Mar 8, 2016

Book Review--Hollywood on the Spot: Crimes Against the Early Movie Stars

Hollywood on the Spot Crimes Against the Early Movie Stars
Patrick Downey

From the time there were movie stars, there were also criminals who preyed upon them. Particularly during the Depression, the high concentration of wealth in Hollywood was tantalizing for those looking for an easy buck, from ex-convicts to teenage soda jerks. In a new book, Patrick Downey explores a wide range of Tinsel town crimes against famous actors and directors, from the minor to the life-threatening.

Hollywood on the Spot is a brief, amusing read, tackling everything from death threats to petty theft. Several of the stories are Hollywood legend, like the plot to kidnap Mary Pickford and death threats made against Shirley Temple. Others are interesting, more obscure tidbits, like the time Wings (1927) star Richard Arlen realized he would be charged less for groceries if he had his staff members purchase them under their own names.

Put together, what emerges is an interesting examination of the way the darker elements in the audience related to the stars in an emerging medium. It's a strange mixture of envy and love. In many cases, the criminals would inflict terror and lasting emotional damage on the very people they admired most. While money was a common objective, so was making some sort of connection with these glittering, glamorous figures. So absorbed in their own desires, the criminals would deny the performers they admired their sense of humanity, as if the exposure of the silver screen made them a commodity for audience exploitation.

As frightening as these threats could be for the victims, there's an almost amusing air of theatricality to the way the crooks presented themselves. Seemingly inspired by stage melodramas and radio shows, in their extortion letters they would give themselves names like, The Leopard, Yellow Hornet, or Ace, with a drawing of the ace of spades. It is as if they not only wanted to share in the stars' wealth, but also in the fame and dramatics.

One it gets rolling, the book has a good flow, but it takes a bit to pick up steam. The essentially solid first chapter, devoted entirely to the story of Pickford's attempted kidnapping, relies heavily on long passages of dialogue, which occasionally gives the narrative a stilted feeling. At least some of it would have been impossible to capture accurately, unless America's Sweetheart and Douglas Fairbanks were wired for sound. The remaining three chapters are smoother reading, as related crimes unroll one after the other, each outrageous in their own way, but also fascinating for their similarities.

There are several photos of the stars and criminals, most of them separate. The one exception is the infamous photo of Tyrone Power genially shaking hands with the notorious, and prolific Hollywood burglar, Ralph "The Phantom" Graham--one of the most fascinating characters in the book--after his capture. I loved the shot of a male detective dressed up like Mae West, ready to make a cash drop in an attempt to catch an extortionist who threatened to spray her face with acid.

This is an interesting look at risky side of Hollywood stardom, and the movie-worthy characters who often found that crime didn't pay nearly as well as they'd hoped.

Many thanks to Patrick Downey for providing a copy of the book for review.

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