Celluloid Heroes

Hollywood, circa 1905, looking south above Franklin Avenue, with Orange Drive to the right and Prospect Avenue (now Hollywood Boulevard) in the center. The white house in the center of the photo is now the site of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Hollywood, circa 1905, looking south above Franklin Avenue, with Orange Drive to the right and Prospect Avenue (now Hollywood Boulevard) in the center. The white house in the center of the photo is now the site of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Cari Beauchamp's "My First Time in Hollywood" is an anthology of annotated recollections culled from 42 pioneers in the early days of the movies.

I once worked in the film business, slaving away 16-hour days on sets directed by John Huston, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Víctor Erice and Arthur Hiller. Doing post-production work in Los Angeles, I regularly drove back and forth between Century City and Studio City, between Fox and Universal, taking a little-used route via the winding upper reaches of Beverly Hills, because I never tired of the sea views and the sense of continuing wilderness still was available.

So it was with special interest that I recently read Cari Beauchamp’s terrific book, “My First Time in Hollywood.” It’s an anthology of annotated recollections culled from 42 women and men who were pioneers in the early days of the movies.

The first act of Hollywood’s script began in the early 20th century. Like the Genesis myth, it opened in Eden, a version of Southern California now hard to imagine. As Harold Lloyd recalls in the book, “There was … open country between the city and the studio; from Hollywood to the sea.” Lillian Gish’s memories are even more bucolic: “In contrast to bleak and blustery Manhattan, Los Angeles was warm and inviting. The city smelled like a vast orange grove.” And here is Cecil B. DeMille on reaching the tipping point: “At the end of the railroad line was Los Angeles. … The quick decision was made. Unknown to its corporate officers in New York, the Company was on the move; and unknown to a quiet village of orange groves and pepper trees, ‘Hollywood’ was about to be born.”

When I worked there, digital cameras and digital editing were rumors yet to take hold. Cellphones resembled bricks. Filmmaking has always been technology-driven. One of its basic requirements, light, determined its early evolution. In the industry’s formative days on the East Coast, there were only so many months a year when one could film Westerns and Bible dramas along the palisades of New Jersey. In Southern California, pretty much every day was sunny, studio lots were cheap and the living was easy. Screenwriter and playwright Anita Loos put it this way: “There were a few bungalows interspersed with vacant lots, and that was all. Nobody dreamed a day was close at hand when that one word, Hollywood, would express the epitome of glamour, sex and sin in their most delectable forms.”

But, while still in Eden, innocence prevailed. In Beauchamp’s anthology, Mary Pickford recalls a day when “Mr. [D.W.] Griffith announced he needed a split or half reel. ‘Anybody got a story in mind?’ Three or four of us dashed for paper and pencil and were soon scribbling like mad.” And screenwriter Lenore Coffee describes an idyllic, multicultural village: “Hollywood Boulevard could have been any Main Street in America. The heat was a clear desert heat. The sky, a strong, deep blue and the mountains like cardboard cutouts. One could stop and chat with people of many nationalities, for accents didn’t matter in silent films.”

Of course, Southern California’s Eden had some rotten apples. Racism was de rigueur and there was significant prejudice against film performers. In Beauchamp’s book, screenwriter Frances Marion says she learned that “the barring of actors from the apartment houses referred only to performers in the movies.” They were called “Flickers,” Marion adds. She was told they were “swarming into Los Angeles, building ramshackle studios from the beach to the mountains. Literally, thousands are trekking west and this is resented by large groups of people, mostly churchgoers, who are forming committees to keep these ragtags and bobtails off the streets and out of our parks.’”

Beauchamp’s book immerses one in a time and place long gone. The word “nostalgia” comes from a combination of Greek words meaning “homecoming” and “ache,” and the stories in “My First Time in Hollywood” surprised me with the tenderness and longing they evoked. The fact that the book is too long, repetitive here and there, made no difference. Its depiction of a Paradise Lost left me feeling solemn and wistful.

What drove Hollywood from its Garden of Eden was yet another technological breakthrough, the voice track, the arrival of the “talkies.” When Al Jolson looked at the camera in regrettable blackface in 1927 and said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” the angels — Los Angeles — rose up and banished those dreaming pioneers to the wages of civilization. Hollywood’s second act, grander and more extensive, rife with guilds and bureaucracy, glamour and sin, would soon erase the old orange groves, plow up the pepper trees and live high off the hog until the late 1940s. But that’s another story.


Best Books About Hollywood

“The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era” by Thomas Schatz (1989): A thoroughly researched study of the American film industry from the 1920s until the late 1940s.

“Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood” by Peter Biskind (1998): An absolutely riveting and entertaining take on the fun and crazed 1970s in LA.

“West of Eden: An American Place” by Jean Stein (2016): Oral history at its best, an insider’s unsentimental view of the many facets of Hollywood society.

John J. Healey is a novelist from Bronx, N.Y., who lives in the United States and Spain.


“My First Time in Hollywood”

  • By Cari Beauchamp
  • 358 pages, Asahina & Wallace (2015), $25.99

Keep reading: It may seem like overstatement to call Gina Berriault’s “Women in Their Beds” a masterpiece, but that’s what it is.