In this delightful little book on the Hollywood sign originally constructed in 1923, Leo Braudy, a cultural historian who is Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at the University of Southern California, provides readers with a lively and insightful history of an American icon, the film industry, the city of Hollywood, and the image of Hollywood in the American mind. Accessible both to scholars and general readers, Braudy's work is a valuable contribution to Yale University Press's Icons of America series.
Braudy begins his work by observing that the film industry was initially situated on the East Coast and lured to the West by the climate and a desire to move beyond the reach of the Edison Trust. As a subdivision of Los Angeles, Hollywood originally appeared to offer a rather inhospitable home for the film industry. As developed by wealthy socialite Daeida Wilcox Beveridge, Hollywood was a somewhat isolated community for the wealthy and artists who wanted to escape from the vices of Los Angeles and industrial America. But Hollywood was consolidated into Los Angeles in 1910, and business leaders began to welcome the commercial possibilities represented by filmmakers. Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) was filmed at the Hollywood mansion of Dr. A. G. Schloesser, and the following year Charlie Chaplin received permission to open a studio in Hollywood.
By the early 1920s, Hollywood was already being perceived as a beacon for those who wanted to flee the conformity of life in the Midwest and assume the persona of a celebrity on the silver screen. Thus, as Braudy suggests, Hollywood was already more than just a place; it was becoming a brand. The influx of dream chasers, however, also brought scandal: the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 closely followed the previous year's allegation that comedy star Fatty Arbuckle had raped and murdered a starlet during a party. In response, the industry formed the [End Page 48] Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association to provide some self-regulation, and film colony residents demonstrated their piety by supporting the Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise services.
For those seeking a separation from the film community, boosters, such as Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, began to promote the development of Hollywoodland in the upper Beachwood Canyon above the Hollywood community. To highlight this project, the original Hollywood sign reading Hollywoodland was created. The letters were fifty-feet tall in blocky sans serif typeface and anchored on telephone poles. The sign was illuminated by four thousand light bulbs and a curator lived on the premises to replace the bulbs as they burned out. Braudy argues that the Hollywoodland development and its sign were products of California's growing automobile culture, the prominence of billboard advertising, and an increasing affluence, which was strictly circumscribed by racial covenants. The transportation problems associated with reaching the heights of the development and the expense of clearing the land also restricted the growth of Hollywoodland.
Yet, the cultural significance of the sign was suggested by the apparent suicide on September 18, 1932 of aspiring starlet Lillian "Peg" Millicent Entwistle, who allegedly leaped to her death from the letter H to the ravine below. The suicide provided a cautionary fable about the dangers inherent in the Hollywood quest for stardom. Braudy, however, suggests that Entwistle's death might have been a murder rather than suicide, and that the actress was more upset by a failed love affair than a disappointing career. Nevertheless, the myth persisted, and the sign was becoming something more than a commercial real estate venture. Nevertheless, Braudy, argues that during the 1930s the most important Hollywood icons were the Hollywood Bowl and Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Braudy also challenges traditional interpretations of the studio system during the depression era. Despite a difficult transition to sound and the economic decline of the Great Depression, the 1930s are often celebrated as the golden age of the studio system. Countering this conventional wisdom, Braudy writes, "If we consider the Hollywood-set films of the 1930s, especially after...