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. [Update – hear my interview @ 22:12 on Patrick Vasey’s Laurel & Hardy Blogcast – https://anchor.fm/laurelandhardyblog/embed/episodes/26–Liberty-1929-with-John-Bengtson-and-Randy-Skretvedt-e1ntcip/a-a8hn6kn
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.
Charlie, Buster, and Harold each filmed a masterpiece at an alley you can still visit today. Please help support naming the alley by posting a review on Google Maps. Prototype alley sign design by noted Dutch graphic artist – Piet Schreuders. Download a 4-page brochure about the alley HERE. This video further explains the alley – if you can, please leave a thumbs up and share it with others.
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.
Fantastic. Have to believe these different companies all knew where to shoot certain types of scenes — must have been common knowledge at least among production managers, directors, and cinematographers. Wish we could discuss this with them….Have you been inside the UA Theater?
Thanks Richard – always good to hear from you. Did you see I updated the post to add the building permit Roach got to build the Liberty set? I have not been inside the UA Theater, but I did get to stay in the hotel when I introduced Safety Last! for the Los Angeles Conservancy in 2016. Yes, as with my prior post showing the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd alley being used extensively years before the gents filmed there, you have figure the production managers, etc., all knew the best places to shoot. It must have been common knowledge.
Thanks, John! Especially for the “Reckoning” shot with the RKO Hillstreet in the background. I’ve taken the liberty of adding it to the page about the theatre: https://losangelestheatres.blogspot.com/2018/10/hillstreet-theatre.html
Hi Bill – good to hear from you too. So sad to read the RKO was demolished in 1965. This is really obscure, but you can see part of the Trinity Auditorium at back during this scene from “Reckoning.” https://silentlocations.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/day-of-reckoning-10.jpg
Thanks again, John. I just added that shot to the page about the Trinity Auditorium, where several other of your contributions also reside. Cheers! https://losangelestheatres.blogspot.com/2017/09/trinity-auditorium.html
Brilliant as always, John!
Thank you so much for yet another illuminating post, John. The “skyscraper” scenes for “Liberty” were actually shot twice. The first version involved Tom Kennedy as a construction worker. (In the final film, he appears only as a prison guard in the opening scenes.) This was filmed from October 2 through 13, with some additional scenes shot “at Western Costume” on the 16th and 17th. The sequence was reworked (omitting Kennedy) and directed without credit by James W. Horne on November 13 through 18.
Thanks Randy – I didn’t realize they went to so much trouble to shoot this, must have been exhausting to film it twice. The building permit didn’t mention when the Liberty set had to be removed, so I guess it was up there for several weeks.
Another great one, John. Thanks for sharing your amazing detective skills with us.
Thanks Jim – amazing to see Stan and Ollie side by side with Charlie’s Angels.
That UA Theatre is now The Theatre at the Ace Hotel, used for concerts. I’ve recenty been to several shows there in the past two years or so.
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John, you really did some good work here. The photos from different films are very interesting and informative. I just listened to Patrick Vasey’s interview with you on the L&H Blog Podcast, and it is nice to hear you talk about film locations. You are right that the effect of filming on rooftops is the best, and superior to Green Screen and CGI. You get a real background, with wind and sunlight that is from the real world, so you don’t have to spend hours trying to set up lights to make shadows to match a superimposed background. I think the main reason that filmmakers don’t do this today is simply because they haven’t thought of it.
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Thank you Eric. Did you ever see the pilot episode for “Moonlighting,” with Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis? They used the same rooftop effects – very convincing.
No, never saw that episode. I did see a number of the shows, including the one that Orson Welles introduced (and broadcast shortly after his death), but I don’t remember seeing the pilot.
I cover Moonlighting at pages 118 and 122 of my Harold Lloyd book Silent Visions. You can look inside the book for free using “Look Inside” on Amazon, and then searching for “Bruce Willis.”