There are many myths about the founding of Hollywood. Most of them are untrue, and in order for you to posit yourself as an expert in the field, it is helpful to be able to allude to some of the basics. So, feel free to assume an air of nonchalant indifference as you drop the following golden nuggets into conversation, with appropriate pauses for emphasis; these, of course, should not be long enough to open yourself up to questions.
That could be disastrous.
Movies on the run
Let’s get straight to the point: Hollywood was founded by people on the run.
In the early twentieth century, movie companies in New York were dodging film-stock and camera manufacturers (aka ‘The Trust’) who wanted licence fees on each movie that had been made with their equipment. Accordingly, these manufacturers sent hired goons who could clear film sets faster than a mogul’s wife could pillage Bergdorf Goodman. Demanding an exorbitant fee for something with which you had nothing to do is old hat in today’s Hollywood, but back in the quaint 1920s, this was still seen as, well, a trifle pushy. Desperate to escape The Trust’s hoodlums (and perhaps also their own free-spending wives), some filmmakers began to explore new territories.
One of the first brave explorers to the West Coast was director DW Griffith. Here, you may feel the need to wipe a tear from your eye (poignantly) as you recall how, in 1910, he set out for California alone – except for a troupe of actors – to change the course of movie history. He did this by shooting the first film ever made in Hollywood. It was called In Old California, and was a short film, which was probably for the best, as it wasn’t tremendously good.
A couple of years later director Cecil B DeMille and producer Jesse L Lasky also arrived in the Golden State. They had initially set out for Flagstaff, Arizona, but got off the train, looked around and got right back on again and stayed to the end of the line – which happened to be Los Angeles. Here they shot Hollywood’s first full-length feature, The Squaw Man. If Arizona hadn’t been such a bummer, the course of moviemaking history might have been completely different. There is a valuable lesson here to all bluffers about the importance of making a good first impression.
The first bluff
The first Hollywood motion picture studio was founded in 1911. Two brothers from New Jersey, David and William Horsley, bought a decrepit pub on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. Not ones to be held back by appearances, they grandly named it ‘The Nestor Motion Picture Company’ (one wonders why they chose this particular character from Greek mythology, as Nestor was infamous for giving people bad advice in Homer’s Odyssey). The founding of Nestor may have been the first Hollywood bluff – and it worked. A year later the brothers merged their company, renamed Nestor Studios, with Carl Laemmle and other independent filmmakers to form the more prosaically named Universal Film Manufacturing Company.
The arrival of the moguls
Laemmle was a shrewd businessman. In 1914, Universal bought 230 acres of land in the San Fernando Valley. This was a massive step up from the former boozer owned by the Horsley brothers. It was a megalopolis, able to produce up to 250 films, shorts and newsreels a year. Laemmle, with perhaps a little hubris, called this whole area ‘Universal City’. He was keen to show off his new digs and, much to the chagrin of anyone actually trying to make a film, invited members of the general public to visit the lot.
Laemmle basically invented the idea of the theme park. Families worldwide have Uncle Carl to thank for endless days spent queuing for rides in the baking sun with the misguided belief that this is quality time that somehow bonds you all together. Yes, you are bound together – but by mutual misery and despair.
Besides Laemmle, other moguls fled west around the same time. Any bluffer worth his or her salt should be able to reference the following rogues’ gallery. (You will notice that many of them changed their names en route, and we thoroughly encourage this tactic.)
Harry Cohn (aka King Cohn)
Harry was the co-founder and president of Columbia Pictures. He described running a studio as “better than being a pimp”. In later years, his love of aphorisms caught up with him when US comedy actor Red Skelton remarked of the crowds at Cohn’s funeral: “It proves what Harry always said: “Give the public what they want and they’ll come out for it”.”
Sam Goldwyn started life in Warsaw, Poland, as Schmuel Gelbfisz. When he moved to Birmingham, England, he changed his name to Samuel Goldfish in an effort to fit in with the natives. Sam’s difficulties with the English language plagued him throughout his life, and he is reportedly responsible for such corkers as “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead”, “In two words: Im Possible” (although Charlie Chaplin later took credit for that one), and “The next time I send a damn fool for something, I go myself”. Yet Sam’s malapropisms didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. He found fame chiefly as an independent producer. In a lesson to bluffers everywhere, he never produced a film with the studio that bore his name, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
Louis B Mayer
‘LB’ (born Eliezer or Lazar Meir in Minsk, Belarus) started life in the junk business. Noting the similarities between this profession and Hollywood, he moved to LA, where he ran MGM. He also owned one of the best stables in America. He was known for his aptitude in dealing with stars and horses, possibly using techniques for training the latter on the former.
The Warner Brothers
Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack. Born to Polish immigrant parents from Ostrołęka, at home these brothers were also known as Hirsz, Aaron, Szmul and Itzhak Wonskolaser. Wisely, they decided to change their names when they emigrated, and one of the most successful studios of the twentieth century was born.
There are many accounts of the career of legendary mogul Darryl Zanuck. One of them is that his Hollywood path started at eight years of age, when he secured a role as an extra. 14 years later, he was back in town, this time as a writer of Rin Tin Tin scripts for Warner Bros. His relationship with Rinty, the affable German shepherd, opened doors for him and he ended up as head of Twentieth Century Fox. Despite his many successes, his relationship with the dog was arguably one of his most amicable, given his eventual resignation from Twentieth after a bitter power struggle. As Marilyn Monroe once opined: “Dogs never bite me. Just humans.”
Zukor was born Adolph Cukor in Hungary. He reportedly flirted with the idea of changing the first initial of his surname to an ‘f’, which may have resulted in an entirely different career. His first job was as a furrier. He knew more than one way to skin a cat, however, and eventually ended up co-founding Paramount Pictures.
The rise of the stars
In the early 1900s, the stars of films were not credited on screen. This changed when Carl Laemmle hired the poetically named Florence Lawrence. Florence was a Canadian actress who holds a place in the hearts of multitasking bluffers everywhere, having claimed to have invented the turn and brake signals for automobiles in between takes. Before 1910, Florence was simply known as the ‘Biograph Girl’. Once Laemmle signed her, all this changed. He promoted Ms Lawrence, using her name – and the idea of the ‘movie star’ was born. So, too, was the idea of the ‘outrageous salary’. Unfortunately Florence’s reign as queen of Hollywood was short-lived. She made a series of bad marriages and died in poverty in West Hollywood in 1938, having eaten ant poison.
For more silver screen secrets, get The Buffer’s Guide to Insider Hollywood.