Monday, July 9, 2012

Guest blogger: John Bengtson on location with Buster Keaton

John Bengtson is a Bay Area film historian and author with a knack for tracking down the locations where early films were shot. It is like detective work, or to change similes, visual archeology.  Bengtson's three books, Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton (Santa Monica Press, 1999), Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin (Santa Monica Press, 2006), and Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd (Santa Monica Press, 2011) explore the Hollywood history hidden in the background of the films of these three silent era comedians.

Bengtson authors an excellent blog at which contains even more material along these lines. As background to the Sunday, July 15th screening of The Cameraman at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Bengtson contributed this guest post about the Buster Keaton classic.


Buster Keaton and Marceline Day
The 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival concludes this year on Sunday, July 15, with a 7:30 pm screening of Buster Keaton’s 1928 comedy triumph The Cameraman. Set in New York, but filmed mostly in Hollywood, The Cameraman was Keaton’s last silent feature production, and his first film for his new studio, M-G-M.  Buster plays a tintype photographer, selling portraits on the sidewalk, who longs to become a newsreel cameraman in order to impress Sally (played by Marceline Day), a receptionist for the Hearst Newsreel Company.  While I cover the New York and Hollywood locations more extensively in my Keaton book Silent Echoes, here are a few fun discoveries.

Early in the film, Buster leaps aboard a moving fire truck at the iconic intersection of Hollywood and Vine, with the stately Taft Building standing in the background.

This circa 1934 aerial view of Hollywood (below) shows the path (arrow) of Keaton’s fire truck at Hollywood and Vine (1), and later its path as it travels north up Cahuenga towards Hollywood Boulevard (2), before turning left into the former Hollywood fire station (4).   The parking lot across from the fire station (3) is where Buster stows his pet cow Brown Eyes during his feature comedy Go West (1925), and the alley up the street (5) is where a passing car whisks Buster away one-handed during Cops (1922).
(1) Hollywood and Vine; (2) up Cahuenga; (3) the Go West parking lot;
(4) the fire station interior; (5) the Cops alleyway.

You can see more about early filming on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood on a prior post,  Chaplin – Keaton – Lloyd – One Block in Silent-Era Hollywood.

Jumping to New York, when Sally calls Buster to tell him her plans have changed, and she is free to see him, Buster dashes up 5th Avenue from W 55th Street, and arrives at her apartment before she can hang up the phone.  Later, Buster and Sally stroll along the same block.

During one of the few scenes filmed on location in New York, Buster races north up 5th Avenue from the corner of W 55th Street. To the far right stands the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church. The spires in the center right background, my original clue to identifying this scene, belong to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the 11th largest church in the world. In the modern view below the spires are blocked by glass skyscrapers.

View Larger Map

Another notable location appearing in The Cameraman is the Venice Plunge (now lost), the large indoor swimming pool located beside the former Abbot Kinney Pier, where Buster and Sally go on a date.  Charlie Chaplin filmed beside the Venice Plunge in 1915 for his short comedy By The Sea.

The Venice Plunge interior, as it appears during the film.

The front of the Venice Plunge.
Security Pacific National Bank Photograph Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

The conclusion of The Cameraman was filmed in Newport Beach in Orange County.  The extant Newport Beach Pavilion appears in one early shot.  The boat race was staged near the south end of  Newport Bay.  The oval in this aerial view below shows where the speed boat runs in a circle.  The blue dot below show where Buster captures the speed boat on camera, standing before the extant home at 2234 Channel Road, appearing behind Buster during the scenes (below).

Buster beside the extant home at 2234 Channel Road in Newport Beach.

Buster stood near the blue dot above, filming across the channel towards Bayside Drive, as the speed boat races in a circle (oval above). (C) 2012 Microsoft Corporation, Pictometry Bird’s Eye (c) 2012 Pictometry International Corp.

The Cameraman images (C) 1928 Turner Entertainment Co.

Further information about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival can be found on our website at The Festival takes place at the Castro Theater in San Francisco from July 12 – 15th.  John Bengtson will be signing books following the late afternoon Sunday screening of Stella Dallas (1925), at approximately 6:30. Admission to the various author book signings is by Festival ticket.

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