A Visit to Los Angeles (1916)

by popegrutch

In anticipation of my coming visit to Hollywood later this week for Cinecon, I thought I’d check out this old depiction of the city from 101 years ago. Produced by the still-young Ford Motor Company, it’s part travelogue, part advertisement, with an emphasis on the effects and benefits of the automobile on a major Western city.

The movie begins, after a pompous Intertitle, with a panorama of the downtown area taken from the top of a tall building. This would have been pretty exciting for an audience that didn’t get to the tops of skyscrapers very often, and it gives us a good view of the range of architecture that was present at the time. We then cut to the Hall of Records and the Old Court House, which combine monumental size with gothic style fairly effectively. I was surprised by the number of windows on the Hall of Records – at least it looked like you could work with plenty of light in there! We then turn to “Broadway, in the heart of the business section.” We see a crowded street from above (possibly it’s the same vantage as the first shot, simply tilted downward more extremely). Here, we see streetcars and automobiles vying for space on the crowded streets as pedestrians risk their lives trying to cross against traffic that rarely stops. The next shot is of Clune’s Auditorium, which seems to be an imposing structure across the street from a small park. The next shot shows “Central Park,” again from above, but this appears to be a more carefully manicured park than the one in the previous shot. It  is also crowded with people, like its namesake in Manhattan. After a brief panorama, we cut to a ground-level shot of the park, and people pack the pathways, many stopping to sit and smoke at a fountain. Notable in these shots are what appear to be electric streetlamps on the sides of the paths. Now we cut to a street-level shot of a large department store. The Intertitles point out the window boxes with plants visible at every level. The next cut takes us to what looks like a train station, though no Intertitle gives us context here. Now we see Angel’s Flight Inclined Railway, which I didn’t know was so old, as well as the tunnel under the hill that allows you to bypass it. Then a quick pan of the University of California (UCLA), which probably didn’t have a film program at the time. Then California Hospital, which is virtually indistinguishable from the University.

Now, we travel to Chinatown, where we see the only unpaved streets in the movie, and buildings constructed mostly of wood rather than stone. No autos are in evidence, and these are the least crowded streets we’ve seen in the whole movie. A few jabs at the obscurity of Chinese ideograms serves as the segue to a visit to the Old Plaza and the Mexican section of the city (never mind that the whole city had been Mexican within living memory!). Men with long mustaches and heavy suits lounge and stare languidly at the camera in a park. We also see the Plaza Church where the “Mexican population” is said to worship.

We return to the theme of automobiles with a shot of the North Hill Street “double barreled” tunnel, which seems to consist of one barrel for cars, one for streetcars. Then we see a large Masonic temple, before returning to the automotive theme with a view of Broadway in fast motion, the emphasis on the busy traffic. A single policeman in the center of a street  crossing directs what seems like impossibly fast and incessant traffic. Somehow pedestrians occasionally make it safely to the other side. We then see this same corner at regular speed, and get the sense that traffic moves infuriatingly slowly. In perhaps the oddest section, we now see large pipes that are part of the elaborate (and expensive) system of bringing water to the desert community. For scale, a human figure walks on one of the pipes. Then, they show a man driving a Ford car on one of the pipes, to demonstrate how large they really are! Speaking of cars, we now get to see the oil fields of Los Angeles, where a variety of derricks are pumping up the precious liquid in vast quantities. We are told that many industries have shifted from coal-burning plants to oil-burning. Finally, a shot of “bungalows” (actually, quite large houses) from the back of a car demonstrates the thrill of driving in LA. Men wear heavy coats in what seems to be the heat of a California day, and carry papers as they leave their bungalows for work.

This movie is pretty basic, so far as travel films go, but it shows off a lot of LA from a period when it was just beginning to boom as a city. The film industry would have been a going concern already by 1916, but this movie has no interest in that, choosing to emphasize downtown architecture, crowded city streets, ethnic neighborhoods, pipelines, automobiles and oil. Those last two can be seen as particular interests of its production company, so no great surprise perhaps. But one would think that movie audiences would be obvious targets for movies about movie-making. Perhaps no one at Ford thought so, or perhaps the distance to the studios from the locations where this movie was shot made it not worthwhile to them. Anyway, the result is that we see a lot of the old LA that the movie companies tended not to document so well, and the result is interesting if not always terribly entertaining.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch the first two minutes for free: here. Those with University affiliations may be able to access the file via their libraries. Worldcat link: here.