As Jim Kline writes in The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer had already drafted Keaton’s termination letter by the time filming of What No Beer? completed in January 1933. For better or worse, this movie marks the pinnacle of Keaton’s success, who would never again appear as an A list star in a major Hollywood production.
Although Kline writes What No Beer? was a box-office smash, setting attendance records at New York’s Capitol Theater, Keaton’s unexcused absences during the production, including one where he flew to Mexico and returned home married to his sobriety nurse Mae Scribbens, sealed his fate with the studio boss.
While much has been written about Keaton’s loss of control working for MGM, What No Beer? contains a pure, elaborately staged “Keatonesque” moment, when Buster struggles with a truck load of beer barrels on a steep hill, recalling the avalanche scenes from his silent feature Seven Chances (1925). The costly scene included a full grocery store set, constructed at the bottom of the hill, so a car could smash into it punctuating the sequence finale.
It’s wonderful Keaton was permitted to sneak in one last grand cinematic moment before he would begin facing years of adversity – it truly feels like an homage to his prior work. Whatever his state of mind was back then, he must have relished the planning, stunt-work, and camera angles required to pull off this complicated scene. Yet with the hindsight that comes from knowing his life story, the visual metaphor of Buster skidding downhill chased by barrels of booze is almost too painful to watch.
As a locations buff, I’ve been intrigued with this scene ever since I first saw it featured in Kevin Brownlow’s 1987 Keaton documentary A Hard Act to Follow. I knew it had to have been filmed somewhere, but it didn’t seem possible it could ever be found. When TCM broadcast it recently, I marveled at the clear, beautiful print, and noticed one clue during the sequence. As Buster’s truck turns the corner uphill, a vertical street sign reading “2000 BLK” appears for a moment at the far right edge of the screen.
Studying all of the shots, the side streets, and the angles of the sun, I mapped out my sense of how the setting was configured, and determined it was likely offset from a true north-south orientation. While I had long assumed the street was some type of “T” intersection, because the print was so clear I could see that the grocery store was actually a set built in the middle of the street. As I often do when stuck for an idea, I emailed my friend Paul Ayers, who has found many significant Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd locations. He replied, correctly, that from the age of the buildings and the layout of the hill, he sensed the scene was likely staged somewhere east of Vermont Avenue and north of Venice Boulevard.
By pure coincidence I had just stumbled upon the topographical option with Google Maps, allowing you to see hills instead of featureless streets. With this function turned on I could clearly see candidate hills in the region Paul suggested. I noticed one spot where the streets matched my sense of how Buster’s shot was configured, and without even using the “2000 BLK” clue it proved to be the correct spot – the intersection of N. Mountain View Avenue and the 2000 block of Court Street. (Note: the beginning of Court Street, above the Hill Street tunnel, is where the Bradbury Mansion once stood – it was where Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach began their careers, and where Lloyd filmed many early stunt climbing scenes above the tunnel). Having wondered about this scene for 30 years, it was very gratifying to finally see it “in person,” still recognizable, and with so many original buildings still in place.
Inexplicably, the film’s celebratory conclusion showing folks returning to work after the repeal of Prohibition includes office scenes cannibalized from the classic King Vidor drama The Crowd (1928) (considered by Kevin Brownlow to be America’s finest silent film), including this iconic overhead shot of endless rows of office workers at their desks. By then silent films were considered so obsolete that their only apparent value was as a cheap source of stock footage. These repurposed scenes were not returned to the original master, so that decades later when Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions restored The Crowd they had to replace the missing footage using elements from a complete 16mm print Eastman House had made for King Vidor. Other New York scenes from The Crowd must have been used elsewhere, as they too are missing except in the 16mm print. Brief office scenes from The Crowd also appear in the previous MGM Keaton vehicle Speak Easily (1932).
What No Beer? © 1933 Turner Entertainment Co. Color images (C) 2017 Google.
Google Street View of Mountain View Avenue and Court Street.