Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles

September 13, 2012

Hollywood and Los Angeles, you might well think, were made for each other. As early as 1915, with the film industry barely out of its infancy and orange groves still covering most of the rural expanses of Hollywood, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce published a full-colour brochure titled Los Angeles Today in which the burgeoning metropolis proudly described itself as "the Wonder city of the United States [and] the most talked of city on the continent". This trumpet tone of unashamed hucksterism was eagerly taken up by the movie industry; barely a decade later the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was boasting the presence on its roster of "more stars than there are in heaven".

It wasn't only the local blowhard mentality, of course, that drew American film-makers to the City of Angels. The climate was a major factor: a region where the sun could be virtually guaranteed to shine 350 days a year offered an attraction with which New York, where the industry had started out, could never hope to compete. The ready availability of cheap, largely non-unionised labour also encouraged the westward drift. "By 1922," Mark Shiel notes, "Los Angeles was responsible for 84 per cent of all film production in the United States."

From the start, Hollywood used LA and its surroundings as ready-made locations. When we see a street scene in a comedy by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy or Harold Lloyd, it is almost invariably an LA street we are looking at. Chaplin made his first on-screen appearance as the Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) - Venice being the seafront district of the city which, 40-odd years later, Orson Welles would transform into a seedy US-Mexican border town for Touch of Evil (1958). In his most famous film, Safety Last! (1923), Lloyd perilously scaled a high-rise block in downtown LA; and in The Music Box (1932), Laurel and Hardy doggedly manoeuvred an upright piano up a precipitous flight of steps in the Silver Lake district of the city, near what's now Laurel and Hardy Park. Early westerns were shot in the canyons on the city's outskirts.

Surprisingly, The Music Box doesn't rate a mention in Shiel's book. Nor do Chinatown (1974), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), LA Confidential (1997) or a host of other Hollywood films that made creative use of the city's real history and topography. The majority of those films that Shiel does cite are crammed into a 10-page epilogue. Much of the time he seems more interested in the development of Hollywood as a construction site, treating us to such arcane detail as: "At MGM, the Scofield-Twaits Company was employing 163 men, two steam shovels, five cranes and three concrete mixers to construct '[f]our hundred tons of structural steel, more than 1200 cubic yards of concrete, doors that weigh more than two tons each...'". There is a good deal more in this vein, fit to grace the pages of Builders' Monthly.

Here and there the story livens up, as when Shiel recounts how the studio bosses, with the support of the Republican Party and the Los Angeles Police Department, called in the Mafia to suborn, corrupt and brutalise any film industry workers presumptuous enough to join a union and campaign for decent working conditions. But for the most part this is a sober, even prosaic study of what should, given its rich and gamey subject matter, have been a lively account of the interaction between what The New York Times called "a metropolis without visible means of support" and the world's most influential dream factory. One thing's for sure: nobody will be bidding for the movie rights.

Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles

By Mark Shiel. Reaktion, 336pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781861899026. Published 4 July 2012

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