"The Hollywood sign may be unique among American icons," writes Leo Braudy at the start of this dazzlingly enjoyable exposition. "Its essence is almost entirely abstract."
The celebrated nine-letter landmark, lodged near the top of Mount Lee on the eastern edge of Hollywood, is not, however, the most abstract topic in Yale's excellent Icons of America series, which this book joins. That honour goes to No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 3'44". You can, however, see what Braudy means. "It isn't an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself."
In its original 1924 form, the sign was more commercial than abstract. Spelling "HOLLYWOODLAND", it referred to a real estate development intended to cater for the hopeful hordes lured westward. "Building on the dreams of gold and health that animated so many of the early settlers," explains Braudy, "the movie business promised an even more durable, because less tangible personal enrichment." Braudy brilliantly explores what Hollywood would term the back-story to the sign.
After circling round the far-flung suburb, the film business settled there in the early Twenties and so did its stars. Braudy remarks, "Like 'Motown' or 'Nashville' did later in the music business, 'Hollywood' merged a business with a place (or at least a place name) to create a brand." The sign hit the headlines in 1932 when an actress called Peg Entwhistle jumped to her death from the top of "H". Newspapers referred to her as a "starlet" who despaired at failing to achieve Hollywood success, though Braudy notes that she actually had a film contract.
Relating the vicissitudes of the sign – it lost its "H" for many years before being pruned of "LAND" in 1947 – Braudy deftly incorporates the history of the film industry it overlooked. In keeping with Raymond Chandler's scathing critique of LA architecture ("About the only part of a Californian house you can't put your foot through is the front door"), the sign repeatedly fell into decay before being restored in 1978 by a "disparate collection of rescuers", who financed a letter each.
Ironically, given its origin, the most recent threat to the sign came from a housing development, since Los Angeles never bought the land on which the sign stood. Following a $12.5 million appeal, the sign is now safe, as Braudy adds with cinematic panache, "until the next episode at least".