Issue: Issue Spring 2010

100 Years Old, A Century of Hollyood

By: Charles Champlin
A century of Hollywood! Who would have dared to imagine that the plan the good Harvey Wilcox filed would become a storied place as famous as Rome or Rio or London, known and celebrated in the farthest corners of the globe?

D.W. Griffith and the silent film director’s megaphone used to shout instructions to his cast and crew.

It was all a delightful, serendipitous historical accident: a blissful, unforeseeable coincidence of climate, scenery, robust entrepreneurship and a new technology for mass entertainment. The colonel's brave little venture had hardly found its feet when the movies found it.

Hollywood as a place of legend rests on a foundation of What Ifs. What if the Motion Picture Patents Co., trying to enforce a monopoly on cameras, had not driven fledgling film companies west? What if D. W. Griffith had not led the way by bringing his entourage to make films in Los Angeles in the winter of 1910, when it was too cold and dark in New York? And what if Jesse L. Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille, put off by the snow-covered mountains in Flagstaff, Ariz., had not continued west to make the first Hollywood feature-length film, "The Squaw Man"?

But the What Ifs all came up positive. And Hollywood, which might have fulfilled the Wilcoxes' practical dreams of a tidy, prosperous suburb with a little mercantile activity, a little farming and orcharding, became instead the Hollywood we've sung hoorays for.

It became not only a piece of geography but the fabled and fabulous symbol of all American film making, a locale of legend and looniness, a magical fountain of slapstick and melodrama, a factory town for an art form. It was - and to an amazing degree, still is - the face that America sends to the world, for better and occasionally for worse.

There are stars in the sidewalks and ghosts in the woodwork. And as much as Hollywood has changed, there are still plenty of visible reminders that bespeak the grand assertiveness of the golden years: the cinemas in Middle Eastern mode, worthy of a sheik or Croesus; the Mediterranean-style apartment buildings; the multinational eateries that have nourished the stars.

The memories and the tales are most often glamorous: the star-studded premieres on Hollywood Boulevard, with searchlights vectoring the night skies, and fans in the bleachers craning for glimpses of the mighty; the footprints of the giants in the forecourt of the Chinese. The years before television, when the movies reigned unchallenged over the public fancy everywhere, were the glory days for Hollywood. In the glittery nightclubs along Sunset, it was possible to imagine that the glamour Hollywood put on the screen was merely borrowed from its private life.

The legendary Cecil B. DeMille (second fromleft) directing “Four Frightened People” (1934).

The writers of legend, who were themselves to become legends, hung out at Musso & Frank, a landmark that outlived Scott and Ben and Charlie. The Vine Street Brown Derby, now alas only a memory, was a kind of upscale industry commissary, open round-the-clock, seven days a week in its busiest years, with a celebrity in every banquet, or so it seemed.

Even then, the industry was not confined to Hollywood proper. Studios stretched from Disney, Republic and Universal in the Valley to Metro in Culver City. Hollywood itself had Columbia on Gower (the former Poverty Row), Paramount, then as now, on Melrose, Fox-Western on Sunset and Goldwyn on Formosa.

Older Los Angeles often looked askance at the film people (Gypsies and parvenus from Elsewhere, it was thought). The Los Angeles Country Club was famous for refusing to admit actors, even those who could afford to join.

That sense of rejection probably increased a sense of community in the industry and in geographic Hollywood, with its rather hazy boundaries. Yet Hollywood can claim the credit - or must accept the blame - for having been a significant force in the phenomenal growth of Southern California in the '30s and after.

The movies, simply because they were made here, celebrated the California weather, the beaches, the mountains, the palm trees, the ranch-style houses and bungalows, a way of life that was almost certainly more mobile, more relaxed and more invigorating than it was wherever you were watching the film.

Yet behind the starry, notorious, klieg-lit surfaces, there has always been that other Hollywood, the industry hometown, where, by now, two or three generations of families have been extras, grips, carpenters, costumers, makeup people, editors, camera operators and lab technicians, living in the tidy low bungalows below Sunset and in the hill-clinging houses on the narrow, twisting streets that rise toward Mulholland.

In the early days - before Beverly Hills and Bel-Air and Brentwood and Malibu - the moguls and stars built their stately mansions in Hollywood. The Cecil B. DeMille home off Los Feliz, grand but livable and functional, survives as a shrine and a memento of peak times.

The advent of daily television broadcasting shortly after the end of World War II brought revolutionary and often painful changes to the movie business. Forty years later, the readjustments have not stopped.

The industry had always been volatile, but whatever stability the major studios once enjoyed was shaken post-television. Gone were the contract players and the great cadres of studio technicians. Hollywood became a job-to-job, do-it-yourself town.

Even the huge publicity mills were reduced to skeleton staffs, and the organized fun and carefully engineered glamour have faded, leaving an industry and a town that seems workaday even in prosperity.

But, like many a hometown forced to adapt to shifting economic realities, Hollywood has begun to fight back. It launches its second century with the promise of a second wind. After a long period of stagnation and decay, new construction is under way and more is planned.

Forecourt of “The W”, Hollywood’s newest hotel at Hollywood and Vine. While the movie industry regains its footing, city-wide rebuilding, infrastructure improvements and fabulous architecture are bringing Hollywood back to its once and future glory.

Hollywood appears to have rediscovered its sense of community, its awareness that it is indeed a hometown with a life of its own, no matter what tremors hit the film business. The feeling is that Hollywood, with a past second to none, need not lack for a future.