March 29, 2011 11:20:00 AM
One of the mistakes in movies I always find funny is the opening scene where the director wants to set a locale in the mind of the viewer, so he might place the words "Washington, D.C." at the bottom of the screen, while at the same time showing the capitol or the Washington Monument, making such a caption unnecessary. Using the symbol is enough, and the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or the Golden Gate Bridge all suffice for nailing their locales visually.
If you want the locale to be Hollywood, though, you have to use a caption because the word is the visual symbol. The famous Hollywood Sign is easily visible as it sits on its steep hillside, looming above movieland. It is a peculiar symbol in many ways, and they are all drawn out by film critic and historian Leo Braudy in "The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon" (one of the books in the Yale Icons of America series from Yale University Press). The sign started as a real estate promotion, and has alternated from eyesore to beloved symbol and back over the decades, and the history and meanings of the sign are all documented here in an amusing, astute and informative book that is not just about the sign but about Hollywood itself.
Braudy''s history starts long before there was the Hollywood we all know, when there was a suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywood, the road to which Charlie Chaplin found "almost impassable," and which Cecil B. DeMille called a "somnolent village." Moviemakers were headed westward starting around 1910, to take advantage of the weather and the light and the economy, but they avoided Hollywood itself. This was partially because of the place''s reputation, not as a somnolent village, but as a haven for prohibition.
The founders of the area had forbidden alcohol in public places, except for medical purposes and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist. Pool rooms, shooting galleries and bowling alleys were banned as well. The Theosophists and the Temple of the Rosy Cross and other occult organizations centered there and lent themselves to a utopian sensibility, although rooming house signs said, "No Jews, actors, or dogs allowed."
"Movies meant money," an alliteration Braudy uses more than once, and so as Los Angeles profited by movies, it grew and consolidated with Hollywood. A local Hollywood millionaire in 1914 even welcomed the crew of "Tillie''s Punctured Romance" to conduct filming in his mansion. It starred Charlie Chaplain, who in 1918 set up a studio within Hollywood. In 1923, real estate backers opened up a subdivision near Griffith Park called Hollywoodland, which was supposed to house the wealthy, away from the noise and smog down below (to say nothing of the wrong kind of populace).
The publicist penciled in the subdivision''s name in a preliminary drawing, and the backers liked the idea of the name hovering over their creation. It was the age when billboards were proliferating, and they wanted the sign to be easily legible as people drove by. The promises of exclusive leisure homes on paved roads faded, but the Hollywoodland sign stood there, founded on telephone poles, framed in wood, and clad in effulgent hammered-on tin.
Hollywood itself can be seen as big on gimmick and ballyhoo but lacking in real self respect, and that was the sign, too. Maintenance of the letters ended in 1939. They fell to pieces, and because of their superb location, everyone could see it happen. The sign did not, in its Hollywoodland version, become an emblem of movieland. If a producer wanted to show the locale to be Hollywood, he was likely to show Grauman''s Chinese Theater, flanked by spotlights.
In 1945, the sign''s land was donated to the city. In 1947 the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission wanted the sign razed; it was an unavoidable eyesore, and the subdivision it designated had been forgotten. But the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce protested, and said the sign ought to be restored, which it did, removing the last four letters. The responsibility for the sign and its land was divided up. Currently, the city of Los Angeles owns the sign and the land it is on, and there is a Hollywood Sign Trust that takes care of chores and security, but the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has the trademark rights to the arrangement of the letters. This is not the right to the word "Hollywood" which anyone can use gratis. It is also not the right to the letter shapes; the block letters, formed that way simply because of the practicalities of working in flat tin sheets, are available in what is called Hollywood Hills Font.
The trademark comes from the staggered letters as they march unevenly across their mountain. Hollywood Video had to shell out to use the word in uneven letters that recalled the sign, but it was that arrangement that they were paying for. But 20th Century Fox added it to its logo, and doesn''t have to pay a thing because in the logo, the letters have the job of designating a particular part of Los Angeles. The lawyers must delight in such distinctions.
Unlike the Washington Monument or the Eiffel Tower, the Hollywood Sign is not to be ascended. People have done so; the most famous one was Peg Entwistle, a 24-year-old actress who (and Braudy doubts various parts of this story) in 1932 walked miles from her house, went through the sign''s rough terrain, found a ladder to make the initial climb and then progressed fifty feet up to cast herself off, supposedly because she was a failed starlet, but there is no documentation that she was failing. Access to the sign was restricted back then, with warnings about rattlesnakes. It would be even harder today to get to the big letters, because of razor wire, security cameras, and motion sensors. Sometimes people circumvent such measures in order to put their own signs up, but otherwise, there is no point to climbing the mountain to get close to the monument. It is better seen from far away, block letters wiggling across the mountain, familiar to us all and yet strange and very peculiar.
Peculiar or not, there are people who love the sign and have done what they can for its upkeep, or to make the governments involved do so. The last major overhaul, which ditched the telephone poles and replaced them with steel foundations, in 1978 was funded by an odd coalition of Gene Autry, Hugh Hefner, Alice Cooper, Andy Williams and others. There was a recent threat of development around the sign, but such lights as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks raised funds to keep the builders away and the mountaintop pristine (except for the antennas; it is too high a location to go to waste for broadcasting, that bane of the movies). Whatever Hollywood means, this will remain a sign of our times.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.