The Day Before Hollywood


To call the Hollywood life relaxing was strictly a relative term. The routine was easy enough in the days before studios employed artificial light; work finished at 4:30 as the light went yellow. But motion pictures underwent enormous advances from 1911 to 1917, and with the advances went immense creative effort. Work may have stopped midafternoon in the early days; a few years later it often dragged on past midnight. Streetcars stopped at ten, and Hollywood streets were dark and deserted, so if you had no car and no horse, you walked home. Directors and actors congregated at the Green Room, if there was anything left of the evening. The wild life so beloved of Hollywood fiction belonged to weekends, although the great night at the Hollywood Hotel was Thursday. If you lived in Hollywood, you were welcome, and you could dance alongside Chaplin, the Gish sisters, Anita Loos, Constance and Norma TaImadge. The event was initiated by the light opera star Richard Carle, who staged an impromptu evening so successful that the hotel made a regular date of it.


The lingering prohibition, reimposed during the war, caused revelers to drive to outlying roadhouses, such as the self-styled Vernon Country Club. “They had the biggest bar in the world out there,” recalled the stunt man Harvey Parry. “One time, Tom Mix came up with an old car he had, and drove it right through the door. He got to his feet in this loud cowboy outfit he wore and said, ‘Tom Mix is my name. The drinks are on me.’”

The swashbuckling style aroused antipathy. Citizens were hotly indignant when prevented from crossing their own streets by aggressive assistants. They could not be expected to understand the danger; the road had been covered with soap and grease, and Keystone paddy wagons were about to screech past, skidding in endless circles.

Dignified matrons were not flattered to be propositioned with five dollars to do a walk-on because they were the “perfect type.” Most of them disapproved intensely of motion pictures and went so far as to refuse permission for their houses to be photographed. Not that they were immune even then. A trained mule wandered away from a movie company on location and frightened an elderly resident with a playful nip. When she ran into her house, the mule followed—charging straight through the screen door. Movie “burglars” broke into the wrong house, terrifying the occupants. A bank was held up in true movie style, but the camera was phony and the actors real bandits. Cowboys galloped their horses over newly mown lawns, tearing up the grass. Citizens further complained that picture people bullied them in Griffith Park. But here again, the moviemakers’ need for dangerous charges by cowboy cavalry could not be sacrificed for the sake of ramblers who had two thousand other acres to ramble in. Some of these residents exercised considerable power, however, and in 1915 picture companies were banned from private parks. Reacting with justifiable anger, and pointing to the five million dollars spent by the industry every year in the Los Angeles area, several companies hinted they might move to where more encouragement and courtesy might be shown them. At once the Merchants and Manufacturers Association linked arms to prevent this alarming loss of business. They acknowledged the tremendous advertising service provided by the movies, displaying the city’s scenic beauties and climatic advantages to audiences all over the world, and passed a resolution deploring the obstacles placed by officials in the way of an industry so advantageous to Los Angeles.

One visitor insisted, “The trouble with Hollywood is that it’s so damn unimpressive.”

THIS WAS ALL VERY WELL, DECLARED the picture people, but it wasn’t only the officials. The very merchants discriminated against them! The movies were making the merchants rich, yet they retained their snobbery. A hasty meeting of the Chamber of Commerce and the producers was described as “a love feast” by the press, but the affection was both strained and temporary. The resentment continued: well into the 1920s, real estate agents assured their clients: “No movie people live on this street. There won’t be any wild parties; you’ll be assured of quiet.” When they opened Bel-Air, a residential community, movie people were excluded. A country club went so far as to refuse to allow members to wear knickers; they made them look too much like film directors.