Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Old-timey movies tell half the story about LA's water

LADWP's 1931 film
LADWP's 1931 film "Romance of Water" told LA what it wanted to hear about the infrastructure that helped it grow.

Alex Cohen talked to film curator Scott Simmon this week, a conversation about the preservation of rare old timey movies about the west. Clara Bow ("Mantrap") was great and all, but what I loved about it were, of course, the ones about water. (Infrastructure!)

I never want to forget how we got here. And by we, I mean the white men who established the infrastructure for "Loss Angle-eez" (that's how they say it in the old movies) and by here, I mean, a dry basin we've made into a megalopolis. 

The language in the LADWP film and in the Hearst Newsreel is incredible. It describes chilly eastern Sierra mountains serving up water while "people three hundred miles away are basking in a semi tropical winter sun…" The great mountain lakes of the Mammoth area are "a fishermen's paradise where man may forsake the cares of the world among the grandeur and peace of nature." We have, in this imagination, "…a never ending water supply." The water was "wasted" in the Owens salt lake, until the "enterprise" of man harnessed it for the "benefit" of the city of the angels. 

Interesting, by the way, to see William Mulholland referred to favorably in the DWP film, produced in 1931, just three years after the St. Francis Dam disaster: I guess his reputation was mostly tarnished outside the utility. And naturally, the Water Wars of the Owens Valley aren't referenced. Hell, there's no people in the shots of the eastern Sierra, which is really shot to look like LA's backyard. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but with the Times among the power brokers building LA up, there seems to have been little incentive in contemporaneous storytelling to talk about what's stacked up underneath. Check out the Hearst reel: 

Alex also got to talk about "The 'Promise Land' Barred to 'Hoboes,'" tragically not so much squarely in Pacific Swell's beat. But I'd love to see the keepers of guest lists around town bring that saying, not to mention directness, by telling it to people at the top of the velvet rope line. 


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