Posted by Susan Doll on May 9, 2016
Once again, I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood with my partner in crime, Maryann. Part of our ritual is to spend the Thursday afternoon before the fest combing the streets, cemeteries, and movie palaces looking for the last vestiges of old Hollywood. This year our quest led us to the TCM Movie Location Tour, which took us from Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles. A large screen inside the bus showed clips from movies shot in L.A., while the driver eased by the actual locations, and a knowledgeable tour guide offered fun facts and amusing anecdotes.
The tour began with the studios that are located in the heart of Hollywood, including several small facilities built during the silent era. It is easy to spot the Jim Henson Company, a studio located at the corner of La Brea and Sunset, because a statue of Kermit the Frog graces the entryway. Look closely and you’ll find that Kermit is dressed like Charlie Chaplin, because the studio was originally built by the Little Tramp just after WWI. The Charlie Chaplin Studio was designed to resemble an English village, with a Tudor façade and a long row of colonial clapboard cottages. Chaplin built a house, tennis courts, and a pool on the property, but he sold the residence portion in the late 1940s, and then sold the studio in 1953. King Studios, a television production company, took over the space. Among the successful series produced at King were The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves and The Red Skelton Show. Later, the property became the headquarters of A&M Records, cofounded by Herb Albert. Jim Henson’s children purchased the studio in 2000.
During construction in 1918, Chaplin placed his footprints and signature in cement as part of the sidewalk, a gesture of pride and ownership. He sold the studio shortly after leaving America in 1952 because the anti-communist hysteria surrounding the HUAC investigations had begun to target and persecute him. When Chaplin returned to the U.S. for his career Oscar in 1972, A&M offered to show him around the studio and throw a celebration, but the legendary comic declined. A few days later, he asked his chauffeur to slowly drive past the studio gate, but he never got out of the car. It is said that the Charlie Chaplin Studio is haunted by footsteps that restlessly pace the catwalk. Perhaps it is George Reeves as Superman, looking to reveal the riddle of his mysterious death; perhaps it is Chaplin, trying to take back ownership of the studio he unfairly lost because of political posturing during Cold War hysteria.
The simple exterior of the Hollywood Center Studios belies its complicated history. It began when designer John Jasper left the Charlie Chaplin Studio in 1919 to build three production stages on a nearby lot. At first, the stages looked like greenhouses with steel frames, cloth walls, glass roofs, and clerestory windows, because sunlight was used to illuminate the sets in those early days of filmmaking. The designer dubbed the property the Jasper Hollywood Studio, but his name didn’t last long on the studio gate as the property continually changed hands over the next eight decades. Film history books tend to present the Golden Age of Hollywood as the story of the eight major studios. In reality, small production spaces sprinkled around the heart of Hollywood housed any number of exceptions to the factory-like organization that defined the major studios. By 1925, Jasper was out, and the Christie Brothers, who specialized in comedies, purchased the studio. Harold Lloyd left Hal Roach to shoot his films at the Christies Film Corp., while Howard Hughes spent several years on the lot making Hell’s Angels. The advent of sound caused a complete make-over of the facilities because movie production moved indoors. Metropolitan purchased two of the stages and converted them to sound in 1929, resulting in a new name on the gate, Metropolitan Sound Studio.
During the Depression, the Christies ceded control to the General Service Studios, a name that reflected the studio’s identity as a full-service operation for any production company or major studio that needed an extra sound stage. Merle Oberon moved onto the lot into Bungalow A with her husband Alexander Korda, a Hungarian director who lost no time finding work at the studio. Shortly after, Mae West sashayed onto the lot under orders from Paramount to clean up her star image for her next film, Ain’t No Sin. Needless to say, she did not listen. United Artists, which did not have a physical plant to produce films, used the studio a great deal during the Golden Age, while Paramount sent its overflow to General Services. During the 1940s, stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Laurel and Hardy, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Glenn Ford, Frederic March, and Erich von Stroheim were regularly working on the lot.
Like other small production houses during the 1950s, this facility turned to television to pay the bills. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz rented Stage #2 to shoot the pilot for I Love Lucy. Desi and Lucy stayed for two years before their company, Desilu, bought RKO from Howard Hughes and moved their operation around the corner. Other series shot here included Ozzie and Harriet, The Bob Cummings Show, and Get Smart.
In 1980, Francis Ford Coppola took over most of the lot to make films under his Zoetrope banner. There he produced Hammett, One From the Heart, The Outsiders, The Black Stallion Returns, Rumblefish, and The Escape Artist. However, losses incurred by One from the Heart forced Coppola out in 1984. Reincarnated as the Hollywood Center Studios, the studio returned to its former role as a production center for multiple directors and companies, including Ridley and Tony Scott. During the 1980s-1990s, the studio was a fascinating combination of old and new Hollywood. George Burns occupied one of the studio offices, showing up every Monday through Friday until his death in 1996. I wonder what Burns thought of Blade Runner and Top Gun.
I did not realize that Hollywood was such a center for Art Deco or Beaux Arts apartment buildings, which many a classic movie star called home. When Mae West relocated to Hollywood from New York, she moved into the Ravenswood, an Art Deco building on Rossmore Avenue built by Paramount Pictures. She lived in Apartment #611 until her death in 1980. The Talmadge was renamed in 1924 after star Norma Talmadge because her husband, Joseph Schenck, purchased the Beaux Arts style apartment building for her. The couple lived for a time on the tenth floor. A portrait of Talmadge hung above the reception desk until the 1980s.
The Bryson, which is also in the Beaux Arts style, should be renamed the Film Noir Apartments. During the 1940s, Raymond Chandler wrote about this apartment-hotel in Lady in the Lake. As detective Philip Marlowe tracks down clues to the title character, he finds himself at the Bryson. He notes, “The entrance was in an L, up marble steps, through a Moorish archway, and over a lobby that was too big and a carpet that was too blue. Blue Ali Baba oil jars were dotted around, big enough to keep tigers in.” In 1944, the year that he starred in the noir classic Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray purchased the Bryson, which he owned until the 1970s. In 1990, Stephen Frears used the Bryson as a location in the neo-noir The Grifters. It doubled as the seedy hotel that the John Cusack character called home.
Back in the day, the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard was used as a kind of unofficial commissary for many of the studios and production facilities. The restaurant was created from a trolley car that travelled the Red Line. Though the walls are lined with dozens of signed photos of movie stars, the restaurant is most associated with Lana Turner. Not only was she a regular in real life, with an assigned booth (#5), but she was immortalized in the neo-noir L.A. Confidential in a scene that took place in the restaurant. A detective played by Guy Pearce mistakes Turner for a prostitute made up to look like her. Insulted by the detective’s insinuations, Turner tosses her drink in his face.
My favorite piece of old Hollywood lore is also related to film noir, but unfortunately, there is little left to see. Many classic film noirs of the 1950s were shot in a district called Bunker Hill, an elevated section of land that separated downtown L.A. from the rest of the city. At the end of the 19th century, lavish two-story Victorian houses were constructed for the wealthy along Bunker Hill. A funicular railway called Angel’s Flight was built in 1901 to take residents up and down the 33% grade. By WWII, the district had become a run-down neighborhood that was home to elderly pensioners and other impoverished residents. The huge Victorian homes were subdivided into apartments for working and lower-class renters. Hollywood filmmakers looking for gritty neighborhoods as backdrops for their dark crime dramas shot on location in Bunker Hill, inadvertently preserving the old neighborhood for posterity. The location can be recognized in Kiss Me Deadly, Criss Cross, My Gun Is Quick, Cry Danger, Backfire, The Brasher Doubloon, and The Unfaithful, among others. The neighborhood’s blend of past and present, charm and sin, urban decay and aesthetic distinction gave the films a unique atmosphere essential to noir.
While Hollywood was capturing the melancholy mean streets of Bunker Hill, the city of Los Angeles began tearing it down in an extensive urban renewal project. The hill itself was lowered 100 feet, and original houses were replaced by modern steel and glass buildings. About the only part of Bunker Hill that remains today is Angel’s Flight, which was preserved and moved from its original location in 1996. The railway has been periodically opened for use, but safety considerations shut it down in 2013.
I recommend the TCM Tour, which packs a lot of history—and fun—into one afternoon, especially for movie fans looking for old Hollywood.
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