Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Hollywood: LA’s Dream Factory

Hollywood Dream Factory
Visitors to Hollywood, the modern day Dream Factory

This is the story of how a small farming town outside a mid-range American city became the most famous neighborhood in the entire world. Probably 95% of the world’s population know that there’s a place called Hollywood and that it’s in Los Angeles. How did that happen? Why did that happen? Even if you don’t consider yourself as being that into popular culture, the movies/television/media, is why you know Los Angeles (if you don’t live here of course), and it’s that exposure that has given people everywhere a fascination with this city. The myth of the dream factory remains incredibly powerful, that Hollywood is a place where you can reinvent yourself and make your dreams come true, is a crucial factor in that fascination.

However, it’s important to remember that there’s the real Hollywood and then there’s the myth, in the same way as Hollywood can mean the Los Angeles neighborhood and it can mean ‘the industry’ (as we call it here in LA). The celebrity homes tours sell the myth to tens of thousands of visitors every year, but what’s much more interesting, in my opinion at least, is the real Hollywood, both in terms of the area and the entertainment business.

In this article I’ll give you a history of the neighborhood and explain why and how the upstart movie industry moved here in the early twentieth century. Since then the history of both have been intertwined, but it’s important to look at them both separately.

Early Hollywood History: The Tongva

For over a thousand years, before anyone had ever dreamt of something called the silver screen, the Tongva lived on the wide plain, below what would become the Hollywood Hills. First Americans had lived in the region for over 5,000 years in fact.

During that period the Los Angeles River meandered across the middle of the plain to the sea, at what’s now Venice. The Tongva lived in the most fertile lowland part of southern California, providing a sheltered coast with a pleasant climate and abundant food resources. The canyons on the south side of the hills were rich seasonal hunting grounds for deer, rabbits and game, while villages in the valley could easily source fish and shellfish from the nearby Pacific.

To get an idea of how it looked then we only need to glance over at the Angeles National Forest, to the northeast. Sycamore, willow and oak trees covered the plain, creating a truly breathtaking vista. At least that’s how early European visitors described the region.

For, having claimed what’s now California (so named after a magical island full of beautiful women and gold, would you believe) since 1542, the Spanish were now ready to actually take possession of their “property”.

Accordingly, in 1769, the Portolà Expedition passed through the area on the way up to the Bay Area, leading to the Spanish following up with the establishment of a mission in the San Gabriel Valley, about twenty miles east, two years later.

This was followed by another mission opening in the San Fernando Valley to the north, in 1797.

These events signaled the end of the Tongva way of life in the Los Angeles basin, as they were forced to effectively work as slaves on the vast mission ranches, once they’d been coerced into converting to Catholicism by the missionaries of course.

Nevertheless some Tongva names remain, such as the name of the valley in which Hollywood sits, the Cahuenga Valley. That name was also given to the pass through the hills, into the San Fernando Valley beyond. And it’s the name of the road that went over it, Cahuenga Boulevard. Recent studies suggest it means place of the foxes.

Hollywood in the Age of Zorro

Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and Alta California hence became the part of Mexico. These were Hollywood’s Zorro years (the stories are based in the Los Angeles area, during the time when California was part of Mexico). Interestingly, Zorro is the Spanish word for a fox.

In 1828 the Governor included most of what’s now Hollywood into the property of the Rancho La Brea, granting it to Antonio Jose Rocha and Nemisio Dominguez. The farm also included the La Brea Tar Pits which covered a much larger area back then.

Over the following decades not much changed in the sleepy valley, even as California became part of the U.S. in 1848. The small town of Los Angeles was nearly ten miles east, but it wasn’t an important place, and nobody from outside of California had probably ever heard of it.

The Legend Begins

Los Angeles had already existed for over a hundred years by 1883. In that year a couple called Harvey and Daeida Wilcox moved to the city from Topeka, in Kansas, staying in a house on Figueroa Street, in what’s now DTLA. While there she gave birth to a boy.

They were drawn by the limitless opportunity and great weather of Southern California. However when the couple’s son Harry died, in 1886, the couple began taking long carriage rides into the Cahuenga Valley, to the pass of the same name. The canyons on the south side of the hills seemed like an Eden, an earthly paradise, to the grieving couple.

Looking for something to throw themselves into, the couple purchased land in an area of orchards and grape-growing. The property was centered on Vine Street, so named for the vineyards lining it, and the original intention seems to have been for Harvey, the former real-estate speculator, to become a gentleman farmer, with a large fruit farm. However that idea proved fairly short-lived and they decided to divide the land into residential lots and sell them.

On February 1, 1887, lots on the new subdivision, now called Hollywood, went on sale for the princely sum of $1,000 each.

Where did the name come from? Nobody can be sure, but it’s my opinion that Daeida (who’s always been credited with coming up with the name) was inspired by the Toyon berry that still grows plentifully in the neighborhood, and which was called California Holly at the time, the two looking quite similar (although Toyon berries are noticeably pinker).

Toyon is a Tongva word, of which Daeida was probably unaware.

Whatever the reason you have to hand it to her, it does have a lovely ring to it, with its nice elements of Holly-Christmas-wood. She also came up with many of the street names used in the new housing tract, such as Sunset Boulevard (who wouldn’t want to live on a street with that name?), Ivar and Selma (the names of the children of some local friends) and Wilcox, of course.

The idea, ironically, seems to have been to create an upright, Christian community. Far away from the decadent, hard-drinking lifestyle of Los Angeles. Funny how things turn out.

Unfortunately, Harvey died in 1891 at age 59 years old, leaving Daeida $100,000 in his will, and she continued to develop the subdivision. She subsequently remarried a few years later (she was only 30 years old when Harvey died) and had four more children,

Nevertheless she continued to promote and develop Hollywood and Daeida had quite a coup when she persuaded the acclaimed French artist Paul de Longpré to move there (with the offer of free property) in 1901. He built a large house for his family on the corner of Prospect and Cahuenga Boulevards, and by the early 1900’s its gardens and art gallery had become Hollywood’s first tourist attraction, with visitors from Los Angeles coming on the new streetcar to see them both.

Now Daeida Wilcox is known as the mother of Hollywood and she’s interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, with her family.

Hollywood Merges with Los Angeles

By 1902 there was another developer developing housing in the area, H J Whitley. His new tract was west of Daeida’s, being centered on Hollywood (then still known as Prospect Boulevard) and Highland. At the intersection he built the Hollywood Hotel. to give potential visiting property-purchasers somewhere to stay and be enchanted by the area. By then the population of Hollywood was barely five hundred people.

The following year the residents of the area voted to incorporate as a municipality. Funnily enough though, even more of them voted to ban the sale of alcohol the following year, showing that Daeida’s influence on the locals was still strong (165 voters vs 209 voters).

However, with Los Angeles growing so fast (LA’s population increased from 100,000 to 300,000 between 1900 and 1910), interest in turning Hollywood from a semi-rural country town to a suburban housing district increased. By 1905 the Hollywood Hotel was expanding with a large new wing, as it became a popular spot to stop on the way out to seaside Santa Monica from the city.

Several other local municipalities merged with Hollywood to pool resources but, in 1910, the residents of the municipality (the total being something like 2,000 people by then) voted to join the city of Los Angeles to gain access to LA’s water supply. Just as it was about to become the most famous place in the world, Hollywood had lost its independence.

Daeida died in 1914, only a year or two after the small town she’d more or less founded had become ground zero for the newly created, and already wildly popular, moving picture industry. It’s hard to imagine what she would have made of it, but it must have been quite a shock.

Whitley went on to develop several other tracts in the area, including the Hollywoodland subdivision, for which the Hollywood Sign was built to advertise. He’s known as the father of Hollywood and Whitley Avenue is named after him. He died in 1931 and is also buried at Hollywood Forever.

Early Film Industry in the U.S.

At that time there wasn’t a single movie theater in Hollywood, but over the previous decade residents would have become aware of the new phenomenon sweeping the U.S. and the world, moving pictures. At that time the industry was based in New York and New Jersey, where the money, the audience, the actors, the equipment and the technicians were located.

Looking back one can see the beginning of the new medium in the Kinetoscope in the 1890’s. An invention of Thomas Edison, in which one person at a time would look through a small aperture into the machine and see a girl dancing. It was almost like a magic trick: a series of photographic images that you would rotate quickly in order to give the illusion of movement.

With the benefit of over a hundred years of hindsight we know what that would mean, but to people at the time it seemed like little more than just another fairground attraction.

Over the next few years technology improved, allowing for a film to be projected onto a white sheet that would be hung up in darkened room, usually a converted shop, creating the first nickelodeons. Most early films were like documentaries, with 2-3 minute shots of a busy street in downtown LA or somewhere similar. Filmmakers also experimented with narrative structure, creating simple, short stories with their movies (obviously without sound). Nevertheless, the craze for ‘the flickers’ was dying away by the early twentieth century.

That was to change with the release of The Great Train Robbery in 1903.

While not especially ground-breaking in any specific way, the director of the film, Edwin Porter, pulled together all the filmmaking styles and techniques that had been developed in the previous few years into one fast-paced twelve minute action film. It was a phenomenal success with audiences and critics.

It was the shot of adrenaline that created what we would think of now as the movie industry. Producers were excited about the enormous financial rewards on offer and filmmakers were excited about the huge possibilities that the new medium was showing for telling their stories. And audiences just wanted more moving pictures.

Why and How the Movie Industry moved to Hollywood

It’s commonly accepted now that the first movie to be filmed in Hollywood was In Old California, in early 1910. The then lengthy 17 minute film was directed by D W Griffith for the Biograph Film Company of New York and was set during the Mexican era of Californian history. The cast and crew probably stayed at the Glen Holly Hotel, roughly where the Hollywood Playhouse (now the nightclub Avalon) sits today, opposite the Capitol Records Building on Vine Street.

The main reasons for coming out to Southern California to make the film were that Hollywood had the rural Wild West feel that the filmmakers needed, and the filmmaking-friendly weather that enabled shooting it in winter. At the time it was necessary to shoot on rooftops in New York to gain the light needed for the early cameras (Klieg lights, that would enable shooting on interior stages, weren’t widely available until 1915), and Winter weather there would play havoc with Griffith’s shooting schedule.

In Old California, with a cast that included Mack Sennett, proved popular and Griffith ended up shooting a couple more films in Hollywood with the same cast and crew, before heading back east. As soon as he got back he began telling his friends and colleagues that the small town was the ideal place to be making moving pictures.

Why was it such a great place to shoot films? There were many reasons, but the main ones were: great weather for filmmaking (well, for anything really) – they could shoot year round easily. There were a wide variety of different types of scenery within a short distance – mountains, forests, lakes, deserts, beaches, as well as the city (in my experience LA is uniquely varied). Land and labor were cheap too.

However, the biggest single reason by far why filmmakers moved here from the East Coast was to get around copyright laws. That’s ironic as Hollywood is very keen on copyright protection now, but there would be no Hollywood if it weren’t for producers trying to get around the law – all because of Edison. 

Edison, through the Motion Picture Patents Company or Edison Trust, controlled the 16 patents needed to make a movie. Accordingly the licensing fee to use patented equipment was very high, mainly because Edison was a movie producer himself. He didn’t want anyone else making movies.

Edison had agents keeping an eye out to see if any unlicensed filming was taking place. If filmmakers in the New York area didn’t pay him he’d first sue them and, if that didn’t work, he’d then hire thugs to smash up their movie set and destroy their cameras. It was a highly restrictive regime, that was stifling innovation and development.

Once Griffith returned to New York and began singing the praises of Los Angeles though, producers quickly realized that if they moved there Edison wouldn’t be able to keep tabs on what they were doing from three thousand miles away. Even better California courts didn’t recognize copyright protection anyway. Finally, with so many film companies moving to the area over the next few years it just wasn’t possible for Edison to try to put the frighteners on them all.

By 1913 the patents had expired, but by then Hollywood was well on the way to being established as the movie-making capital of the U.S. 

Birth of the Dream Factory

Within a year of In Old California being made the first studio was established in Hollywood itself, Nestor Studios, owned by a one-armed British immigrant named David Horsley. The company took over an old tavern on the corner of Sunset and Gower, constructed a stage out back, and began work on their program of two movies a week, a western and a comedy. Hollywood was perfect, it was still the Wild West at the time.

The following year Nestor and several other film production companies merged (in response to Edison’s aggressive attempts to drive them out of business) to form Universal Pictures, one of the biggest Hollywood studios today.

The new company’s big innovation? To credit the actors at the end of their movies, so audiences would now know who their favorite actors were. Literally overnight these unknown actors, who’d hitherto been looked down on by Broadway stage actors, became massive stars.

In 1914 The Squaw Man, the first feature film to be made in Hollywood, was filmed in an old barn on the corner of Sunset and Vine, directed by hotshot young director Cecil B De Mille. The barn has been moved since, but you can still see it in its present setting, near Hollywood and Highland.

The same year Charles Chaplin, the first global superstar, shot a movie on Hollywood Boulevard called Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Chaplin had been brought to Los Angeles by actor turned producer Sennett, maker of the Keystone Cops movie series, in December 1913. Within five years he went from making $150 a week, to getting a cool million dollars to star in eight films, that he would write and direct himself.

Many of the stars of these early Hollywood movies, such as Mary Pickford, took up residence at the Hollywood Hotel, planning on moving back to the East Coast in Spring, to continue making movies in New York. Then by Summer, when word came that they would stay in Los Angeles to shoot some more films, they would rent houses in the neighborhood. Then they’d move back into the hotel for the Winter. It was more than a year before they realized they would never be moving back, All production would now be done in Hollywood.

By 1915 dozens of film production facilities had been established on old farms in the Hollywood area (it’s why, to this day, studio properties are known as lots here). Still, the rest of the U.S. was becoming aware of Los Angeles, but not so much Hollywood itself.

Hollywood Becomes the Dream Factory

D W Griffith is a titan, albeit a highly controversial one, in the history of cinema. It’s no exaggeration to say that every scripted TV show and every movie you’ve ever seen was influenced by him. He was the first person to use the phrase “lights, camera, action”. He invented many of the editing and film-making techniques that are most used today – such as ‘the race against time’, that’s present in almost every film made since then.

In 1915 his three hour epic, The Birth of a Nation, was released. It broke box-office records, making so much money the accountants couldn’t keep track of it. It was a signal moment for the young film industry, marking the switch to feature films, for which theaters could charge much more money. Several theater owners suddenly made rich by the film, such as the Warner Brothers who owned a small chain in Pennsylvania, decided to invest in making their own movies. Where would they do that? In Hollywood of course.

The Hollywood film studios had a huge advantage too. They were still making movies while companies in other countries, such as France, Germany and the UK, had shut down, due to World War One. The early years of a new industry are particularly important, due to the speed of innovation, and this competitive advantage has never been lost by Hollywood since.

Also Hollywood had the stars. Those larger-than-life figures that audiences were becoming fascinated by, such as Chaplin, Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that this first wave of movie celebrities had on popular culture, up-ending social norms and traditions. The level of fascination that the public had with the silent movie stars of the 1910’s and 20’s has rarely been seen since.

However, The Birth of a Nation had revealed something else: the power of film to influence audiences, for good or ill. Even for its time it’s a spectacularly racist film. Set during the American Civil War, the heroes are the Ku Klux Klan (the source novel is called The Klansmen, so that’s no surprise). The movie was hugely controversial and there were multiple protests outside theaters showing it, but it still became the most financially successful movie ever made until Gone with the Wind. The Klan, which had been almost forgotten by that point, received a huge boost from the publicity and was largely reborn because of it.

Stung by the criticism Griffith made Intolerance the following year, with vast sets constructed in the fields off Hollywood Boulevard and thousands of extras. The film was set in four different time periods, one of which was Ancient Babylon, and it cost a then-unheard of $2 million. He spent weeks and $250,000 painstakingly recreating a Babylonian orgy, with naked dancers. He sure had an eye for detail.

It was Griffith’s riposte to his critics, a history of man’s intolerance for different ideas, morals and ways of living. Mark you: he was accusing his detractors of being intolerant, he obviously wasn’t the least bit intolerant.

The movie was a complete flop and almost bankrupted the company that made it. White Americans wanted to see the Ku Klux Klan trying to lynch African Americans in the Old South, they didn’t want weird Biblical sex parties (I know which one I’d prefer).

Still, the idea of Hollywood as a fabulous, but fatally decadent and debauched, Shangri-la took hold in the public’s imagination. That idea was only confirmed by the Fatty Arbuckle affair, a few years later, and it’s been an element of Hollywood’s mystique ever since .

Something else to consider is that Daeida had only been dead two years when the film was made. Just in that time her dream of a teetotal, Presbyterian, Midwestern country community had died. Poor Daeida, she must have been spinning in her grave.

Within a couple of years Griffith had moved past the Intolerance debacle and formed United Artists with Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin. They would produce and distribute their own films, without any interference from pesky producers. Griffith was at his peak. It’s an example of another old adage in Hollywood: if you’re going to fail, fail big – they’ll remember you for it. A small success isn’t nearly as good.

Even the Spanish Flu pandemic, although it shut Hollywood production down for a good six months, didn’t have the long-lasting effects of the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Without TV or the internet to turn to, audiences were even more desperate to see moving pictures in a theatre, once the restrictions ended.

The Dream Factory Enters a New Era

It wouldn’t be until the mid-1920’s that the public began to call the movie industry itself Hollywood and this was largely due to two events that took place in 1923.

The first was the release of a comedy film called Hollywood in August. Made by Paramount, the movie (which is now lost) featured a young actress, who moves to Los Angeles to become a star. She visits the various studios in the Hollywood area, trying to get a screen test, but to no avail. In the meantime other members of her family, including her grandfather, mother and sister, come out to stay with her and – wouldn’t you know it – they all become successful actors in the flickers.

It was the first movie about Hollywood the industry and featured numerous cameos by stars such as Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and many others. Weirdly it completely nailed the business’ inherent capriciousness right off the bat. The previously unknown lead actress, Hope Drown, never made a single other movie ever again!

Nevertheless, Hollywood was a phenomenal success and, with the unveiling of the Hollywood Sign (then the Hollywoodland Sign) in November 1923, that rapidly led to the press naming the industry itself as Hollywood. Soon after that the film studios began putting “made in Hollywood, California” in the end credits, even if the studio was in Culver City or the San Fernando Valley. Hollywood had become a brand.

By the mid 1920’s many of the big new film companies were established in Hollywood. Paramount, Warner Brothers, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford (who were now married) all had large studio complexes in Hollywood, while Universal were only just over the Cahuenga Pass in what’s now North Hollywood.

Even radio, the first mass medium technology to be available to ordinary people and enter their homes, was based in Hollywood, on Radio Row. The four major U.S. broadcasters established themselves there in the early 1920’s, and their broadcasts would always begin with the words:

Broadcasting live, from Hollywood and Vine, in Los Angeles.

It fixed in people’s minds that Hollywood was the bright center of the glamorous entertainment universe, the dream factory on the West Coast.

Rural Hollywood Goes into the History Books

It was during this period that most of the farms and fields of old Hollywood disappeared. As the studios rapidly expanded their lots, housing, retail and entertainment districts sprang up around them in the hitherto rural Cahuenga Valley.

Meanwhile Arthur Gilmore had found oil while digging for water on his dairy farm just south of Hollywood (what a happy day that was!), near the La Brea Tar Pits. He rapidly sold his cows and created an oil company, overnight becoming hugely wealthy. By this time Los Angeles was providing 25% of the entire world’s oil supply and the moving picture business was the fourth biggest industry in the U.S. This had predictably significant effects on the area.

Much of modern Hollywood Boulevard dates from the 1920’s in fact, as large office buildings, theaters, restaurants and department stores were constructed along its length and in the surrounding area. The Hollywood Playhouse, the Egyptian Theatre, the Chinese Theatre, the Roosevelt Hotel and Musso & Frank Grill, amongst many others, all opened during this era. The local studios would hold their film premieres at their own theaters on Hollywood Boulevard every week (the first ever red carpet ceremony was for Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood at the Egyptian Theatre in 1922).

Numerous film fan magazines had launched over the previous decade, many of them with 2-3 editions a day, detailing every aspect of life in Hollywood, both the area and the industry. Beverly Hills was only just getting going then and many of the stars lived in the hills above Hollywood Boulevard (Whitley Heights was popular). The publications would have extensive spreads with photos of these mansions and a fascinated public would eagerly devour them.

Nevertheless, Hollywood was never the Rodeo Drive type, high-end, neighborhood that many people imagine it to be. It was a working town.

Creation of the Oscars Ceremony

Something else that happened, later in the 1920’s which was to establish Hollywood as being the very summit of the pyramid of global fame was the creation of the Academy Awards. The first Oscars ceremony, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, was held at the Roosevelt Hotel, in 1929. 270 people turned up and the whole thing lasted just fifteen minutes, so it was quite a different affair back then (the winners had been announced two weeks earlier).

The idea for the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences came from Louis B Mayer (president of MGM) in 1927. Funnily enough he wasn’t really concerned with honoring excellence in the film industry and he didn’t really care about awarding the Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar.

What he wanted was to create an organization that would bring together the five different branches of the industry: actors, writers, producers, directors and technicians – to mediate labour disputes (i.e. to convince them to accept less money). He, and the other studio bosses, were particularly concerned that industry actors had begun to talk about forming a Trade Union.

The idea of creating an awards ceremony came the following year. Mayer later said:

I found that the best way to handle (actors and filmmakers) was to hang medals all over them… If I got them cups and awards they’d kill to do what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Awards was created.

Maybe he was too honest about it? Either way Mayer’s plan didn’t work. The actors loved the awards, but they also wanted higher pay, so a couple of years later the Screen Actors Guild was formed (originally headquartered almost next door to the Roosevelt).

Of course the Oscars remain incredibly important to Hollywood – they get and maintain interest in its product, or what’s now known as “content”. You can see that in the purchase of the Egyptian Theatre by Netflix in 2022, so that the streaming giant can stage premieres and other events in Hollywood, and that way gain eligibility for its films to be considered for the Oscars.

Since 1929 the Oscars have been held numerous time at the Pantages Theatre and the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, as well as several other venues around Los Angeles (including the Ambassador Hotel and Union Station in 2021), before the Academy settled on the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood and Highland in 2001, as its permanent awards venue.

Sound Comes to Film

The other big development, around the same time, was the introduction of sound to film. In 1927 Warner Brothers filmed what’s considered to be the first sound feature, The Jazz Singer, on their lot in Hollywood. Audiences were amazed to hear the characters on the silver screen talk (and sing) and the movie was hugely successful.

Within a year all the Hollywood studios had switched to making “talkies”, only Chaplin continued to make “silent” films. What this meant was another huge boost for the Los Angeles film companies, because now the size of the domestic market dictated how much money they could make, and the U.S. had by far the biggest population.

With silent films it was simple to change the title cards to a different language and settings were generally not very culturally specific, so it was easy for audiences to accept films from other countries (for example, to Italian audiences Rudolph Valentino really was speaking Italian in their heads). That all changed with sound. Now audiences wanted films that reflected their own societies and cultures.

Something else that solidified the lead that the Hollywood studios had already gained was the creation of vertically integrated companies that would both produce movies and own the theaters that presented them. Flush with cash from The Jazz Singer Warner Bothers merged with First National, a theater chain. Soon RKO, Paramount, MGM and Fox too all had their own chains, and not only in the U.S., but also in other countries, such as the U.K. France and Germany.

Contrary to the myth, many Hollywood stars did make the transition to sound films, although there were some actors who were left behind (if you’d become a star playing upper-class types, but you had a thick Brooklyn accent it could end your career). Nevertheless the studios used the change to cull their ranks of some older, fading, more expensive and independent, star actors.

There was nothing wrong with Fairbanks’ voice, he had been a successful Broadway actor, but his style of historical epic action-comedy wasn’t technically possible because of the limitations of early sound recording equipment, and he wasn’t physically able to do all the stunts as he had in the past. After making a couple of talkies the King of Hollywood and his wife, America’s Sweetheart, more or less retired. Valentino, the great screen lover, had died in 1926 of a burst appendix, when 100,000 people came out on the streets of Manhattan to watch his funeral cortege. The silent era was over.

Golden Age of Hollywood

However, by the 1930’s the Golden Age of Hollywood was at its height. Without needing to compete with other forms of mass entertainment, or deal with production centers in other places in the U.S. or abroad, the Hollywood film companies became hugely powerful. The ‘majors’ each employed 8-10,000 people on their lots, making 3-4 movies a week including serials and B-movies, to keep their audiences all over the world coming back for more.

The big studios weathered the Great Depression much better than almost any other, since audiences craved the joy of the movies more than ever, when times were hard. And it was cheaper than almost any other form of recreation.

When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and… forget his troubles

President Franklin D Roosevelt

Los Angeles in general also suffered much less than other places, because its two main industries other than movies, oil and agriculture, were better positioned to do well during the downturn. Nevertheless Hollywood, the neighborhood, saw a big decline in new development after the boom of the twenties. That’s why, to this day, much of Hollywood Boulevard is still lined with one and two story buildings.

One of many myths about the industry is that it’s glamorous. Attending a premiere or the Oscars can certainly be, but nothing else is. Making movies, especially back then, was an industrial process: sets needed to be constructed, potentially hundreds of costumes made, cranes brought in for the cameras, food for the cast and crew. Accordingly, the area took on the character of a light industrial zone and It’s for this reason that people began to refer to Hollywood as the Dream Factory.

The Hollywood stars of the 1930’s became hugely popular, in the U.S. and around the world. Each studio operated what was known as the star system and had a roster of its own household names on the payroll. MGM boasted that it had “more stars than there are in the universe”. However, even the biggest stars were employees of the studios (some of them earning up to $400,000 a year), and were expected to do what they were told by the studio boss, such as Harry Cohn or Jack Warner. These stars were not able to reach Pickford’s or Chaplin’s level, where they controlled the studio itself.

Below the big stars the studios had dozens and dozens, even up to a hundred, lesser-known or up and coming actors and actresses signed up to a (usually) seven-year contract. The studio controlled which films they appeared in and many other aspects of their lives (even arranging marriages to gain positive publicity if it was necessary). The dream factory had become known as the star factory.

Why was the age so golden? Well, the Dream Factory may have been a production line, but there were also a lot of top writers, actors, directors, producers, cinematographers etc, from all over the world, working on the factory floor. Each studio was like a film school. Actors had classes in all elements of film performance, directors and writers were brought through the system.

The studios were also competitive with each other in an artistic sense. Once It Happened One Night (the original romantic comedy) cleaned up at the 1934 Oscars, transforming Columbia Pictures into a major studio, all the other studios wanted to make award-worthy films as well. It wasn’t enough to just make a lot of money any more, the critical reputation of the studio mattered too.

With so many movies being filmed on the lots, top actors and directors would make three to four features a year, so they really had a chance to hone their craft – and they got really good. Although there were a lot of middle of the road movies churned out for commercial reasons, a lot of classics, such as Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story and Casablanca, were also made during this period.

Of course, whether the age was truly golden depends more than a little on your perspective. The industry was controlled by about twenty men, and if one of them didn’t like you it would be almost impossible to find work in Hollywood, even if you were a star, Many actresses, and a more than a few actors, had to submit to ‘the casting couch’ to be able to get a role.

The output of the studios was also limited by Will Hays at the Motion Picture Association, a Hollywood organization created by the industry to avoid government censorship in 1922 (in direct response to the Fatty Arbuckle affair). Later, the MPA came up with a list of “don’ts and be carefuls” in 1934, which studio films were directed to adhere to, called the Hays Code. The guidelines included a prohibition on any sexual scenes, and showing any non-heterosexual people and situations.

It was a very constrained world in many ways, yet artists within the system still found ways to create more interesting and subversive work. As the 1940’s began a new genre was born that was more risqué and adult in nature, Film Noir. This new style of movie became extremely popular with audiences during the 1940’s and 50’s.

In fact many of noir’s best movies were shot on the streets of Hollywood and in the hills above them. Often the films would contrast the bright, sunny feel of the neighborhood with the darker, dirtier demeanor of old Bunker Hill, in downtown.

Myth of Discovery by the Hollywood Dream Factory

One day in the late summer of 1936 a fifteen year old student at Hollywood High School named Julia Turner popped over the road to the Top Hat Malt Shop to get a coke. While there she was spotted by William Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. He asked her if she was interested in acting in the movies, to which she replied that she would have to check with her mother. Wilkerson recommended her to Zeppo Marx who, in addition to being part of a comedy act with his brothers was also a talent agent.

This wasn’t the first time a Hollywood High student had been plucked from obscurity to become a star by any means, there had been a few. The first had been Ruth Roland way back in 1912. She had gone on to star in more than 200 films, before retiring and investing in property in the Hollywood area. During those early years the studios had scouts operating throughout Los Angeles: due to their busy production schedules they were desperate to find actors in what was then still a very young industry.

Within a couple of years Julia had become Lana Turner, a huge star and the story of her discovery had become part of Hollywood lore. And, at its heart, the dream of discovery is a huge element of the Dream Factory’s continued mystique. The idea that you could be walking down the street, or shopping at the supermarket, and someone like Steven Spielberg is going to come up to you and insist that he’s got the perfect role for you, that will transform you into a shining star.

Millions have probably come to Los Angeles since then, hoping the same thing would happen to them. 99.9% of them, sadly, are disappointed. Especially nowadays, when there are managers, talent agents, casting directors and other executives, all acting as gate-keepers to keep all the unknown hopefuls outside the dream factory walls. But still, the hopefuls keep coming, drawn by the dream of Hollywood.

End of the Hollywood Dream Factory?

During World War Two Hollywood became even more important, making anti-Nazi films for the Allies, as well as documentaries and newsreels. Once again the power of Hollywood was seen, but this time in a good cause. Five Came Back (2017) is a phenomenal documentary about this period, available on Netflix.

However, after the war Hollywood went straight into crisis. There were three main reasons, the first of which was the Red Scare of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Suddenly switching from fighting Nazis and the Imperial Japanese, the U.S. now found itself facing off against the Soviet Union. That quickly led to paranoia in Washington that there were ‘reds under the bed’ in Hollywood. It was stoked by an unscrupulous and ambitious Senator called Joseph McCarthy.

There were hearings in Congress, attended by stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and soon well-over a hundred directors, writers and actors were essentially blacklisted from working in Hollywood. It was in many ways similar to the industry’s response to the Fatty Arbuckle affair thirty years earlier, quickly try and deal with the issue before the government gets involved. However this huge overreaction destroyed many people’s careers and lives.

The Hollywood Blacklist lasted from 1947 until 1960, when it was broken by Kirk Douglas publicly crediting Dalton Trumbo for writing the script for Spartacus. Nevertheless, many others on the blacklist continued to be barred from work in Hollywood until well into the 1960’s.

The second development, and it was a seismic one, was the birth of Television, the next element in the story of mass medium entertainment. Now people could watch news-reels and moving pictures at home. Soon there would also be variety shows. The new technology proved immediately and immensely popular from 1945 onwards, and even by the late 1940’s was significantly impacting cinema audiences, particularly during the week.

The final major development was a court case brought by the U.S. government that was designed to force the studios to sell their theater chains. The case, known as United States v Paramount Pictures, was brought under competition laws, due to the studios’ control of both production and distribution making them monopolistic. For example Paramount, the primary defendant although all the other studios were also being sued, controlled every single theater in Detroit, preventing any other movies being exhibited in the city.

For many years the Hollywood studios fought the court case all the way to the Supreme Court, but in 1948 Howard Hughes, who had taken control of RKO, signed a consent decree with the government for the studio to sell its theaters. Within months the other majors had caved in too. Even though they still took several more years to actually sell off their chains (some studios made 90% of their profits from exhibiting), the writing was on the wall, the Golden Age of Hollywood was over.

The Hollywood neighborhood remained busy though, as television production moved onto the old movie soundstages. For most actors, directors, writers and technicians though, the main change is that they were all now freelancers, they would no longer be employees of the studios. This led to the rise of the ‘super’ agent, the wheeler dealer who represented the star.

Even though the studio system is long-over, and will never return, many visitors to Los Angeles somehow believe that it’s still like that. Like it is in Hollywood. with the studios still operating like the Dream Factory. Where an actor only need go around Hollywood visiting them all, before one opens the factory gates and lets them in, to create a new star. Unfortunately it’s not so simple. Many are called, but few are chosen.

Birth of the Walk of Fame

By the late 1950’s Hollywood was making around 300 films a year, less than half the 700 it was making in the 1920’s. All the major studios had moved out of the area, apart from Paramount and Columbia, and Hollywood (the area) was in decline.

This was made worse by the closing of all the Pacific Electric streetcar lines and the construction of the 101 Hollywood Freeway, which cut through Hollywood like a river of concrete, cars and pollution. It signaled one of the worst periods in Los Angeles history: the Freeway Era.

In 1956 the Hollywood Hotel was demolished. During the 1910’s and 20’s it had been the place to be in Hollywood, with its Thursday night dances particularly popular with the silent movie stars (Valentino met two of his wives there). It was another blow to old Hollywood, especially considering the ugly building that replaced it (since demolished). Historic preservation as a concept didn’t exist in Los Angeles at the time.

However, above many of the tables in the hotel’s restaurant stars were painted on the ceiling, with the name of the star who regularly dined at that table (kind of like a reserved sign). Perhaps that was the inspiration for the Hollywood Walk of Fame, we’ll never know, but the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce credits its president at the time E M Stuart, as being the inventor.

Between 1958 and 1960 Hollywood Boulevard, for two miles from La Brea to Gower, was carpet-bombed with around 1,200 Stars. And that’s the main reason why a lot of people don’t recognize most names on the Walk of Fame. They’re of stars who were famous in the 1950’s, but have since been forgotten. Nevertheless the landmark has succeeded over the following decades in connecting Hollywood Boulevard with its mythical namesake, and at least kept further decline at bay.

Even though there are now 2,750 (and counting) Stars on the Walk of Fame, remember that it’s only a tiny fraction of the people who’ve worked in film, TV, radio, music and live performance (the five current categories) over the last hundred-odd years. Meaning the vast majority will never get this recognition, which is why it still means a lot to the people that are invited (and why I guess they don’t mind coughing up $40,000 to pay for the ceremony).

Each career is its own moonshot, the odds of success are so long. Making it particularly appropriate that a Star commemorating the three astronauts of the Apollo lunar landing, arguably humanity’s greatest ever achievement, was placed at Hollywood and Vine. Although it was the biggest live TV event there’ll probably ever be, which is the official reason for the recognition.

The Walk of Fame has seen its fair share of controversy though, due to some extremely questionable behavior by its honorees.

In April 1961 there was a particularly brutal murder in Kern County, north of Los Angeles, by a man named Spade Cooley, a popular movie and TV actor and musician. He’d beaten his wife, Ella Mae, to death and stubbed a cigarette out on her face to check if he’d succeeded in killing her. In front of their fourteen year old daughter. It was a horribly gruesome crime, but what made things even worse, for Hollywood, was that he’d been awarded a Star on the Walk of Fame barely a year earlier!

Naturally there was a movement to remove his Star, and precisely this type of situation had been foreseen when the Walk was created a few years earlier. However, the committee decided to leave Cooley’s Star, reasoning that they are historic landmarks and therefore cannot be removed. That’s still the Walk of Fame’s official response to campaigns to remove other Stars (such as Donald Trump’s or Bill Cosby’s).

Of course, the Chinese Theatre was the first to create an in-the-ground attraction, with stars names and footprints. The very first honorees were Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, before the theater even opened in 1927. Dreamt up by Hollywood Showman Sid Grauman, this landmark literally allowed the reverent public to worship at the feet of the new gods, in their high temple.

It may sound like a misplaced simile, but looking at the crowds of visitors at this shrine to Hollywood, if you compare it to similar crowds at the great cathedrals in Europe, is it so different? I guess that would make the superhero impersonators at Hollywood and Highland the high priests, but I’m not sure.

As the Freeway Era and the New Hollywood period of the 1960’s-90’s ended, both the neighborhood and the industry have continued to evolve. For the area that meant the loss of many of the bookstores and other shops that used to thrive along its length (like Main Streets all over the U.S.), but replacing the red cars with the Red Line (now the B-line), the metro subway that runs under Hollywood Boulevard.

Hollywood Dream Factory Today

Now everyone’s talking about the emergence of the ‘streaming giants’, which includes some of the old heavyweight Hollywood studios, such as Paramount (CBS), Universal (NBC), Disney (ABC) and Warner Brothers (HBO) as well as new players like Amazon, Apple and Netflix. But how much has changed? When Apple, Amazon and Netflix wanted to start their own production companies, where did they do it? In Hollywood, of course.

Amazon recently bought MGM, which was barely a shadow of what it was during its glory days. So, why did Amazon do it? The brand. Those Hollywood brands are still, and probably always will be, so strong. Who doesn’t remember Leo the Lion roaring in the opening credits of their movies. For many people that is the movies (you can see his paw prints at the TCL Chinese Theatre forecourt).

Only Paramount, of the major Hollywood studios, is still based in Hollywood itself, although Netflix’s production arm is headquartered on the old Warner Brothers lot, at Sunset and Bronson. Also Universal, Warner Brothers and Disney are just over the hills in the Valley, and Sony (which owns Columbia Pictures), Apple and Amazon/MGM are down the road in Culver City. All well within the thirty-mile-zone (which is what TMZ means).

Now that the U.S. Government has set aside the Unites States v Paramount Pictures judgement, might there be a renewed desire for the new majors to get back in the theatre chain business? With all the data they have on their audiences it might not be a bad idea. Then the Hollywood Dream Factory could just restart its production line.

Map of Hollywood Dream Factory
Map of Hollywood

Today around 80,000 people live in the roughly 3.5 square miles of the Hollywood area (not including North, East or West Hollywood) and the neighborhood is seeing a revitalization, with ambitious plans to redesign the Walk of Fame to make it a much better pedestrian and bicycle environment. From my point of view it can’t come soon enough.

Something like the boom of the 1920’s is taking place and transforming the Hollywood District as apartments, condominiums and hotels, as well as new offices and even soundstages, are being constructed, With the 2028 Olympics coming to Los Angeles, there’s a lot of investment in the area, spurred by its good rail links with the rest of LA.

In many ways it’s quite similar to what happened a hundred years ago, with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

Best Way to Experience Hollywood

Visiting Los Angeles and Hollywood? Unfortunately the Hollywood neighborhood doesn’t hit most people between the eyes, in the way that downtown Manhattan or the Paris Left Bank do. That’s for a couple of reasons, one or two good, but it is hard to reconcile the Hollywood of our dreams with reality.

Our LA in a Day Tour (which includes Hollywood, DTLA and Santa Monica), Real Hollywood Tour and Hollywood Speakeasy Bar Tour (every Friday night) are all hugely beneficial in bridging that gap. There are a ton of historical sites in the neighborhood, with some fascinating and illuminating stories to go with them, but if you don’t have a local expert pointing them out you’ll most likely miss the vast majority of them and wonder what all the fuss is about. Don’t make that mistake!

Also check our article 10 Things to Do in Hollywood for more information on attractions and ways to experience the neighborhood, and we have two self-guided tours of Hollywood if you want to explore the area on your own.

The Real Hollywood Tour, daily at 10 am

If you have any feedback on Hollywood: LA’s Dream Factory please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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