Groucho, Buster, and Noir – at the Pasadena Jewett Estate

Buster Keaton beside the Jewett Estate gate in Cops.

Buster Keaton beside the Jewett estate gate in Cops (1922).

1145 Arden Road 03From Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, to noir classics and the 1980s soap opera Dynasty, the lavish Jewett estate located at 1145 Arden Road in Pasadena has portrayed cinematic wealth and grandeur for nearly a century. Designed by architects Sylvanus Marston & Garrett Van Pelt, and completed in 1915, the Palladian-style villa was once set amidst vast gardens adorned with Italian sculptures and fountains, and remains accessed from a gated entry along a 100-foot-long driveway.

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Matching views of the main entrance and driveway turnaround in the twisted film noir murder classic Born to Kill (1947), starring Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney (top), and in the William Haines – Joan Crawford 1927 comedy-romance Spring Fever. Notice the tree stands towards the south edge of the turnaround.

The estate’s imposing formal gate, appearing during the opening scenes of Buster Keaton’s most famous short film Cops (see above and below), was one of the first location discoveries I ever made. The thrill of visiting that spot in person, and appreciating, beyond the narrow view captured on film, the full 360 degree environment Keaton and his crew experienced when shooting the scene, inspired me to delve more deeply into Buster’s work, and ultimately lead to my first book.

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The gate on Arden Road appearing in Spring Fever (left) compared with Buster in Cops. Shown below, visual clues from Spring Fever help identify scenes from the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.

Duck Soup 23I first read the Marx Brothers’ political satire Duck Soup (1933) was filmed at the estate in Leon Smith’s film location book Hollywood Goes On Location (1993). The estate lost many formal gardens north of the house when the property was Jewett Estate Through the Ages Magazine Vol 4 No 3 July 1926 pp 22-29 01subdivided (including its original 1201 address), but two popular filming spots appearing with Groucho, the long formal lily pond south of the home (see view, left, looking north towards the home), and the driveway turnaround beside the home entrance, anchored by a massive oak tree, shown above, remain prominent features of the estate.

Groucho and Margaret Dumont, looking south along the lily pond.

From Duck Soup, Groucho and Margaret Dumont, looking south along the formal Lily Pool.

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These detailed views reveal the elaborate circular arbor that stood behind Groucho at the south end of the Lily Pool.  I am unable to determine whether the arbor remains today.

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A modern swimming pool has been installed immediately south of the home where this carved circular lawn ornament once stood.  The view left looks north towards the home, the views to the right, Duck Soup above, and Spring Fever below, look south down the extant Lily Pool.

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From Duck Soup, left, the assembled guests stand at attention awaiting the entrance of Freedonia President Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), filmed looking north along the formal row of trees that once stood north of the home. The images from Spring Fever, at right, show a similar view (top), and an opposing view looking south from the north garden towards the north end of the home.  Note the Cupid fountain in the lower right.

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Groucho surprises the awaiting guests by making his entrance from the side. The fountain behind him appears identical to the fountain in the Spring Fever frame (left). The estate had several rectangular formal gardens standing north of the home, so Groucho could have filmed elsewhere beside a similar fountain. Otherwise, Groucho likely followed the arrow pointing east in each image. The original gardens north of the home were lost when the estate was subdivided.

Duck Soup 15During one running gag in Duck Soup Groucho is left behind each time Harpo picks him up with a motorcycle sidecar.  For this version of the joke Groucho attempts to outsmart Harpo by sitting on the motorbike instead, Born to Kill 01but even then Harpo prevails, as this time the sidecar drives away, once again leaving Groucho stranded. We know from movies such as Born to Kill and Spring Fever (and confirmed by modern aerial views) that the massive oak tree standing in the driveway turnaround is sf01situated off center, near the south end of the turnaround.  Thus, this view of Harpo fleeing Groucho (left) was filmed at the turnaround looking north.  This landmark tree still guards the home, and is visible from the front gate (see below).

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Matching views looking north towards the driveway turnaround oak tree still standing today.

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As Groucho watches Harpo drive away, looking south along the driveway from the turnaround behind Groucho, a gate tower (oval) appears in the distance, matching the gate tower from Cops (inset).

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Spring Fever/Born To Kill

According to the Los Angeles Times, the original owner William Kennon Jewett was heir to a railroad fortune in Ohio and struck it rich as head of a gold mine in Colorado.  In 2005 the Times reported the 13,498-square-foot house, with nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms, nine fireplaces, and an elevator, was listed for sale at $14.5 million.  The estate appears in many early films, including Ann Harding’s Paris Bound (1929) and the sole Amos ‘n Andy feature film Check and Double Check (1930).  As reported in the LA Times, the Mae West feature Goin’ To Town (1935), the long-running prime time soap opera Dynasty, and recent televisions shows such as CSI: Miami, and major films such as Gods and Monsters (1998) and Terms of Endearment (1983), were also filmed at the estate.

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Click to enlarge – looking south at the Jewett estate today, with Cops at top, Duck Soup middle left and right, Spring Fever lower left, and Born to Kill lower right.  All views are oriented properly to the aerial photo, except for the Cops gate which was filmed from the street looking towards the home. The north garden in the Spring Fever frame has been lost to subdivision at the bottom edge. (C) 2015 Microsoft Corporation Pictometry Bird’s Eye (C) 2015 Pictometry International Corp.

The Jewett estate was one of thousands of stately homes, churches, and country clubs, ranging from Burlingame to San Diego, listed in the 1920s-1950s with the Assistance League Film Location Bureau, a charitable organization founded by Mrs. Hancock Banning that rented lavish locations for use by movie studios.  The participating owners allowed filming on their property in exchange for rental fees paid by the studios, that were in turn donated to the Assistance League’s charitable causes.  The win-win arrangement allowed the wealthy to support charity without spending a dime, while saving the studios the tremendous cost of building sets in lieu of filming at true locations.  Mrs. Lee Fay Turner ran the bureau from at least 1929 to 1951.  While further details about this group’s history await discovery, apparently the bureau assisted, for example, with renting locations used for the 1937 production of A Star is Born.

While Buster would later work with the Marx Brothers as a gag writer for M-G-M, I wonder if they ever realized they had both filmed at the Jewett Estate.

While Buster would later work with the Marx Brothers as a gag writer at M-G-M, I wonder if they ever realized they had both once filmed at the Jewett Estate.

Vintage photos Architectural Record Vol. 52, page 34, 1922, and Through the Ages Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 3 July 1926, pp. 22-29.

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7 Responses to Groucho, Buster, and Noir – at the Pasadena Jewett Estate

  1. So interesting. I spent hours reading your posts.

  2. What an interesting post. I enjoyed reading it thanks. I would also like to invite you to participate in my upcoming blogathon in August. The link is below with more details
    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/in-the-good-old-days-of-classic-hollywood-presents-the-barrymore-trilogy-blogathon/

  3. stvplln says:

    Great story, John!

  4. Pingback: Ginger, Buster, and Groucho, Lon Chaney and Loretta Young, all at the Jewett Estate | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

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