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From Hauling Wood to Hollywood and the Birth of an Industry

The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s silent, epic, industry changing film is a century old. In 1915, Hollywood was still in its teething phase, but already, some of its pearly whites had been fixed, filed, or pulled before any visible rot could set in. It’s roots however, began somewhat accidentally as a haven for on-the-run film makers in conjunction with a man who would come to be known as the The Father of Hollywood.

Anglo/Scots Canadian born Hobart Johnstone Whitley, began his career path as a hardware and candy store owner. Blighted by the loss of his siblings, parents, wife and child to a succession of illnesses and bizarre accidents, fate twisted his arm into shunning religion and focusing on big ambition. Establishing himself as a land developer, H. J. Whitley built approximately one hundred towns before arriving at a particular southern Californian spot. As for the naming of this spot, naturally, there is more than one version of the story. The one Whitley’s descendants tell goes like this: Whilst on their honeymoon in the mid-1880s, Whitley and his second wife Gigi were standing on what would become an infamous set of hills overlooking the ocean. There, they witnessed a Chinese man riding a wagon full of wood. The man got out, bowed and in broken English said, “Up early…work hard…hauling wood.” From this Chinese inflected consonant dropping pronunciation, Whitley came up with ‘Hollywood’ as a fitting moniker for the 500 acres of farmland that he would soon purchase from Colorado miner E. C. Hurd. Whether this absurd yet whimsical tale is true or not, it is in keeping with the modern folklore that the notorious town would soon invent.

Whitley transformed the area by constructing winding roads along the hillside with blended residential styles and ocean-view homes. He built Sunset Boulevard, a bank and the Hollywood Hotel. He came up with the idea of the first local electric sign to sell real estate, ‘Hollywoodland’, whilst actively pursuing modern business ideas and a burgeoning industry that could be cultivated in the Californian sunshine.

The film industry had hitherto existed far out on the opposite side of the United States in the much breezier region of New Jersey, where the short serialised movies made at Fort Lee would end episodically with a jeopardised character hanging from a cliff, the cliffhanger. It was Thomas Edison who was to play an unwitting and yet leading role in the birth of Hollywood. His ruthless patents that exceeded two thousand included the motion picture device the Kinetoscope, followed by the Kinetograph, both designed by his employee William Kennedy Dickson, and later, much of the applied science used to make films and exhibit them. While the length and accessibility of the moving image had moved on from the peepshow set-up to shop-front nickelodeons and in some privileged locations, actual movie theatres, the creative hands of film makers were nevertheless tied by Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, which operated a cartel on the movie making business. If you wanted to make a movie, you had to pay Edison for the rights. If you used equipment that did not belong to an Edison patent, then you risked having it smashed up by hired hoodlums.

It was his gang-heavy demands of regular payments that forced early film making luminaries into fleeing the East Coast for the West Coast, which had the advantage of comparatively lenient legislature as well as a consistent quantity of sunlight that the early film cameras depended upon. These luminaries included prolific trailblazer D. W. Griffith and the English born Horsely brothers.

David Horsely had had his forearm amputated following a childhood accident on a train track. Thereafter, his family moved from Durham England to Bayonne New Jersey, where despite his impairment, he made and sold bicycles, before turning a defunct pool hall in 1907 into a film studio. Together with scenic artist Charles Gorman, he created the Centaur film company and a DIY approach to film making. Equipped with cameras made out of telescopes, they hired crime caper actors to kidnap the unwitting girl who lived next door to the studio. As the telescopes-turned-cameras rolled, the non-actress was bundled into a car and sped away.

Horsely’s Edison-driven decampment to Hollywood led to a chance meeting with H. J. Whitley, who offered David and his brother William his Hollywood land, more precisely, Hollywood Boulevard and Whitley Avenue. A deal was struck and a new film industry assembled. The Horsely brothers then purchased Blondeau’s Tavern, a derelict roadhouse on the corner of Sunset Boulevard that had lost its liquor licence due to a local pre-prohibition era alcohol embargo. Here, the newly formed Nestor Motion Picture Company opened Hollywood’s first film studio.

The first recognised Hollywood film however, was D. W. Griffith’s Mexican-era In Old California, made in 1910, the same year in which Hollywood would merge with Los Angeles. The 17-minute long movie was made for Biograph, a company originally set up by Kinetoscope inventor and ex Edison employee William Kennedy Dickson. In 1915, Griffith made the controversial but technical masterpiece The Birth of a Nation. Despite its $2 ticket price, equivalent to approximately $45 in today’s money, audiences were hungry for the new ‘event movie’ medium and flocked to see it in record-breaking numbers. Influenced by the fortune spent on and earned from The Birth of a Nation, other movie makers took note. Budgets and revenue began to soar.

The first Hollywood stars, also New Jersey imports, were initially uncredited due to their perceived lack of importance in the film making process. Sensing that this injustice had a lot to do with a resistance to paying credit where credit was due, King Baggot, Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford, in their persistent response to an adoring public, became billboard names in their own right. Pickford would go on to co-found United Artists with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and husband Douglas Fairbanks, while establishing herself as Hollywood royalty.

The British invasion arrived via Fred Karno’s Army. Fred ‘The Guv’nor’ Karno, a former circus clown and slapstick virtuoso, formed a comedy troupe from his South London HQ, the Fun Factory. Whilst touring America, members of Karno’s Army including Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, were smuggled away into movie legend.

Elsewhere, in 1927, the now largely forgotten Norma Talmadge, one of the biggest and highest paid actresses of that era and the putative inspiration for Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and Singin’ in the Rain’s Lina Lamont, stepped out of her car into wet cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, inspiring the hand and foot print movie star autographs that continue today.

Hollywood’s stars and operatives inhabited sunshine and adoration just as they did the nocturnal grip of solitude. Where there is light entertainment, there is also Lynchian darkness. In the post-silent era, King Baggot, once billed as ‘the most photographed man in the world’, unravelled into alcoholism and demeaning background extra roles, while Florence Lawrence, who suffered large financial losses in the Great Depression as well as a similar shortage of roles, took to swallowing ant poison, aged 48. Her suicide note included the words: ‘I am tired. Hope this works.’ In a notorious incident in 1932, 24-year-old Anglo/Welsh actress Peg Entwistle reached the dizzy heights of infamy by jumping from the letter ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign. Two decades after Peg’s suicide, the Hollywood sign’s inebriated caretaker Albert Kothe destroyed that same letter ‘H’ by crashing into it with his car.

Mounting Hollywood scandals such as the unsolved murder of Irish born actor/director William Desmond Taylor and the alleged rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe by comic actor Fatty Arbuckle (whose shattered reputation remains unfounded), came to a head with the official morality checking Motion Picture Production Code in 1930.

Known as the Hays Code after Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) president William H. Hays, the new censorship laws clamped down on what they perceived to be a permissive industry full of lewd content. Despite downsizing bedroom scenes to the one-foot-on-the-floor rule, a happy by-product of suppressing on-screen sexual liberty meant that actresses, now bereft of being banished to the bedroom or car boot, inhabited meaty roles of complexity. By the end of the 1960s, a lift on censorship dissolved the Hays Code into the residue of a double-edged sword. While new freedoms allowed artistic expression, those old female power roles, made memorable by the likes of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Katherine Hepburn, were never to return in quite the same way.

Hollywood’s parts are as interchangeable as they are dispensable, and yet Paramount founder Adolph Zukor’s Too Big to Fail dogma persists in its ambiguous itinerary. Over time, stars and studios, entangled in a melodramatic maze of talent and disrepute, have rejuvenated or more often been replaced. But so long as those rare talents and cinematic stooges continue to be lured by the murky exposure of Whitley’s West Coast town, the rest of us presumably will carry on watching.