Keaton’s “What No Beer?” Barrel Avalanche

Buster chased by barrels in What No Beer?

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. (Gif file courtesy of Danny Reid’s fascinating early cinema site Pre-code.comWhat No Beer? review).

Looking west up Court Street – the steep hill is only one block long.

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.

Looking south down Mountain View, as Buster’s beer truck prepares to turn left onto Court Street. The corner lot, vacant at the time, is covered by a billboard advertising MGM’s Grand Hotel. The early morning sun casts the shadow of the grocery store set in front of the truck.

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.

Turning the corner from Mountain View onto Court Street. The ovals match the back windows of a vintage apartment facing Alvarado Street.

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.

The truck struggles past 2027 Court Street, with the side of 308 N. Mountain View visible at back.

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.

Click to enlarge – looking east down Court Street – the grocery store was a set, not part of a “T” intersection. Notice the Grand Hotel billboard to the right.

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.

Buster runs past 2027 Court Street.

Looking southeast towards Mountain View, one bungalow at back remains.

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.

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8 Responses to Keaton’s “What No Beer?” Barrel Avalanche

  1. Bob Borgen says:

    Another magnificent deconstruction — thanks!

  2. Darren Lamb says:

    Another wonderfully informative posting. Thank you John, for all your fascinating work.
    Shocking what they did with their silent films. But no different I guess from the TV companies or record labels, who also didn’t think they were making lasting art in their mediums early days.

  3. Greg LaRiviere Palm Springs, CA. says:

    Absolutely amazing work John!
    I always wonder if the people living in these (still standing) homes are ever aware of their link to this silver screen past?
    The (non) T intersection discovery is a stroke of genius to uncover. Thank you for another seemingly impossible find.

  4. rbann@aol.com says:

    Wonderful. Everyone runs this film down, but I relish it for reasons that would be lost on a general audience. I feel the same way about AIR RAID WARDENS, which everyone trashes. Both films play out as though watching a train wreck. They fascinate me and I have long owned 16mm prints of both.

    From what I know about Buster Keaton, his response to this e-mail might well echo the kind of thing Hal Roach would say (because I used to hear him say it!): “Why is this of interest to you? Why would anyone care to know this information?”

  5. Tim Day says:

    Is this the same location where the Stooges “Three Little Beers” was shot, when they borrowed that gag?

  6. Chris says:

    Are you kidding me?!? I just posted the question of where this scene was shot on getsatisfaction.com/imdb and pre-code.com a few days ago after also watching the film recently on TCM – I thought of you John, but didn’t ask. Now I find this in my inbox, what a coincidence! I will answer my own question on those websites, and plug yours. Great work John and Paul!

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