No More La-La Land, Part I: Changing References to Los Angeles in the New York Times

February 15, 2012 § 1 Comment


When I moved to California from Boston 30 years ago, I felt I had immigrated to another country. It wasn’t just a matter of climate: people dressed differently, listened to different music, ate different foods–in essence, they were culturally distinct. The experience was both disorienting and exhilarating, and so compelling that although I stayed in-state for the next two years, I felt I had traveled widely.

At the same time, I remember vividly the anti-California sentiment of East Coast newspapers and magazines. In the days before the New York Times regarded itself as the nation’s newspaper, mocking references appeared constantly in its pages, as well as those of the Wall Street Journal. I lived eight years in Berkeley, a lovely university town portrayed by the East Coast press as an absurd hotbed of indolence, radical politics and gourmet food. A particular low point was a Wall Street Journal article whose author claimed to have seen a cake inscribed “Victory to the Sandanistas.” Although no one from Berkeley ever saw this cake, the article was widely reprinted. The derision was universal and lasted about two years.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, I hoped my new home would garner more respect–after all, wasn’t it the capital of popular culture? But it didn’t, unless you consider a shift from “Bizerkeley” to “La-La Land” an improvement. The New York Times routinely referred to Los Angeles as “Tinsel Town,” and employed “laid-back” to describe what undeniably is one of the least relaxed cities on the planet. While there were occasional bright spots, notably Herbert Muschamp’s architectecture reviews, the tone of the Times’ reporting was generally dismissive, casting Los Angeles in the role of an adolescent city whose art, however ambitious, was irrelevant simply because it came from here. Clearly, the sentiment of this harrumphing 1978 movie review by Vincent Canby hadn’t faded from the editorial purview:

“Moment By Moment” is this year’s California “problem” picture, that is, a movie in which people suffer for reasons that never seem very urgent in settings that, though not particular to California, are emblematic of what we think of as the California culture–elaborate beach houses, imported automobiles (public transportation is nowhere in sight), on throughways that are the main arteries of late 20th-century rootlessness.

True, it’s an old review. For a more recent example of cultural condescension, here’s a 2005 Style piece by Monica Corcoran:

GRANTED, the Los Angeles tourism board will never lure visitors with ”Got culture?” After all, even a local hero, the writer Raymond Chandler, once called this place ”a hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.” But on a recent Friday night at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, even the most disdainful of Los Angeles critics would have eaten his hat.

Nevertheless, the past few years have brought improvements in the New York Times’ attitude. Not only does it take Los Angeles far more seriously, with an excellent bureau and in-depth reporting, but it covers stories that formerly would have been of no interest to New Yorkers, such as Hollywoodland’s problems with tourist traffic. Though I used to find it weird, I’ve grown accustomed to reading minutiae about Los Angeles in the Times. At this point, it seems no Los Angeles story is too local, including one about a dispute among members of the Woman’s (sic) Club of Hollywood. Nevertheless, when I found myself reading about a labor action at my neighborhood car wash a couple of years ago, I wondered whether things hadn’t gone too far.

Next: Two cities and their artists.

Heather Drive, Past and Present

March 30, 2010 § 2 Comments


The intersection of Heather and Durand Drives. The bicycle accident took place near the lower right corner of the photo/Hope Anderson Productions

Heather Drive is a winding residential street that runs south off Ledgewood Drive in Hollywoodland. Those who visit Lake Hollywood Park often take it to escape the tourist vans that inch up Ledgewood, as both streets lead to Mulholland Highway. Once on Heather, drivers face a blind uphill curve on a road often narrowed to a single lane by parked cars. Then comes the sharp uphill right turn onto Durand Drive that briefly forces them into the oncoming lane. Mercifully, cross-traffic is sparse. 

Heather Drive entered American literature in 1937, in Raymond Chandler’s short story “Take the Girl.” Though he calls it Heather Street,  the description is unmistakable: 

Heather Street was a gash in the side of a steep flat slope, at the top of Beachwood Drive. It curved around the shoulder enough so that even by daylight you couldn’t have seen much more than half a block of it at one time while you were on it. 

As his works make clear, Raymond Chandler was an automotive man, crisscrossing Los Angeles by car. His gumshoe protagonists drive everywhere, traversing the LA Basin from downtown to the San Fernando Valley, Silver Lake to Santa Monica.  Unlike Charles Bukowski, who set his books in Hollywood and San Pedro, and John Fante, who specialized in downtown Los Angeles, Chandler claimed all of Los Angeles as his territory. So it’s not surprising that he knew Beachwood Canyon intimately, or that he could perfectly describe a certain style of Hollywoodland house:    

The house I wanted was built downward, one of those clinging-vine effects, with a front door below the street level, a patio on the roof, a bedroom or two possibly in the basement, and a garage as easy to drive into as an olive bottle.  

Such upside-down houses still dot Heather, mixing charm and risk. In late 2006, a partygoer returning to his car lost his footing and fell down the hill, stopping just short of a 30-foot drop. The resulting rescue involved firefighters and helicopters; the man suffered broken bones but no permanent injuries. (Footage of the rescue, shot by DP Tjardus Greidanus, appears in my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign.”)  

But in August of the same year, a far more serious accident occurred on Heather when a bicyclist, resting his foot on the curb at the bend, lost his balance and fell over the side, landing on the patio of a neighboring house. Left a paraplegic, he sued the City for negligence, receiving a $5 million settlement.  Although the same stretch had been the site of several car crashes, at least one of them fatal, this apparently marked the first time the City was sued for damages. After the settlement was announced in 2009, yellow hazard signs went up along the curve and plans were announced to build a permanent, vista-blocking barrier. 

No such modifications were thought necessary from 1923, when Heather Drive was built, until then.  Somehow drivers managed to negotiate Heather Drive (or not) without involving the City. But times have changed. Ironically, the bicyclist was no stranger to the topographical challenges of the neighborhood, as he lived in Hollywoodland.

The Double Indemnity House, from Book to Film to Reality

September 14, 2009 § 5 Comments

The "Double Indemnity" House/Hope Anderson Productions

The "Double Indemnity" House/Hope Anderson Productions

Few houses in the movies are better known than Barbara Stanwyck’s Spanish Colonial in “Double Indemnity.” The director Billy Wilder first shows it in an establishing shot that highlights not only its architectural features but its distinctive site–a hilly corner lot on a sparsely-built suburban street.

Though the script states the house is in Los Feliz, it is actually located in the Hollywood Dell. I’ve always thought the house beautiful and well-suited to its penninsula-shaped lot, but  Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the screenplay, could not have agreed less. Here’s how they introduce it in a voiceover by insurance salesman Walter Neff ( Fred MacMurray):

It was one of those California Spanish houses

everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This

one must have cost someone about 30,000 bucks–

that is, if he ever finished paying for it.

Their opinion of the house plummets when Neff goes inside. Wilder and Chandler describe the interior as:

Spanish craperoo in style…. A wrought-iron staircase

 curves down from the second floor….All of this,

architecture, furniture, decorations, etc., is

 genuine early Leo Carrillo period.

James M. Cain, who wrote the book on which the movie is basedno doubt concurred because his own description is even more withering:

It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest

of them in California, with white walls, red

tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was

built cock-eyed. The garage was under the

house, the first floor was over that, and the

 rest of  it was spilled up the hill any way

 they could get it in.

Interestingly, Double Indemnity locates the house not in Los Feliz but in Hollywoodland, where Cain himself lived.

James M. Cain's House, to the left of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

James M. Cain's House, to the left of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Whether Cain’s contempt for the house was based on some hatred of Spanish architecture or the fact that Hollywoodland began as a tract development– albeit an expensive one–is unclear. But it does seem ironic that he should have disparaged the place for spilling up a hillside when his own Norman-style house–five stories’ worth–spilled down another hillside a mile away. 

In any case, the Double Indemnity House looks much better today than it did in “Double Indemnity.” Mature landscaping and the presence of other houses have softened its exterior, eliminating the sun-baked starkness that made it a believable setting for adultery and the hatching of a murder plot. And, as shown in a recent spread in the LA Times, the vibrant interiors have come a long way from the white walls and heavy Mission-style furniture featured in the film. In fact, the house radiates prosperity and warmth.  At Christmastime, decked in wreaths, garlands and lights, it is among the most beautiful in the neighborhood. 


James M. Cain’s Beachwood Years: A Hard-Boiled Writer in Hollywoodland

August 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

James M. Caine

James M. Cain (1892-1977) came late to the writing that would earn him lasting fame; his first novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” was published in 1934, when he was 42. By the time he was 40, Cain had been–to varying degrees of failure–a singer, insurance salesman, teacher, newspaper reporter, playwright and magazine editor (at the New Yorker, where he lasted a year). Unhappy with literary life in New York, he signed with Paramount and hopped a train to Hollywood, arriving in 1932, the trough of the Depression. Though he would remain a screenwriter for the next 15 years,  only three of his screenplays–the now rarely seen “Stand Up and Fight,” “Gypsy Wildcat” and “Algiers”–made it to the screen.

Then came “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a blockbuster of a book. Cain had found the themes–loser men, dangerous women, violence, sex, financial desperation–that, recombined in all his future novels, would make him a successful writer. The money that rolled in purchased this magnificent Norman manor on Belden Drive where he lived with his second wife, Elina Sjosted Tyszecka:

cain house
Cain house (with turret) and Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Ironically, his bestsellers didn’t make him a success at screenwriting–in part because Cain remained contemptuous of movies and the people who made them. Though his novels were perfect for the movies, they were adapted by other screenwriters; the excellent results brought acclaim to their stars. The 1946 adaptation of “Postman,” by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, made an icon out of Lana Turner. “Double Indemnity,” (1944) by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder (who also directed) was a huge success for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and is considered by many to be the greatest example of film noir. “Mildred Pierce,” (1945) by Ranald MacDougal, William Faulkner (no less) and Catherine Tunney, was a triumph for Joan Crawford, who won an Oscar for her portrayal as a long-suffering working mother with an unhealthy attachment to her sociopathic daughter. It also made a star out of Ann Blyth and became an enduring classic–so enduring that a new “Mildred Pierce” mini-series starring Kate Winslet has just been announced. 

 Cain reacted to his literary success by drinking even more heavily–he was a lifelong alcoholic–and grousing about being labeled a “hard-boiled” writer along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. “I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise,” he wrote archly in 1947. It’s true that his novels don’t feature detectives or mysteries (except to the extent that readers wonder what attracts losers to sociopaths and vice versa). But what else do you call a novelist whose books deal with adultery, violence, incest, conspiracy and murder?

Raymond Chandler, forever linked to Cain through “Double Indemnity” and the “hard-boiled” designation, returned the favor. “He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking,” he wrote of Cain. Chandler, though also an alcoholic , had a much more successful career both as a screenwriter and novelist and lived out his life in Los Angeles. 

In contrast Cain had burned through Hollywood by 1947. Washed up as a screenwriter, he divorced his third wife, actress Aileen Pringle, married his fourth, opera singer Florence MacBeth Whitwell, and returned to his hometown of Anapolis, MD. There he continued to write, though none of his later work matched his early novels’ popularity or critical acclaim. He outlived Whitwell and died of a heart attack in 1977, at 85.

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