The Learning Curve

Back in February 1983, I had been to the Bridge Lane Theatre in Battersea to see the musical Hollywood Babylon, based on Kenneth Anger’s hard-hitting book about scandals in the Hollywood film community of the 1930s.

It looked as if its limited run was going to end there as no central theatre showed any signs of taking it up. I decided to stage it again for three nights at the Camden Palace between 14th and 16th June, feeling that, properly promoted, this might induce a West End management to consider a transfer. The show, in my opinion, was worth another chance.

The play re-enacted fourteen stories from the book, using a mix of music, dance, dialogue, mime and film, assembled by the director Paul Marcus, who was fulfilling a three-year ambition in presenting it for the stage. It was unsentimental and hardcore, whether it was telling of the demise of the Mexican Spitfire, Lupe Velez, bungling a meticulously rehearsed suicide and drowning in vomit and toilet water; or of the kindly Ramon Novarro being murdered by having a dildo rammed down his throat.

Time Out described it as ‘not so much digging the dirt’ as ‘more of a full-scale excavation’. The critics were confounded by the breakneck pace of the show and the full horror of its story-telling. But they all agreed that Debbie Arnold, playing Lana Turner and Jayne Mansfield, was excellent and a theatrical discovery. Trudie Styler (now Sting’s wife) as Velez, Mary Astor and Barbara Le Marr were equally outstanding, and Nick Chagriu as Valentino and Novarro set the seal on the high quality of the acting.

The production was slick and entertaining, so long as you had the stomach for it. In retrospect I could see the reason for its failure. The public on a night out does not necessarily wish to witness scenes of human degradation; and the production’s shock tactics were hardly calculated to turn it into anything other than the kind of entertainment that relies on squalor and violence for its appeal.

From my own perspective the exercise was another learning experience that would no doubt help my selectivity in future. Debbie Arnold was soon to star opposite Omar Sharif (who died recently) in the stage version of The Prince and the Showgirl, in the role made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the movie. This was definitely as a result of her performance in Hollywood Babylon. So, on this occasion, something good had come out of my entrepreneurial misjudgement.

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