California: Hollywood Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This section of Los Angeles is considered the home of the U.S. motion-picture and television industry; although the industry has spread far beyond the boundaries of Hollywood, the name also is used to describe this business as a whole.

Site Office

Hollywood Visitor Information Center

The Janes House

Janes Square

6541 Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood, CA 90028

ph.: (213) 461-4213

Web site: chamber.hollywood.com

Hollywood is both a geographic area–a neighborhood of Los Angeles–and something more. The term “Hollywood” encompasses the entire industry of U.S. film and television production, although much of the activity takes place in such neighboring Los Angeles suburbs as Burbank and Culver City, and some even outside the Los Angeles area. During the twentieth century Hollywood has come to symbolize the glamour of show business and U.S. influence on popular culture worldwide. The most prosperous period for Hollywood filmmaking lasted roughly from 1920 to 1950. Major studios then turned to television production to supplement their big-screen output, and many of the studios became part of major corporate conglomerates. Most studios continue to maintain headquarters in the Los Angeles area.

The Advent of Film

Before the arrival of film studios in the early twentieth century, Hollywood was merely a small desert community. It had been part of a ranch in the 1850’s, and in 1887 a man named Horace Wilcox gave the area the name of Hollywood and began selling lots for home building there. In 1910, when Hollywood’s population was about four thousand, it was annexed to Los Angeles, primarily to gain access to the Los Angeles water supply. By then the filmmakers had begun arriving.

The U.S. film industry had originated on the East Coast. In the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, Thomas Alva Edison developed a motion-picture camera, as well as a machine called the Kinetoscope, which made it possible to view silent films through a peephole. The coin-operated Kinetoscopes were placed in penny arcades, where people could come to see the films. Arcade operators changed the films weekly, and this great demand for new films led Edison to create a studio in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1893. New York and Chicago were other centers of early film production. Edison’s company and others soon developed motion-picture projectors, which made it possible to show films to many people at once and made films more popular than ever.

As film technology developed and improved, patent infringement suits often resulted. In the early 1900’s the Edison Company and another early film studio, Biograph, formed the Motion Picture Patents Company to control the licensure of patented technologies. Ten eastern and midwestern film production companies, including Edison and Biograph, were licensees. This was one factor that fueled the industry’s migration to Los Angeles–producers who were not licensed by the patents company believed they might be able to evade lawsuits if they were located in Southern California, as it was not easily accessible from the East Coast and was close to the Mexican border.

Even some of the patents company’s licensees, however, filmed in Los Angeles in the winter months, taking advantage of the area’s climate and landscape, which in the long run were the most compelling reasons for film producers to locate there. Los Angeles’s year-round warm weather and sunshine made for ideal filming conditions, and the desert, ocean, and mountains provided interesting locations. Another attraction of Los Angeles was that its labor force at the time was mostly nonunion; unionization would take hold in the 1930’s.

The Birth of Studios

Most early film operations in Los Angeles were not in Hollywood proper. Late in 1907 the Chicago-based Selig Company set up a makeshift studio in downtown Los Angeles to shoot scenes for The Count of Monte Cristo. In 1909 Selig filmed The Heart of a Racing Tout in downtown Los Angeles; this was the first feature-length dramatic film to be shot entirely in California. Documentaries had been filmed in Los Angeles as early as 1903, but the concept of using film to tell a dramatic story was just beginning to develop then. The Great Train Robbery, produced by the Edison Company in 1903, is generally considered the first film with a plot.

Other filmmakers began wintering in Los Angeles, and the establishment of permanent studios quickly followed. D. W. Griffith, at the time with Biograph, filmed in Los Angeles in 1909 and 1910, mostly in the downtown area. Kalem and other eastern companies set up studios in the Los Angeles area around this time. The first studio in Hollywood proper was established in 1911 by the Nestor Film Corporation, formerly of Bayonne, New Jersey, in what had been a tavern at the corner of Sunset and Gower Streets. Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, set up shop across the street in 1912. The number of film studios in this vicinity mushroomed, and the area was nicknamed “Gower Gulch.” Short films, mostly comedies and westerns, dominated the studios’ output; Hollywood’s first feature-length film, The Squaw Man, was shot in a studio at Vine and Selma Streets in 1913. The film was produced by the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, founded by Lasky, a vaudeville manager, and his brother-in-law, Samuel Goldfish, who later changed his name to Goldwyn and became one of Hollywood’s most successful independent film producers. Its director was Cecil B. DeMille, who later became famous for his spectacular biblical films.

Filmmaking was becoming more sophisticated. Motion-picture performers had once labored with some degree of anonymity, but certain ones became especially popular with audiences and were promoted by their studios as “stars.” Florence Lawrence, whom Laemmle hired away from Biograph, is considered the first movie star; other performers who became stars in the 1910’s and 1920’s included Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, and Charlie Chaplin. Writing and directing techniques improved as well. One of the key developers of the art of filmmaking was Griffith, who left Biograph in 1912 and began producing and directing films independently. His 1915 release The Birth of a Nation is considered a landmark for its innovative camera work and sheer storytelling power, although it later was subject to much criticism because of the racist attitudes displayed in this melodramatic story of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction.

By the 1920’s, the Hollywood film industry was in full bloom. Over the next three decades, the industry was dominated by the “big five” studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, RKO, and Twentieth Century-Fox), with significant contributions as well from the “little two” (Universal and Columbia). There were other companies that carved specialized niches–Republic, for instance, mostly made low-budget Western films, and Disney was the home of cartoons and family fare. There also were independent producers who did not work for any studio but arranged for the studios to distribute their films; the best known of these were David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn. Hollywood films were the leading form of entertainment in the United States and served a substantial overseas market as well. Films from other countries, including France, Germany, and Russia, might have been considered more artistic, but the Hollywood product was the last word in popular entertainment.

Some of the major film studios were in Hollywood proper, such as Paramount, at Marathon Street and Bronson Avenue, and RKO, at Gower Street and Melrose Avenue. Warner Bros. and Universal originally had operations in Hollywood but soon moved to the San Fernando Valley north of the Santa Monica Mountains (of which the Hollywood Hills are a section), with Warners based in the community of Burbank and Universal in Universal City. Culver City, about six miles southwest of Hollywood, was home to the most prestigious studio, MGM, which claimed to have “more stars than there are in the heavens.” Culver City differed from other film production centers in the Los Angeles area in that its developer, Harry H. Culver, had consciously set out to attract the film industry. Among those he attracted was pioneer producer Thomas Ince, who set up a studio in Culver City in 1915. After his business failed, the facility was used by Sam Goldwyn and finally, beginning in 1924, by MGM.

Effect on Los Angeles

The industry transformed Los Angeles. By the end of the 1920’s, the city’s population was nearly 1.25 million, up from 100,000 at the century’s beginning. The Hollywood neighborhood had 150,000 residents. The film industry employed thousands of actors, writers, producers, directors, and technicians. Other entertainment businesses, such as recording and radio broadcasting, were important to Los Angeles as well. Many broadcast studios were in the area of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, in the heart of Hollywood.

Residential and commercial development of the Los Angeles area were by-products of the booming film industry. Many early film stars and executives built homes in Los Feliz, a neighborhood lying between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. Eventually, the suburb of Beverly Hills supplanted Los Feliz as the most fashionable address for the show business set. Beverly Hills, once the site of unsuccessful oil exploration, was founded as a residential community by a real estate developer in 1907. It grew slowly until the movie-star couple of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford built their mansion, Pickfair, in Beverly Hills in 1920. Others from the film industry quickly followed suit.

Fashionable shops, restaurants, and nightclubs also catered to the film community. Many of the nightclubs, including the Trocadero, Mocambo, and Ciro’s, were on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard called the Sunset Strip, in West Hollywood. West Hollywood, originally called Sherman, had not been annexed to the city of Los Angeles as had Hollywood. It was under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County authorities, who were said to be more lenient than their city counterparts, allowing nightlife to flourish.

Challenges for the Industry

During Hollywood’s booming period, there still were challenges to be met. There was the conversion from silence to sound, with Warner Bros.’s release of The Jazz Singer in 1927; criticism of Hollywood by religious leaders and other moral guardians, with the industry eventually staving off outside censors by regulating itself; and the Great Depression of the 1930’s, which forced many studios to cut their expenditures but saw the public continue to attend motion pictures, which provided an affordable means of entertainment and escapism.

As the war in Europe escalated in the late 1930’s, the U.S. film industry lost some of its export markets, but for the most part business continued as usual. In 1939, the year that England declared war on Germany, the U.S. film community enjoyed what many consider to be its peak year, with the release of a huge number of classic motion pictures, including Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, and Goodbye Mr. Chips.

The war could not be held at bay indefinitely, however. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated the United States’ entry into World War II in 1941, films became important to the war effort. Films displayed much patriotic sentiment, mandated by the U.S. Office of War Information. The industry lost personnel to the armed forces and had trouble obtaining some needed materials, but overall the war years were good to Hollywood. Americans had plenty of discretionary income, due to the wartime manufacturing boom, but few consumer goods to buy, due to wartime rationing; so many of them spent their money at the movies, which also provided a distraction from the problems of a world at war. The combined profits of the eight largest studios grew from $19.4 million in 1940 to $35 million in 1941; profits approached$50 million the following year and $60 million each of the next three years, surpassing pre-Depression levels. In 1946 the industry had a record $122 million profit–but major changes in the business were in the works.

The End of the Studio System

In the late 1930’s the U.S. Department of Justice had brought an antitrust suit against eight major film studios. The suit was aimed at breaking the control that studios had over the distribution and exhibition of their films. This control was maintained through such practices as block booking (forcing theaters to commit to showing several mediocre films in order to obtain the most desirable ones) and studio ownership of theater chains. The war delayed action on the suit, but postwar rulings by a U.S. District Court (in 1946) and the U.S. Supreme Court (in 1948) found the studios in violation of antitrust laws and led to the divestiture of studio-owned theaters and an end to other monopolistic practices.

The major studios also saw their power over their employees diminish in the postwar years. Studios generally signed performers to seven-year contracts. During this period, if a performer refused any role, the studio could suspend the actor without pay and add suspension time to the end of the contract, thereby preventing the performer from seeking work elsewhere even at the end of the seven years. Actress Olivia de Havilland challenged this practice in a lawsuit filed in California in 1943, and the Superior Court of California ruled in her favor the following year. The decision was later upheld by the state appellate and supreme courts. A studio could no longer add suspension time to a performer’s contract, and actors had more freedom to market their services. Performers began to work on a freelance basis. This increasing independence, plus tax considerations, led in the 1950’s to the phenomenon of actors working for a percentage of their films’ profits, rather than for upfront salaries. This practice proved lucrative for stars and their agents, and talent agents supplanted studios as the major force behind most performers’ careers.

The Red Scare and Television

There were two other major developments in Hollywood in the late 1940’s. One was the “Red Scare,” which saw numerous actors, writers, and directors accused of being communists–a serious accusation in the anticommunist climate of the United States at the time–and prevented from obtaining work in Hollywood. A group known as the “Hollywood Ten” spent time in jail, on charges of contempt of the U.S. Congress. Others fled to Europe or worked in Hollywood under assumed names; some had their careers wrecked altogether.

The other development had an even greater impact. World War II had delayed the commercial exploitation of television technology, but with war’s end television began its reach into almost every home in the United States. By 1948, 200,000 television sets were being sold each month, and theater attendance was dropping precipitously. The ascendancy of television destroyed the old Hollywood, with its focus on films for theatrical exhibition; but it gave birth to the new Hollywood, emphasizing production of television programs. By 1959, all the major Hollywood studios were making television series and specials, supplementing a greatly reduced output of theatrical films, which dealt with increasingly more adult themes. The studios thus remained a force in Hollywood, in their new role sharing power with television networks, talent agents, and independent filmmakers.

Hollywood Today

While the industry of Hollywood changed, the face of Hollywood changed as well, but some aspects of the glory years remain. Paramount is the last major studio in Hollywood proper; it offers only limited tours to the general public, but it is possible for visitors to get inside the Paramount lot by obtaining tickets to television programs taped there. In the San Fernando Valley, Universal and Warner Bros. offer more extensive tours.

On the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, the nightclubs popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s have long since closed, but the Strip remains home to other, newer nightspots, as well as huge billboards promoting the latest efforts of film, television, and recording stars. West Hollywood, which became an independent municipality in 1984, also is the heart of the Los Angeles gay community.

Beverly Hills is still a wealthy community and home to many people in the entertainment business. It also is the site of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–best known for giving its annual awards, the Oscars–and the offices of leading talent agencies and other companies involved in various aspects of entertainment. Other suburban communities with numerous show-business residents include Bel Air and the beaches and canyons of Malibu. A variety of sightseeing tours to the homes of the stars are available in the Los Angeles area.

No visit to Hollywood would be complete without a look at Mann’s (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre, on Hollywood Boulevard, where stars have left their handprints and footprints in cement since 1927. Also on Hollywood Boulevard is the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a twelve-block stretch of star-shaped plaques, embedded in the sidewalk, bearing the names of show-business celebrities. Overlooking it all is the famed Hollywood sign. The sign, in the Hollywood Hills, originally read “Hollywoodland” when it was put up in 1923 to advertise a real estate development. With its last syllable removed, the sign stands as an emblem of Hollywood, the place, and Hollywood, the industry.

For Further Information
  • Alleman, Richard. The Movie Lover’s Guide to Hollywood. New York: Harper, 1985. A detailed guide to historic places in Hollywood and greater Los Angeles. However, an updated edition is needed.
  • Clarke, Charles G. Early Film Making in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1976. A slender volume containing the reminiscences of a veteran cinematographer; Clarke provides a rather quick overview, but his book contains several bits of information not available elsewhere.
  • Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s. London: Headline Books, 1987. Indispensable for readers whose primary interests are Hollywood personalities and studio politics in the golden era.
  • Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. 7th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. A scholarly yet accessible exploration of the art of filmmaking, with some attention to the development of the industry.
  • Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System. New York: Pantheon, 1988. Views industry developments at four representative studios.
  • Stanley, Robert H. The Celluloid Empire: A History of the American Movie Industry. New York: Hastings House, 1978. Numerous books have been written about the careers of various Hollywood performers, directors, and studio executives, but this book is one of the few that traces the development of Hollywood as a whole. A thorough, informative, and readable account.
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