The obsessions that San Francisco provokes are a clear measure of the city’s seductively nutty power.

This video takes the biscuit; a Rube Goldberg toothpick vision of San Francisco — constructed during the course of 35 years from over 100,000 toothpicks.

And some glue.

What’s even crazier is that the whole thing is basically a gigantic game of “Mousetrap” — drop a ball into the top of Coit Tower and it takes you on a tour of the whoooole town, cable cars, Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and all … this thing has to be seen to be believed.

And as to the motivation behind this fantastic kinetic confection, let me quote the Rohnert Park contraption-builder-in-chief, Scott Weaver:

“for no reason … just to build it so that people will go ‘wow’ … or ‘why'”.
A Jitney Elopement
A Jitney Elopement

File this — again — under “there’s ALWAYS a San Francisco connection”.

A reader recently alerted me to the fact that Charlie Chaplin, America’s favourite clown (and perhaps the most influential performer in motion picture history), shot one of his bazillion-odd silent movies on location in and around Golden Gate Park.

A Jitney Elopement” is classic slapstick, featuring a case of mistaken identity, a jitney (think “flivver“), a mustachioed scoundrel and — inevitably — madcap hilarity. This milestone 1915 production has been described as the first “Chaplinesque” Chaplin film, but is that what we’re here for?

Nope … we want to look past the action with San Francisco-tinted glasses and see our city in all its vivid … okay, in all its grainy black and white early-century glory. The first half of the film takes place indoors, but take a look at clip from the second reel, featuring the crucial final ten minutes:

0:0 minutes: We begin somewhere on location in Golden Gate Park; Charlie is about to rescue the Girl from the amorous clutches of the mustachioed Count.

4:53 minutes: The action slowly picks up — over a half century before Steve McQueen will set the standard — with a car chase: high speed Tin-Lizzy!

5:02 minutes: This may be the high point of the film, a rare sight indeed: Golden Gate Park’s fabulous Murphy Windmill, complete with turning vanes! This windmill, the second of the Park’s famous pair, was built in 1905, but the vanes fell off sometime in the ’40s. The magnificent tower is still there, though, slowly rotting away — still unrestored.

6:00 minutes: tearing north past Ocean Beach along the Great Highway, not yet paved (!).

7:46 minutes: In a cinematic maneuver San Franciscans will see countless times over the years to come (hello “Bullitt‘), time and geography are defied with a leap across town into the Mission District. Note the fence advertising “Joe Holle Bicycles” — this handy clue allows us to place the scene precisely at 2336 Folsom Street, right across the street from today’s John O’Connell High School of Technology.

8:30 minutes: A pair of paved roads lead up a hillside … anyone want to take a crack at identifying this spot? Sutro Heights? The Presidio?

9:16 minutes: A major intersection that could be in the Mission, the Richmond or the Sunset districts … anyone recognize the buildings in the background?

9:46 minutes: The car chase finally ends with a splash as Chaplin bumps the villains’ car off a pier and into the bay. Our copy of the film is a little blurry, but our best guess is that this is somewhere around Fort Mason.

But wait, there’s more!


I’m addicted to the “moving images” section of the Internet Archive — particularly the Prelinger Archives, recently absorbed into the Library of Congress. This massive collection of “ephemeral films”, a term which covers just about anything not made for commercial entertainment (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) is a fantastic source for unexpected historical treasures.

I’ve found all manner of fascinating clips here, from documentaries about 50s-era juvenile delinquents to home movies of the ’39 World’s Fair — about 2000 are online. A nice documentary introduction to the film archive actually narrated by Rick Prelinger (a San Franciscan!) can be found here — well worth a look.

Since I can’t seem to stay away from this stuff, I will share it, starting with…