"'Echoes' of Buster: East Bay Author Meticulously
Tracks Down Original Locations for Keaton Movies"


by Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle, 17 January 2000

There is something to be said for finding the location of a classic film scene and just standing there. It's an experience that lifts the mind out of the present — where, in a city, it tends to get stuck — and into a zone where past and present mingle and ghosts can almost be seen.

John Bengtson knows this feeling well. An East Bay business lawyer, he recently turned an unusual hobby into a unique film book. After spending four years finding and photographing the spots where Buster Keaton shot his short films and features, he has written "Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton" ($24.95; Santa Monica Press). 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.

Bengtson says that the value of "Silent Echoes" is in showing Keaton's process. "If you're a Keaton fan, it opens a whole universe of understanding of how he made his films. He would go across the street to film one gag and then travel 60 miles to shoot another."

Chronicle Photo — Michael Macor
Buster Keaton, director and star of silent films, has been an obsession of author John Bengtson's for 25 years.


There is something else. Because he worked on location, unlike Chaplin, who preferred the studio, Keaton "inadvertently created this real record of Hollywood and San Francisco and Sacramento," says Bengtson. "It's compelling that there's a secondary story there, and to be able to reach into that history gives us a greater connection to our past."

It's that "secondary story" that makes a reader keep dipping into Bengtson's book. 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.

Bengtson says he has been a Keaton fan for years. "I used to collect Super 8 films of him. Then, 25 years ago, they ran a 10-week Keaton series at the UC (theater) in Berkeley. I went every week. That got me completely hooked."

Chronicle Photo — Courtesy of Douris Corporation


SCENE OF THE CHASE

He didn't get a chance to see those films again, however, until 1995, when Kino released the complete Keaton collection on video. "I was watching the short 'Daydreams,' which has an elaborate chase scene in North Beach. Just for fun, I took some photos of the TV screen and drove to San Francisco. The city is so small, you can literally walk around and look at the hill profile and find the locations."

Among those he found was for the scene in which Keaton trips up a group of cops at the intersection of Washington and Powell. He also found the location of the beginning of a chase at Lombard and Taylor, looking west — a view that today takes in the famous "crookedest street in the world." "Daydreams," however, was made in 1922, several months before the hairpin turns were constructed.

Soon Bengtson was traveling to Los Angeles for three- and four-day stretches to look at old photographs in libraries and examine old fire insurance maps that showed the layout of Hollywood. Old "business directories" were also helpful. In the 1910s and '20s they weren't called "phone books" because many businesses did not have phones.

Chronicle Photo — Michael Macor
Author John Bengston at Powell and Washington streets, once used as a location for Buster Keaton's "Daydreams." The East Bay author has tracked down locations for all of Keaton's films and included them in his book, "Silent Echoes."


Any storefront or building facades discernible within the frame were clues. In "Seven Chances" (1925) [remade as "The Bachelor" (1999)], Keaton is chased by a swarm of would-be brides past the University of Southern California College of Dentistry, which, at the time, was at 635 Exposition Blvd.

It took Bengtson about two years to realize that his research was not just a hobby but a serious study. In the summer of 1997, he took his scrapbook of photos to a Keaton convention, where he showed them to Leonard Maltin, who said they were "mind-boggling."

Bengtson also contacted the dean of film historians, Kevin Brownlow, who wrote the introduction to "Silent Echoes" before Bengtson even had a publisher.

Brownlow was particularly impressed that Bengtson had found the location for the scene in "One Week" (1920) in which Keaton's house is demolished by a train. He found it by examining maps of train tracks and by going to all six of the former sites of C. Ganahl Lumber Co., whose sign is seen in the film.

UNUSUAL DEDICATION

Bengtson is aware that not everyone would go to such lengths.

"People might get the sense of a kook," he admits. In fact, he says his total immersion in the project was caused, at least to a degree, by an upheaval in his personal life. With the breakup of his marriage, Bengtson became "a suddenly single dad. Some people do crossword puzzles. Some people veg out in front of the TV. I found that this process — of creating a mystery and solving it — kept my mind focused and occupied."

Today, Bengtson is happily remarried, but he maintains his passion for his unique hobby. He hopes someday to write a similar book about silent comedian Harold Lloyd and an anthology about all the silent clowns, including Keaton.

"Everybody has favorite movies," says Bengtson, "and it's hard to find a way to connect with them. With most films the sets were struck down long ago. But with Keaton's films, you can turn around and you're right there. And that's exciting."

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle



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