Santa Monica’s Slapstick Comedy Cliffs – How Did They Do It?

Although Harold Lloyd was the most accomplished, dozens of others silent comedians also filmed “stunt” comedies climbing up or hanging from tall buildings. As reported many times in this blog, one very common technique was to construct a small building façade overlooking the Hill Street Tunnel (left – click to enlarge). Whenever you see a “HOTEL LA CROSSE” sign in the background you know the stunt scene was filmed above the former tunnel. Comedians also filmed looking south from above the former Broadway Tunnel and looking west from above the Third Street Tunnel – see more HERE.

Harold took this technique to the next level by building elaborate rooftop sets. But constructing sets wasn’t even necessary. Many downtown buildings had one-story penthouses or one-story rooftop maintenance buildings far from the edge of the roof that were safe for comedians to climb. That’s how Roscoe Arbuckle performed his high-rise “stunt” during The Life of the Party (1920) – see more HERE – he’s simply hanging two feet above the stepped-back terraced roof of the Bartlett Building at 215 W. 7th St. As such, nearly all high-rise comedies were safely filmed no more than a few feet above a solid surface.

But how then do you explain the other mecca for silent comedy stunts, the seaside cliffs overlooking Santa Monica Canyon and what is now the Pacific Coast Highway? Its unique geographic features, and the prominent Bundy Bath House pictured here in the background with Al St. John, and at the top of this post, easily confirm this frequently used location, looking south from the corner of the palisades just north of W. Channel Road. Santa Monica Public Library.

View east of the filming cliff (marked) left of W Channel Road heading inland

But while the high-rise camera tricks and safety precautions make perfect sense, I remain completely baffled about the literal cliff-hanging comedies filmed here.

To begin, imagine if, and I repeat if, the cliffside was defined by a series of stepped plateaus rather than a continuous straight drop. If so, perhaps the drop from the top edge of the cliff to the first plateau below might be only a few feet. That way comics could safely tumble about near the edge, drive speeding cars toward the edge, and yet still be protected from a full fall by the lower-level plateau below immediately out of camera view. (Above A Thrilling Romance, Special Delivery, and Wall Street Blues.)

View north toward the Bundy Bath House (center) and cliff location – Huntington Digital Library

There are two huge problems with this theory. First, none of the vintage cliffside photos I’ve studied suggest naturally occurring staggered plateaus were ever present.

The bigger problem, these cliffside comedies often depict comics and cars being dragged up and down the face of the cliff itself. Unlike the safely filmed high-rise comedies, these scenes aren’t faked, the comics are truly in mid-air. (Above 10 Minute Egg, Al St. John in Special Delivery and/or Aero-Nut, and Wall Street Blues.)

Does anyone know how these Santa Monica scenes were accomplished? Perhaps filmmakers built safety platforms below the visible cliff edge. For comparison, page 86 of “Fort Lee – Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry” by the Fort Lee Film Commission, depicts a safety platform built on the Fort Lee Palisades. But could such a platform in Santa Monica protect racing automobiles from teetering over the edge?

The Santa Monica cliffsides appear in so many slapstick comedies. Even our heroine, the Wonderful Wanda Wiley above, took her spills at the cliff edge during A Thrilling Romance (1927), covered in the prior post.

1931 view east – W Channel Road at far right. Santa Monica Public Library

So what do you think? The geographic location is the easy answer. But how did they safely film here, over and over again? Were there natural little plateaus out of view below protecting the actors? Did they build huge safety platforms high up against the side of the cliff? That seems quite challenging and expensive. Or were the comedians simply crazy? This remains a top unsolved mystery.

Check out my videos about Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd hosted on my YouTube Channel.

Below, looking up at the cliffside north of W Channel Road today:

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10 Responses to Santa Monica’s Slapstick Comedy Cliffs – How Did They Do It?

  1. bartok3 says:

    John,you got a real stumper here!How DID they do this!?Several different movies(different companies?) made within a few years of each other using the very same location.It is if they are thumbing their collective noses at Fate.That police car has four people in it,not just one person.Two of those people are hanging down on the end of car-how does even the best stuntmen get out of that predictament!?And for fairly low pay.You would think there was a safe,surefire method that was employed at this location judging by the fearless attitudes-but WHAT method?I would love to know the answer from an old lost interview or something.Thanks for posting this!-Brian

    Liked by 1 person

    • The building climb stunts were filmed close to a solid surface, showing a large drop at back. These cliff stunts show a large drop to the side. Where was the solid surface, the platform or plateau, protecting the comics?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael F. Blake says:

    It is POSSIBLE that a net was secured below (i.e., out of camera frame) that could catch any performer.
    With performers appearing on the edge of the cliff, they COULD have angled the camera that gave the appearance of them close to the edge but a good 2-feet away), OR MAYBE they constructed an edge of the cliff that was angled to appear as the edge. This would be just for performers, not wide shots with cars.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John, the more I think about it, they may have just been trusting the silent comedy filmmaker’s best friend: piano wire. They used piano wire for all kinds of gags, because it didn’t show up on film. Sennett had two poles at the top of the hill behind the studio, with wires between them. They’d dangle someone from those to give the simulation of them flying through the air. Wires were used to pull hats off heads, etc. So maybe everybody had harnesses around their waists with piano wire, that was attached to a solid winch. If they fell, they’d probably smack against the side of the cliff pretty hard, maybe even get knocked out or break something. But they wouldn’t fall all the way down the cliff to their deaths. – Brent Walker

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Brent for your expert advice. I’ve seen those wire poles in vintage photos of the studio. If they didn’t/couldn’t use some safety net or safety platform down below, out of view, it seems piano wires would be the only choice left, although it sure seems unsafe to me, especially for cars driving along the cliff edge. You’d think some old-timer would have bragged about this somewhere in the printed media.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Skip says:

    The car over the cliff setup, I think the attachment is oversize, maybe for extra safety. They could also tether the actors to the car with substantial harnesses. So that’s a candidate to being done for “real” in the sense of a calculated risk, and not too different than other stunts over the years.

    The others, the typical ones, I think that the location was used often enough suggests that the configuration of the cliffs made the sight lines work (and how many times if at all did the camera point the other direction?). Looking at photos, the cliffs there seem to change even after a few years, and given the SoCal tradition of mudslides in the rainy season, it seems probable that erosion was regular. One resource you might want to check is old postcards, since this was such a popular tourist location, too. I found there are hundreds out there, but locating the exact spot at the right time will take some hunting. But a few I’ve found so far seem to show the cliff gets interrupted sometimes not too far from the top. And then it slopes down parallel to the cliff edge in the direction away from the camera. So it would support the theory that when framed carefully it’s probably just the right fit for the effect to work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree the fact this was used so frequently suggests that for a time the cliff configuration made the sight lines work. An interrupted cliff not far from the top would allow for “safe” stunts. My gut tells me this must have been the case. It’s just I have not found any visual proof. It would be fun if some old newspaper account or stunt man interview could confirm this.


    • There were also views with the camera pointing north – I didn’t post them to keep the story manageable.


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