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:

Prize-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion Lets You Fly Through 17th Cen­tu­ry Lon­don

Lon­don Mashed Up: Footage of the City from 1924 Lay­ered Onto Footage from 2013

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

Berlin Street Scenes Beau­ti­ful­ly Caught on Film (1900–1914)

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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