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A Brief History of Hollywood

USC College panel discusses the city, dream, industry and once-potent shaper of American popular culture

A Brief History of Hollywood

As Hollywood grapples with the rapidly changing face of media, moviegoers have fragmented into niche audiences, making popular culture harder to gauge, University Professor Leo Braudy said.

“Has Hollywood, in a sense — Hollywood in capital letters, quotation marks and underlining — lost its cultural centrality?” Braudy, the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, asked a standing-room-only crowd at the recent USC Arts & Humanities Festival.

“I wonder with the loss of this mass movie audience, does this mean that we have to rethink, in a sense, our idea of popular culture?” Braudy asked during the “History of Hollywood” discussion, which included USC College historians Kevin Starr and Steven Ross, and USC alumnus Robert Osher, chief operating officer of Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

In all, USC College held nine events at the festival, part of the Trojan Parents’ Weekend Oct. 5 and 6. Another included a panel discussion about the importance of humanities led by USC College Dean Peter Starr and Hilary Schor, dean of undergraduate programs. Yet another, led by English professors and authors Marianne Wiggins and Aimee Bender, explored creative writing.

During the “History of Hollywood” program, University Professor Kevin Starr recalled the early days. In 1913, the first feature film company — Famous Players Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company — moved into a barn in a suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywood.

“I would have loved to be in that moment at the Claridge Grill in New York, when Jesse Lasky got together with the incipient director Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse’s brother-in-law, Sam Goldfish, later Sam Goldwyn,” said Starr, the former state librarian and author of a series of books on California history.

“When Sam Goldfish said, ‘I’m in.’ ”

En route by train to Flagstaff, Arizona, where the new company planned to film “The Squaw Man,” an unexpected dust storm forced them to continue to Los Angeles. They located in a L-shaped barn abutting an orange grove on the corner of the dirt roads of Selma and Vine.

The 1916 D.W. Griffith film, “Intolerance,” became a turning point for Hollywood. That movie’s powerful set of Babylon remained standing for some 15 years, as a real estate icon.

“It suggested the inner-penetration of film and reality, between Hollywood the place, Hollywood the city, Hollywood the dream, Hollywood the stage set and Hollywood the movie set,” Starr said. “With ‘Intolerance’ had come into existence a real soon-to-be mythic place called Hollywood. Which in years to follow would be organized in the intricately realized studio system, which would lead to the Golden Age.”

Ross, chair and professor of history, noted Hollywood’s leadership role in exhibiting a social consciousness. Hollywood had the courage to step up when no one else would.

In the mid-1930s, a Gallup poll showed that 95 percent of Americans opposed involvement in a potential war in Europe, Ross said. About six months before Pearl Harbor, in July 1941, a Gallup survey showed that 79 percent of Americans still wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe.

“But there was one place that was very vocally opposed to Hitler,” Ross said. “One place that demanded that the United States become involved and that was Hollywood, California.”

Although not everyone in Hollywood was onboard.

As late as June 1939, Ross said, Louis B. Mayer invited 10 Nazi newspaper editors to the MGM lot for a tour. Walt Disney, Hal Roach and others invited Vito Mussolini (Benito’s son) and Leni Riefenstahl, noted for her Nazi propaganda films, to Hollywood. In the early 1930s, Hollywood’s sweetheart Mary Pickford praised Mussolini in the New York Times, and a few years later said, “You know, I met Hitler and he’s really a nice guy.”

Blazing the anti-fascism trail was Warner Brothers Studios, Ross said.

While Mayer and MGM produced optimistic films emphasizing the good life in America, Warner Brothers released a slew of politically-charged, anti-fascist films, the biggest being “Black Legion” and later “The Great Dictator,” directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin.  

By 1936, Hollywood’s anti-Nazi league comprised of liberals, leftists and conservatives numbered 5,000. These films and organizations helped to raise public consciousness and prepare the nation to eventually enter the war on the Allied side.

“If you think that’s a no brainer that once we went to war it would be with the Allies, you also need to know that there was a huge group of Americans who felt that we went on the wrong side,” Ross said. “That the real danger was Stalin and the Soviet Union. And that Hitler was really not a bad guy.”

Moving to current issues, Osher said that the biggest challenge facing Hollywood today is the changing nature of media.

“For kids today, film is not the one release like it was back in the 20s and 30s, when it was the principal medium of getting entertainment,” Osher said. “There was radio and there was film. Now we have film, radio, television, the Internet, video games, et cetera. So, to remain relevant, we have to find new ways to reach our audience, the entertain them, but at the same time, educate them.”

Ross pointed out that after World War II, about 70 percent of Americans went to the movie theater at least once weekly. By 1996, 20 percent went once a month. Osher elaborated.

“Another thing that’s changed is the cost of going to the theater,” Osher  said. “Today, in real terms, it’s quite expensive. So people have found an alternative way to consume the kinds of films we make.”

The waning movie audience affects the kinds of films made, he said.

“Certainly, the expensive ones, we have to make sure that there’s a broad audience for the real expensive films,” Osher said. “Because, based on the box office and all the ancillary sales of how many videos that we usually sell and what the television is prepared to pay for the rights to license the film — [these] all sort of start with theatrical box office.”

An audience member asked Osher if private equity investors influence artistic decisions on a film.

“When I’m in the room when we decide which films to make, my instruction is always the same,” Osher said. “Do not consider the fact that we have an investor. Make the movies that you believe in.”