Re-Reading LA: 'Billion Dollar Blackjack' from 1954 | KCET
Re-Reading LA: 'Billion Dollar Blackjack' from 1954
The reason for the alien "otherness" of Los Angeles has been named differently in different seasons, but all the interpreters of our re-read city have actually been trying to identify its original sin.
In Helen Hunt Jackson's "Ramona" (1884), the primal stain is the displacement of the land's Native Americans and Latinos by American aggressors. For critics like H. L. Mencken in the 1920s, the innate depravity of Los Angeles flowed from the gullibility of its inhabitants and the cynicism of those who preyed on them. In Carey McWilliams' "Southern California Country: An Island on the Land" (1946), the fault is in the city's theft of water from the Owens Valley. In "Chinatown" (1974), written by Robert Towne, the stolen water is only a screen for other evils. The original sin of Los Angeles for Towne, echoing Jackson and McWilliams, is rape.
In William Bonelli's "Billion Dollar Blackjack: The Story of Corruption and the Los Angeles Times," (1954), it's lust for power that animates the personalities that Robert Towne blended (and obscured) into the film's incestuous Noah Cross.
Perhaps because the city's founding depravity could be located at the offices of the Los Angeles Times, a circumspect Towne misdirected the audience of "Chinatown" to a fictional stand-in.
For Bonelli, Los Angeles is a sunny cesspool created out of nearly nothing except dirt and that famously stolen water. He's less interested in the water and more in who took it. They're a trio of men, related by marriage, blood, and ownership of the Times across three generations.
A cast of hundreds surrounds them, but "Billion Dollar Blackjack," for reasons of dramatic unity and revenge, mostly ignores the supporting cast.
Bonelli's book (ghost written by reporter Leo Katcher) is supposed to be an exposé of how Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917), his son-in-law Harry Chandler (1864-1944), and Chandler's son Norman Chandler (1899-1973) cynically manipulated the development of Los Angles from 1881 onward for the sole benefit of Otis and the Chandler family. Bringing Owens Valley water to Los Angeles (to raise the value of land a syndicate headed by Otis and Chandler planned to sell) was, according to "Billion Dollar Blackjack," just one of their crimes.
David Halberstam's "The Powers That Be" (1979) tells the story of the Chandlers and their Times with the care of a historian. Bonelli (speaking through Katcher) wants to be a muckraker, indifferent to historical context or plausible psychology.
In "Billion Dollar Blackjack," Harrison Gray Otis is a blustering demagogue, passionately opposed to organized labor, even more so after the bombing of the Times building in 1910 by two labor union operatives. Harry Chandler shares his father-in-law's prejudices, particularly the belief that what's good for the Chandler family is good for Los Angeles. Norman Chandler, polished by family wealth, quietly carries on the business of making Los Angeles profitable for the Chandlers.
In support of that goal, the Chandlers use their newspaper as a club, a lever, a pulpit, a cash cow, a megaphone for ballyhoo, and an organ of conservative politics. (In the 1930s, the Times was anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal. In the 1950s, the Times thought President Eisenhower was soft on Communism.)
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