Josef von Sternberg films Los Angeles in 1925
Josef von Sternberg shot his first film, “The Salvation Hunters,” in 1925 on location in the docks at San Pedro, the abandoned slums of Chinatown, and the wild but soon to be developed chaparral of the San Fernando Valley. Despite the confidence of his image-making, von Sternberg seems unwilling to let the pictures tell the story, and frames the action with some heavy-handed text panels spelling out a symbolic journey from mud to sun. But the images are beautiful, sharp and clear in their focus on the worn out fabric of the underside of a city transforming itself.
In the first section the characters are framed by the steady, unrelenting action of the dredge working to clear a channel in the port. In her first screen role Georgia Hale puts on a terrific performance as a bored teen with attitude, and Chaplin quickly picked her up to star opposite him in “The Gold Rush.” In the second section the characters have walked to the city, and the action is framed by the physical (and implied moral) decay of Chinatown in the years before the area was cleared to build Union Station. The young couple has been offered a room in a dilapidated boarding house, and the landlord works to pressure Hale into prostitution, but she resists. In the final section the pimp takes them to the country to try to seduce her there. The scene climaxes in a rolling fistfight that ends with the finally emboldened boy (played by George K. Arthur) beating the pimp to a pulp into a real estate sign that promises a future of dreams fulfilled.
The film has been restored by the UCLA Film Archive, and was recently screened at LACMA as part of “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA.” You can find more information about the film at http://www.cinema.ucla.edu