WOULD YOU RATHER live in Rome on the rise, Rome at its height, or Rome at its most decadent? When everything was in the making, undefined, unstoppable; when you ruled the world, supreme, beholden to sacred traditions that you honored and respected; or when every human excess could be indulged without limit?

Cari Beauchamp’s empire is the movies, and her Rome is Hollywood. This book is for the pioneers at heart. Those who want to be in the garage with Steve Jobs, on the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, at Cape Canaveral in 1961. Beauchamp is the author of Without Lying Down, one of the best books about women in early movies, and a two-time scholar at the Motion Picture Academy. Here she focuses on 42 of the men and women who were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and who wrote about that first encounter with the seductive stranger, the movies.

It’s hard to conceive how new the movies once were. Imagine for the first time huge images thrown by light, identical the world over. Action and emotion sharper than life, threaded together with uncanny effect by that new art form film editing — arguably the first purely new form since Cervantes wrote Don Quixote 500 years before. A world without words, capable of entrancing the poor and the ignorant, of seducing the sophisticated. The first art that was inseparable from big business. Art and Industry and Mass Phenomenon: there wasn’t even a word for what the movies were.

All this came about with stunning speed. Beauchamp opens in 1909, with an actor named Hobart Bosworth. He’s working in the theater. Movie clips are “chasers” that clear the house between vaudeville acts. When Bosworth is offered a part in a picture, he’s “shocked, insulted, and hurt by turns.” Yet by 1922, when Will Hays arrives as movie’s first morals Czar, the week ends in a “blaze of glory with a mammoth all-around industry rally at the Hollywood Bowl,” where, he says, 50,000 cheer him on.

At first, film was only shot outdoors; for an indoor feeling, a director might pull across an overhead muslin diffuser. No sun, no picture. Linda Arvidson, Mrs. D.W. Griffith, recalls her husband setting up shop in 1910, on a 50-foot wood floor on an empty lot. He rented a loft nearby on Spring and Second to develop his film and rehearse on rainy days. Cecil B. DeMille describes leasing a large barn on Hollywood and Vine in 1913, but his landlord reserved the right to keep his carriage and horses there. DeMille’s most important piece of furniture was the wastebasket he put his feet on when the landlord washed his carriage and the water ran under his desk.

“In those days,” Sam Jaffe says, “we worked overtime. I mean there was no overtime! In those days we laid out a picture and it took two weeks. That meant working Saturdays and Sundays, and nobody complained […] The actors were falling off their feet … but we had a schedule, and money was tight. It really meant that we would run out of funds if we didn’t do that.”

By 1923, they’d found lights strong enough to register on film. Mary Astor talks about the electricians “luggin’ iron […] the carbon arcs and Klieg lights, and great brutes of sun arcs which hissed and crackled and whined […] The heat was unbelievable, sapping our strength. So occasionally they’d cut the master switch, leaving a couple of work lights on, and we’d sit around in the cool gloom and talk or make jokes.”

From the start, actors were at the mercy of their director. DeWolf Hopper, a seasoned actor of 57 (and Hedda’s husband), arrives in 1915 to star in Don Quixote, and on his very first day the director orders him to die — because the set for that scene was ready. “So I fell mortally wounded, why or by whom I had not then the remotest idea, and contorted my limbs this way and that as the megaphone told me to do, for all the world like a fat woman on the bedroom floor taking her daily dozen to the voice of a phonograph record. I did sneak in a little dying on my own. And may I say it? — It was pretty good.” Hedda was pithier: “When I saw Don Quixote on screen, I knew Wolfie would never have success in pictures. He was too old, and this medium too young for him.”

In 1916 Gloria Swanson is a seasoned hand of 17 when she leaves Essanay in Chicago to work for Mack Sennett in Edendale. At Essanay, Swanson waited in the basement for the director to summon her and tell her exactly what to do, and only he knew why they were doing it. Here, they made up our own stories as they went along. “The California system was nothing but surprises. You never knew what the person next to you was going to do. Stunt men and gagmen and comics were all jabbering constantly and struggling to get their ideas accepted. As soon as someone thought of something he’d jump to his feet and act it out […] Then, without fail, everyone would start roaring a different version, and the set would turn into a shouting match with the director as the referee […] We got to know each other and to know how everyone in the company would react in a given situation. After a few hours of trying out different ideas and settling on the ones we liked, we would pile in a car and drive off to the location. There the cameraman would watch our rehearsal and then, when the light was right, would shoot the scene […] It was a wonderful way to earn a living.”

They worked hard because they had to, and because they were obsessed with it. Agnes de Mille, who came as a nine-year-old with her father William, Cecil B. DeMille’s brother and business partner, remembers falling asleep as the adults talked into the night. “They talked with fervor. They were in love with their new work. In the first year, Pop stayed away from the studio 17 days, including Sundays.” Cecil DeMille came to town to make The Squaw Man in 1913. His puttees and his posturing, the egotism of the Great Director, felt to cast and crew like charming and essential parts of the job back then. It made the work important. It gave them permission to care, and let themselves be overworked.

D.W. Griffith was their standard. When the pioneers talk of him, and most of them do, it’s with reverent esteem. Seventeen-year-old Karl Brown is fascinated by Griffith’s outsized giant in Judith of Bethulia in 1913, and that’s enough to land him a job with the director’s great cameraman, Billy Bitzer. Lillian Gish remembers rehearsing in a shed on Pico Boulevard:

Griffith’s powers of concentration were so great he could watch a rehearsal, read notes, and talk to his staff at the same time. At times he would look at you without actually seeing you […] If it looked as though a mist was forming or the light would dim later, he would keep going. We would often get so hungry we’d think we were going to collapse […] We filmed all day if the weather permitted, rehearsed after the light failed, then watched rushes. But we never thought to complain. We considered it a privilege to work for Mr. Griffith. With him, we never felt we were working for a salary. He inspired in us his belief that we were involved in a medium that was powerful enough to influence the whole world.

When Robert Parrish gets his first job as a 10-year-old, he thinks all movies are directed by D.W. Griffith until his actual director, Charles Chaplin, sets him straight.

By 1919 movies had found a wide audience, but job titles were still fluid or even non-existent — like unions. In 1919, at the tiny Garson studio on what is now Glendale Boulevard, Lenore Coffee took notes during shooting, what we’d call continuity today; she also read all the fan mail, vetted the submitted stories, made cutting notes, wrote title cards. She’d become a screenwriter. She recalls the lovely pepper trees along Hollywood Boulevard, “trailing branches of the weeping willow without their melancholy,” cut down because they exuded a juice that damaged car finishes. Social life was “‘small townish,’ very close knit, almost parochial. The same people did the same things in all the same places at the same time.” The infrequent parties were “villagey affairs where you were sent amusing hand-written invitations with place cards to match, with personal touches or teasing jokes, and everyone contributed to the evening’s entertainment.”

But that would change with the arrival of big money. By 1923 Mary Astor describes the hierarchy on the set, with star’s names on their canvas chairs, and set apart from the rest of the cast. Even her mother had to beckon to her from afar. Ralph Winters, then an assistant editor, talks about the unwritten law that film editors didn’t carry film reels, and how he’d stagger from the cutting room to the projection room bent double while the editor walked beside him empty-handed.

A dozen years after pictures come West, and five years before sound comes along, we’re already in imperial Hollywood. When Will Hays arrives in 1922, he’s escorted in a motorcade with the producers Jesse L. Lasky, Joe Schenck, and Irving Thalberg. He weeps watching forlorn Little Jackie Coogan emote on set. At a banquet for 1,500 people, Hays is presented to the Motion Picture Actors’ Equity, the Los Angeles Film Exchange, the Board of Trade, the Screen Writers’ Guild, Western Motion Picture Advertisers, Theater Owners’ Association, the Assistance League, Assistant Directors’ Association, the Motion Picture Producers’ Association, and “perhaps a few others.” Hays takes the opportunity to preach to moviedom the virtues of the “manly and democratic process of self-control and self-regulation […] Trade no longer followed the flag, it now followed films … The ladies and gentlemen of Hollywood must henceforth regard themselves as ambassadors of Hollywood and of America.”

Imperial, with a royal family. Five years later, Douglas Fairbanks brings Laurence Irving with him from London to design the sets for The Iron Mask. Irving arrived at Pasadena Station with Fairbanks and Mary Pickford where “a horde of liege men and women and loyal subjects welcomed their king and queen safely returned from a crusade to win the hearts of Europeans to the idolatry on which the inhabitants of Ephesus — thousands of suntanned players, writers, craftsmen, technicians, executors — depended for their fairy affluence.” Fairbanks hands him over to his 18-year-old son Junior, “the crown prince of Hollywood.[…] He had, of course, hereditary right of entry into the film studios.” Pickford’s Rolls is bracketed by cars of armed guards. Gangsters have threatened to kidnap her for ransom.

By then, pioneer days are already only a memory. Even Griffith has faded away. When Laurence Irving pays his respects to the man, he’s “shocked to find himself face to face with a dispirited visionary accepting his loss of aesthetic and financial independence and fulfilling his obligations to the corporation by remaking an early potboiler, The Battle of the Sexes, which he did not bother to endorse with his signature.”

With so much at stake, and such grand surroundings, moviemakers’ obsession with film has become inseparable from greed and egotism. It already feels like the onset of the decadent phase. When Ben Hecht comes to imperial Hollywood in 1926, unhappily, he warms to Howard Hawks: “I like him. He is one of the few half humans to whom movies are a pleasant sideline, a thing to be done as work, not to be lived as a career.” He’s invited to fancy dress parties. “These weeks — socially remembered — seem like something I passed on a boat among Samoans or some other unintelligible and mysterious tribe of manikins.” The shindigs “are more boring than anything I’ve ever encountered. They positively appall one socially. I’ve never seen nor heard so intense torture as a room full of movie people all bombinating movies at each other — all those toy celebrities.” That joyous sense of coming to the Promised Land has given way to “flapping in the wind, unrooted, empty, straining […] The home life is invisible. All exiles. All with memories growing thin, desire thinning out, waiting for yesterday to come back.” 

When the Russian artists come, they don’t doubt the decadence. Nemirovich-Danchenko, who founded the Moscow Art Theatre with Stanislavsky, is hired by Joe Schenck to write and direct for a year in 1926. His associate Sergei Bertensson accompanies him. Now Hollywood is benighted and banal. They watch John Barrymore shoot a scene in Vagabond Poet. According to Bertensson, the place seems “in a muddle. We should either admit that everything — scripts, staging and performing methods — is completely wrong and must be eliminated, or we should slowly start training people, unspoilt by clichés, people with whom we could prepare something, according to an absolutely new method.” Of course, they did neither. In the words of director Alice Guy, who returned home to France in frustration, “America, they say, always takes back everything she gives you.”

Or as Ralph Winters puts it, after 60 years editing pictures, “Your Mayers and your Laemmles and the old time directors grew up with film. And they loved film. Today they love money.”

Of course, that is unfair. Every generation has its own version of the pioneer experience. We’re all entranced and overworked, we all feel empowered before we battle disillusion. But these were the true pioneers, and Cari Beauchamp has deftly drawn together the voices that bring their world alive. They shaped our gospel. I could have done what they did. I ache for what I missed out on. Reading their words, seeing vanished Hollywood at their invitation, I feel like Noël Coward, in 1929: “I had been received with the utmost kindness and hospitality, and I enjoyed every minute of it; it was only now, in quietness, that it seems unreal and inconclusive, as though it hadn’t happened at all.”

¤

Jon Boorstin is a writer and filmmaker who works in a broad range of media. His new novel Mabel and Me was published in April.