What goes up must come down.
Funiculars in their most primitive form date back to Germany's Hohensalzburg Castle in the 1500s. The famous 1880 Italian song “Funiculì, funiculà” was written to commemorate the opening of the first funicular on Mount Vesuvius, and helped spread awareness of such railways. Angels Flight was the first funicular in Los Angeles. We stumbled across this shot made today in 1959 of the venerable tram and liked the way it captures the steepness of the ascent/descent, and makes clear how much strenuous climbing the railway saved pedestrians. Its name, by the way, is spelled correctly here, without an apostrophe. As we've noted before, Angels Flight was featured in several vintage books, including Lou Cameron's 1960 novel Angel's Flight, and in a score of vintage movies. Some of those we didn't mention in our previous discussion of this subject: Cry of the Hunted, The Glenn Miller Story, The Indestructible Man, The Turning Point, and The Exiles. The tram gets only cameos, but with the exception of The Indestructible Man all those films are good-to-excellent, so maybe watch them anyway.
1960 jazz novel soars to great heights.
Told over a span of years wrapped around World War II, Lou Cameron's novel Angel's Flight appeared in 1960 and was set in the mid-century jazz scene. Cameron writes in a beat style, imbues his prose with a powerful sense of place, fills it with factual anecdotes, colorful characters, and wild slang, ultimately weaving a sprawling tale of rags to riches, hope and struggle, and one man's determination to maintain his integrity in a cutthroat world.
We realized we were reading something really good during a scene a quarter of the way through in which the main character, Ben, is chatting with his nemesis Johnny in the parking lot of a movie studio. Johnny is trying to get Ben to understand something elemental about how to achieve success. Ben isn't getting it. Johnny says, “Watch this. You'll learn something.” He grabs Ben's panama hat from his head and sails it away.
Ben: “Hey, that cost me eight bucks!”
The wind takes the hat, and it skips and rolls away. But a nearby man chases it down, and, huffing and puffing, eagerly returns it to Ben. After the man leaves, Johnny explains that the good samaritan was no random guy, but was the production chief, one of the top guys at the studio. Yet despite his position, he chased the hat. “He'd have done that for any grip on the goddamn lot,” Johnny says.
Ben: “So he's democratic.”
“You still don't dig me? Christ, you're thick!”
Johnny goes on to explain that the studio exec chased the hat because it was a reflex, just like Pavlov's dog. And if you understand people's reflexes you can control them. “They don't think," he says. "They react. Show them a picture of a blind girl with a puppy and they get lumps in their throats. Wave a flag and they stand. Show them a picture of Hitler and they hiss. Are you getting the picture? Do you dig what I'm saying?”
But no, Ben doesn't get it. He is thick. And his reply almost put us on the floor laughing:
“All I dig, you bastard, is that you used my hat! Next time gives a fat lip!”
It's a funny, insightful, cleverly conceived scene, and from that point forward we settled in for what we knew would be an amazing ride. Another funny exchange involves Ben's roommate and occasional sex partner Dorothy, who works as a nude art model and often can't be bothered to wear clothes around the apartment. Note: in the dialogue below, “Read from a map,” is slang for reading sheet music.
I asked Dorothy if she knew a cat who could read from a map. She thought prettily for a moment and said, “There's my husband, Tom. He used to play cello.”
"Don't you know anybody but your husband? He's liable to take a dim view of life as he finds it on the Sunset Strip.”
“Oh, Tom won't mind. He's very progressive.”
“He'd have to be. Is there anybody you haven't slept with who reads music? For that matter, is there anybody you haven't slept with?”
That's funny stuff. Ben had no idea until that moment Dorothy was even married. But he really needs someone who can read music, so his desperation causes him—save for a touch of exasperation—to ignore Dorothy's surprising revelation and all its strange implications, which makes the scene all the funnier.
But Angel's Flight isn't a comedy. It's a gritty tale about a jazz musician trying to make it in L.A., and mixed into the narrative is crime, betrayal, and drugs, along with harsh racial and homophobic language. But it also features many ethnic and gay characters in actual three-dimensional speaking roles, rather than as exotic ornaments. The white characters aren't spared racial insults either. In the end, each reader needs to decide whether to endure rough content, or say no to a significant piece of vintage literature.
Those who forge ahead will read a memorable story. They'll learn about the origins of jazz and the mechanisms of the music industry, from forming bands, to gigging, to pressing records, to earning radio play. They'll also discover that the title Angel's Flight is metaphorical on multiple levels. The villain is Johnny Angel, bi-sexual hustler extraordinaire. The song that secures his fame is called “Angel's Flight.” And of course the title predicts his meteoric rise in the music industry.
But most importantly, the book's title also references the vintage Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles. Ben has never been on it. He wonders what's at the top. He rides it one night and finds that at the end of the line there's nothing. Just a dark street. And lonely ambition. This is a highly recommended book. The Gold Medal edition, which you see above, has Mitchell Hooks cover art.
Los Angeles and the invention of Flight.
The above photos show the historic funicular railway Angels Flight, which opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1901 in the Bunker Hill area, with tracks running from Hill Street up a steep incline to Olive Street. There are only a few vintage funicular railways left in the U.S. Angels Flight—along with the impressive Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline, both located in Pittsburgh—is among the most famous.
But it didn't operate without interruption. It closed in 1969 when Bunker Hill was redeveloped—in reality a destruction of an entire historic working class neighborhood—and reopened a block south in 1996. The railway's historical significance is architectural, but also cinematic. It appears in quite a few vintage films, most notably in Hollow Triumph, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Act of Violence, Criss Cross, M, and Kiss Me Deadly.
The area near Angels Flight is set for a new redevelopment, as adjacent Angels Knoll, one of the last pieces of greenery in downtown Los Angeles, is to be bulldozed for another of the supposedly-mixed-use-but-really-millionaires-only skyscraper complexes that are popping up all over the world as a way for one percenters to park their money.
Angels Flight will survive this new construction, at least for now, though it will be dwarfed by a forty story glass highrise mere feet to its south. Well, L.A. has rarely let the environment or historical significance stand in the way of making money, and when you look at it that way, the fact that Angels Flight survives at all to this day may be proof of a higher power.