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

Overview


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 ...
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Overview


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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“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

“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

Francesca Dingasan
In Silent Echoes, author John Bengtson performs a great deal of detective work to uncover the areas of Los Angeles carefully scouted by Keaton himself, which served as the famed settings featured in many of the comic's classic films. [P]ainstakingly researched...enabling current generations to relate to these films of a bygone era. Keaton scholars and fans in general will enjoy seeing the portrait of a city so close to their idol's heart.
From Francesca Dingasan, BOXOFFICE, November, 1999
San Francisco Chronicle
The book is meticulous. It's ingenious. It's inexhaustibly fascinating. And it is clearly, and in the best way, the work of someone obsessed with his subject.
Library Journal
Buster Keaton ranks as one of the foremost clown princes of Hollywood. As a child, Keaton learned his craft as one of vaudeville's Three Keatons, where he was the target of knockabout comedy so rough many observers considered it a form of child abuse. Sadly, personal problems, alcoholism, and a lack of business acumen caused Buster to lose artistic control over the making of his films in later years, and he was reduced to taking bit roles in "Beach Party" films. Knopf (theater, Univ. of Michigan) offers a timely, academic appreciation of the great stoneface, examining why Keaton's films intrigued surrealists and intellectuals such as Salvador Dal , Federico Garc a Lorca, and Luis Bu uel. (One of Keaton's final appearances was in a short film scripted by Samuel Beckett.) Knopf also does an excellent job of tracing the vaudevillian roots of Keaton's stunts and gags. On the other hand, Bengtson's Silent Echoes shows more than 100 sites from early Keaton films, comparing the film view with the scene as it exists today. (Unlike other silent film figures, Keaton preferred natural settings for his pratfalls. As a result, his early films offer a wonderful view of early Hollywood landmarks that are, like some of Keaton's films, now lost to posterity.) This dedicated bit of detective work will be of great interest to Hollywood and urban historians. Although the definitive history of Keaton's life and career has yet to be written, both books will nicely supplement the collections of libraries that already own earlier studies, like Keaton's Wonderful World of Slapstick, Marion Meade's Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase or Tom Dardis's Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down--not to mention Kino on Video's ten-volume The Art of Buster Keaton. Recommended for all academic and large public libraries and specialized film collections.--Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Roger Ebert
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.
Kenneth Turan
Astonishing is a mild word for what John Bengtson has accomplished . . .this book is something like a miracle.
—film critic, Los Angeles Times
Mick LaSalle
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.
—San Francisco Chronicle
Charles Champlin
A remarkable piece of detective work.
—author of Hollywood’s Revolutionary Decade
The Keaton Chronicle
Silent Echoes is a conversation piece indeed. I’m grabbing people and showing them this one . . . you must buy this landmark book.
Tom Nolan
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.
—San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Jonathan Kirsch
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.
—Los Angeles Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781891661068
  • Publisher: Santa Monica Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/1999
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 10.98 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author


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 Chronicle newsletter, and lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his two daughters.
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Table of Contents

Introduction by Kevin Brownlow
Foreword

The Keaton Studio

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

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

Parting Shots
Credits

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Foreword

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.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2000

    Movie fandom at the level of poetry

    A piece of passionate, meticulous detective work, where the author has peered at the rooftops and groups of trees visible in the backgrounds of Keaton's classic films with the attention usually shown by CIA analysts pouring over satellite photos of Russian nuclear facilities. For all its straight forward earnestness, the book is really an act of poetic archeology, finding the shadows of a long lost magic Hollywood under the present day blandness. John Bengtson is like a benevolent stalker of Buster Keaton, 75 years after the fact. Beautiful, indespensible.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2000

    A Whole New Genre of Books

    John Bengtson has created a whole new genre of books. This book does not just explore the silent comedies of Buster Keaton. It also will allow the silent film fan to explore early Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other early movie locations in California, Arizona, and Oregon. It is amazing how Bengtson has located the buildings that were in the background scenery of Keaton's films. This book is a look at Los Angeles history, as buildings like the College of Dentistry and hotels that were houses of prostitution no longer exist. Now anyone can walk in the steps of the great comedian, Buster Keaton.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2000

    The Silent World of Buster Keaton Speaks Again

    One of my pet hobbies is to visit the sites from favorite films that were shot on location. In the hands of John Bengston, this hobby has been elevated into an art form. His meticulous and ingenious reconstruction of Lost Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of silent film genius Buster Keaton amounts to a wonderful journey through the past. One the one hand, it's sad to see locales like Venice Beach reduced to today's tawdry commercialism compared to the vibrant beach community depicted in Keaton's films. On the other, it's inspiring to see what a man, a camera, some actors and his chosen city could yield in terms of enduring comic gems. This book is informed by a love of silent film, a love of LA,and, most importantly, a love of the enduring comic genius and cinematic eye of Buster Keaton. If you're like me, you'll find yourself renting the films and using 'Silent Echoes' to reconstruct the warm, wonderful world of one of the 20th Century's cinematic pioneers. A must have for film lovers!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2000

    First Great Film Book of the 21st Century!

    John Bengtson's book is the kind of thing film lovers dream about. Every Keaton fan or silent movie buff will want this book, but it also makes a wonderful introduction to the silent era's timeless pleasures, especially the always fresh and exciting comedy of Buster Keaton. And on top of everything else, it's a fascinating detective story! Wow! Can you tell I liked this book?

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 1999

    A film location buff's dream!

    Wow! If you're of the ilk (like me) that not only loves Buster Keaton films but Hollywood history, film location sites, or just film in general, this book is for you! I can't imagine what time it took for author John Bengtson to research all of the location stills, period maps and modern-day photos - let alone sleuth out the current state of each site - but I can tell you that the skill and passion he has for the subject shows in great strength! An amazing labor of love. Enjoy!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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