When I was a young pup at the Los Angeles Times, every once in a while a buzz would go around the newsroom and everyone would run to a corner window overlooking 2nd Street to catch a glimpse of Otis Chandler emerging from whatever absurdly cool car he was driving back then. I wasn't around for the glory days when Otis was the paper's groundbreaking publisher. But even in the mid-1980s, after he'd stepped down and been replaced by Tom Johnson, Otis still had his mojo intact, being the dashing, high-minded, third-generation Chandler who'd transformed The Times into a world-class newspaper.
The potent, imperious and often dysfunctional Chandler family is the subject of a new documentary, "Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times," which had its premiere last weekend at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and will be aired nationally later this year on PBS.
Directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jones (and narrated by "Defiance's" Liev Schreiber), "Inventing L.A." is a fascinating historical portrait of a family of urban plantation owners, the plantation, of course, being Los Angeles. Until Otis took control of The Times in 1960, the real value of the paper was as a tool to market L.A. as a subtropical paradise, bludgeon unions and extend the family's reach as the real-estate barons of Southern California.
In other words, the Chandlers saw The Times more as a vehicle for promoting economic expansion than as a journalistic endeavor. The family's pioneering empire builder was Harrison Gray Otis, who was famous for writing fire-breathing editorials attacking everyone from labor insurgents -- Otis dubbed them "gas-pipe ruffians" and "midnight assassins" -- to supporters of the power-hungry Southern Pacific railroad, whom he wrote off as "lackeys and lickspittles." Otis was succeeded by his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, a staunch Republican who amassed one of the great fortunes in Southern California, famously (see "Chinatown") using the paper to support his efforts to bring water to Los Angeles, even if the aqueduct carrying the precious water conveniently stopped in the San Fernando Valley, where Harry had most of his real-estate holdings.
The film is anything but a love letter to the Chandler dynasty, painting the family as obsessed with amassing wealth as well as a kind of knee-jerk conservative politics that for years made the newspaper something of a laughingstock back East. But the film rarely flags because of its broadened scope, with Jones shrewdly reminding us of how the Chandlers' interests, for better and for worse, were tightly intertwined with the development of Southern California. That was true whether it was Harry Chandler using The Times to smear Upton Sinclair as a dangerous radical when he ran for governor of California in 1934 or Harry's son, Norman Chandler, offering The Times as a launching pad for Richard Nixon when he emerged as a California political force in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Even for someone who's reasonably well-informed about local history, "Inventing L.A." offers choice new nuggets. In 1934, at the height of the Depression, Harry Chandler was so flush with dough that when he built the new Times building, he paid for the construction all in cash. To ensure the continuation of a healthy dynasty, Harry also bribed each of his children with the offer of $100 for each grandchild they produced. The film also has great vintage clips of the Chandler family at work and at play, especially of Otis Chandler, who obsessively lifted weights, surfed and was a shot-putter in college.
In fact, the film takes the position that Otis Chandler was ultimately responsible for both The Times' success and its undoing. He turned The Times into a great, wonderfully profitable paper, but he had little of his father or grandfather's business acumen or diplomatic skills. He eventually alienated much of the Chandler clan, in part because of his willingness to let the paper reflect the new progressive spirit of California. In 1961, as the film notes, The Times ran a lengthy expose on the John Birch Society, even though its supporters included Otis Chandler's uncle and other key Chandlers, which only widened family divisions.
In 1980, Otis Chandler stepped down as publisher. By 1985, he was ousted as head of The Times' board of directors. Soon his successor, Johnson, was gone as well, setting off a long, slow decline that ended with the Chandlers selling off the paper, more eager to protect long-term financial interests than serve as custodians of a media conglomerate when journalism was under attack on all too many fronts.
"Inventing L.A." has its drawbacks; I wish Jones had spent more time exploring the uneasy relationship between the Chandlers and L.A.'s other great 20th century cultural power, the Jewish moguls of Hollywood. But the film, which is produced in conjunction with KCET, supplies a sobering glimpse of the often bare-knuckled exercise of power in 20th century America. If what was good for General Motors was good for America, as the old maxim went, then it was surely true that what was good for the Chandler family was good for Los Angeles, whether anyone liked it or not.