Why did the distant burg of Los Angeles become to the movies what Mesopotamia and Athens were to ancient civilizations?
Why not Long Island, where the earliest filmmakers trespassed onto plutocrats' lawns and shot hurried footage until they were chased off?
Why not Flagstaff, where Cecil B. DeMille was originally headed when he left the East Coast to make a western?
Why not Paris, where filmmaking was regarded as an art in the creative pantheon of arts, not as a commodity?
Because we're a perfect match, the both of us, the city and "the industry." Quick-change artists on the make, inventive, rootless, not wedded to history — not even dating it.
L.A. is a soufflé place, built on sunshine and hot air, equal parts imagination and aspiration. Film is by nature illusory, the moment vanishing even as the eye acknowledges it, still images miming motion, fantasy miming reality. When the movies came west, the transient carnival mood of L.A. was already established, a slapdash build-up and tear-down city, cheerfully doting on its fake Venice canals, its copycat Asian temples. For years, remnants of the Babylon set of "Intolerance" crumbled amiably near Sunset Boulevard as ever-newer incarnations of six-cylinder chariots thundered by.
All this under the rotisserie glow of sunlight as full and obliging as if gaffers had set it all up for the next shot. The movies became California's second Gold Rush, and the richest vein was to be found in a dry little settlement named Hollywood.
Why not "Long Island, the Entertainment Capital of the World?" Because the arm of film patent attorneys didn't reach across the Rockies to snag the scofflaws. Why not Flagstaff? Because it happened to be snowing on the day DeMille arrived, which made it "no good for our purpose," he telegrammed, and promptly climbed back on the train to L.A. And why not France? Because in the struggle for the soul of film, the Lumière brothers lost to the Warner brothers.
So Hollywood became the geographic shorthand for the entire entertainment industry, though its footprint reaches from George Lucas' fantasy factory in Marin County to the Death Valley vistas of "Greed," and every point of latitude or longitude that could conceivably be "on location." And although Los Angeles has prospered in making everything from jets to blue jeans, "the industry," the industry, means only one: film and TV and its numberless incarnations.
"L.A." to most of the millions of Angelenos means the whole great sprawling populated plain; it means any of dozens of towns where the only contact most residents have with movies is that they sometimes watch them. Hollywood has blithely appropriated all of Los Angeles as its terrain, their "L.A." a company town. The late former Mayor Sam Yorty said that once on his extensive world travels talking up the virtues of the city to foreign industrialists and heads of state one of them ruminated aloud to him: "Los Angeles ... Los Angeles ... is that anywhere near Hollywood?"
For fans who still step off the tour bus expecting to see this generation's Garbo or Gable awaiting them, the matrix of glamour is Grauman's Chinese, or maybe Hollywood and Vine, both on the boulevard where ground glass was mixed into the asphalt so the roadway glitters at night.
For the hard-nosed Angelenos who take Hollywood's paycheck, the epicenter was for years Beverly Boulevard and La Cienega. Thirty miles in any direction from there was "the studio zone." Beyond that was the rest of the world, and location shoots and per diems, and mileage, and the "sticks" and "hicks" of Variety headlines. It may still be L.A., but it is absorbed in other matters, other businesses. It is why studio heads of the 1930s shuttled film canisters to places like Riverside and Santa Barbara, where "real" audiences could preview them and scribble Everyman suggestions and reactions that shaped the final film.
Within that magic circle, Hollywood and L.A. are often one population commuting blithely between the real and the not-real. The fluorescent signs with a cryptic word or two, and an arrow pointing cast and crew to some day's location shoot, hang like paper fruit from street lamps and electric poles. The city itself is one vast set, recognizable even in silent black-and-white two-reelers. Laurel and Hardy still haul a piano up steps that locals traverse every day. The chameleon dress-extra, City Hall, plays the Vatican and Congress, and gets zapped by Martian rays. The heap of boulders known as Vasquez Rocks is the made-to-order set for the Neolithic Flintstones and the "Star Trek" cast.
The spectacular car crash you can see from the freeway — is it the real thing or a staged stunt? One Easter Monday, a 20-some-foot-long prop alligator lay on a flatbed truck near Echo Park Lake, a fake human hand poking out of its jaws. Around the curve, six young men carried a pink coffin up a set of church steps — a real girl, dead in gang crossfire. In much the same fashion, Californians have seen the familiar face on television with the identifier "Governor Ronald Reagan" or "Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger," and wondered afresh: Is it a movie, or life?
The forebears of today's actors showed up with their battered baggage to find boardinghouse notices reading "no dogs or actors." The city's peerage — its Midwest millionaires, their clubs and neighborhoods — likewise snubbed the newcomers. It is the triumph of the former lumberjacks and acrobats and shop girls and waitresses that the medium of film elevated them — however briefly or enduringly — to the world's aristocrats.
The monarchs of the movie palaces delivered immediate intimacy — the faces and gestures of Charlie and Fatty and Rudolph and Lillian and Dorothy were almost as well known to fans as their own.
The new pacesetters
So it was that within the enchanted radius of "the studio zone," there now lived and worked a population of suddenly rich actors and writers and producers and wardrobe and set and makeup experts who remade the world's manners and attitudes. The movies, and TV — film's Mordred, its ambitious son — taught us a new vocabulary. We still assemble conversations from scraps and bits of script: "They're heeeeere We're not in Kansas anymore Here's looking at you, kid I made him an offer he couldn't refuse You talkin' to me?"
It was they, unschooled, sometimes semiliterate and slovenly spoken, who taught the 20th century its etiquette, its notions of class and courtship. Browned skin once bespoke manual labor and sweat — until Doug Fairbanks swaggered about in a suntan and a smile, and made bronze the gold standard of the leisure glass. Hefty bodies and substantial meat-and-potatoes meals epitomized wealth and station — until the wraithlike Garbo slid narrowly on screen, and, off screen, ate salads and juices with her health-food guru lover, Gaylord Hauser. Humphrey Bogart's snarl, Joan Crawford's shoulder pads, John Travolta's strut — all envied and copied and reconfigured.
Even reality bent its knee to the power of the medium that President Woodrow Wilson marveled was "like writing history with lightning." The bona-fide frontier lawman Wyatt Earp was buddies with the movie cowboy William S. Hart. Boxing champ Max Baer costarred with Abbott and Costello. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II, was recruited by Hollywood to play hero soldiers like himself, but it was the Duke, John Wayne, playing cowboy, lover, Mongol prince, patriot, all in one film career, who was more authentic-seeming than the real thing. Life is always just more in the movies — skies are bluer or bleaker, sex is sexier, grit is grittier, guns and breasts are bigger. It takes a Golden State metaphor to assess movies as writer Wallace Stegner sized up California: "Like America, only more so."