[This is part of a longer essay, "Signs and Wonders," here.]
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.
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
Read in tandem, Kevin Starr’s book on the Golden Gate Bridge 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.