LA’s Early Hills, Tunnels Preserved in Noir – Silent Comedies

CLICK TO ENLARGE - we'll cover each image one at a time below.  Looking SE at the Civic Center and Court Hill (1919) - Watson Family Photographic Archive

TWO HILLS – THREE TUNNEL PORTALS – ONE PHOTO – CLICK TO ENLARGE – we’ll cover each image one at a time below. Looking SE at the Civic Center and Court Hill (1919) – Watson Family Photographic Archive

Once marked with hills and tunnels, the complicated landscape of early Los Angeles has changed so dramatically that it’s difficult to visualize how all of the pieces once fit together.  Massive landmarks such as Court Hill and the Broadway Tunnel were bulldozed into oblivion.  In fact, not a single hill, tunnel, or even building in the above photo still exists.

Using a remarkable 1919 aerial photo from the Watson Family Photographic Archive, several “stunt” climbing silent comedies for detail, and a noir classic for good measure, this post deconstructs how early filmmakers exploited LA’s unique topography, and how such films provide an invaluable window to the past.

Bobby Dunn

Click to enlarge – Bobby Dunn in No Danger (1923).  The arrow points from above the Broadway Tunnel past the roof line of the Alhambra Hotel (box), past the County Court House (1), the Hall of Records (2), and the crenelated clock tower (oval) of the Los Angeles Time Building at 1st and Broadway (3).

We begin (above) looking south from above the Broadway Tunnel towards the County Court House (1), the Hall of Records (2), and the Los Angeles Times Building (3) as seen in Bobby Dunn’s stunt-climbing short comedy No Danger, posted on YouTube.


The aerial view at right looks north up Broadway from the LA Times Clock Tower (oval) toward the Broadway Tunnel overlook where the movie was filmed.  LAPL.

Some prominent landmarks appearing in No Danger include the rooftop signs of the former Alhambra Hotel and Hotel Alhambra Apartments, that stood facing each other on opposite sides of Broadway.


Reversing the No Danger movie frame reveals the rooftop signs marked to the right.

move 1In 1923 the Alhambra Hotel was moved north up Broadway 122 feet towards the face of the Broadway Tunnel to make room for the Hall of Justice, shown here in 1924 under construction, and completed in 1925.  The right box in the photo to the left (LAPL) shows the hotel’s original position, and the left box shows the hotel after the move.  Separated by Temple Street from the County Court House (1) and the Hall of Records (2), the Hall of Justice is the only building appearing in this photo that remains standing.


The Kress House Moving Company (red box) was awarded a $63,770 contract to move the massive Alhambra Hotel 122 feet further north up Broadway from Temple.  It appears No Danger was filmed before the move began.  The upper right photo shows the dozens of parallel train tracks positioned to move the hotel towards the camera.  The yellow box marks the former Broadway Hotel.  USC Digital Library.

A set from The Terror Trail (1921) overlooking the Hill Street Tunnel

A set from The Terror Trail (1921) overlooking the Hill Street Tunnel – Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives

The next image (below) comes from Harold Lloyd’s 1921 thrill comedy Never Weaken, filmed on Court Hill above the Hill Street Tunnel, looking south down Hill Street from a set similar to the one depicted to the left.  The Hotel La Crosse at 122 S. Hill Street (yellow box left and below) is a conspicuous landmark that is readily spotted in nearly all movies filmed above the Hill Street Tunnel.  In the second half of a prior post, fully annotated with photos and maps, I explain all about how Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and other comedians filmed at studios within the Bradbury Mansion atop Court Hill, and made use of the Hill Street Tunnel overlook.


Harold Lloyd in Never Weaken.  The arrow points south down Hill Street, from the balustrade overlooking stepped terraces leading to the tunnel portal – the yellow box marks the sign for the Hotel La Crosse.  The oval marks the Bradbury Mansion, an elaborate home at the corner of Court Street and Hill Street, later used as a silent movie studio by Charlie Chaplin, Hal Roach, and Harold Lloyd.

tunnelThis map (left – click to enlarge) by Piet Schreuders looks north towards Court Hill, and shows the short length of the Hill Street Tunnel relative to the Bradbury Mansion and the Court Flight incline railway.  Dozens of movies were filmed overlooking the tunnel (orange arrow), but for variety, a few movies were filmed nearby.  The yellow arrow points south from bare land on the hilltop, from which the next image below was taken.

Should Sailors Marry? (1925)

This stunt scene featuring Clyde Cook in the Hal Roach Studio short film Should Sailors Marry? (1925) was filmed  looking east down 1st Street from Court Hill towards the Los Angeles Times Building clock tower (oval) at 1st and Broadway.

The north end of the Hill Street Tunnel commanded less of a view, and seems to have appeared in far fewer films than did the southern end of the tunnel overlooking downtown.  However, the north end of the tunnel and Court Hill play a major role in the film noir classic Criss Cross (1949) starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo (see below).  For a detailed report of these landmarks as they appear in Criss Cross, check out my post HERE.

Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross

Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross – behind him, the north portal of the Hill Street Tunnel.

Both images below depict the block bounded by Broadway, 1st Street, Hill Street, and Temple, yet aside from the street layout and names, these two images share NOTHING in common.  The hills, tunnels, buildings, and even certain streets, such as New High and Court Street, are forever gone, preserved only in vintage photos, … and in the movies.


(C) 2013 Nokia Image courtesy of LAR – IAC  (C) 2103 Microsoft Corporation Pictometry Bird’s Eye (C) 2012 Pictometry International Corp.

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.  Criss Cross (C) 1949 Universal Pictures Company.  Should Sailors Marry? licensed from Lobster Films (C) 2005 Lobster Films.

This entry was posted in Court Hill, Film Noir, Lloyd Thrill Pictures, Los Angeles Historic Core, Los Angeles Tunnels and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to LA’s Early Hills, Tunnels Preserved in Noir – Silent Comedies

  1. Chris Bungo says:

    Downtown had a much more interesting topography and architecture back then. Fortunately there are still many of these historic buildings still with us, sadly some are not.


  2. Hi Chris – remarkably the downtown “Historic Core” south of the Civic Center remains relatively intact, but the old Civic Center, Bunker Hill, and Court Hill, were completely obliterated. Nothing in this area, except for the 1925 Hall of Justice, remains.


    • Chris Bungo says:

      Yeah, that particular part of town, along with the original Chinatown, all gone. Would have been very interesting to walk the streets of old Chinatown to see all those locations used in the Chaplin films.


  3. ronzoni1001 says:

    why cant Disney replicate this, rather than Californialand?


  4. Bill Counter says:

    Thanks, John! Fascinating work, as usual.


  5. Emily says:

    Just yesterday I learned that Buster filmed the scene where he jumped between the two buildings in Three Ages on a hill overlooking part of town and I recognised the view from the stills of the Terror Trail and the similar set. Very interesting to know that it was used so often. So much to discover from your blog – thank you!


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  9. tovangar2 says:

    There’s a post here:
    about the homes at Court and Hill and the history of the Fort/Broadway cut.


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