Standing beneath the famous Hollywood sign, Paul Merton gazes out upon the movie capital of the world. But how did a tiny town in South California, famous only for it’s vast orange groves, expand into the movie metropolis we know today?
The comedian’s latest TV offering The Birth of Hollywood focuses on the beginnings of cinema, and with the Have I Got News For You pundit prancing around in a beige suit, pastel shirt and panama hat, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was trying to recreate the look of the early 1900’s too.
Straight away you can sense Merton’s excitement and eagerness to tell the story of how Tinseltown came to be, and despite coming across like a giddy nervous schoolboy on an American field trip at times, the comic passionately and expertly explains the story of how stage actors once earning $5 a day came to be millionaires on screens across the world.
The story of cinema starts in New York, with Thomas Edison and his company inventing a wooden ‘peep show’ box capable of showing moving images when hand-cranked by a viewer. This machine, the equivalent of today’s YouTube, meant that people around the world could for the first time see events they couldn’t watch in person, such as strongmen flexing their muscles, boxing matches illegal in some states, and exotic dancers, with the charismatic Merton providing an example of the latter on his visit to Ellis Island.
It’s interesting to learn that the 35mm film used in Edison’s original machine is still the standard used today by the industry, though thankfully due to spotlights we’ve moved on from the days of using a revolving studio that’s spins to face the sun for light. Some inventive Frenchmen helped this technology along as projectors were created, meaning that for the first time people were able to watch Hollywood classics such as the hand painted The Great Train Robbery on the big screen in 1903. Hoards of cinema goers would pile into ‘nickelodeon’s’ to watch films, these being converted shopfronts and churches that would often struggle to contain audiences as animated as the films themselves.
As the medium gained strength, Edison become increasing wary about protecting his invention, hiring mobs to go around and destroy camera crews not part of the ‘kick back’ cartel created to ensure he got his dues. To escape the clutches of these gangs, smaller film crews relocated to South California, out of the reach of the inventor’s iron patent grip on the technology.
They soon however discovered that the combination of cheap rent and all year round of sun made Los Angeles a more attractive place to film then New York, and soon the rest of film industry followed suit. American Cinema’s big break happened with the advent of World War I and with the country’s European competition effectively wiped out, Hollywood got a taste for the first time of the power it enjoys today.
Merton’s BBC documentary, the first of a series on the birth and growth of cinema, is fascinating and very informative, being thoroughly research with everything the comedian refers to gloriously backed up by examples of 100 year-old film. The viewer learns how Mary Pickford became ‘the world’s sweetheart’, how Charlie Chaplin went from stage performer to international superstar, and how the term ‘cliff-hanger’ comes from the then rocky outcrops of Fort Lee, where The Perils of Pauline was filmed, a forerunner to the soap operas of today.
It’s also interesting to discover the power of cinema as a propaganda tool, with D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, based on the racist novel ‘The Clansman’, reinvigorating the Klu Klax Klan movement and prompting thousands of hooded Americans to march across Washington.
Racism aside, The Birth of Hollywood really does show us a story that is a shining example of how immigrants lived the American dream, with many Europeans making millions out of the industry after journeying across the pond. As Merton himself describes it, Hollywood is a “rustic backwater stuffed with oranges that’s been turned into something much more than a place, a state of mind – power, excess, fame, wealth, and ambition”.