Since my daughter has been enjoying the Fox Network crime drama Bones on Netflix, I thought I’d check out the pilot to see what the show was about. Ostensibly set in Washington DC, the show teams up socially awkward forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan with FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth, who relies more on his interpersonal skills and intuition to solve crimes.
I turned on the pilot episode, and began settling in, watching the lead characters bicker as they pulled their car over to the side of the road. Suddenly, through the magic of film editing, the action jumped from the streets of Washington DC to the streets of Los Angeles with a single cut, jolting me from the couch. While chuckling at the audacity of the show’s producers in daring to match shots filmed on different coasts, it dawned on me what was truly humorous – that my devotion to spotting vintage movie locations often prevents me from being completely drawn into compelling shows.
In my defense, it was hard for me not to notice the first Los Angeles exterior to appear in the show, as it was Plaza Firehouse, built in 1884 on the west side of the Plaza de Los Angeles. The firehouse appears below during a scene from Buster Keaton’s 1921 short comedy The Goat. The firehouse had been a challenging location to track down, and thus was burned into my memory.
At the time Keaton filmed here in 1922, the fire house, then painted white, had been home to the Cosmopolitan Saloon, shuttered by Prohibition. The fire house-saloon appeared in the 1916 immigrant drama, Gretchen the Greenhorn, starring Dorothy Gish (see below).
The next surprise in the show came moments later. Dr. Brennan works at the fictional Jeffersonian Forensics Institute, supposedly set in Washington DC, but in reality filmed at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. And yes, you guessed it, Buster Keaton had filmed there before too, for scenes from his 1927 campus comedy College, discussed in further detail at this post, and for this opening scene below from his final silent comedy Spite Marriage (1929). As explained in this other post, Harold Lloyd filmed scenes from The Freshman (1925) here as well.
For good measure, the pilot episode of Bones has a scene filmed on historic Carroll Avenue located in Los Angeles east of Echo Park. Of the dozens of comparable residential streets that once graced Bunker Hill, Court Hill, and other lost neighborhoods, Carroll Avenue is one of the few Victorian-era streets to remain remarkably unchanged. A goldmine for location scouts, Carroll Avenue has appeared in countless movies, including the 2011 biopic J. Edgar. Notice below that the distinctly non-Washington DC area palm trees have been digitally removed from the shot to the left appearing in the Bones pilot.
It struck me while writing this post how the layers of history pop up everywhere, waiting to be discovered. The fictional character Dr. Brennan can find a story hidden in the skeletal remains of a crime victim. Yet as we see here, the vehicle for telling Dr. Brennan’s story, the pilot episode for the show itself, contains a similar hidden story.
Location filming has been staged in Los Angeles now for well over a century. The Plaza Fire House appeared on film as early as 1916 (and likely much earlier), and continues to fill the background of film productions even today. As time advances, our popular entertainment, film and television, will become increasingly dense with vestiges of the past, as long as we take the time to look.
Bones – Copyright (C) 2005 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Spite Marriage – Copyright (C) 1929 Turner Entertainment Co.; The Goat licensed by Douris UK, Ltd.