Tuesday, February 28, 2012

“The Artist” Sings L.A.’s Praises

It’s a curious year when the Best Picture Oscar – Hollywood’s highest honor – goes to a low-budget black-and-white silent film made by a creative team from France. But Oscar host Billy Crystal pointed up an interesting irony: The Artist was the only one of the nine Best Picture nominees that was shot entirely in the city of Los Angeles. In paying tribute to the early days of the motion picture industry, The Artist also paid tribute to the city where that industry took root as it has done nowhere else in the world.

The growth of the L.A. metropolis has always been intertwined with the making of movies. Reading Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, I got a vivid picture of the dawn of L.A.’s film industry. Circa 1912-14, long before the big studios had come into being, you could find cameras cranking, men with megaphones shouting, and costumed actors emoting all over the streets of L.A. Writes Beauchamp, “Fire or police chases of any kind were fair game to be used as backdrops, as were horse races, sporting events, and parades.” In the words of Agnes de Mille, choreographer and niece of Cecil B. DeMille, “The Keystone cops would take over a street and do what they had to do before the real police arrived.”

At first the shenanigans of movie folks were barely tolerated by the upstanding citizens of L.A. Soon, however, it became clear that there was good money to be made from this new local industry, and that everyone stood to benefit. I was reminded of this fact recently while on a tour of historic L.A. landmarks. So many local buildings have become movie icons, starting with L.A.’s distinctive City Hall tower. It was destroyed on-screen in 1953’s War of the Worlds, but survived to appear as the Daily Planet headquarters in the early TV series Adventures of Superman. Sharp-eyed visitors to L.A. can also spot less obvious movie locations. My tour bus cruised down Carroll Avenue, a street of nicely-restored Victorians in an old L.A. residential neighborhood called Angelino Heights. Our guide noted that the facades of some of these houses were featured in A Nightmare on Elm Street and loomed large in Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video.

We also passed the Wilshire Blvd. Temple (1929), home congregation of most of Hollywood’s early movie moguls. Among its treasures are the Bible-themed murals commissioned by the brothers Warner and painted by studio artisans. A far less opulent place is the wood-paneled Welsh Presbyterian Church on Valencia Street in midtown L.A. It too was first built as a synagogue, but has been lovingly tended by parishioners of Welsh descent since 1925. The Welsh traditionally love to sing, and current congregants still take pride in the fact that their choir was featured on the soundtrack of How Green Was My Valley, a poignant Welsh saga that beat out Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon as the Best Picture of 1941.

With the advent of location shooting, today’s Los Angeles has far less need to be ready for its closeup. If Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese wants to show Paris, he goes to Paris. But L.A. continues to spawn unique film-industry types, like the professional seat-filler who was saluted by Billy Crystal at this year’s Oscar ceremony. Meanwhile, young guerrilla filmmakers of the Roger Corman school are still out on L.A. streets, filming crowd scenes and chases without permits. If their chaotic presence prompts a traffic accident, they’ll shoot that too. Hey! It’s show biz.

This post is dedicated to Stuart Bernstein, who encouraged me to find my voice and start this blog. Stuart is one of those rare souls born on February 29, so tomorrow is his first birthday in four years. That’s one way to stay forever young!


  1. Nicely informative and nostalgic post, Beverly. I always seem to learn a great deal from your posts, and, surprisingly, from subjects I might not normally find of interest.:)

  2. That's my job, Brain -- expanding your horizons. Of course it works both ways, and you help expand MINE as well!

  3. Happy belated birthday to Mr. Bernstein - and thanks to him for his encouragement - I like hanging out in your corner of the Blogosphere, Ms. Gray!

    And thank you very much for the excellent insider's view of the City of Angels!