The Myth Grew, the Holly Wouldn't

updated 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

A whole hundred years ago, before Sensurround or Steadicam, before the Lubitsch touch or the Hays Office, before real butterlike flavoring or Dish Night, before key grips, key lights or Keye Luke, before Scream, Blacula, Scream!, before Hayley or Tuesday or Pia or Pee-wee, there was Hollywood. In February of 1887 the Kansas Prohibitionist Harvey Wilcox registered a map of his 120-acre citrus ranch, which he hoped to subdivide, with the L.A. County Recorder's office. He called his slice of paradise Hollywood, after the country home of a woman his wife had met on a train. (Wilcox tried growing holly on his property. It died.) For a few years, Hollywood remained as he had intended: a quiet, respectable, booze-free suburb, dotted with fig and orange trees. It was a lovely place, and doomed.

Doomed because, back East, the movie business was being born. Thomas Edison had invented the Kinetoscope, a moving picture peep-show machine for a single viewer. Realizing that projected movies were the coming thing, however, he acquired Thomas Armat's invention, a combination camera/projector called the Vitascope, and began fine-tuning the photographic process. (2)

By 1905 nickelodeon theaters were the rage, screening one-reel silents to packed houses. Edison, seeing firsthand that a combination of artificial light and fake cowboys could produce real money, helped to form a patent trust with eight major film companies, hoping to stop competitors from making movies without paying royalties. It worked, but for less than 10 years: A group of producers on the run from Edison's patent agents in the East swarmed to Southern California, where some of them banded together to defeat Edison's monopoly in court. Still others later set up the first Hollywood studio in an old roadhouse that was failing because, under a local ordinance, it couldn't serve drinks. Hollywood was on its way to becoming fabled Tinseltown (3), a place that has not been particularly sober or respectable since.

The town flourished. Along with the emergence of sophisticated camera movement and editing (The Birth of a Nation, The Wind) the first stars were born. Among them were Lillian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and the exotic Theda Bara, whose name, it was pointed out, was an anagram for "Arab death." (4) Movies were still silent, but the venues were not. In addition to organists, people were often hired to stand behind the screen to provide such sound effects as horses' hooves or gunshots.5

Then in October of 1927 came the premiere of Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer, which featured several sound sequences. Audiences were amazed as the sound of Al Jolson pretending to be a cantor's son pretending to be black pretended to come right off the screen. The picture was a sensation. The talkies weren't good for everybody, however. The careers of actors with high or squeaky voices ended abruptly, and even stars who were successful hated the crude early recording process. "They made me sound as if I'd been castrated," complained the ever-ironic Tallulah Bankhead. On the other hand, talkies were great for stage-trained and literary talent from the East, and writers, directors, dialogue coaches and actors spilled off the Santa Fe Chief upon its every arrival in L.A.

Movies became a national pastime, then a mania. Marlene Dietrich was photographed wearing slacks in 1930, and women everywhere mimicked her leggy look. Clark Gable appeared without an undershirt in It Happened One Night and caused a crisis in the underwear business. Americans went to the movies at least once a week and then glued themselves to Photoplay or Modern Screen for the dish on their favorite stars. Gossip's grand dames—and arch-rivals—Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who enjoyed a combined daily newspaper readership of 75 million, were possibly Hollywood's most powerful women. Parsons' outlook was perhaps excessively movie-centric. In 1939, a few days after the Nazi invasion of Albania, she wrote, "The deadly dullness of the last week was lifted today when Darryl Zanuck admitted he had bought all rights to Maurice Maeterlinck's The Bluebird." But then, it was a movie-centric age, a time when Americans believed Hollywood to be a charmed place whose genial, witty, drunk citizens were forever inviting each other over to start sex scandals and drug fads.

Like every other industry, movies were hit hard by the Depression. Attendance, ticket prices and box office revenues all dropped, and theaters used gimmicks such as dish giveaways and bingo games to lure audiences. At the same time, the industry was stung by edicts from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, a self-regulating body set up in 1922 to oversee movie morality, with Will H. Hays as its head; later came the tough Production Code of 1930, a dos-and-don'ts guide to screen behavior. (Among the dictums: "Pointed profanity—this includes the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, unless used reverently, hell, s.o.b., damn, Gawd—or every other profane or vulgar expression, however used, is forbidden.")

Occasionally, movies dealt with hard times (The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda) or politics (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with James Stewart), but mostly they provided glorious escapes: Hitchcock's thrillers, Cagney's gangsters, Cary Grant's screwball comedies, Busby Berkeley's dance extravaganzas and Gone With the Wind. With the arrival in 1935 of Becky Sharp, the first full-length color feature, the studios began churning out color movies as fast as they could.

As the country's attention shifted from its economic woes to World War II, Hollywood became flush with patriotic films; gung-ho war epics were the big draws. When people weren't going to those, they flocked to any marquee that had Humphrey Bogart's name on it. Above all, there was 1941's Citizen Kane, Orson Welles' tour de force of cinematic technique. This movie caused critics to dig deep for new superlatives. (6)

This Golden Age of movies was an era of supreme power for the studios and the legendary tyrant-moguls who ran them. Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg often generated more ink than their movies, much of it the apocryphal concoction of hyperactive press agents. It's doubtful that Goldwyn really manufactured these oft-repeated sparklers: "Gentlemen, include me out!" or "I had a good idea this morning, but I didn't like it" or "In two words, impossible!" and probably untrue that when told that Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour was about lesbians, he responded, "Don't worry about it, we'll make them Americans." But it is true that Columbia chief Harry Cohn hit the ceiling after reading the script for the biblical epic Joseph and His Brethren, in which characters said, "Yes, sire" and "No, sire." Fumed Cohn: "I may not be a college man, but I know goddamn well that in biblical times people did not go around saying, 'Yes-siree' and 'No-siree.' "

The moguls controlled their talented employees' slightest moves. Names were changed ("I think the 'e' made the whole f------ difference," Carole Lombard observed), along with, in some cases, teeth, noses, hairlines and hair color. For 1927's King of Kings, Cecil B. DeMille's two stars, H.B. Warner (Jesus Christ) and Dorothy Cummings (Mary) had to sign agreements not to appear for five years in roles that might compromise their holy images. DeMille also ordered them not to be seen swimming, playing cards, riding in convertibles, going to clubs or ball games or engaging in other un-biblical activities during shooting.

The end to the moguls' omnipotence came in several crippling waves. In 1948, the studios were financially weakened when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that ordered eight major studios to divest themselves of the theaters they owned. Then came television, (7) and the toll on the box office was enormous. From 1948 to 1953, annual U.S. movie attendance dropped from around 4 billion to less than 2 billion.

The worst drain on Hollywood's morale, however, came during the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s, when the studios' practice was to blacklist anyone thought to have Communist leanings. It was Hollywood's lowest moment. Careers were sidetracked and destroyed by innuendo, people informed on their friends, and writers and directors went to jail for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. However, while serving his contempt sentence, blacklisted writer Dalton (Spartacus) Trumbco at least had the pleasure of running into HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas, who had landed in the clink for padding his payroll.

The industry soldiered bravely into the '50s, with the studios searching frantically for ways to give people in movies what they couldn't get on TV. (8) As it turned out, 3-D was unsuccessful (too many headaches), but producers had better luck with wider screen shapes such as Cinemascope, which made the movies look as long and as low as the finned Cadillacs of the era. With the movie house becoming a sometime refuge from TV's blandness, Americans developed a passion for foreign films. French New Wave film critics such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard became the New Wave filmmakers, after writing voluminous articles that hailed many U.S.-made Westerns and gritty gangster pictures as the richly symbolic masterpieces of visionary auteurs. Later, the French would determine that Jerry Lewis was a genius. (9)

As the studio system waned and filmmakers and stars became pricey free agents, audiences began turning fickle. In the '60s and 70s, big names no longer guaranteed a bonanza at the box office. (10) Cleopatra had Elizabeth Taylor (which was more than Eddie Fisher could say when filming was over) but no luck. The Great Gatsby had Robert Redford but no punch. Meanwhile, youthquake entries from left field—Easy Rider, American Graffiti and Animal House, for example—became monster hits. Prequels followed sequels, and screenwriter William Goldman, commenting on Hollywood's ability to predict hits, declared, "Nobody knows anything."

The business had never been known for its serenity, but such unpredictability gave Hollywood worse jitters than usual. Even today, the town is in the midst of a somewhat bumpy transition. Conglomerates have bought up the once-independent studios, and the old-guard moguls have been replaced by the more cheerful but less powerful "baby moguls." (11) Bottom-line mentality dominates decision making, and the fate of studio executives can hang on the success of a single big-budget gamble. (Remember Heaven's Gate-gate?) Getting movies made at all today requires a miraculous collusion of factors: the availability of stars who will speak to each other, the coordination of everybody's schedule, and getting everything started before the studio changes its management, its owners or its mind.

Yet the Hollywood of the '80s is in better health than most people expected it to be. The top box office year ever (with some help from inflation) was 1984; the second-best year was 1986. Neither TV nor cable nor video-cassettes nor $3 for a bucket of popcorn has destroyed the practice of going to the movies. To be sure, there is no shortage of shlock. On the other hand, the major studios are taking risks on unconventional movies like Blue Velvet and True Stories that would never have been made in the Golden Age, or any other age for that matter.

Yes, people continue to go to the movies, losing themselves there, and replaying the scenes for days on the little screens behind their eyes—screens that, in many cases, are larger than those at the shopping mall multiplex. In fact, as you read this, a whole new batch of destruction-of-property youth comedies and wise-toys-from-space pictures are being readied for this summer, when they will once again prove the old show business maxim: "Give the people what they want and they will (12) come out (13) to see it." (14)

1 Writer-journalist Haas co-wrote 1982's Tex, and is president of Prose King, Inc., whose motto reads, "Screenwriting at its least stupid."

2 An entry in Edison's laboratory journal, previously unpublished but discovered for this article, reads, "Though the clarity of image and simulation of motion have improved, I continue to be compelled by the strange notion that the illusion would be greatly enhanced if only a method could be found for encasing raisin fruits entirely in chocolate and serving these to the viewer. I have ruined three pewter pots in my attempts to realize this advance."

3 From the German verb tinzelle—literally, "to book a turkey into 1,200 theaters and make one's money before word of mouth hits."

4 Her real name was Theodosia Goodman, which may have encouraged her, since it is itself an anagram for "Oo! Odd name's a hit! Go!"

5 Today, in a continuation of this tradition, people are employed to sit in theaters and say things such as, "Watch, watch, that guy's gonna hit him!" If these people are sitting behind you, do not interfere with their work; they have been hired by the Motion Picture Association to enhance your moviegoing enjoyment.

6 Newly discovered is this telegram that was sent to Welles by his agent when the film opened: "Congrats Stop Reviews unanimous Stop Kane an unparalleled triumph Stop The wine commercials are now a sure thing Stop Also likely we can get you the spot next to Soupy on Hollywood Squares Stop Congrats, congrats, Congrats Stop." What filmmaker, even today, does not dream of such a triumph?

7 From the Greek televidikos—literally, "theater where no one can see how much you are eating."

8 Annette Funicello, after puberty, comes to mind as an early example.

9 The New Wave critics' remarkable study of Elvis Presley's movies has recently turned up. "A thoughtful, articulate young man wanders through these films," the article reads, "with many incisive things to say. Everywhere he goes, however, four demented background singers follow him, and just as he is about to speak, run over and stand behind him, singing 'Ooh-ah-AHH' and popping their fingers loudly. He must sing Do the Clam, or something of this sort, to make them go away. The Elvis films of Hal Wallis are a cinema of bitter alienation."

10 Some people complain that stars today aren't as distinctive or magnetic as they once were when moviegoers imitated the mannerisms of, say, James Dean or Marlon Brando. It's true that one rarely hears young women saying, "God, I met the cutest guy, and he walks just like Tom Hanks!" (On the other hand, it's impossible to imitate Sylvester Stallone without putting oil all over yourself, which could cause you to sauté unexpectedly.)

11 The baby moguls, many of them under 35 and filling the vice-presidential ranks at the studios, have transformed the atmosphere of Hollywood. Where filmmakers once lived in dread of "the suits" who ran the studios, they can now live in dread of "the sweaters."

12 Except when Moonlighting is on.

13 If they can get a sitter.

14 Or maybe they'll catch it on cassette.

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