In the first decade of the 20th century, close to 6 million American children were not attending school (U.S. population at the time was 76 million). Many of these were juvenile delinquents who needed a place to go, a place to learn, and the newly established picture houses became home away from home. Even the least desirable nickelodeon was better than the streets and houses that the children inhabited. It could be safe to say that this was the first generation of adolescent moviegoers. Spending what little money they could find – or steal – the pictures became the main source of information, much less entertainment, for these young minds.
As early as 1912, a young boy was reported tried and hanged for copycatting the crime in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). Even though it was proven that the boy had never seen it, the facts fit close enough, and the film was held to blame.
As America dealt with the social problems of the juvenile delinquent and the effect of movies on its young audiences, the Irish-born actor-turned-director William Desmond Taylor found himself making a feature film confronting these social issues while his own lifestyle would result in one of Hollywood’s most fascinating tragedies, which remains unsolved to this day.
The Soul of Youth, released in 1920, exposed the gritty realities that many in society were experiencing. The film’s immense compassion is established early on with a title card: “If being an orphan meant only growing up without parents, it wouldn’t be so bad, but too often it means growing up without love.”
In 1919 Julia Crawford Ivers, who had collaborated with director Taylor on the screenplays for his Mark Twain trilogy of films, was inspired to write The Soul of Youth after meeting the founder and key advocate of the U.S. juvenile court system, Judge Ben Lindsey. As production began, her 30-year-old son James Van Trees was brought aboard as cinematographer, as was 16-year-old actor Lewis Sargent, who had just played the lead in their version of Huckleberry Finn. To say that the film had an effect on him would be an understatement; after retiring from acting in his late thirties, Lewis Sargent worked as a California State Probation Officer for 20 years.
Taylor then met 24-year-old artistic designer George Hopkins, who had created the sets and costumes for the extravagant 1917 production of Cleopatra. As Hopkins and Taylor dug through old antique shops and scouted locations in the seediest of neighborhoods, they grew quite fond of one another; it’s rumored that they were madly in love throughout the entire production. The set design was severe and realistic, emphasizing the desolation that homelessness could bring. Even the child extras used in the film were from real Los Angeles orphanages. This dedication to authenticity resulted in the film being censored and banned in several cities upon its release. George Hopkins would go on to design the sets for Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Even with the poignancy of Ivers’s script, the resonance of Sargent’s acting, and the shocking realism of Hopkins’s sets, it was Judge Ben Lindsey who lifted The Soul of Youth to such powerful heights.
The real-life Lindsey founded the United States Juvenile Court in 1901 on the belief that children commit mistakes, not crimes. Lindsey explained in interviews that he had been “just a judge, judging cases according to the law,” until a moment in early 1901, when, upon delivering an adult’s sentence to a young boy in his courtroom, he heard a heart-rending shriek from the boy’s mother. It was then that he decided to change the criminal court for child offenders. He clarified how children needed careful rehabilitation as opposed to the institutional cruelties of 19th Century reformatories.
Lindsey’s first foray into the movies was a three-reeler entitled Saved by the Juvenile Court (1913). Dozens of letters were sent to the film’s distributors the Columbine Film Company from child-betterment organizations inspired by the Judge’s social activism. This prompted Lindsey to announce an interest in directing feature films on the child labor dilemma. The Soul of Youth, however, proved to be the pinnacle of his movie career, and it was William Desmond Taylor who knew how to best reveal the compassion that resided in the Judge’s gentle eyes because Taylor himself had been brought before the Judge ten years prior. In 1910, Taylor was beaten by police and arrested after being mistaken for a homeless delinquent. Judge Ben Lindsey acquitted the soon-to-be director the next day. The judge appeared in one more film, Judge Ben Lindsey in Juvenile Court, which featured his voice via the Photokinema sound-on-disc system. Sadly, hundreds of miles away, his friend William Desmond Taylor was caught in a delinquent lifestyle no judge could have jurisdiction over.
On the morning of February 2, 1922, William Desmond Taylor was found dead in his Los Angeles bungalow. He lay on his back, arms at his side, face calm and composed. The police initially concluded that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage. Actress Mabel Normand, the last person to see Taylor alive, was questioned as to why she had been at the director’s house early that morning, and she explained that she had come to retrieve personal letters she had written to him. As the police began to remove Taylor’s body, they saw a small pool of blood on the floor beneath him. A bullet hole was discovered in the lower part of his back. The investigation began in earnest.
Neighbors were interviewed who had seen a dark figure leave the house, but no further details came to light. Taylor’s money and diamond ring were still on his corpse, which ruled out robbery. A search of the house turned up a cache of pornographic photos depicting the director with many recognizable actresses, as well as a secret closet containing a collection of lingerie, each item dated and initialed. The most interesting find was a pale silk nightgown embroidered with the letters M.M.M.
The newspapers had a field day with the mysterious identity of Taylor’s murderer. Was it the cook who had recently been fired? Was it the cook’s replacement, who was reportedly bisexual and in love with Taylor? Was it Mary Miles Minter, the beautiful 20-year-old actress whose love letters were found all throughout Taylor’s bungalow? Or was it Minter’s mother, a woman who was believed by many including director King Vidor to have the motive for killing Taylor? Vidor’s determination to solve the murder bordered on obsession, and occupied him for the rest of his life. Mary Miles Minter continued to proclaim her love for Taylor until the day she died in 1984.
Eighty years later, people are still obsessed with the mystery of William Desmond Taylor. The fanzine/website www.taylorology.com has posted more than 100 issues in the past 20 years devoted to Taylor. Kimberly Pierce, writer and director of Boys Don’t Cry (1999), wrote a screenplay in 2003 about the unsolved case. ”I went to the King Vidor collection and got everything that had ever been written on it.” Pierce said in a 2007 interview. “We solved the murder mystery! We figured out who did it, how they did it, and why it had to be covered up.” As of yet no studio has given the green light for the film to be made.
Combined with other scandals of the era, such as the controversial 1921 trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the murder of William Desmond Taylor was depicted as representing a moral delinquency exuding from Hollywood in the 1920s. Does Hollywood itself have anything to do with creating delinquency? Or does it create a fascinating world where we can figure out how to understand delinquents? Maybe it all starts with The Soul of Youth.
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Stephen Horne