May 4, 2015
MY FIRST TIME IN HOLLYWOOD!
Author Cari Beauchamp talks about her new anthology Welcome to Hollywood: Stories from the Pioneers, Dreamers and Misfits Who Made the Movies:
Q: In 1910, Los Angeles had a little over 300,000 residents, the size of Bakersfield today. Why did people start taking the train from cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to a small provincial town in Southern California to make movies?
A: New York and New Jersey were the hub of filmmaking in the early years. But as entrepreneurs and "Trust busters" dared to stand up to Thomas Edison and his consortium that claimed to hold the exclusive patents on the cameras, the film, and even the sprocket holes, Southern California became an oasis for independent filmmakers. Not only was the weather almost always perfect for outdoor filming, it was 3,000 miles away from the Trust and its vigilantes. The Los Angeles that greeted those pioneers after their four-day train ride from the east was part boomtown, part frontier.
And who exactly were these people? What made them take such a risk?
They were all passionate, creative, and bursting with ideas, but that is where the similarity ends. Each had their own vision of how they could contribute to making movies. Filmmaking is a very collaborative business, so it takes actors, directors, writers, editors, cinematographers and set decorators, each focused on their particular tasks, but all hoping to elevate the end product into being the best it can be.
Over half of the stories in your book are from women, and their importance in early Hollywood can’t be overstated. What made them pick up and come to Hollywood?
Of course a few of them are actresses, but women wrote half of all films made before 1925. Because few people were taking movie making seriously as a business, it was wide open to women and Jews, who wouldn’t have been welcome in more “respectable” professions. And Hollywood became a magnet for the most daring and creative women. Writers such as Anita Loos and Frances Marion had to work their way up and prove themselves, but Frances ended up as the highest paid screenwriter—male or female—for over twenty years and remains the only woman to win two Academy Awards for best original screenplay.
What were some of the reactions people had to arriving in Los Angeles for the first time?
Ben Hecht said his first day in Hollywood had been “like a year in Siberia.” Yet Colleen Moore, who came with a six-month, fifty-dollar-a-week contract, knew as soon as she got off the train that she “was home.” Gloria Swanson, arriving from Chicago, was surprised to find “cows eating weeds besides rickety houses,” but Mrs. D. W. Griffith, who had left the snow of New York behind, found it wonderful to be “sprawling about in the lazy sunshine.” Then there are tales that are really appalling: when the art director Winfrid Kay Thackrey went apartment hunting, for example, she was shocked to find signs reading “Rooms For Rent: No Actors, No Jews, No Kids or Pets.”
Mary Pickford comes through in many of the excerpts as an amazing woman. How did she come to Los Angeles? What made her such a star?
Pickford first came to California with D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Company to film during the winter months. I’ve grown to respect Mary in so many ways, in part because, as one of the first “movie stars” she was a pioneer without any role models and had to carve her own path. Not only did she negotiate her way between studios to a point where she was making $10,000 a week by 1917, she also went on to co-found her own film company, United Artists. While her initial drive might have come from a need to support her family, once she was established she became a pro-active philanthropist, helping to start the Actor’s Fund, touring the country selling liberty bonds, and becoming a founder and life-time supporter of what is now known as the Motion Picture & Television Relief Fund.
Taken together, the stories reflect how much Los Angeles has changed over the years. What surprised you the most?
I live in west Los Angeles, where all the neighborhoods sprawl together. It is hard to fathom Harold Lloyd’s description that in 1913 “from Hollywood to the sea, there was only the village of Sawtelle.” Many new arrivals gushed about the aroma of the orange blossoms—and that must have been incredible—but Alice Guy found that “Hollywood smelled of eucalyptus or of petrol, according to the direction of the wind.”
Just like Silicon Valley today, the tiny village of Hollywood suddenly became a universal metaphor.
Hollywood and Silicon Valley both became symbols of an industry and both drew creative people, but the motivations were very different. None of the people in this book came to Hollywood with the idea of making a fortune. They came to make movies.
But some individuals did made money beyond all imagining at the time. I’ve heard that the house actor Harold Lloyd built in the late 1920’s would cost over $200 million to build today. How did these people get so rich so fast?
Harold Lloyd was so rich because he was one of the few to produce, star in, and own his own films. At one point in the late twenties, Louis B. Mayer was the highest paid man in America. Before becoming a co-founder of MGM, Mayer had accumulated enough money to enter movie production because he had had the New England franchise to distribute The Birth of a Nation, and he pocketed more money than he reported to the distributor. Other studio chiefs such as Adolph Zukor of Paramount amassed fortunes, but then lost them during the Depression.
Despite the hardships and struggles some of the people go through in your anthology, Hollywood back then still seems so glamorous and exciting compared to today. It was, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t so much that it was glamorous, but it was a real community. People were friends with each other and socialized outside of the studios and depended upon each other, particularly the women. Frances Marion, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Anita Loos met each other in their teens or early twenties and stayed friends for the rest of their lives.
What attracted you to the idea of bringing these stories together in the first place?
For work and for pleasure, I have probably read over 100 biographies of and autobiographies by people in the film business. And the part about their arrival in Hollywood is usually my favorite section—the excitement and the sense of possibilities. I thought it would be fun, illustrative, and maybe even a little inspirational to put those stories all in one place. I think it is important to be reminded that even future greats faced the insecurities every one of us goes through. They each had to make a leap of faith—faith in themselves and in this new business of the movies.