Venice Beach’s birth in 1905 couldn’t have come at a better time for Hollywood. Abbot Kinney’s “Fantasy by the Sea” was just starting out when the brand-new movie industry came to California for its year-round sun. For the next hundred years, Hollywood’s love affair with Venice would bring entertainment to millions all over the world. It’s no wonder Venice looks so familiar to first-time visitors. Whether you watch movies, TV shows, commercials or music videos, you’ve already been here.
After living in Venice for 17 years, I decided to track down the locations of the 100-plus movies and TV shows shot here. I’ve divided my findings into three periods; I. Coney Island of the West (1910s-1940s), II. Slum by the Sea (1940s-1980s) and III.Veni-ssance (1980s-now).
So if you’re ready to do some time travelling, here are five of the most important movies of Venice’s early days.
The oldest existing film shot in Venice, “Never Again!,” predates Hollywood’s first feature-length film, “The Squaw Man” by four years and is one of the first of 249 movies made by Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart.” The film was shot in the Grand Canal, which was paved over in 1929 and is now called Grand Boulevard. In the background is Villa City, a tent community where guests would spend the weekend after taking the train, known as the Red Car, all the way from downtown LA. Far from roughing it, Villa City residents were treated to indoor plumbing and electric lights – not bad for 1905. The house with the gables in the frame below, built in 1910, is still with us.
"Never Again" 1910
In January 1914, producer Mack Sennett sent a 24 year-old British actor with one film under his belt down to Venice to take advantage of the crowds attending the Vanderbilt Junior Cup Auto Race. On his way to Venice, this young comedian grabbed a derby and a cane and put on a fake mustache, and it was at this kids auto race in Venice that the most popular film star in the world was born. Like Borat 100 years later, he clowned around in front of the unsuspecting crowd, so the reactions you see are real. Little did the Venetian crowd know that they were the first among millions to be entertained by none other than Charlie Chaplin.
Kids Auto Race 1914
To make Venice of America resemble Venice of Italy, city founder Abbot Kinney dredged a system of canals out of the swamp and imported gondolas left over from the 1904 St. Louis World Fair to navigate them. Nowhere is the resemblance between the two Venices more evident than in this nearly-forgotten gem by Thomas Ince, one of Hollywood’s founding directors. A story of Italian immigrants coming to America that was reportedly used by Francis Ford Coppola as research for “The Godfather, Part II,” “The Italian” shows Abbot Kinney’s canals in all their glory. Here you’ll see the Venice Lagoon, the Antler Hotel and the many beautiful bridges that once spanned the romantic waterways.
Charlie Chaplin wasn’t the only comedy star to use Venice for laughs. The seaside resort attracted everyone from Buster Keaton to Charley Chase. In 1920’s “Number, Please?” gravity-defying comic Harold Lloyd used new-fangled devices like the telephone and a hot air balloon to win the heart of Mildred Davis, taking us on a madcap frolic through the amusement park attractions of Venice and Ocean Park. Alas (spoiler alert), poor Harold does not get the girl in the end, and the closing shot finds him riding to oblivion on the back of Venice’s miniature railroad. As you can see in the photos below, he passes the present location of grocery store “Windward Farms,” which was still a grocery store back in 1920. Watch “Number, Please?” here.
The inspiration for Betty Boop, Clara Bow was Marilyn Monroe, Angelina Jolie and Megan Fox all wrapped in one — the epitome of the Roaring 20s “Jazz Baby,” with her short bob haircut and shorter skirt. So where does the ultimate flapper go on a date in the movie that gave her famous nickname, the “It Girl”? Why, Venice Beach of course! Specifically the Venice Pier Fun House. Also used by Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang, this is the same Fun House that Carole Lombard rented out one night in 1935 for a private party for her famous friends, including Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich. Unfortunately, the pier has been gone since 1946 with Venice’s famous Breakwater the only sign that it was ever there.
You can stroll to all these film locations and dozens more, as you watch the actual footage shot at each one on any Vintage Venice Reel to Real Tour.