Hollywoodland and Hancock Park: Two Silent-Era Los Angeles Neighborhoods, Reunited in “The Artist”
December 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Just over a year ago, I was drawn out of my house by the dreamlike appearance of vintage cars–and one 1920s bus–on Beachwood Drive. A PA informed me they were here for a French silent film about the advent of sound. Good luck with that, I thought. The sequence took about an hour to shoot, after which I wrote about it: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/back-to-the-roaring-twenties-briefly-on-beachwood-drive/ Then, because I assumed I’d never see the finished film, I put the episode out of my mind.
The other night, however, I saw the film. Called “The Artist,” it premiered last spring at Cannes, where its lead actor, Jean Dujardin, deservedly won the Best Actor award. Harvey Weinstein is propelling it towards the Academy Awards. The concensus of the audience I was in was charming. As a friend of mine said, “Can a dog win an Oscar? Because that one should.”
But back to the Beachwood sequence: after an establishing shot of the Hollywoodland Sign, we see the cloche-hatted heroine, Peppy Miller, riding the bus down Beachwood Drive, north of the Gates. Although it’s unlikely that an undiscovered starlet would have lived in Hollywoodland, a neighborhood of single-family houses with no rental units, the bus is historically accurate, except that the real one was private. During the 1920s, Hollywoodland ran a jitney up and down Beachwood Drive that took residents as far as Franklin Avenue, where there was a trolley stop . The jitney provided essential transportation in those days of single-car households, not only for non-drivers but for women whose husbands took the car to work.
The use of Beachwood Drive also recalls some of the early films emulated by “The Artist.” During the Silent Era, Beachwood often was used for driving shots, while Larchmont Blvd., four miles to the south, was used for pedestrian shots.
Though Larchmont doesn’t appear in “The Artist,” its surrounding neighborhood frequently does. Hancock Park–more specifically, the deluxe subdistrict of Windsor Square–is the location of both George Valentin’s and (once she hits the big time) Peppy Miller’s houses. In the trailer, Windsor Square appears at the 2:10 mark:
Again, the location is apt, if slightly anachronistic. In the mid-teens, as Hollywood grew congested with traffic and movie studios, film stars began moving south to Hancock Park, then a brand new residential neighborhood. Among those who bought houses there were John Garfield, W.C. Fields and Harold Lloyd. But by the late twenties, when “The Artist” begins, most actors actually had migrated to Beverly Hills, a planned community created, unlike the snobby and patrician Hancock Park, for movie folk. Yet for Silent stars, Hancock Park was the original aspirational neighborhood, and its Mediterranean mansions and spacious front lawns inspired similar versions in Beverly Hills.
For me, a former resident of Hancock Park and current resident of Hollywoodland, “The Artist” stirred up feelings of recognition, nostalgia (both personal and cinematic) and delight. Along with “Hugo,” “The Artist” looks back to show not only what film was, but what it should be–and so often isn’t. More on that, and “Hugo,” in a future post.
Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd: A Tale of Two Houses
April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
In 2009, I wrote about my search for Preston Sturges’s Hollywood house, which I assumed had been torn down in the late 1940s to make room for the 101 Freeway. After reading in Sturges’s memoir that, in lieu of demolition, he had the house cut in 3 pieces and moved to Vista Street, I immediately drove over, found the only house that matched its description, and took this photo:
I hadn’t been back until last week, after Steve Pond of The Wrap contacted me to ask if he could use my “before” photo in an article about the house, which in the interim had been bought and renovated by the actors/contractors Jeremy Renner and Kristoffer Winters. http://www.thewrap.com/movies/column-post/jeremy-renner-his-house-flipping-sideline-it-keeps-me-grounded-25878?page=0,0 I agreed, he linked my piece about the house, and I enjoyed a brief spike in traffic to this site. When I went by to take the “after” picture, I was impressed by the house’s handsome exterior. No longer clad in tired-looking white shingles, it boasts new clapboard, windows and metalwork, and a much nicer color scheme. It probably looks better now than when Sturges lived there, though without period photos there’s no way to be sure.
According to Pond’s article, this is the latest in a long line of houses that Renner and Winters have bought and rehabilitated, but it will be the last for a while, given Renner’s acting commitments.
Meanwhile, over in Windsor Square, the house once lived in by Sturges’s friend Harold Lloyd looks as horrible as it did when I wrote about it in June, 2009. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/harold-lloyd-lived-here/ But I’m hoping that when the second-generation owners finally decide to sell, Renner and Winters will have time to work their magic on it.
When Harold Lloyd Met Preston Sturges: How a Career Comeback Became a Career Ender
June 10, 2009 § 3 Comments
Preston Sturges is revered in Hollywood as the writer and director of some of the wittiest comedies ever written; in an unparalleled winning streak between 1940 and 1943, he wrote and directed eight classics, including “The Great McGinty,” “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” Sturges was also Hollywood’s first writer-director (and later, writer-director-producer), commanding such princely sums that at his career peak he was the third-highest earner in the film industry. (More on this period, as well as his madcap European upbringing, in future installments.)
But by the late 1940s, Sturges was in a career slump. In 1944, he had left Paramount, the studio where he had all his hits, to team up with producer Howard Hughes in order to gain Chaplin-like filmmaking autonomy. The partnership–called Cal-Pix–instead deprived Sturges of both his stock company and the studio’s vertical integration. Instead of having access to Paramount’s expert crews, Sturges now how to hire every grip and makeup person–as well as favorite actors like William Demarest, who was under contract at Paramount and would have to be “borrowed” at huge cost.
Sturges’s volatile personality met its match–and not in a good way–with that of Howard Hughes. (More on him later, too.) Hughes, who had suffered repeated concussions in car and plane crashes, was already displaying the paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder that would characterize his tragic end as a Las Vegas recluse, while Sturges had a talent for alienating everyone around him–bosses, co-workers, friends, wives and lovers. By 1945, he needed a slump-buster. Enter Harold Lloyd.
Harold Lloyd didn’t need an acting job (see below), but the idea intrigued him. He was 52 and hadn’t been in front of the camera since “Professor Beware,” in 1938, though he stayed in the public eye via radio shows and the movies he produced for RKO. A man of considerable energies, Lloyd’s hobbies ranged from 3-D photography to chess to breeding Great Danes, but they couldn’t compare to his feat of making an average of 11 films a year between 1913 and 1929.
Preston Sturges was a huge admirer of Harold Lloyd, and Lloyd’s influence can be seen in the slapstick in his films. Sturges came up with an amusing story incorporating footage from Lloyd’s film “The Freshman,” that would trace the accidental football star’s life through thirty years of non-events, until forced unemployment leads him to take his first drink. Success and adventure, including the purchase of a circus, follow.
“The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” was plagued with cost overruns, hiring problems and creative differences between Lloyd and Sturges. Lloyd’s comedy style was physical and Sturges’s cerebral, with slapstick used mainly as a respite from copious dialogue. When the film finally wrapped, it was $600,000 over budget and 52 days late.
After releasing “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” to mixed reviews in only a couple of theaters, Hughes pulled the film, cut it substantially and–after buying RKO–re-released it in 1950 as “Mad Wednesday.” That version didn’t work either; moreover, it provoked Lloyd into filing a $750,000 breach of contract lawsuit against RKO for removing his above-the-title credit. Lloyd settled the suit for $30,000 and never acted again.
Sturges directed three more films, including the underrated “Unfaithfully Yours,” but all were box office bombs. He spent what was left of his career writing scripts and died broke, at 62, in 1959. His passing was sudden and occurred in New York, where he was writing a new play and an autobiography called The Events Leading Up to My Death.
Harold Lloyd Lived Here
June 5, 2009 § 6 Comments
Harold Lloyd was a Silent Era superstar whose 200+ films outearned those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his competitors in comedy. He invented a quintessential American character, an Everyman in round glasses whose encounters with cars, pretty girls and technology were endlessly compelling. People who draw a blank at his name have seen his most famous stunt, in which he hangs off a skyscraper from the hands of a huge clock in “Safety Last.” (In Hollywood, the scene is memorialized on the side of the Best Western on Franklin Avenue, alongside the warning, “Last Cappuccino before the 101.”)
A handsome young actor from Nebraska who came to Hollywood in the teens, Lloyd teamed up with the director Hal Roach to make such Silent classics as “The Kid,” “Grandma’s Boy,” and “Safety Last.” He entered the Talkies with a huge hit, “Welcome Danger,” (written by Felix Adler, profiled below) in 1929.
Unlike many movie stars of his generation, he was financially shrewd, owning the rights to most of his movies and investing in real estate in a new made-for-actors tract development called Beverly Hills. By the close of the Jazz Age, Lloyd owned his own movie studio (the site of which he later sold to the Mormons for their Los Angeles Temple) and was an extremely wealthy man. He weathered the Crash of ’29 and continued to act in, as well as direct and produce, films and radio shows.
Early in his career, when he was star but not a tycoon, Harold Lloyd lived in this Italianate house in the exclusive Windsor Square neighborhood of Hancock Park.
The house still stands, an eyesore in a neighborhood transformed by 20 years of incessant renovation. I lived around the corner for 16 years and walked my dog (and after he died, another) by the house every day, longing for the time when it would be restored. In another city, there would be a plaque on it that read, “Harold Lloyd lived here.” But not in Los Angeles.
Throughout the ’90s, the house continued its decline. Outside there were dead trees and a dead lawn. Dead cars were parked in the driveway. The only things that thrived were weeds. Passersby showed their displeasure by turning the grounds into a public toilet for their dogs and, apparently, themselves.
When her dog turned up a mouthful of human feces, one of my neighbors reached out the people who have owned and lived in the house for two generations. They agreed to employ a gardener. He cut the weeds and hedges to a manageable level, sprinkled some grass seed and turned on the feeble old sprinklers to irrigate them. That was the sum of the improvements, such as they were. After the husband died, his rusting van was left for years the driveway as a kind of memorial.
These pictures were taken yesterday:
As for Harold Lloyd, his story could hardly have had a better outcome. In 1926, he began building a magnificent new home on 16 acres in Beverly Hills. Called Greenacres, the 44-room mansion was based on the Florentine Villa Gamberaia. Here’s a link to pictures: http://www.haroldlloyd.com/news/featurette.asp
Inside the house were 16 bathrooms, a pipe organ and a theater with a 35mm projection booth. Outside there was an Olympic-size swimming pool, a clock tower, a child-sized cottage with electricity and running water, and extensive gardens. There were greenhouses, stables, a 9-hole golf course, a reservoir and a farm. Lloyd and his wife, his co-star Mildred Davis, raised three children as well as a grandchild at Greenacres, which was staffed by 15 servants and 16 gardeners. They lived in a manner that defined the word swell.
In addition to acting and producing, Lloyd became an accomplished still photographer, taking beautiful portraits of a nude Bettie Page and a clothed Marilyn Monroe. He celebrated Christmas in spectacular fashion, lashing several huge evergreens together to make a single monster Christmas tree, which he strung with thousands of ornaments. One year he purchased the entire Christmas display at Saks, tree included, to augment Greenacres’. Meanwhile, his compound tree became more and more opulent. When the project became too vast to disassemble, Lloyd fireproofed the thing and celebrated Christmas all year long.
He died of cancer at 78, in 1971. Greenacres was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, after its grounds were subdivided and the estate reduced to six acres. The mansion, however, is intact and renovated. Its current owner is supermarket tycoon/ex-Bill Clinton bachelor buddy Ron Burkle, who apparently enjoys Greenacres just as much, if in rather different style, than Lloyd did.
I’m sure Harold Lloyd is watching over his beloved Greenacres from an even greater paradise. As for his starter house in Hancock Park, I’m praying for a gut renovation before the place falls down, followed by a lavish landscaping job. And after that, a plaque with his name on it.
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