About

About – Short Version

I am the author of a series of books about Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, entitled Silent Traces, Silent Echoes, and Silent Visions, respectively. My books examine the historical settings preserved in the background of their classic films, and the changes wrought by the ensuing decades.

This blog supplements my books with tours, videos, and PowerPoint lectures that can’t be replicated in books, and new discoveries, and expanded coverage of the great silent clowns and their home turf, that would not otherwise be published.  Look for discoveries concerning Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, and other silent stars as well.  I welcome your questions and suggestions, and invite you to step back in time with me to explore silent-era Hollywood as seen through the eyes of its greatest comedians.

John Bengtson – “the great detective of silent film locations” New York Times (01/04/13)

About – Long Version

I first read Rudi Blesh’s biography Keaton in junior high, and was immediately hooked by Buster’s magic and the romance of early film-making.  I grew up watching silent comedies on public television, and collecting 8mm prints of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy from Blackhawk Films.  I was fascinated by the world inhabited by the great silent-era comedians.  Although they walked beside real buildings, and drove on public streets, their world seemed as alien and remote as if from another planet – silent, colorless, beyond reach.

I knew this world was once real, but the only tangible sense I had of it was from this image in Blesh’s book.  A photo of Buster, his family, and friends, taken in 1920, looking proudly at the modest front office bungalow of the newly christened Buster Keaton Studio.

The photo was tantalizing.  I knew Buster walked up those front porch steps into his studio every day for eight years, but there was so little to see, so little explained.  Without any context, the photo was completely inaccessible.  It seemed there was only so much we would ever know about how Buster made his movies.

Things began to change in 1995, the centenary of Keaton’s birth.  Kino released Buster’s complete oeuvre on video for the first time, and later on, the Keaton appreciation society, the Damfinos, published an aerial photo of the Keaton Studio (bottom center, below).  Viewing that aerial photo was a thrill.  It provided the context missing from the Blesh photo, and allowed me to “peek” over the studio fence for the first time.

For some reason, I began to notice that certain bungalows and other landmarks from the aerial view began popping up in Buster’s films.  I also noticed that a chase sequence from Day Dreams (1922) was filmed in San Francisco, near where I used to live.  Armed with photographs of the movie taken off of my television set, I visited San Francisco and identified every Day Dreams location filmed there in just a couple of hours.  Encouraged, on my next visit to Los Angeles I spent an hour looking up business addresses at the public library, and found several more locations in an afternoon.

I never set out to be an author, but from that point on things began to snowball.  Clues discerned from one film allowed me to solve locations from another film.  I met people who were experts about vintage movie ranches or beach-side amusement parks.  Image archives began posting searchable historic Los Angeles photos online.  Increasing numbers of silent comedies were released on DVD.  Like the tiles of a mosaic, with each individual discovery a broader and more detailed view of silent-era Los Angeles began to emerge.

Now, more than fifteen years later, my series of books about the three great geniuses of silent comedy is complete.  We know now that the paths of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd frequently intersected, and yet they each had their individual favorite places to shoot.  We can appreciate how Keaton, and especially Lloyd, crafted elaborate chase sequences by cleverly editing shots filmed all across Southern California.  And we can savor the moments of everyday life captured in the background of their films.

Having lived with this material for so long, in my mind’s eye I can stroll around the Keaton Studio block, or from the Bradbury Mansion to the balustrade overlooking the Hill Street Tunnel, and picture every step of the way.  It is the closest thing to time travel I will likely ever experience.

My hope is that my books will instill a similar sense of time and place, so that readers can envision the landscapes of early Hollywood as well.  This blog supplements my books with tours, videos, and PowerPoint lectures that can’t be replicated in books, and new discoveries, and expanded coverage of the great silent clowns and their home turf, that would not otherwise be published.  Look also for discoveries concerning Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, and other silent stars.  I welcome your questions and suggestions, and invite you to step back in time with me to explore silent-era Hollywood as seen through the eyes of its greatest comedians.

John Bengtson – “the great detective of silent film locations” New York Times (01/04/13)

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23 lrJohn Bengtson is a business lawyer, film historian, and author.  His latest book, Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd, follows Silent Echoes about Buster Keaton, and Silent Traces about Charlie Chaplin, to complete his highly acclaimed trilogy about the giants of silent film comedy, hailed by the New York Times as a “Proustian collage of time and memory, biography and history, urban growth and artistic expression.”  Each book features a foreword by Academy Award winning film historian Kevin Brownlow.  Bengtson is a frequent speaker at events hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Turner Classic Movie Channel Festival, Film Forum in New York, the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, USC, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and has provided bonus programs for several Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd DVD/Blu-ray releases.

SFGate article John Bengtson,  archeologist of early cinema.

69 Responses to About

  1. silentsgirl says:

    I’m so thrilled that you have a blog where I can receive these tidbits from you on a regular basis. One of my favorite people writing about one of my favorite subjects; it’s good news to wake up to. If you’re ready, I’d like to share on SilentFilms at Yahoo, and on Facebook. It looks fantastic now and I think you’re “ready for your close-up,” but if you don’t feel comfortable having the blog publicized yet, I understand.

    • Hi Graceann

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m still figuring how all of this sharing and posting works, so I would greatly appreciate it if you care to spread the news.

      Cheers,
      John

  2. Robby says:

    Hi John,

    I just discovered your blog through a recent post on Curbed LA and I’m glad I found it. You left a comment a while back on my blog, Dear Old Hollywood, and mentioned your books. My wife has since picked up two of the books for me (Chaplin and Keaton) and I must say, they are fantastic! They are certainly the definitive on the subject.

    I enjoyed reading about how your interest was sparked into tracking down the locations. Once you find one location it can become addicting finding other film locations. I could spend hours going through screenshots, old photographs/postcards, and pounding the pavement. Keep up the excellent work! Now, I just need to pick up a copy of your Lloyd book :)

    Best,
    Robby

  3. Kevin says:

    Hello John,

    I was pleased to find your blog, having worn out my copy of Silent Echoes.

    With the centennial of Chaplin’s arrival in Edendale coming up, could we talk about a possible presentation here in Echo Park?

    Keep up the good work.

    Kevin Kuzma
    President
    Echo Park Historical Society
    Los Angeles

    • Hi Kevin

      Thank you for your interest. I would enjoy doing a Chaplin program, but I live in the San Francisco Bay area. I do travel occasionally to Los Angeles, and it might be possible to work something out with advance planning.

      Why don’t you contact me directly by email at John@SilentEchoes.net?

      Thanks,
      John

  4. tschill says:

    What a great blog concept. The only thing I miss so far is a RSS feed to stay updated. Or am I blind and didn’t find the RSS address on the site?

  5. tschill says:

    Nope, the RSS feed works fine in my feed reader.

  6. Jim Gilbert says:

    Hi John,

    As a long time silent film fan and someone who is very interested in Los Angeles history, I really enjoy your blog. To help get the word out about your work, I have added your site to my blogroll and your books to the history section of my online store. I think my readers will appreciate the care and depth with which you approach this fascinating subject.

    With regards to improvements to your site, I think it would be interesting to see the various locations you write about plotted on an online map. This would allow you to associate photos (past and present) with the plotted locations, as well as visually show where they are in relation to each other. You could also enable people to virtually “walk” down a street and compare what it looks like today with a scene in a film. Using applications such as Google Maps and Google Street View would allow you to do this.

    I look forward to learning more about two of my favorite subjects as you expand your site.

    Regards,
    Jim
    Curating Los Angeles
    http://www.CuratingLA.com

  7. Hey Jim – now it is working.

    Thanks for your suggestions. Will add them in a few days.

    Cheers,
    John

  8. Lisa Marr says:

    Dear John:

    What a terrific blog! Would love to have you introduce Buster Keaton’s College at LA City College in June as part of the 2011 Filmmobile Summer Screening Series, a free annual program of the Echo Park Film Center showing films outdoors at the locations where they were originally shot. In past years we’ve featured Safety Last downtown and Intolerance at the Von’s parking lot across from the Vista Theater… both with live musical accompaniment! The Filmmobile is an old Air Force bus that’s been converted into an eco-friendly (runs on vegetable oil!) cinema and film school on wheels. Please drop me a line for more details…

    best wishes,
    Lisa Marr
    Operations Director
    http://www.echoparkfilmcenter.org

  9. Hi Lisa – your center and festival sound very interesting. I live in the San Francisco area however, and so will not likely be able to participate. I would be glad to answer any questions you might have about the film.

    Best wishes,
    John

  10. Lisa Marr says:

    As soon as the schedule is complete, I’ll send it along…

    Thanks so much!
    Lisa

  11. Bruce Reznick says:

    I learned about your wonderful website via Mark Evanier’s blog. http://www.newsfromme.com/

    You asked whether any silent comedy stars went to college. I doubt it. College attendance was a much more class-oriented activity before WW2, and the well-to-do were never the winners in a slapstick contest. (When Bob Newhart was starting out in the early 60s, he told Buddy Hackett that he had an accounting degree, and Buddy replied “You mean you don’t have to do this?”)

  12. DHM says:

    Dear Mr. Bengtson:
    Your books are in my library and I’m glad to have discovered your blog, which is no less precise and excellent. I have one of my own on a lost corner of L.A., Berkeley Square. I’m wondering–have you ever run across any evidence of silent filming done on this street? Hal Roach was a resident (story to come on the blog: http://berkeleysquarelosangeles.blogspot.com/ ). Keep up the great work, and thanks.

  13. k says:

    john, well well done. it’s rare to do an internet search and find precisely what you’re looking for.
    as a bay area resident, i was excited by the pac heights u-turn location in particular. it’s always a case of driving through the same old places without having a clue as to what’s transpired there. next time i’m there, it will be with cam in hand, appreciation in tow.
    it is indeed fascinating and as robby touched on, addicting, to visit these locations. was in l.a. a week ago checking out cagney-related spots and wish i’d been aware that i was also driving past keaton’s old studio grounds- but, next time…and likely armed with echoes.

  14. Thank you K. There are written tours on my blog you can print out. You have quite a collection of thought-provoking fashion photos (is that correct?) on your blog.

    Cheers,
    John

  15. Dear John: I just happened on your blog through a Facebook connection. As a old film buff (and a HUGE Keaton fan from way back) I often delighted in the simple background of the scenes- so often actual, living places- and speculated as to how much (if anything!) still survived to the present. Houses, streets- all brand new at the time… while inhabited by the cinematic shadows of people long gone from our midst. Every discovery such as you have made is a connection to the past that needs to be treasured.

  16. Emily says:

    Hello there – do you know about the Buster location at 914 S. Alvarado?

    • Hi Emily – yes, that is Virginia Fox’s apartment in The Goat. It’s covered on page 63 of my book Silent Echoes. It was (is) the Weymouth Apartment building. The name was difficult to read on the laser disc, but razor sharp on the Blu-ray.
      Thanks, John

  17. Dear John: Have you ever approached survivors of the era for help in locating sites? Naturally, the only ones left are former child actors or the children of the actors of the time. But I am aware that Diana Serra Carey (Baby Peggy) is still around and is actually active in the movement for child actor protection. (Her own experience was one of exploitation, to say the least!) Mrs. Carey might be contacted through Paul Petersen’s “A Minor Consideration” organization.

  18. Hi Steve – thanks for your note. I met Dianna Carey recently, at her lecture and show at the San Francisco library, but she did not have any recollections of specific locations.

    I did meet Eleanor Keaton, and took her on a tour of places where Buster had filmed. They were all a revelation to her, as Buster did not talk about locations to her during their marriage. What was humorous is that she and Buster once lived in a similar bungalow just a stone’s throw from where Buster filmed a scene from Seven Chances, barely one block away, and even then he did not think to comment about it to her. I cover this on p. 161 of Silent Echoes.

  19. joseph ernst says:

    hi john … just wanted to say what a fantastic idea … i love the then and now imagery of the shots … reminds me of mike davis’ “city of quartz” book, which i read whilst in LA, and would try to retrack the locations he spoke about whilst out there … (have you read this book?) … we have just finished filming a documentary on an old turn of the century wooden hand cranked camera … it’s a vintage film about modern day london, done in the style of the old mitchell and kenyon films … i’ve posted some of the outtakes on facebook if you are interested: http://www.facebook.com/LondonersDoc
    although i must add that we only had 1 lens with our camera, so more often than not, the focus is on the people, and not their locations! … pretty interesting footage though …

    kind regards …

    joseph.

  20. Hi Joseph – thank you so much for writing. I have not read Davis’ book – it sounds interesting, but also from the Amazon reviews a bit depressing.

    Your London Outakes footage is fascinating. It’s disconcerting some how to see contemporary people and events appear as if the they were filmed 100 years ago. Nowadays movie editing software can make video appear as if it is distressed movie footage, but I assume all of the “artifacts” apparent in your footage (the individual overexposed frames, and slipping frames, etc.) were a result of the camera. I have posted your link on Nitrateville, a chat group for silent and early talkie film fans.

    Is your movie completed? Will you be presenting it soon?

    Thanks again for writing – cheers,
    John

    • joseph ernst says:

      hello john … yes, you are correct … all those flash frames are from the camera … it is very very hard to operate! … we used the heaviest tripod we could find, and it was still hard to keep her steady … film has now been edited, and then we do telecine, final score, etc … should be ready for january 2012 i hope … and then i hope to put it on the festival circuit in time for the summer … joseph.

      ps: city of quartz is kind of an architects bible to historical LA … what is/was where and why … interesting, and at times heavy, but you can skip the boring bits …

  21. Hello again Joseph – well, I was going to post this on Nitrateville, but zekas10 beat me to it! :)

  22. Subway says:

    My goodness, I think I just found the motherload. Should be working but decided to venture on the web for a few moments into one of favorite subjects (Silent Films) which included TCM which led me here. I will be back and hope to fully digest this site. What a great resources.

  23. Leo Mahal says:

    I am impressed with this web site, really I am a fan.

  24. Pingback: Mr. Keaton’s Neighborhood | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

  25. Kamal Prasad says:

    Hi John,

    Great job with this website, thank you!!

    Do you know of any tours that are conducted in LA of the locations mentioned here?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Kamal – I am not aware of any tour company that focuses on silent films. I do have several written tours posted here on my blog that you can download and take on your own.

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  27. John H says:

    hi John
    What a wonderful site.I recently viewed some old Lloyd films I taped in 2003 from TCM.In Hot Water when the family is about to go on a drive with the Butterfly 6 I noticed a house number 565 from where they departed.And across the street the view of the houses/front yards/steps is pretty clear.Has this street been identified as of yet? And also on Grandmas Boy,there is a chase scene on a straight open area road where Harold tried to lasso the villian,Has this area been identifed too? I can imagine it looks no where as it does today.
    Thanks
    John,in nc

    • Hi John – thank you for writing. I have been able to identify many scenes from Hot Water, although not yet the 565 shot. And yes, that open straight road from Grandma’s Boy was near the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City, as I explain in my Lloyd book Silent Visions.

      Perhaps your library has a copy of my Lloyd book. You can also go to Amazon.com, and use the “Look Inside” feature, to browse around, and see discoveries from those two films.

      Thanks for writing, John

  28. Trish says:

    Hi, John-I’m reading Silent Traces right now. Your meticulous research & remarkable eye for detail shows on every page. Was wondering if you’ll be attending the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Silent Film Gala at UCLA Royce Hall on 5/20? This year they are featuring Harold Lloyd’s “The Kid Brother” & “High & Dizzy”?! Would like to email offline about a project I’m working on, also. Thank you so much.

  29. Chris Bungo says:

    Hey John,
    I see you’re doing some Three Stooges work. Check out my latest “then and now” work on their 1936 film “False Alarms” – I discovered the fire hose scene was done at N. Larchmont and Melrose. See the comparisons here: Here’s a “then and now” look at the location where the fire hose scene was filmed for the Three Stooges 1936 film False Alarms.

    • Chris Bungo says:

      Ooops. Sorry for the duplicate text in the post… “copy and paste” gone berserk! :-)
      -Chris

    • Thanks Chris – your video is nicely done. I covered these locations in my Harold Lloyd book Silent Visions, at page 196, showing where Lloyd filmed scenes from For Heaven’s Sake on Melrose around the corner from where the Stooges filmed False Alarms. The same buildings appear in both movies, only looking north for the Stooges, and west for Lloyd. At page 181 of my Lloyd book you’ll see Larchmont scenes from the Stooges’ Hoi Paloi, and Pop Goes The Easel, that correspond to other For Heaven’s Sake scenes filmed on Larchmont.

      • Chris Bungo says:

        Ah… and here I thought I had found something on my own! And even worse – I’ve got your Lloyd book and must have forgotten that particular location discussion, though I do remember you pointing out the other Stooges locations further south on Larchmont. What’s interesting (and disappointing) is that those locations further south on Larchmont don’t have very many traces left today of what was captured on film in the 30s.

        Anyway… I’ve got another location that I believe I’ve “discovered” and I’ll be heading out to take some “now” pictures in the next week or two, so looking forward to sharing that one with you soon!

        Chris

  30. Pranesh says:

    This is such a great blog and a unique one as well. I’ve seen blogs with similar analysis with regards to Football where the last minute snaps leading to a goal is analysed. But this is just unique. I can see that your passion for old movies but how about some location based analysis to new movies as well. Not sure if you’d done that already, so going to dig deep in your blog..

  31. D.A.R.Y.L. says:

    I just stumbled across your blog and I love it, thanks so much for putting all this together!

    Do you have any plans to come out to NYC for any lectures or events, I would love to sit in on a few.

  32. Joanna says:

    Wonderful blog! I can’t stop reading. Greetings from Poland :)

  33. monika says:

    Hi John,
    I have found your blog, which I really like it. I enjoyed to read your articles.
    I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing your posts and ideas on Glipho? It’s a quite new social publishing platform, where you can connect to every social network accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, etc). Really easy to use it and communicate with your followers. In additional, you are able to import your posts too.
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    We are always delighted to get any feedback about the things which do or don’t work for you.
    I hope you will join to Glihpo community soon.
    All the best,
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  34. Neha Rane says:

    Hello

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  35. Robert Moulton says:

    John – Love the blog, just passing on the Los Angeles in the 1920′s video on the off chance you are not aware of it, I imagine you know all the locations already: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=yAUlD7-sIPM

  36. Fernando Martín Peña says:

    Dear Mr. Bengtson,
    As always, your work is amazing and inspirational.
    By the way, do you have any information about the availability of an alternate version of THE BLACKSMITH (probably French)? I have a 9.5mm. print of it and half of the first reel is completely different (also some scenes of the second reel). I think it may be of interest because there are like 5 minutes of outdoor footage than I’ve never seen in other prints, almost as if Keaton wanted to open the film up, feeling it a bit claustrophobic as it was. The final marriage proposal makes more sense with that footage.
    Very best,
    Fernando Martín Peña

    • Hi Fernando – thank you so much for your kind words. I am afraid I do not know anything about archives or missing footage – everything I use comes from commercial DVDs and Blu-rays. Have you seen the Blu-ray release of The Blacksmith? It has a few alternate shots as a bonus feature. I have not posted it yet, but there are many scenes from The Blacksmith filmed on the vacant fields due south of the Hollywood Metropolitan Studios on Santa Monica Blvd. and Las Palmas (the studio Harold Lloyd rented for his independent feature films). Here is a photo of the studio. http://silentlocations.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/a31.jpg

    • Hello again – is there some way to capture some frames of the exterior scenes, and post them so I can see them? Here is the back of the studio from The Blacksmith http://flic.kr/p/eyYGMG

  37. Yes, I’ve seen the Kino edition and the alternate scenes correspond to the ending of the 9.5mm version, but the rest seems to be unavailable. I’ll do my best to capture some of the rare shots. I really believe that this version deserves restoration because it is truly a different film.

  38. Hello, Mr. Bengtson,
    I have some captures of the rare BLACKSMITH footage for you to se. Where do I send them?

  39. Pingback: Film historian discovers unseen footage of Buster Keaton's The Blacksmith - newspapertimes

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  44. Chris Bungo says:

    Hi John,

    Going through my emails from the past week and one of them asked if we were having problems seeing any of the images. I can report “no problems” over here!

    Chris

  45. Pingback: John Bengston Presents at Cinecon 49 and Explores Silent Film Locations — Curating Los Angeles

  46. jaguar says:

    Hope you don’t mind I am bookmarking your
    site. Can’t wait to pop back.

  47. Jaki San says:

    Dear Mr. Bengston…

    Your work is simply outstanding to say the least.

    My wife and I own all 3 of your books and we’re both looking forward to the 4th one… and being that we’re both HUGE Hal Roach fans it is our sincere hope that your 4th book be titled “SILENT LAUGHS; Discovering Early Hollywood Through The Lens Of The Hal Roach Studios” … I would imagine that there would be quite a bit of material there to cover from both the film libraries of the Little Rascals and Laurel & Hardy… So how about it Mr. Bengston? Could we expect such an offering from you in the near future?

    By the way… my wife has a nagging question she’s been dying to ask you… in regards to the film “THE THREE AMIGOS” … in the scene where the 3 amigos are standing in the street in their long underware at the moment the telegram from the “In Famous” El Guapo arrives via bicycle courier, would you happen to know what street intersection that was in the background??

    Best 2014 Wishes and we hope that SILENT LAUGHS will be in works in the very near future.

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