Shortly after the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented Laurel & Hardy’s high-rise comedy Liberty (1929), accompanied by Jon Mirsalis, TCM broadcast the 1933 MGM drama Day of Reckoning, starring Richard Dix. The Dix film was full of surprises. For one, young Our Gang star Spanky McFarland was on loan from the Hal Roach Studios to portray Dix’s son. But what really knocked me out was Dix’s rooftop jail fight, staged identically to Stan & Ollie’s comic escapades. Both sequences were filmed atop the Western Costume Building at 939 S. Broadway.
After escaping prison in Liberty, Stan and Ollie ditch their prison garb for civilian clothes, but accidentally don each other’s mismatched trousers. They spend most of film attempting to swap pants, only to end up trapped atop a construction site. Coincidentally Richard Dix plays a prisoner in Day of Reckoning as well, convicted for embezzling to appease his spendthrift wife, who promptly dumps him. Dix nearly dies in a fight atop the prison hospital roof, that eventually leads to his release and reunion with his now motherless children, the boy played by Spanky. Considering MGM distributed Roach’s films, it’s conceivable Roach personnel advised the Dix crew about staging the daring fight.
While the rooftop gags in Liberty continue to thrill audiences, the premise of the film was not exactly original. Hal Roach’s 1927 Our Gang comedy The Old Wallop had previously placed the young Our Gang kids in a similar predicament as Stan and Ollie.
Above, The Old Wallop (1927) and Liberty (1929). Here’s a bit of trivia – the actual building permit, pulled on September 29, 1928, for permission to build a 24 foot x 24 foot “motion picture set” for Liberty atop the Western Costume Building. As noted Laurel & Hardy author Randy Skretvedt reports, “the permit is signed on behalf of the Hal Roach Studios by “L French,” or Lewis Alver French, who oversaw the accounting at the studio. He had been the accountant at a firm Hal Roach worked at when he was a truck driver, and Roach told him that if he ever started his own business, he’d want Mr. French as his accountant. He made good on that pledge! Lewis’s son was Lloyd French, who became an assistant director and ultimately a director at the Roach lot.”
Because Stan and Ollie’s Liberty was filmed looking south, it provides unique views of Broadway past Olympic (originally 10th Street). Above, the narrow triangle building, now lost, was the rooftop where Harold Lloyd built sets for the first phase of his stunt climbs during Safety Last! (1923) and Feet First (1930).
This view south from Day of Reckoning shows the Los Angeles Railway Building at Broadway and 11th, where Dorothy Devore staged her stunt climbing comedy Hold Your Breath (1924). Again, Dorothy’s movie was filmed looking north. Photo Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives.
As shown above, rooftop scenes from Liberty and Feet First were staged directly across the street from each other.
For comparison, Dix hangs on for dear life – safely atop the Western Costume Building roof, and safely in front of a rear screen projection. Filming atop rooftops is such a simple and powerful effect – I am baffled why it still isn’t commonly used.
This view north from Day of Reckoning shows the extant building at the corner of 9th and Hill (left), and back of the May Company Building (right), while the RKO Theater (dome) at 8th and Hill has been demolished LAPL.
During Day of Reckoning Una Merkel and her milkman boyfriend take Spanky to the Temple Street side of the Hall of Justice so Spanky can wave at his father Richard Dix.
Above, a farewell view of Stan and Ollie trying to swap pants beside the Adams Hotel alley in Culver City, now lost, paired with a view from Charlie’s Angels (1979), from guest blogger Jim Dallape’s very popular post From Roach’s to Roaches – Stan & Ollie Meet Starsky & Hutch.
Check out this fascinating “Finding Lost Angeles” post about the Western Costume Company where all the scenes were filmed.
Looking south from 939 Broadway today towards the Western Pacific Bldg.