Mirrors of Silent Hollywood

Hollywood has all the earmarks of a bona-fide, tangible city: its sun kissed sloping hillsides and stretching curves of blue coast; its whimsical architecture that blends neoclassicism, deco and Moorish sensibilities with carefree abandon; the farm town framework disguised under a bustling metropolis.

But thing is, Hollywood is hardly tangible. Heck, I’ve lived here nearly seven years and I’m still not sure what’s real and what isn’t. The fact that Hollywood as we know it was founded on smoke and mirrors, makes it a constant struggle to reconcile fact from fiction. Hollywood works when you buy into the propaganda. When you don’t buy into it, well, that’s where the Jake Gittes of the world come into play …

It is interesting therefore that one of the earliest works I’ve come across dedicated to the then-young city is entitled Mirrors of Hollywood–even in its infancy, the ambiguity of reality was very much a part of Hollywood.

Mirrors of Hollywood is a slim volume of unabashed Hollywood propaganda that was published in 1925  by one Charles David Fox. Its overinflated prose–swimming in saccharine–is nonetheless revelatory. The world of silent-era Hollywood leaps to life in every fawning flourish, we take a tour of the studios, and what’s more, Fox provides stats that, for LA history enthusiasts like myself, are absolutely priceless. Not only census information, but, as Fox puts it, “Film Folk” vital stats. Most of them are terribly inaccurate (Charlie Chaplin born in Paris? AND 5 ft 7 1/2? In your dreams, Charlie darling…) and one suspects Fox secured his so-called “facts” from the fun but frivolous pages of movie fan magazines. Legendary silent film director Frank Borzage is interviewed at length (the reliability of the transcript, however, is highly dubious and best taken with a grain of salt) and gives tips to those “aspiring for Movie fame.”

The industry standards are already well in place by 1925:

Complexion: Most men in the films today photograph dark and the contrast provided by the blonde woman is effective. The girl with light golden hair will photography as a true blonde. Therefore, blonde women are susually given the prefernce. The good-looking brunette, however, is always desireable.

Weight: Any figure is acceptable if it’s slender. A “skinny” figure is not desirable, but just that rounded slenderness which typifies youth. Fat is the worst enemy of film actresses. The star must watch her diet carefully, for the first double chin would endanger her popularity.

Age: This scarcely needs to be mentioned! The careful eye of the camera detects every line, wrinkle and crow’s foot .Girls should start young so that they gain their preliminary experience and achieve stardom before looks begin to fade. I would not advise any woman past twenty-six to start unless she wants to develop into a character actress.”

Fox’s tour of the city itself, with his fawning sensory imagery, is likewise highly entertaining fare:

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“No romance that has ever unfolded on the silver screen, no fantastic tale from the pen of a Jules Verne has ever depicted the glamorous drama of Hollywood, America’s real live Fairyland–the dreamer’s dream come true. Brilliant as the eternal California sunshine, soft and languid as the California moon, the beauty of Hollywood is the glorious envy of the artist, the never-to-be-obtained goal of the poet.

Woven of the fabric of genuine romance, as absorbing and dramatic a tale as has ever been told, is the story of the transition of this one-time sleepy suburb of Los Angeles, to the present-time thriving and well populated city of Hollywood.

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Hollywood, to you, is Los Angeles, California– home of the motion picture. Hollywood, to me, is a little garden, nestled at the foot of hills of purple loveliness, reaching for–almost touching, the deep blue of the vast pacific.

Nor is it a settlement of motion picture studios, though it is perhaps the geographic center for screen production in the West. There are studios in Hollywood, of course, but these studios, widely scattered as they are, must be sought out with a guide if the casual visitor to America’s playground is to see them. The studios, if we expect a few, bear no resemblance to what you would expect them to be, and so, you would pass them by unnoticed, were not the initiated to stop you to say: “Here’s the Lasky studios” or “This is where the Metro pictures are made.”

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Miles and miles of quiet residential streets, busy shopping centers, well populated grammar and high schools, thriving banks, wealthy churches, beautiful shops ranging in size from tiny band-boxes to Robertson’s Department Store, two newspaper plants, theaters, real estate offices, hotels, and gardens, make Hollywood distinctly a city of homes.

Green hills shelter the town, while here and there atop them, somewhere up on the skyline, venturesome folk have build their bungalows and lodges, the dwellings looking for all the world like neighbors to the stars.

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Framed against the backdrop of Hollywood’s hills, the whole city– all the palm-lined streets, with their impossibility picturesque and gayly colored bungalows, forming a veritable riot of color with here and there quaint windows peering sightlessly from air spaces under low roofs– looks more like one of the huge movie sets that have brought it fame, than it does like the peaceful city of normal community activities and interests, of children, of mothers and fathers, of sisters and brothers, which this magic city of the West really is.”

 Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles does have history, and Mirrors of Hollywood is a time-capsule in which the not-so-distant past of that strange, paradoxical city, is perfectly preserved.

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