Didn't someone sleep through the stop for Winslow, Arizona?
January 27, 2014 4:18 PM   Subscribe

Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up! Great resources on the early history of Hollywood?

Last year, when I wanted reading material about the history of post-war car-centric Southern California, you guys knocked it out of the park. In that question I specified that I was not looking for histories of the Hollywood film industry.

Well... I'm back, and that's exactly what I'm looking for.

I already know a little about it, but I'd love any resources for the history of early Hollywood. The really early stuff. How did the studios start? How was Los Angeles chosen in the flight from New York and the Edison patent trolls? Where exactly within Los Angeles was all this happening? I'm vaguely aware of people like Irving Thalberg and Jack Warner, but don't really know anything about how they became such huge power-brokers.

I'd welcome pretty much any serious non-fiction media about this era: documentaries, books, specific really comprehensive memoirs, podcasts, long-form and "new" journalism, academic sources, really superb websites, etc. That said, I'm looking for more serious scholarship/journalism and less studio PR.

I already pretty much worship Anne Helen Petersen. I've seen The Celluloid Closet, and would welcome more documentaries in that vein. I remember gleaning a little of this from Peter Bogdanovich's collections of interviews with famous directors, but I'm more interested in history and less interested in how Josef Von Sternberg set up a shot.

I think what I'm really looking for is something like Ken Burns' "Baseball" or "Jazz", but about movies.

The History Of Movies: throw it at me!
posted by Sara C. to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and needless to say, I have read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I'm looking for stuff from waaaaaaaay earlier than that.
posted by Sara C. at 4:20 PM on January 27, 2014

Jessamyn West was the writer of a book that got turned into a film that became somewhat popular: Friendly Persuasion. She wrote a book about what it was like to be "summoned to Hollywood" as a consulting writer on that movie. That book is called To See the Dream (1957), here's the Kirkus Review from when it came out. From an Amazon review from someone who liked it.
The book takes the form of journal entries that follow the author's life, as she lived it during this time. Unlike many other novelists whose works have become movies, West wasn't much interested in overseeing her own book's filming. She especially wasn't interested in writing the script, because she was immersed in a new manuscript; and because she wisely understood that a novelist and a script writer practice different arts. But in order to help the great director William Wyler capture her characters, and tell their story in a way appropriate for the screen, she found herself learning how to write a script anyway - and she also found herself venturing into the life of a world called Hollywood.
posted by jessamyn at 4:29 PM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Glamour Factory is a good overview of the studio system, based on tons of interviews. The Golden Age of Cinema is a textbook written by Richard Jewell for his own history of cinema class he's taught at USC for years.
posted by scody at 4:32 PM on January 27, 2014

Best answer: Well, Turner Classic Movies has lots of things about the history of movies. They had a great series a while back where they had an episode of the documentary and then played the movies of that era/genre.
My favorite classic movies are from "the beginning" the 1930's and they have plenty.
Also, some of the very early movies are on youtube.

The series on TMC is called "the Story of Film-an Odyssey". the first couple episodes will probably be the time period you are looking for. 1895-1928.
posted by beccaj at 4:36 PM on January 27, 2014

Best answer: beccaj beat me to what I was just coming back here to say: check out Mark Cousins's The Story of Film, both the miniseries and the book.
posted by scody at 4:40 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood covers several early Hollywood moguls.
posted by serialcomma at 4:45 PM on January 27, 2014

Response by poster: The Story Of Film: A Odyssey is streaming on Netflix! I know what I'm doing tonight!
posted by Sara C. at 4:50 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: But I mean definitely keep the recommendations coming, of course. Just about everything mentioned so far is exactly up my alley.
posted by Sara C. at 4:50 PM on January 27, 2014

Two books:

Lillian Gish's Autobiography: The Movies, Mr Griffith and Me. A charming memoir from a wonderful silent actress who was witness to the director who is often credited with creating the earliest language of cinema. A caveat though: she is very defensive about Birth of a Nation, a groundbreaking film to be sure, but one with a horrific point of view, totally unacceptable to anyone today.

The Movies by Richard Griffith (so far as I know, no relation to D.W.): the Sixty-Year story of the World of Hollywood and Its Effect on America, From Pre-Nickelodeon Days to the Present [the present being around 1957]. I grew up with this book. Many a long Saturday afternoon, spent lazily paging thru it over and over. A little light on text. Heavy on gorgeous black and white stills from tons of important movies of the earliest film era.
posted by marsha56 at 4:55 PM on January 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

There's a great older book called Memo from David O Selznick. Out of print, but you can find used copies.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:17 PM on January 27, 2014

Cari Beauchamp wrote a book called Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood which was fascinating.
posted by julen at 5:38 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a documentary series called "The Men Who Made the Movies" about famous directors. Here's the one about Hitchcock, for instance.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:45 PM on January 27, 2014

"The Parade's Gone By" by Kevin Brownlow. Written in the sixties when many of the artists from the silent era were still around, Browlow interviewed over a hundred actors, directors and technitions from that time.
posted by octothorpe at 6:05 PM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary - it's a collection of letters by a woman who stumbled into work in the pretty-early (1920s) film industry, ended up working for Samuel Goodwyn. Fascinating for a couple of reasons: how new Hollywood was, how racy their lives were, and how much work the "secretaries" did that they never got credit for (ie, reading scripts, writing movies, casting -- basically running Hollywood). Looks like it's out of print but I can see copies on AbeBooks and elsewhere. A great read.
posted by Miko at 6:19 PM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: So many of these fantastic books are out of print that I think I might have to ...

Actually go to the library.


Thanks for giving me a reason to finally get my LA library card!
posted by Sara C. at 7:00 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just came in to recommend the Gish autobio, as well...it's the first thing that sprung to mind and is super charming and fascinating.
posted by mynameisluka at 7:52 PM on January 27, 2014

Make that GOLDwyn.
posted by Miko at 7:59 PM on January 27, 2014

The book A Cast Of Killers has a lot of great early Hollywood stuff in it. It's about the murder of a silent film director that involves many famous actors of that time, and it's pretty incredible reading.
posted by padraigin at 8:18 PM on January 27, 2014

A book that I have not read, but which I have heard is fantastic (and which I know has been a great resource for a number of Hollywood historians) is Frederica Sagor Maas' autobiography, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.
posted by sidi hamet at 8:45 PM on January 27, 2014

Almost forgot - a book that I have read, which is excellent, Scott Eyman's biography of Louis B. Mayer, Lion of Hollywood. It gives you a very in-depth look at the early days of the studios in NY (they were all originally owned by the theatre chains, and Mayer himself started as a proprietor of movie theaters in Massachusetts), the mergers that made them, their move to Los Angeles in the early '10s, and their climb to the very top of the American economy through the 20s and 30s. By the late 30s, Mayer was the highest-paid man in America (exceeding the salaries of stockbrokers and bond traders...just imagine), and MGM/Loews one of the top businesses. The book is also a great resource for other major personalities of the period - a lengthy digression about Irving Thalberg, with whom Mayer was very close, is excellent in its own right.
posted by sidi hamet at 8:51 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the current thread, someone mentioned Buster Keaton's autobiography.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:03 AM on January 28, 2014

The book Lulu in Hollywood, about Louise Brooks (star of Pandora's Box, among other silent movies).
posted by stopgap at 8:02 AM on January 28, 2014

The University of California Press has an excellent, decade-by-decade series of books called The History of the American Cinema. The ones that pertain most directly to your question would be The Emergence of Cinema by Charles Musser, The Transformation of Cinema by Eileen Bowser, and An Evening's Entertainment by Richard Koszarski, but, really, they're all uniformly excellent and pretty well definitive.

Another scholarly book that will give you what you're looking for - even though Hollywood history per se isn't it's subject, is Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson's The Classical Hollywood Cinema, which I regard as a masterpiece of scholarship.

I'll also second the recommendation for Memo from David O. Selznick, which has been reprinted and is easy to find. I've read countless books on film/Hollywood history, and none of them gives a better picture of the day-to-day operations of a studio.

Along the same lines is the very good Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary by Valeria Belletti, which is just delightful (and also referenced above).
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:12 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

By the way, that whole "Hollywood was settled to escape the patent trolls" thing, which you refer to in your question, is a myth!

Hollywood was chosen because the land was cheap and plentiful, and because the 300ish days of sunshine per year were needed in those days, when film stocks were quite slow, and the problem of sufficiently bright artificial illumination had not yet been solved. For that same reason, certain studios chose to settle in various parts of Florida, but, for a variety of reasons, didn't really make headway there. A few held on for a few years, though.

The other great advantage that the LA area afforded early filmmakers was that it grants easy access to a huge variety of biomes/terrains: ocean/beach, desert, city, suburb, mountains, valleys, rivers, fields, farms, younameit. And since most movies were shot outdoors (or in glass-roofed and -walled semi-studios), it was extremely important. Westerns were particularly important to early film business, and Westerns have key scenes that must be shot outdoors. So that's a smaller but relevant factor, too.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:07 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Is there any good source debunking the patent troll myth? It's repeated in everything I've ever read or seen about early filmmaking, including Bogdanovich's interviews with people who were around in the silent era and would have known whether it was true or not.

The Edison patent wars are also a matter of public record.

That said, I don't know, it sounds like most of the actual patent brouhaha was over by WWI, and that there were, as you say, several early film centers in addition to Hollywood.
posted by Sara C. at 10:20 AM on January 28, 2014

The books that I name above - the UC ones, as well as Bordwell/Staiger/Thompson - thoroughly debunk that myth. Bogdanovich is one of the main perpetrators of it!

The patent wars were for real; the "fleeing the east coast to escape Edison attorneys" thing is a falsehood.
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:06 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Someone just linked to this on the blue and I thought of this question: "Los Angeles Plays Itself".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:04 PM on February 4, 2014

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