I have always been intrigued by the famous “Hollywood” sign that sits on the hill overlooking the motion picture capitol of the world. That is why David Thomson’s review of Leo Braudy’s The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon (Yale University Press) caught my attention.
Here is a taste of Thomson’s review, published at The New Republic.
It was in 1923 that the original sign, HOLLYWOODLAND, a gimmick and a brazen caption, was put up near the top of that hill, in letters fifty feet high and thirty feet wide. They were wooden structures, supported by telegraph poles, with tin and white paint facings. The sign advertised a housing development in the area below the slopes of Mount Lee, in the Santa Monica mountains, close to Griffith Park. It was built on rough ground, so the sign was never in type-set alignment. From the start there was a wavery touch of emotion to it, as if, to quote the song from the unrestrained Douglas Sirk movie, “A faithless lover’s kiss is/ Written on the wind.”
Our guide to the sign could not be improved on. Leo Braudy is a long-time Los Angeles resident, a professor at the University of Southern California, and the author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. He is an expert on—but also a fond victim of—the atmosphere some of us long to believe still clings to those idiotic letters.
Hollywood! It is a name like Babylon. Kenneth Anger put the two together in 1965 in a book that served up lurid movieland scandals yet only made the place more attractive. I suppose this is what we still want to believe in. Why do we tolerate a Hollywood Foreign Press Association (with its Golden Globes) if we aren’t believers? But how many teenagers living in greater Los Angeles today know what “Hollywood” ever meant, or could tell you much about Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, and the rest? I was at a large Midwest university recently, speaking to a class studying Alfred Hitchcock—but hardly any of the students had seen a Hitchcock film, or were in the habit of going to a movie theatre with a screen as big as those white letters on the hillside.
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