LOS ANGELES — From around 1910 to the late 1920s, the silent film industry dominated Los Angeles. The movies were filmed everywhere, from Hollywood to bustling downtown to what was then a nearly barren valley area, on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. Without permits, unions or worries about sound, filmmakers could just grab a camera and shoot scenes on the spot, transforming various L.A. locales into any place the script called for. Hollywood was truly the Wild West, infinitely more accessible than now.
"The Artist," a Golden Globe winner and Oscar contender that hearkens back to the lost art of telling a story in black and white, without talking, has renewed interest in that early genre. Fortunately, many of the locations where exteriors were filmed during the silent film era still exist today, and you can find them hidden around the city like historic gems.
"Southern California was perfectly situated" as a backdrop for all types of movie settings, said film historian John Bengtson, author of the books "Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin," ''Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton" and "Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd."
"There was a diversity of geological features, the beach, desert," Bengtson said. "There were rough terrains for the Westerns. There were mountains. There were lakes. Downtown Los Angeles was a thriving city, so you got your urban shots. It was just ideal."
Bengtson started researching then-and-now locations from scenes in the films of silent comedy stars Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd more than 15 years ago, without the help of the Internet. He's since identified dozens of locations, and has conducted various silent film walking tours.
One famous image from that era that lives on shows Lloyd clumsily climbing up the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles to escape a police officer in the 1923 romantic comedy "Safety Last!" Lloyd, in his signature straw hat and round horn-rimmed glasses, then grasps onto a large clock on the building. He hangs on for dear life with traffic rushing far below. The long, nail-biting scene has been referenced in multiple movies, from "Back to the Future" to one of this year's Oscar best picture nominees, Martin Scorsese's kid adventure "Hugo."
And the tall building in downtown L.A. where Lloyd shot that famed clock scene still stands, at 908 S. Broadway. The clock, constructed specifically for the movie, doesn't. The beautiful Orpheum Theatre, which didn't open until three years after the movie was shot, in 1926, is next door.
A building facade was actually built on the 908 S. Broadway building's roof, along with a camera tower to film the set, in order to create the illusion of steep height, keeping the building's roof out of frame, but with actual views of the street below, said Bengtson. There's a palpable sense of anxiety in viewing the movie, with Lloyd avoiding dogs and wayward wooden planks plunging out of windows as he scrambles up. Lloyd filmed many projects downtown, said Bengtson.
"They didn't have CGI (computer generated imagery) then. They did have glass paintings," said Randy Haberkamp, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' director of educational programming. "They would paint out part of the city. You would see a famous hill in the Los Angeles area, and you would say, 'Where was that house there?' They could create a sense of depth and danger. The artists of that era were so clever."
Kansas-born actor and director Keaton, with his melancholy good looks, sad eyes, dark hair and deadpan expression, is best known for silent films from the late 1920s like "Steamboat Bill Jr." and "The General," set in the American Civil War. Keaton filmed many short and full-length comedies in Hollywood, downtown, west of downtown and in the beachside Venice and Santa Monica areas near the Pacific Ocean.
In his 1921 short film "Hard Luck," a suicidal and broke Keaton gets into all sorts of shenanigans, including being chased by a bear and unsuccessfully trying to hang himself. At one point, eluding police, he poses as a statue next to an imposing bronze statue of General Harrison Gray Otis, longtime owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, in MacArthur Park, 2230 W. Sixth St., by Wilshire and Park View Street, west of downtown.
The statue still stands today, pointing in the direction of Otis' old house. At that time, there wasn't a great deal of public art in L.A., said Bengtson, so Keaton creatively used the sculpture as a backdrop. Physical comedy worked seamlessly with soundless cinema.
Comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who started off in silent film, also utilized broad swaths of L.A., including the now-hipster enclave of Silver Lake on the eastern side of town.
In one of their best-known talkie films, "The Music Box" (1932), the pair attempts to push a piano up a multi-tiered outdoor staircase, only to have it fly down the stairs after them. The staircase, named the "Music Box Steps" in the '90s, is next to 923-935 Vendome St., near the intersection of Del Monte, in a quiet, residential Silver Lake area lined with shrubs, flanked on either side by houses and marked by a black commemorative plaque on one of the stairs.
It turns out the staircase was first used by Laurel and Hardy in their then-popular but now lost 1927 silent film "Hats Off" in a scene involving the two hauling up a huge, round washing machine. According to stills from the movie, only overgrown fields surrounded the stairs at the time.
Actor, writer and director Chaplin, iconic as a vagrant, big-hearted character known as the Tramp in many of his silent films, complete with bushy short mustache and black bowler hat, filmed all around L.A. before settling into his Charlie Chaplin Studios, 1416 N. La Brea Ave., in the heart of Hollywood. The structure is now the Jim Henson Company Lot, with a statue of Henson creation Kermit the Frog dressed as Chaplin in his recognizable hat and jacket above the main gate. Concrete footprints of Chaplin are also there.
Chaplin's studio opened in 1918, and most of his known films were mainly shot on the premises, including feature-length hit 1921 silent dramedy "The Kid" and the 1925 romantic comedy "The Gold Rush." Chaplin's 1919 silent short film "A Day's Pleasure" starts off with Chaplin and his fictional wife and kids trying to take off in their clunky car outside the back corner of Chaplin's studio.
Several outdoor scenes for "The Kid" were shot at packed downtown L.A. Mexican marketplace Olvera Street, years before the alley was converted into a tourist attraction, across from the current L.A. train hub Union Station, 800 N. Alameda St. A particularly poignant, emotional scene in "The Kid," when Chaplin reunites with his scrappy adopted son, played by Jackie Coogan, takes place outside an old brick building structure, still in place at Olvera Street.
The synchronicity of emotion, environment, celebrity and public access in L.A. made silent films powerful for their era, before talking pictures added layers of complication, both technically and professionally, for actors and filmmakers. Silent movies had a worldwide, universal appeal, even if only filmed within what was then the small town scope of Hollywood.
"Because you didn't hear the stars speak, their faces, their pantomime, was important. There was an automatic romance to that too. You imagined what your leading lady or man sounded like," said Haberkamp. "Sometimes, when it comes to talking, sometimes less is more. I think people who love silent films really appreciate body language and other things that are communicated. There's a deeper human understanding that you can get."
If You Go:
SILENT ERA MOVIE LOCATIONS: Detailed information on books, tours and history from film historian John Bengtson at http://silentlocations.wordpress.com/ .
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: http://www.charliechaplin.com/ . Charlie Chaplin Studios is now the Jim Henson Company Lot, 1416 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, http://leasing.henson.com/history.html . Chaplin's "The Kid" was filmed partly at the Olvera Street marketplace, http://www.olvera-street.com/.Comment on this story
BUSTER KEATON: Keaton's "Hard Luck" included a scene by the statue of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis in MacArthur Park; http://www.busterkeaton.com/ .
HAROLD LLOYD: Building at 908 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles was filmed in Lloyd's 1923 "Safety Last!" movie; http://www.haroldlloyd.com/ .
LAUREL AND HARDY: Music Box Steps located next to 923-935 Vendome St., near the intersection of Del Monte, in L.A.'s Silver Lake area, figured in the Laurel and Hardy movie "The Music Box"; http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/