Chris Pizzello, Associated Press
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.
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