor (played by one Fredric March.)
Directed by Dorothy Arzner, The Wild Party was Bow’s first foray into sound film. The equipment to capture Bow’s distinct accent initially intimidated the actress until Arzner tapped a mic to a pole, creating the first ever boom mic! The sexy and silly film is most definitely a fun watch.
Following The Wild Party, and much like some of her contemporaries, Bow could not completely adapt to sound pictures. Though she would star in the ground-breaking pre-code movie Call Her Savage (1932,) she would retire from acting in 1933.
Chazelle’s outing includes the truly inspiring Arzner as well, who is represented by Olivia Hamilton, playing a character called Ruth Adler.
Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
Dir Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Gene Kelly’s jukebox musical is perhaps the most famous depiction of the transition from silent to sound.
Directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin’ In The Rain (1952) revolves around movie stars Don and Lina who have trouble adapting to the new age of cinema. To get over the poor dialogue and questionable accents, they remould their romantic epic into a musical. However, Lina is less than impressed – even more so when she is dubbed by ingenue Kathy.
A remarkable, colourful, and charming musical that has spent seven decades delighting audiences with its whimsical ode to early cinema. Of course, you could say this influenced La La Land more, especially as it is a sanitised look at the time, but I cannot help but slide Kelly and Donen’s marvellous musical into this article. A perfect primer before that Babylon visit…
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