In America, Hollywood is the promised land—a sun-kissed Mediterranean playground with the weather of a modern-day Eden. For much of its history, Hollywood was the place where the old rules no longer applied. If one was beautiful enough, or talented enough, or simply talked a good game, one could cast off the Protestant work ethic like a ratty winter coat and join the gilded throngs of a new American aristocracy. Hollywood was enticement personified; anything and everything could be bought, nothing was out of reach. Money flowed like water from its jeweled grottoes, and sex was in all around, as palpable as the scent of eucalyptus wafting down through Benedict Canyon. Through the twists and turns of its history, the California town named Hollywood has remained America's capital of glamour non pareil (even after downtown Hollywood had become a sleazy mixture of tourist attractions and dilapidated office buildings, the legendary stars imbedded on Hollywood Boulevard covered in grime, and frequently, obscured by the bodies of the homeless). In its Golden Age, Hollywood was a glamour factory, a metropolis of illusion. Enormous film studios lined its side streets, talent agencies occupied its office buildings, swank restaurants and nightclubs occupied its busy thoroughfares. It was the home of the stars, who built monuments to their image high above in the Hollywood hills, hard by the famous Hollywood sign, beckoning through the smog like a red dot on a map signifying, you are here.
But where exactly was "here?" How did this remote backwater change so suddenly from citrus groves and barley fields into the headquarters of the eleventh largest industry in the United States? In part it had to do with the early economics of the film industry, in part with the weather. In 1887, long before the film industry was a reality in Hollywood, let alone a going concern, a Kansas real estate tycoon named Horace Henderson Wilcox began mapping out the streets of a town built especially for stolid Midwesterners, sick of ice and snow. Being pious Midwesterners themselves, they banned saloons and offered land gratis to any church willing to locate there. The Wilcoxes' embryonic community was nestled at the foot of a ridge of gentle hills which sheltered the farms from the brutal desert winds, twelve miles from the Pacific Ocean. It was an idyllic setting, and fittingly, Wilcox's homesick wife named the nascent settlement Hollywood after the country place of a family friend.
Hollywood was not exactly an overnight success. In 1903, future Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and railroad tycoon General Moses Hazeltine Sherman formed a syndicate that managed to get the still vacant fields incorporated as an independent municipality—a prime example of the land speculation so typical of Los Angeles history up to the present day. They built a trolley line from downtown (the population at the time was a mere 500 people) and a thirty-three room Spanish-style hotel on as-yet-unpaved Hollywood Boulevard. To stimulate sales, Chandler and Co. liberally posted signs reading SOLD among the lots, perhaps the first in a long line of Hollywood subterfuges. In order to attract what they considered as solid citizens (Midwestern farmers) they continued in the pious tradition of the Wilcoxes: beside outlawing saloons, in 1910 the Hollywood Board of Trustees officially banned movie theaters, at which time there was not a one.
The film industry came to Los Angeles in 1907 as the result of a fluke. Winter storms prompted William Selig of the Chicago-based Selig Studios to send his leading man west in search of an alternate location. The filming of The Count of Monte Cristo (1908), the first film shot in California, was completed in Laguna Beach not long after, and Selig was so taken by the area that he returned the following year, setting up shop in a converted Chinese laundry east of downtown. Soon film companies were flocking to Los Angeles. There were both financial and legal reasons for the move. Outdoor shoots could occur year round, and the Los Angeles basin afforded a wealth of natural scenery. "It was all rather pristine and primeval," writes Otto Friedrich. "Cops and robbers chased each other through the streets and directors improvised their stories as they went along. The official histories explain this first flowering as a happy combination of sunshine, open spaces, and diverse settings: the Sahara, the Alps, and the South Seas could all be simulated within Los Angeles' city limits." A further incentive lay in Los Angeles' remote location. Independent film producers were then at war with the Edison syndicate, who, by enforcing patents on film and projection equipment, were set on milking the industry ad infinitum. In remote Los Angeles, collecting royalties would be no easy endeavor for the Edison bund.
At first, the majority of studios settled in Edendale, a hilly and somewhat congested area just west of downtown. It wasn't until 1910 that the first film studio, the Nestor Film Company, established itself in Hollywood proper. (By a happy coincidence, the city of Los Angeles had subsumed Hollywood, rendering the prohibition against movie theaters null and void.) By the 1920s, film production was wholly centered in Hollywood, with a scattering of studios established to the north, in Burbank, or southwest in Culver City. The stars had also staked their claim to the geographic high-ground, moving from the downtown—the adjacent Silver Lake was the neighborhood of choice for the earliest silent stars—to the Hollywood Hills and just west to the lush canyons of Beverly Hills.
By some accounts (most notably, Kenneth Anger's lurid, sensationalistic bio-dissection, Hollywood Babylon), the silent era was a never-ending party of dope, booze, and aggressive promiscuity. In this innocent time, drugs were an acceptable subject for pictures. In 1916, for instance, Douglas Fairbanks starred in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, appearing as Coke Ennyday, a somewhat besotted detective who availed himself liberally of "joy powder." It was a free and easy time, and the stars, by wallowing in their licentiousness, appeared to be testing the limits of public opinion. And push they did, with tragic results. In 1920, popular starlet Olive Thomas committed suicide in Paris, occasioned by her failure to procure heroin; in 1921, comedian Fatty Arbuckle was arrested for the death of aspiring starlet Virginia Rappe during "rough sex." The following year director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in his home, and once again the studio publicists worked overtime at damage control. But the hemorrhaging had gone too far. In the wake of public outrage, the Hollywood production heads reluctantly appointed William H. Hays, a Republican functionary, to act as arbiter of the public morality. Into the 1940s, the notorious Hays Commission would pass judgment on all Hollywood product. Hays declared that the movies needed purifying, both in content and cast. To aid in the latter, he released a notorious black-list, the kiss of death for many a screen idol. Wallace Reid, one of Paramount's biggest stars, made the list (he died in a sanitarium the following year), as did Juanita Hansen and Alma Rubens, both popular leading ladies, and both soon to be deceased.
At the time, the 1920s were considered a Golden Age in Hollywood, but in fact they were merely a holding pattern, killing time until the next big thing—sound—came along. In short order talkies separated the wheat from the chaff. Actors who had succeeded on their looks, but were not trained in elocution (or who had unfortunate speaking voices, or thick regional accents) became also-rans, as irrelevant as yesterday's newspaper. Clara Bow, born and raised in Brooklyn, found her career effectively ended when she blew out the microphones on her first sound scene. One of Hollywood's most successful leading men, John Gilbert, found his career ruined after sound technicians neutered his tenor voice, and Marie Prevost's career was ruined by her thick Bronx accent; each had succumbed to alcoholism by the mid-1930s.
With the advent of sound, the movies—and Hollywood itself—entered into maturity. No longer a curiosity, movies, and moviemakers, were the unwitting producers of dreams, miners of the American unconscious. Apart from a few fallow periods—the early 1960s, for instance—what the astute student of film lore observes is the complex inter-relationship between entertainment and the values of a people. And like the compartmentalized functions of the brain itself, the different studios each specialized in a particular sub-myth; Warner Brothers specialized in gangster films, (the reptilian rear-brain); Universal made its living off of horror films (the unconscious); MGM, rigorously wholesome light-hearted fare (shades of the superego); Columbia, wise-cracking screwball comedies (the ego) and Frank Capra pictures (another example of the socializing super-ego). Moviegoers could take their pick from a smorgasbord of the unconscious, and the relationship was reciprocal only insofar as a film that failed to tap into deep-seated archetypes was apt to sink from view in a matter of weeks.
As the instrument of our unconscious desires, film stars took on a preternatural significance. They were demi-gods and goddesses, archetypes, and by the same token, repositories of innately American virtues and vices. And Hollywood itself was their charmed playland, the center of a galaxy of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs like a neon-lit Mount Olympus come to life (in fact, a Hollywood housing development of the 1960s was named Mount Olympus). For a time, the places where film people staged their debauches became as well known as the stars that patronized them. Chasen's, Musso & Frank's, The Brown Derby, and The Montmarte—these names evoke an era where film deals were made over three martini lunches and stars relaxed after a tough day of shooting at one of several exclusive watering holes. Celebritydom was enjoyed in public, movie stars less cloistered than they are today. At lunch time, crowds would gather around Hollywood eateries in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a Cary Grant or a Marlene Dietrich. While the rest of the country struggled through the Depression, Hollywood wallowed in abundance, and far from taking umbrage with their antics, the public took their high-living as a reassuring sign that better times lay ahead. "Around the globe Hollywood became Tinseltown, a land of dreams and luxury," writes Ronald L. Davis. "For the American public, raised on an ethic that emphasized success, material wealth, and social mobility, Hollywood embodied a national ideal."
Similarly, the nation's movie palaces acted as an extension of this mythology. If the studios were in the business of selling dreams, then the theaters with their slavish attention to detail augmented that feeling. The gilded, air-conditioned temples were calculated to awe, and for many, the very act of going to the movies was a panacea, where for thirty cents one could temporarily shut out the overwhelming tide of misery around them. Although Hollywood was not alone in its luxurious theaters, those that lined Hollywood Boulevard became world famous, especially for the red-carpeted premieres they so frequently hosted. Graumann's Chinese Theater became something of a national landmark, for its premieres as well as the foot and hand prints embedded in fresh concrete around the box office. While over the course of time, the Chinese Theater's neighbors—the El Capitan, the Egyptian—have fared poorly (until very recently), Mann's has remained a virtual institution, along with Musso & Frank's, the last vestige of Hollywood's glamour years.
Even as Hollywood wallowed in its good fortune, its destruction was at hand. 1939 had been a good year for Hollywood. The movie industry was the nation's eleventh largest industry, grossing $700 million that year, attracting more than fifty million Americans to the nation's theaters every week. Within a decade, this illusion of omnipotence would prove to be just that, illusory. After two decades of staving off Justice Department anti-trust lawsuits, the moguls had relented and divested themselves of their theater holdings and ended their unreasonable, but lucrative, booking practices (in effect, theater owners were forced to buy films in blocks, accepting many duds in order to book the one film they wanted). In addition, the star-system the moguls had pinned their fortunes on had backfired with disastrous results. Enormous salaries were one thing, but when the stars began packaging their own deals, in effect usurping the role of the studios, the moguls could only watch in horror as the power they had so carefully nurtured slipped through their fingers. Now it was the actors, agents, and managers who called the shots.
Television was a contributing factor to the demise of the studio system. The big studios ignored the threat, and only marginal companies like RKO realized a profit, hiring their facilities out to the upstart medium. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, the studios watched their profits evaporate as they grew further out of touch with the post-war audience. Even then, Hollywood generated a kind of anti-alchemy with Film Noir, one of film's most enduring and symbolically rich genres, so perfectly in step with the mood of paranoia and desperation sweeping over the land. But Film Noir's richness was unintentional; for the most part, the genre consisted of "B" movies and programmers, not the kinds of epic, sweeping dramas that studios took pride in.
Ironically, it was these same "B" movie actors and directors, more attuned to the changing times, who saved the majors, ushering in the New Hollywood, what was for many the last Golden Age of American movie-making. By the early 1960s, Hollywood profits had withered on the vine. Film production companies were being snapped up by oil and insurance companies (like Gulf & Western's acquisition of Paramount), which looked upon the film industry as an opportunity to diversify their investments. Desperately casting about for a white knight to rescue them from the financial doldrums, executives began to take chances. First there was Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967), a film that not only redefined the parameters of what could be shown, but in casting Dustin Hoffman in the lead opened up the way for ethnic actors such as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to be treated as legitimate leading men. There was no one true breach that destroyed the dam of Hollywood's old system, it was more like many small ruptures in a dike. The Graduate was followed by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969; producer and star Peter Fonda joked that before the film was finished, the executives shook their heads in incomprehension, and afterwards, nodded their heads in bewilderment), then Midnight Cowboy (1969), all films that would have been unthinkable ten years before. The executives, who were as scornful of this new generations' politics as they were of their artistic influences, could finally do nothing more than let the floodwaters inundate them.
It would not last long. The 1970s were a time of great artistic ferment in Hollywood, a changing of the guard in which the director, who had long been considered no more than a glorified technician by the studios, was now a hero. With their newfound power, directors explored territory that only a decade earlier would have been strictly forbidden. As director Robert Altman put it, "Suddenly there was a moment when it seemed as if the pictures you wanted to make, they wanted to make." This was the decade when Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, and Peter Bogdanovich burst into prominence, making edgy, uncompromising films. The dark side of the auteur equation, however, was that as the decade edged towards its conclusion, the film budgets grew more outrageous; directors, fueled by a combination of drugs and hubris, grew more stunning in their arrogance; and when the inevitable shift in the cultural winds hit, it was the studio executives, nursing a decade of bruised egos, who had the upper hand.
Hollywood operates by a complex logarithm that is by nature amoral. In the Glamour Years, Hollywood produced and the audience bought tickets—a simple equation—but with the advent of marketing, sneak previews, and audience polling, the situation had come full circle. America spoke with its dollars, and Hollywood had become very attentive. But what really spelled the death knell of the New Hollywood was the success of two films: Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975). What a nation weary from over a decade of war and civil unrest wanted was entertainment; not the sort of entertainment television could provide, but spectacle. America wanted to be wowed, and that is exactly these films did. Within a few years, a man named Don Simpson would turn spectacle into a science, producing a string of mindless, but entertaining hits, simple films that could be summed up in twenty-five words or less. His first hit, Flashdance (1983), could be summed up thus: blue collar dancer yearns to be ballerina. Naturally film critics decried Simpson's films—Top Gun, Beverly Hill Cop, Days of Thunder —but the high concept film was now king. And through the 1980s and 1990s, it was the event film, the summer blockbuster, that was Hollywood's bread and butter, an all-American spectacle of excess: sex, violence, and mind-boggling special effects. In effect, these films were simply glorified genre films.
Of course, Hollywood has always been a business, as one of its nicknames, the Glamour Factory, makes abundantly clear. What it sells is glamour, sex, violence, physical beauty, and extravagance, while convincing the public it is buying virtue and art. From the moment Chandler and company set out their faked "SOLD" signs on the vacant lots, the modus operandi of Hollywood—deception—was firmly entrenched. And while Hollywood Boulevard molders, with only a few relics of the glory years remaining amongst the cheap tourist gift shops, the homeless people, and Scientology buildings, its legend is still repackaged and sold to a naïve public. Hollywood will always be a valuable commodity. While the locus of power in the entertainment industry has moved elsewhere, down-at-the-heels Hollywood remains its most visible symbol.
But while the shifting dynamics of the industry have made Hollywood-the-place obsolete, it still remains a powerful symbol. More than can ever be measured, Hollywood created the dreams of America in the twentieth century, allowing generations access to a symbolic tapestry in the darkened hush of the movie theater. It is a paradox that while Hollywood can be defined and measured in square mileage, the map of its streets is but a dim shadow of the much more complex and ineffable map of the American psyche. Hollywood exists and yet it is entirely ephemeral, a locked room in the collective unconscious. In 1949, David O. Selznick was wandering the empty streets of Hollywood late one night when he turned to his companions, saying, "Hollywood's like Egypt. Full of crumbling pyramids. It'll never come back. It'll just keep on crumbling until finally the wind blows the last studio prop across the sand." He was right and he was wrong. The myth of the place has become an archetype, and even while multinational corporations own every major studio outright, there has never been any question that Hollywood remains the center of film production both in spirit and in substance.
Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New York, Dell Publishing, 1975.
Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Davis, Ronald L. The Glamour Factory. Dallas, Southern Methodist University Press, 1993.
Fleming, Charles. High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess. New York, Doubleday, 1998.
Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets. New York, Harper & Row, 1986.
Gabler, Neil. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. New York, Crown Publishers, 1988.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. New York, Pantheon Books, 1988.
Sommer, Robin Langley. Hollywood: The Glamour Years (1919-1941). New York, Gallery Books, 1987.
Perched on the western edge of the North American continent, Hollywood has always looked like America's destiny. From the early settlers in the 1880s to the aspiring stars of the 1930s, Hollywood was the place to start afresh, to build a new life in the sun. In 2002, Hollywood remains the dream factory, a place where every waiter and waitress is an aspiring actor, where every bartender, taxi driver, hotel receptionist, and hired helper has a screenplay tucked away in a drawer at home. The reality of course is different. Part of the city of Los Angeles, California, since 1910, Hollywood is a town like any other, complete with crime, poverty, and its fair share of sleaze. But Hollywood's real location is in the mind.
In 1880, Hollywood was just a ranch, named by Mrs. Daeida Wilcox (1861–1914) after a friend's country house. Aiming to attract midwesterners like themselves to the fertile land and the warm climate, the Wilcoxes divided the ranch into lots and laid out streets for a new town. In a few years, Hollywood was thriving. By 1903, a trolley line connected Hollywood (population 500) to Los Angeles. Selig Studios brought the movies to California in 1907 when location shots for The Count of Monte Cristo (1908) were filmed at Laguna Beach. At first, most studios were located in nearby Edendale, but in 1910, the Nestor Film Company became the first to set up a studio in Hollywood itself. Ironically, in the very same year, the God-fearing Hollywood Board of Trustees actually banned movie theaters from the town. But even so, by the 1920s, most of the studios had moved there. Silent movie (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1) stars soon made Beverly Hills and Silver Lake into America's most glamorous postal addresses. The stars themselves were the nearest thing in America to royalty. Temptingly, here was an aristocracy anyone could join.
Hollywood became known as the place in America where anything was possible. Screen stars built strange and elaborate mansions along Sunset Boulevard. They drove around in expensive, imported cars, took drugs, and were openly promiscuous (casual about having many sexual partners). Eventually, public opinion turned against them. In the late 1920s, with the advent of sound in films, many popular actors of the silent era were found to have terrible speaking voices and lost their jobs. Many sank into alcoholism and suicide. To make matters worse, the Hays Commission, a self-regulatory body of the film industry, was set up in the early 1930s to control the moral content of Hollywood movies. Many silent stars found themselves blacklisted (put on a list of people not to be hired) on moral grounds.
The 1930s were Hollywood's golden age. Under the so-called "studio system," the major studios controlled every aspect of filmmaking from preproduction to small-town theaters. Talented actors, directors, and technicians arrived from Europe to work for the studios. Famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), Dorothy Parker (1893–1967), and William Faulkner (1897–1962) made the journey west to work in pictures. Hollywood became a playground for celebrities eager to get themselves noticed. Private lives became public property, and there was a sense that anything could be bought. As ever, people outdid one another with brash displays of wealth. As crime-writer Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) put it: "In L.A. to be conspicuous you would have to drive a flesh-pink Mercedes-Benz with a sun porch on the roof and three pretty girls sunbathing."
After 1939, things began to change. Antitrust lawsuits broke up the studios' control of film distribution. Many people felt the stars had too much power. In the late 1940s, prominent writers, directors, and actors were blacklisted as communist sympathizers. In the 1950s, television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) began to eat into film-industry profits. Film noir ("dark cinema"; see entry under 1940s—Film and Theater in volume 3) matched the suspicion of the times and offered some relief from tumbling profits, but it was not until the 1960s that Hollywood began to recover. Films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) and Easy Rider (1969; see entry under 1960s—Film and Theater in volume 4) shattered the conservative dreams of the old Hollywood but brought the audiences back to the theaters.
Since the 1970s, Hollywood has gone through cycles of making big-budget entertainment movies. Films like Flashdance (1983), the Beverly Hills Cop series, and blockbusters such as Apollo 13 (1995) and Titanic (1997; see entry under 1910s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) tend to appear during the summer months and are the mainstay of Hollywood's cash flow. In the 1990s, the digital revolution captivated filmmakers, allowing ever more spectacular special effects. In 1999, Toy Story 2 (see entry under 1990s—Film and Theater in volume 5) became the first film to go from production to presentation in digital form. Some think this process may signal the beginning of the end for traditional film.
In the twenty-first century, real-life Hollywood is a mixture of glamour, sleaze, and tourist trap. Most of the studios are part of multinational media corporations. Hollywood has become the world center for all kinds of media productions, from film to the Internet (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5), from television to pornography. The glory days of the studio system are long gone, yet Hollywood remains a potent symbol of the American Dream. Perhaps more than anywhere else, Hollywood exists as both physical place and glittering fantasy.
For More Information
Chandler, Raymond. Playback. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1958.
Hamilton, Ian. Writers in Hollywood 1915–1951. London: Heinemann, 1990.
Silvester, Christopher, ed. The Penguin Book of Hollywood. New York: Viking, 1998.
HOLLYWOOD. An area of the city of Los Angeles famous primarily for its association with the film industry,
Hollywood was originally a small independent agricultural community. It merged with Los Angeles in 1910 in order to obtain an adequate water supply. At approximately the same time, the film industry began to locate in the region, seeking to take advantage of natural sunlight that allowed year-round filming and a diverse southern California landscape that provided cheap scenery. In 1914, the director Cecil B. DeMille decided to locate his studio in Hollywood permanently, and other companies followed. By the 1920s, Hollywood had beaten out rivals such as Culver City and Burbank as the place most associated with the film industry, although in fact movie lots were scattered throughout the Los Angeles area. The growing power and romance of film made Hollywood a cultural icon and a major tourist attraction. In the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood also began to attract television studios and record companies. While still home to many entertainment-related companies and remaining a popular destination for starstruck visitors, the area's actual role in film production began to lag in the 1970s. Soaring production and living costs in Los Angeles led many companies to seek opportunities elsewhere, and Hollywood itself struggled with problems associated with urban blight.
Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
Torrence, Bruce T. Hollywood: The First 100 Years. Hollywood, Calif.: Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, 1979.