Part One: Corrine Griffith, the Somewhat Unlikely Champion of “Celluloid”
Set into a traffic island roughly the shape of a triangle at the obtusely-angled intersection of Olympic Boulevard and South Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills is a twenty-plus foot tall bronze-and-marble obelisk entitled “Celluloid” by sculptor Merrell Gage. Each surface of the monument’s plinth features a bas-relief representation of a silent-screen star in one of their signature roles, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix, Rudolph Valentino, Will Rogers, Harold Lloyd, Conrad Nagel and Fred Niblo. Extending up from the squat base is a tall, narrow lance-like object around which what looks like a spool of film is unfurling.
The bronze-and-marble memorial sculpture is the brainchild of former silent film star Corinne Griffith. It was Griffith’s—a contemporary of the Beverly Hills Eight featured on the monument—mission in the late 1950s to create a memorial to the stars who campaigned against the 1923 vote to annex the City of Beverly Hills to Los Angeles. If the effort was quixotic, Corinne Griffith was perfect for the part. The fact that a former actress could helm a campaign such as erecting the monument is a testament to the octet she wished to memorialize. By the time Corinne Griffith took up her mission, no one thought twice about an actor mixing politics and personal causes. And it was Mary Pickford and the other seven silent screen stars made that possible.
Griffith had pitched the monument to her fellow Beverly Hills citizens with the hopes that “it will be both a tourist attraction and something in which all of us will take pride.” Griffith may not have broken into the territory of immortality like Mary Pickford, but she was successful in subsequent careers, especially in her real estate investments. At one point she owned the buildings lining the busy commercial intersection of South Beverly Drive and Charleville Boulevard. Griffith was a wealthy businesswoman who hated taxes, supported Richard Nixon from the early days of his career, and was a great pal of J. Edgar Hoover. She was a fan of professional football, or, perhaps more accurately, a fan of the bold-faced names in the sport. She was a longtime intimate of Curly Lambeau—which didn’t stand in the way of her introducing him to both his second and third wives—and was married for a time to Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall. She was, in a nutshell, a character. In 1966, in testimony at the divorce proceedings from her fourth husband, Griffith claimed she was not Corinne Griffith, but Corinne’s younger sister (by twenty years). According to her testimony, she had assumed the identity of her famous older sister at Corinne Griffith’s “death.” It was a story Griffith stuck to until the end of her life.
Next: Part Two: The asymmetrical approach to the monument is a perfect reflection of the campaign that kept Beverly Hills independent from Los Angeles