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A guide to the movie studios of Hollywood

Hollywood's famous Walk of Fame

A little background on "The man who invented Hollywood," D.W. Griffith

A history of film by decade


Star Struck! The Major Motion Picture is Born!

Stars in the sidewalk
Stars. They're everywhere in Hollywood: set into the sidewalk, lunching at Mel's, and twinkling, on an occasional smogless night, in the dark sky above. The pavement seems to glitter with their dust, and the tourist industry (not to mention the paparazzi industry) is dedicated to mapping their every move.

It would appear that Americans are star-struck. We simply can't get enough of these silver-screen celebrities, and the glamour, beauty, and scandal that surround them. But when did this all begin? How did the entertainment of "show-biz" become America's favorite billion-dollar "biz?"

Some people will tell you that the credit belongs to one man: D.W. Griffith, "the man who invented Hollywood." Before Griffith came along, most people listened to their radios at home for entertainment. If you had the money, you could go out for a night at the orchestra or ballet, but these fancy events were not available to the masses of working people. The average person could stop by an arcade to put a coin in the Nickelodeon for fun, but these were short, silent "flip book" type stories. In the early days, Hollywood was nothing but a tiny ranch community in the hills.

Directors took movies to new heights in the 1920s
Then in 1915, everything changed. The first "major motion picture" the world had ever seen was released. In a three-and-a-half-hour film titled, "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith "expanded the boundaries of storytelling on the screen, conveying a richer, more complicated tale than anyone had seen in a movie before" (according to Robert Horton, Amazon.com). Griffith used camera angles, color tinting, and perspective in a way that no filmmaker had ever done, securing his place in the history books as the father of film. With "The Birth of a Nation" and his following films, Griffith built the foundation for the Hollywood that we know today.

While there is no doubt that Griffith was "a great technical master," he did have a downside. Unfortunately, film's first great genius happened to be "a muddleheaded racial bigot," according to David Cook's A History of Narrative Film. Ironically, the impact of Griffith's racism was felt most deeply with his premiere work.

"The Birth of a Nation" unashamedly celebrates the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. Modeled after a theater play called "The Clansman," "The Birth of a Nation" takes place during the era of Reconstruction in the South. It presents a post-Civil War fear that newly freed blacks would gain political control in state governments, messing everything up for whites in the process. Griffith portrays black politicians in the movie as "ignorant, oafish, and eating on the floor." He then idealizes the formation of the first band of the KKK, whom he shows banding together to "save the South from the tyranny of black rule."

Rebecca doesn't say a word to silent film star Charlie Chaplin
These days we talk about historical inaccuracies in films like "The Patriot" and "Pocahontas," but "The Birth of a Nation" really takes the cake! I was relieved to learn that there were many people who protested the film's content. They were worried that audiences would believe that Griffith's work was fact, and that it would inspire more violence against black Americans. And in fact, the Klan did use "Birth" as a propaganda film to recruit new members. Supposedly, the Klan's numbers skyrocketed after the film was released.

Mann's Chinese Theater: a great place for a premiere
It's truly unfortunate that such an important film had this disgusting downfall. But regardless of his racism (and I know it's hard to overlook), Griffith started something. Following "The Birth of a Nation," movies became an art form and a science, to improve upon and explore creatively. And as directors tried to create better and more entertaining films, Hollywood truly took off.

In the years after World War I, movies were still silent, with a live orchestra or pianist playing music to accompany the film. Dialogue was sometimes written on a card and filmed to show what the actors were saying. These "titles" not only explained the action, but also had a "broad impact" by helping to teach English to immigrant audiences. Most people thought that silence was what movies were all about and that "great moments of drama have no dialogue." irenemanns.jpg - Irene follows in silent film star Mary Pickford's footsteps


Exploring the Unexpected / Daph and I spent an afternoon there exploring an enchanted forest, crawling through secret caves, visiting the world's largest pair of underwear...

Actors like Charlie Chaplin became famous for their physical comedy -- sight gags and facial expressions that kept audiences rolling without ever hearing a spoken word. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford kept audiences enthralled with the depth of emotion they were able to portray, voicelessly, on the screen.

As films got longer and more substantial, the movie-going public fell in love with their stars, and the mystique of Hollywood began to grow. Enormous and exotic "atmospheric" theaters were built across the country. Seating up to 3,000 people, they were lavishly decorated with a theme in mind. Hollywood resident Sid Graumann played a huge role in their development. (Grau)Mann's Chinese theater on Hollywood Boulevard was built in the '20s and is an excellent example of what these theaters used to be.

Silent actor Douglas Fairbanks was one of the first to be immortalized in the cement outside Mann's Chinese Theater
As the twenties ticked on, movie studios grew into "great factories for the large-scale production of mass commercial entertainment." The films became more "sophisticated and risqué, reflecting the 'new morality' of the Jazz era." Take a peek at Irene's dispatch about Flappers for a better look at the rise in drinking and dancing, materialism and cynicism of the post-war years.

The original real-estate developer's ad
Not only were people watching movies more and more, but they were flocking to Hollywood to be in them. So many people moved to Los Angeles with visions of riches and stardom that they helped the city break three world records for speed of growth by 1930. This brought heartache for some, as Hollywood gradually changed from a small town "where everyone could get in on the fun, to a big, powerful, aggressive city." The industry became so cut-throat that posters were put up around town to discourage people from trying to break into the movies, warning them that "out of 100,000 persons who started at the screen's ladder of fame, only five reached the top."

The Hollywood sign today is a celebrity itself
Even if most people never attained celebrity status, the influx of people was a dream-come-true for real-estate developers. As an advertising stunt, one realtor spent $21,000 to erect the name of his company in huge letters on the side of Mt. Cahuenga in the Hollywood Hills. These 13 letters, each 30 feet wide and 50 feet tall spelled out "HOLLYWOODLAND," and were originally intended to be taken down after a few months. Although they fell into disrepair, and the last four letters were taken down, the HOLLYWOOD sign remained, and has come to symbolize the bigger-than-life experience of American movies.

Hotels and restaurants, bars and clubs were built for the new Hollywood residents. The still-standing Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel opened its doors in 1927 to serve "the noble born, the very talented, and the rich" who had come to soak up the energy of the exploding movie industry. These establishments became excellent rumor material, and the papers were eager to print stories about the stars' latest parties, suicides, addictions, and tantrums that occurred within their walls.

The Formosa used to be a Hollywood star hangout
Day-to-day Hollywood in the '20s had become the stuff that dreams were either made of, or shattered upon. But this was just the beginning. Movie makers and their audiences wanted more. By the end of the decade, sound had been added to films with the debut of Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer," and color and new effects were constantly improving and evolving. The added realism of sound and color helped Hollywood grow into the industry that has so much influence over our lives today. For all its hype, Hollywood certainly has staying power, since, eight decades later, we're still seeing stars.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Red-hot and smokin' in the flappin' 20s
Stephanie - Bap, bap, ta, tap, tap, bash! Jazzzzzz!
Nick - Batter up! How to make a quick $100,000
Jennifer - Hillbilly, foot stompin' good ol' time
Daphne - "Step right up and see it here! Live premature baby incubators!"
Making A Difference - TV: A giant slushie for your brain