Thomas Edison, The Mob, and Magic

Written by BlackbirdGo December 5, 2018
The History

Angelenos often think of Hollywood as a sort of sprawling boundary between the east and west sides of LA, a neighborhood choked by the 101 freeway and its spillover congestion on Santa Monica Blvd. But Hollywood has also become a metonym for the film industry; when people outside of Los Angeles talk about Hollywood, they’re invariably referring to the celebrities, directors, producers, and studios that conduct business there.

It wasn’t always like this in Hollywood. Before LA became the epicenter of the entertainment industry, films were primarily made in New York and New Jersey. Los Angeles as a metropolitan city was in its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century, and Hollywood was nothing more than a series of citrus orchards, small farms, and campgrounds scattered among mountains and canyons. The community of Hollywood in its pre-film era was agrarian, socially conservative, and increasingly suspicious of the actors and directors who were encroaching on their little farming community in Los Angeles—and these outsiders came in ever-increasing numbers.

Exodus from The East Coast

In the early years of the film industry, Thomas Edison owned patents to the cameras and recording equipment used to film movies. He also held patents to the projectors used to screen films for audiences. Edison convinced other patent holders, like film pioneer Eastman Kodak, to join him in forming the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC).

The goal of the MPPC was to control which directors and studios made motion pictures. If Edison or his co-conspirators didn’t like a director or their project, the MPPC made sure the film was never made, either through court proceedings or through the use of hired muscle men from the mafia.

Since Edison and the MPPC were based in New Jersey, early Hollywood film pioneers tried to get as far away from Edison as possible and ended up in Southern California. Cross-country travel at the time was incredibly arduous and time consuming, and early Hollywood producers banked on this inconvenience being enough of a deterrent to keep Edison (along with his lawyers and hired goons) in New Jersey.

Incredibly, their plan worked. In 1908, films began to be produced in Los Angeles, starting with the release of The Count of Monte Cristo. These productions paved the way for future studios and film crews, with more and more directors and actors putting down roots in Hollywood.

Within three years, the independent West Coast productions accounted for 40% of all US-based film industry operations. They also developed new and better ways of screening film. The MPPC insisted that longer films be screened as serial sequences (one movie per week) in order to sell more tickets, while the filmmakers in Hollywood loaded multiple film reels into a projector to show the entire film in one viewing. Hollywood had inadvertently created the feature-length film, leaving Edison and the MPPC behind. Once the MPPC patents expired in 1914, independent film producers began to take control of the industry for the first time.

With new film formats and new theaters, the independent West Coast filmmakers began to change what it meant to be a studio. They developed studios as we know them today: huge, well-funded industry players that produce their own movies and contract with specific actors. They also redefined what cinema could be as an art form.

A New American Pastime

In the 1910s and 1920s, a burgeoning middle class was emerging in the US , and cinema was their chosen pastime. Prior to the invention of the feature-length film, movies were screened as short vignettes without a cohesive plot. These “nickelodeons” were shown in small storefronts for a nickel, making short films a cheap form of entertainment, though that entertainment lacked substance.

With the advent of longer films, directors began telling increasingly complex stories that had a distinct narrative arc, often adapting novels and plays into movies. D.W. Griffith is frequently credited as being one of the first directors to develop an original narrative plot on screen as a means of artistic expression . These groundbreaking new stories were targeted towards the burgeoning middle class, and with these new film styles came new movie theaters.

Audiences became fascinated with feature-length films. The relatable storylines of new cinema coupled with the new elaborate theaters being built across the country allowed working-class viewers to experience culture in ways that had previously been restricted to on-stage theater for the wealthy.

Movie theaters were consistently full. Large venues were requesting twenty new film titles per week, and studios could barely keep up with audience demand . Because New Jersey and New York are buried under snow each winter, the independent film studios in Los Angeles continued to grow and dominate the nationwide market well after Edison and the MPPC stepped away from cinema. In order to keep up with the insatiable audience demand for new movies, filmmakers recognized the need to work in a region that could accommodate year-round filming. LA offered consistent sunshine and a predictably warm climate that perfectly fit the bill.

In addition to the climate, filmmakers were drawn to Southern California because of its physical landscape. Los Angeles offers cityscape, mountains, desert, ocean, lakes and rivers, all within driving distance of Hollywood. This allowed directors to simulate virtually any landscape on film, meaning their work could take place in any part of the world—much to the delight of the growing audiences who packed into theaters across the country.

The Golden Age to The Modern Age

American cinema was firmly grounded in Hollywood, but it wasn’t long before American cinema took over the world stage as well. French and Italian cinema had swept Europe in the early twentieth century, but virtually all European film production ground to a halt during World War I. This was due, in part, to mandated rations across much of Europe; the chemicals needed to produce celluloid film were also required to produce gunpowder. American filmmakers continued to produce high volumes of film titles that were subsequently distributed around the world. By the time the war ended with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, American cinema produced in Hollywood accounted for 90% of all films screened in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and nearly 100% of all films screened in South America.

With American film production more prolific than ever following World War I, Hollywood quickly became recognized as a world leader in entertainment. The “Classical Age” of Hollywood cinema went on to influence architects and designers throughout the 1920s and 1930s , along with future generations of actors and directors. The Classical Age also ushered in the Golden Age of Cinema from the late 1920s through the early 1960s, bringing sound, color, and new genres to film.

To anyone who lived through the early decades of the twentieth century, the neighborhood of Hollywood today would be utterly unrecognizable. Yet even as some studios have relocated into the San Fernando Valley or the west side of LA, tourists continue flocking to Hollywood Boulevard hoping to view the names of stars along the Walk of Fame and soak up the history of American cinema. Tour guides claim to offer visitors a glimpse into the storied past of Hollywood, though much of that legacy is itself nothing more than Hollywood magic—an elaborate illusion based on a memory of what used to be.

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