All That Glitters

A visit to Hollywood helps separate movie legend from California reality

From my window seat at Yamashiro's Restaurant, a replica of a 600-year-old Japanese temple perched on the hills above Hollywood, it looked like I had found the movie capital of legend. It was nighttime, and the lights of Los Angeles stretched toward the horizon like the glittering contents of a spilled treasure chest. In the foreground I spotted the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, a popular hangout of the stars. Klieg lights whirled around the El Capitan Theater, where Orson Welles' Citizen Kane had its world premiere. With a little imagination it could have been 1941 and the city below me the half-legendary place of studios and stars, Hollywood and Vine, glitz and glamour.

The next day, when I set out to find what remained from Hollywood's golden age, I found that up close under the bright California sun, things looked somewhat grittier. Hollywood Boulevard still offered the same tawdry charms I remembered from my days as a film student in Los Angeles. (The dinosaur sticking through the roof of the Guinness Book of World Records Museum was new, though.) Wig stores, tattoo parlors and tee-shirt outlets predominated, although I was glad to see that the Larry Edmunds bookstore, which specializes in used volumes about film history, was still open for business. Outside of the books, though, Hollywood glamour was not very much in evidence.

Gritty it may be, but its showbiz underpinnings give Hollywood an undeniable allure. People come from all over the world to see the Hollywood sign, gawk at the Chinese Theater's cement footprints and follow the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame. Hollywood and Vine is really a fairly nondescript street corner, but that doesn't much matter. Like Elizabeth Taylor, it's famous for being famous, and there's no lure like celebrity. Hollywood has known that for years, but so far the neighborhood has resisted all attempts to spruce up its image. That should finally change in the next few years, with the opening of a new, 3,300-seat theater on Hollywood Boulevard to host the Academy Awards, surrounded by restaurants and shops. Just down the street a Hollywood museum will open in the old Max Factor makeup building, and the El Capitan and Egyptian movie palaces have recently reopened in restored splendor. Maybe Hollywood is finally on the comeback trail.

There are two Hollywoods. One was incorporated in 1903 and absorbed into the city of Los Angeles seven years later. The other Hollywood doesn't appear on maps, but you can find it in theaters, on video, on your television set and in the innumerable histories written about the movies, their makers and their stars. This Hollywood thrived during the short, brief reign of the studio system, when self-contained film factories with their own armies of craftsmen, filmmakers and stars turned out movies by the score. When the Studio Era ended in the 1950s, its movies had changed history--not suddenly, like a Gettysburg or a Great Depression, but in a more subtle way. Movies, quite simply, had invaded our subconscious.There are two Hollywoods. One was incorporated in 1903 and absorbed into the city of Los Angeles seven years later. The other Hollywood doesn't appear on maps, but you can find it in theaters, on video, on your television set and in the innumerable histories written about the movies, their makers and their stars. This Hollywood thrived during the short, brief reign of the studio system, when self-contained film factories with their own armies of craftsmen, filmmakers and stars turned out movies by the score. When the Studio Era ended in the 1950s, its movies had changed history--not suddenly, like a Gettysburg or a Great Depression, but in a more subtle way. Movies, quite simply, had invaded our subconscious.

Both Hollywoods intersect at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, which I decided would make a perfect headquarters for my Hollywood search. The hotel opened in 1927, the year Warner Brothers ushered in the sound era with The Jazz Singer, and was part of the film community from its very beginning. Among those investing in the hotel was Sid Grauman, who opened his Chinese Theater across the street the same year, and luminaries like actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and studio moguls Louis B. Mayer, Joseph Schenck and Marcus Loew. In 1929 the first Academy Awards dinner took place in the Roosevelt's Blossom Room (winning were the movie Wings, Janet Gaynor for Sunrise and Emil Jannings for The Way of All Flesh). By then the hotel was a recognized Hollywood hangout. According to legend, Errol Flynn invented a gin cocktail in the hotel's barbershop (prohibition dictated the venue), and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson danced with Shirley Temple on the steps up to the mezzanine.

I enjoyed the Roosevelt, and not just because I had a cabana room by the Olympic-size pool. In the morning I liked to stroll through the hotel lobby, beneath the high, hand-painted wood ceiling and past the bench with the life-size bronze of Charlie Chaplin, and have coffee at a sidewalk table. There I could sit in the golden, smog-filtered morning sun and watch Hollywood Boulevard start its day. Even at that hour tourists with their eyes glued to the sidewalk stars passed by my table, and I could see more people over at the Chinese Theater, studying the famous cement footsteps in the forecourt.

Though now owned by the Mann's theater chain, the Chinese will be forever remembered as Grauman's Chinese Theater. A showman with a penchant for practical jokes (he once persuaded Marcus Loew to address a meeting of theater owners, who turned out to be 75 wax dummies), Sid Grauman had hit the big time when he opened the so-called Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles in 1918 (see HT, May/June 1995). Four years later he opened the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, designed to capitalize on excitement over the discovery of King Tut's tomb. Grauman made the Egyptian a classic movie palace by outfitting it with hieroglyphics, columns and a forecourt lined by palm trees. It was here, in 1922, that Grauman created the concept of the Hollywood premiere by throwing a lavish opening for Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Robin Hood.

Over the years, neglect and earthquakes took a terrible toll on the Egyptian. The theater closed in 1992 but was near the end of a $12 million restoration when I was in town. Its new owner, the American Cinematheque, was planning to show classic films there and intended to screen Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 version of The Ten Commandments at its December reopening.

According to legend, Grauman once saw actress Norma Talmadge accidentally step in wet cement and, showman that he was, recognized an opportunity. Whatever the truth is--and in Hollywood truth has a curious way of getting warped into legend--nearly 200 celebrities have placed their feet and hands in cement at the Chinese Theater since. Alongside her tiny footprints, Gloria Swanson drew a heart labeled "love" pierced by an arrow and dripping blood. Guarding the forecourt are two Ming Dynasty "Chinese Heaven Dogs" that wouldn't look out of place in front of a Chinese restaurant. "Half lion and half dog, these sacred statues stood guard for many centuries at a Ming tomb in China," a plaque informed me. Movie palace kitsch at its purest.

Grauman's is as good a place as any to begin a walk down Hollywood Boulevard, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Hollywood Boulevard Commercial and Entertainment District. It's most famous for its Walk of Fame, a trail of some 2,000 stars set into its sidewalks. Launched in 1960, the Walk has proven to be a popular gimmick. New stars get added each year in five categories: film, television, radio, recording and live performance. Celebrities don't pay for the honor, but they are responsible for the $7,500 in cost. I'm not sure exactly how to explain the attraction, but there's no denying that people really get a kick out of seeing familiar names beneath their feet.

To do a little Hollywood undercover work, I followed the stars down the boulevard to Frederick's of Hollywood. At this world-famous underwear emporium, tackiness and Hollywood legend collide with amusing results in the Lingerie Museum, where you can find items like the brassiere Natalie Wood wore in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and undergarments worn by Joan Crawford in The Gorgeous Hussy, Ann Miller in Kiss Me, Kate and Bette Davis in The Virgin Queen. Men's undergarments are represented too, including some from Randy Quaid and Robert Redford, while Milton Berle donated a gown.

Just across the street I found one of the last remainders of classic Hollywood, the Musso & Frank Grill. The oldest restaurant in Hollywood, it opened in 1919 and is a dark, wood-paneled reminder of days gone by. The waiters, attired in natty red jackets and bow ties, reminded me a little bit of theater ushers. So what if the mediocre food was overpriced? The soups were good, and so were the martinis. With a little imagination I could cast myself back to the time when Musso & Frank's screenwriting regulars, including Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner, gave the place a reputation as a West Coast version of the Algonquin Round Table. Faulkner in particular loved the place. He called it Musso Franks and would sometimes eat there five or six times a week while writing for MGM (his first assignment--a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery), Fox and Warner Brothers.

Further on down the street I came to the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which for some reason has become shorthand for the very essence of showbiz Hollywood. It's only a street corner, although the Capitol Records building is just up Vine, and the Pantages Theater, which hosted the Academy Awards from 1949 through 1959, is just down Hollywood. Perhaps a better nomination for the center of Hollywood is a block down Vine at Selma, where legend says the "reel" Hollywood was born in a barn.

In the early 1900s movie-makers began heading to the West Coast to escape the Motion Picture Patents Company, a consortium headed by Thomas Edison. Rather than pay license fees the MPPC demanded for the use of its inventions, budding movie entrepreneurs went to the West Coast. California was far away from the MPCC and offered additional benefits of year-round sunshine, varied terrain for movie settings and cheap labor.

Cecil B. DeMille arrived in California in 1913. As director general of a New York-based company called the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, DeMille was supposed to film a movie called The Squaw Man in New Jersey. Instead, he headed to Flagstaff, Arizona. Arriving in the city in the middle of a freak snowstorm, DeMille continued west. "Flagstaff no good for our purpose," he cabled back to Lasky. "Have proceeded to California. Want authority to rent barn in place called Hollywood for seventy-five dollars a month." DeMille rented half the structure for dressing rooms, a laboratory, prop storage and the like and used a stage outside to shoot The Squaw Man's interior scenes. He shot the film's exteriors in the San Fernando Valley.

In general, Hollywood has been pretty ruthless about discarding its own history, but somehow DeMille's barn survived. Paramount moved it to the studio lot in 1927, but it now sits in a parking lot across from the Hollywood Bowl, where it's called the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Seriously damaged by a fire of mysterious origin in 1996, the museum was closed when I was in town, but I stopped by to see the modest wooden building, yellow with green doors and white trim, that helped give birth to Hollywood.

While the barn has moved, Paramount remains on its lot behind the elaborate arched gateway that Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) drove through to meet with Cecil B. DeMille in Billy Wilder's cynical ode to Hollywood's demise, Sunset Boulevard. Actually, Norma Desmond entered through the old Bronson gate. When I took the Paramount studio tour I used the newer and bigger Melrose gate. My tour guide related the story of a young actor named Charles Buchinsky who spent so much time waiting for work with other extras at the Bronson gate that, when casting about for a more marketable name, he picked Charles Bronson.

During the Studio Era, Paramount gained a reputation for movies with a touch of European sophistication, directed by people like Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, Billy Wilder and Erich von Stroheim (whose hugely overbudget 1928 film The Wedding March was running 33 hours until the studio took over). For less sophisticated tastes, Paramount offered Clara Bow, the "IT Girl." Other Paramount stars included Mae West, the Marx Brothers, William Powell, Rudolph Valentino, Gary Cooper and the team of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In a nod to the studio's past, buildings on the lot bear the names of Lubitsch, Crosby, DeMille and Marlene Dietrich.

Paramount is still a working studio, and as my tour group made its way around we saw actors in costume and had to step aside for the golf carts that zipped by, carrying people from one hangar-like soundstage to another. Still, Paramount is not the movie factory it used to be. Most of the productions there now are TV shows. At tour's end we watched the filming of an exterior scene for one called Clueless. The crew quickly set up the lights and camera, and the cast and extras moved into place. The boom man tested his mike.

The Warner Brothers studio in Burbank may be outside geographic Hollywood but it's deep in the heart of the other one. The first stop on my tour was the studio museum, a medium-sized room with a treasure trove of Hollywood memorabilia. Among the items on display were Dooley Wilson's piano and other artifacts from Casablanca, the "black bird" from The Maltese Falcon and a saddle John Wayne used in a number of films. There were costumes galore: Errol Flynn's tunic from The Adventures of Robin Hood, the flying suit James Stewart wore as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, costumes from My Fair Lady. It was a dazzling collection and I wished we had longer to linger and take it all in.

I also enjoyed reading letters that Warner stars and filmmakers wrote to the studio heads, usually to complain. From the location set of Operation Burma, Errol Flynn wrote an irritated note about his dressing room situation, pointing out that Bette Davis had a portable dressing room she could bring with her on location. Director Elia Kazan wrote to criticize cuts the studio made in A Streetcar Named Desire. One from a Warner Brothers contract actor named Ronald Reagan applied subtle pressure on studio head Jack Warner to keep his promise about giving the actor a plum role.

Before long we were shooed out to resume the tour. Like Paramount, Warner is a working studio, and I got to see another TV show in production. This time it was the popular medical drama ER and a scene featuring Anthony Edwards, a young girl and a horse. "Quiet around the horse," cautioned a crew member. The cameras rolled. Edwards helped the girl down from the animal.

We reboarded our tour trolley and tooled around the lot, past sets familiar from dozens of films and television shows. Here were the courthouse steps where Frank Sinatra sang "Chicago" in Robin and the Seven Hoods; there was the hall of justice from The Public Enemy, the film in which James Cagney shoves a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face.

Though stars like Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni helped create the Warner Brothers style of hard-edged, tough-talking filmmaking, during the 1920s the studio's biggest star was a dog named Rin Tin Tin, who made his film debut in 1923 and starred in 19 films.

Rinty may have received better treatment than Warner Brothers' human stars. Jack Warner, the brother who ran the Hollywood operation, had often-abrasive relationships with the talent under contract. Cagney, Davis, Olivia de Havilland and others sometimes refused to work in the movies the studio offered them. In 1945 de Havilland won a court battle against Warner Brothers and helped shatter the "standard contract" that kept stars shackled to their employers. It was one of the developments that led to the end of the studio system.

Of course, everything comes to an end eventually, a point driven home when I visited Hollywood Memorial Cemetery. I drove through the gates just before closing time on a beautiful Los Angeles afternoon. Except for a few groundskeepers, I had the place almost completely to myself, with only the sput, sput, sput of sprinklers, the chirping of birds and the soft hum of traffic from Santa Monica Boulevard breaking the silence.

It was eerie to find the final resting places of people who are eternally alive on film or in the endless supply of Hollywood stories. I found Cecil B. DeMille's grave, just a stone's throw from the Paramount lot he helped create. Tyrone Power was resting beneath a bench-like marker near a green pond. And I found probably the most famous grave here, a simple niche on a marble wall inside one of the large chapels. "Rudolfo Guglielmi Valentino 1895-1925," read the inscription. Even 73 years after Rudolph Valentino's death, someone had placed fresh flowers in the holders on each side of his niche.

But not all was gloom. Mel Blanc, "the man of 1000 voices" behind many of Warner Brothers' greatest cartoon characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, is also buried here. His tombstone provided some comic relief. "That's All Folks," it read.

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