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  • Riding, Shooting, ViewingRailroads, Amusement Parks, and the Experience of Place in Early Hollywood
  • Dimitrios Latsis (bio)

[End Page 48]

"Sooner or later everyone goes to California." Thus begins the pitch of the Selig Polyscope company, urging its exhibitors, journalists, "and their friends" to buy tickets to the "Selig Exposition Special" of July 1915 and experience the "wonders of an unfolding fairyland," while spending "Seventeen Days in the Glorious West."1 There is something fitting and at the same time problematic about the inevitability in the rhetoric of this promotion. "Sooner or later," historians have often told us, the fi lm industry was going to have to move out West to avoid the tangle of the Edison patent wars; "sooner or later" filmmakers were going to seek out new, interesting, authentic locations and appealing scenery in which to stage their narratives.

If, within the context of early twentieth-century boosterist language, such a [End Page 49] teleology is easy to understand (if not quite excuse), it is much harder to overlook the equally pronounced teleology in the historiography of the early American film industry, particularly regarding the role that the West, as a geographic area, as a mythos, and as a concept, played in its formation. The fact that the movies "moved west" during the early 1910s—tremendously aided by the railroad networks—was more than just the outcome of a patent dispute or merely on account of favorable climate conditions. Careful archival research can help illuminate the many facets of early studio culture that set the precedent for the models of leisure that we are now experiencing, in which the (moving) image undoubtedly dominates.2 In short, a lot more than film aesthetics and production economies are at stake when examining how geography figures into the history of silent Hollywood.

The attention of historians of early Hollywood has thus far been focused on the city of Los Angeles itself and its surrounding area, the corporate history of individual studios, and the mass culture surrounding and enabling "the movies" as an institution. While this triptych is certainly a historiographical improvement over the generalizations in Terry Ramsaye's 1926 account of "The Discovery of California," it still lacks the crucial context of a "thick" historical description.3 When historians like Robert Sklar later attributed the gradual centering of production in Southern California to the latter's "obvious attractions" (weather, open-shop cities), one might well ask, what about the roads not taken—such ephemeral film centers as Colorado, Florida, or Texas, which preceded California, offering a variety of alternative production landscapes?4 Why and how, in other words, was Los Angeles as a physical place and as a construct of the silver screen (a cine-opolis) distinct from these other itinerant production centers and thus more "fecund" for the nascent film industry to settle in?5 One cannot begin to answer this question without accounting for the complex interactions between industries like tourism, transportation, banking, law and entertainment as interrelated in the West's rapid growth during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.6 This growth, delivered by the railroads, fertilized by the soil, and packaged by the advertising industry, fast outpaced the region's natural resources while simultaneously fashioning the Golden State as a kind of American Eden. With respect to the early development of cinema as a socially and geographically situated phenomenon, one ought to, above all, inquire as to how Los Angeles the space came to be experienced by moviegoers, tourists, and residents as Hollywood the place.7

The significance of the experience of place for the early development of cinema as an institution is as important as it is underappreciated. To begin rectifying this, what follows investigates an inaugural moment for the film industry's establishment in [End Page 50] Southern California, encapsulated in two westward train rides that took place in 1915.8 Starting in that year, California (and Los Angeles in particular) would come to be associated in the minds of spectators with the "movies" as no other region had before. This geographical movement also coincides with the emergence of the "movies" as an institution and of the rise of the movie studio, the...


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