Hollywood and the California Dream

Lary May

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[By the 1920s,] the motion picture had become a major urban institution for the middle class.  And the sheer number and size of movie houses reflected the overwhelming popularity of the mature movie industry.  In New York City, ninety-seven nickelodeons held licenses in 1900.  All observers agreed that they were located either in the cheap business sections or in the poorer amusement centers, and usually frequented by men.  Nine years later there were 400, including several "store fronts" which were hastily converted shops showing "flickers" on a screen.  Seating capacity was limited to 400.  By 1912, movies could show to a 1,000-plus audience, and more luxurious, classically designed theaters began to spread up and down main thoroughfares, catering to men and women of all classes.  Over the next fifteen years, the number of cinemas grew to over eight hundred, averaging 1,2000 seats each, or one for every six people in the entire metropolis....

[T]his expansion reflected the creation of America's first mass amusement - but it was clearly geared toward middle-class aspirations....[T]he 1908 patrons were workers; by 1912 25 percent of the audience was clerical and 5 percent was business class of both sexes....[H]igh school and college graduates went most often, although they comprised only one fourth of the population in 1920.  Likewise, people with higher incomes went more often than workers or farmers; and those under thirty-five comprised the bulk of the audience.  Men and women attended in equal numbers; but females were the ones who read the fan magazines, wrote letters to their idols, and knew the film plots by heart...

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[M]oviegoing was unquestionably an urban phenomenon.  The theaters were overwhelmingly situated in cities, at a time when half the nation's population lived in rural areas.  There were 28,000 theaters in 1928; and over half of them were in the industrial centers of New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California.  The major cities in these states contained most of the large luxury cinemas.  San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles each had from five to eight hundred theaters, averaging over 1,000 seats each, or one for every five to seven people.  These movie houses stayed open seven days a week, twelve hours a day, while those in the small towns were only open on weekends....

In twentieth-century America,...movies and mass culture were key elements in the transition from nineteenth-century values of strict behavior toward greater moral experimentation.  As the economy consolidated, the leisure arena preserved a sense of freedom and mobility.  Both on the screen and in the theater, moviegoers tasted the life of the rich as it was brought within reach of the masses, breaking down the class divisions of the past.  Here was a revitalized frontier of freedom, where Americans might sanction formerly forbidden pleasures through democratized consumption....

[T]his experience did not end when the patrons exited [the movie theaters].  They could see that the message of the movie and its palace was alive and well in the last great component of the motion picture universe:  Hollywood....

To grasp the significance of this West Coast creation, we have to first confront earlier explanations of why the movie industry came to Southern California.  A generation of film scholars have offered two basic reasons.  One was that the climate was ideal for film making.  In this region, Mediterranean balmy weather made it possible to film outdoors all year round, without the hindrance of snow or rain.  Moreover, the area included deserts, mountains, and seashore, all near by.  The second argument claims that, to escape Edison's trust, independents moved to the far end of the continent where they could flee quickly into Mexico if confronted with court subpoenas or demands for their pirated cameras.

Yet on examination, neither of these factors can explain the move.  Film makers had survived Eastern weather for over twenty years, going to Florida, the Caribbean, or other winter filming locations including California, if sunny weather was required....More recent scholars offer an alternative to these views by pointing out that economic factors pushed the industry westward.  Though this is certainly part of the reason, it still does not explain why it took so long for moviemakers to see their interests in moving from east to west.  No, something else was happening in Los Angeles besides escaping winters, trusts, and high costs.

To fathom this problem, we must realize that Hollywood emerged relatively late - over twenty years after Edison invented the [movie] camera, and over a decade and a half after the movies acquired a mass market.  In retrospect, it is also clear that the West Coast production site would become more than merely a place to make films.  Fan magazines, newspapers, and movies themselves would spotlight the comings and goings of movie 

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stars - a life-style that was dramatically different from that of the nineteenth or even early twentieth century.  Shortly before there was a Hollywood, this imagery had just begun to be projected on the nation's screens, catering to the tastes of the newly found middle-class audience adjusting to the corporate order and a new morality.  The new code generated the promise that if immigrants, as well as those rebelling from Victorianism, had money and white skin, the consumer ideal would be available to them.  Another related phenomenon was the audience's demand to see this cultural mixing made real.  It was not enough to see it on the screen, or to touch it in the movie house.  Stars had to make the happy ending an extension of their own lives, for fans had to see that their idols could make it a reality.  Was it not possible, then, that profits could be enhanced by creating a modern utopia where the dream could come off the screen and into real life?  

As Americans turned toward leisure, it was appropriate that the film industry moved to Los Angeles.  Other Western and Southern cities grew at the same pace, had an agreeable political environment, land, climate and labor situation; indeed, winter studios had been established in these places.  Yet only Los Angeles offered the vision of a new West.  This was crucial for the image the movies wanted to create.  For every since the mid-nineteenth century the frontier symbolized freedom from the hierarchical, industrial East.  In both political and popular literature, the West appeared to hold the promise of a future democracy without greed or class enmity.  Yet at a time when the dream of independence seemed to be receding in the wake of a rising corporate order and class conflict, anxious Americans might look to Los Angeles, the farthest point on the frontier, to recreate the vision of a virgin land.  Here was a city with no physical remains of an Anglo-Saxon tradition, where individuals could once again be free of Eastern difficulties.  As Frank Fenton wrote in A Place in the Sun,

This was a lovely makeshift city.  Even the trees and plants did not belong here.  They came, like the people, from far places, some familiar, some exotic, all wanderers of the sort or another seeking peace or fortune or the last frontier, or a thousand dreams of escape.

In the Mediterranean climate, the twentieth century quest for freedom from the past now took a romantic turn.  Ever since the late nineteenth century, Americans coming into the area were struck by three things:  the Spanish heritage, the climate, and the lack of industry.  In this wide expanse of vacant land, evidences of the Spanish were visible all around.  Besides the Mexican population, and the proximity of that Latin country, the Spanish style architecture of haciendas and missions spread a romantic aura over the landscape.  When this was coupled with the mild weather, and proximity to beaches, mountains, and desert, the city offered a powerful drawing card to potential settlers.  With no heavy manufacturing center or tenements, the population was less densely settled than in Eastern urban centers.  Planners encouraged this through zoning and developing outlying tracts and linking them together with streetcar lines.  In the unique urban-suburban 

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mixture that resulted, developers lined the streets with imported palm trees.  Boosters were careful to point out, however, that this romance and fair climate was "mediterranean" - the center of a sophisticated civilization - not "tropical" like savage lands.  As one of the city's major designers expressed it, Los Angeles should not be dissipating, but "natural - for here nature and the trees are the thing.  It should invite family outings, lovemaking, and a forgetfulness that cities are at hand."...

Little wonder that movie makers were drawn to this "man made, giant improvisation."  If "there was never a region so unlikely to become a vast metropolitan area as Southern California," as its most perceptive historian, Carey McWilliams, noted, what better place for the movies?  Besides the economic and political environment, it seemed an ideal locale where creative imaginations could flourish.  Adolph Zukor led the way when in 1913 he brought his Famous Players in Famous Plays to Los Angeles.  In his company was William de Mille, a noted Broadway producer and playwright who was captivated by the traditional imagery of the West.  As de MIlle crossed the Rockies, he found himself becoming "younger," for in the "new state" of California men could still escape the hierarchy and traditions of the East.  In addition to "choosing one's inheritance," de Mille also saw that amid the sunshine and beauty, one could find a new life of freedom.  Charles Chaplin, fresh from the slums of London in 1913, was even more enthralled.  Los Angeles appeared truly the "land of the future, a paradise of sunshine, orange groves, vineyards, and palm trees.  I was embued with it."  Still another could link this new frontier to the old imagery, and see it now open to the children of immigrants like himself.  As Jesse Lasky read a western tale on a train going to the land of sunshine, he wrote,

I became again a child at my grandfather's knee....And every time I glanced out of the train window at the rolling prairies, the mountains, the desert, I saw the vast panorama of sky and earth forming a backdrop for those heroic souls whose first wagon train actually took much of the same route three quarters of a century before...a migration but for which I myself would not have been born in my beloved California.  Superimposing the past on the present...was an emotional, almost mystical experience.

Film moguls brought this "mystical" atmosphere directly into their new studios, which differed dramatically from the ascetic and mundane production sites of the East.  In New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Long Island, the studios sat primarily in downtown business sections or manufacturing areas.  Producers used cheaply made warehouses and factories which were barren looking and almost indistinguishable from the surrounding commercial or industrial enterprises....In contrast...the modern corporate studies in Los Angeles created an atmosphere where moral experimentation could blossom.

Perhaps the best example of this was Universal City, built in 1913 by Carl Laemmle, the theater owner and former clothing salesman from Chicago.  Surrounded by the hills and palm trees of the San Fernando Valley, 

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the white, Spanish-styled studio buildings glowed in the sun.  Touching base with romanticism, the administration building followed the Spanish revival style.  Yet it reflected a new America.  Appropriately, Laemmle called his weekly column in the 1915 trade journal the "Melting Pot," for he glorified the Universal stars who rose up the ladder of success, shed their ethnic or Victorian pasts, and assumed a modern, healthy personality....

Assembly line techniques and specialization encouraged high production, and yielded seventy films a year.  Much of this work was routine; however, there were high compensations.  Studios capitalized in the millions offered salaries for top executives and stars ranging between $100,000 and $900,000 yearly.  Opulent dressing rooms and offices mirrored one's rank in the organizational hierarchy.  In spite of labor strikes in the late teens and early twenties, which the city of Los Angeles helped the studios to quell, executives claimed that all employees had life, health, and retirement insurance.  In addition, as early as 1914, Universal provided a veritable leisure paradise for its workers in the plant itself, complete with a free gymnasium, tennis courts, a steam room, and pool - with equal access, presumably, for all.

More than most industries, the studio also had a personnel turnover which suggested that the "new life" was open to youth and talent.  Clearly, the studios existed in the corporate world, but they blended modern and traditional business styles.  In other firms, upward mobility by no means ceased; but here, fame and success could happen quickly, without long apprenticeship or professional training.  Film relied heavily on imagination, rather than heavy investments in elaborate machinery or scientific processes.  After all, it took only a story, talent, and a camera to make a movie.  But without the personal touch in advertising and selling, there could be no profits.  Since the product also had to be in touch with the latest tastes and psychological needs, it was an ideal place for individuals to make it on their own ideas and talents.  Then, with the children of immigrants in power, movie making appeared to offer a place where all newcomers could rise on ability, without having to face discriminatory employers or a rigid seniority system.  Precisely because a volatile market encouraged mobility in the midst of bureaucratic hierarchy, one noted observer could describe the modern movie industry in nineteenth-century terms:

the gold rush was probably the only other set up where so many people could hit the jack pot and the skids together.  It has become a modern industry without losing that crazy feeling of a boom town.

Yet this boom town opened to a much wider group of aspirants than the older variety.  For above all, Hollywood was an urban mobility ideal which had a much broader base than the traditional Protestant middle classes.  Coming into the Los Angeles studios to create a modern life to spread to the nation's cities were a new breed of people....[M]ost of the movie creator came from those places where the film audience was the largest.  Over two-thirds of the American film makers were born in the 1890s in metropolitan areas, compared to less than one-third of their non-movie peers.  

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Over half of the writers, directors, editors, and players came from urban centers containing over 100,000 people in 1890, at a time when there were only twenty-eight such areas in the entire nation.  The majority of the remainder came from Canadian or European cities.  Thus, with five-sixths of the movie people coming from cities when most of the nation was still rural, they had a head start on their audience, and were ideally qualified to create, propagate, and live a vision of modern urban life....

[T]his was a young cosmopolitan group.  With the Jewish moguls on top, and a large ethnic component among the rank and file, the creative personnel were already one step removed from the Victorian restraints holding earlier film makers.  AS the middle-class audience groped for ways to absorb foreign exoticism and youth, this collection of people was well suited to serve these needs as well.  Those who created the aura - producers, directors, cinematographers, and set designers - came largely from European backgrounds....Those who provided the models - actors and actresses - were overwhelmingly young. Two-thirds of them were under thirty-five.  Moreover, three-fourths of the industry's female performers were under twenty-five.  This suggests that the youth cult so necessary for uplifting "foreign" elements concentrated most heavily on women, who were responsible for making sensuality innocent....

The industry's employees looked to Los Angeles for a vision of the new life which included foreign touches filtered through an ever-widening Anglo-Saxon lens.  One way to gauge this is to look at the writers who actually formulated the stories.  Over 90 percent of them were born in America and had either higher education or journalism experience.  This suggests an affluent group, since less than 10 percent of the population during the teens went to college, and publishing was not usually a commoner's trade.  This was also the group most likely to include morally emancipated women, a factor also reflected in the industry.  During the twenties, women comprised from one-third to one-half of the screen writers.  Although their numbers declined sharply in the following decades, they held prominent and influential positions during the early Hollywood heyday.  In 1920, the forty top female writers were of middle class Anglo-Saxon stock.  None were of poor or worker origin.  Like their male counterparts, most were college educated or had publishing backgrounds.  Maturing in the Victorian twilight, they were captivated by urban life.  From the memoirs of several, we can see that they were in the vanguard of moral experimentation, forging into dress reform, new sexual styles, and consumption.  It is no accident that these forty females created over seventy percent of the stories written by women.  Their plots overwhelmingly revolved around heroines like themselves.

The movie personnel were thus well prepared to participate in one of the most striking features of modern filmdom.  When the large contingent of urbanites, youthful players, foreigners, and women scenarists left studios like Universal, they went home to "Hollywood."  Before 1916, Hollywood had been nothing more than a sleep community of orange groves.  But after the industry moved west, it came to symbolize the fruits of the screen and the Los Angeles paradise.  It was not the locale of the studios; rather it was 

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an almost mythic place where the movie folk spent money on personal expression.  This consumption encouraged individual creativity and freedom, while it also served as a mark of success.  A shrewd observer of the industry, producer William de Mille, saw that the movie people's "conspicuous consumption" gave status to an often routine job, and reflected on the "company that paid you."  As huge sums of money rolled in, the stars - who after all did not make a tangible product - used spending to validate their almost magical success.  Mary Pickford saw her vast salary increases as the way to prove that she really had made it.  Charles Chaplin had similar emotions, but also envisaged extravagance as an exciting break from bourgeois restraints.  He recalled that in 1914,

I was reconciled to wealth, but not to the use of it.  The money I earned was legendary, a symbol in figures, for I had never actually seen it.  I therefore had to do something to prove I had it.  So I procured a secretary, a valet, a car, a chauffeur.  Walking by the showroom one day, I noticed a seven passenger Locomobile...the transaction was simple; it meant writing my name on a piece of paper.  So I said wrap it up.

Because the consumption allure was the key to the Hollywood image, the star's life took on more than a private importance.  In contrast to earlier stage personalities, film idols presented national models as leisure experts.  As early as 1915, fan magazines showed how the star's domain reflected the Southern California style.  In a city that contained few monument or buildings reflecting the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon culture, there seemed to be a release from the restraint of tradition.  Amid a virgin land of constant romance, it was easier to create a life-style frowned upon in the East....Freed from any nearby reminders of social responsibility, in areas cleansed through vice crusades, the stars could create a new, uplifted life without the inhibitions of the past.  Usually homes drew on styles of European, African, or Asian aristocracy, reflecting not only high culture, but the quest for a more exotic life.  Before the [First World] War, they were stately and classical.  Always they were opulent, and mirrored cultivation and success.

A double-barreled aspiration came from this model.  To the ambitious Anglo-Saxon urbanite, it suggested that achievement might yield a release from Victorian asceticism.  To the equally ambitious person of immigrant stock, it suggested that upward mobility was no longer aimed toward a temperate Anglo-Saxon norm.  Rather, here was a cosmopolitan eclecticism, though still dominated by American values, fit for the new order....

[O]ne reason why ordinary people could identify with the stars' life was that the stars did not have the authority the industrial titans had.  True, Hollywood was a "society" community setting the pace for modern life.  Yet, in replacing the industrial titans of New York or Chicago, or the local gentry, as the nation's new aristocracy, the movie folk could be universally loved because they were not socially powerful:  they were purely a status group.  Unlike politicians or manufacturers, they did not hold authority over large groups of employees or constituents.  Studio executives did manage 

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large firms and were involved in politics; but they were not in the limelight.  The force of the stars as popular idols lay in their leisure, rather than work lives.  Much of their mystique was that they presumably rose from meager beginnings to become models of success.  Yet on their jobs, they had no control over fellow employees; they, too, had to answer to the boss.  Nor did they hold political clout.  During the first four decades of the century, non of the industry's rank and file served on a Los Angeles school board, or held civic office or commission.  Power would have been antithetical to their image as playful, friendly people.

More importantly, the stars offered a number of solutions to modern problems and a reformulation of dominant myths for the twentieth century.  When combined with the Hollywood life, the total added up to a clear mosaic.  For one thing, it showed Americans how to adjust to the corporate order.  Starting as early as the mid-teens, Hollywood became an institution which offered viable proof that the new economy could be a blessing rather than a burden.  In the long periods of prosperity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of businessmen, reformers, and intellectuals believed that America's "excess production" would have to be exported abroad.  Behind this was the quest for a larger market.  Yet a potentially large market existed internally, provided the purchasing power of the masses could be expanded.  Rarely was this course followed, in part due to fears of traditionalists like Josiah Strong, who believed that unleashing abundance could destroy Victorian principles as well as the work ethic of the laboring classes.  For should the workers gain the luxury that was beyond their grasp, presumably they would have no further motivation to toil.  But through the late teens, Hollywood showed how this scarcity psychology could be overcome, and consumption become a positive force.  Rather than luxury eroding the achievement drive, or a society based on open opportunity, it flowed into rising expectations.  For as success took on new rewards, as the stars become consumption idols, excess production had a purpose.  Farsighted manufacturers like the film moguls could make large profits by stimulating the purchasing power of the prosperous.  In this way luxuries became necessities.  Abundance, therefore, would not undercut a class order based on competition or civic concerns; rather, it would give it a different emphasis.

At the same time, Hollywood kept alive a key cultural myth.  As the nineteenth century drew to a close, many Americans realized that the frontier was gone, and perhaps with it went one of the main utopian aspirations in American life.  For nearly a century, people had kept alive the hope that sectional divisions, or class conflicts created by industrialization, might be eased by the existence of a safety valve.  On the far frontier, people could start out anew and establish an egalitarian order, free from the hierarchies of Europe and the East.  Presumably this would serve as a model for the future and set the tone for all of America.  In the late nineteenth century, however, the rise of big business and the influx of "new immigrants" intensified conflicts that had already been present.  Heightening the sense of chaos was women's increasing restlessness concerning their place in society

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and the emergence of an industrial elite with unprecedented power.  The need for an outlet seemed even more urgent than before.  Yet now the frontier was conquered, and the promise of an egalitarian order seemed to vanish.  Americans at the turn of the century asked themselves:  would men and women be able to find personal fulfillment in a conflict-ridden, hierarchical society that had spread all over the continent?

A partial answer to this bubbled up from the masses and poured out of the popular culture.  Initially, it seemed that the moral revolution would subvert the home and class order even further.  Yet the motion picture firms growing up after 1914 soon showed the way out of this dilemma, without returning to Victorianism.  It was not just that they catered to audience needs.  After 1914, the film industry itself was part of the corporate order, and film makers created a style to ease the pressures of the era that they were also feeling....[T]he Victorian synthesis gave way to a less puritanical culture more amenable to non-Anglo Saxons, provided they had white skin.  Consumption on a mass level showed that resentment of the rich could be lessened, and that women could find happiness in an expanded home.  The mobility ideal of the stars, theater palaces, and Hollywood thus offered a new twist on the traditional success ethic:  men and women would work for money to buy the trappings of the good life.  With this reborn West, the Hollywood frontier promised to solve some of the major public problems facing reformers, and thus set the stage for the culmination of the consumer culture in the twenties.