We learn early in Safety Last! (1923) that Harold Lloyd’s roommate Bill Strother can climb tall buildings when we watch him escape from a policeman by scaling a four-story apartment building (left). [NOTE: “Skip,” a resourceful and eagle-eyed reader, was able to identify this extant (if heavily remodeled) building as the former Dresden Apartments at 1919 W 7th Street. You can find my write up about it here.]
The location of this building (perhaps now lost) continues to elude me, despite numerous telling clues, including the fact the building was situated on a trolley line, and stood adjacent to an alley across from a “California Garage” that sold tires. Does anyone know where this might be?
Moments later in the movie, Bill meets up with Harold after scampering down a fire escape (below). The scene is edited as if Bill is returning to an alley behind the same building he had just climbed, but it does not match the alley appearing in the prior scenes. Thanks to the remarkable clarity from the pending Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of Safety Last!, we now know that this scene with Harold and Bill was filmed in Hollywood beside the Markham Building on Cosmo, the same alley where Buster Keaton filmed scenes appearing in his famous short film Cops (1922). You can read how Harold Lloyd filmed Safety Last! HERE.
During the scene, as Bill descends the ladder you can see busy traffic behind him along what turns out to be Hollywood Boulevard, and a sign across the street that reads “RICKERSH …” . In 1923, the RICKERSHAUSER & MILLER auto dealership stood at 6369 Hollywood Boulevard, directly across the street from where the alley Cosmo terminates. Comparing vintage views of the Markham Building with the movie frames confirms the setting.
This 1922 aerial view above shows the Rickershauser dealership (oval) on Hollywood Boulevard across from the Markham Building, near the intersection of Cahuenga to the left. The rooftop arrow above shows the fire escape used by Bill to descend to the alley, and the arrow to the lower left above shows the point of view looking north up Cosmo for the scene from Cops described further below. At left is a closer view of the auto dealer across the street from Cosmo.
This 1924 view above shows the front of the Markham Building facing Hollywood Boulevard alongside Cosmo. The yellow arrow marks the point of view in Safety Last! looking north up Cosmo, the red arrow marks the fire escape ladder used by Bill Strother, and the yellow oval at back marks the towering set for the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks fantasy adventure The Thief of Bagdad, built on the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio at 7200 Santa Monica Boulevard. The Thief of Bagdad is also now available on Blu-ray.
During Cops below, as Buster Keaton signals a left hand turn from Cosmo onto Selma, his hand is bitten by a dog. The spot where Lloyd filmed beside the Markham Building can be seen in the far background (red box below).
The back of the Markham Building is also marked with a red box in the 1997 modern view above. You can see that at some point the fourth floor of the building was removed.
The neighborhood of Hollywood and Cahuenga depicted here was a very popular place for the silent comedians to film, which I describe in great detail in my books, and in many posts, including these concerning one block in Hollywood, describing Toberman Hall in Hollywood, and explaining nearby stunts performed by Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. You can read about how Harold filmed Safety Last! at this post.
Aerial photographs from HollywoodPhotographs.com.
HAROLD LLOYD images and the names of Mr. Lloyd’s films are all trademarks and/or service marks of Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc. Images and movie frame images reproduced courtesy of The Harold Lloyd Trust and Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc. Cops licensed by Douris UK, Ltd.
There is a California Blvd. in Pasadena, and it does cross what is now the Gold Line, would have been the streetcar/train line back then.
Thanks Mary (Happy Birthday!). My sense is that wherever that apartment was located it was not in Hollywood, or downtown LA proper, but a more remote spot specially selected because the building was so well-suited for a climb. I hope some more clues will become apparent once the Blu-ray comes out. I only have access now to some random HD scenes. There were many garages of one type or another with “California” in the name, but none seem to match up with the trolleys, etc.
There’s also a California Ave. in Glendale, but I don’t know if there was ever a trolley line near it.
I love your work, just fascinating. I’ve spent more time on looking for this missing Harold Lloyd location than I think I should admit, but I have developed a theory I think I’ll share. I think that while there is building on the spot that Bill Strother climbed, I think it’s possible that what he climbs is a false front attached to a real building. That helps explain why they don’t show more than two bays of the building. It’s tempting to think that Lloyd searched all LA to find the right building, and that’s why it’s obviously intercut with locations that aren’t nearby, but I think on repeated viewings that the building verges on being too readily climbable to be true. Close examination of the brickwork supports this idea in that the mortar joints between the bricks are deeply set back, which though an actual technique for masonry called raked mortar (something Frank Lloyd Wright used to emphasize the horizontal for example), is also seen in film scenery because it casts deep shadows that don’t wash out on film when brightly lit. Also, watched closely, there is a brick that appears to be sticking out too far in one or two shots, but not in others (take a look at the point where Strother starts to climb down onto the cop, the cop sees him, and then Strother starts going back up. In between them there’s a brick that’s not inset like it should be, and doesn’t match the deep rows several courses above and below. In earlier shots, it is at the correct depth.) Similarly, in some of the close-up shots higher up the building, the bricks look crooked in an unnatural way. None of this is proof, but once I had the idea and went back and looked, it appears plausible. Building a false front would seem extreme if I didn’t know that they had built three-story sections on the top of multiple skyscrapers downtown for Safety Last.
I have some ideas on the location, but I expect they are nothing you aren’t already aware of. I hope this helps a little bit.
Hi Skippy – thanks for writing. Your theory is very interesting. I’ll have to check this out more closely. I’m hoping the extra HD detail when the Blu-ray comes out will help. In any case, they did film next to a California Garage alley, wherever that was located. My sense, from the sun, is that the building stands on the north, or west side of a street served by a trolly line. The LA Public Library has City Directories online, and there are many businesses related to cars or garages that have the word “California” in it, but none seem to fit the clues. Complicating things, it is possible the full sign might read something like “California Garage – around the corner.” I like the way you think, and would appreciate any ideas you might have. Thanks again, John
First, congratulations on your miraculous efforts to track down these indelible locations! As kids growing up in the Bay Area my brother and I had loved the old silents, watched them often and even had a small collection of 8mm Keaton and Chaplin films that I used to order from the old Blackhawk catalogs. I would always be viewing the backgrounds trying to catch a glimpse of what old LA looked like in those days! It’s truly incredible to now have precise locations where so many of these iconic scenes were filmed! And now I actually work in LA (in Exposition Park) and can easily travel to these locations to view and imagine what it had been like then.
One of the films we used to watch a lot was Keaton’s Cops and I was always so enamored with the ending “ladder on the fence” scene. Keaton makes a hugely complicated acrobatic stunt seem very simple and effortless, and I would watch this scene repeatedly, over and over, always asking myself, “How does he do that?!” [This stunt so grabbed my attention that at 14 years old, I even endeavored to attempt it in my backyard!]
Needless to say your work has inspired an eagerness to learn where this scene was filmed. In looking at the street tapering off to the right in the scene, the street appears very narrow, almost too narrow to be a street, more likely an alleyway. Do you think this scene may have been a constructed set rather than an actual street? Do you have clues as to where this scene may have been shot?
Hi David – the Cops fence scene was filmed on the Brunton Studio (now the Paramount lot) north a bit from where Buster filmed the waterfall rescue stunt in Our Hospitality. https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/on-the-fence-keatons-stunts-in-cops-and-our-hospitality/. https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/busters-paramount-backlot-plunge/ I haven’t had time to write them all up, but I have now identified nearly every exterior scene in Cops.
Thanks Geogan – I spent my high school years purchasing 8mm Blackhawk films too.
The see-saw ladder on the fence scene from Cops was always a favorite – I remember being blown away by it as a youngster. If you look to the left background of that scene, you will see the 3-ball pawn shop sign appearing earlier in Cops, where Buster “buys” the horse and wagon for $5.00. The same pawn shop set appears during a campaign speech given by Big Joe Roberts in Day Dreams. The full street set was configured like a “Y” – with the pawn set one of the left of the twin upper legs. The juncture of the three legs of the “Y” is where Buster is thrown out of the theater in Day Dreams, while still wearing his Roman garb costume. I wrote this all up years ago in an old edition of The Keaton Chronicle newsletter.
Keaton filmed some scenes from Cops on the Metro backlot across the street from his small studio (before Metro moved to Culver City as part of MGM in 1924), including the scene where the grandstand collapses after the fire hydrant is knocked over. (You can clearly see this set in an aerial photo). And the giant arch, where Buster is followed by hundreds of cops at the very end, was filmed on the Goldwyn Studio in Culver City, again, as shown in vintage photos.
I do not know at which backlot the fence scene was filmed, but it was not Buster’s studio, as it was far too small. But the pawn shop street also appears in a Lloyd Hamilton short The Speeder.
Thanks, John! By the way, my name is David. When I created my profile on WordPress every form of David was taken! I’ll certainly be following from now on!
Thanks David – that is my middle name! John
I’m working on “Silent Echoes,” I say working because I spend so much time studying each and every page… a real labor of love! I mentioned I work in Exposition Park and every day at lunch I put on my sneakers and walk around the park and out along Exposition Blvd. Now every day I do this I look up at the former site of the USC College of Dentistry building and imagine Buster out on the streets filming Cops or Seven Chances.
But sadly, urban renewal continues to encroach. I went looking for the intersection of Alameda and Ducommun and found it buried beneath a solid concrete elevated Metro Rail line! Oh well, I guess it’s progress!
Thanks again David – glad to hear you’re enjoying the work! Do you explore in person, or on Google Street View/Bing Bird’s Eye View? Here is a post about Exposition Park in case you missed it. https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/college-days-for-harold-and-buster/
Sorry, john, I didn’t notice this reply until just today. I explore in person at every given opportunity but as time permits. Meanwhile I utilize the “explore at hand” tools with the Google street view and the Bing Bird’s eye. I love the Bing because it allows you to look at Bird’s Eye from 4 different angles. I’ve been working in LA now going on four years and it has really given me an opportunity to get to know the historical urban landscape a little better!
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Thanks for the above view of the Markham Building. You might find this as funny as I did, when SCREENLAND magazine had their offices there, in 1921-1922; they stated in their magazine that they had the entire 5h floor. Very impressive sounding, right?
I get the joke now – yeah, there was a tiny unit on the 4th floor roof. I haven’t had time to check the online building permits, but at some point that small 5th floor, and all of the 4th, were removed.