Our Palos Verdes Peninsula and the Dawn of Hollywood

Our Palos Verdes Peninsula and the Dawn of Hollywood

Many locals know about the numerous television shows and big time Hollywood movies that have been filmed in and near Palos Verdes such as the A-Team, Lethal Weapon and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Ten CommandmentsBut less well known is that Palos Verdes has been connected to the motion picture industry since its founding in the early twentieth century -- when silent and “short” non-feature movies were filmed in the area by cinematic legends such as D.W. Griffith, William N. Selig and Cecil B. DeMille. 

The proximity to Hollywood, outdoor lighting, wide open sparsely-populated area, and a rugged coastline that could duplicate almost any place in the world, made the Palos Verdes area very attractive. These helped fuel a century-long relationship that continues to this day.

The Unchanging Sea, Blackbeard, and the Spoilers are three very early productions.

Blackbeard

In 1910, director D.W. Griffith filmed the Unchanging Sea partly in the Los Angeles Harbor. This was a love story set in an oceanfront fishing village that featured a young Mary Pickford.  Years later Griffith filmed his controversial epic The Birth of a Nation.

William N. Selig was also busy along the South Bay coastline. His Selig Polyscope Company built what is known as the first permanent movie studio in Los Angeles. 

In late 1911, Selig leased a ship named the Alden Besse for a pirate movie appropriately named Blackbeard that filmed off Redondo Beach.  The ship was 250 feet long and was equipped with 12 cannon. One hundred performers took part and thousands of beachgoers watched the filming.

Shortly thereafter his company produced one of the earliest movies filmed specifically in Palos Verdes. 

In June of 1914, the Seattle Daily Times reported that Selig sent a crew to do some “big scenes in the Palos Verdes hills.”  They were going to shoot in Arizona for the western views, but found that filming locally in California worked.  The name of the movie is unknown at this time.

In August of 1915, some of the strangest early filming stories occurred along the Palos Verdes shores.

Well known director Frank Cooley was filming outdoor scenes near Palos Verdes when he reportedly stumbled upon an odd recluse known as the “Hermit of Portuguese Bend,” who could well have been the “Hermit of Flotsam Castle” a/k/a Louis Dart (chronicled in an earlier local history article), a drifter who then lived along the Palos Verdes coast.

The hermit fed the crew some freshly caught lobster.  A fish and game inspector found out, contacted the Balboa Studio and fined each feasting cast and crew member $25.  Paul Gilmore, one of America’s leading stage actors at the time, pleaded ignorance and promised not to eat lobster out of season again. This was enough to appease the inspector.

Since the hermit had never seen a motion-picture camera, he fled in fear when he initially encountered Gilmore and the film crew. Finding the hermit’s persona appealing, the actors and camera man reportedly chased him down and paid him $3 to appear in the movie.

The name of this movie was The Diamond Smugglers. 

In 1923, Hollywood would visit Portuguese Bend for a much larger production: The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille. The acclaimed director filmed scenes at Portuguese Bend that represented “opposite sides of the Red Sea and show the Israelites just after crossing.” The shots in what is now Rancho Palos Verdes featured hundreds of extras, donkeys and even camels emerging from the sea.

Stan Laurel

Just two years later, English actor Stan Laurel (of the famous Laurel and Hardy duo) filmed Half a Man near the cliffs of Palos Verdes Estates and Torrance. This 20-minute movie featured the “flotsam castle” constructed out of driftwood by Louis Dart mentioned above. 

In 1930, Dolores del Rio starred in the United Artists musical picture The Bad One, that featured Boris Karloff. Del Rio is credited as the first Mexican motion picture star with worldwide allure.  In this film she portrayed a seaside dancehall entertainer.

The film company spent significant time in Palos Verdes and San Pedro, with an “army of carpenters” constructing huge sets in Palos Verdes that were reported at the time to “set a new record in the size of talking picture outdoor backgrounds.”

These are a few of the early films that made use of the Peninsula landscape.  Stay tuned for more.

By Dennis Piotrowski and Monique Sugimoto - Adult Services Librarians

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