Issue: Summer 2013
Los Feliz : Movie-making in the Silent Era
Glamour. Scandal. Riches. The silent film era during the 1920s epitomized a fast-moving, hedonistic, exciting period in Los Angeles history, and nowhere was this more evident than along the Hollywood-Los Feliz-Silver Lake motion picture axis.
Los Feliz as a movie studio mecca? Today hardly anything remains to remind us of the thriving motion picture industry that transformed the suburban ranch and farming community east of the new township of Hollywood into an exclusive residential development.
In 1908, when the film industry, then located mainly in New York, New Jersey and Chicago, moved to the Los Angeles basin, the former Rancho Los Feliz area was the center of the burgeoning new industry. Stimulated by cheap land, convenient public transportation, and the proximity of a variety of natural outdoor environments suitable for westerns, adventure films, and comedies, Los Feliz was soon bursting with motion picture production facilities.
Fox Film Coronation studios on Western, c.1917
The initial full studio to come to Los Feliz was Vitagraph in 1912. American Vitagraph, the first film studio established in the United States, was founded in Brooklyn, New York in 1897. Innovative from the start, in 1906, Vitagraph became the first studio to develop the star system when it promoted future Los Feliz resident Florence Turner as the “Vitagraph Girl.” The studio was also the first to open its own theater chain and arrange its own film distribution, and parts of “The Jazz Singer,” the first production with sound, were filmed at Vitagraph in 1927. The still active facility is distinguished as the longest continuously operating movie studio in the world.
The second Los Feliz studio, Kinemacolor, established its headquarters on Sunset Boulevard at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Hillhurst Avenue a few months after Vitagraph moved to Los Feliz. Today, nothing remains of the installation and it is hard to imagine that this busy intersection was once an expansive movie lot with large outdoor sets. Kinemacolor pioneered an early color process which used red and green filters over black and white film. In 1915, the facility became the home of D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Studio, which produced the blockbuster film, “The Birth of a Nation” that same year. One year later in 1916, Fine Arts produced Griffith’s “Intolerance,” the most expensive motion picture production to date. The enormous sets for the Babylon sequence remained a local attraction for the next 20 years and became the inspiration for the external decoration at the recently constructed Hollywood-Highland complex.
1916 : the set for D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" was the most lavish and expensive ever created (left), looming over the neighboring houses (seen under construction, right)
In 1917, William Fox moved his new Fox Film Corporation to Western Avenue, between Sunset Boulevard and Fountain Avenue. Today, only a hint of the former sizeable studio remains in this crowded, urban commercial neighborhood. Replacing Fox’s spacious backlots are small markets and mini-malls. The studio site was mostly intact until 1935 when Fox merged with 20th Century Pictures and relocated to West Los Angeles.
Other film studios established themselves in Los Feliz throughout the 1920s. The last silent-era Los Feliz studio was established in 1926. Walt and Roy Disney came to California in 1923 and moved in with their uncle on Kingswell Avenue. Over the next several years, the Disneys expanded into other spaces in the immediate neighborhood, but their needs soon outgrew those facilities. In 1926, they moved into a larger studio on Hyperion Avenue at Griffith Park Boulevard where they remained until 1939 when they relocated to even larger facilities in Burbank. Today, the Hyperion location houses a Gelson’s Market and there is no trace of the former historic animated movie operation.
What does remain are numerous historic residences from the silent film era that housed the various studio employees, from the handymen to movie industry royalty. Due to the proximity of the film studios in and near to Los Feliz, it was natural that many of those involved in the movie industry would choose to reside in the immediate neighborhood.
D.W. Griffith, 1914 (left)
At first, housing for the studio employees was developed in the flatter terrain within walking distance of the young studios. At the beginning of the silent film era, the film industry was not the fast route to riches that it later became, so initially the homes were modest craftsman designs. But it didn’t take long for the new popular entertainment medium to make millionaires out of formerly poor itinerant actors, and by 1915, elaborate estates began to appear in the uplands of Los Feliz, residences for filmdom’s leading personalities. A new, widely recognized royal class soon developed, and these new celebrities adopted the opulent life styles that have epitomized the cinema elite ever since.
Concurrent with the advent of the roaring twenties, the ostentatious goings-on received greater publicity, the scandals became more ubiquitous, and the antics of movie personalities became ever more irresistible to the public. Cecil B. DeMille, who lived in a princely estate in the exclusive Laughlin Park enclave, kept a mistress, Julia Faye, throughout his life. He built two beautiful homes for her in Los Feliz, one of which can still be seen on Observatory Avenue. Mary Miles Minter, who lived on Hobart Boulevard, was cinema’s favorite ingénue until the murder of her much older lover, director William Desmond Taylor, exposed her affair and ruined her carefully nurtured innocent public persona. By 1924, she gave up her film career forever.
Triangle Film Corporation on NE corner of Vermont and Hollywood, 1915
Like today, the pressures of movie making sometimes led stars to inappropriate choices and early death. Drug addiction took the lives of major Los Feliz stars like Alma Rubens and Wallace Reid, at a time when they were at the top of the talent pool. Other silent film stars, like Marie Walcamp, did not transition well into the talkies and took their own lives in despair. Lynn Reynolds, an important director and screenwriter, suffering from paranoid delusions and depression, shot himself before guests in his home in 1928.
And Los Feliz had its own Gatsby and Daisy. Antonio Moreno, who, like Gatsby, was a nouveau-riche self-made success, married wealthy heiress Daisy Canfield Danziger in 1923. One of the premier movie idols of his time, Moreno built an extravagant Mediterranean estate in Silver Lake, and an even more opulent castle in Laughlin Park a few years later where he and Daisy entertained society and silent screen notables at lavish Sunday afternoon parties. And, like the F. Scott Fitzgerald characters, their lives were tragically overturned by an automobile accident, when Daisy drove off a Malibu cliff in 1933. Their beautiful Laughlin Park estate is one of the showplaces in Los Feliz even today.
Eighty-five years have passed since sound transformed the motion picture, and many of the prominent silent film actors and production elite are forgotten. However, a few of the most important Los Feliz residents associated with early film do remain in the collective memory. In addition to those mentioned above, some might recognize the names of Ben Alexander, Gertrude Astor, Nigel Barrie, Madge Bellamy, Betty Blythe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Miriam Cooper, Bebe Daniels, Priscilla Dean, Elinor Fair, Raymond Griffith, Oliver Hardy, Rupert Hughes, Edgar Kennedy, Bessie Love, Frances Marion, Louis B. Mayer, Adolphe Menjou, Jack Richardson, Theodore Roberts, Buddy Rogers, Russell Simpson, Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, King Vidor, or Raoul Walsh. But many others who were also important during the silent film era were among the earliest residents of Los Feliz.
Throughout the last 85 years, Los Feliz has attracted celebrity residents. The Los Feliz Improvement Association website (www.lfia.org) lists hundreds of former celebrity residents (but excludes film and television stars who currently make the district their home). The contribution made by Los Feliz to early film making history is not widely recognized, but a drive through the beautiful residential neighborhoods will take you to hundreds of historic homes built for the distinguished film alumni over the intervening years. It is a trip down moviedom’s “Memory Lane” that is well worth taking. DH
(Seligman is the author of Los Feliz in the Silent Film Era: The Heart of Los Angeles Cinema 1908-1930. The lavishly illustrated book, recently published by the Los Feliz Improvement Association, is available from their website (www.lfia.org) and at Skylight Books for $35.)