September 30, 2011 § 1 Comment
While doing research for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I found my way to the Los Angeles City Archives, which keeps bound volumes of the many laws enacted by Hollywood during its brief period (1903-1910) as an incorporated, self-governing city. While I was there, I also studied early 20th-century Hollywood maps, and was fascinated to see the area north of Franklin between Beachwood and Gower labeled “The Pineapple Tract.”
The name refers to the tract’s former incarnation as the farm of J.B. Rapp. (See photo below.) He began as a lemon grower but expanded into more exotic fruits–dates, avocados and pineapples, among others. Although it is likely that these fruits had their origins on local ranchos, Rapp was among the first to grow them commercially. At a time when oranges and lemons were rare delicacies for most Americans, pineapples and avocados must have caused a sensation.
Hollywood’s frost-free climate made the cultivation of these crops possible, but it took vision to grow things for which there was little apparent demand. Rapp succeeded on several levels: he grew and created a market for exotic fruits, while in the process enhancing Hollywood’s reputation–and property values–as an American Garden of Eden. Among those drawn by the promise of year-round fresh produce was the Theosophical Society, which established itself just north of the Pineapple Tract in 1911. In a letter to Annie Besant, A.P. Warrington, head of the American Branch, rhapsodized about the Canyon’s farming potential:
We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything….
Unbeknownst to Warrington, Beachwood also boasted thin soil and an abundance of produce-devouring wildlife. This may explain the fact that the Krotona Colony’s map shows several ornamental gardens and a decided lack of farm plots. As a resident whose efforts to grow vegetables have been thwarted by squirrels and tree rats, I sympathize.
Next time: bananas!
September 25, 2011 § 1 Comment
Last Thursday night’s long-awaited AMPAS screening of the previously lost and newly restored “The White Shadow” (1924) surpassed my expectations, which were very high. Though incomplete–only three of its reels were recovered–the film is impressive, so much so that it is still running in my head, days later. Any serious filmgoer should jump at the chance to see it.
The earliest surviving film work of Alfred Hitchcock, who is credited as writer, editor and assistant director, “The White Shadow” provides ample evidence of an already sophisticated visual style. (Though Graham Cutts is the credited director, Hitchcock’s contribution is thought to have been far greater than his. Speaking of their five films together, Hitchcock said that he was “running even the director.”) The fact that Hitchcock was only 24 years old at the time speaks volumes about his talent.
In an era where films were often shot on the fly, “The White Shadow” appears to have been carefully storyboarded. Shots are framed and lit beautifully, and actors are positioned in a manner more painterly than haphazard. My favorites include Betty Compson (excellent as twins, one good and one bad) playing poker, her eleborate hat wreathed in cigarette smoke, and the shot that introduces The Cat Who Laughs, the nightclub where she plays. Instead of opening with a shot of the club, Hitchcock shoots its logo, a cat’s face medallion on the grillwork of an interior balcony. In the background, we glimpse the stockinged legs of the club’s female patrons–a sight that conveys more information than any conventional establishing shot.
In making the most of a beautiful country estate and a Parisian nightclub, Hitchcock provides a fascinating preview of later films like “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest,” and “Vertigo,” whose locations were of the utmost importance. Unlike many silent films, which seem set-bound, “The White Shadow” makes good use of the outdoors. Part of the missing section was shot in Switzerland, and would have been fascinating to see.
The audience at the screening was captivated, not only by the film but by the excellent musical accompaniment, composed by Michael Mortilla and performed by him and Nicole Garcia. So wrapped up were we that its abrupt ending, at a particularly dramatic juncture, was met with a collective groan–and huge regret that the rest of the film would never be seen (though it was described–by Eva Marie Saint, no less). Still, “The White Shadow” is amazing. See it if you have the chance.
September 19, 2011 § 6 Comments
Leo Braudy is a USC professor and pop culture critic whose latest book, The Hollywood Sign (Yale University Press, 2011) is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink look at Hollywood–the Sign, the place and the industry–as well as the culture at large. In attempting to cram huge swaths of Los Angeles’ history into 192 pages, Braudy turns his hummingbird-like attention to topics ranging from A (the Academy Awards) to Z (the Zoot Suit Riots), touching upon each so briefly that the result is less a book than a dizzying exercise in name-dropping. (The index lists 24 entries under “A” alone, including Fatty Arbuckle, Ansel Adams, Gene Autry and Angelyne.) For the reader, The Hollywood Sign is less exhaustive than exhausting: if you’ve ever wanted a book to unite Marcel Duchamp, “101 Dalmations” and Laura Ingalls Wilder, this one’s for you.
In the midst of this pop-culture stew, Braudy does one thing brilliantly: deconstructing the Hollywood Sign. For all the ink that has been spilled over the Sign’s meaning and appeal, no one has improved upon his analysis:
Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself….It isn’t an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize it as the symbol of whatever “Hollywood” might be–with whatever ambiguity is part of that meaning.
Braudy also emphasizes the Sign’s unique interactive quality, in which its admirers become the admired:
Seeing the sign lets you know you are in Hollywood, that special place. Photographing it enhances your own sense of identity….Instead of looking at the Liberty Bell or the Lincoln Memorial and appreciating their importance and the history they represent, we look at the Hollywood Sign and it looks back at us, enlarging our sense of our prestige by its symbolic aura.
Nevertheless, Braudy makes more than his fair share of factual errors. Despite residing in Los Angeles, he seems not to have spent much time in the Hollywood Sign’s vicinity, confusing Mulholland Highway with Mulholland Drive and asserting that Hollywoodland’s staircases “were less functional than picturesque” as “few of the new inhabitants would be traipsing up and down” because they owned automobiles. (In fact, Hollywoodland residents have always used the stairs to get from their homes to Beachwood Village, which has a market and bus stop. In the early days of one-car households, people had to walk; now they do so for convenience and exercise.)
More serious are the mistakes he makes about Albert Kothe, the Sign’s caretaker, and Peg Entwistle, the Sign’s only suicide. In repeating the fiction that Kothe “lived in a shack behind the first ‘L’,” Braudy concocts a full-fledged conspiracy theory about Peg’s death.
And where, while [her jump from the Sign] was going on, was Albert Kothe…..Could Peg Entwistle have been killed elsewhere and the scene at the sign staged?
This astonishing question comes on the heels of Braudy’s assertion that Peg couldn’t have climbed to the Sign due to its distance from her house (which he puts at “three or four miles,” though the route she took was closer to two) and steepness, her lack of athletic clothing and, most bizarrely, her “trudging her way on foot in an area designed only for cars.”* Yet Braudy apparently thinks it’s possible that someone (who?) killed Peg (why?) and transported her body (how?) up to the Hollywoodland Sign, steep grade and lack of running shoes notwithstanding.
The murder theory is ludicrous; beyond that, it is hurtful to Peg Entwistle’s surviving family. But it probably will be treated as fact, thanks to Braudy’s reputation and the power of the Internet. It’s discouraging that despite my efforts and those of James Zeruk, Jr. (whose biography on Peg is nearing publication), the lies about Peg Entwistle keep coming.
Disclosure: I briefly met Leo Braudy at a reading soon after the publication of his book. When I asked if he had heard of me or my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” he said no. In light of the above, I believe him.
*Beyond the fact that Peg Entwistle was an athletic 24-year-old, it should be remembered that most Americans in 1932 routinely walked long distances in regular shoes.
September 6, 2011 § 3 Comments
For a monument popularly known as “our Eiffel Tower,” the Hollywood Sign is the object of a surprising amount of misinformation, as well as outright lies. The Internet, of course, has been a great transmitter of these untruths. I’m not just talking about random erroneous posts, such as some of those by viewers of my YouTube channel, but official sources. For example, Chris Baumgart, Chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, told me in our 2006 interview that the current Hollywood Sign was a replica of the old one in every aspect but one–the height of the letters, which he said were five feet shorter than the originals. Though it sounded logical, it wasn’t true. My later interview with Raiden Peterson, who supervised the Sign’s reconstruction for Pacific Outdoor Electric, confirmed that the new letters were exact replicas of the old, standing 45 feet. “I measured every piece,” Peterson said.
For the rest of this article, please see my new eBook, “Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign,” which will be available from online booksellers in September 2013.
September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Several early films (including some from from the New Zealand Film Archive), freshly restored, will reach new audiences with special showings at the Academy this month.
On Tuesday, September 6th at 7:30pm, comes “A Trip to the Moon,” (1902), Georges Meliese’s hand-colored fantasy film. After a complete restoration at Technicolor in Los Angeles, a new soundtrack was composed for the film by Air, the French band. The film’s restoration was sponsored by Lobster Films, the Groupama Gan Froundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. Also on the bill are “A Trip Down Market Street,” (1906) which depicts San Francisco just days before the earthquake and fire that destroyed the city, early 3D versions of Melies films and turn-of-the-century sound films. For tickets ($5 general admission, $3 Academy members/students, go to www.oscars.org)
On Thursday, Sept. 22 at 7:30pm, the Academy will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The White Shadow,” whose restoration was sponsored by the Academy Film Archive, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and UCLA Film and Television Archive. Also on the bill are “Won in the Closet” (1914), Mabel Normand’s dirctorial debut, and “Oil’s Well” (1923), a Monty Banks comedy. For tickets ($5 general admission, $3 Academy members/students, go to www.oscars.org)