Silent Echoes : Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton

Silent Echoes : Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton
John Bengtson
December 1999
Hundreds of photos
Film & TV
10 7/8 x 8 3/8

Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton is an epic look at a genius at work and at a Hollywood that no longer exists. Painstakingly researching the locations used in Buster Keaton’s classic silent films, author John Bengtson combines images from Keaton’s movies with archival photographs, historic maps, and scores of dramatic “then” and “now” photos. In the process, Bengtson reveals dozens of locations that lay undiscovered for nearly 80 years.

Part time machine, part detective story, Silent Echoes presents a fresh look at the matchless Keaton at work, as well as a captivating glimpse of Hollywood’s most romantic era. More than a book for film, comedy, or history buffs, Silent Echoes appeals to anyone fascinated with solving puzzles or witnessing the awesome passage of time.

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Table of Contents

Introduction by Kevin Brownlow
ForewordThe Keaton StudioShort Films
One Week
Convict 13
The Scarecrow
Hard Luck
The High Sign
The Goat
The Playhouse
The Boat
The Paleface
The Blacksmith
The BalloonaticFeature Films
The Saphead
Three Ages
Our Hospitality
Sherlock Jr.
The Navigator
Seven Chances
Go West
Battling Butler
The General
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
The CameramanParting Shots

Los Angeles is the most photographed town in the world. A fascinating film could be made showing its architectural progress simply by using exteriors from the thousands of films shot in its streets.
It was footage of the Los Angeles area, appearing in the first films to be made in California, that precipitated the incredible population explosion. Cameramen would select the prettiest street corner, wait until the light was right, and, when they saw the movie, a few hundred more disillusioned Easterners and mid-Westerners would pack their bags. And how attractive Los Angeles was when pictures were silent, and Buster Keaton was making his comedies. In Keaton’s day, Hollywood was as close as any town could get to paradise. With a backdrop of hills, Sunset Boulevard was still rural enough to have a bridle path down the middle. Buster’s studio already had a noble heritage, having been the headquarters of Charlie Chaplin under the romantic name of the Lone Star Studio. Nearby was the classical facade of the administration building of the Metro Company, which released Keaton’s films, and where Valentino appeared in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Hollywood still had all the attributes of a small town. The original inhabitants-mid-Western prohibitionists-may once have been shocked by the sudden arrival of the picture people, but by the 1920s most people appreciated the source of the town’s prosperity. One should add-for it is easy to lose sight of this in modern Hollywood-that the picture pioneers were remarkably pleasant people. I interviewed scores of them, including Keaton, and they were the most extraordinary characters I ever met, enthusiastic about their work, full of excitement, humour, and charm-and they retained these qualities into their old age. On the other hand, Hollywood itself has grown a bit raddled. Whenever any of the veterans took me for a tour of the place, they invariably got lost and sighed deeply for the old days. All the old landmarks seem to have been ruthlessly bulldozed, from D. W. Griffith’s studio at the junction of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards (now a supermarket) to Lot Three at MGM (now a condominium development.) One assumed that evidence of the old Los Angeles, the old Hollywood, lay only in photographs and motion pictures.

And then came John Bengtson. Thanks to his sixth sense, his detective’s nose, and historian’s tenacity, we can discover scores of locations that we had assumed had been flattened. He gives an entirely new level of interest to the city. Of course, changes occur every day and more and more buildings are demolished, so you’d better hurry if you want to see these locations. But either way, he has provided an excellent record, and he will have given new heart to other researchers.
I envy John Bengtson’s achievement as much as I admire it, because I have had a go at this sort of thing myself. With David Gill, I prowled the streets of L.A. and went to Cottage Grove, in Oregon, to film locations for our documentary Buster Keaton – A Hard Act to Follow. Despite all the resources of Thames Television and eager researchers, we did not find out nearly as much as Bengtson did on his own.
I suspect he may have invented a new art form. Certainly it’s a godsend for film enthusiasts. Let us hope more of his location surveys appear in the future.
-Kevin Brownlow, London


Buster Keaton knew the streets of Los Angeles like the back of his hand. He filmed everywhere, hopscotching across town to find just the right setting for each joke. In his famous short film Cops he filmed scenes in Chinatown, the old downtown, the new downtown, in Hollywood, Pasadena, and USC. In another short film, The Scarecrow, he filmed one gag across the street from his small studio and a related gag 60 miles away in Newport Beach. Despite the folklore that Keaton did not work from scripts and improvised his comedies on the spot, we cannot overlook the geographic implications of these findings. Filming related gags at settings dozens of miles apart is not possible without advance planning.
Keaton the filmmaker could not be confined within four studio walls. An avid sportsman who loved the outdoors, and a director who chose runaway trains, cattle stampedes, and avalanches for his costars, Keaton filmed outside, on location, whenever he could. Each independently produced film he made contains a few scenes filmed on location. Three of his greatest films-Our Hospitality, The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.-were filmed almost exclusively on location, in Lake Tahoe, Oregon, and Sacramento. Keaton’s films exploded with natural calamities and elemental forces. Sinking ships and collapsing houses shared the screen with cyclones, rivers, and waterfalls. Keaton’s movies had to be filmed outdoors, at real locations. No venue was large enough to contain his vision other than the world itself.
Being filmed on location, Keaton’s movies not only tell a story, they also preserve a real time and place, recording history itself, before freeways and strip malls smothered Hollywood’s dusty orchards and lazy streets. A lifetime has passed since Keaton made his films, and the common threads of fashion, architecture, transportation, and popular culture to which we relate have all changed nearly beyond recognition. Keaton’s film world-silent, without color-constructed generations ago, today seems completely beyond reach, as alien and remote as if from some other planet. And yet, with an open mind, and a clear eye, we can establish that these celluloid visions were once real, and in many cases still exist.
I find this detective work fascinating because it provides a direct, tangible link not only to the simpler times of a past world, but beyond that world into Keaton’s special film world itself. Knowing the “where” of his films connects you to his work in ways that even repeatedly viewing his films cannot inspire. Suddenly, the towering gate where Virginia Fox challenges Keaton at the beginning of Cops is no longer some mythic ancient relic locked within a faded nitrate frame. Instead it is deeply rooted to our present reality. It is there to be viewed and touched. Visiting the gate in person, you perceive what Keaton and his crew saw to the back and to the sides of where the camera was placed, unrestricted by the limiting frame Keaton imposed on the view. Beyond the frame, you will know there was a time and place where Buster Keaton existed, and where he made his films. It was once all real, and their silent echoes still reverberate gently.
-John Bengtson

©2000 by John Bengtson