When the great silent comedians filmed the streets of LA one hundred or more years ago, many of those settings were already decades old. Focusing on a single vintage photo, let’s explore one of the most fascinating film locations in all of cinematic history.
Click to enlarge – this amazing 1897 photo looks east from the tower of the former Los Angeles County Court House once standing at Temple and Broadway in downtown. The prominent corner building facing us just right of center, with the pointed cap tower, is the former Amestoy Building at Main and Market. The left-right street in the foreground is Main Street, with Spring Street along the bottom merging into it. Looming on the horizon at right stands the “cozy” former Los Angeles Orphanage at 917 South Boyle Avenue, built in 1890. California State Library.
Click to enlarge – a closer view, way at back. The center of the image reveals the narrow intersection of Ducommun Street and Labory Lane, marked by a very narrow two-story triangle building at 412 Ducommun. Do you see it?
If I could time travel to silent movie locations, after first visiting Court Hill (read more HERE), this would be stop number two, the narrow corner of Ducommun and Labory, just east of Alameda street, a few blocks from the Plaza de Los Angeles. To begin, this corner was Buster Keaton’s favorite place to film, he staged a dozen scenes here for The Goat and Cops, far more so than anywhere else in town. Above, Buster practices signalling a left-hand turn during Cops. That’s the Hotel Strasbourg to the left in all three images across from the triangle building, more later.
Next, Charlie Chaplin filmed the rooftop chase from The Kid atop these homes on Ducommun, and fought with the orphanage official in the truck driving down Labory Lane to the right. Looking close, the yellow line marks the foreground chimney in each image, the red arrow marks Charlie’s spot on the roof. The prominent 3-story Amelia Street Public School appears at back to the right in each image, its roof lowered half a floor. The Ducommon natural gas holding tank behind Charlie wasn’t yet built in 1897.
Click to enlarge – a quartet of images looking east at the triangle building, with Ducommun to the left, Labory Lane to the right. Upper left is Derby Days, upper right is an unidentified scene from Episode Two of the Brownlow-Gill Hollywood series, lower left is the Sennett comedy Call A Cop, and lower right is the Gaylord Lloyd comedy (Harold’s brother) Dodge Your Debts. The narrow building allowed filmmakers to show audiences both sides of a chase. A similar crazy filming corner stood nearby (read more HERE).
I’ve only just started, and could write ten more pages about Ducommun at Alameda, especially focusing on all the Keaton scenes. But in closing, this remarkable triangle building also appears during the “modern” sequence from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, when Robert Harron desperately seeks to rescue Mae Marsh from the Strasbourg Hotel. The same Strasbourg front door side panel – click to enlarge – appears at the far left of each frame; from The Goat at left, from Intolerance at center, and from Cops at right.
The 412 Ducommun triangle building likely appeared in dozens more films, and if it hadn’t been demolished in 1923, would likely have had more starring roles. In closing, above here’s a montage of some of the other Keaton scenes filmed at Alameda and Ducommun.
A special appeal – if I had the skill and resources to create a virtual 3D model of any historic LA film site, it would be of this long lost corner of Ducommun, Labory, and Alameda. It appears in many films, from many angles, and several vintage maps confirm the exact position of each building. If you know any 3D modeling expert who’d like a fun project, let me know, and I can supply all the files and images.
I now have TEN videos on my YouTube Channel. Check out To The Church – How Buster Keaton Made Seven Chances.
Below – Ducommun at Alameda today, completely rebuilt – spin around for a full view.