Signs and Wonders

TAGGED AUTHORS

Kevin Starr, Leo Braudy




Signs and Wonders by Joy Horowitz

Read in tandem, Starr’s and Braudy’s books offer a concise but compelling reflection on California history.

May 13th, 2011 reset - +

IF YOU'VE EVER TRIED to get up close and personal with the Hollywood sign, as I did the other day, then you've participated in a slightly embarrassing rite-of-passage for tourists and natives alike. Drive up Beachwood Canyon and, once past the charming little village that marks the development known as Hollywoodland (which is what the sign originally promoted, back in 1923), you follow the green signs marked "Hollywood Sign Scenic View." But as you home in on the giant, white-block letters on the scrubby hillside, you're suddenly confronted by nasty traffic signs warning you that there's no direct access to the sign itself. You can't get close. It's a bit like Gertrude Stein's quip about Oakland: no there there.

The sign, as historian and film critic Leo Braudy writes in his deliciously quirky and intelligent book, The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon, is a "strange sort of icon" that can only be viewed from afar, "a complex mixture of intimacy and self-enhancement ... like glimpsing a movie star in a supermarket." In his irresistible take on the famous sign, Braudy spins a larger metaphor for the culture and history of California itself, much as Kevin Starr does, in Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge, for the state's other iconic landmark. Both are master storytellers, mining the darker stuff beneath their subjects' glossy exteriors. In Starr's case, we learn how the Bank of America made the Art Deco bridge possible during the nadir of the Great Depression, a public work that cost 11 lives and countless lead poisoning cases from its red-orange primer; in Braudy's, a film noir world of seedy hucksterism evolves from the provincialism of downtown Los Angeles and its rooming-house signs: "No Jews, actors, or dogs allowed."

"Thanks to the railroads," Braudy writes, "the first major building in most towns was not a church or a town hall but a hotel for land buyers." Southern California was becoming a mecca for speculators, especially after the1902 discovery of oil in Los Angeles. And with a push from the Los Angeles Times' Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, the development of Hollywoodland and other exclusive real estate developments wasn't far behind. Part of Braudy's brilliance is his suppleness in intertwining markers of culture - movies, cars, restrictive covenants - throughout the narrative. The Times' real estate boosterism, he tells us, was based on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's claim that L.A. was the "white spot" of American wealth. "[T]he racial implications of the metaphor were scarcely submerged," Braudy writes. The Times promotional campaign "Straight Ahead for Southern California," set the stage for what Braudy terms "a kind of anglo apartheid." To back up the point, he quotes from the 1920 lease on the land where his own home was built, which prohibited the sale or lease of properties to anyone "other than of the Caucasian Race." 

Read in tandem, Starr's book and Leo Braudy's book on the Hollywood sign offer a concise but compelling reflection on California history, from the evolution of Hollywood as a prohibitionist enclave in the south to the expansion of suburban Marin County to the north (which was the primary reason for the Sierra Club's opposition to the Golden Gate). Both books are slim. Both are elegantly written. And both are the works of well known historians - California icons in their own right - whose skillfully crafted narratives reaffirm the seduction, and the impossibility, of the California dream.

But Hollywood itself was founded by immigrants of various provenances and ethnicities - not just directors like Mack Sennett (Canada) and Charlie Chaplin (Great Britain) or studio heads like Samuel Goldwyn (Poland) or Louis B. Mayer (Belarus), but also modernist architects like Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra (both from Austria). "Historians of domestic architecture," Braudy writes, "have long argued over which came first, houses or sets, Hollywood real estate make-believe or 'Hollywood' movie make-believe." Neutra, who blamed the movies for L.A.'s weird mishmash of architectural tastes and its lack of authenticity, was "so visually upset by the architectural mélange of Los Angeles that, according to one story, he and his wife bought a Nash Rambler, the first American car to feature seats that reclined, specifically so that, while she drove, he could lie prone and not have to see the revolting march of architectural hybrids whizzing by."

Fifty feet high, the letters in "HOLLYWOODLAND," affixed to telephone poles hauled to the site by mules and staked into the ground by Mexican laborers, emblazoned by 4,000 twenty-watt bulbs for nighttime illumination - like the searchlights for premieres at nearby Grauman's Chinese theater -cost $21,000, or, in today's money, $250,000. It was, in essence, a billboard advertisement that would only be reborn as a monument to "HOLLYWOOD" - i.e. the entertainment industry - twenty-five years later, at a time when the Communist blacklist and the birth of television had so many in the industry running scared.

If the landmark today both attracts and repels its visitors - like Norma Desmond readying herself for a close up - Braudy reminds readers that not long ago, hikers could gain direct access. But when pranksters turned its letters into "HOLLYWEED" to mark the 1976 California law that reclassified possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor, the locals had had enough, and the protracted battle between their privacy rights and the glitz factor touted by the Chamber of Commerce began.

The story of the sign itself forms the basis of this book - how it became dilapidated and fell into disrepair, and then was rescued in the '70s by Hugh Hefner and Alice Cooper, and later by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. But Braudy gives us far more as he navigates away from the American icon atop Mount Lee and delves into the hearts and souls of the community it has come to symbolize, as in the noirish story of Peg Entwistle, the 24-year-old actress who leapt to her death from the "H" in 1932.

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Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself. Resembling the urge it inspires to the secular form of transcendence we call fame, the Hollywood sign embodies the American yearning to stand out of the landscape. It reflects the impulse to performance and singularity that has been a part of the American psyche since our country first appeared, unprecedented, on the world stage in the late eighteenth century. At the same time, its ubiquitous place in the eyes and digital cameras of the world shows how thoroughly that urge and impulse has pervaded so many cultures other than our own. As a character in the German film Kings of the Road says, "The Americans have colonized our subconscious." The Hollywood sign immediately evokes the movie capital it looms over, and the configuration of its letters has been imitated by cities and towns everywhere to trumpet their own uniqueness. ... Like every icon, modern and ancient, the Hollywood sign has both a physical and a metaphysical life, reaching beyond itself to unspecified wonders in an invisible world of potential and possibility.

- Leo Braudy, The Hollywood Sign

The Golden Gate Bridge is a global icon. ... It was shaped by the City Beautiful movement, the Progressive Era, and the Great Depression. More mysteriously, the bridge expresses those forces that science tells us constitute the dynamics of nature itself. ... Although the result of engineering and art, the Golden Gate Bridge seems to be natural, even an inevitable, entity as well, like the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth. In its American context, taken historically, the Bridge aligns itself with the thought of Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other transcendentalists in presenting an icon of transcendence: a defiance of time pointing to more elusive realities. Were Edwards, Emerson, or the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic thinker of great importance to the formation of American thought, alive today, they would no doubt see in the Golden Gate Bridge a fusion of material and trans-material forces, held in delicate equipoise.

For all that, the Golden Gate Bridge is a bridge.

- Kevin Starr, Golden Gate

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Kevin Starr, USC professor of history and California's emeritus state librarian, tells a mostly rosier story: for him, the "giant harp hung in the western sky" is nothing short of "a triumph of engineering and a work of art." When tending to details about the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, like the challenge of creating its extraordinary suspension system, Starr is at his best:

The Golden Gate Bridge, in short, would be required not only to be the longest suspension bridge in the world, it would also be required to possess the strength and flexibility of a great ship at sea, enduring gale force winds, as well as being a land-based structure capable of withstanding recurrent tremors in the earth, eventually even that great earthquake that all Bay Area residents, however subconsciously, realized would one day again strike their region. [...] And finally, the Bridge would have to be beautiful, very beautiful, to be worthy of the beauty of the Marin Headlands, the Pacific, and the pastel Atlantis rising on the short of the Bay.

The Golden Gate's story is indeed one of "beauty and life linked to death," which might explain why the bridge, like the Hollywood sign, has served as the site of so many suicides.


At times, Starr's writing borders on grandiloquence. In one especially florid passage, he announces his love for the bridge: "Like the Parthenon, the Golden Gate Bridge seems Platonic in its perfection, as if the harmonies and resolutions of creation as understood by mathematics and abstract thought have been effortlessly materialized through engineering design." He pays shorter shrift to the less aesthetic question of worker safety. He tells us of the nineteen men who fell into the net and survived to become members of the Halfway to Hell Club, for instance, and of the bolts that one worker complained were "too goddam short," costing the lives of ten men on a single day. But he only obliquely mentions those unfortunate workers who were plagued by lead poisoning from primer: "the infirmary had a steady population of lead-poisoning victims, some of them damaged for life." 


Still, Starr's trenchant understanding of the bridge's place in American history coupled with a sparing use of luscious photographs, makes his book itself an impressive work of art. In fact, I was so moved by Starr's valentine to the Golden Gate, that I felt compelled to drive up the 101 from Los Angeles and make a pilgrimage. As luck would have it, the Golden Gate was shrouded in fog the day I drove over it. But its massive towers - what Starr calls "sculptured monuments heroic in scale" - pierced through the grayness by the time I looped onto a sunny hiking trail atop the Marin Headlands. As I listened to the rhythmic fog horns and soaked up the majesty of the orange-painted steel against blue sky, it was impossible not to appreciate the ten workers who fell to their deaths during its construction on February 17, 1937, when a platform collapsed and their safety net gave way. And I felt a deep sense of wonder, knowing that once upon a time in America, a bridge like this one had been built to last a thousand years.


Read in tandem, Starr's book and Leo Braudy's book on the Hollywood sign offer a concise but compelling reflection on California history, from the evolution of Hollywood as a prohibitionist enclave in the south to the expansion of suburban Marin County to the north (which was the primary reason for the Sierra Club's opposition to the Golden Gate). Both books are slim. Both are elegantly written. And both are the works of well known historians - California icons in their own right - whose skillfully crafted narratives reaffirm the seduction, and the impossibility, of the California dream. 

 

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