Three Films Capture 1940s New York, Chicago & Los Angeles in Vivid Color

“Citizenship of this city in itself made for a bond beyond class,” writes the redoubtable Welsh writer of place Jan Morris in Manhattan ’45, her book-length love letter to New York City in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. “To be a citizen of Manhattan was an achievement in itself — it had taken guts and enterprise, if not on your own part, at least on your forebears.’ The pressures of the place, its competition, its pace, its hazards, even the fun of it, demanded special qualities of its people, and gave them a particular affinity for one another. They were all an elite!”

Four years into the time of which Morris so rapturously writes, out came Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Mighty Manhattan – New York’s Wonder Citya fine Technicolor accompaniment to her textual appreciation. The clip at the top of the post, narrated by “Voice of the Globe” James Patrick, shifts straight into full midcentury triumphal gear, extolling such classic works of Manhattan Man as Wall Street, the Flatiron Building, the elevated train, the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York Public Library, and of course, the Empire State Building. (It also shows a sight that, for all the gee-whizzing it must have elicited at the time, we all hope will never return: Central Park with cars in it.)

“Not so long ago Chicagoans were convinced that their city would soon be the greatest and most famous on Earth, outranking New York, London, and Paris, the centre of a new world, the boss city of the universe,” Morris writes elsewhere. Today, “the blindest lover of Chicago would not claim for the place the status of a universal metropolis. Too much of the old grand assertiveness has been lost. Nobody pretends Chicago has overtaken New York; instead there is a provincial acceptance of inferiority, a resignation, coupled with a mild regret for the old days of brag and beef.”

For a sense of that brag and beef — and given the footage of the stockyards, take the latter literally — have a look at the half-hour film above: Chicago, produced by the Chicago board of education in 1945 or 1946. After Chicagoan Jeff Altman, who works in film post-production, found it at a south side estate sale, he did a bit of a restoration on it and posted it to the internet. “It’s hard to say the purpose of the film,” Altman writes. “It could be geared towards tourism or to entice companies to come to Chicago. This film could have just been used in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure. The great thing is all the different views of the city they give.”

“Los Angeles is the know-how city,” Morris writes in another essay. “Remember know-how? It was one of the vogue words of the forties and fifties, now rather out of fashion. It reflected a whole climate and tone of American optimism. It stood for skill and experience indeed, but it also expressed the certainty that America’s particular genius, the genius for applied logic, for systems, was inexorably the herald of progress.” At that time, Los Angeles didn’t need so much boosterism — it was boosterism. The Southern Californian metropolis began booming in the early 20th century, and that boom wouldn’t end until well after the war, if indeed it has ended yet.

Many of its new arrivals, the vast majority of whom came from elsewhere in the United States until the late 1960s, couldn’t have helped but felt enticed by scenes like the ones in the clip just above, which shows off the Sunset Strip in the late 40s or early 50s. Los Angeles has changed, as has every American city: buildings have grown taller, populations have densified, and you see a wider variety of faces and hear a wider variety of languages on the streets than ever before. Some, especially Youtube commenters, bemoan this, but to my mind, things have got considerably more interesting as a result. Vintage footage like this — and especially vintage footage in unusually vivid color like this — reminds us that, as fascinating a past as our cities have, their future looks richer still.

Related Content:

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Paris Through Pentax: Short Film Lets You See a Great City Through a Different Lens

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1927 London Shown in Moving Color

A Drone’s Eye View of Los Angeles, New York, London, Bangkok & Mexico City

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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