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

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


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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781891661068
Publisher: Santa Monica Press
Publication date: 12/01/1999
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 10.98(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.47(d)

About 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.

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

What People are Saying About This

Kenneth Turan

— (Kenneth Turan, film critic, Los Angeles Times)

Ken Burns

This is a cinematic and photographic detective story of the first order. Time and artifice has 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, etc.)

Leonard Maltin

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)

Ace Magazine

With its blend of film history, Hollywood and Keaton, and research, the book is like no other; may there be more like it.--Ace Magazine

American Cinematographer

John Bengtson is a relentless detective, a photo historian of the first order. His passionate love for the films of Buster Keaton has compelled him to create the most complete work on film locations that has ever been published. Any student of early filmmaking in Los Angeles--not to mention Keaton fans--will find this elegant volume to be indespensable. (American Cinematographer Magazine)

Kevin Brownlow

A new art form.
— (Kevin Brownlow, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and historian)


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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