Culture in Los Angeles, 1940-1950

CULTURE IN LOS ANGELES

1940-1950

The City of Angels has many names, or to be more correct, many variations of its Spanish name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. The locals have their own names for the city: “L.A.” and the “City of Lost Angels,” located in “Californication,” as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing. Lacking a locatable center, the city is a prime example of urban sprawl with 160 separate municipalities. In its best years the city was growing by 2 million people per decade, with 500 people arriving each day. The city grows and shrinks according to the economy for it is on a transcontinental highway between North, Central and South America. Separated from the South—Mexico—by an unnatural boundary, the state of California runs on the usually illegal labor force that comes into the state when the times are good and abandons it when times are bad.

Mike Davis, the ironic historian of L. A., described Los Angeles as “eutopic,” not just anti-utopic but even worse, a “no place,” stripped bare of nature and history, he claims. But Los Angeles has its own history, a history of no traditions, but a history nevertheless. The city has heritages brought into the site by the many immigrants, but what makes L.A. unique is that it is the Last Frontier, a place where people come to forget the past, to leave their old selves behind, and to start anew with a fresh identity. The City on the Hill, or Mike Davis’s New Jerusalem, is at the center of an “urban galaxy” dominated by Los Angeles, which is the size of Ireland with a GNP bigger than India. If Los Angeles were a separate nation, it would have the ninth biggest GNP in the world, depending on the year. The sixth largest of world’s mega cities, Los Angeles was never anyone’s first choice destination for moving out west. San Francisco was the cultural mecca and commercial center for California, and L. A. was always an afterthought.

Founded by a mixed band of Spanish adventurers, natives of Latin American and individuals of African descent, the city was settled by Spanish soldiers and their families. After the Gold Rush of 1850, California became a state and new settlers began moving in. After years of legal skullduggery and nefarious governmental practices, the original Spanish land grants were pulled away from the rightful and original owners, the rancheros, and parceled out to the newcomers. The names of the old soldiers lived on in the names of streets and boulevards, Pico, Sepulveda and so on. The land grab set the tone for the city to this day, for Los Angeles was a city brought into being by real-estate developers and land speculators. The potent combination of developers, bankers, transport magnates, who were able to take advantage of the transcontinental railroad, advertised sunshine for those who wanted to get healthy and an “open shop” for those who wanted cheap labor.

Unlike the East Coast cities, such as New York, which runs on finance and is ruled by bankers, Los Angeles and San Francisco are newspaper cities, controlled by mass media. In San Francisco, it was the empire of William Randolph Hearst; in Los Angeles it was Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, owner of The Los Angeles Times and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler and Charles Fletcher Lummis, a city editor, who ran the City of Angels. Otis and Chandler had their fingers in every conceivable pie, from oil to water to land. Few people realize that Los Angeles, especially Beverley Hills, sits atop an oil field that rivals that of Saudi Arabia, but the city has no water source. All water that comes to Los Angeles has been “appropriated” from elsewhere, the Owens Valley and the Colorado River. Access to water and the exploitation of oil wrote the early history of Los Angeles.

So powerful and all controlling were the team of Otis and Chandler, it is quite possible that the character of “Noah Cross,” played by John Houston in Chinatown (1974) was probably based on that of Colonel Otis. But the most obvious aspect of Los Angeles was the “industry,” by which one means the “film industry.” Lured to Los Angeles because of the varying terrain, ocean, desert, mountains, and year around sunshine, the filmmakers moved out West, fleeing the patent restrictions Thomas Edison had placed on his movie camera. Over time the business of making entertainment for the masses became one of the nation’s most profitable ventures. At one time, one could drive down the major streets of the city and see sets left over from major Hollywood blockbusters. The gate to Chinatown in Los Angeles is one of those leftovers still present today. Movie stars lived and worked in Los Angeles and formed a separate circle of power brokers.

Los Angeles in the 1940s

Los Angeles by the Forties was a sleepy movie town, still a stepsister to San Francisco and scorned by New York, and not quite aware of what Hollywood really did. It took fresh eyes to see that the city was the “Capital of the Culture Industry,” a designation given by émigrés from Europe. Los Angeles was always a city of immigrants, and during the Second World War that flow of newcomers included what Davis has termed the “mental labor” of European intellectuals who were fleeing Hitler’s Germany. One is accustomed to reading of the exiles in New York City, but there was a sizable community of artistic and intellectual refugees in Hollywood, mostly from Germany. These exiles all knew each other and spoke German to each other while trying to acclimatize to a town where C. B. De Mille was considered a master artist. The author of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque found the city unbearable and left its “empty sidewalks, streets, and houses…” Theatrical producer, Berthold Brecht was stranded without his Communist environment and bored with Los Angeles. Santa Monica, he complained, was “too pleasant to work in.” Although after the War was over, most of the émigrés became American citizens, Brecht got his wish to go to a less pleasant place and spent the rest of his life in East Germany, in the Soviet Zone.

In contrast, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, Lord Bertram Russell, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, and Clifford Odets rather enjoyed Los Angeles. Christopher Isherwood never left and became a familiar figure on the art scene with his lover, artist Don Bachardy, and were joined in the sixties by another exile, their good friend, David Hockney. Other great artists found the trivializing of their art in an uncultured land depressing. Composer Arnold Schoenberg lived across the street from Shirley Temple and was offended when tour buses stopped to see her home and not his. To earn money, he tutored studio composers. Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was used for Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse movie, Fantasia (1940), which did more to popularize the once controversial music than all the concerts in Europe.

Watching these indignities with Jovian detachment were the philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. German refugees of the Frankfurt School, these scholars had become fascinated with the use and abuse of mass media in Germany and in America. They were the first to link modern philosophy and modern culture with mass media and its cultural production. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, they created myth of Los Angeles as crystal ball of capitalism’s future in a depersonalized “administered society” with no hope of liberation. “The Culture Industry” was one of the key essays in this book and was an extremely significant post-war critique of how “culture” was produced by industrial methods for the purpose of quelling public dissent. A snob until the day he died, Theodor Adorno thought that Hollywood was the “mechanized cataclysm abolishing culture” and that “the term ‘culture’ will become obsolete….”

For those in the movie business from Europe, Hollywood literally saved their careers. Actors and directors in exile found success, some more than others: Edward Dmytryk, Marlene Deitrich, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Kortner, Alexander Grenach, Peter Lorre, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Erich von Stroheim, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, Cary Grant, and David Niven. The directors, especially, imported the late German Expressionist film style to Hollywood and revived the “look” for crime films, later called Film Noir, by the French after the War. The enrichment of local culture, both popular and intellectual mirrored the sudden surge of growth for the city during the Second World War.

Suddenly people who wanted to work for the military-industrial complex inundated a small city that had once advertised itself as a healthy place for white people to live. Los Angeles exploded in population and most of the newcomers came to stay. Many military personnel came to Los Angeles while on duty, like the climate and the open and tolerant atmosphere and returned after the War. Of course, Los Angeles had been an open-minded town when it was mostly white with small minorities of Latinos and African-Americans and Asians. However, with the war came new tensions and, in one of the most shameful acts in the city’s history, its people stood by and allowed Japanese-American citizens to be removed from the city and shipped to “Internment Camps” in the East. African-Americans moved into vacated Little Tokyo, which was renamed “Bronze Town.” With the Japanese population “relocated” and with wartime tensions high, the negative energy of the public turned to a new target, the Mexican population, especially the young men who wore Zoot Suits. In the 1940s there were two miscarriages of (in)justice, the Sleepy Lagoon Murders (1942) and the Zoot Suit Riots (1943).

Literature in Los Angeles

Although the Second World War made Los Angeles into a mega metropolis and a power based for military and aerospace research, the art forms of the city seldom dwelt upon these transformative experiences. Only decades later did films, such as Zoot Suit a musical by Luis Valdez and Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn, investigate the ways in which the War changed peoples’ lives. The native literature took up different themes, that of a Paradise Lost. Although the city produced what could be termed “regional fiction,” like that of New York, these novels had significance and an audience beyond Los Angeles. Although Hollywood threw itself into the war effort by cranking out propaganda films and “war movies,” these offerings are little remembered. What was imprinted upon the collective consciousness was the nightmare of “El Dorado becoming hell,” as Mike Davis expressed it. The dark or noir mood of Los Angeles fiction expressed a culture wounded by a Depression and traumatized by War. The key writers of the thirties and forties were Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. Most of their books were made into movies in which ordinary people under unbearable pressure commit nasty little crimes. The leading character is neither black nor white but a morally ambiguous shade of gray. He is the hard-boiled detective or a man who had lost his place in society, a creature of the Depression, the time when American criminals were erecting Empires of crime upon the willingness of the upright citizens to break the law.

The idea of “Hard-boiled” is closely related to “Pulp Fiction,” or dime novels, so called because they were quickly written and cheaply printed on low-grade paper. The archetypal “hard-boiled” detective was “Ben Jardinn,” the anti-hero of the 1930 serial, Black Mask Serial. Created by Raoul Whitfield, the appropriate style writing was brisk and no nonsense and to the point. Always from a masculine point of view, these Los Angeles novels told stories of men down on their luck, struggling to keep their heads above water, only to be dragged under by a treacherous femme fatale who lured them into murder. In the declining days of a once-proud community of Victorian homes, Bunker Hill, writers such as John Fante (Ask the Dust) and James M. Cain typed away in the sordid but inspirational surroundings in a declining neighborhood in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, these men were tortured souls who were alcoholics.

But a new genre of novels emerged from these dark days: The Maltese Falcon, 1930, by Dashiell Hammett, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934 by James M. Cain, 1935 by Horace McCoy, Double Indemnity, 1936, by Cain, The Day of the Locust, 1939 by Nathanael West, Farewell My Lovely, 1940 by Chandler, and Mildred Pierce, 1941, also by Cain. All of these novels were made into films or “B movies” or the second feature of a double feature. During the war, films had to be made economically and these small, cheaply made, masterpieces, given little respect in their time, were directed by some of the greatest German directors of their time, such as Edward Dymtryk, and starred “B” list actors, such as Fred McMurray and Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

The gloomy and fatalistic themes were combined with imported German Expressionist cinema in which there was no moral right or light, only dark shadows and dark characters. While not making an overt comment upon the bankruptcy of capitalism, these novels were turned into films by leftist auteurs, including Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., Ben Maddow, Carl Foreman, and Dalton Trumbo, etc. Not recognized as a form of Marxist cinema, these movies were a subversive realism, a critique that could have only come out of Los Angeles where corruption was rampant and Germany where morality had taken a holiday. The crime movies, featuring a gangster underclass as minor background characters, highlighted middle and upper class corruption. The ugliness of humanity sprang horribly off the pages with the Black Dahlia case of 1946, a still-unsolved murder of a prostitute.

Strangely, instead of being stranded as period pieces, these throwaway “B” movies were greatly admired by French film critics after the War was over. Unlike the American audience who saw these crime movies over time, the French could view these films as a single body of work and named them “film noir,” or dark film. Few art forms, either literary or visual, have implanted themselves into the minds of such a large and international audience. The strong chiaroscuro, the legendary voice-over, the dangerous woman, the wary detective, these devices have never gone out of style. Beginning in the 1970s, a wave of “nostalgia” films re-visited the noir style for two decades: from Chinatown to Pulp Fiction to Devil in a Blue Dress in America to Hard-Boiled in Hong Kong, the regional style of writing recreated by the local “culture industry” converted the world to the homegrown indigenous art of Los Angeles.

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