by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This edition of “That’s a Wrap,” which looks at Homestead artifacts connected to the film industry, highlights a pair of snapshots from the collection of visitors in the Hollywood backlot at the Metro Pictures Corporation in February 1919.
The first photograph shows two couples standing next to a building in a “Chinatown” setting with Chinese lettering on the structure, panels with Chinese-looking themes on them, a corner street lamp, and some other details. Debris on the ground near the quartet suggests construction was being completed on the sets or that they were being readied for demolition. On the reverse is an inscription reading: “At the Metro Studio / China-town? / Effie + her dude / Alice + ” ” ” [her dude, presumably!]”.
The second photo shows the same dudes and dudettes in a more open dirt area with more sets of Chinese-like structures and these, too, look incomplete, as if still in the process of being built or, conversely, being torn down. Notably, to the left of this image, the fence separating the studio lot from the neighborhood around it is in view as are some of the roofs of nearby houses.
Metro was founded in 1915 by Richard A. Rowland (1880-1947), who is not well-remembered in filmdom, and Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957), who is a legendary name in the industry. The company began as a distributor of films made by Solax Studios, which was established by French movie executives in locations in New York and New Jersey.
In 1918, Mayer left to form his own studio and Rowland continued to operate Metro for a couple of more years before the company was sold to theater entrepreneur Marcus Loew to produce films for his rapidly expanding chain of movie houses. In 1924, Loew teamed up with Mayer and the Goldwyn Studio, which Loew had just purchased from founder Samuel Goldwyn, and the new studio was called Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or MGM, which became a giant in the industry.
While MGM went on to great success at new studio facilities in Beverly Hills, Rowland’s Metro studio, located at Cahuenga Avenue near Melrose Avenue, remained a busy place, though, for a time in the 1940s, it became Equity Studios and then Motion Picture Center Studios.
When the hit television comedy “I Love Lucy” propelled Desilu, the production company of starts Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, into the upper echelons of the medium, the old Metro facility became, in 1953, Desilu Studios. After a long, successful run with such shows as “Hogan’s Heroes,” “My Favorite Martian,” and “That Girl” filming there before Desilu was sold, the studio became known by a few different monikers in succeeding decades, including, for some years, Ren-Mar Studios. In the Ren-Mar years, such shows as “Seinfeld,” “The Golden Girls,” “General Hospital,” and “Ally McBeal” and films like “Who Killed Roger Rabbit?” and “Wedding Crashers” were filmed there. In 2010, it morphed into “RED Studios Hollywood”. Recent productions include “Weeds” and “True Blood.”
As for the sets shown in these photos, it appears that they were used in a May 1919 Metro Pictures release called “The Red Lantern,” starring Russian film star Alla Nazimova and longtime character actor Noah Beery, Sr. with support from British actor Reginald Denny. According to a storyline provided for IMDB by Jim Beaver, an actor seen recently in “Better Call Saul” and son-in-law of Get Smart star Don Adams, “The Red Lantern” was about
Mahlee and Blanche Sackville [who] are half-sisters, Blanche the daughter of an Englishman and his wife, Mahlee of the Englishman and his Chinese mistress. Mahlee rejects her people and attempts to find a life for herself among the Europeans. But she finds the color line impossible to pass and returns to lead her Chinese people in rebellion.
The sisters were both played by Nazimova, a serious actress on the Broadway stage whose husband Charles Bryant had a role in the film. Berry, meanwhile, plays Dr. Sam Wang, with he and Nazimova performing, typically, in ethnic roles that would be improbable by our standards.
Without identification on the images, it cannot be documented with certainty that the sets were for that film, but the timing is certainly right!