Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Buster Keaton Story (1957) - Film Location

Donald O'Connor as Buster Keaton & Ann Blyth

I've read many negative things about the bio film, The Buster Keaton Story (1957), but as a Keaton fan, I figured I needed to see the film once to judge for myself. To be fair, the film isn't awful, it is mildly entertaining, but the story really isn't about Buster Keaton at all. The story is almost entirely fictionalized, with only a few traces of Keaton's life worked in. If the filmmakers were trying to make Keaton's story more dramatic, they didn't need to fictionalize anything - Keaton's true story was pretty tragic already. 

To me the most satisfying thing about watching this film had nothing to do with Buster at all, it was spotting one of the buildings on the Paramount Studios lot that was also used as a set in the classic film, Sunset Boulevard (1950). In the screenshot at the top and and the screenshot below, Donald O'Connor, who portrays Keaton, is seen with the fictional studio exec Gloria Brent, played by Ann Blyth, in front of the offices of "Famous Studio." That office building with the exterior stairs is actually the "Dreier" building on the Paramount Studios lot.

O'Connor and Blyth with the Dreier building at left.

The Dreier building on the Paramount Studios lot.

Rhonda Fleming passes the Dreier building at Paramount.

In the screenshot above Rhonda Fleming, who plays Peggy Courtney in The Buster Keaton Story, walks past the Dreier building. Seven years earlier, we see in the screenshot below, William Holden and Erich von Sroheim in a scene from Sunset Boulevard in front of the Dreier building. In Sunset Boulevard, the Dreier building appears a couple times in the film. The first appearance is when von Stroheim drives Holden and Gloria Swanson to the Paramount Studios lot to visit Cecil B. Demille. The second appearance is when Holden visits the Dreier building late at night to secretly work on a script with Nancy Olson.

William Holden & Erich von Stroheim in front of the Dreier building.

Jim Parsons as "Sheldon" on the television show
"The Big Bang Theory"

Buster Keaton lived a very interesting life, filled with dramatic ups and downs, and it is unfortunate that no one has made a great film about this filmmaker icon. One of my favorite bio pics is the 1992 film, Chaplin, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin. That film was so beautifully shot, had a stellar cast and a score that transported viewers to the Chaplin era. I wish that Buster Keaton could have such a film made about his life.

One challenge would be finding an actor around today that could portray Keaton. Every time I see the deadpan expressions made by Emmy winning comedy star Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon on the hit TV show "The Big Bang Theory," I instantly think of Keaton. Although, Parsons might be a little tall, I think his look is spot on. What do you think? Who do you think would make a good Buster?

Your thoughts?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Flying High (1931) - Film Locations

Flying High (1931)

What you will find in the 1931 film, Flying High, are hypnotic Busby Berkley musical numbers, plenty of gags, and the screen debut of Bert Lahr, eight years before his famous role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Anyone who is a fan of Lahr's expressive clowning will enjoy seeing his over-the-top performance as a neurotic inventor. It's even interesting to see in a small role, Hedda Hopper as an actress, before she would go on to be the Queen Bee of Hollywood gossip. However, what you won't find is a plausible, well written storyline, but that shouldn't be a deterrent from seeing some of the charming features this film does have to offer. The film is currently available through the Warner Archive Collection.

The film stars Charlotte Greenwood as Pansy Potts, a single woman desperate to find herself a husband and have kids. Pansy offers $500 for a husband. Businessman and swindler Sport Wardell, played by the fast talking Pat O'Brien, promises Pansy a husband in exchange for the $500. Pansy excepts Wardell's offer after he shows her a photo of the eligible bachelor - a photo of Clark Gable! Instead, the man Wardell has found for Pansy is broke inventor, Rusty Krouse, played by Bert Lahr, who of course is no Clark Gable. Nevertheless, Pansy pursues her man and Rusty amusingly tries to get away.

While watching the film I came to a scene where Pat O'Brien is standing with a group of pilots outside of what is supposed to be an aviation school. Immediately, I thought, "I've seen this building before." I then realized it was because I saw a picture of the building in the new book, M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot. This amazing photo filled book includes images of every area of the former MGM studio and is organized in such a way, that as a reader, it feels like one is getting an intimate tour of the studio during the glory days. This book is a must-have for any classic movie lover. To learn more about the book and read an interview with Steven Bingen, one of the authors, click here. To visit the official site of M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot click here.

Pat O'Brien in front of MGM's "English House" set.

Above is a screenshot of Pat O'Brien in front of the aviation school. This building, according to M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, is the "English Home" set. Other films that have used this building include David Copperfield (1935), The Canterville Ghost (1944) and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960).

Pat O'Brien in front of MGM's "English House"

Bert Lahr approaches the "English House."

Pat O'Brien and Bert Lahr on the English House set.

The English Home set is behind Lahr and O'Brien.

Greenwood chases Lahr around the English House set.

Later in the film all the characters find themselves at a small airport for an aviation show. My first instinct was that this airport was either the former Grand Central Airport in Glendale, California or the Western Air College Airport in Alhambra, California. As it turns out, the location is the Alhambra Airport. The first photo below is a screenshot from the film and the following photo is an image of the front side of the Alhambra Airport from the USC Digital Archives. If you look closely at the two images you will notice the same detailing above the windows on the control tower.

Alhambra Airport as seen in the film Flying High

Alhambra Airport - Credit: USC Digital Archives

Lahr recklessly driving his "aerocopter" at Alhambra Airport.

Greenwood on the runway at Alhambra Airport.

Spectators run from Lahr in his aerocopter.

Hedda Hopper at Alhambra Airport in Flying High

Aerial View of Alhambra Airport in the film Flying High

Aerial View of former site of Alhambra Airport
(c) Google 2011

There is nothing left of the Alhambra Airport so watching Flying High is a great way to time travel to the past and visit this location. In the Google Earth aerial view above you can see the former site of the airfield. The Alhambra Airport would have been located in the area between Valley Boulevard to the North, Hellman Avenue to the South, Garfield Avenue on the West and Del Mar Avenue on the East. Today the site is the location of a shopping center, high school and residential area.

Greenwood and Hopper look on at Lahr who 
just made a crash landing.

There is an interesting story to how O'Brien got the part in Flying High. O'Brien had just completed work on the film Consolation Marriage, which also starred screen legend Irene Dunne. After the Hollywood premiere of Consolation Marriage, O'Brien learned that Howard Hughes was dropping his contract. Feeling defeated, O'Brien told his wife Eloise the news and said to pack her things - they were going back to New York. Eloise told O'Brien that he should talk things over first with his agents, Myron Selznick and Frank Coleman Joyce.

According to O'Brien in his autobiography, The Wind at My Back, he went to visit Selznick at his office. When he got there Selznick, who was hungover, looked up from his desk and said, "It looks like you are going to start paying commission to me, kid."

"I hope so," replied O'Brien.

Selznick explained to O'Brien that Joyce was going to take him over to MGM to meet with Irving Thalberg about a part in the film, Flying High, that Bert Lahr was going to be the star in what was to be his film debut and O'Brien was up for the second lead. O'Brien got in Joyce's Rolls-Royce and on the way there Joyce said, "Now, no matter what happens during the Thalberg interview, don't open your mick trap. I'll handle everything. I may drop a couple of bombs, but just stand pat! No pun."

When the two arrived at MGM O'Brien and Joyce were immediately ushered into Thalberg's office. There was no waiting for them. Thalberg told Joyce that MGM was definitely interested in O'Brien for the part and wanted to know his asking price. "Seventeen-fifty a week with a three-week guarantee," exclaimed Joyce. Thalberg was blown away at this asking price as he new O'Brien was only making seven-fifty per week under Hughes. 

O'Brien was shocked too that Joyce had asked Thalberg for so much and began to get nervous, but like Joyce instructed, he didn't say anything. When Joyce and O'Brien got up to leave Thalberg's office, O'Brien felt sad. He thought this would be the end of his Hollywood career and he would end up having to go back to New York for sure.

Before they made it to the door, MGM executive Eddie Mannix told O'Brien, "You're out of your mind, my boy. Passing up a chance like this to work for the biggest studio in the business - and Irving Thalberg. We will give you twelve-fifty a week."

O'Brien told Mannix to talk to his agent, but Joyce said, "Why waste time? Jack Warner is waiting for us. The food's better there, too."

In the end, Pat O'Brien go his $1750 per week, with the three-week guarantee. The film went over to eleven weeks.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ronald Reagan's Hollywood Office

Hollywood Professional Building

Long before Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States of America, the Warner Bros. contract player would hold the position of president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Reagan attended his first SAG Board meeting on August 11, 1941. By 1946, he was elected 3rd Vice-President and in another six months he would be nominated for president. The 1940s were tumultuous times for the movie studio unions and Reagan impressed many on the SAG Board with his handling of the violent studio union strikes. Fellow actor Gene Kelly would nominate Reagan for SAG president, a position Reagan won and would hold for seven terms.

Reagan's SAG office was located on the eighth floor of the Hollywood Professional Building at 7046 Hollywood Boulevard, near the Roosevelt Hotel and the Chinese Theatre. The building has now been converted into a high-end apartment complex, appropriately called SEVENTY46.

Gotham Restaurant in Hollywood (demolished)

Former Site of Gotham Delicatessen

Across the street from the Hollywood Professional Building was Gotham, a popular delicatessen and bar. The Gotham Delicatessen was a favorite spot for New York transplants ever since it opened in 1924. During the 1940s, when radio networks were located all throughout Hollywood, many of the radio stars would drop in for dinner. After late-night sessions at the Guild headquarters, Reagan and other board members would often walk over to Gotham to eat and drink and discuss Guild business.

William Holden, Ronald Reagan, Dana Andrews

In Bob Thomas's biography on William Holden, actor Dana Andrews recalled one occasion when he joined Holden and Reagan for dinner at Gotham. "After a meeting, Bill, Ronnie and I went to the Gotham to continue our discussion. All three of us ordered drinks, and after we had talked for a while, the waiter came to the table and Bill and I ordered another round. Ronnie said with surprise, 'Why do you want another drink? You just had one.' See what happened: Bill and I became alcoholics and Ronnie became President of the United States."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Save The Tiger (1973) - Film Locations

Save the Tiger (1973)

Jack Lemmon won his second Academy Award, his first for Best Actor, playing the role of Harry Stoner in the 1973 film, Save the Tiger. Lemmon plays a nostalgic American businessman, an owner of an apparel company, who finds comfort in his past while in his present life, the world around him seems to be falling apart. During this day in the life story, we see Lemmon's character reverting to the past by running through his mind his childhood baseball fantasies and tuning out in his car to old-fashion big band music. Meanwhile, Lemmon's present reality is that his life is less than perfect. Lemmon's business is losing money so he hires strippers for a business partner who may be able to help him out but things turn to worse when that partner has a heart attack. Lemmon makes arrangements to burn down his company's warehouse in order to collect on the insurance money. During a fashion show where his company is premiering its new line, Lemmon has war flashbacks and is incapable of giving a speech he was supposed to make.  At the end of the film, Lemmon finds himself at a Little League game and attempts to get in on the game, but one of the kids yells, "You can't play with us, Mister!" For Lemmon's character, things are not how they once were - the world is a complete mess.

This is a depressing story and one that was apparently a passion project of Lemmon's. According to Imdb, the film only had a budget of $1,000,000 so Lemmon waived his usual fee and worked for scale ($165 a week). Although the film was not a huge financial success, it did pay off for Lemmon in critical praise, which led to his first Best Actor Academy Award. Another interesting note is that this film was rehearsed for three weeks on location and then filmed in sequence. Below you will find some of these locations as they appeared in the film compared to how the same locations appear today.

The film begins with Lemmon at home and to find his home I thought I would start in Beverly Hills. There is a scene a few pictures down where Lemmon is driving his car near an intersection on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. I spotted that location right away so I assumed that the house that they used might be close by. I walked up and down about three residential streets, screenshots in hand, trying to see if I could find any homes that matched. Finally, I found one home that did have some resemblance, but dramatically made-over. When I got home I looked up the address on Google Street View and because Google has a delay on when those street view images are updated, I got see that the house I had found did in fact have a makeover!

The first three photos below show Lemmon's house as it appears in the film, the house as it appears today when I found it, and a Google Street View image of the home being remodeled.

Lemmon's Beverly Hills home as seen in the film.

625 Arden Drive, Beverly Hills (2011)

625 Arden Dr, Beverly Hillls (c) Google

The next few locations are of Lemmon driving from his Beverly Hills home on his way to work in downtown Los Angeles. We see Lemmon pass through Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and then finally arriving downtown.

Lemmon on Sunset Blvd, Beverly Hills

Looking from Sunset Blvd in Beverly Hills

This next shot below is also on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. That wall across the street, as seen from Jack Lemmon's car, is still there, but notice how much the bushes have grown. You can barely see the house in the picture I took recently. However, if you are able to walk up to the wall you will see that the house is still there.

Sunset Blvd @ Arden Dr as seen in the film.

Sunset Blvd @ Arden Dr, Beverly Hills

Lemmon turns onto Sunset Blvd, Beverly Hills.

Looking down Sunset Blvd, Beverly Hills.

In the next scene Lemmon is still driving down Sunset Boulevard and he approaches Hammond Street. I don't have a picture of this location so I have a Google Street image to compare. You will notice that the site of the motel is now a vacant lot.

Sunset Blvd at Hammond St. as seen in Save the Tiger

Sunset at Hammond (c) Google

Lemmon continues driving down Sunset Boulevard and now he is in the area of West Hollywood. I was able to find this location by "driving" down Sunset Boulevard using Google street view until I recognized the building to the right of the "Instant Print" building. What stood out to me were the windows. This location is just a block up from where Schwab's Pharmacy used to stand which can be seen in the 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard.

Sunset Blvd @ Selma Ave

Sunset Blvd @ Selma Ave

Lemmon turning off of Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood

Sunset Blvd near Selma Ave

After that long drive Lemmon does make it to downtown Los Angeles where his company warehouse is located.

1110 S. Los Angeles St. as seen in Save the Tiger

1110 S. Los Angeles Street

Lemmon pulls into the parking lot at work.

Los Angeles Street at 11th Street

The next view is from the same location only looking the other direction.

Lemmon arrives at work.

Los Angeles Street, Downtown LA

In the next scenes Lemmon and business partner Jack Gilford, leave the office and catch a cab to Chinatown for lunch.

Lemmon and Gilford on 11th Street near Santee St

11th Street looking toward Santee St

11th Street looking toward Los Angeles Street

11th Street looking toward Los Angeles Street

Below, Lemmon and Gilford arrive in Chinatown for lunch. If you look closely through the smog you can see Los Angeles City Hall in the background.

On Broadway near College Street

Looking down Broadway near College Street

On Broadway, across the street from Chinatown entrance.

Looking across the street from Chinatown entrance.

Crossing Broadway to Chinatown entrance.

Broadway at Chinatown entrance.

Looking down Broadway.

Looking down Broadway.

Entrance to Chinatown.

Entrance to Chinatown.

In this next scene Jack Lemmon is supposed to give a speech at a fashion show.  You will notice on the podium it says, "The Belgrave Hotel - Los Angeles." I've never heard of a Belgrave Hotel, but because so much filming was done downtown, I took my best guess at what old downtown hotels could have been used for filming, if any, for that matter. Well, the stars were aligned and my very first guess, The Biltmore Hotel, turned out to be correct! What's interesting is that the Biltmore has a list of films that have used the hotel before and this one is missing from the list. Now they can add it.

Lemmon at the "The Belgrave Hotel"
really The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles

Inside one of the banquet rooms at the Biltmore Hotel

Gilford & Lemmon walk down the hallway of the Biltmore.

Looking down the same hallway at the Biltmore Hotel

The Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles

The Biltmore Hotel, located at 506 S. Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, is a beautiful building on the inside filled with murals and elegant ornamentation. If I were visiting Los Angeles and I had it in the budget, I would spend my nights at the classy Biltmore over some of the trendy, modern hotels in the area. For film fans, this hotel has the added interest of being the site of some of the early Academy Award ceremonies. Inside the hotel there is a hallway filled with large black and white photos of some of Hollywood's early stars spending their time at The Biltmore.

In the following scene, Lemmon and a reluctant Gilford, go to the Mayan Theatre in downtown Los Angeles to meet a man who might be willing to commit arson on their business. At the time of the film, the theatre had been turned into an adult theatre. The darkened theatre, with the sparse attendance, was the perfect location for Lemmon and Gilford to discuss their dirty plans.

The Mayan marquee as seen in Save the Tiger

The Mayan marquee as it appears today.

Lemmon & Gilford outside the Mayan Theatre

Mayan Theatre, 1038 S. Hill Street

Maybe someone out there can help me with this last location. In the final scene of the film Lemmon stops by a park where some kids are in the middle of a baseball game. I checked out a few parks in the Beverly Hills and West Hollywood area but wasn't confident that any one of them was the correct location. Does any one know what park this may be?

Lemmon at a kids baseball game.

Your thoughts?


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