During the frenzied chase at the conclusion of Buster Keaton’s most famous short comedy Cops (1922), Buster grabs hold of a passing car one-handed that whisks him out of frame away from a mob of police (above). As I explain in my book, and on my written Keaton and Lloyd tours posted here and here, Buster filmed this scene coming from an alley just south of the SE corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Cahuenga. In the next shot (at left), Buster lands on his feet beside two cops armed with billy clubs. Unaware of their presence, Buster blithely walks between them as they swing their clubs and, while missing him completely, simultaneously knock each other out. Behind Buster during this scene stands a wide set of formal steps and a series of columns, that once belonged to the First Baptist Church of Hollywood. The building stood at the SE corner of Las Palmas and Selma, a block nearly due south of the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd.
I first wondered if the above scene was filmed on a set, in front of the building with the flags and formal steps visible behind the civic archway shown at the right in Cops (click to enlarge), but a close inspection reveals the staircases do not match. As I explain with confirming photos on one of my bonus programs for the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release Buster Keaton: The Short Film Collection (1920-1923), the archway set shown here was built on the Goldwyn Studio backlot in Culver City, that would later become part of MGM. (These photos show that the above set with the flags has a portico that reads “COTTON EXCHANGE,” and must have been built for some 1920 or 1921 Goldwyn feature production. Does anyone know what this film might have been?)
My first break came quite a while ago watching Bobby Vernon’s final silent comedy short Sappy Service (1929), part of the highly recommended PBS series and multi-volume DVD SlapHappy Collection of silent comedy, where Bobby races to deliver a sedated doctor to court. The “courthouse” steps appearing in the film (at left) matched the Keaton steps, while providing a broader view of the building, including an invaluable clue – the unique ocular detail design over each doorway. I knew that this building’s reappearance on film, nearly 8 years after appearing in Cops, meant it was likely a real building, so I continued to keep my eye out for stately bank buildings or other structures fronted by columns and wide steps.
I have many research tools at my disposal. Aside from its online photo collection, the Los Angeles Public Library has posted old city directories online, and the vintage Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, and historic Los Angeles Times databases are also available to members for online searching. But for richness of information, and imparting a true sense of the past, nothing surpasses a high resolution, vintage, oblique aerial photograph, which is how I discovered the setting for this post.
The aerial image above, and the larger image at the top of this post, are but small portions of an aerial photo that I obtained from the Los Angeles Public Library. While poring over each street and landmark building, I became aware of a white building with columns and wide front steps (oval at top of post) that stuck me as being a candidate for Buster’s film. I checked the spot on Google Street View, and while I was dismayed to see that a different building now stands in its place, it seemed to me that the slope of the sidewalk, and other details, were consistent with the movie frame.
I checked the church on the historic online Los Angeles Times, and finally found an image confirming that Keaton’s setting for this joke was staged in front of the First Baptist Church of Hollywood. Bids for construction of the church were put out in May of 1917, and the completed church was dedicated Sunday, January 20, 1918. The church had a seating capacity of 1500, and a basement social hall seating 500. Sadly, the structure was badly damaged during a fire on May 3, 1935. Fifteen women members of the church, preparing for their annual May Day banquet in the basement kitchen, fled when the flames broke out and escaped unharmed. The replacement church that stands on the site today was dedicated Sunday, September 27, 1936.
Above is a 1929 view of the church (oval) peeking out from behind the Egyptian Theatre.
To give you a broader perspective, this image above shows the relation of the church from Cops (oval) to the garage on Highland Ave. (box) where Keaton staged a gag from The Goat (1921), as explained in my prior post Keaton’s Highland Goat Garage.
While I have yet to find any vintage photo of the original church, it appears as well in the above 1927 aerial view of Hollywood Blvd. looking west. Perhaps the only extant close-up images of the former church survive in the silent comedies of Buster Keaton and Bobby Vernon.
Cops and The Goat are licensed by Douris UK, Ltd., and are available as part to the Kino Lorber Buster Keaton: The Short Film Collection (1920-1923). The ShapHappy DVDs are available at http://slaphappycomedies.com/ You can read all about how Buster Keaton filmed Cops in my book Silent Echoes.
A view of the 1936 replacement First Baptist Church of Hollywood, 6682 Selma Ave.