Hollywood:  The Rise and Fall of an American Legend  Part 1 

Hollywood: Perhaps no other place on earth evokes the same air of show-business magic and glamour. The legend of Hollywood began in the early 20th century and is an earmark of modern American society rich in history and innovation.

In 1872, Edward Muybridge created the first true “motion picture” by placing twelve cameras on a racetrack and rigging the cameras to capture shots in quick sequence as a horse crossed in front of their lenses.

In late 1880s, two brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere created a hand-cranked machine called the cinematographe, which could both capture pictures and project still frames in quick succession.

In 1903 Edwin S. Porter created the most famous movie during this time: The Great Train Robbery.

Around 1905, “Nickelodeons”, or 5-cent movie theaters, began to offer an easy and inexpensive way for the public to watch movies.

The first major feature length silent movie was the highly controversial 1915 ‘Birth of a Nation’. Its running time was 133 minutes and it was directed by D. W. Griffith. The inflammatory movie brought protests by the NAACP and there were riots in Philadelphia and Boston.  The reaction to the ‘Birth of a Nation’ movie brought the full realization of the power of the movies. The success of the full length feature, and the massive profits the film made ($10,000,000), led to the making of many epic movies in Hollywood of the 1920’s.

By 1919, “Hollywood” had transformed into the face of American cinema.  During this time and into the early 1920s, the Hollywood system “turned out comedies, melodramas, mysteries, westerns, and adventure stories that played to the widest possible audience.” Nickelodeons helped the movie industry move thru the 1920’s by increasing the public appeal of film and generate more money for filmmakers, alongside the widespread use of theaters to screen World War I propaganda.

The Hollywood Sign was originally ‘Hollywoodland’ as shown in the featured image and was erected in 1923. It was built by Harry Chandler as a billboard for his Hollywoodland real estate. The Hollywood sign is now a landmark and American cultural icon.

Hollywood was the birthplace of movie studios, which were of great importance to America’s public image in the movie industry. The earliest and most affluent film companies were Warner Brothers Pictures, Paramount was founded in 1914, as was 20th Century Fox started in 1914 and headed by William Fox, Metro Goldwin Meyer formed in 1924, RKO was established by Rockerfeller’s Radio Corporation of America in 1928 featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, each of whom owned their own film production sets and studios. Universal and Columbia Pictures were also considered noteworthy, despite not owning their own theaters, while Disney, Monogram, and Republic were considered third-tier.  The United Artists studio was established by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith in 1919 to enable them to gain control of their own interests rather than depending upon the five major Hollywood studios.  It was noted that in 1928 just ten distributors handled 98% of all US films for the four main studios listed above producing 90% of all US films.

Rudolph Valentino

The black and white silent movies progressed to color productions in the 1920’s and in 1927 the first talking picture was made. Movie stars such as Rudolph Valentino starred in the 1921 film “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” which grossed $4,000,000; Clara Bow made a film called “It” which became synonymous with sex appeal; Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedy, in his Little Tramp persona, called “The Gold Rush” pre-

Clara Bow – “The It Girl” was one of the first sex sirens silver screen

miered on August 16, 1925 and made $4,250,000 for United Artists; Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo and others were idolized by millions and America ushered in the era known as The Roaring Twenties.  Other epic silent movies made in Hollywood in the 1920’s: The Covered Wagon (1923) – $3,800,000, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) made $3,500,000, The Ten Commandments (1923) made $3,400,000, Ben-Hur (1925) grossed $5,500,000, The Gold Rush (1925) – $4,250,000 and The Big Parade (1925) made $6,400,000 and the rush to fame and riches was on.  Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie premiered on November 18, 1928, introducing the world to animated film and everyone’s favorite rodent – Mickey Mouse.

The Golden Age of Hollywood began in the 1930s with the introduction of sound into films.  It allowed cinema-goers to escape from the humdrum reality of their daily lives into a world of fantasy.  Walt Disney released his second blockbuster animated film: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs in 1937.  This period also saw the Hays Code and Censorship: In 1930 Will Hays and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) passed a list of guidelines called “The Don’ts and Be Carefuls” which became known as the Hays Code. The Hays Production Code set moral standards and introduced voluntary self-policing in the movies industry banning the use of profanity, nudity, immorality and the role of the “vamp” in the Hollywood movies of the 1920s.  The censorship of Betty Boop was probably the most extreme example of the rigidity of the Hays Code.  Profanity of any kind was prohibited which was a matter of huge contention in the 1940’s Gone with the Wind and whether Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, would be allowed to say “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

The 1940s were difficult with the country at war but advances in technology such as special effects, better sound recording quality, and the beginning of color film use brought the movie appeal back to America and the world.  Fantasia released in 1940, was another Disney release with a $2.2 million budget that lasted only 124 minutes.  The 1943 movie “The Outlaw” starring Jane Russell and produced by Howard Hughes had 30 seconds cut from the movie which showed too much of the stars cleavage.  Disney released many animated films in the 1940s including Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi, but among the most controversial was Song of the South in 1946 about Uncle Remus drawing on tales of Brer Rabbit to explain plantation life to little Johnny.  Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah was an instant hit from the soundtrack.

Popular Culture: The Rise of Hollywood

With the introduction of the television in the 1950s, Hollywood and movie theaters again felt the struggle to bring the emerging family unit out of their homes and into the theaters.  Rebels like James Dean led to edgier roles that held more appeal for the youths along with beauties like Norma Jean aka Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner helped bring about a major shift in demographics. Stars were also moving more freely between studios and directors than in decades prior.  Children were enthralled with Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in early 1950’s by Walt Disney Studios.  As families were enjoying movie-going more and more, Disney released blockbusters like Old Yeller in 1957 and Polyana in 1960.

In the 1960s, directors began working more independently, giving them greater influence in how a film was shaped. Not uncommon also was the “hyphenated” star / director / screenwriter / producer combinations following the footsteps of Orson Welles who wrote-directed-produced and starred in The Lady from Shanghai with Rita Hayworth in the late 1940’s.   Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar became an instant success in 1964 with a $6 million budget for 139 minutes.  Walt Disney, an icon in Hollywood, was in the middle of Jungle Book when he passed in 1966.  It was completed in 1967 with a $4 million budget.

The rebirth of Hollywood during the 1970’s was based on making high-action and youth-oriented pictures, usually featuring new and dazzling special effects technology.   Movies like Star Wars and Jaws set records far exceeding directors expectations.

Again in the 1990s, movies were becoming exorbitantly expensive to make due to higher costs for movie stars, agency fees, rising production costs, advertising campaigns, and crew threats to strike.  Raiders, Rocky, and Rambo sequels, as well as their current heirs, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, revived the mega-business model along classic big-studio lines.

Cultural and business earthquakes have shaken the movie industry in the 21st century. One was the near collapse of the world economy at the end of 2008, but the argument can be made for an earlier, more local event: the Writers Guild strike, which lasted exactly 100 days, from November ’07 to February ’08, and according to various estimates cost the economy of Los Angeles at least $1.5 billion and the film industry itself $500 million in “lost opportunities.”

As Hollywood has seen many ups and downs over the years, the legend has morphed as well.  Nowadays, the headlines are inquiring about Hollywood moguls and their insatiable appetites for taboo and forbidden youths who aspire for fame and fortune at all costs.  The days of the Hays Code and Censorship are relics of a times gone by.  The more shown, the fouler the language and the more sexually explicit the scenes, the higher the ratings and greater the attendance.

Where has America’s morals gone?

Contributing Sources – HistoryCooperative   HSSE.nie.edu.sg  American-historama   FadeInOnline  Wikipedia


Stay tuned for Part 2 in the ADN Series:  Disney and Hollywood Pedophilia – Is There a Connection?