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Sam Hall Kaplan

Los Angeles: The City as a Movie Studio

March 07, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan | Kaplan also appears in The Times' Real Estate section.

My images of Los Angeles before moving here were formed in the dark of New York City's movie theaters, viewing such films as "Double Indemnity," "Sunset Boulevard" and, later, "Chinatown" and "The Long Goodbye."

On the lighter side, there was Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and others, careening across the Los Angeles cityscape, sideswiping trolleys, racing over cliffs, hanging from rooftops and bending clock hands high over streets.

To me, through the movies, Los Angeles was not a city, but a sprawling studio with a variety of sets featuring broad beaches, dramatic seaside cliffs, rolling countryside, raw canyons, majestic mountains, deep forests, stereotypical suburbs and gritty downtowns.

Though living here has changed my image of Los Angeles to one of a paradoxical city of suburbs and subcultures containing real people and not actors, the fact that movies are made here still enthralls me.

Whenever I come across a production on location I am inevitably curious about what is being filmed, so I slow down and stare. And when I pass a movie studio I am reminded of the fanciful worlds that have been created there and wonder what new ones are being shaped on its stages and back lots.

Though I must have driven north on Motor Avenue toward Pico Boulevard at least 100 times, I am still enchanted by the glimpse of the 1890s New York street set built 20 years ago on the 20th Century Fox Studio lot there for the filming of "Hello, Dolly!"

Evocative also is the white mansion at 9336 W. Washington Blvd. in Culver City, a brief view of which opened the credits of those marvelous David O. Selznick films a half century or so ago, including "Gone With the Wind." And though the mansion was not Tara, much of what was behind it were sets for that epic and other films.

There, on a few acres off what is now Culver City's automobile row, was where the city of Atlanta burned, the original King Kong reigned, the King of Kings walked, jet pilot John Wayne flew, Citizen Kane built Xanadu for his illicit love, E. T. spent most of his days on Earth, and William S. Hart rode out into dozens of sunsets.

Further west on Washington Boulevard near Overland Avenue can be seen the classical-columned gates of Lorimar-Telepictures Studios. In previous and more colorful years it was the home of MGM and various incarnations.

Actually, the gate itself was constructed in 1916 for Ince/Triangle Studios, with land and financing supplied in part by Harry Culver, who was then looking for a clean and expanding industry for his fledgling city.

The studios indeed did expand under a succession of moguls. There behind the gates was created the Rome of Ben Hur, the Mississippi of "Meet Me in St. Louis," the Pacific on which the crew of the Bounty mutinied, David Copperfield's London, Gene Kelly's Paris and, perhaps most memorable, the land of Oz.

Under contract to the studios golden days of the 1930s and 1940s were such stars as John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. They were the stuff of legends.

The sets for the classics in which they starred have long since been struck and sold, and the remaining sound stages are now serving the television productions of, among others, "Dallas," "Knots Landing," and "Perfect Strangers."

But as film historian and archivist Marc Wanamaker points out, it is not the current productions or the architecture of the stages that makes them interesting, but their history.

Past the historic gates, and past the Moderne-styled Irving Thalberg Building honoring the legendary studio chief, "the studio is really just a factory," says Wanamaker. "But what a factory," he quickly adds.

Wanamaker made his remark while conducting a recent tour and filling in Los Angeles Conservancy members on the gossip that brings the studio buildings to life. In turn, the members will be serving as docents Sunday in a rare tour of the studio, which though quite rich in filmland lore, normally is not open to the public.

The tour, costing $25 for members and $35 for others, will include a screening of a 1925 film of the studio and its stars then, a visit to the "Dallas" set, and a reception in the studio's recently refurbished Art Deco-designed commissary, in addition to the guided excursion.

Those interested are asked to gather at 10202 W. Washington Blvd., at the Grant Avenue gate near the Thalberg Building--not by the gate marked by the classical columns--for tours leaving on the hour from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For a broader tour by car of the nooks and crannies of the film industry beyond the studios, an excellent guide is "The Movie Lover's Guide to Hollywood," by Richard Alleman (a Perennial Library paperback: $12.95).

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