If Hollywood finally crumbles a thousand years from now, the engineers will survey the devastation and proclaim, ‘No wonder this place toppled, it was built on nothing but dreams and the far-fetched promise of fortunes’. This meshuga en masse was the foundation before the cameras were even rolling, and now, despite the ever-expanding spread of the entertainment industry and how it has morphed into myriad formats, the fanciful lifeblood of this flamboyant old town flows as strongly as it ever has. The glitz and glam of Hollywood remains the capital of entertainment in much more than a mere symbolic sense.
99 years ago, that symbolism came to the fore when the very promise of stardom was blazoned onto the mountainside. But only 70 years before that Hollywood sign stood proud, the town consisted of one single shabby shotgun shack. In some ways, the hillside lettering marked a seven-decade battle to conquer the final frontier of America and ‘Hollywood’ was the triumphant victory flag. Now, the dreams could flourish in the most unlikely of deserts. And this is why movies moved over.
Initially, the film capital of America, and as such the world, was New Jersey. It was here that Thomas Edison’s ‘Black Maria’, the first motion-picture studio was born. However, it didn’t culturally fit the bill, and that is largely down to geopolitics. You see, unlike a lot of big punchers in the globalising age after the industrial revolution, the USA didn’t have the same cultural history as other superpowers. They wanted to grow in this regard by exporting the age-old Uncle Sam mantra that this was the land of dreams and opportunities. That same notion drew hardy folks out to the perilous west, and it was this same romanticised view that would make Hollywood a movie hub as much as anything else.
These hardy folks faced untold hardships on their way to find gold, but the current picture of Los Angeles is proof that they made it eventually. Now, you might not battle bears as you brave the perilous promise of fortune, but the conflicts have merely morphed, as Johnny Carson once said: “In Hollywood if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.” And yet, it still draws people as it always has.
Those initial pioneers may have struggled, but in their wake, a route was set up and townships began to form. Thereafter, the fellows with money were able to take a look. One of the early strugglers was Harvey Henry Wilcox who purchased the lonely shack and surrounding land and tried his hand at ranching. He failed and changed tact. Thus, he filed plans to subdivide the land and soon Prospect Avenue sprung up. Wilcox’s second wife then named a plot Hollywood after hearing about a ranch in Illinois that shares the name, stating: “I chose the name Hollywood simply because it sounds nice and because I’m superstitious and holly brings good luck.”
One such fellow who followed along one of these lucky routes to the West was H.J. Whitley who bought a 480-acre ranch and set about taking Los Angeles to the next level. He took up the Hollywood plot in 1902 and soon he added The Hollywood Hotel to the growing amenities. Today, this is the site of the Dolby Theater where the Oscars are hosted. Initially, the Hotel’s intention was simply to attract land buyers but that soon changed.
With more buyers coming to the area, Whitley piled money into making it presentable. When coupled with the climate and already striking landscape this, quite simply, gave the town a cinematic look. All the while, Eddison still had a stronghold on the industry and set about applying his patent throughout the States to ensure that his Motion Picture House in New Jersey remained the only one.
But in Los Angeles, the law made that patent tricky for Edison to enforce. Thus, prospecting filmmakers hoping to make their own piece of history were lured to this libertarian paradise in the making. What they found when they arrived was somewhere that had been built with style in mind, a place where the rain would almost never interrupt a shoot, western settings were a short trip to the hills away, and the beach was right there too. Unless a script required the snow, then you could shoot it in Los Angeles. And even then, with endless open space, you could knock up a building and fill it up with snow on a whim anyway.
Everything was now set up for Hollywood to become a movie epicentre. Retaining the lawless frontier aspect of its past meant that big wigs looking to make money from movies could make it fast—there was no one to shoulder out of the way or the bureaucracy associated with other big cities. Thus, innovation was uninhibited in Los Angeles. The American people wanted movies, and the good folks of Hollywood wanted to give them films as quickly as possible.
Therefore, the studios setting up shop set up something called ‘vertical integration’. Essentially, this very modern-sounding term meant that they would take over every aspect of the movie industry, and make it autonomous, from production right through to screening. This streamlined production but also minimised outside interference. Much can be said about the pros and cons of this, but it certainly meant a hell of a lot of movies could be made. By 1946, roughly 60% of the American population were going to the cinema once a week—most of what they watched came from Hollywood.
This gargantuan rise had myriad ins and outs: From D.W. Griffiths setting up shop in the area and becoming the most celebrated early director, to a Hollywood studio launching The Jazz Singer, the first talkie during which Al Jolson famously uttered, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” all of these built towards the gathering storm of Hollywood cinema.
However, seeing as though this article began with the unveiling of the Hollywood sign, it seems pertinent to end with it too. Because it was marketing as much as anything that made Hollywood’s schtick stick. This statement on the hill was a motion of symbolism, as is cinema itself. Not every great movie of the golden age was being made in Hollywood, but these other places didn’t have a huge sign or a roaring lion to ram the point home. Thus, if you were a little girl dreaming of being a star, you knew where you had to go. The myth of movie-making was born and it hasn’t died since.