Thursday, 29 July 2010

California Picture Book (1946)

This Castle Film follows California the Golden by 16 years, and covers most of the same ground, but still demonstrates the hold that the classic 1930's Golden Age of the Golden State had on the imagination.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Hollywood in the 'Toons

Though not the originators of animation, Hollywood certainly took the concept and ran with it, creating numerous beloved characters in the golden heyday of the 1920's and 30's. Understanding their debt to Tinsel Town and their own place within it, the 'toons often paid homage to Hollywood. Some were more general rags-to-riches stories of the little guy trying to make it big in the spotlight, but others featured a full array of superstar charicatures which make them an awful lot of fun to watch... and test your trivia knowledge by.

Felix the Cat, Felix in Hollywood (1923)

Flip the Frog, Movie Mad (1931)

Mickey Mouse, Mickey's Gala Premier (1933)
Click here for a scorecard.

Mickey Mouse, Mickey's Polo Team (1936)

Silly Symphony, Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938)

Merrie Melodies, Hollywood Steps Out (1941)
Click here for a scorecard.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition

The exposition of 1915 was an auspicious occasion for the city of San Francisco. It marked the completion of the Panama Canal, but also rallied the city into showing how they had sprung back from the brink in the wake of the great 1906 earthquake. The following site replicates the souvenir guidebook for the event that took place along the banks of the Marina.

Or one might also be interested in the two-bit official guidebook...

Art is one of the most powerful modes of communication, period, let alone at a world exposition. The following book outlines the sculptures and murals in 1915, such as the frieze devoted to "survival of the fittest"...

One shadow looming over the expsoition was the outbreak of The Great War. This did not go unrecognized by the organizers, who produced a short film entitled The Story of Jewel City. A fairytale fantasy film, it charts the ultimate message of the fair: hope. Click here to view it.

To view a more mundane 1940 film retrospective of the exposition, click here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Mr. Golightly bound to California

We've featured the eccentric British entrepreneur Charles Golightly here before, and for some time, his amazing, patented, never-built aerial steam rocket even stood in as our logo. As we know, he received his patent on the design in 1841, which was a only a few short years before the onset of the California Gold Rush. For some reason, the novelty of Golightly's rocket and the mania of the Gold Rush collided in the minds of magazine editors, who just couldn't leave the poor man alone.

Here you'll find two editorial cartoons showing Mr. Golightly on his way to Californy, the first to sell implements to miners and the second as one of many ordinary and fantastic conveyances to the fields of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Both images are linked to their respective Library of Congress pages, where you can see larger and clearer versions.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Queen of California (1864)

The Atlantic Monthly of March, 1864, offered an entertaining recap of the mythic origins of the State of California, lost in the distant past of the Amazonian queendom of the mighty Califa. This was a brief translation of García Ordóñez de Montalvo's 1510 novel The Adventures of Esplandián by E.E. Hale, and if you click on the cover below, it will direct you to an online reproduction of that issue.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The La Brea Tar Pits

Of those sites that have been raised to the status of palaeontological meccas, one of the most iconic is the La Brea Tar Pits. Being in the right place - downtown Los Angeles - at the right time to capture the imaginations of artists and palaeontologists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, the Tar Pits have oozed into the public imagination as an archetypal scene of prehistory. On the great plains of the Ice Age Americas, gigantic herds of mammoth and longhorn bison were caught in the sticky black deathtraps, prey to sabretooth tigers and cave men who themselves became victims of their own insatiable appetites, the whole lot of them sinking from sight until they emerged as petrified bones some hundreds of thousands of years later.

Charles R. Knight imagines La Brea

The image persists, though it is not entirely accurate. The tract of land in modern day Hancock Park along Wilshire Boulevard does not contain vast and deep pools of tar, ready to suck wandering beasts down with the rapidity of quicksand. The natural asphalt that has been seeping to the surface over the past 40,000 years has only ever pooled in shallow depressions. Otherwise, it formed an even deadlier, more insidious menace... A thin, invisible layer of this asphalt hid beneath the sediments deposited downstream of the Santa Monica hills. This dust-covered asphalt stopping prehistoric wildlife in their tracks. Immobilized, animals soon succumbed to dehydration, the elements and predators.

The asphalt itself formed on the suffocated bottom of the oceanic basin that was Miocene Los Angeles some 24 million years ago. Shifting continents and changing sea levels frequently turned the western coast of California into a submarine continental shelf. The stagnant waters of this shelf were perfect for the accumulation and burial of volumes of organically rich sediments. Retreating waters, continental uplift and deposits from the forming Santa Monicas brought the Los Angeles basin into the open air. They also buried the organic remains deeply enough, and under enough pressure, to force their transformation into petroleum. The countless cracks and fissures rippling throughout California's fault zones provided an outlet for this tar to seep to the surface, where it continues to do so.

Because of these unique conditions of entrapment and preservation, La Brea has become one of the most encyclopedic sites for Ice Age animals. Nowhere else is there so clear a record for that period between 40,000 and 9,000 years ago. The current tally consists of 58 species of mammals, 138 species of birds, 24 species of reptiles, 6 species of amphibians, 3 species of fish, 56 species of mollusks including freshwater clams and snails, 168 species of arthropods, 75 species of microscopic diatoms and 80 species of plants identified through pollen, seeds, leaves and wood. The remains of one human being have also been recovered. Even more remarkable is the preservation of soft and cartilaginous tissues that are usually lost to time, including blow fly larvae in bones, ground up plant fibres in teeth, and the iridescent colouring of beetle carapaces. Seasons and lifecycles are so well represented, including a fine sample of both genders and all ages, that a picture of the annual round can be formed. There is not a sample like this anywhere else in the world.

The most heavily represented species is the dire wolf, with over 200,000 specimens. The dire wolf was a cousin of the grey wolf and about as large, but more heavily built and with shorter legs. This indicates that rather than chase down more fleet-footed prey, the dire hunted in packs to tackle larger animals, whose bones they crushed with their powerful set of jaws. The animals trapped by the seeping asphalt made an irresistible prey.

We know how irresistible it was by the incredible number of specimens, which points to another interesting fact: carnivorous mammals outnumber herbivores ten to one. Likewise, of the birds, 70% are birds of prey, such as eagles, vultures, and their heavier and more impressive kin, the teratorns, a predatory family of raptors with a 10.5' wingspan. Among these predators are the dire wolves, smilodons, coyotes, American lions, short-faced bear, and La Brea caracara. Their prey included the longhorn bison, western horses, long-headed llama, western camel, Harlan's ground sloth, dwarf pronghorns, and the magnificent monarchs of the Ice Age, the American mastodons and Columbian mammoths. But for every one large herbivore, there are one sabretooth, one coyote, and four dire wolves. What this suggests is that predators were drawn in by an easy scavenge, only to become carrion themselves.

William Gordon Huff's diorama of the Tar Pits
for the 1939/40 San Francisco Fair

Human interest in the Tar Pits goes back 10,000 years, and is mired in tragedy. The sole human remains to be found at La Brea are those of the 9,000 year-old La Brea Woman... An 18 year old girl who perished under unknown circumstance, most likely at the Tar Pits themselves. Along with her remains were a deliberately defaced grinding stone - in keeping with the burial practices of the prehistoric peoples of southern California - and the partial remains of a domestic dog. No one knows what mystery her bones silently conceal.

The presence of humans is otherwise felt by artifacts found in the pits, most of which seem to have been for the purposes of asphalt trading. Scallop and marine mollusk shells were used to hold the tar dug out by deer and elk antler wedges, none of which were materials immediately available to the people of the Los Angeles basin. These must have been bartered along the ancient Americas' trading networks, in exchange for the tar which proved invaluable as an adhesive and for waterproofing.

The tar proved attractive to the Spanish settlers of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles for the same reasons, after the region was documented by the Gaspar de Portola expedition of 1769. The tract of land, which came to be known as Rancho La Brea, passed the hands of owners as California passed hands from Spain to Mexico to the United States of America. The palaeontological significance of the site wasn't realized until Professor William Denton of Massachusetts visited the asphalt mining operation of Major Henry Hancock in 1875. His findings did not attract much attention until they were confirmed in 1901. By 1906, digging operations were in motion by the University of California, Berkeley, though they were in stiff competition with the oil rigs being thrown up nearly overnight. The wealth of material coming out of the tar led to the 1913 creation and opening of the institution that would become the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

For more on the history and prehistory of the La Brea Tar Pits, I invite you to review Charles M. Martin's antiquated but inventive 1950 book, Monsters of Old Los Angeles...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Antique Views of Yosemite

The following collection of photos chronicles the valley that would become Yosemite National Park in its early years of the late 1800's and early 1900's, when the romance of the National Parks - rugged and elegant, familiar and adventurous - was at its peak. All photos were mercilessly pillaged from the Library of Congress. Let's join President Roosevelt and John Muir at Glacier Point above Yosemite Falls...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

California the Golden (1930)

The following is a promotional film made by a steamship company to promote its cruises from the Eastern seaboard of the United States to the Western, via the Panama Canal. Through it, we get a marvellous look at the Golden State in its Golden Age... The movie studios of Hollywood were still brand new and made a sharp contrast with the old Spanish mission churches and haciendas that captured the spirit of the exotic past. The rising Art Deco skyscrapers of Los Angeles also contrasted with the Sierra mountains and their monumental sequoia trees, extolling both glittering sophistication and rugged National Parks rustic wilderness. Altogether, this brief film captures practically everything iconic of California and the 1930's.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Golden State

Until, and even after the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, there were legends of a mystic, Avalonian island lying off the western coast of the newly discovered Indies conquered by Spain. This Edenic place was first described by García Ordóñez de Montalvo in his 1510 novel, The Adventures of Esplandián:
It is known that to the right of the Indies there exists an island called California very near the terrestrial paradise; and peopled by black women among whom there was not a single man since they lived in the way of the Amazons. They had beautiful robust bodies, spirited courage and great strength. Their island was the most impregnable in the world with its cliffs and headlands and rocky coasts. Their weapons were all of gold... because in all the island there was no metal except gold. And there ruled over that island of California a queen of majestic proportions, more beautiful than all others, and in the very vigor of her womanhood. She was not petite, nor blond, nor golden-haired. She was large, and black as the ace of clubs. But the prejudice of color did not then exist even among the most brazen-faced or the most copper-headed. For, as you shall learn, she was reputed the most beautiful of women; and it was she, O Californias! who accomplished great deeds, she was valiant and courageous and ardent with a brave heart, and had ambitions to execute nobler actions than had been performed by any other ruler — Queen Califia.

Since then, the island of California has been disproven but not demystified. For many, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the land of Queen Califa has been as close to an earthly paradise as one is to find. First the Spaniards came looking for gold, and centuries later their footsteps were traced by the '49ers, seeking wealth in pans and sluices. Native Americans along the coast developed a healthy trade in shells and obsidian, and later Euro-American colonizers followed suit in the electric-lit port cities of San Francisco and San Diego. Naturalists like John Muir found all the riches they could want in majestic places like Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, while Griffith, Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin made their own wealth, paving Hollywood's streets with it.

In many ways, California still holds much of that romance of the bygone eras of 1849 and 1939, for those with the eyes of a tourist. Taking that gaze over the Sierra Nevadas, Golden Gate and Sunset Boulevard is our inclination here at Voyages Extraordinaires, so join us as we take a whirlwind tour of the Golden State.