The Day of the Locust: The grim reality of old Hollywood

December 14, 2016 By Cameron Maitland Go Back

It’s practically a consensus that 2016 was a rough year. However, when you want to feel a bit better about today, it’s a good idea to look back on how far we’ve come. Even Hollywood is a lot better than it once was. While the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” has existed almost as long as the movies themselves, Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust does a great job bringing to life the darker side of Golden Age of Hollywood. The studio system would get in the way of adaptations for decades, but by 1975 the power of the studios was waning and John Schlesinger’s adaptation beautifully resurrects the grim reality of Old Hollywood.

On-Set Accidents. Today we’re familiar with unions overseeing sets, but in the 1920s and 30s safety standards weren’t what they are today. Disasters on the scale of The Day of The Locusts collapsing mountain weren’t unheard of, with the biggest being the mass injuries and multiple deaths sustained while shooting 1928’s Noah’s Ark where many of the actors were caught up in the simulated ‘flood’.

Annoying Child Actors. The unexpected and massive success of Shirley Temple caused a rush of thousands of parents bringing their children to Hollywood hoping they’d be discovered. It’s not hard to see why: Shirley Temple earned $1,000 a week during the depression, she won a special Jr. Academy Award and even President Roosevelt praised her ability to raise spirits.


Strange Apartments. The San Bernardino Arms apartments and its strange residents depicted in The Day of The Locust weren’t too far off from reality either. Many buildings housed dreamers and Hollywood has-beens, with the most famous being the Garden of Allah hotel which housed stars like Greta Garbo and Errol Flynn, as well as being the rumored home of the mistresses of plenty of studio executives.

Morbid Groupies. Gossip was definitely driven by tragedy in the early days of film, so death and funerals drew massive crowds. Out of work actors and fame-seekers would attend funerals for actors like Rudy Valentino by the thousands. And just like it’s shown in the movie, actress Peg Entwistle’s death on the Hollywoodland Sign did indeed drive crowds to the old real estate promotion and secure it’s place in the city’s history.


The Death of Vaudeville. Just like Burgess Meredith’s sad clown Harry Greener, many former live performers found themselves without a job in the 30s. Part of the reason movies exploded in the 1920s and 30s was the relatively cheap ticket price, and vaudeville theatres around the country converted to cinemas. By the time sound came around, there was no need for spoken entertainment between the features, and with the newly inexpensive radio technology, crowds were drawn away from vaudeville.

Riots. Though not quite the level of The Day of The Locust, the first big Hollywood Premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was Cecil B. Demille’s King of Kings in 1927, which drew thousands and was said to have caused a riot just to see the stars.


While Donald Sutherland, Karen Black and William Atherton do a lot to bring humanity to the characters of The Day of The Locust, it’s clear the Hollywood Nathanael West sought to portray was one with danger, seediness and violence just below the glittering surface. Dreamers hardly stood a chance in that time, but a few still made it, and watching The Day of The Locust is a great reminder that the tough times don’t last forever.

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