By Jeff Johnson
Hollywoodland Pt. 1:
Early in 1939, at the age of 26, Elmer Johnson went on a trip to the West Coast with his Mother and her two sisters. While their trip was primarily intended as a vacation, to visit family and to see the major tourist sites of cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco & Oakland, young Elmer had another, altogether more personal reason for making the journey; as an aspiring filmmaker.
At the time, Elmer had had a great deal of experience taking photos (he had started with portraits of friends and family in the late 1920's) but his main interest was filmmaking. I'm unsure as to what his inspirations were when it came to wanting to make movies but he spent many of his free hours shooting short films around his family's Gage Park home that contained relatively simple storylines while being well-produced, beautifully shot, and edited.
With the help of friends and family (usually his mother) as actors, Elmer created many silent films that were entirely of his creation from the camera work and editing, to the meticulous title cards which he drew by hand and painted (throughout his life, Elmer was a very capable artist). He called his films an Almar Production (Almar being a play on the way that some family would say his name) and shot it all with his Bolex 16mm film camera and edited it on a small 16mm film editor.
While there is some footage showing elements of Chicago and various trips, in one instance, a short documenting of the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1933, none of his films are news-oriented. Basically, Elmer liked a good old-fashioned story with a splash of camera effects magic. So, being fascinated by cameras and filmmaking, it was obvious that when he was to find himself on a trip to the West Coast (or hearing that there was an opportunity to go out West) that he go to Hollywood and see where it was that all of that movie-making wonder work was being done.
The filmmaking business, much of it having blossomed in Chicago during the 1900's at places like Essanay Studios, was still a fairly young industry by 1939, and with releases that year of Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland, Gone with the Wind starring Clark Gable, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stwart and The Women starring Joan Crawford among many other films, it is still considered to be the height of Hollywood's heyday.
(Part Two of this Blog is Next)