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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Inventing LA: The Chandlers & Their Times'

The family that built a media empire -- and Los Angeles -- is the focus of a PBS documentary.

October 05, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

Once upon a time in the Land of Right Around Here, a family named Chandler owned a newspaper called the Los Angeles Times. They and the kingdom they ruled for nearly 100 years are the twin subjects of "Inventing LA: The Chandlers & Their Times," a feature-length documentary airing tonight on PBS.

Anyone interested in Los Angeles is by definition interested in the Chandlers, since the way the city looks and works, and doesn't work, was formed in no small part by the family's own myth-making, empire-building agenda, the main instrument of which was The Times itself. From San Pedro harbor to the Hollywood sign to the houses of the San Fernando Valley, their prints are all over this place.

Now, there were Chandlers and there were Chandlers. There were the Chandlers inside the paper -- a dynasty descended ultimately from Harrison Gray Otis, called the Colonel, who passed control of the paper on to his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, who begat Norman Chandler, who begat Otis Chandler, the last Chandler to run The Times. And there were assorted relations outside the building who shared in the pie but did not bake or serve it. It was the tension between these factions, according to "Inventing LA," that ultimately led to The Times' being sold to some outfit out of Chicago (a.k.a. the Tribune Co.).

Written and co-directed (with Mark Catalena) by Peter Jones, the film marshals an impressive array of archival materials and talking heads. There is film and/or audio of all the major Chandlers -- Colonel Otis is given voice, through his writings, by Hal Halbrook, instantly recognizable -- as well as a lot of great footage of the growing city itself. Commentators include such celebrity scholars of local history as Mike Davis and Kevin Starr, as well as Times personnel past and present, including Tom Johnson, the first publisher to come from outside the family, and current media columnist Tim Rutten, who likens the Chandlers to "wild dogs": "It's in their nature to eat; they consume."

According to Jones, from Colonel Otis until the ascension of Otis Chandler, the intersection of The Times and what we have to come think of as good journalism -- a thing of dispassionate regard for the facts, designed to serve the citizenry -- was often incidental. It wasn't that the Chandlers lacked civic vision or that what was good for the family wasn't sometimes also good for L.A. But for much of their reign, that vision was overwhelmingly white, anti-labor and staunchly Republican -- the paper was instrumental in launching and maintaining the career of Richard Nixon -- and enmeshed with projects that would increase or protect their personal wealth.

A colorful character who kept what is described here as "a cache of weapons" in his office and paid his children $100 for each grandchild they produced, Colonel Otis worked so ardently to keep unions out of the city that, in 1910, The Times building was dynamited by union activists. Favored son-in-law Harry, whom the Colonel admiringly called "a sly fox" and who bought up much of the San Fernando Valley on the inside knowledge that water was coming there, was a partial inspiration for Noah Cross, the villain of the movie "Chinatown."

Harry's son Norman was less flamboyant, but he expanded the business into books and magazines and had a wife, Dorothy Buffum Chandler -- always regarded as an outsider by (even) more conservative parts of the family -- who was enough of a public figure for the both of them. Her drive to establish the Music Center, that nice old place next to Disney Hall, was characterized by Time as "perhaps the most impressive display of virtuoso money-raising in the history of U.S. womanhood." Zubin Mehta is here to pay her tribute.

If there's a hero in the film -- albeit a flawed and ultimately failed hero -- it's Otis Chandler. Surfer, bodybuilder, bushy-haired blond Adonis, Otis, who was made publisher in 1960 at age 32, took The Times from a provincial house organ to a nationally respected newspaper. But he alienated conservative family members (and Nixon, who put him on his enemies list) along the way. And when he stepped down as publisher, he went outside the family to hire Johnson. "Otis didn't feel his children were as outstanding as he was," observes his first wife, Marilyn Brant. "Otis didn't like competition from his children."

Did they live happily ever after, the Chandlers? Well, they got out of the newspaper business; nowadays, many would call that a step in the right direction. Otis himself -- though he would comment at times on the paper's direction -- had become increasingly detached from The Times after bringing in Johnson and kicking himself upstairs, spending his time collecting cars and killing large animals before his death in 2006.

It's an interesting but overlong film that itself loses interest in the paper as the Chandlers exit the stage. (The greater challenges of journalism in a world of changing media are outside the story Jones wants to tell.) By the time Otis is shown the door by his relatives, who go on to sell the paper to Tribune -- Harry Chandler had set up trusts to ensure that the family could keep control of the paper, but he hadn't planned on their not wanting to -- it is hard to feel the pain. Even if you work here.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Inventing LA: The Chandlers

& Their Times'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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