Chaplin on South Central – Making It Work

Charlie Chaplin in Work (1915).

Charlie Chaplin on South Central Avenue in Work (1915).

This image of Charlie Chaplin struggling with a cart load of tools and supplies in a Dickensian warehouse district is one of the most visually arresting of his entire career. Surrounded by horse-drawn wagons and early automobiles, the Little Tramp seems stuck in some chronological limbo, straddling the Victorian era and the impending Jazz Age. Taken over 100 years ago for the movie Work, the gritty street image always fascinated me, but it seemed beyond reach, never to be understood. But thanks to the clarity of the wonderful restored Blu-ray release of Chaplin’s Essanay comedies from Flicker Alley, this elusive setting quickly revealed itself.

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Charlie’s path in 1915 past the United Wholesale Grocery Co. as shown on this 1908 “bird’s eye” view map of downtown Los Angeles. The tall building to the left behind Chaplin was built after 1908 and thus does not appear on this map.

As Charlie moves down the street, we can briefly glimpse a painted wall sign at back that says “UNITED W– GROC–” By checking the Los Angeles City Directories available online at the Los Angeles Public Library, out popped the likely candidate, the United Wholesale Grocery Co. that once stood at 216 S Central Avenue. While not the most photographed part of town, comparing the site with vintage maps and a long-range aerial view confirms Charlie filmed walking south down Central from 2nd towards 3rd.

A matching aerial view of the block. The gap between the buildings in a rail spur crossing the avenue. LAPL.

Click to enlarge. A matching aerial view of the block – Central running left-right between 3rd St at left and 2nd St at right. The gap between the buildings is due to a rail spur crossing the avenue. LAPL.

The orange oval above marks 219-227 S Central, once home to the Ducommun Corporation, the yellow oval marks the United Wholesale Grocery Co. The gap between the buildings accommodates a rail spur line that once crossed Central in the middle of the block.  The brick warehouses were all demolished in the late 1970s.

The Bradbury Mansion studio on Court Hill, upper left, and the filming site, lower right.

The Bradbury Mansion studio on Court Hill, upper left, and the filming site, lower right.  This 1908 map shows only one bore for the Hill Street Tunnel under Court Hill – the second bore, for automobiles, was completed in 1913.

On the steps of the Bradbury Mansion

On the steps of the Bradbury Mansion

As discussed in my book Silent Traces, and in other posts, Chaplin filmed Work at the Bradbury Mansion studio atop Court Hill, the same studio where Harold Lloyd and producer Hal Roach started their careers at about the same time. The Bradbury Mansion front steps, and the Hopperstead house

At back the Hopperstead home.

At back the Hopperstead home.

standing on the opposing corner from the mansion, both appear during Chaplin’s film. The warehouse street setting stood less than a mile away, quickly reached by taking 1st Street from Court Hill a few blocks east to Central, and turning south for two blocks.

The Bradbury Mansion. USC Digital Library.

The Bradbury Mansion. USC Digital Library.

Thanks to preservationists David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films, and Cineteca di Bologna, all 15 of Chaplin’s Essanay short comedies from 1915 are now beautifully restored, available as a 5 disc Blu-ray/DVD box set from Flicker Alley.

Special Contents of Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (C) 2015 by Lobster Films for the Chaplin Project. Work Blu-ray Publication and Design (C) 2015 Flicker Alley, LLC.

All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, copyright © Roy Export Company Establishment. CHARLES CHAPLIN, CHAPLIN, and the LITTLE TRAMP, photographs from and the names of Mr. Chaplin’s films are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Incorporated SA and/or Roy Export Company Establishment. Used with permission.

A matching view looking north up S Central today – nothing remains.

This entry was posted in Charlie Chaplin, Court Hill, Los Angeles Historic Core and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Chaplin on South Central – Making It Work

  1. donna heuman says:

    Terrific….Just love your explorations in the realm of historic cinema… Makes L.A. so much more historically relevant to some people. Keep up the great work. From a FAN….

  2. Greg says:

    Bravo!
    …and the Bradbury mansion…..sigh…..

  3. Woody says:

    John, I have both your Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin books. Love them. Whenever I go by Olvera St. with friends, I point out “the window” that Charlie used in “The Kid”.

  4. CatM says:

    This is so wonderful! I love finding places like this so I can just go and haunt them, daydreaming of another time. Siiigh.

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