“Icon” is a much-used word — and I am as guilty as anyone else of overusing it — but when it comes to the Hollywood sign, no other word will do. In fact, Leo Braudy’s fascinating new book, “The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon” (Yale University Press, $24), is published as part of the “Icons of America” series, which includes artifacts ranging from the Liberty Bell to the hamburger to “Gone With the Wind.”
Braudy, a literature professor at USC, is one of our leading critics and historians, and a go-to guy for a sharp take on the semiotics of American popular culture. When KPFK news analyst Ian Masters wanted to discuss the significance of Bristol Palin’s surprising success on “Dancing With the Stars,” for example, he called on Braudy to explain it all. The same penetrating intelligence and deep-rooted knowledge of history, culture and politics is now brought to bear on the Hollywood sign.
“The Hollywood sign may be unique among American icons,” explains Braudy. “Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself.”
As Braudy points out, the sign does not depict a human figure, like Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty, and it is not a unitary object like the Washington Monument. “[The sign] cannot be visited,” he observes, “only seen from afar.” The word “Hollywood” itself is ubiquitous and thus meaningless even as a place identifier; I have seen it used on restaurants, salons and health clubs all over the world. But the particular arrangement of outsized white letters on a chaparral-covered hillside, slightly disarranged in a way that is recognizable at a subliminal level of consciousness, “embodies the American yearning to stand out of the landscape.”
Braudy’s book is full of insight about an object that is always there and yet seldom intrudes on our consciousness. “Although it has existed since the early 1920s as an actual object” — the sign was first erected as a temporary billboard to promote a real estate development called “Hollywoodland” — “the Hollywood sign as the goal of tourist pilgrimage is in fact a comparably recent phenomenon.”
Even the fact that the sign now evokes movie-making rather than tract housing itself is something of a surprise. Braudy reminds us that Los Angeles was once a place where a rooming house might display a sign in the front window, “No Jews, actors or dogs allowed.” Even when the studios began to proliferate in Southern California, Burbank and Culver City were (and are) as important as Hollywood when it comes to actually making movies. But Hollywood eventually became “an emblematic center that held together a wide array of studios, stars, and all the other paraphernalia of movie-making,” and the sign came to embody the same powerful symbolic meaning.
The development called Hollywoodland was located in upper Beachwood Canyon on a site that had been used for a 1916 production of “Julius Caesar” starring Tyrone Power Sr. and a cast of 5,000 extras, including “five hundred dancing girls.” To publicize the project, starlets were recruited to pose in the bucket of a steam shovel with the sign in the background. But Braudy insists that some elements of the sign owed nothing to movie magic: “The lighting of the sign by 4,000 twenty-watt bulbs, another crucial element in its ability to be seen at a distance, may have been influenced by the ubiquitous wooden derricks in Los Angeles, otherwise an eyesore, that had for some time been rigged out with electric lights as part of publicity for the oil industry.”
Virtually every incident that touches on the Hollywood sign is the occasion for a wholly fascinating excursion in Braudy’s book. Peg Entwistle is the young woman who, according to conventional wisdom, committed suicide by jumping off the “H” on a lonely night in 1932. But Braudy offers nothing less than a scenario for a film noir when he calls into question every item of received wisdom in the tale. “Could Peg Entwistle have been killed elsewhere and the scene at the sign staged?” he wonders. “Was this another crime cover-up so common in the corrupt Los Angeles of the 1930s?”
Not until after World War II was the word “LAND” removed from the sign, a facelift that allowed the sign to float free of its mundane origins and soar into the cultural heavens. “So, in one sense, in January of 1949, the Hollywood sign was born, or perhaps reborn,” writes Braudy. “Like a phoenix, it would have a few more rebirths before it became the icon we now see.”
“The Hollywood Sign,” not unlike the sign itself, achieves something far more elevated and expansive than its ostensible function. It is not just a history of a famous object on the Southern California landscape; rather, it is an artful, illuminating and absorbing meditation on a place, an era, an industry, a cast of unlikely characters and a zeitgeist. For that reason, like Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” or “City of Quartz” by Mike Davis, it is an instant classic that belongs in any collection of books about Los Angeles.