Mary Pickford’s “A Beast at Bay” a century before LAX

Mary Pickford’s A Beast at Bay (1912), directed by D.W. Griffith, portends his 1916 feature Intolerance, overlaps with later films starring Mabel Normand, Douglas Fairbanks, and Buster Keaton, and reveals the future site of LAX (!), the Los Angeles International Airport. But faint-hearted viewers in 1912 also complained its cinematic race filmed from speeding cars along bumpy roads was “an abominable practice” – see more below.

Beautifully preserved and visually stunning, and posted on YouTube by The Mary Pickford Foundation, the movie portrays Mary’s kidnapping, and thrilling pursuit by her rescuers, while providing vivid images of the primitive Inglewood and Wiseburn train stops, the isolated dirt road running beside the Santa Fe rail line connecting them, and the vast open expanses of the historic Rancho Sausal Redondo that would grow into Mines Aviation Field, and later become LAX.

Driving beside the Inglewood Station, with a shameless dog sauntering into view, Mary calls potential beau Edwin August a coward for refusing to fight with a drunken bum. Viewed looking west, she dumps Edwin at the SW corner of the station portico, the farthest corner (blocked from view) in the matching photo. Noted Biograph scholar Russell Merritt reports with this film plucky young Mary became the first Biograph player ever to pilot an automobile onscreen. Before this the company hired anonymous chauffeurs to drive the actors. The station once stood at 320 N. Eucalyptus Ave. in Inglewood, just north of the extant rail line.

Left behind after Mary drives away, Edwin can’t believe his eyes. Far off, an escaped convict has grabbed Mary, forcing her to drive him from a police search party. As seen above, a low-fenced garden once decorated the east side of the Inglewood station.

The police scan Mary driving away with the convict, paired with a matching view looking west of Buster Keaton fleeing the police in The Goat (1921).

The large warehouse, with central doorway appearing behind Edwin, stands roofless nine years later as Buster’s train heads west from Inglewood in The Goat.

Without access to a car, Edwin and the police convince an engineer to follow Mary in his locomotive. Looking east, once the train departs the station, it reveals the C. Ganahl Lumber Co., also appearing when Buster Keaton tows his house north up Eucalyptus Ave. across the tracks at the conclusion of One Week (1920).

Matching views east of the Inglewood station, a very popular filming site. Above left, dastardly Ford Sterling plots to tie poor Mabel Normand to the railroad tracks in the Mack Sennett comedy Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913). Center, Buster and Sybil Seely bid farewell to their demolished home in One Week. Above right, a dozen years later Keaton returned here for Speak Easily (1932), where he was filmed dragged away by a departing train (read more HERE).

Above, the race is on. Matching views north up Redondo Blvd. beside the tracks, with Mary and the convict, left, and the race to stop the Governor’s train during Intolerance, upper right, and Ford tying Mabel to the tracks in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, lower right. Notice the distinctive tree windbreaks at back, also appearing behind Buster as he blithely extricates his stuck foot during The Blacksmith (1922).

A 1929 NE view of developing Mines Airfield. The five scenes above were staged looking north along Redondo (now Aviation) Blvd. (arrow), with the distinctive windbreak trees once standing south of W. Manchester Ave. marked in yellow. Mostly running parallel to the tracks, the dirt road splits away from the tracks at a 60 degree turn “A” above, then rejoins the tracks with two 90 degree turns, “B” above, discussed further below. LAPL.

Above upper left, Mary’s rescuers arrive at Wiseburn, matched with Intolerance upper right, as friends halt the Governor’s train, seeking his last-minute reprieve from execution for the innocent, wrongly condemned Robert Harron (The Boy). Below, speeding directly toward the camera, Buster arrives in style at Wiseburn during The Goat, one of Keaton’s most iconic scenes.

For good measure, Douglas Fairbanks filmed scenes for The Matrimaniac (1916) at Wiseburn, mentioned by name during the film, as he attempts to sneak a preacher onto the train to officiate Doug’s stealth elopement. Since Wiseburn was simply a crude agricultural loading dock in the middle of nowhere (now the western end of W. 120th St.), Doug’s insert shots beside the Wiseburn “station” were staged miles away instead at former the Pasadena Station, where Buster Keaton filmed other scenes for The Goat and Go West (1925), and where Charlie Chaplin filmed the opening scenes from The Idle Class (1921).

Aside from the locations, it was fun to read A Beast at Bay reviewed as “A melodramatic picture existing chiefly to show a race between an automobile and a locomotive,” with “serviceable” camerawork, and neither Mary nor D.W. warranting a mention by name. The Moving Picture World – June 8, 1912, page 944.

But two months later the film’s “serviceable” camerawork was excoriated by seemingly the world’s most easily offended snowflake, Mr. James J. Wood, who registered his “vigorous protest against the abominable practice” of filming from speeding automobiles. “[T]he eye strain from such pictures is decidedly harmful.” He also takes offense at The Girl and “Her Trust” [sic], another Griffith Biograph thriller filmed along the same rail line, showing a brief tight glimpse of the Inglewood Station porch. The Moving Picture World – August 3, 1912, page 449. Click to enlarge.

The publication’s editor was “obliged to heartily concur” with Mr. Wood’s condemnation of shooting films along bumpy roads, “a fault which can and ought to be eliminated.” How dare they? “[Films] should be taken on smoothly paved streets.” Now pardon me while I retire to my fainting couch, oh mercy me!

For historical completeness these remaining images document the route of the tracks and dirt road once running from Inglewood to Wiseburn. Above, Mary’s view matched with Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, both looking NE, west of the Inglewood station, as the tracks and dirt road (modern W. Florence Ave.) curve to the southwest, approaching the “A” marker on the aerial photo further above.

Mary’s kidnapping shows the same curve in the road seen above, only a reverse POV looking west as the tracks and road bend left (south). The low structures to the upper left of the main frame are identified on maps as “hothouses.”

Above left, while the tracks continue to gently curve to the southwest, the dirt road makes a 60 degree turn due south, splitting away from the tracks at the “A” marker on the above aerial view (where modern W. Florence Ave. turns and ends at W. Manchester Ave.) The hothouses identified on the map stand off camera to the right. The upper right frame is the same road before it splits south, essentially forming a panoramic view with the left image.

After traveling south for two blocks while separated from the tracks, the road makes a 90 degree turn right (west) (where modern Aviation Blvd. turns right at W. Arbor Vitae St.), then a 90 degree turn left (south), to rejoin its due south path directly adjacent to the tracks, the “B” marker on the above aerial view. These scenes from Mary, and Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, show the zig and zag as the road realigns with the tracks.

The upper left frame shows the train approaching the Wiseburn station, note the vertical “station” sign. Here, the tracks and the road split apart, straddling the station in between. The upper right and lower right frames above show both sides of the same one-story warehouse on the north end of the station, already torn down by the time Intolerance filmed here in 1916. If curious, click to enlarge this giant 1924 USGS topological map, clearly identifying the stations and the route of the tracks and dirt road. No surprise, Edwin proves himself a hero rescuing Mary from the convict, and the film fades with the couple’s embrace.

Bookend train crashes from One Week (left) and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931).

In closing, Keaton also staged the famous car crash scene from Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath along the same Redondo Blvd., at the SE corner of Mines Field (read post HERE).

Highly recommended,  A Beast at Bay is fun, entertaining, stunningly clear, with Mary a delight, while also a priceless documentary record of the vast rural expanse that was once greater Los Angeles well over a century ago. Great thanks to The Mary Pickford Foundation for posting it.

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.

Below, a view looking north at the former site of the Wiseburn station, at W. 120th St. and Aviation Blvd., the one-time filming site for Mary, D.W., Buster, and Doug.

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7 Responses to Mary Pickford’s “A Beast at Bay” a century before LAX

  1. An interesting post. The sequel is that many years after the Biograph picture, Mary Pickford was almost kidnapped by a pair of villains that intended snatching ‘America’s Sweetheart’ and throwing her into the trunk of their car. Fortunately, the cops rounded the crooks up, when they moved to grab Mary, as she left her studio. Fiction almost became fact, it seems!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Borgen says:

    This is one of my favorite discoveries — not only for the wonderful details and photos – but also because I grew up right there — off of Manchester and Aviation / near Manchester and Florence! Thanks so much

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Les Marsden says:

    Fascinating as always, and the attention to detail is magnificent. Thanks for another great post.

    One small sidebar: the automobiles in 1912’s “A Beast at Bay” feature right-hand drive, though Ford had established the change to left-hand with the 1908 Model T, opening the floodgates of change. By 1913, right-hand vehicles would be well on their way to being a thing, truly – of the past, in the U.S. at least.

    Liked by 1 person

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