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

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.

Click below to purchase this book:

Read Excerpt
Table of Contents

Introduction by Kevin Brownlow

The Keaton Studio

Short Films
One Week
Convict 13
The Scarecrow
Hard Luck
The High Sign
The Goat
The Playhouse
The Boat
The Paleface
The Blacksmith
The Balloonatic

Feature Films
The Saphead
Three Ages
Our Hospitality
Sherlock Jr.
The Navigator
Seven Chances
Go West
Battling Butler
The General
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
The Cameraman

Parting 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

Author Information
John Bengtson

is a business lawyer and film historian who discovered the magic of silent comedy at an early age. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin,Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton, and Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. Bengtson has presented his work on Buster Keaton as keynote speaker at events hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He is a featured columnist of the Keaton Chroniclenewsletter, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his two daughters.


“What John Bengtson has done is nothing short of remarkable: a deft combination of detective work, archeology, and film buffery. I can’t get enough of it!”
—Leonard Maltin, film critic and historian

“This is a cinematic and photographic detective story of the first order. Time and artifice have been stripped away. What’s left is a wonderful portrait of a city, its principal industry, and one of its best artists.”
—Ken Burns, author/director, The Civil War, Baseball, etc. News

“Bengtson captures the same eerie feeling I sometimes get when watching Keaton, who is the greatest of the silent clowns: The sense that Buster occupies not the fantasy world of many silent comedies, but a real world right down to the street from our own.”
—Roger Ebert, film critic and historian

“Astonishing is a mild word for what John Bengtson has accomplished…this book is something like a miracle.”
—Kenneth Turan, film critic, Los Angeles Times

“A remarkable piece of detective work.”
—Charles Champlin, author of Hollywood’s Revolutionary Decade

“A new art form.”
—Kevin Brownlow, director and film historian

“Remarkable-a must read for Keaton fans.”
—Marion Meade, author of Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase

“A fascinating work of film history in which, to quote film historian Kevin Brownlow, ‘he may have invented a new art form’ . . . Bengtson’s enthusiasm for his subject is contagious . . . Like collaborations between Eadweard Muybridge and David Hockney . . . His inventive and intriguing work is a kind of deconstructed poem, a visual ode to a world that’s vanished yet present.”
—Tom Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“A fine madness and a measure of genius are at work in the pages of Silent Echoes. Out of raw materials extracted from silent movies and photographic archives, Bengtson conjures up a vision of Southern California in its most charming and colorful era. The result is a strange but utterly winning book that can be used and enjoyed as a filmography of Buster Keaton, a work of architectural history, urban geography and popular culture . . . Bengtson’s approach is simple in concept but brilliant in execution . . . Even for the reader who cares not at all about Buster Keaton, Silent Echoes still exerts a strong and sometimes almost hypnotic allure of its own . . . reading Bengtson’s book is like recalling a dimly remembered dream, sometimes delightful and sometimes disturbing, but always rich in meaning.”
—Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

“It is simply a stunning work, one of the best pieces of primary research ever done on the Keaton films . . . nothing before has been done on this scale in finding where, and sometimes how, a comedian made his movies . . . This investigation can only make one say ‘wow.’ Silent Echoes is a conversation piece indeed. I’m grabbing people and showing them this one . . . you must buy this landmark book.”
The Keaton Chronicle

“The book is meticulous. It’s ingenious. It’s inexhaustibly fascinating . . . the feeling evoked is not one of nostalgia-of seeking the past in the present-but the opposite, of finding the present in the past. It’s disconcerting, vaguely romantic and hard to define. But it has a way of keeping Silent Echoes by the bedside for a long time.”
—Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

“It is only fair to warn true lovers of Hollywood history-not to mention Keaton fans-that we will fall into the contents of this incredible book like Alice down the rabbit hole. Chores will go undone as we pore over its archival photos, diagrams, maps, explanations and addresses till we jump in our cars to search out whatever blessedly still-standing sites we can find. In discussing/showing the spots and shots where Keaton made his movies, John Bengtson extensively demonstrates what Kevin Brownlow calls “a new art form.” Not only will Bengtson’s years of remarkable sleuthing give greater meaning to familiar Hollywood neighborhoods, it will sweetly enhance our viewing of Keaton’s films for the rest of our lives.”
—Lisa Mitchell, DGA Magazine, Directors Guild of America