- Historic Sites
The Day Before Hollywood
It was a suburb of orange blossoms and gardens, of gracious homes and quiet, dignified lives—until a regrettable class of people moved in.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
The prejudice against movies caused at least one boardinghouse to advertise, “No dogs or actors.”
Hollywood at this most transitory period was, by all accounts, a delightful and exhilarating place. It was a pleasure to get up in the morning—which was just as well, because picture people were often required on location at six to catch the best of the light. The preponderance of retired people gave the place a drowsy and restful atmosphere. “The citizens,” said Agnes de Mille, “spent long parts of the afternoons moving the sprinkler from one section of the lawn to another.” A weekend drive would take in Beverly Hills, where sidewalks disappeared into open fields, lampposts indicated uninhabited streets, and nurseries glowed with poinsettias. The foothills, hazy purple turning brown in summer, darkened by heat waves and brush fires, miraculously acquired a coat of green in the winter—a winter that was far too warm to deserve the term. “When people mention Hollywood,” recalled Agnes de Mille,” I am not minded of the goings-on in the hot studios, nor the pleasant social life of cheap oranges and easy swims, but of the untouched country behind the town, pagan, pantheistic, where mountain cats still prowl, the little deer start and tremble at human approach, coyotes scream and the beneficent rain comes down in the eucalyptus groves.”
The rain, rare as it was, proved a great inconvenience, and few of the temporary motion-picture structures could withstand it. The barn where the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, Agnes de Mille’s uncle, made Squaw Man in 1913 leaked, so when it rained, DeMiIIe and Mamie Wagner, his film editor, took turns protecting each other with an umbrella. A downpour often brought the fledgling industry to a halt. Flash floods destroyed Universal’s prestigious studio ranch soon after it opened—although, with typical Universal panache, they turned the disaster to advantage by filming a melodrama entitled The Fate of the Flood Waters.
The rains played such havoc with the roads that horses were favored above automobiles. Comparatively few people owned limousines, and a parked Rolls-Royce gathered a crowd. Lillian and Dorothy Gish, on the other hand, complained of people staring at them when they traveled to and from the Fine Arts studio on the streetcar. As the roads improved, the number of cars increased. Licenses were obtainable without a test, and any adult could drive. (There were a remarkable number of crashes for so small an automotive population.) But overcrowded roads were unknown, and cars could travel unimpeded for blocks, side by side, the drivers chatting to one another.
However attractive the town and its climate, there were plenty of complaints, particularly from those accustomed to the conveniences of New York. The sewerage was bad, and when Los Angeles began supplying the tap water, it proved to be so full of alkali that fresh water had to be delivered to the door in tanks. The beautiful pepper trees showered berries onto automobile hoods, and the juice damaged them; the pepper trees paid for this crime with their lives. Telephone operators listened in on the phone calls of the stars and created a spider’s web of gossip. The old guard of original settlers were ambivalent in their attitude to those they referred to as “movies.” The vast sums of money spent brought unparalleled prosperity, but they resented the intrusion of New York. The sight of kosher restaurants and synagogues added fuel to their bigotry. Their desire to hold on to their past led to such anomalies as the exclusive Garden Court Apartments, which refused moving-picture people but could not resist the Old World conservatism of producer-director J. Stuart Blakton, or the enchanting innocence of Bessie Love.
The freedom of women was another striking feature of pre-1920s Hollywood. Observers of the time were both shocked and encouraged: “Not even Greenwich Village has achieved so great a freedom in this respect.” Women could work, relax, and conduct their lives on the same basis as men. They could be found grinding the cameras both for feature and newsreel companies, marshaling actors as directors and organizing studios as producers. They were not present in any great numbers, but they made their mark—and the importance to early Hollywood of women in the executive class is a worthy subject. Mary Pickford may have been America’s Sweetheart; she was also the highest salaried player-producer in the world.