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    Babylon Reviled

    By Jan Wahl–

    I’m a true fan of Hollywood circa 1920’s and 1930’s.  What is more fascinating than an Industry just beginning to find its way to tell stories, cast stars, begin techniques that last to this day?  Off the silver screen we are men and women, as Gloria Swanson said, “like hummingbirds, flapping our wings as fast as we can to stay in flight.”  It was a time of excess, for there were no boundaries yet.  It looked like the party would never stop, even in the midst of the Depression. The movies were supplying dreams and escapism. The public itself was falling in love with cinema.      

    There have been many movies about this period of Hollywood history. Of course, everyone knows about Singin’ in the Rain, the definitive silent-to-talkies musical. That movie was such perfection that my late friend Jacques Mapes, who was the set decorator for it, told me the props used were actually from the vaults of silent movies found at the studio.  Not all reached that level, but here are some others that attempted a recreation of those vibrant times: The Artist, Mank, The Last Tycoon, Show People, Nickelodeon, The Day of the Locust, and Inside Daily Clover.  For later Hollywood, there were some greats like Sunset Blvd, The Bad and the Beautiful, (the under-rated) Hollywoodlandand The Player.  Even satires like Bowfinger, S.O.B., The Big Knife, In a Lonely Place, The Big Picture and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood managed to show us the intensity and possibly the laughs as characters roamed the streets of filmdom. All of these, every single one, is better than Babylon.   

    Damien Chazelle wrote and directed this recent epic. It is almost impossible to believe this is the same filmmaker who gave us my favorite movie of 2016:  LaLa Land.  In Babylon, Chazelle is creating a world of the debauched and decadent, not at all a problem at this time in Hollywood. Sex parties, drug deaths, murders, alcoholism, deadly accidents were rampant. No rules, behavioral history or unions kept the movie world in line.  It was wild. I give a lecture entitled Scandals of Tinseltownduring this period, it is hot fun and sometimes an orgy or three.  In Babylon, Chazelle mixes it altogether, which sounds wonderful, right?  It would be if there was one orgy, but it is repetitive, so that heaving sex and depravity becomes “oh no, not again.”  Which would still be okay, if we cared about anyone involved.

    For a time and place filled with incredible and colorful characters, the movie glides over them before we know who they are. Chazelle has taken a few interesting backstories of John Gilbert, Anna May Wong and Clara Bow, played by Brad Pitt, Li Jun Li and Margot Robbie. Because the parts are such quick glimpses, we never connect or care. Only Pitt gets a chance to fill us in, but he cannot save this mess.  Jean Smart portrays a columnist, seemingly based on Adela Rogers St. John.  Her three-minute scene with Pitt is the best in this three-hour six-minute movie. There are also fine glimpses into early techniques of cinema, if only Chazelle would have concentrated on that instead of his need to shock, titillate and gross out.   

    We live in a time that a filmmaker can and will show all bodily excrements. It’s all here in Babylon. As contrast, we get glimpses of how Hollywood eventually becomes the land of great films and auteurs.  That is particularly offensive, since the rest of it assaults, bores, and demeans.

    Guess you get the idea this one wasn’t for me. It may be terrific for you, as some of my colleagues have pointed out. I would take my time and money and get to: The Fabelmans, She Said, 13 Lives and just about anything else.                              

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

    Off the Wahl
    Published on January 12, 2023