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How Did Hollywood End Up in Hollywood?

“When you get stranded out there in the West I will send you your railroad fare — as usual.”

In 1913 William DeMille wrote disapprovingly to his younger brother, Cecil, who had set out west on the train from New York to begin filming on “The Squaw Man,” which would declare itself the first full-length feature film shot in Los Angeles (and which celebrated its centennial last summer at the Hollywood Heritage Museum’s Lasky-DeMille barn). “I cannot understand how you are willing to identify yourself with a cheap form of amusement, and which no one will ever allude to as art,” the elder deMille wrote, signing his letter, “With love (which is akin to pity).”

But when Cecil DeMille set out by train from the East Coast with his crew, the original destination had been Flagstaff, Arizona.

So how did Hollywood end up in...Hollywood?

View of an outdoor film set at Vitagraph Studios, showing a film shoot in progress, 1917
An outdoor film set at Vitagraph Studios just east of Hollywood, showing a film shoot in progress, 1917. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

The DeMille story, amusing if widely taken to be apocryphal, claims that if the weather had been better in Flagstaff, Hollywood might now be in Arizona: “When we got off the train in Flagstaff, it was colder than when I left New York,” De Mille later reminisced. “We looked around and said, this doesn’t look like the type of country “The Squaw Man” was laid in, so we got back on the train and came out to California.”

In fact, prior to “The Squaw Man,” other filmmaking units had produced movies out of Southern California, including Biograph in 1906 and Selig-Polyscope in Edendale in 1909. But after around 1909, the popularity of motion pictures led to an increase in production in order to meet year-round exhibitor demand.

While New York, New Jersey, and Chicago had served as centers of early film production, director-led shooting units started to seek out locales that could provide reliable, year-round sunshine. In some such places, like Louisiana and Florida, humidity and tropical storms caused other seasonal problems. Not so in California, however, where, in 1911, the Moving Picture World trade magazine boasted that 320 days a year of good weather could be expected for ideal motion picture photography.

Los Angeles was also known at the time as the capital of open-shop, non-union labor, where businesses could exploit cheap workers in large numbers . Film historian Robert Sklar writes that “as the studios moved into feature production and built more elaborate and authentic sets, they needed skilled craftworkers—carpenters, electricians, dressmakers and many other specialists,” making lower labor costs a chief concern for studio bankers. On The Squaw Man, DeMille noted that the wages for carpenters and other service personnel were 25- 50% cheaper than on the East Coast.[1] According to historian Steven J. Ross, “the pro-business orientation of the courts and city council helped local employers undercut the strength of organized labor.”[2]

Filmmakers of the early industry also arrived in Southern California after fleeing en masse from Thomas Alva Edison and his Motion Picture Patents Company, commonly known as “the Trust,”, which held patents on motion picture processing and projection equipment. The Trust’s aggressive and intimidating demands for licensing fees sent filmmakers to Hollywood, where they could supposedly “beat it across the Mexican border when agents of the Motion Picture Patents Company came to service subpoenas.” (Sklar points out, however, that “Mexico was a five-hour drive from Los Angeles in those days; to make the trip would have cost at least a day’s production, while the legal papers could be served at the business offices in New York.”)

And when filmmakers started shooting in Southern California, they found many further advantages that kept them there: a variety of geographical locations within a small radius – mountains, desert, sea ­– and different architectural styles that could convey a broad range of settings. On top of that, land was inexpensive and available: the movie makers built palaces and factories, acquiring land from Lincoln Heights to the San Fernando Valley and from Echo Park to Santa Monica.

After the beginning of World War I, Ross notes, was when Hollywood truly became the movie capital: “films were needed to replace European products; more efficient production facilities were needed to make them; more money was needed to finance them; and more theaters were needed to show them.”[3] It was only at this point that “Hollywood” began to designate the entire movie-making machine.

Technically, the center of the “Studio Zone,” otherwise known as the “Thirty Mile Zone” (or TMZ) has stood variously, and depending on which union or which extras you asked, at the intersection of Rossmore and 5th, or Sunset and Gower. Today, the Zone is centered around the Beverly Center, at La Cienega and Beverly Blvd.

Of course, the name “Hollywood” is itself largely metonymous, and much of Hollywood has always existed outside the district’s formal boundaries. As Director John Ford famously said, “Hollywood is a place you can’t geographically define. We don’t really know where it is.”[4]

Aerial view of Hollywood, showing the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, California, 1926
Aerial view of Hollywood, showing the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, California, 1926. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Aerial view of Goldwyn Studios, Culver City, 1919
Aerial view of Goldwyn Studios, Culver City, 1919. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Aerial view of the Famous Players-Laskey studios, ca.1918
Aerial view of the Famous Players-Laskey studios near Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Aerial view of Brunton Studio, and its surroundings, 1918
Aerial view of Hollywood's Brunton Studio, and its surroundings, 1918. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

FURTHER READING

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Cripps, Thomas. Slow fade to black: the Negro in American film, 1900-1942. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Eyman, Scott. Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Lasky, Jesse L with Don Weldon. I Blow My Own Horn. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.

Ross, Steven J. “How Hollywood Became Hollywood: Money, Politics, and Movies.” In Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s. Ed. Sitton, Tom and William Deverell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 255-276.


[1] Eyman 69.

[2] Ross 260.

[3] Ross 25.

[4] Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson xvi.