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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.