In all the noir study I did for World Gone Wrong I mapped out the city of Los Angeles in my head from the dozens and dozens of films I watched that were shot in that city from 1941-1958. There is a very real L.A. in my head that is stuck in a endless 1947-1953, where Edmund O'Brien is forever shooting a man on a high floor of the Bradbury Building, while Lon Chaney Jr. tosses a man to his death from a higher floor, then escapes by going up the funicular railway - Angels Flight - by the Third Street tunnel a couple of blocks away.
At the top of the railway, Chaney exits the car and goes into a cheap hotel (the "Hillside"), where we've also seen Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer go (from the exact same camera angle) to question Fortunio Bonanova as a failed opera singer living under the name Carmen Trivago -- but did he have to take this name after failing as an opera coach, then called Signor Matiste, for a pretty but hopelessly untalented young blonde named Susan Alexander? Did Charlie Kane never forgive him for his inability to remove the quotes from around the word "SINGER," and use the power of all his Inquirer papers to prevent him from getting a good job again?
Does his incessant playing of old opera 78s bother the group of men next door who are planning an intricate heist? Probably not. They work all day and night, with the Angels Flight railway cars going by their window in an endless rear-projected loop.
They don't even notice when Lon Chaney Jr. kills the man below their window. The man who, despite his crutches, chose not to wait for the railway but took the stairs up Bunker Hill on the other side of the tunnel, meeting his doom at the top.
On his way up that hill he walks briefly by a small set of stairs. About a dozen years later, in lousy, low-budget color, a young man named Jerry walks past them the other way, as a man sits on the step, listening to the radio. Jerry stops as a news report comes over the air, a bulletin about a murder. Jerry is the murderer, which he's only beginning to realize, as he was hypnotized by a carnival gypsy into doing her bidding. He will return that night to the amusement park in Long Beach to confront her. It won't go well.
Outside of town, more things are happening in a connected series of caves in the Bronson Canyon section of Griffith Park than I could possibly go into here.
Further out, at Vasquez Rocks, there's a boulder that Jack Black stands on as "Jeepers Creepers, Semi-Star" for a Mr. Show sketch, and I wonder if he ever realized, as I did a few months ago, that it's probably the same boulder Harvey Korman stands on to address his troops near the end of Blazing Saddles. And in the area below Korman, where Slim Pickens and the other Western-parody bad guys listen, Captain James Tiberius Kirk fought a Gorn a few years back. Further back in time and you can see Buster Keaton wandering here. Further ahead, and it's Bruce Campbell.
Sometimes I want to go to L.A. and look for these places, but most of them are gone now. Just part of an L.A. of the mind. And you can see these overlaps elsewhere, too. There is a villa somewhere near Rome where the American movie producer Jeremy Prokosch lives and makes a play for the wife of the French screenwriter he is bringing in to script-doctor Frtiz Lang's film of The Odyssey. In the main room of the villa the screenwriter briefly strokes the strings of an out-of-tune harp. A few years later, the harp is in tune when a serial killer brushes it just before committing the second murder of the night in that house.
I was thinking of these connections tonight as I saw a picture of a house. Not this first picture. This is a screencapture from an early shot in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, a film of no small importance to me this year. This is, in the film, the home of Mrs. Johnson, though we're never specifically told that -- we are shown and told at separate times that this house is across the street from the Amberson mansion and that Mrs. Johnson lives across the street from the Ambersons (and the screenplay indicates that it is Mrs. Johnson calling to a streetcar earlier from a window).
The Amberson Mansion exterior barely existed - just a door piece and portico and a little bit else; most of it was a matte painting. But Mrs. Johnson's house was a real, full-sized piece, built on the RKO Encino ranch lot. I don't know if it was a previously-existing structure redressed for the Welles film or if it was a false front built especially for Orson's folly. For years, because of the way it was photographed, I thought it was also mostly a painting, but the behind-the-scenes photos make it clear this wasn't the case. It was there:
When Ambersons tanked, RKO spent years repurposing all its expensive, detailed sets in the many low-budget films created to make up for the money lost on Welles. The staircase of the Amberson mansion shows up in at least three Val Lewton horror films in the next few years, and sometimes doors and props that once belonged to the Ambersons appear elsewhere in those films, in backlot locales ranging from New York to the West Indies to Victorian London.
But that was in Hollywood, in the soundstages -- the very same stages where, in 20 years, now owned by Lucille Ball (who had once been rejected by RKO as the the female lead in an Orson Welles project for being too lightweight), they'd be shooting Star Trek and Mission: Impossible and Mannix.
I saw this house, which George and Mary of course wind up making their own - a major fixer-upper - and, even with the slight redress, recognized it as Mrs. Johnson's old place, and this started me thinking.
In the film of Ambersons, we never learn the name of the small Midland town that grows and spreads into a city. Perhaps it is indeed Bedford Falls, and George and Mary have in fact taken over Mrs. Johnson's decrepit old place in a now unfashionable part of town. If George and Mary looked over their shoulders, there it would be, the Amberson mansion, now owned by the slumlord Mr. Potter, who never liked Major Amberson anyway and was more than happy to use his political juice to get the family thrown out so he could take over not only the houses the Major had built on his property, but the great mansion itself, which he chopped up into small dingy apartments with their "kitchenettes."
Was George Bailey named for that fine citizen George Amberson Minifer? Unlikely, as when George Bailey was born, George Minifer was still hated, or forgotten. Maybe the one person who existed in both films would know, but probably not -- he was a policeman with a couple of brief lines in 1915 and doesn't even rate being credited in 1946.
Did Bailey grow up knowing Minifer? Was the reformed Minifer a friend or mentor to Bailey? Did Mr. Gower take over the drugstore where Lucy Morgan once had a fainting spell?
Or would the real future of that Midland city of the Ambersons be what we see in George Bailey's vision of "Potterville?" That seems more likely . . .
Just another imaginary landscape, and also long gone, as gone as the full cut of Welles' film, as the Encino lot was torn down in 1950. But now I want to see as many RKO films as I can from that period, and see what new landscapes and connections they offer me.