The “Never Give A Sucker An Even Break” Car Chase – Part 1

Universal’s 1941 production Never Give A Sucker An Even Break features W.C. Fields in his final starring role. Directed by Edward Cline (Buster Keaton’s early co-writer/director) the movie ends with a frantic Keystone Kops-style car chase around the produce/warehouse district south of downtown, along the newly opened Cahuenga Pass “freeway” in Hollywood, in Glendale, and then finally along Riverside Drive near Universal. The fun starts when Fields mistakes a matron seeking a ride to visit her daughter at the maternity hospital as being in labor herself. Fields drives with her so recklessly that she faints from shock, spurring Fields to drive even faster. With so many identifiable locations the movie requires two posts. [Note: as a fan of Fields’ dry humor I was relieved (?) to learn from biographer James Curtis (W.C. Fields: A Biography) that Universal imposed this uncharacteristic slapstick sequence on Bill, which was not in his original script. Read more details about who actually made the sequence at the end of this post. Also, Charlie Chaplin filmed Work (1915) among similar warehouses a few blocks further north – read more HERE.]

Looking north towards City Hall (oval), with the chase filming area lower right. LAPL.

Before jumping to Glendale and parts north to be described in post 2, the first sequence of the race to the hospital was methodically staged in a warehouse district SE of downtown, bounded by Alameda and Mesquit to the west and east, and E. 6th and E. 7th to the north and south (see above). There are nearly two dozen locations depicted here, with a remarkable number of buildings still standing.

1)  Above, the race to the hospital begins south down Mateo Street before turning right, west onto Industrial Street. The red brick building at back, prominent in the modern view, was the former Hill Brothers Coffee plant, at 635 Mateo, featured in scene 7) below.

2)  The car then screeches around the corner from Mateo to west on Industrial. All of the major buildings pictured here in the film are still present, including the former National Biscuit Co. factory on the left and the Star Truck and Warehouse Company on the right.

3)  The car then races west down from the 7th Street Bridge towards the corner of Santa Fe past the large brick Bailey-Schmitz building, a former mattress manufacturer.

4)  Continuing west along E. 7th, Fields’ car passes a traffic cop standing at the corner of Santa Fe – the view looks north.

5)  A brief insert scene jumps from downtown to the former Atwater Market (center white building) at 3158 Glendale Boulevard, looking west, with the Pacific Electric trolley tracks and a light-colored convertible (see scene 7) below) to the right. In the far distance stands the Hyperion Avenue Bridge, to be discussed in part 2 of this post.

6) Scene 5) above continues with the camera panning left (east) towards the corner of Garden Avenue in Glendale, where Fields’ car screeches to a stop and reverses suddenly.

7)  Back in downtown, the light-colored convertible on Glendale Blvd. in scene 5) crashes beside the Hills Brothers Coffee plant at 635 Mateo, looking north.

8)  Back at the corner of Santa Fe and 7th, a cop jumps aboard Fields’ running board (upper left and right) to guide him to the hospital. You can still read “BAILEY-SCHMITZ” along the roof of the upper right image.

9)  The car races north along Mesquit, from 7th towards 6th, as the camera pans quickly right to left. The former warehouses along Mesquit have all been replaced. The center movie frame shows at back the descending deck of the 7th St. Bridge, still seen in the right modern view.

10)  Traveling north along Mesquit, the cop will soon lose the seat of his pants. At back stands the former 6th St. Bridge. Built in 1932 with defective concrete, it was demolished for safety reasons in 2016.

11)  A conspicuous “HOLLYWOOD BLVD” bus turns left (east) from Santa Fe (see street post marked upper left) onto Jesse Street, with an outstretched wooden arm turn indicator that will snare Fields’ cop. The camera quickly pans right along with the bus, then pans back quickly left following the path of Fields’ car, with the now seatless cop still aboard. The north corner of the former Ice & Cold Storage Warehouse on Mesquit visible in scene 9), (box, lower left), appears at back in the far right shot (box) looking east along Jesse towards Mesquit.

12)  With the cop now ensnared on the bus left-turn indicator, this right to left panning shot follows Fields’ cop-free car west along Jesse from Santa Fe. The tall building to the left of each image stands on the NE corner of Jesse and Mateo.

13)  Looking east, the car careens toward the camera along former Produce Street, parallel to and just south of E. 6th Street, with the extant Metropolitan Warehouse at the SE corner of E. 6th and Mill Street standing at back. At the time two very wide private streets, Produce Street and Wholesale Street, were configured around three long, narrow rows of warehouses, the northern-most row appearing at left. Two wide modern rows of warehouses, with different footprints, have replaced the former trio of buildings.

14)  These oblivious pedestrians march south from 6th Street onto Produce Street through an arcade in the narrow warehouse row along the south side of 6th (there is an upper floor above them over the entrance). The building at back on the north side of 6th, visible through the former arcade, is likely 1269 E. 6th Street, pictured left. The one building on 6th directly across from the former arcade entrance has been demolished, precluding comparison, but given the oblique camera angle it likely does not appear in the shot.

15)  The pedestrians flee the swooping car so quickly that they lose their shoes on the back (Produce Street) side of 1280 E. 6th Street, the right (east) edge of the former arcade. Note: for some reason the shot of the oncoming car (lower left) is reversed when it appears as shown here in the film. (The license plate reads backwards!). For scene 13) above I flipped the image to allow for a true then and now comparison.

16)  Looking south, the camera pans right to left along the opposite side of former Produce Street, from the Certain Teed building supplies company at 1228 Produce Street, towards a break in the street revealing the former California Warehouse further back, standing at 1248 Wholesale Street, running parallel to Produce Street further south. These two private streets were reconfigured extensively when the three rows of warehouses defining them were replaced with two wide rows of buildings. Produce Street was originally quite wide, with numerous railroad tracks running through it, as seen above.

17)  Fields has now acquired a pair of a motorcycle cops escorting him to the hospital. Here they travel east along Industrial Street crossing Mill Street. During this shot they pass a series of elaborately detailed brick buildings, from around 1581 to 1719 Industrial Street, that are all remarkably preserved.

18)  The traveling shot continues east along Industrial, here starting from the west end of the street at the corner of Alameda – the boxes mark matching buildings. I’ve noticed that whenever a movie makes use of a long traveling shot along one street, they nearly always edit the brief shots out of order. Scene 18) should precede scene 17) geographically.

19)  Jumping from the west end of Industrial Street to the east end, the same view appearing earlier in scene 2). The matching larger images show the gate (and railroad freight) entrance to the National Biscuit Co. factory, the smaller images show the former Standard Lumber Company at 1848 Industrial. The somewhat modernized Star Truck and Warehouse Company buildings appear at right.

20)  The warehouse segment concludes as Fields, via rear projection, travels north up Mateo Street towards the Maxwell House Coffee plant near 4th Street.

21)  Here Mateo street veers east to pass north under the 4th Street Bridge.

22)  The Maxwell House building has been on my radar ever since I first noticed it appears in Buster Keaton’s Go West (1925), upper right, filmed showing its 4th Street side. Fields travels left to right in the main photo (LAPL) past the entrance on Mateo towards the corner of 4th. The 4th Street Bridge was constructed in 1930, before this photo was taken. Notice the “Good to the Last Drop” billboard behind Fields at the lower right.

This map shows the various filming spots by number. WPA maps, book 6, sheets 36 and 37. USC Digital Library.

When viewed overall on a map you can see how efficiently they used these few streets. Were they perhaps constrained by a filming permit to only these blocks? My thanks to reader David Sadowski for suggesting I give this film a look – I hadn’t watched it in years.

Update – noted author James Curtis (W.C. Fields: A Biography) writes that Fields didn’t include the car chase in the original screenplay, which was written under his supervision. “We will require the elimination of the ‘motion picture’ within the story,” wrote Universal’s Edward Muhl in his response. “We will also require an action sequence in order to build a climax to the picture.” The chases for both SUCKER and BANK DICK were directed by Ralph Ceder (1898-1951), who started with Sennett and wrote and directed short comedies throughout the silent era. In talkies, he was mostly a second unit director specializing in action sequences. He did a lot of work at Universal, then settled in at MGM, where he contributed to A GUY NAMED JOE, among others. Ceder’s assistant on the SUCKER sequence was Melville Shyer, whose son is the director Charles Shyer.

According to continuity records, Fields shot his first scenes for the film on July 7 and finished on August 16, 1941. The process shots needed for the chase sequence were made on August 14, 15, and 16. Fields dictated a detailed reaction to the first cut of the film on September 4: “The chase is far too long and overdone. Policeman on fender losing his pants and finally getting caught on bus is not funny. The shoes on the street is cheap and unfunny, and the man getting knocked first one way and then the other and waving his arms and legs is antiquated comedy. The hook and ladder is drawn out, therefore rendered unfunny. The line, ‘What a beautiful view of the California climate,’ is omitted” (this line is in the final cut). After the film’s preview, which didn’t go well, Fields added the following on September 18: “The chase can be cut to advantage of the film. It is hilarious but a bit too long.”

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (C) 1941 Universal Pictures Company, Inc. Color images (C) 2017 Google.

Below, 7th and Santa Fe – you can read Bailey-Schmitz along the right roof line.

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Farewell – a sudden lost Our Gang landmark

During the Our Gang comedy Bouncing Babies (1929), Wheezer seeks to return his annoying baby brother to the hospital, unaware that the bundle snuggled in the crib is only a doll. In order to cross a busy intersection, Wheezer throws a handy light bulb onto the ground, tricking the drivers into stopping to check their tires long enough for him to push the crib across the street. Wheezer repeats this trick several times until he’s finally chased off by the cops (right). This scene was staged beside the Bacon Pharmacy, at the NE corner of Tabor and Motor Avenue in Palms, one of the most clearly recognizable film locations in the Our Gang canon. I was shocked to learn that as of a few days ago, this place is no more, another victim to “progress.”

The drug store was built sometime between 1910 and 1924, as it appears in Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy released that year. Harold (well his stunt double, see above), races past the corner store as he struggles with an unspooling fire hose while attempting to remain on the back of a fire engine. The corner appears too in the 1926 Our Gang comedy Monkey Business (also above), and plays a prominent role in Dog Heaven, another silent Our Gang comedy from 1927, which includes scenes of the store’s interior. Below, from Dog Heaven, Wheezer, two years younger, exits the same store, while Joe Cobb purchases candy inside.

Below, from my Harold Lloyd book, a 1924 map by Dutch graphic artist Piet Schreuders showing Harold’s fire engine racing past the corner store on Tabor, and a photo from Hal Roach movie locations YouTube star Chris Bungo showing the lost store interior.

For over 90 years this modest little building helped time to stand still, where you could visit and imagine what once was. How sad we’ve lost another tangible link to the past.

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The Red Kimono – A Vast Record of Early Los Angeles

The Red Kimono (1925), a searing drama notably produced and written by women, captures a remarkably comprehensive visual record of early Los Angeles. From Broadway and posh gated communities to Chinatown and the amusement park piers, these settings, along with numerous stretches of still residential Wilshire Boulevard, and long lost jails, train stations, and skid row locales, all play pivotal roles in the film.

Based on real life events, Priscilla Bonner portrays Gabrielle, a naïve young woman betrayed by her lover in New Orleans, who forces her into prostitution. After finding the man later in Los Angeles, Gabrielle kills him, but her story of degradation is so compelling that she is acquitted. A seemingly kind society matron befriends Gabrielle, only to exploit Gabrielle’s notoriety in order to entertain her rich friends. The matron’s kindly chauffeur Frederick, portrayed by Theodore von Eltz, offers Gabrielle a second chance for love.

Kimona – Kimono
potato – potata

Mrs. Wallace Reid, also known as Dorothy Davenport, independently produced the movie, while introducing the story on camera. Dorothy Arzner wrote the script from an original story by Adela Rogers St. Johns. Reid’s husband Wallace Reid was a well-known movie star for Famous Players-Lasky. Tragically, after being seriously injured in a job-related train accident, Wallace was only able to continue working with the aid of morphine. Mr. Reid eventually became addicted and died in 1923.

The movie is available on DVD from Kino-Lorber. Confusingly, screen credits list the title as “The Red Kimona,” while advertisements from the day list it as “The Red Kimono.” Let’s start our 1925 journey across Los Angeles at Fremont Place, below.

The society matron’s home is located at 53 Fremont Place, one of the many magnificent homes built at this small gated community located south of Wilshire Boulevard. Read more at http://fremontplace.blogspot.com/ 

Upper right, Fred greets Gabriella on the steps of 53 Fremont Place. Due east behind them stands the former Aronson mansion at 31 Fremont Place. The home was moved to Fremont Place in three sections.  http://fremontplace.blogspot.com/2014/11/31-fremont-place-please-see-our.html  Lower right, a rare photo of the lost home, looking west. LAPL.

55 Fremont Place, the mansion to the SW of the matron’s home, appears in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), see Edna Purviance lower left. The view from 53 Fremont Place to the SE (upper right) shows 56 Fremont Place, where Mary Pickford once lived for a year in 1918, and the mansion as it appears in Jean Harlow’s Bombshell (1933) (right center). The aerial view, looking north, shows 53 at the center, with 55 to the left, 56 to the right. The three landmark homes still grace Fremont Place.

The gates to Fremont Place appear in the movie and in Chaplin’s Idle Class (1921) (upper right).

Fred takes Gabrielle on a date to the former Abbott Kinney Pier in Venice. Although they purchase tickets for the “Giant Dipper” roller-coaster, they filmed aboard the “Some Kick” coaster at the end of the pier. Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives.

Upper right, Gabrielle checks out the New High Street side of the former LA County Jail, fronting Temple Street, matching a similar view on New High Street from Max Linder’s Seven Years Bad Luck (1921).

Fred learns Gabrielle is set to return to New Orleans. As he races to prevent her from reaching the train station, he drives east down Wilshire past the corner of Vermont, now the site of a modern highrise. USC Digital Library.

Continuing east on Wilshire towards the Park Wilshire apartments on the corner of S. Carondelet, in the distance we see a “T” intersection, where Wilshire originally terminated at the west side of  MacArthur (formerly Westlake) Park. Barely visible, dead center, is a trio of statues (see below).

The trio of statues honors General Harrison Otis, the original founder/publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Buster Keaton (Hard Luck – 1921) filmed beside these statues, as did Billy West and Stan Laurel (not pictured). The aerial view looks east, showing where Wilshire once terminated at the west side of the park. USC Digital Library – LAPL.

Further west (around Ardmore) but still looking east down Wilshire, this 1925 view shows the towering Gaylord Apartments (left), where still solo comedian Stan Laurel filmed On The Front Page (1926) (upper right), and the Talmadge Apartments (right), where Buster Keaton filmed Battling Butler (1925) (lower right). These lone towers are now hemmed in by numerous modern buildings.

A vintage view north of the Gaylord, left, and Talmadge, right, along Wilshire. LAPL.

The race to the train station continues east through the 3rd Street Tunnel, with Angels Flight appearing to the right. Angels Flight has since been relocated half a block further south. USC Digital Library.

Now racing south down Broadway towards the intersection of 5th – the Title Guaranty Building at left, and Walker’s, the red corner building at right.

Now we race east towards the original 1st Street Viaduct (re-built in 1929), before turning right on Santa Fe Avenue, past a billboard promoting train travel to Chicago. LAPL.

Traveling south towards the former Santa Fe train station, an extremely popular filming site. Stan Laurel appears here in Hustling For Health (1919) (upper left). USC Digital Library.

Gabrielle waiting beside the Santa Fe station. LAPL.

Fred arrives at the station, but not in time to prevent Gabrielle from catching the train back home to New Orleans. USC Digital Library.

Fred follows Gabrielle to “New Orleans,” where he pursues her by taxi departing south from the former Southern Pacific depot, on 5th at Central, near the former Santa Fe station.

Fred’s taxi passes The New Orleans Market at right. This immediately caught my eye, as the other side of the corner market appears prominently in Harry Langdon’s comedy Long Pants (1927).

The New Orleans Market stood at the former corner of Aliso and Los Angeles Street just south of the plaza. The (*) marks where Buster knocks out a policeman at this intersection in Cops (1922), and where Harry Langdon (above) also appeared, while the (**) marks Frederick’s taxi scene, filmed looking the opposite direction as shown in the aerial view. This area was all lost to the freeway. LAPL.

Frederick’s taxi scene shows at back the south side of the former Hotel de Paris. Grabbed by a cop, Buster Keaton walked west, along the south side of the Hotel de Paris, during Neighbors (1920). LAPL.

A broad aerial view looking east at the filming area south of the Plaza de Los Angeles (circle of trees at lower left). The former Chinatown (discussed below), demolished to build Union Station, lies due east of the plaza. The purple (*) marks Buster’s knockout shot in Cops (lower right), the yellow (*) marks Fred’s taxi, again filmed looking the other way.

Upper right, Fred’s taxi stops at the corner of Alameda and Aliso – the orange (*). The view looks east towards the many gas tanks east of town. The far right green (*) marks the corner of Alameda and Ducommun, where Buster Keaton filmed many scenes from The Goat (1921), and this boxing glove turn, again from Cops, pictured here (lower right).

Now in the former LA Chinatown (demolished for Union Station), the taxi turns right (south) from Apabalaza onto Juan Street. The doorway left of the pole appears beside Chaplin during Police (1915), showing the same pole. The taxi turned from right to left in the main photo, the same doorway and pole appear near the left center. El Pueblo Photo Archive.

These matching views looks north up Juan towards the SE corner of Apablaza, the corner behind the car. Jackie Coogan appeared in Chaplin’s The Kid, in an opposing view, just around the same SE corner. The building across the street from Jackie appears in the three images directly above. USC Digital Library.

Driving east along Marchesault Street towards Juan Street. The main photo looks west from Juan. El Pueblo Photo Archive.

>sigh< a happy ending.

Where is this? It’s one of the few exteriors I couldn’t track down.

The Red Kimono is a perfect example of how the movies can tell socially significant stories, while promoting the historic role women played in making films, but also how even a single movie can capture a vast and unique visual history of what is now almost entirely lost Los Angeles. Discovering this film was especially gratifying for me. Perhaps someday another treasure trove film will appear.

The Red Kimono is available on DVD from Kino-Lorber.

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Another Lois Weber First – Using Locations

Click to enlarge – the lost Bergstrom Estate at 590 N. Vermont Avenue portrays the District Attorney’s mansion in Lois Weber’s birth-control abortion drama Where Are My Children? (1916). This view shows the south gate automobile entrance. Years later Harry Houdini and Buster Keaton would film at the north pedestrian entrance.

In her day, pioneering producer/director/screenwriter Lois Weber ranked alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecile B. DeMille as one of the most successful and influential filmmakers of any gender. As historian Cari Beauchamp writes, though little known today, Weber was the first American woman to direct a feature length film, the first woman member of the Motion Pictures Directors Association, and even the first woman, years before Mary Pickford, to own an eponymous studio. Weber, the subject of author Shelly

Opening the film, this disclaimer about birth control, remarkable for 1916, likely remains controversial in much of 2017 America.

Stamp’s insightful book “Lois Weber in Early Hollywood,” explains  how Weber was known for tackling social injustice in her films, addressing issues such as drug addiction, birth control, capital punishment, and women’s inequality. Weber also actively mentored and promoted other women in the early film industry. (You can learn more about Lois and other silent-era women directors in the latest Dream Factory episode of Nathan Master’s fascinating LOST LA history series for KCET television.)

While a far less notable accomplishment, as shown here, Weber was also the first to use key filming locations, years before Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and others would employ these settings in their later films.

Weber’s 1916 drama Where Are My Children? involves a married but childless District Attorney who prosecutes an abortionist, only to learn that his own wife and many of her society friends were among the doctor’s clientele. The concluding scene depicts the lonely DA and his wife staring into their fireplace over the years, visited symbolically by the ‘ghosts’ of the adult children they would never have.

A full view of the north end of the DA’s mansion from Harry Houdini’s The Grim Game (1919), with an insert of the pedestrian entrance gate appearing in Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922).

The many scenes of the DA’s home were filmed at the mansion of noted architect Edwin Bergstrom, later home to theater magnate Alexander Pantages, before it was razed in 1951 to build a Jewish community center (now home to West Coast University). As shown above, Harry Houdini filmed his debut (non-serialized) feature The Grim Game (1919) at the same mansion, and Buster Keaton would later film the opening scenes from Cops (1922) at the north entrance gate (read more about The Grim Game HERE). But pioneer film-maker Lois Weber filmed here first, by several years.

Prior to its appearance in Where Are My Children?, this December 19, 1915 image from the Los Angeles Times was the only view of the mansion I could locate. Aside from entertainment, movies provide invaluable historic reference.

Early in the film the DA, portrayed by Tyrone Power (father of the classic-era actor), prosecutes a physician on obscenity charges for distributing literature about birth control. In his defense, the doctor recounts tragic events from his practice that could have been prevented had the public been educated about contraception. In one story, directly below, the doctor explains how a single mother, abandoned by her lover, committed suicide along with her infant by leaping from a bridge. The bridge portrayed was the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, built in 1913, by then already notorious as a “suicide bridge” in real life. With more than 100 known suicides, the bridge is remodeled today with a modern suicide prevention fence. While I can’t say whether Weber directly influenced Chaplin, Charlie filmed a similar scene on the bridge with Edna Purviance portraying a despondent single mother in The Kid (1921) (decades later Chaplin decided to excise this scene). Again, Weber filmed here first.

Edna Purviance in an original scene from The Kid (1921), cut decades later by Chaplin, and a corresponding scene from Where Are My Children?

The physician on trial for providing birth control information then describes the poverty and violence endured by poor families overwhelmed by having too many children. His account turns to a rowdy fight filmed in some dingy alleyway, below. Weber staged this scene just south of Hollywood Boulevard, in an alley parallel between Cahuenga and Cosmo – the earliest use (of which I am aware) of what would prove to be a very popular place to film. Here below are comparable scenes staged there from Chaplin’s The Kid – but again, Weber filmed here first.

Click to enlarge – looking south down East Cahuenga alley where Chaplin filmed early scenes from The Kid. The birth control physician appears upper right.

Gale Henry filmed The Detectress (1919) beside the same iron posts and stairway used by Lois and Charlie – she beat Chaplin to the spot as well.

A full then and now view of the alley from The Kid (and Where Are My Children?) appears below.

A full then and now view of the alley where Chaplin (and Lois Weber) filmed.

As shown in this post, Buster Keaton would later film Cops, and Harold Lloyd would film Safety Last! (1923), at the same alley first used by Weber. The Chaplin – Keaton – Lloyd Hollywood Alley.

Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in That Little Band of Gold (1915) – they filmed here before Lois.

The former court house on Temple, left and Broadway, right. USC Digital Library

Above left, Where Are My Children? features this scene of the DA leaving what was the actual Los Angeles County Court House (1891 – 1935), later heavily damaged in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, once situated at the SW corner of Temple and Broadway. The movie view shows the main north entrance facing Broadway, and a similar view appearing in the Roscoe Arbuckle – Mabel Normand Keystone comedy That Little Band of Gold. Filmed in 1915, the Arbuckle directed comedy preceded Weber’s use of the location, but we should note that Mabel Normand, also pictured, was herself an accomplished director. For some reason, in my experience at least, the former court house rarely appears on camera in early film.

Built in 1914, and established as the Southern California Branch of the University of California in 1919, The Blot (left) features this campus view west towards Millspaugh Hall (demolished in 1960), with a matching view from Buster Keaton’s campus comedy College (1927). With the new UCLA campus grounds in Westwood dedicated in 1926, the original campus shown here became Los Angeles Junior College, known today as Los Angeles City College.

As a final example of Weber’s foremost use of locations, she filmed her 1921 drama The Blot at the campus settings employed by Buster Keaton years later in 1927. Again, Weber filmed here first.

Chaplin and Marie Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) at the now lost Castle Sans Souci.

To be fair to Charlie, he did appear in at least one location prior to Weber using it in a film – see matching views above of the Castle Sans Souci appearing both in Tillie’s Punctured Romance and Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici – although Chaplin wasn’t the director of that picture. You can read my full post about The Dumb Girl of Portici HERE.

You can learn more about Lois and other silent-era women directors in the latest Dream Factory episode of Nathan Master’s fascinating LOST LA history series for KCET television.

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Keaton’s “What No Beer?” Barrel Avalanche

Buster chased by barrels in What No Beer?

As Jim Kline writes in The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer had already drafted Keaton’s termination letter by the time filming of What No Beer? completed in January 1933. For better or worse, this movie marks the pinnacle of Keaton’s success, who would never again appear as an A list star in a major Hollywood production. (Gif file courtesy of Danny Reid’s fascinating early cinema site Pre-code.comWhat No Beer? review).

Looking west up Court Street – the steep hill is only one block long.

Although Kline writes What No Beer? was a box-office smash, setting attendance records at New York’s Capitol Theater, Keaton’s unexcused absences during the production, including one where he flew to Mexico and returned home married to his sobriety nurse Mae Scribbens, sealed his fate with the studio boss.

Looking south down Mountain View, as Buster’s beer truck prepares to turn left onto Court Street. The corner lot, vacant at the time, is covered by a billboard advertising MGM’s Grand Hotel. The early morning sun casts the shadow of the grocery store set in front of the truck.

While much has been written about Keaton’s loss of control working for MGM, What No Beer? contains a pure, elaborately staged “Keatonesque” moment, when Buster struggles with a truck load of beer barrels on a steep hill, recalling the avalanche scenes from his silent feature Seven Chances (1925). The costly scene included a full grocery store set, constructed at the bottom of the hill, so a car could smash into it punctuating the sequence finale.

Turning the corner from Mountain View onto Court Street. The ovals match the back windows of a vintage apartment facing Alvarado Street.

It’s wonderful Keaton was permitted to sneak in one last grand cinematic moment before he would begin facing years of adversity – it truly feels like an homage to his prior work. Whatever his state of mind was back then, he must have relished the planning, stunt-work, and camera angles required to pull off this complicated scene. Yet with the hindsight that comes from knowing his life story, the visual metaphor of Buster skidding downhill chased by barrels of booze is almost too painful to watch.

The truck struggles past 2027 Court Street, with the side of 308 N. Mountain View visible at back.

As a locations buff, I’ve been intrigued with this scene ever since I first saw it featured in Kevin Brownlow’s 1987 Keaton documentary A Hard Act to Follow. I knew it had to have been filmed somewhere, but it didn’t seem possible it could ever be found. When TCM broadcast it recently, I marveled at the clear, beautiful print, and noticed one clue during the sequence. As Buster’s truck turns the corner uphill, a vertical street sign reading “2000 BLK” appears for a moment at the far right edge of the screen.

Click to enlarge – looking east down Court Street – the grocery store was a set, not part of a “T” intersection. Notice the Grand Hotel billboard to the right.

Studying all of the shots, the side streets, and the angles of the sun, I mapped out my sense of how the setting was configured, and determined it was likely offset from a true north-south orientation. While I had long assumed the street was some type of “T” intersection, because the print was so clear I could see that the grocery store was actually a set built in the middle of the street. As I often do when stuck for an idea, I emailed my friend Paul Ayers, who has found many significant Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd locations. He replied, correctly, that from the age of the buildings and the layout of the hill, he sensed the scene was likely staged somewhere east of Vermont Avenue and north of Venice Boulevard.

Buster runs past 2027 Court Street.

Looking southeast towards Mountain View, one bungalow at back remains.

By pure coincidence I had just stumbled upon the topographical option with Google Maps, allowing you to see hills instead of featureless streets. With this function turned on I could clearly see candidate hills in the region Paul suggested. I noticed one spot where the streets matched my sense of how Buster’s shot was configured, and without even using the “2000 BLK” clue it proved to be the correct spot – the intersection of N. Mountain View Avenue and the 2000 block of Court Street. (Note: the beginning of Court Street, above the Hill Street tunnel, is where the Bradbury Mansion once stood – it was where Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach began their careers, and where Lloyd filmed many early stunt climbing scenes above the tunnel). Having wondered about this scene for 30 years, it was very gratifying to finally see it “in person,” still recognizable, and with so many original buildings still in place.

Inexplicably, the film’s celebratory conclusion showing folks returning to work after the repeal of Prohibition includes office scenes cannibalized from the classic King Vidor drama The Crowd (1928) (considered by Kevin Brownlow to be America’s finest silent film), including this iconic overhead shot of endless rows of office workers at their desks. By then silent films were considered so obsolete that their only apparent value was as a cheap source of stock footage. These repurposed scenes were not returned to the original master, so that decades later when Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions restored The Crowd they had to replace the missing footage using elements from a complete 16mm print Eastman House had made for King Vidor. Other New York scenes from The Crowd must have been used elsewhere, as they too are missing except in the 16mm print. Brief office scenes from The Crowd also appear in the previous MGM Keaton vehicle Speak Easily (1932).

What No Beer? © 1933 Turner Entertainment Co. Color images (C) 2017 Google.

Google Street View of Mountain View Avenue and Court Street.

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Arbuckle – Keaton at the Bronx Biograph Studio

The glass stage Arbuckle used in His Wedding Night. At right, the end of the stage behind Roscoe in Oh Doctor!

Marc Wanamaker Bison Archives

Noted biographer James Curtis contacted me with an intriguing observation. Did a scene from the 1917 Arbuckle-Keaton short Oh Doctor! (above) reveal the large glass rooftop shooting stage of the former Biograph Studio, located at 807 E 175th St in the Bronx? A little digging not only confirmed he was right, but that 100 years later many Bronx locations from that film remain recognizable today. [Note: Arbuckle ended his career filming Vitaphone comedy shorts in Brooklyn – discussed in great detail HERE].

Click to enlarge – a 1921 Biograph map, keyed to 11 locations – NYPL. The top row of buildings, the north side of E 176th St, were all lost to the Cross Bronx Expressway, which devastated the neighborhood.

Wearing a borrowed police uniform, Roscoe chases jewel thief Al St. John across a vintage rooftop. Triangulating from the Biograph site, and traveling the streets using Google Street View, I was excited to see that two apartment buildings on Marmion Street are still standing today.

View (11) – Roscoe scales the roof, with Crotona Park and 1783 Marmion at back.

Because Roscoe’s roof (11) had an unobstructed view, and the maps from 1915, 1921, 1938, and 2017 reveal when different buildings were constructed, and demolished, my best guess is Roscoe filmed (11) on the former 5 story apartment at 864 E 175th, now replaced with a smaller building.

View (11) – looking along E 175th St towards the corner of 1801 Marmion (left) and the Biograph office and glass stage (right).

Once I had confirmed site (11), I contacted New York pop culture locations expert Bob Egan (PopSpotNYC.com), who had just identified Buster Keaton’s Manhattan apartment from The Cameraman in this prior post. Bob replied with a fascinating clue – that the opening credits to the early 60’s sitcom Car 54 Where Are You? reveal a view of the Biograph Studio where the show was filmed (see below).

View (11) – the south Biograph office on E 175th (left) and view (6) – the north Biograph laboratory building on E 176th (right).

The Car 54 view (6) down E 176th St provided a view of the segmented light and dark brick wall standing east of the Biograph laboratory building, a wall that appears frequently in Oh Doctor!

View (6) and view (4) – the segmented wall next to the laboratory building. The two apartments behind the word “CAR” are now demolished – a vacant lot.

I should have done this first, but after searching the New York Public Library online digital collection I found an exact match to view (4) from Oh Doctor!

View (4) – the segmented wall standing east of the laboratory building. NYPL.

It turns out that Oh Doctor! and the subsequent Arbuckle – Keaton short Coney Island (1917 – see further below) both feature scenes filmed on E 176th in front of the Biograph laboratory building.

View (5) – Roscoe calls for his car to return to him – the existing home on 812 E 176th still appears at back.

One challenge to investigating this site is that the northern side of E 176th St was demolished to make way for the Cross Bronx Expressway. One casualty is this drug store (left) that once stood at the NW corner of E 176th and Marmion. The same store appears at back in view (8) (right), as Roscoe drags Buster (dressed in drag to do a stunt fall for Roscoe’s wife) west along E 176th towards Marmion – the building to their right was lost to the expressway. In the next scene view (7) below, Roscoe’s wife confronts him standing at the same corner, only looking east down E 176th along the surviving south side of the street.

View (7) looking east from Marmion down the surviving south side of E 176th, towards tall buildings on the corners of Mohegan and Waterloo Streets.

View (7) above looks east down E 176th from Marmion towards the extant Waterloo Apartments, both left of Roscoe, and the narrower apartment on the corner of Mohegan just to the right of Roscoe.

Views (9) and (10) – two images of the NE corner of Marmion and E 175th.

I believe views (9) and (10) above and below both depict the same corner apartment building that once stood at the NE corner of Marmion and E 175th. As shown below, two homes once stood next to the Biograph office across the street from the apartment.

View (9) left and view (10) right – these homes on E 175th once stood due east of the Biograph office. Buster stands at the corner of Marmion looking down E 175th. Al at back is standing on Marmion between the two wings of the apartment.

While I have no direct photographic confirmation for (9) and (10) above, this is the only corner in the vicinity of the studio that had homes on the left side of the street and a large apartment on the right. The two scenes match the various maps and street slopes, and I’m confident this is correct. As further proof, the home adjacent to the studio office, seen below in 1913, has a similar low alternating fence design, and apparent gas lamp, as depicted in view (9).

Click to enlarge – the home adjacent to the Biograph office in 1913, and matching fence in Oh Doctor!Lantern Media.

The home adjacent to the studio was replaced with a large apartment by 1921, but is now a vacant lot. The corner home (#825, see map above) is replaced by a large apartment still standing, while Buster’s 5 story corner apartment is now replaced with 2 story homes. Go figure.

The Biograph laboratory building on E 176th also portrayed the police station in the next Arbuckle – Keaton short Coney Island. During the concluding scene, Roscoe and Al St. John leave the station (view 3 left) after locking the police and Roscoe’s wife in a cell. No sooner do they vow to forsake all women when an enchantress walks by, prompting Al to proclaim “Each man for himself.”

Coney Island – view (2) – Al escorts his new female companion from the Biograph laboratory entrance. The home at 812 E 176th still stands at back.

In a racially insensitive final “joke” that was commonly employed by comedians at the time, Roscoe too notices the back of a woman pass by, and approaches her to say hello. But when she turns to greet him, revealing herself to be African-American, Roscoe gasps and flees in shock as the movie fades to a close. Apparently this scene was excised from most prints of the film, but for historical completeness is presented as a supplement to the latest home video release of these films.

Coney Island – view 1 – Roscoe flees west towards the PS No. 44 building still standing on the SW corner of Prospect and E 176th.

Oh Doctor! begins with Father Roscoe, Mother, and Son Buster arriving at a race track, where Roscoe flirts with another woman, and loses all of his money on a wild bet. The characters are depicted as arriving and departing from the race track by parking their cars in a residential neighborhood beside a rare conspicuous street sign at the NW corner of W 246th and Fieldston in the Bronx, see below.

Oh Doctor! – at W 246th St and Fieldston.

New York pop culture locations expert Bob Egan (PopSpotNYC.com) came through again, by identifying the real track appearing in the film as the Yonkers Raceway.

Son Buster laughs at Pop Roscoe for losing all of his money on a horse that ran the wrong way, as they stand beside the Yonkers Raceway clubhouse.

The Yonkers Raceway in 1905 at left, including the side of the clubhouse at left where Roscoe and Buster filmed (see above), and how it appears in Oh Doctor! This may be the oldest existing movie footage of the still active Empire City harness raceway, located about 10 miles north of the studio.

I’ve documented 4 dozen instances of Keaton filming pickup shots from his various films in front of, or across the street from, his small studio in Hollywood. A perfectly practical thing to do. So it’s not surprising, but also fun to see, that Arbuckle did the same thing, staging so many shots conveniently close to his temporary Biograph home. Be sure to read about Arbuckle’s numerous Vitaphone Brooklyn locations HERE.

1917 and 1961 – matching views from Oh Doctor! and Car 54 Where Are You?

It wasn’t too long ago that Oh Doctor! was considered a lost film! We fans are all so fortunate that these films have been so lovingly restored by Lobster Films.

Oh Doctor! and Coney Island images from Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917 – 1923 (C) 2016 Kino-Lorber, Lobster Films.

View (7) of the apartments on Mohegan and Waterloo.

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Buster’s Manhattan Apartment – The Cameraman Part III

In a prior post, Bob Egan flexed his Manhattan research skills to locate Marceline Day’s now lost apartment in Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, 20 West 58th Street. Now Bob has located Buster’s midtown apartment as well, 201 East 52nd Street.

As I spell out in my book Silent Echoes, when Marceline calls Buster to tell him her prior commitment has changed and she is now available to meet him, Buster is so eager that he bolts out the door while she is still talking on the phone, and races down many city blocks, including 5th Avenue, and beside Bergdorf-Goodman (see post) to her place. When she realizes he is no longer on the line, she hangs up in frustration, and turns around to find Buster already standing behind her – “I hope I’m not late.”

When TCM recently broadcast The Cameraman (I now receive TCM in high definition), I was stunned by how beautiful the print looked, and made a point to study Buster’s apartment scene, and the Apartments for Rent sign behind Buster’s entryway. Watching it back and forth in slo-mo the sign looked like it read “Samuel J Weinberg ?59 3rd Ave Cor 52 St.”

I immediately contacted Bob, as he had investigated Buster’s apartment before, although based on my misunderstanding at the time that the name was “Weisberg” not “Weinberg.” Bob quickly reported that the 1929 Manhattan Address Directory had a listing for a “Saml J Weinberg rl est” at 859 3rd Ave, at the NE corner of East 52nd. This phonebook entry clearly matched the sign, explaining why Sam was advertising apartments for rent. Since Second Avenue had elevated train tracks at the time, standing at the corner of 3rd and 52nd, looking east, you would see tracks in the background.

Click to enlarge – Buster’s doorway was at 201 East 52nd, near the left corner.

Bob also sent a vintage map of the block. Knowing that Sam’s office was on the corner of 3rd, if Buster exited the E 52nd St side of Sam’s building, then per the map we’d expect to see a one story building immediately behind Buster, flush with a several story building immediately behind the one story building, with a sidewalk fire plug in front of the flush buildings, then a long row of multi-story buildings all set back further from the sidewalk, then a 5 story building further back that again projects flush to the sidewalk, and then elevated tracks. These elements match exactly both in the movie frame and on the map. Although a modern glass high-rise stands there today, we now know the humble entranceway to 201 E 52nd St once portrayed Buster’s Manhattan apartment.

With this post I now have a dozen postings about Keaton filming The Cameraman and Harold Lloyd filming Speedy in New York. Here’s an INDEX of these other posts.

The 5 story building at 247 E 52nd street (oval) appears in both images.

Thank you Bob for more incredible detective work. Bob’s popular and highly recommended website PopSpotNYC.com explores the visual archeology of “where interesting events in the history of Pop Culture took place; like album cover shots, places where movies and tv shows were filmed, and sites on which paintings were based.”

The Cameraman images (C) 1928 Turner Entertainment Co. Below, looking east from 3rd down E 52nd.

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