Silents are Golden: A (Brief) History of Early Hollywood

Silents are Golden: A (Brief) History of Early Hollywood

Today Hollywood, California is one of the most famous places in the world, the thriving axis of the movie industry. For decades it’s drawn countless dreamers hoping to make it in “the industry.” Real estate up in its hills is bought and sold for millions. And, of course, it attracts perpetual hordes of tourists strolling its famous Walk of Fame or hoping for glimpses of celebrities in nearby Beverly Hills.

Hollywood, California, USA
“Tinseltown”

But there was a time when this same bustling neighborhood of Los Angeles was a sleepy little stretch of hilly farmland ten miles east from the city, accessible only by a gravel road and populated by a few hundred people. Little did the residents of this quiet community know what vast changes were in store–especially once those “movies” came to town (as they would nickname early filmmakers, not knowing “movies” referred to films).

In the 1880s, the now-famous Hollywood hills were mostly wild land, covered in scrubby thickets and cacti. Nearby was the Cahuenga Pass, once the site of two early 19th century battles between settlers and Mexican authorities (in the days before California was an independent state). The valley nearby was ideal for barley and orange groves, which thrived in the near-constant sunny weather.

A Very early glimpse of Hollywood, California
A very early (and empty) glimpse of Hollywood, California

In 1886 real estate developer H.J. Whitley and his wife were honeymooning in the area. He would write in his diary that while they gazing at the valley from a vantage spot up in the hills, a Chinese man stopped by with a wagon and greeted them, explaining in a thick accent that he was “hauling wood.” To Whitley, the phrase sounded like “holly wood,” which had a certain ring to it. Having started over 100 towns in the past, Whitley decided this quiet corner of southern California needed one too, and that it should be called “Hollywood.”

Whitley would purchase 480 acres in the valley, and began guiding it through a modest development phase. A year later, rancher Harvey H. Wilcox purchased 120 acres. His wife Daeida happened to hear about the “Hollywood” name, and the couple decided it was a nice fit for their new estate. On the deed to their land, they put down “Hollywood,” which made it an official part of the area’s history.

Downtown Hollywood circa 1907.
Downtown Hollywood circa 1907.

By the turn of the 20th century, the young town had a couple of markets, a post office, a hotel, restaurants, and a single streetcar line. In 1904 voters even outlawed liquor in their community. Being so small and in such a desert-like area, getting an adequate water supply was a constant challenge. In 1910 Hollywood had to petition to merge with Los Angeles. One of the changes this entailed was renaming its main street, Prospect Avenue, to Hollywood Boulevard.

A 1905 postcard showing Prospect Avenue, Hollywood, California
A 1905 postcard showing an (unpaved!) Prospect Avenue.

The film industry had first crept into the Los Angeles area around 1906, when the American Biograph and Mutoscope Company established a modest studio. The following year the little Selig Company arrived, having been busy making one-reelers all around the U.S. It’s thought that the first drama to be made entirely on California soil was Selig’s The Power of the Sultan, starring Hobart Bosworth – and the filming location was a vacant lot next to a Chinese laundry. More filmmakers began to be drawn to Los Angeles, attracted by the sunshine, warmth, and varied scenery. Forests, deserts, valleys, and beaches were either nearby or a short journey away. The first director to make a film in Hollywood itself was apparently D.W. Griffith, who shot his two-reel In Old California there in 1910. And in 1911 the first Hollywood studio officially opened: the Nestor Motion Picture Company, which got to work churning out one-reel Westerns and dramas. 

Nestor Motion Picture Company
Nestor worked in this abandoned tavern (the stage is behind it)..

It’s thought that another reason Hollywood drew filmmakers was its safe distance from New York and Chicago. In those early cinema days, a “Patent War” had erupted between various film companies and the enforcers of Thomas Edison’s many motion pictures patents. Some disputes actually erupted into violence. The Hollywood area likely seemed a good refuge from all the drama, especially since the Mexican border was within a hundred miles.

By the 1910s, the moving picture business was turning into a profitable industry, and Hollywood was (rather unwittingly) becoming its capital. Residents soon grew used to those “movies” filming here, there, and everywhere throughout the town, often quickly setting up in the middle of the street to film a cowboy shootout or asking to borrow someone’s yard as a location for the afternoon. People did get annoyed, however, when filmmakers working in Griffith Park fired off blank cartridges that startled the local wildlife. (Since the park was so vast, studios could even erect impromptu film sets which often remained undiscovered for days.) While their presence was generally tolerated, “picture people” wouldn’t be considered respectable for a few more years, and often had a hard time finding housing.

On set of an early western film in Inceville - Hollywood, California
On set of an early western film at Inceville

As early as 1915, the Patent War had calmed down and the majority of U.S. films were being made in southern California, concentrated in Hollywood. Major directors, including Griffith, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett, and Cecil B. DeMille had all settled in the area. Major stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were entrancing audiences in theaters around the world. By the end of the 1910s, Hollywood was officially the cinema’s home, and its population was exploding–as were the numbers of tourists seeking their favorite “players.” New buildings and roads sprang up in the hills and valleys like weeds. The marriage of squeaky-clean superstars Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 was perhaps a turning point in the industry. The two built an elegant home they dubbed Pickfair and entertained visiting aristocrats and other famous names. This brought a sense of respectability to motion pictures, and in time, some of those aristocrats even did bit parts in films. 

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks put their hand and footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. 1927
Mary and Doug put their hand and footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Hollywood boomed in the 1920s, and many actors and directors would make fortunes in real estate. An exclusive new housing development up in the hills dubbed “Hollywoodland” originated one of the world’s most famous landmarks. The developers decided to perch a giant sign spelling out “Hollywoodland” near the peak of one of the hills (it was lit by neon lights at night!). While the “land” would be removed during a 1949 and it would be rebuilt in the 1970s, the sign has graced that spot ever since.

a pre-1949 look at the original Hollywoodland Sign
a pre-1949 look at the original Hollywoodland Sign

In the past decades, Hollywood has experienced both ups and downs. In 1960 it commemorated its storied history by launching the Walk of Fame. Hollywood Boulevard would experience periods of seediness and neglect, especially in the ‘80s, but by the 2000s, the neighborhood began cleaning itself up. The Dolby Theater was built to house the Oscars ceremony and a shiny new Hollywood & Highland center was created, prominently decorated with replicas of the elephants from Intolerance. Today Hollywood continues to draw tourists and TV cameras from around the world. All in all, it’s been an extraordinary evolution for an area that was once a sleepy town nestled among quiet orange groves.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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