By Gary Krist, Broadway Books, May 15, 2018, 0451496388
I like a well-written history book. The Mirage Factory is the making of Los Angeles from 1900 to 1930. The three main characters Mulholland, McPherson, and Griffith brought water, religion, and movies to the desert.
The biggest story in some ways is water. I learned a great deal about the war between the people of Owens Valley and Mulholland. The movie industry was known to me a bit. I didn’t know anything about McPherson and the Foursquare Gospel.
Gary Krist wrote an excellent, well-researched book.
[k353] This problem became especially acute in the mid-1880s, when a second long-distance railroad line (the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway) reached Los Angeles. This new competition for the Southern Pacific line set off a fare war that reduced the cost of a Chicago-to-L.A. train ticket from $125 to $15 to, at one point, a single dollar.
[k359] Shortly after joining the company in 1878, the twenty-three-year-old “deputy zanjero” was down in a ditch, furiously digging mud and stones, when company president William Perry rode past. The executive stopped to ask the young man’s name, but Mulholland didn’t recognize him. “It’s none of your goddamned business,” he barked, and continued digging.
[k508] Eaton was, first and foremost, a businessman, and so he also had his own interests in mind. Until city money could be officially appropriated for the land and water rights, he was buying on his own private account, the understanding with Mulholland and the water commissioners being that he would eventually transfer the options to the city at cost. But Eaton wasn’t above trying to derive a little financial benefit for himself in the process.
[k516] Later that same month, after much haggling, he convinced Rickey to sell him an option to buy the ranch for $450,000, with only one hundred dollars up front to seal the deal.
[k542] Nature itself would be reconfigured for the benefit of the City of Angels. And the man who would make it all happen–at least to hear the newspapers tell it–was water department chief William Mulholland.
[k600] None of this was helped by the condescending tone the L.A. papers adopted when reporting Eaton’s exploits in the valley.
[k605] And the principal engineers of this disappearing mirage were a triumvirate of “Los Angeles scoundrels”: Lippincott, Eaton, and William Mulholland. In the eyes of many in the Owens Valley, there was only one way of looking at the situation. Los Angeles, in the person of these three men, was stealing the water that was rightfully theirs.
[k698] Bosworth’s name would never be used in association with the production. And then McGee mentioned what the actor would be paid: $125, for two days of work. “Alas, my code of ethics fell before the onslaught of Capital,” Bosworth admitted. “The prostitution of art began then. I was the first to fall.”
[k746] Movies like A Trip to the Moon of 1902 (which includes the iconic scene of a space capsule crashing into the eye of the moon) proved that an audience’s interest could be sustained for far longer than the sixty or ninety seconds of a typical early Kinetoscope. Learning from this example, Edison director Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery (1903), a twelve-minute western that would prove to be a milestone in American filmmaking.
[k757] Movie production companies sprang up in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. And since there would be no motion picture copyright law until 1912, they could all steal ideas and stories from one another with impunity.
[k761] Movies remained a pastime of the inner-city working class–often immigrants who couldn’t afford a ticket to the legitimate theater and for whom silent films presented no language barrier. As such they were regarded as a somewhat disreputable phenomenon.
[k839] When Griffith started acting for Biograph in the spring of 1908, there were about nine principal film studios active in the United States. Thanks to the tight control Edison exercised over patent rights, all but one of them had to pay license fees to use Edison’s movie cameras and other equipment. The exception was Biograph, founded by William Laurie Dickson, Edison’s former assistant–and the man largely responsible for developing the technologies his boss later claimed as his own. After leaving the Edison Studio in 1895, Dickson had invented a new peep show machine called a Mutoscope to compete with Edison’s Kinetoscope. He’d also come up with a motion picture camera and a projector that would not infringe on the Edison patents. But since Biograph films required exhibitors to buy or rent all of that special equipment, the studio began losing ground to Edison and the “Edison licensees.”
[k893] And much to their (and Griffith’s) relief, the audience seemed to like his first effort. “Not a snore was to be heard,” Linda Arvidson reported, “[so] we concluded we’d had a successful opening night.”
[k912] This was not, as Griffith was later to claim, the first use of a close-up in the movies. Bitzer himself would eventually point out that Edison’s 1894 Kinetoscope Fred Ott’s Sneeze was entirely shot in close-up.
[k925] Here again, Griffith didn’t invent cross-cutting–Edwin Porter had used a cruder version of the technique in The Great Train Robbery five years earlier. But Griffith refined it and expanded its use, adding it to a toolbox of dramatic effects that was growing by the week as he and Bitzer experimented ever more boldly on set.
[k960] Under Griffith the Sennett-Normand team gained experience they would parlay into the great Keystone comedies of the 1910s.
[k965] Her name was Gladys Smith, she told Griffith, but she appeared professionally under the name Belasco had given her: Mary Pickford.
[k973] By the end of 1909–after eighteen months of sixteen-hour days and seven-day weeks that had yielded more than two hundred films–Griffith was ready for a change of venue.
[k1010] They had allegedly come west after a fracas on the streets of New York with some “Edison bulls”–that is, the intimidating detectives hired by the trust to prevent unauthorized use of his patented camera and film stock.
[k1012] Much has been made of this episode, and some Hollywood historians cite the geographical distance from Edison’s enforcers as the main reason so many moviemakers came to Los Angeles. But a good number of the companies that arrived in these early years–Lubin, Essanay, Melies, and Vitagraph all came shortly after Griffith and his crew–were fully licensed members of the trust, with no need to escape the long arm of the law. And certainly the city’s physical suitability for filmmaking was compelling enough.
[k1025] Although Los Angeles was the site of the very first dedicated movie house in the country–the Electric Theatre, converted from an old arcade in 1902 by entrepreneur Thomas Tally–this town full of culturally conservative midwestern transplants hardly saw itself as a future movie capital. Some residents actively sought to discourage the industry’s development, as witnessed by the numerous “NO JEWS, ACTORS, OR DOGS” signs that soon appeared in the windows of boardinghouses.
[k1036] Not until October 1911 would the first movie studio come to Hollywood proper, when two Englishmen, William and David Horsely, began making movies under the name Nestor in a decrepit roadhouse off Sunset Boulevard. But the Horselys were to be the vanguard of a horde.
[k1067] In 1912, after a long-fought lawsuit brought against them under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Edison and the Motion Picture Patents Company lost their stranglehold on movie production technology, meaning that the independents could now operate without fear of the trust and its stifling license requirements. The number of companies making movies exploded.
[k1089] Even Hobart Bosworth–now writing, acting in, and directing films for Selig–cited Griffith, along with the late Francis Boggs, as his principal role model.
[k1111] He was constantly urging his players toward a more naturalistic acting style than was prevalent on the stage of this era. “Not so much, not so much,” he would yell at an overemoting actor. “Less, less–simple, simple, true. Don’t act it, feel it; feel it, don’t act it.”
[k1265] Mulholland at first tried a newfangled solution, hauling them with the recently invented gas- or steam-powered tractors known as caterpillars. But the terrain and weather conditions proved to be too much for the machines; the Chief eventually had to replace them with reliable, low-tech mules–thirteen hundred of them, pulling the twenty-six-ton sections of pipe in teams of fifty-two animals for each.
[k1788] The Birth of a Nation, which earned out its substantial cost in just two months and went on to run continuously for years in many places (reportedly for twelve years straight in certain parts of the South), changed the entire movie industry. As Bitzer would later write, “From the day this picture opened, the movies became big business.” The spectacle of 25 million people paying up to two dollars a ticket to see a single film suddenly convinced Wall Street and the big banks that the movies were an industry after all, worthy of serious investment.
[k1879] Savvy developers would erect “SOLD!” signs on lots not actually sold, hoping to create a false sense of urgency among potential buyers. Often these places would be served by projected streetcar lines, carrying hypothetical residents to still-imaginary neighborhoods.
[k1950] Even so, Japanese made up about 45 percent of the farm labor in California in 1909, and a Little Tokyo neighborhood took root in downtown L.A. to compete with the older Chinatown.
[k2646] Sister had made arrangements ahead of time to preach a few revivals along the way, in cities like Indianapolis, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City. Many of these places had banned public gatherings because of the ongoing flu epidemic, but the restrictions were miraculously lifted just in time to allow Aimee to speak.
[k2655] On that December Saturday when they finally rode through the gates of Brother and Sister Blake’s house in beautiful Los Angeles, they knew they had made the right choice in coming all of that way. As God had told her, this was obviously their place to settle.
[k2660] For a charismatic evangelist like Sister McPherson, Los Angeles in the late 1910s offered particularly fertile ground.
[k2672] In a sense, William Mulholland and D. W. Griffith had already seen to the city’s physical, economic, and artistic requirements; now Aimee Semple McPherson was here to minister to its spiritual needs.
[k2723] The 1920s were to see a real estate boom like nothing ever experienced in L.A. before or since.
[k2725] Now the population was poised to double once again in the years from 1920 to 1925, exceeding the million mark sometime in 1924. About 350 new Angelenos were arriving in the city every day.
[k2735] One result of this residential dispersal was the birth in Los Angeles of an automobile culture well in advance of other metropolitan areas.
[k2737] By 1920, an estimated 160,000 automobiles were circulating–or often not circulating–on the crowded streets of the city.
[k2752] In October 1919, a local farmer named Alphonzo Bell, who had smelled something odd one day while drilling a water well, persuaded Standard Oil to come and sink a few test shafts on his farm in Santa Fe Springs, southeast of downtown. On the night of October 30, Bell was awakened by a huge eruption of mud and gas from the well, followed by the classic gusher of tar-black crude. It took some time for the full extent of the discovery to become clear, but eventually Bell, who had been on the brink of bankruptcy in 1919, earned enough from his oil royalties to buy a huge tract of undeveloped land west of Beverly Hills, where he founded the now-exclusive residential enclave of Bel-Air.
[k2893] An estimated three hundred films were shot–wholly or partially–in the Alabama Hills from the 1920s to the 1950s. But although this role as a kind of northern annex of Hollywood brought welcome money into the local economy, movies alone could not compensate for the losses created by the continuing diversions of the valley’s scarce water resources.
[k2898] In April 1921 the American Association of Engineers named Mulholland (who never went to college, let alone graduate school) one of the top engineers of the world, alongside George Washington Goethals and Orville Wright.
[k2901] But in the Owens Valley, Mulholland was rapidly becoming the most hated figure in local history.
[k2995] Hearts of the World, when it opened in the spring of 1918, proved another success. After the New York premiere in April, according to the New York Times, “the spectators stood and shouted for Mr. Griffith until he appeared on the stage.” Audiences flocked to see the film, at least until the Spanish flu epidemic closed many theaters and the signing of the Armistice in November cooled their ardor for war films.
[k3064] The movie industry was just then facing the first pronounced downturn in its history. For one thing, the Spanish influenza epidemic had severely depressed box office receipts, as theaters in many cities were closed by government fiat and frightened moviegoers stayed home to avoid exposure to crowds. By 1919, the epidemic was tapering off, but the paranoia lingered. (Lillian Gish, who just barely survived a terrifying bout of flu before the filming of Broken Blossoms, claimed that Griffith refused to come within ten feet of her during rehearsals.)
[k3157] Zukor’s dominance by the early 1920s was unquestionable. At the start of the decade, Paramount and its associated businesses generated an estimated 35 percent of all motion picture revenues in the country.
[k3306] The numbers she attracted were staggering–100,000 in Dallas, 200,000 in Oakland, 300,000 in San Diego.
[k3375] In August 1921 the San Francisco chapter of the American Medical Association secretly sent representatives to the healing sessions at one of Sister McPherson’s Oakland revivals. After witnessing several sessions and examining the beneficiaries of her ministrations, they issued a report approving of the evangelist’s work and declaring her healings “genuine, beneficial, and wonderful.”
[k3421] So she raised the $25,000 necessary to start a 500-watt station and hired a man named Kenneth Ormiston to build it. In February 1924–just a few years after the first federally licensed commercial station in the United States began broadcasting in Pittsburgh–Aimee Semple McPherson’s own KFSG went on the air, featuring hymns, testimonials from converts, organ recitals, readings of the classics, and live broadcasts of Sunday services. One of the most popular shows was the “Sunshine Hour,” a seven a.m. live broadcast that Sister hosted every morning when she was in town.
[k3497] She did not fare much better with some leaders of the mainstream Christian denominations. Practices too tame for the Pentecostalists were still too outre for the traditional churches, especially after these churches began to lose congregation members to the Foursquare Gospel.
[k3589] According to Owens Valley Herald editor Harry Glasscock, who was emerging as one of the most vocal leaders of the resistance movement, the city’s action was brought “mainly for the purpose of demoralizing this county, frightening the people, and depressing land values….The defendants in this case, the water owners and users of this section, are the men who helped build the west.”
This familiar trope of heroic western pioneers divided and undermined by conniving city slickers was played up in a series of articles written for the San Francisco Call by staff writer Court E. Kunze (who just happened to be a brother-in-law of Wilfred Watterson). Under the title “Valley of Broken Hearts,” the series was hardly a paragon of dispassionate reporting. “Fear, suspicion, and bitter hatreds have pitched their black tents in every crossroad” ran a typical passage.
[k3679] Unfortunately for the occupiers of the Alabama Gates, Governor Richardson ultimately refused to send the militia to Lone Pine, denying them the publicity coup they wanted.
[k3756] “Mrs. McPherson,” the article claimed, “has spoken by pulpit, radio, and pen to more people than any living woman.”
[k3772] “A fraction of the water that each year is wasted by [the Colorado] river into the Gulf of California,” he wrote, “would be enough to meet the requirements of 10,000,000 people in Los Angeles and neighboring cities.”
[k3776] Work for the Boulder Canyon dam, he concluded, “and you will be working for the day when a great new supply of water will come tumbling into our city to support prosperity and unlimited growth.”
[k3781] No reference was made in the Municipal Progress Edition to any of the problems endemic to all large cities–crime, municipal corruption, urban sprawl, poverty, homelessness, or unemployment. Nor was attention paid to any of the social complexities that arise with a rapidly diversifying population. There were no barrios in this version of Los Angeles, no Chinatown, no black metropolis like the one that was just beginning to thrive around Central Avenue on the city’s south side. Here, still, was the wealthy white man’s version of the ideal city, where upward mobility was the only social goal and where technology could solve all problems. It was a city without losers–at least among those the establishment cared about. A city that never was, in other words, and–as would soon become all too clear–a city that never would be.
[k3825] The L.A. Times had harsh criticism for Mulholland’s handling of the bombing crisis, which had already cost the city some $250,000 in damage; the L.A. Record even called on him to resign.
[k3828] By mid-July 1927, the aqueduct had been bombed no fewer than ten times. At this point, California’s newly elected governor, Clement C. Young, decided to step in. Declaring the bombings a matter to be handled by the U.S. government, he made an official request to President Calvin Coolidge to intervene.
[k3838] Not only had the Wattersons been channeling funds to the bombers; they had obtained those funds through financial fraud of the very worst kind. According to the investigators’ findings, the brothers had been selling securities owned by depositors without authorization. They had also failed to cancel loans and mortgages that had been paid off months earlier, instead diverting the proceeds into their own financially strapped commercial endeavors and falsifying state banking reports to cover their tracks. In short, the Wattersons had defrauded their friends and neighbors in the valley, at least in part, in order to keep their own businesses afloat.
[k3846] At noon on August 4, the doors of the five Watterson bank branches in the valley were closed. The brothers were arrested and charged with thirty-six counts of embezzlement and fraud.
[k3852] None were more disillusioned than the other leaders of the Owens Valley resistance–in particular, Harry Glasscock, editor of the Owens Valley Herald. After writing a bitter editorial disavowing the Wattersons and apologizing for his long-term support of them, the ruined newsman removed himself from valley affairs. Several months later, he killed himself in an L.A. hotel room.
[k3860] So the California Water War was over, and the ever-more-powerful city of Los Angeles had won.
[k3958] On the set or on location, DeMille acted like an autocratic general leading a military campaign, always fitted out in his trademark jodhpurs, helmet, and riding crop, keeping himself well insulated from the hoi polloi of his cast and crew.
[k3962] With their million-dollar salaries and twenty-four-hour publicity machines, celebrity directors like DeMille and megastars like Swanson were now the most visible faces of the movie industry. And yet there was never any doubt who were the real bosses in this new Hollywood: the executive producers, representing the studio heads and the moneymen behind them.
[k4071] Griffith himself, who had experimented with sound sequences in his 1921 film Dream Street, certainly thought so. “It will never be possible to synchronize the voice with the pictures,” he wrote in 1924. “I am quite positive that when a century has passed, all thought of our so-called speaking pictures will have been abandoned.”
[k4088] Fox (a midrange studio at this time) and Warner Bros. (near the bottom and financially precarious) pursued sound technology while their more powerful competitors sat on the sidelines.
[k4559] Nothing would ever be the same in Hollywood again. “I, for one,” wrote Robert Sherwood in Life after seeing The Jazz Singer, “realized that the end of the silent era was in sight.”
[k4602] Warners’ asset base, which in 1925 had been a mere $5 million, grew to $230 million by 1930–mainly because of the studio’s early embrace of sound.
[k4724] From this humiliation, he would never recover. By his own report, Griffith was drunk from the night of The Struggle’s opening on December 10, 1931, until the end of the following January.
[k4726] Lillian Gish summed up his predicament: “He could not make movies the Hollywood way, which meant that he could not make movies at all anymore.”
The Father of Film thus joined the growing list of casualties created by the changing culture of Hollywood at the end of the 1920s.
[k4736] Even a survivor like Cecil B. DeMille didn’t like it. “When banks came into pictures, trouble came in with them,” he would later write. “When we operated on picture money, there was joy in the industry; when we operated on Wall Street money, there was grief in the industry.”
[k4799] The head dam-keeper Tony Harnischfeger was less amused. Harnischfeger had grown increasingly worried about the leaks around the dam and had made no secret of this among friends and co-workers–so much so that his superiors in Los Angeles allegedly warned him that he could lose his position if he continued airing his misgivings. His concerns grew only worse when, on the morning of March 12, 1928, he noticed a new leak on the dam’s western abutment.
[k4809] After about two hours on-site, during which time they also examined some of the other leaks on both the western and the eastern sides of the dam, Mulholland declared the seepage normal for a dam of that size.
[k4868] As the unstoppable torrent of water surged down the canyon, it smashed and carried away everything in its path.
[k4926] (Of some 150 workers at the camp that night, 84 died.)
[k4934] In Santa Paula, patrolman Thornton Edwards received a call at his home at about one-thirty a.m. Like many people in the valley, he had never even heard of the distant St. Francis Dam, let alone known that it presented a danger to his community. But the thirty-three-year-old, who occasionally moonlighted as an actor and a motorcycle stuntman for low-budget movie studios, responded quickly. After getting his own family to safety, he set out on his motorcycle for what would be his most famous role–as the “Paul Revere of the St. Francis Flood.” Racing through the lower-lying streets of Santa Paula, he spread word of the oncoming water.
[k4959] As day broke over the Santa Clara Valley, miles away, the effects of the flood could at last be fully appreciated. The aftermath was horrifying–a sixty-five-mile swath of death and destruction, running from the mountains to the sea.
[k4989] At a meeting of the board of water commissioners on March 18, a visibly distraught Mulholland offered his resignation as chief engineer, after which, according to one witness, he “slumped into his chair, buried his face in his folded arms, and sobbed like a broken-hearted child.” The board then voted–unanimously–to reject Mulholland’s offer.
[k5009] The Angelus Temple responded with characteristic generosity: Sister McPherson was on a train to Denver when word of the disaster reached her, and she reportedly wanted to turn around immediately, until a telegram from a temple group called City Sisters reassured her that the church was doing its part in her absence.
[k5064] But he also claimed that he was “willing to take my medicine like a man,” were he himself proved negligent. “If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human,” he admitted grimly. “I won’t try to fasten it on anybody else.”
[k5073] According to the jurors, the dam had failed mainly because of “the very poor quality of the underlying rock structure,” and while the design and construction quality of the dam might have been adequate in a better location, the structure lacked up-to-date safety features that would have perhaps mitigated the poor choice of site. Unfortunately, Mulholland had not consulted with geologists and dam engineering experts who could have warned him about these issues. The water department had, in other words, relied too heavily and exclusively on Mulholland’s “ability, experience, and infallibility in matters of engineering judgment”–a judgment that, in this case at least, had proved inadequate to the task.
[k5184] The L.A. newspapers became fed up with these antics: “A news moratorium on the McPhersons et al is the crying need of the day,” the L.A. Times declared, reporting on the latest family hubbub in 1937. “The first time it was a sensation. The second time it was still good. But now it is like the ninth life of a cat, about worn out.”
[k5188] When the Depression hit Los Angeles hard, the Angelus Temple created a commissary to feed any and all comers–an institution that evolved into a twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week combination soup kitchen, employment office, and first aid station. “She literally kept most of that Mexican community alive,” actor Anthony Quinn (who played sax in the temple band and sometimes served as Sister’s translator) once told an interviewer, “and for that I’m eternally grateful.”
[k5195] Over fifty thousand mourners came to the temple over the course of three days to pay their respects. In the end, she left the church in the far steadier, if less colorful, hands of her son, Rolf, who led it through a time of exponential growth over the next decades. Today, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel has over six million members in more than fifty thousand branch congregations around the world.
[k5225] By the mid-twentieth century, then, the Artist, the Evangelist, and the Engineer were all gone from the scene, but the marks they had left were evident everywhere.
[k5247] But it’s worth noting that, thanks to more enlightened conservation policies in recent years, the city consumed less water in 2015 than it did in 1970, despite gaining more than one million additional residents.