Southern California and LA in particular are notoriously cavalier about architectural history. Everything’s got to be new and fresh. With all the movies that have been made there over the past hundred-plus years, not to mention the periodic earthquakes, it’s amazing anything stands longer than a few decades.
Still, remnants of old Hollywood manage to survive, even relics of the silent era, and one of the most talented and intriguing figures from that time is Buster Keaton. John Bengtson chronicles the locations of Keaton’s features and shorts in his fascinating volume, Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Eyes of Buster Keaton.
This book is right up my alley. I actually won it in a giveaway Lea from Silent-ology did a couple of years ago as part of her annual Buster Keaton blogathon, and it was a delightful surprise. Thank you, Lea! Now, at long last (yeah, I know, two years later), I’m finally going to share a little bit about this book with you all, which I’m really excited about.
John Bengtson is very methodical in Silent Echoes and he doesn’t miss a thing. There are tons of photos of everywhere Keaton went, and when possible, Bengtson shows what these places look like nowadays, including addresses.
Here are a few of Mr. Keaton’s haunts:
Buster Keaton Studios, Hollywood, California
Buster Keaton got his start as an indie filmmaker, and right from the start people knew he was special. His first movie was a short called One Week, made in 1920. The studio, which was located at 1325 Eleanor Avenue in Hollywood, was bought especially for him by Joseph Schenck of Metro Pictures. Yeah, that Metro Pictures. Unfortunately, the building was torn down many years ago and a plaque commemorates the site.
1811 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, California
Venice seemed to be a favorite spot for Keaton, who made The High Sign at this location. Keaton wouldn’t recognize Venice nowadays, seeing as his favorite spots like the Venice Plunge have long since been leveled, but it’s still fun to imagine him sauntering around here doing his thing.
Beale’s Cut, near Newhall, California
This pass was cut back in 1854 to make way for stagecoaches, and many, many films, mostly westerns, have been made here. Buster shot two: The Paleface (1921) and Seven Chances (1925). In the years since the pass has partially collapsed due to earthquakes and is now fenced off.
Iverson Movie Ranch, Chatsworth, California
Keaton made Three Ages (1923) here, an ambitious project about a love story filmed across three different periods of history. Bengtson visited this location with Ben Burtt of Lucasfilm fame and was starstruck at how well Ben knew the area.
963 East Fourth Street, Los Angeles, California
This location was used in 1925’s Go West, which apparently had Keaton pouring his heart out to a cow named Brown Eyes. His character in the movie, appropriately named Friendless, is a luckless fellow who gets a job as a ranch hand. The locations in the film were pretty diverse, stretching all the way from Arizona back to Los Angeles, including a train yard.
Dorena Covered Bridge, Shoreview Drive, Dorena, Oregon
One of my fave Keaton films so far is The General, which was released in 1926. Keaton filmed most of the movie in and around Cottage Grove, Oregon and had a great time, playing baseball with the locals and charming everyone. He’s still fondly celebrated in the area, which has also hosted other films such as Stand By Me, Animal House, and Emperor of the North. Bengston notes that trains ran through the bridge until recently, when the tracks were removed and the place opened up for hikers and picnickers.
1612 Cahuenga Boulevard, Hollywood
Keaton’s last silent feature was The Cameraman, and while the story took place in New York, part of the movie was filmed in Hollywood. I’ve only seen bits of it, but it looks technically and artistically amazing. I’m sure people who saw it at the time wondered where Keaton was going to go from there.
Silent Echoes makes me want to get out and explore if it’s still possible (Jordan Lee of Daze With Jordan the Lion did), but since I can’t, really, the book is a fine substitute. It makes me more curious than ever to delve into Keaton’s filmography and the places he immortalized in his films. I have a feeling Bengston’s work is going to be a favorite for a long time.
Okay, so this review was posted unusually late, but there’s a reason for that. Put it this way: Starting tomorrow, the rest of this week is a wee bit action-packed, and the only spoiler I’m going to give about one of them is, “Tag, your’re it!” Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow…
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