On Sept. 18, 1932, a 24-year-old actress named Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the "H" in the Hollywood sign. At the time, film critic and historian Leo Braudy explains in his brief, entertaining new book "The Hollywood Sign," the sign had not yet evolved into what it is today -- a universally recognized symbol for the movie industry, eminently deserving of a place in Yale University Press' "Icons of America" series. Looking at movies about the movie business from the 1930s, Braudy finds that the sign was almost never used as a signifier for Hollywood. When they wanted to evoke the glamour of movieland, filmmakers preferred to show Grauman's Chinese Theater, with its cement handprints of the stars and its world premieres lit by swaying searchlights. Even the street signs at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine said "Hollywood" more clearly than the Hollywood sign, although tourists who made their way to the actual street corner would find nothing much to look at there.
Even in the most literal sense, the Hollywood sign was not the Hollywood sign in 1932. It still read "Hollywoodland," as it had since it was built in 1923 as an advertisement for a housing development in the hills. Not until 1949, when the sign was taken over by the local Chamber of Commerce and the last four letters were knocked down, would it take on the appearance we know today -- the block white letters, canted and staggered on the hillside, with the radio towers on nearby Mount Lee looming overhead as if to suggest the way Hollywood's influence is broadcast around the globe.
But it was Entwistle's death, Braudy suggests, that marked the spiritual transformation of the sign into an icon -- the failed actress placing a curse on Hollywood by blighting its trademark. The story is only made more perfect, perhaps, by the fact that it is very possibly false. Entwistle was an aspiring actress, Braudy explains, but not a failed one; it's quite possible that she was actually murdered, and her body dumped in the hills. Yet why shouldn't the capital of make-believe have a made-up legend at its heart? After all, "The Hollywood Sign" is an essay about just this kind of self-invention. Once the history of the physical sign is told -- and there's not much to tell, really -- Braudy is able to move on to what really interests him: the evolution of the stories Hollywood told about itself.
He briskly summarizes the growth of the city, from a teetotalling WASP resort at the beginning of the 20th century to the slummy emblem of urban decay at century's end. What Hollywood never was, Braudy emphasizes, was a major center of movie production. Though Chaplin built a studio there in 1918, the real moviemaking happened in the San Fernando Valley to the north and Culver City to the south. (In 1937, Culver City even threatened to change its name to Hollywood City, in order to get its fair share of the credit.) Nor, surprisingly, did the movie studios seem to care much about the sign that advertised them to the world. Whenever the sign needed repair -- as it did regularly from the 1970s on -- the funds were donated by car dealers and other local businessmen, with a big assist from Hugh Hefner. Maybe, Braudy suggests, only those who don't belong to Hollywood can feel its magic: "The Hollywood sign, and all it signifies, remains approachable but almost impossible to attain."