I have been obsessed with the early days of Hollywood almost as long as I can remember.
I think it might have started sometime in my early teens when I saw the film Chaplin. I was already film-daft and knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. I can remember distinctly, even now, watching scenes of people making a new art form up as they went along – literally writing the language of cinema that almost every person in the world now subconsciously speaks. It blew my starstruck wee mind!
I started reading every book, every biography, every memoir I could get my hands on. I’m pretty sure I squealed out loud the day Taylorology launched – an absolutely priceless collection of first hand sources. Any time I’ve managed to visit LA, you’d find me in the basement of the public library (like the hard core party animal I am 😂) poring over microfilm of newspapers and fan magazines and letters.
One of the things that fascinates me is that the old Hollywood I’ve got to know over the years — the *old* Old Hollywood of the naughties, teens and early twenties, isn’t the old Hollywood most people think of. Over the years I’ve had dozens of conversations in which I’ve mentioned my interest to someone and they’ve said ‘oh yes, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean?’ and I’m like ‘WHAT NO THEY ARE BABIES!’
And it’s true – neither of them (nor Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant or Marlon Brando) were even born when the first filmmakers showed up in a dusty one horse town in California. Hitchcock was a wee boy at school when the first definitive suspense thriller (Suspense, 1913) was made. And over a decade before Sunset Boulevard writer/director Billy Wilder got his first screenwriting gig, Cecil B DeMille was directing Gloria Swanson for real, in a series of sex comedies that shocked the world in 1917/1918.
Crucially, the people who held the true power in Hollywood in those days — put it this way, they weren’t exactly welcome at Los Angeles Country Clubs.
When the first #metoo scandals broke in the film industry a few years ago, I couldn’t help but notice that much of the comment surrounding the issue (not least the dearth of powerful female filmmakers) was based on the assumption that Hollywood is and always has been a boys’ club. I realised that when most people think of the the birth of movies, they’re picturing the glossy, all singing, all dancing, all American world of the studio system – which yes, was very much controlled by wealthy white men.
But the film industry was at least a quarter of a century old by the time the Motion Production Code that laid down rules so that No picture shall be produced that will lower the (deeply Catholic, as it happens) moral standards of those who see it and the studio system took hold. The most culturally powerful art form the world has ever known was built by women and immigrants (many of whom had literally been through Ellis Island). It was formed by people who had grown up in almost unimaginable depravation — the first generation of stars had often gone out to work at twelve or thirteen to help feed their (more often than not fatherless) families.
And the stories they told stories that reflected their lives. They explored the dark, messy real, moral complexities of life that don’t always fall into a narrow, Puritan, definition of ‘happy ever after.’ Chaplin could write The Kid because he lived it. Lois Weber explored women’s issues that kept her awake at night. Mary Pickford developed a lethal business acumen because she knew that money meant food.
I think it’s high time we get to know them!
Hollywoodland launches on Friday 22 November
Episode One: Lights, Camera, Action (Friday 22 November)
When did we start to make pictures move? And why did they move all the way to California? A chat about the very earliest days of the film industry and how Hollywood came to be synonymous with movies.
Episode Two: Not of this World (Friday 22 November)
Where would movies be without their stars? This episode, we chat about how actors went from anonymous to holding the world in thrall with their general fabulousness – and how gossip has always been part of the fabric of Hollywood.
Episode Three: The All Time Best Scriptwriter (Friday 29 November)
Frances Marion was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood throughout the twenties, and she was the first writer to win two Oscars. Long before female screenwriters were struggling to be taken seriously, Frances Marion was dominating Hollywood with her stories.
Episode Four: Kiss Me My Fool (Friday 6 December)
The Vamp: your great-grandma’s “strong female character”. When faced with the Vamp’s independence and ability to decide for herself that she quite enjoyed sex, male characters had a habit of expiring on the spot. But was she really feminist or foe?
Episode Five: the Original Thriller (Friday 13 December)
When Alfred Hitchcock was still a boy at school, Lois Weber wrote and directed the film that would become the blueprint of every thriller every since: 1913’s Suspense. Join us to break this seminal short down frame by frame to establish just who was the true Master of Suspense.
Episode Six: He Did and He Didn’t (Friday 20 December)
A couple of days after Labour day in 1921, Virgina Rappé died in a San Francisco hospital room, and set the wheels in motion for #metoo almost one hundred years later. Was Fatty Arbuckle innocent fall guy or the first powerful man in Hollywood to get away with it?