Recapturing the Hollywood Magic in a Natural History Setting

There are the legends: film clips of Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer,” Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Top Hat,” Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Then, there is reality: a 2-foot-tall model that was the thundering, stadium-size spaceship from “Star Wars,” a mink-covered King Kong no bigger than a Barbie doll, an anatomical sketch of E.T.'s automated innards and the swivel-headed mannequin of Linda Blair from “The Exorcist.”

What’s on the silver screen and how it got there; the fantasy and fact of filmdom. That’s what “Hollywood: Legend and Reality” is made of. The 400-piece exhibition of photographs, film clips, costumes, posters, scenic designs, special-effects models and other artifacts from every era of film history opens Saturday at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“My aim with this show was to evoke a sense of magic--which I think has worn a little thin,” said exhibit curator Michael Webb. “Particularly in this town, ‘Hurray for Hollywood’ has become a tired-out, hackneyed slogan. I want to recapture the sense of excitement everyone has had going into a darkened movie house and seeing on the screen something larger than life.


“My other goal was to step around behind the camera and see how movies are made,” said Webb, former director of national film programming at the American Film Institute. “By doing that, you can appreciate ever more the magic that is on the screen. The director doesn’t just wave his wand and that’s it.”

Wrapping up a six-city, 20-month United States tour a few miles from Tinseltown, the exhibition was organized by Washington’s Smithsonian Institution and is scheduled to travel to Tokyo after it closes here Feb. 21.

Webb, a London-born Los Angeles resident, writes for various magazines about the arts.

While he supervised the exhibit’s installation, museum workers were intermittently drawn from their duties to gaze, mesmerized, at seven video screens showing excerpts from 44 classic movies, from “Scarface” (1932) to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982).


While the exhibit covers movie history from 1910 to the ‘80s, visitors will first see a mock-up of a sound stage from the 1930s, the heyday of the big studios when some of Hollywood’s greatest stars and most memorable movies (such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind”) were made. An archetypal studio gate leads onto the stage, where lights and camera focus on a model ship from “Mutiny on the Bounty” small enough to fit into a bathtub.

“It’s the unreality or the make-believe,” Webb said.

Farther on, one encounters earlier examples of reality and legend: a primitive 1910 Pathe camera used by D.W. Griffith (“The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance”); a production chart from “Gone With the Wind” typed up by producer David O. Selznick with actors’ salary estimates (Clark Gable as Rhett Butler: $150,000); Rudolph Valentino’s “suit of lights” from “Blood and Sand.” The matador costume is surprisingly small, but then--"Hey, Robert Redford is no giant,” Webb said.

The exhibition, funded in large part by Time Inc., is as much about America as about the movies, Webb said, and also examines the effect Hollywood has had on the public.


“During the Depression, when a quarter of the work force was unemployed, the movies helped reinforce a mood of resolution and optimism that came with the New Deal,” Webb said. Pointing to a display juxtaposing photographs of Astaire and Rogers in mid-step and a scowling Okie from “The Grapes of Wrath,” he explained, “They provided an escape, but also addressed reality.”

During World War II, Hollywood addressed reality with war movies while creating the pinup girl, such as one unidentified starlet dressed in a Santa suit pictured in the exhibit, Webb said.

“Soldiers didn’t always want to see themselves fighting, but loved to have Betty Grable on their lockers.”

Troubles inside Hollywood are also explored. Shots of celebrity spectators at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings show the blacklist era; a photograph of Will Hays, whose Hays Code of on-screen do’s and don’ts symbolizes censorship. (“The first porno movie, made in 1901, consisted of an extended kiss, running one minute,” Webb said. “People were furious to see this on the screen.”)


The exhibition--which also includes the red Rosebud sled from “Citizen Kane,” the piano (newly restored) from Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca” and a skin-tight, flesh-colored, rhinestone-spangled sheath worn by Marilyn Monroe--has drawn “enthusiastic” crowds at the other museums and attracted film buffs and those not so savvy about show biz, Webb said.

The exhibition seems to reinforce the notion that the entertainment industry still captures the imagination of millions of Americans.

Why the enduring fascination with behind-the-scenes Hollywood?

“It’s like the secrets of a great chef,” the curator said. “When (celebrated Los Angeles chef) Wolfgang Puck says, ‘I’ll teach you to do this magic dish, one only I have ever made,’ everyone gets excited about the privileged glimpse. Movies are similar. They’re shot behind high walls and shut doors.”


But in a town where cameras roll daily on city streets, where a trip to Universal Studios Tour doesn’t cost the price of a plane ticket and where most of the people who make the movies also make their home, isn’t it possible that a Los Angeles audience might be a bit jaded?

“Let’s just say this will unjade them,” Webb said. “I hope it stirs a curiosity and gets people to go back and see some of their all-time favorite films.”