What time machines! Thanks to the Eastman Museum, vivid details of downtown LA’s most iconic (and now sadly lost) landmarks fill the background of the 1914 gender reversal comedy Forcing the Force, restored and streaming on the museum site. Harold Lloyd’s 1917 Lonesome Luke Messenger comedy, streaming on the Lloyd site, discussed further below, adds more time travel views, and Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel will appear later as well.
Forcing the Force (re-released in 1917 as Hoodwinking the Police) depicts two young women, unemployed and desperate to pay the rent, joining the police force in response to a want-ad seeking only women recruits. They are sitting beside the side entrance stairs of the Bradbury Mansion porch, next to the section with a metal railing, marked below – click to enlarge.
Forcing the Force was released six years before women were allowed to vote, and as was common with mainstream entertainment at the time, depicts employment discrimination and sexual harassment as simply “normal” and comedic. Despite a few cringe-worthy moments, the movie is an incredible time machine, capturing daily life, and never-before-seen details of lost LA landmarks. For example, I have never before seen an image taken from the Bradbury Mansion porch. Huntington Digital Library.
Our heroines read the want-ad sitting beside the incredible Bradbury mansion, built in 1887 atop Court Hill overlooking the LA Civic Center, at the time one of the city’s finest home. When the wealthy elite began moving west to more remote and exclusive neighborhoods, the mansion was used as one of the town’s initial movie studios. It was here Harold Lloyd and producer Hal Roach first joined forces in 1915 to create their earliest films under the Rolin Film Company banner. The pair, along with Lloyd co-stars Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard, created more than one hundred films during their time working together at what Lloyd called “Pneumonia Hall,” including Lonesome Luke Messenger discussed further below. Lloyd and Roach filmed at the mansion until 1920, when Roach built new facilities out in Culver City, and changed the studio name to the Hal Roach Studios. The mansion was demolished in 1929, and for many years the hilltop site was used as a parking lot! Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives.
Click to enlarge – above, our job-seeking heroines stroll beside the decorative arched entrance way to the former Los Angeles City Jail once standing at First Street. The former Los Angeles County Jail stood a block east. You can actually read the “POLICE COURTS” sign appearing in the movie in this vintage photo. Few photos survive of this long lost jail facility, and again, this is first time I have ever seen such clear details of the jail entrance. UCLA, Library Special Collections.
Click to enlarge – one new female member of the force arrives to relieve a harried traffic cop from his post at the busy intersection of 4th and Spring (notice the crowd of onlookers at back). Pictured here in 1906, the grand Angelus Hotel (now a parking lot) once stood at the SW corner of 4th and Spring. A bit of the hotel’s decorative entrance way appears to the far left of the right frame. California State Library.
We return now to the Bradbury Mansion site, where many scenes from Forcing the Force were filmed at or beside this stately home.
Augmented for this post, this map by Piet Schreuders (click to enlarge) shows the Bradbury Mansion sitting high atop Court Hill. To the lower left on First Street stands the LA City Jail where the women got their jobs, just one block away from the mansion porch. Notice too the railing overlooking the twin-bore Hill Street Tunnel running under Court Hill (discussed later). Next, notice at front the crenelated clock tower of the former LA Times Building that once stood at the corner of First and Broadway, just a block away from the mansion. Last, although not featured in the movie, notice at the right the Court Flight incline railway that once transported people from Broadway up to the top of Court Hill. LA once had two incline railways – the other railway, Angels Flight, still stands near 3rd and Grand downtown.
A panoramic view of the Bradbury Mansion sidewalk entrance steps – left, in 1917 with Harold Lloyd in Lonesome Luke Messenger, and three years earlier, in 1914, as one of the heroines implores a fellow officer to help her in Forcing the Force. USC Digital Library.
Seen here with Bebe Daniels, Harold portrays “Lonesome Luke,” long before adopting his later trademark “Glasses” character. The women are sitting further back on the porch, between Bebe and Harold.
Harold also offers a closer view of the mansion entrance. (That’s really Harold rolling down those cement stairs).
Harold made dozens of movies at this mansion studio, nearly all are lost. But look, Charlie Chaplin filmed here too. Our heroine waters the lawn beside the mansion main entrance steps in 1914. A year later, Charlie played an overworked paperhanger when filming Work at the same mansion steps in 1915.
You are witnessing a unicorn. I’ve studied vintage LA photos for over 25 years, and I have never before seen a view from the mansion front lawn toward the LA Times tower at First and Broadway nearby. The tower is at eye level because the mansion stood on a hill – see the aerial view above. LAPL.
Let’s focus now on the rarely photographed railing overlooking the Hill Street Tunnel. This panorama was created with frames from the 1921 Monty Banks comedy Nearly Married (streaming Archive.org), and Harold’s Lonesome Luke Messenger. Remember, the enormous Bradbury Mansion is just off camera to the right.
Click to enlarge – filming from the terrace looking south down Hill Street, while cropping the railing from view, created the illusion of great height. This still from Harold’s Look Out Below (1919) shows Hal Roach at the far left, with Snub Pollard, and Bebe Daniels. Harold would also film High and Dizzy (1919) and Never Weaken (1921) here, using elaborate sets to create the illusion he was climbing high in the air. The box in this inset view from Never Weaken marks the peaked facade of the LA City Jail, just a block away. Many more “thrill” comedies were filmed above the Hill Street Tunnel too. For variety, some other thrill comedies were filmed the same way, but instead with sets overlooking the Broadway (now lost) or Third Street Tunnels. This post explains the many downtown tunnels appearing in early comedies and film noir. Photo Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives.
Forcing the Force makes more modest use of the Hill Street Tunnel railing, as a simple hiding place for the women and one cop to hide from the others running up the stairs beside the tunnel. That painted “HOTEL LA CROSSE” sign near the center of the right frame is a dead giveaway. If you watch enough silent comedies, you will see that sign appear over and over again, including during Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918) and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923).
In closing, Forcing the Force has one more charming surprise. They built a small interior set on the sidewalk in front of the mansion, facing the railing overlooking the tunnel, so one of the women could peek through her window and react to a policeman approaching her home from the tunnel stairs. In the days preceding CGI and rear projection effects, the only way to present a real life backdrop from the window of a set was to build the set on site. For comparison, the matching right frame is the closing shot from Stan Laurel’s solo 1918 comedy Do You Love Your Wife?, with Stan being led the toward the mansion sidewalk entrance and further back the tunnel stairs.
Forcing the Force, Lonesome Luke Messenger, Chaplin’s Work, and Do You Love Your Wife? each contain many more scenes filmed on Court Hill, showing bits of the mansion and neighboring sidewalks and homes, but it’s time to end this post. If you’ve ever wondered why Hill Street in downtown LA is flat, it’s because Court Hill, the hill that gave Hill Street its name, sadly no longer exists. In the name of progress, Court Hill and the surrounding neighborhood were bulldozed into oblivion. Except for street names, nothing appearing in this post remains today. Movies are time machines – moments of time captured frame by frame and frozen on film. Forcing the Force captures rare and vivid details of downtown LA life from over a century ago. We should all be so grateful to the Eastman Museum for preserving and streaming this evocative film.
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Below, where once stood mansions, a twin-bore tunnel, and an incline railway, long lost Court Hill is now only a memory, captured on film.