Peg Entwistle was a failure. In New York, she had been a player (though not a successful one) with Lawrence Langner‘s Theater Guild. When the Depression came, she had trouble getting stage work, so she headed out to California; a play with Billie Burke closed quickly, and her first film role came in a disastrous Irene Dunne comedy that RKO held back to re-edit. Her contract, RKO informed her, would not be renewed. One drunken September evening, she went up to the Hollywood Hills and killed herself. Today she is one of Los Angeles’ most famous ghosts, not because of who she was but because of where she died; Peg Entwistle is the woman who threw herself off the Hollywood sign. The Hollywood sign was itself born of failure. It was conceived in 1923 as an advertisement for "Hollywoodland," a real estate development backed by silent comedy director Mack Sennett. The Depression did a number on real estate prices in California; by the ‘40s, the development company could no longer afford the upkeep on the "Hollywoodland" sign, and the Chamber of Commerce took it over, removing the final four letters. (In 1978, the Hollywood Sign Trust turned to private donors for funds to restore the sign, possibly the only project in history that could have brought together Alice Cooper, Gene Autry, and Hugh Hefner.) The path from failed and abandoned self-promotion to a world-reknowned icon of self-promotion must appeal to a lot of people in Hollywood.
The town itself was born of a real estate scheme; a local landowner named H. H. Wilcox began carving out plots from a parcel of Rancho La Brea land that he had purchased in 1886; his idea was that Hollywood would become a resort town for Midwesterners wintering in the desert. Movies didn’t come into it at all; the birthplace of the motion picture is in Paris or West Orange, New Jersey, not California, and the commercial film would appear for another decade. The ideas behind pictures on a moving strip of film had been around for some time, with some machines allowing viewers at nickelodeons and penny arcades to individually see moving scenes, but it wasn’t until the Lumiere brothers invented the "Cinematographe" camera and projection machine that the process was economical. Thomas Edison and his staff had been experimenting with similar techniques for much of the 1890s, but their early invention, the Kinetoscope, produced films that only one person could watch at a time. The Cinematographe projected the image onto a large screen so that many people could watch simultaneously, and their December 28, 1895 exhibition of short films to a paying audience marks the birth of modern movies. (The Lumieres’ device was used to film the first newsreel in Russia a year later.) A number of inventors caught on and began producing their own film-and-projection machines; an Edison employee named William Dickson left the Kinetoscope team to join one of the startups, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Edison invented his own device and began producing his own films, including Edwin Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, which introduced a number of leaps in visual storytelling.
Edison Films was soon eclipsed by Biograph, however. Although a brief film boom in vaudeville ended quickly, nickelodeons had become huge consumers of films, and American Mutoscope and Biograph was soon to hire D.W. Griffith and Florence Lawrence, revolutionizing the industry. Edison was unhappy about this and sued a rival movie company early as 1898; legal battles flared up between Edison and Biograph until 1907, when the courts found that Biograph held a valid rival patent to Edison’s. As Biograph’s camera was legal, Edison quickly switched tactics, offering to form a patent monopoly with Biograph and a few other companies. The Motion Picture Patents Company was thus formed, regulating the industry and offering licenses on the Edison and Biograph camera patents to any company that chose to film in the United States. The film scene at the time was filled with small startups, independent producers that chose not to join the "Edison Trust." Some of these producers felt they had valid European patents outside those controlled by the trusts; others, like William Fox, were simply unwilling to pay Edison and ran pirate operations. (William Fox was eventually to win the court battle that ended the Trust.) One of the independents was Carl Laemmle, a German immigrant who controlled a number of film studios, including IMP, the studio that turned Florence Lawrence into the first movie star, and Nestor Film. He decided to settle in a little town called Hollywood, California, on a ranch he bought and named "Universal City". The weather was good. The sunlight was strong year-round, an important consideration in an age of natural-light shoots. And it was an entire continent away from Edison’s writ-servers.
Its most famous industry located there in an attempt to avoid the law. Its most famous icon is a glittering relic of failure. There’s no native holly; there are no woods. They even stole the name; Daeida Wilcox, H.H. Wilcox’s wife, got the name "Hollywood" from the summer home of a woman she met on the train. John Huston said that Hollywood is a "cage to catch our dreams" and Dorothy Parker said that it’s where "the money is congealed snow," but maybe actor and composer Oscar Levant had it closest: "Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath."