Incongruous as it sounds, Hollywood was born in Fort Lee, New Jersey. At least, that’s where most of the early filmmakers hung out in the early 1900s when the “flickers” began to move from the peep shows to the Nickelodeons and money started to come in. Lots of it.
For those few years, thinly settled Fort Lee served its purpose. Its plentiful woods, easily traveled roads, and picturesque buildings lent themselves as locations for 1903's breakthrough narrative The Great Train Robbery, 10 minutes of blazing guns and cowboy action. But after a while the weather, the sunlight, and the terrain proved limiting. Even more limiting was the Motion Picture Patents Trust, which was headquartered in nearby East Orange, New Jersey, where Thomas A. Edison had built his Black Maria film studio. Together with George Eastman (who devised perforated film), importer George Kleine, producer Frank Marion, fellow inventor Thomas Armat, and others, Edison demanded royalties from the burgeoning number of fledgling independent production companies that were making movies with homemade (and sometimes purloined) equipment.
Rather than meet the Trust’s demands to pay license fees, and refusing to stop making movies, these producers packed their bootlegged cameras and fled westward, eventually settling in the sleepy Southern California village of Hollywood. Once there, they discovered a temperate climate, constant sunshine, and wonderfully varied scenery. Better yet, they discovered that the Mexican border was only an hour’s mad dash away if the Trust’s lawyers showed up with subpoenas. Sometimes the Trust hired thugs to shoot the independents’ cameras, and occasionally the independents themselves; frequently the independents (such as pioneer director Allan Dwan) shot back.
Thus did Hollywood become a land of fugitives, scoundrels, and misfits, creating an image that the town has sustained ever since. By 1915 the Justice Department had broken up the Trust, but by then the studio system was ensconced and no longer cared about it.
Hollywood didn’t invent the movies, but it perfected their manufacture and presentation. More important, the studios raised the process of selling them to the level of art. Even today, although the old-line studios no longer exist as they once did, six or seven powerhouse companies continue to dominate the world marketplace through vertically integrated corporations that the U.S. government has consistently refused to examine (quite unlike their behavior toward the Patents Trust).
Since movies, at their essence, are built on fantasy, it stands to reason that Hollywood uses fantasy to attract audiences to see them. It hardly matters whether a particular title is actually “the greatest epic ever made” or so-and-so is really “the biggest star in the universe.” Audiences long ago became immune to the hype. Over the years, ballyhoo has evolved into a cherished tradition; the only problem is when the ballies start to believe their own hoo.
“The tragedy of film history is that it is fabricated, falsified, by the very people who make film history,” lamented silent movie actress-turned-historian Louise Brooks in Lulu in Hollywood. Brooks ought to know. She languished in flapper roles in the 1920s until she fled to Europe and enjoyed artistic stardom in two German classics, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, for director G. W. Pabst. Brooks later retired to Rochester, New York, where she installed herself at Eastman House to view, comment on, and write about movies and the town that made them.
“It is understandable,” Brooks continued, “that in the early years of film production, when nobody believed there was going to be any film history, most film magazines and books printed trash … But since about 1950 film has been established as an art, and its history recognized as a serious matter. Yet film celebrities continue to cast themselves as stock types—nice or naughty girls, good or bad boys—whom their chroniclers spray with a shower of anecdotes.”
The movies and the 20th century grew up together. At the beginning, they shared an excitement about technology, an optimism for the future, and even a certain clumsiness in getting down to business. Then came World War I and America shouldered its global responsibility. Likewise, moviemakers realized that they had become an international enterprise.
As the century wore on, with America and Hollywood both becoming multinational, there was less room for fun, more chance for error, and a growing cynicism about both. Movie industry old-timers lament the end of the “old days,” always forgetting that the “old days” were pretty tough at the time. But as we’ll see, those moguls were also adventurous and creative; after all, they built legends that survived a hundred years. So what if they used fakery, legerdemain, and puffery? It’s only a movie! It isn’t easy to separate the hype from the history, but that’s what this chapter is about.