I dream of the day when the Hollywood that the whole world associates with the magic of cinema is brought to life on the blocks that tourists always come to see.
I dream that tourists leave Hollywood Boulevard not disappointed and disappointed but delighted with the wealth of everything they have learned about the origins and history of cinema.
In my dream, I see a particularly bright future for a small alley just south of the boulevard, which right now could hardly be darker.
Because I think so many visitors to Hollywood would love to know this unnamed space – where, at the start of the exhilarating and crazy days of filmmaking, three of Hollywood’s biggest stars of all time shot parts of three of theirs. greatest movies.
Here in this alley, which runs east to west from Cosmo Street to Cahuenga Boulevard, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp first found an abandoned baby in “The Kid” (1921).
In this alley, Harold Lloyd walked towards the back entrance of the employees of the De Vore department store in “Safety Last!” (1923), best known for the iconic scene in which it hangs from the hands of the department store clock above a busy city street (filmed downtown).
In this alley, Buster Keaton, pursued by a pack of police officers, makes his exciting escape by grabbing a moving car with one hand in “Cops” (1922).
There are no markers to indicate anything in the alley – which is currently almost invisible as much of it has been stranded and closed by a restaurant and nightclub using it for outdoor space during the pandemic.
The anonymity of the alley, even before it is blocked off, is to me the ultimate illustration of the problem with how Hollywood is presenting itself today.
Hollywood is teeming with great cinematic history, but much of it isn’t presented well – if at all – to the millions of people who (without a pandemic) come looking for it every year.
John Bengtson, the extraordinary detective who discovered the key role of the alley in silent films, has what seems to me a very modest wish. He would like this humble, nameless space to move forward wearing a proud one: the Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley. Perhaps, he suggested, there could be a silent comedy greats mural in the alleyway, too.
It would be a good start, but down the road I would love to see a lot more – both for the alleyway and for other key places that could help tell the story of Hollywood.
Personally, I think the city should enlist the help of the best filmmakers in modern Hollywood to bring old Hollywood to life on its streets in a way that is much more engaging and much less static for visitors than walking around watching the movies. sidewalk stars or placing their hands. in concrete footprints. But I will come back to that. First of all, let me tell you how Bengtson made his discovery.
Bengtson, who lives up north in East Bay, earns a living as a lawyer. But for decades now, in his spare time, he has searched for places where silent films have been shot, browsing historical photos to find matches to what he sees on screen. He has the gift of remembering architectural details and patterns. He calls himself a “visual historian”.
The first seeds of this passion were planted when he was young and read a biography of Keaton. He took to watching the films of Keaton and other silents when they were shown on public television.
Then in 1995, Keaton’s films were reissued 100 years after his birth. Bengtson bought them on LaserDisc. He began to notice details – he recognized a scene shot in San Francisco – and new technology allowed him to freeze the footage and look closely. In a movie, he saw the number on a building in Los Angeles.
The next time he went to the Los Angeles Public Library and found this address by searching the city directories. The building was still standing. He was excited. He set out to identify other places.
In recent years, as more and more film and photo archives – including aerial photographs – have become available online, its ability to perform such research has grown in leaps and bounds.
Bengtson has published three picture books of his discoveries: “Silent Traces”, on early Hollywood as seen in Chaplin’s films; “Silent Echoes”, about Hollywood debuts in Keaton’s films; and “Silent Visions,” which includes glimpses of early Hollywood and New York City as seen in Lloyd’s films. His blog, silentlocations.com, updates often with new findings.
Fans of silent films are ardent, even if their numbers are relatively small, he points out. The comments they wrote on the alley, identified on Google Maps, attest to this.
But a lot more people would probably like to know the story behind those early days of filming – when the scenes were shot on the fly without a license right in the middle of it all. And what can be found in the early films potentially has an even wider appeal to many people in our city, as they offer some of the most vibrant, vivid views of what Los Angeles looked and felt like. . In them you can find in an earlier time so many places that still exist and also see so many other places long lost to us.
So far, Bengtson has identified 18 silent films in which the Little Alley makes an appearance. They include the work of many pioneering women in cinema, including Grace Cunard, Cleo Madison, Gale Henry and Lois Weber, the first woman to direct an American feature film. The alley appears in “Where are my children?” De Weber from 1916. Harry Houdini appears in the alley in “The Grim Game” (1919). Douglas Fairbanks, Oliver Hardy and Colleen Moore can all be seen there.
Bengtson speculates that many other films were shot in the surrounding area as well – one of the only cited corners of early Hollywood that still didn’t look urban. The alley offered a superb dilapidated setting. Its south-facing walls are sunny all day. A building that still stands in it features a cast iron support pole that can be seen in several movies. At the east end of the alley, on the east side of Cosmo, the Palmer Building side of Hollywood Boulevard, built in the early 1920s, could give some shots a city feel without the filmmakers walking downtown .
And many other films, he points out – including “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (1914) – include city scenes filmed just around the corner on the 1600 block of Cahuenga Boulevard, which should also to report to visitors.
Sadly, just as we have lost much of our city’s built history, only a small fraction of the hundreds of silent films made have survived. The nitrate film used at the time was highly flammable and many films were destroyed in fires. Once the bran got in, many were thrown away as outdated or melted so that the silver was in their emulsions. The Library of Congress estimated in 2013 that 75% of silent films were lost. Some think this estimate is low.
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Bengtson says Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin have appeared in the alley in several films, but he chose to highlight three of the more well-known films in particular because they are so “incredibly captivating.”
“It’s like spices you don’t normally taste or colors you don’t normally see,” he told me. “The imagery, the story building and the jokes – you can’t beat them.”
And that’s true; they kind of stay fresh and full of life a century after they’re made.
I have to admit that Bengtson first showed me the alley last year, just before the pandemic hit. After we were locked up, it seemed time to tell you about it. But now that many of us worry about how Hollywood has behaved without tourists, while we worry about the fate of the Cinerama Dome, I couldn’t think of a more perfect story to tell the tale of ‘Hollywood we need to tell better.
Let’s go back to my dream to find out how to do it. I think we can be a lot more creative than just putting up signs on street posts offering a story for tourists to read. What if there were some key spots on the boulevard where people could stop and watch short films made by today’s top Hollywood filmmakers – about the many famous writers who dated Musso and Frank, on the Hollywood premiere at the Egyptian Theater, about how films were made in their early days, when were indoor scenes shot outdoors?
What if visitors could stand where Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd once stood, in an alley proudly bearing their names, and watch them come to life before their eyes?