In the golden age of Hollywood, Tarzan swung over lakes on jungle vines, Show Boat docked on the Mississippi River, and Anna Karenina strolled the waterways of Venice — all made possible with water from the Owens Valley, more than 200 miles away.
As film historians tell the story, Hollywood was born when independent production companies began fleeing New York in the early 1910s to escape the aggressive patent claims of the Edison Trust. Producers were drawn to California for its favorable climate and diverse scenery and its distance from the East Coast film cartel. That’s true, as far as it goes. What the story neglects is that the sudden rise of Hollywood coincided with the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The stage was set in 1909, when a land syndicate backed by Los Angeles Times owner Harrison Grey Otis, his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, and developer Hobart J. Whitley bought nearly 50,000 acres of dusty farmland in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. 1 By packaging and selling real estate to movie stars and producers, the syndicate got rich. All they had to do was wait for the city to turn on the spigot. The aqueduct opened in 1913, conveying water from the California interior, and within two years more than 60 percent of American filmmaking was based in Los Angeles. 2
It was one of the more successful chapters in the long history of marketing the American West. Soon after the aqueduct was announced, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (founded by Otis) began advertising the city’s advantages, and the value of San Fernando properties rose 500 percent. 3 At the opening ceremony, a brochure praised the chamber secretary as “the man who capitalized CLIMATE and put it on the ticker while the whole world listened and listens and plays Los Angeles.” 4
The movie trade magazines did almost as much to sell the hype. Motography enthused about a cinematic wonderland where “every known variety of national scenery” was “seemingly arranged by a master producer expressly for the motion picture camera.” 5 The Moving Picture World traced the Spanish colonial mystique to a “grove of ancient trees” — the “holy wood” — where a Catholic missionary held the first Californian mass. 6 And when William Selig released a documentary about the aqueduct in 1913, reviewers focused less on the film’s merits than on the infrastructure it depicted, “the greatest of modern engineering feats.” 7
A rock is a rock. A tree is a tree. Shoot it in Griffith Park.
The syndicate and the stars even became friends and business partners. Aqueduct engineer William Mulholland liked to pal around with Charlie Chaplin and was fêted at the star-studded opening of the Mulholland Highway, where actress Betty Blythe performed her gossamer-clad Baghdad harem dance from Chu Chin Chow (1926). Chandler, who had by this time inherited the Times from his father-in-law, pursued a sideline career as film investor, founding the Cinema Finance Corporation with producer-director Thomas Ince. Meanwhile, he built a real estate empire. In 1923, Chandler and film star Mack Sennett raised the Hollywoodland sign to promote their joint venture, a housing development; the Times advertised its “Norman French chateaus” complete with “aqueduct water.” 8
Gradually, “Hollywood” came to mean both the film industry and the town. And as water became abstracted from the landscape, so did the imagination. On studio lots, the fantasy fountain gushed year-round. Just as the city’s boosters created and sold an artificial image of Los Angeles, Hollywood’s filmmakers invented a new kind of placelessness. As producer Abe Stern apocryphally declared, “A rock is a rock. A tree is a tree. Shoot it in Griffith Park.” Drunk with water, Hollywood spread its vision around the world, an exuberant fantasy of everywhere.
Jungle Pictures and the L.A. Pastiche
To understand the impact of water on the film industry, we can look at the types of movies made during this era. Rather than the dark urban stories popular in New York, Hollywood directors churned out movies about open spaces configured as exotic. They shot B westerns in Owens Valley while remaking Africa, India, and China on sets in Los Angeles. A thirst for foreign stories was built into Hollywood’s landscape; the movies and the city grew together, mirroring each other.
Even before the aqueduct opened, the Chamber of Commerce was promoting Los Angeles as a “cosmopolitan” city, with people, animals, plants, and houses from around the world. A 1907 guidebook celebrated this “place where the largest number of plants from widely different climes thrive with as much or more vigor than in their natural countries.” 9 The city’s houses were said to come from every continent: English Tudor, Spanish Mission Style, “Indian bungalow” (now known as a Craftsman home). The studio lots later mimicked this architectural eclecticism; at Thomas Ince’s “Inceville,” “The teepees sat cheek-by-jowl with a fake Swiss landscape, a Japanese village, a Puritan settlement, mansions and cottages.” 10
Of course, this manufactured multiculturalism — the L.A. pastiche — did not mean the city’s boosters believed in racial equality. Chandler was a member of the Human Betterment Foundation, a eugenics society which promoted immigration quotas and involuntary sterilization of the “feebleminded.” Aryanism was so popular that a former Klansman was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1929. Screenwriter Perley Poore Sheehan wrote, “The rise of Hollywood and its parent city … is the culmination of ages of preparatory struggle, physical, mental and spiritual. In brief, we are witnessing the last great migration of the Aryan race.” 11 Even the brochure commemorating the aqueduct’s opening echoed the language of eugenics. One page featured a chart of the city’s projected growth next to a photograph of crowded Broadway Street. The caption: “Los Angeles is a race, not a race suicide.” 12
The film industry furthered the mystique of the global menagerie, as well as the city’s racial anxieties. The Panama Canal opened a year after the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and Hollywood producers began importing artifacts and specimens to stock the prop warehouses, mansion foyers, and private zoos. Studio heads obsessively acquired animals from around the world, and the movie trade magazines eagerly reported on their antics. William Selig’s private zoo and arboretum, established in 1913, featured the largest animal house in the world and became a popular tourist attraction. The Motion Picture World bantered, “Reports from the Selig Wild Animal Farm in Los Angeles show that the race suicide has nothing to do with the case so far as a jungle population there is concerned. The collection has been increased by forty-three babies since the first of the year — all native sons and daughters of the Golden West.” 13 The magazine described the “beautifying of all lawns, the filling of the lakes, etc., etc., within the spacious grounds. Monster palms are being transplanted to the zoo demesne, which will be a veritable beauty spot when completed.” 14 “Leopard Lady” Olga Celeste dressed to match the animals she trained for work in the movies. Not to be outdone, Carl Laemmle built his own zoo at Universal City. As Motography reported: “A new series of jungle pictures are to be filmed … in the near future. This is made possible by the recent purchase … of a trainload of lions, tigers, bears, pumas, leopards, jaguars, and other wild denizens of the tropical forests.” 15
The “jungle picture” was a staple of early Hollywood productions, including Back to the Primitive (1911), Hearts of the Jungle (1915), Tarzan of the Apes (1918), and countless others. Of course, the fascination with “primitive” and “exotic” images was not new. What was unprecedented was the extravagant use of space and water that allowed these fantasies to be created on studio back lots. For the Tarzan series, MGM constructed a 63-million-gallon lake, which was later used in Show Boat (1951) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939). There was also a giant water tank with a massive sky background, used for filming miniature ships in movies like Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). 16 Soon tanks were a must-have accessory at every major studio. They could be opened for sudden flood scenes, as in Twentieth Century Fox’s The Rains Came (1939), which depicted a city in India being washed away. Later the same tank was used to sink the Titanic (1953). Tank scenes were a Hollywood standard, from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) to Tora Tora (1970) to Waterworld (1995).
Seemingly any part of the world could be re-created with one simple trick: add water. “Is it a jungle scene in South Africa you pine for?” said Universal city co-founder Billy Swanson. “Well, I don’t know where you would go, even in South Africa, to get a better one than Universal City can afford.” 17 Steven Bingen described the MGM back lot: “For a 1935 film called I Love My Wife, ‘Spanish Street’ was redressed to play Greece. Then they immediately flooded the same street with water so it could play Venice for Anna Karenina. 1935 audiences would have seen both these films, yet never realized they were looking at the same spot.” 18
Meanwhile, swimming pools were popping up behind every French chateau in the hills. As movies were sold as fantasy, so the Hollywood “lifestyle” began to be sold as a symbol of wealth and glamour. Los Angeles was the set for the newly created “star system,” in which bodies themselves were signs of city beautification adorned by (water) wealth.
On its studio lot, MGM constructed a 63-million-gallon lake and a giant water tank with a massive sky background.
Besides a water tank and zoo, the first movie studios commonly maintained an “Indian village” for the westerns also produced at the time. Inceville had Sioux Indians living in tepees on the property, as did Universal City. Native Americans were sometimes depicted like the Africans in The Jungle Princess (1920): as warring tribes that kidnapped white women. The Moving Picture World warned that the actors themselves might be dangerous: “They plunge into the picture-making with a seriousness that is at times uncomfortable, and they have to be under careful watch at all times. … Constant vigilance must be exerted to prevent their securing ball cartridges, as they would undoubtedly use them in battle scenes.” 19
Other times, Native Americans were shown as members of a melancholic “vanishing race,” whose women fell in love with (and were discarded by) white men. New York Motion Pictures came to Los Angeles specifically to shoot “Indian pictures,” a popular ethnographic genre that purported to document authentic Indian life before it disappeared. The Examiner explained, “They have two genuine Indians to take part in the scenes. They are … perfect types of their race.” 20 The idea of a “perfect type” led to Native Americans being hired from distant reservations, which may have helped maintain the illusion that local Indians were vanishing — even though there were still around 20,000 living in California. 21
Even as Hollywood lauded its own “cosmopolitanism,” these crude stereotypes infused its popular genres and defined its business practices. “Foreigners” and Jews were excluded from Anglo-only establishments. Given that many famous studio heads were Jewish, this was a particularly tricky stance. After the completion of the aqueduct, white Angelenos began moving to the San Fernando Valley, physically separating themselves from the city’s “dangerous” elements. 22 Colonial-themed racial anxieties defined the film industry and shaped the geography of the young city. The local landscape was erased, as studio sets became barricaded fantasy worlds — the first gated communities. Allegedly to protect movie stars from “gawkers,” the studios turned inward to cloak their stars and films in secrecy. Ironically, this only increased interest in both, and the “studio tour” was born.
Studio tours, then theme parks, really took off when Selig realized he could sell tickets to his zoo, making package deals with the alligator and ostrich farms on either side of his property. In 1914, at the grand opening of Universal City, Laemmle staged a flash flood for visitors that got out of control and almost swept away the actors. A century later, Universal Studios is still famous for its tours. Tourists can be taken by boat through the swamps of Jurassic Park or get soaked on the set of Waterworld, a post-apocalyptic fantasy of flooded Earth.
Meanwhile, the once-lush Owens Valley, where much of this water came from, is still commonly described as it was in 1913: a “desolate,” “arid,” “alkali laden” wasteland. 23
Owens Valley as Back Lot
While Los Angeles was being boosted as a garden city, Owens Valley was in a virtual media blackout. Residents fought vigorously against the aqueduct; some said their land had been fraudulently acquired by city managers claiming to be working for the federal government. But with the regional media dominated by the Los Angeles Times, coverage was limited to the wonders of civil engineering and other topics that wouldn’t affect the syndicate’s real estate interests.
In 1914, Hollywood producers found their way to Owens Valley while looking for a place to shoot westerns. There, they met Jack Foley (originator of “Foley” sound effects), who was working for the American Defense Society, an anticommunist group hired to protect the Los Angeles water supply from sabotage. Foley became a dedicated location scout.
Initially, only short films were shot in Owens Valley, due to its distance from Los Angeles. The first full-length feature was Fatty Arbuckle’s The Roundup (1920), followed by Mary Pickford’s Pollyanna (1920). In 1923, the classic silent film The Virginian was produced in Owens Valley, and the Dow Hotel opened specifically to cater to movie stars. Then the B western was born. By the 1930s, Republic Pictures was filming most of its B westerns in Owens Valley, including the movies of John Wayne, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, and Roy Rogers.
Even as disgruntled residents repeatedly sabotaged the aqueduct, turning the valley into a kind of police state, the studios happily filmed their westerns. When more than 700 residents laid siege to the aqueduct and diverted its waters back into Owens Lake, they were joined by Western star Tom Mix with “his camera crew and mariachi band.” 24 The Los Angeles Aqueduct was bombed more than twenty times during the “water wars” of the 1920s, and the authorities brought in armed guards and machine guns to monitor the aqueduct and highway, routinely searching vehicles for bombs. The American Defense Society was assigned to control these acts of sabotage, and the Los Angeles Times suggested that a “known red leader” was behind the problems. 25 But the films that were shot there showed none of this violence, nor did they show the 110-square mile lake that was drying up and starting to blow toxic dust. Instead, they gave us cowboy yodelers.
Hundreds of movies were shot in Owens Valley, including not only westerns but a number of British Army-and-Indian films, such as Cary Grant’s Gunga Din (1937). Like Los Angeles itself, the valley was transformed into India, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Tibet, and Alaska — as well as innumerable places in the American Southwest. But there were no jungle pictures filmed in Owens Valley, for there was no longer any water.
The L.A. Aqueduct was bombed more than twenty times in the 1920s, but Hollywood showed none of this violence. They gave us cowboy yodelers.
Increasingly, the desert lands outside Los Angeles were controlled by two agencies: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the U.S. Department of Defense. The DWP still owns most of Owens Valley and requires script approval for filming on their land, thus controlling narratives about the landscape. The department argues that the portrayal of the aqueduct conflict would create “copycat” bombings, and so they have forbid the true history from being told cinematically. ABC producer Robert Berger, denied permission to shoot a movie about Owens Valley called Water and Power, ended up filming in St. George, Utah; he deleted all references to the DWP and renamed the movie Paiute Valley. As location manager Mike Fantasia explained, the situation has only worsened since 9/11: “I just totally avoid them. The DWP just doesn’t want to deal with us so they put everything under homeland security and we’re shut out of most of their facilities.” 26 Similarly, the Defense Department edits scripts that are shot on military properties or use military equipment. To get around this, filmmakers have resorted to buying junked Soviet military equipment and camouflaging them to look American. 27
Controlling land means controlling the message. Those who became famous and rich — in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, and beyond — did so by manufacturing and selling images of scenic gardens, rich orange groves, “beach beauties,” and glamorous lives, images that ultimately bled over into film. Hollywood the dusty farm town became “Hollywood,” playground of the rich and famous. Meanwhile, Native Americans were left to pick fights in the movies, and Owens Valley residents played roles as extras in B westerns, while moonlighting as eco-saboteurs.
Hollywood as Global Empire
With the rise of television, the major Hollywood studios fell into financial difficulties and were bought out by multinational conglomerates, beginning in the late 1960s. Blockbuster films targeted a new global audience. The globalization of Hollywood had earlier been helped by the Marshall Plan (1948-1953), which linked postwar foreign aid to a requirement that European countries import U.S. films. According to geographer Allen J. Scott, these regulations tried to stimulate “American exports at large (by helping to re-shape overall tastes and preferences in foreign markets)” and establish “an ideological weapon” to prevent countries from aligning politically with the Soviet Union. 28 By getting people hooked on Hollywood, American officials hoped to hold communism at bay.
As the studios were sold to the likes of Coca-Cola, Sony, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, they continued this tradition of “cross-promotion.” Today, United International Pictures, a joint venture of Universal (now Viacom) and Paramount (now NBC/Comcast), promotes international distribution of its films in 37 different countries. Vivendi owns cable channels as well as Universal Music and Universal Studios. (Ironically, it was also a leader in the global water industry, until it spun off the water company that was once its main business.) French actor-director Gerard Depardieu complains, “The movie industry in the United States is like a war machine,” destroying European cinema. 29
Hollywood emerged because of intense real estate development, advertising, and an infrastructure that imported water from over 200 miles away. Producers used the cheap land and abundant water to create vast, private, urban empires, centered around elaborate fantasy worlds. Rather than learning about real places in film, audiences were taught that a tree is a tree, a mountain is a mountain, water is water. Nature itself was rendered a “set.” Today, viewers are unable to distinguish Mt. Whitney from Mt. Everest or Death Valley from the Sahara. One scene in The River Wild (1994) spliced together three rivers from different states (Montana, Oregon, and Colorado), yet no one seemed to notice. We have learned that these distinctions do not matter.
Perhaps this is a natural extension of America’s founding as a colonial outpost, where subtle distinctions in an unfamiliar landscape were too new to register. Instead of local knowledge, stereotypes proliferated; landscapes and cultures became fixed “types.” That heritage enabled Hollywood directors to cast Owens Valley as Afghanistan and Los Angeles as Africa. Today, they turn computer-generated images into fictive paradises, where mountains are higher and water bluer. A tree does not even have to be a tree anymore.
Just as colonial Europeans once built Tudor houses and English gardens around the world, so today Hollywood reproduces the Hollywood “lifestyle” wherever it settles. As this fantasy comes to dominate the globe, the danger is that ecological realities, or local conditions, are seen as insubstantial. And when people cannot recognize subtle variations and changes in the landscape, it becomes easier to ignore or deny planetary changes. For this reason, there is a need to put Hollywood back within its local and ecological history, to contain the fantasy that has spread around the world, to reveal both its imperial ambitions and its contested, or fluid, beginnings.