Hollywood is a neighborhood located in Los Angeles, California, that’s also synonymous with the glamour, money and power of the entertainment industry. As the show-business capital of the world, Hollywood is home to many famous television and movie studios and record companies. Yet despite its glitzy status, Hollywood has humble roots: It began as a small agricultural community and evolved into a diverse, thriving metropolis where stars are born and dreams come true—for a lucky few.
Hollywood’s Humble Origins
In 1853, a small adobe hut was all that existed where Hollywood stands today. But over the next two decades, the area became a thriving agricultural community called Cahuenga Valley.
When politician and real estate developer Harvey Henry Wilcox and his second wife Daeida moved to Los Angeles from Topeka, Kansas in 1883, he purchased 150 acres of land west of Hollywood and attempted to try his hand at ranching.
His efforts didn’t go well, however, so in 1887, he filed plans with the Los Angeles County Recorder’s office to subdivide the land. Soon, Prospect Avenue and upscale homes sprung up.
H. J. Whitley
By the turn of the century, Hollywood had a post office, markets, a hotel, a livery and even a street car. In 1902, banker and real estate mogul H. J. Whitley, also known as the “Father of Hollywood,” stepped in.
Whitley opened the Hollywood Hotel—now the site of the Dolby theater, which hosts the annual Oscars ceremony—and developed Ocean View Tract, an upscale residential neighborhood. He also helped finance the building of a bank and was integral in bringing electricity to the area.
Hollywood was incorporated in 1903 and merged with Los Angeles in 1910. At that time, Prospect Avenue became the now-famous Hollywood Boulevard.
How Hollywood got its name is disputed. According to one story, after Harvey and Daeida Wilcox learned there was an Ohio town called Hollywood, she named their ranch the same and the name stuck. Another story states H. J. Whitley came up with the name while honeymooning in the area in 1886.
Whichever story is correct (if either), all three people played an important role in the famous city’s development.
Hollywood Film Studios
The first film completed in Hollywood was 1908’s The Count of Monte Cristo, although production of the film began in Chicago. The first film made entirely in Hollywood was a short film in 1910 titled In Old California.
By 1911, the first movie studio appeared on Sunset Boulevard. By 1915, many major motion-picture companies had relocated to Hollywood from the East Coast.
Hollywood was an ideal place to produce movies since filmmakers couldn’t be sued there for infringing on motion picture film patents held by Thomas Edison and his Motion Picture Patents Company. It also had warm, predictably sunny weather and diverse terrain perfect for movie backdrops.
The Hollywood sign is a must-see tourist attraction, although it didn’t start out that way. It was originally a clever electric billboard advertising an upscale suburban neighborhood in what is now the Hollywood Hills.
The sign originally said, “Hollywoodland,” and was erected in 1923 by Los Angeles Times publisher and real estate developer Harry Chandler at a cost of $21,000. Each original letter was 30 feet wide and 43 feet tall and attached to telephone poles. Four thousand light bulbs illuminated the massive marquis.
The sign was supposed to last just one and a half years; however, it became part of Hollywood’s culture and remained. During the Great Depression, the sign deteriorated. It was partially restored in 1949 and the last four letters were removed. In the late 1970s, the sign was restored again and has been featured in countless movies, including Superman, Mighty Joe Young and The Day After Tomorrow.
Golden Age of Hollywood
The Golden Age of Hollywood was a period of great growth, experimentation and change in the industry that brought international prestige to Hollywood and its movie stars.
Under the all-controlling studio system of the era, five movie studios known as the “Big Five” dominated: Warner Brothers, RKO, Fox, MGM and Paramount. Smaller studios included Columbia, Universal and United Artists.
The Golden Age of Hollywood began with the silent movie era (though some people say it started at the end of the silent movie age). Dramatic films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and comedies such as The Kid (1921) starring Charlie Chaplin were popular nationwide. Soon, movie stars such as Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Tallulah Bankhead were adored everywhere.
With the introduction of movies with sound, Hollywood producers churned out Westerns, musicals, romantic dramas, horror films and documentaries. Studio movie stars were even more idolized, and Hollywood increased its reputation as the land of affluence and fame.
Often under pressure and guidance from the Wilson administration, they produced educational shorts and reels on war preparedness and military recruitment. They also lent out their wide roster of popular actors to promote America’s war efforts.
By the 1930s, at the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the movie industry was one of the largest businesses in the United States. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, movies were a weekly escape for many people who loved trading their struggles for a fictional, often dazzling world, if only for a couple of hours.
Despite the tough economic times, it’s estimated up to 80 million Americans went to the movies each week during the Depression.
Some of the greatest films made in all of Hollywood history were made in the late 1930s, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, A Star Is Born, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights.
Hollywood During World War II
As World War II dominated news headlines, people needed to laugh more than ever, and Hollywood was happy to oblige them. Movie studios created scripts for their funniest comedians such as Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Bob Hope and Jack Benny.
Pre-movie cartoon reels left audiences guffawing and were often used to promote war propaganda in a lighthearted way. On a serious note, documentary newsreels brought the realities of war to life in ways audiences had never experienced yet couldn’t resist.
But things weren’t business-as-usual in Hollywood. Movie studios had to prepare for civil defense and erected elaborate bomb shelters. Filming from the sea or near military installations was banned. Nighttime blackout rules prohibited filming at night.
In 1942, the War Production Board initiated a maximum $5,000 budget for new film sets, forcing movie studios to cut corners, recycle props and equipment and find creative and cheap ways to produce movies.
Many established movie stars enlisted in the armed forces, including Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and Mickey Rooney. Hollywood actresses such as Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable and Lana Turner lent their sensual appeal to the war effort by becoming pinups for love-starved GIs. Most Hollywood movie stars used their fame to help sell millions of war bonds.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled movie studios couldn’t own movie theaters that showed only their films. This was the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The ruling forced the Big Five to sell their movie theaters and become more selective about the films they produced.
Movie studios were also bound by the Hays Code, a voluntary set of rules for censorship in movies. While not a major issue in the 1950s, it tied their hands even as audiences grew more liberal in the 1960s.
As television popularity exploded in the 1950s, movie attendance suffered. In the 1960s, foreign movie studios proved they could easily snag some of Hollywood’s glory with their James Bond franchise and movies such as Zulu and Lawrence of Arabia.
Finally, with the advent of tabloid magazines, many Hollywood stars were called out for scandal and questionable behavior, eradicating their wholesome images and knocking them from their lofty pedestals.
During the Cold War, paranoia grew in Hollywood and the rest of the United States over communism. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a House of Representatives group that investigated potential communist ties, decided to investigate communism in films. At least 40 people in the movie industry were called to testify.
Ten directors and screenwriters, known as the Hollywood Ten, chose to challenge the legality of HUAC’s actions. They claimed the investigation violated their civil rights; however, their efforts backfired when they were held in contempt of Congress, fined and eventually jailed.
One of the ten, Edward Dmtryk, later chose to cooperate with authorities and identified 20 of his peers with possible communist ties.
After the fiasco, the Hollywood Ten, not including Dmtryk, and anyone else in the industry suspected of supporting communism were blacklisted and denied work. Hundreds of actors, musicians, writers, producers and directors made the ignominious list, including Lena Horne, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd Bridges, Burl Ives and Anne Revere.
The Dark Side of Hollywood
On the surface, Hollywood reeks of glitz, but a dark side lurks underneath. As Oscar Levant famously quipped, “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood, and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”
Each year, the appeal of fame attracts thousands of starry-eyed runaways and naive dream pursuers to Hollywood with little chance of making it big.
Many spend what little money they have on acting classes, agents and headshots. When the money runs out, these would-be stars often become desperate, even homeless. Some turn to drugs, prostitution or the area’s thriving porn industry.
Drug and alcohol use has always been rampant in Hollywood and is often blamed on the stress of fame and a non-stop flow of money. Hundreds of celebrities have experienced drug or alcohol-related deaths including Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, William Holden, Truman Capote, Heath Ledger and Whitney Houston.
But Hollywood’s biggest secret may be rampant sexual abuse. Although the “casting couch” has existed since the dawn of movies, it reached a scandalous climax in 2017 when The New York Times broke the story that movie studio mogul Harvey Weinstein had allegedly sexually abused actors and employees for decades. He was fired from his movie studio as dozens of victims came forward to accuse him.
Weinstein’s downfall empowered many more entertainment industry employees—both male and female—to come forward with their own sexual abuse stories, some of them decades old. The fallout is challenging Hollywood to face its culture of silence in the face of abuse and enact meaningful change.
Second Golden Age of Hollywood
Some critics and movie fans regard the 1960s and 1970s as a second Golden Age of Hollywood, as the old studio system of the 1930s completely broke down and restrictions on sexual content, obscenity and violence loosened.
These changes gave groundbreaking directors like Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola and others free reign over controversial content that definitely wasn’t “family-friendly.”
Noteworthy films that embraced the counterculture ethos of the 1960s and 1970s include Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Easy Rider, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Conversation, Mean Streets, The Godfather and All the President’s Men.
Reign of the Blockbuster
By the mid-1970s and 1980s, computer-assisted special effects had evolved and helped launch massive blockbuster action movies such as Jaws and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Feel-good movies like Rocky and E.T. sent moviegoers flocking to theaters and made their movie stars larger-than-life.
Movie ticket sales declined in the 1990s, but Hollywood pressed on thanks to a surge in VCR video rentals and later, DVDs and Blue-Ray. With the 2000s came an increase in Disney movies, big-budget blockbusters and crude comedies.
Changing technology continues to move people to a more digital world and Hollywood has more exposure than ever. Yet in an era of economic inequality, many Americans today are much less enthralled with Hollywood movie stars and their glamorous lifestyle. Social media, tabloids, a 24-hour news cycle and online movie review websites can make or break movies, movie stars and movie industry professionals overnight.
As a result, Hollywood will no doubt remain on the cutting edge of technology and continue to evolve how they do business to stay relevant by engaging and entertaining audiences worldwide.
A Sign is Born: 1923. Hollywood Sign.
Fall of the Studio System. TVTropes.
Hollywood During the Great Depression. Digital History.
Hollywood’s Dream Factory During World War II. Warfare History Network.
Silent Films: Part 1. AMC Filmsite.
The History of the Hollywood Movie Industry. History Cooperative.
The 1970s: The Last Golden Age of American Cinema (the American “New Wave”) and the Advent of the Blockbuster Film. AMC Filmsite.