Twenty-first century news media seems to relish stories about cities allowing film producers to shoot blockbuster movies on their streets. The stories get feature billing in newspapers, and television news anchors promise on-the-spot reports to keep viewers watching to the end of their news programs. Having Matt Damon or Sandra Bulloch on your streets is a big deal. This does not just happen. Producers have to sign contracts with cities to allow use of the streets. Back in the 1920s, however, Harold Lloyd seems to have had ready access to Los Angeles streets, as can be seen in Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd by John Bengtson. First as a star for Hal Roach Studios and then as the head of his own company, Lloyd seems to have shot scenes all over Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City, and Long Beach in film after film. Then, in one of his most ambitious films Speedy, he took on Manhattan and Brooklyn.
I have never actually seen a Harold Lloyd film, and I have never been to Los Angeles or New York, so I found a lot to discover in Silent Visions. Harold Lloyd's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd wrote a brief introduction, and film historian Kevin Brownlow added a two-page foreward, but biographical details are at a minimum in Silent Visions. Mostly Bengtson takes readers through a large number of film stills, historical images, and recent photographs to document how and where the films of Harold Lloyd were made. With few pages having less than five photographs, some having as many as ten, there must be far over a thousand illustrations in this 304 page book. With captions and the use of many arrows and circles, the author recreates the making of many key scenes.
While film students will find the work fascinating and instructive, people interested in 1920s Los Angeles and New York may benefit even more. Lloyd just shot the street scenes as they were with very minimal alteration to locations. Viewers of his films and readers of this book can see what buildings stood in the 1920s and even learn what businesses were at specific addresses. Many aerial views are included, showing the development of Los Angeles through the decade, when new numerous buildings were completed. Readers can also learn about social attitudes, occupations, transportation, fashion, and recreation of the time.
Of great interest to people who have seen Lloyd's films will be the sections on his daredevil stunts. There was no digital enhancing of the films in the 1920s. There were specially built sets on tops of buildings to make it appear Lloyd was hanging high over the streets and doubles were used on the actual climbing of walls, but Lloyd (who had already lost a thumb and finger when a fake bomb proved to actually have a charge) did still take considerable risks.
Of course, Lloyd was not the only star in Hollywood at the time. Bengtson also includes photos from films made by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Little Rascals, and others using many of the same locations. There are even shots of Bruce Willis from the TV series Moonlighting with Willis high in the air above some of the same buildings.
With its great amount of detail requiring much looking and comparing, Silent Visions will get only glances from readers with casual interest in its subjects of film history and urban history. Those who are truly interested will see what an achievement the book is. It should be particularly popular in Southern California and in libraries buying film history.
Bengtson, John. Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. Santa Monica Press, 2011. ISBN 9781595800572.