Silent sites unseen: interview with John Bengtson

silentechoes-cover.jpgThere ought to be a complicated, untranslatable German word for the feeling one gets upon recognizing one's everyday landscape in the background of old films or television shows. Is it a twinge of recognition or a thrilling ache?

Let's just call this feeling wiedererkennungsgänsehaut. All I know is that the emotion makes me feel immortal.

Whatever we call it, every Californian knows this feeling -- or should -- since on-location filming is a fact of life in this area.

John Bengtson, an author, film historian and attorney based in the Bay Area, is one of the rare people who acted upon his sense of wiedererkennungsgänsehaut after recognizing a San Francisco location in a Buster Keaton film, "Day Dreams" (1922).

Now, John tracks down the actual historical settings preserved in the background of silent film classics. He has published his discoveries in a series of books: Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton; Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin; and Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd.

John is coming to Los Angeles this Saturday in order to present a lecture called "Silent Footsteps" at the Central Library on Saturday, September 15 at 2 PM.

Using local archive and map resources, including photos from the library's photo collection, he will take attendees on a virtual tour of the lost neighborhoods of Bunker Hill, Court Hill, as well as the downtown Los Angeles Historic Core, as documented in the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.

John agreed to answer a few questions below but will have more to say about the photo collection of the LAPL this Saturday:

What location have you yet to identify? What's left on your 'get' list?

My top "lost" location is the apartment building Harold Lloyd's roommate climbs in order to escape the police at the beginning of "Safety Last!" (1923). Watching his "human fly" friend scale the building gives Harold the idea to use his friend's climbing skills for a publicity stunt, and sets the entire movie in play. There is a decent chance the building is still standing.

What makes it my top location is that there are so many clues visible during the scene that I "ought" to be able to figure it out, but can't. It stands on a street facing a trolley line, beside a narrow alley, and adjacent to a building that has "California Garage" painted on the side.

I will be showing several locations from "Safety Last!" during my talk.

What's the best film to see that really highlights a location in Los Angeles?

During Harold Lloyd's 1926 feature comedy "For Heaven's Sake," Harold and a busload of drunken groomsmen drive up and down Rampart Boulevard between 6th Street and 3rd Street. These blocks are lined with vintage apartments all built during 1922-1924. Nearly every building on the west side of the street appears at some point during the movie, and nearly every original building is still standing. So this is a particularly easy street to explore for location shots.

What is your favorite silent movie with cleverly edited sequences that show off a location?

My favorite film for vintage Los Angeles locations is Buster Keaton's most famous short film "Cops" (1922), the film that concludes with Buster being chased by hundreds of angry policemen. I have been able to track down nearly every shot from the film, including several scenes filmed in Skid Row, or near the Plaza de Los Angeles, and others besides stately Civic Center buildings and along streets that no longer exist. The final chase consists of dozens of short scenes filmed literally all across Los Angeles, from Pasadena to Exposition Park, and from Santee Alley to Hollywood, as well as scenes filmed at both the Metro Studio backlot in Hollywood, and the separate Goldwyn Studio backlot in Culver City, before the two studios joined to become part of M-G-M in 1924.

I will be showing a few new discoveries from "Cops" during my talk.

I live in Echo Park and rented a locker in the Public Storage on Glendale Blvd, former site of the Keystone Studio /Mack Sennett Studios — can you suggest any films that show that location? Any plans to cover the Keystone Cops locations?

Paul Gierucki and Brittany Valente of Cinemuseum have restored 100 early Mack Sennett comedies. Many are being shown Thursday nights this month on Turner Classic Movies, and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD later this year. I have not been able to see many Keystone films up until now, and so I look forward to having the chance to catch up. There will certainly be a wealth of new material to study for early locations. In the meantime, here is a post that shows that Charlie Chaplin filmed his very first scene, ever, in front of what is now a Jack-In-The-Box restaurant!

People have trouble watching silent films because we are no longer used to their pacing. Any suggestions on how to watch a silent film?

Watching a silent movie requires a little more effort and concentration. You can't glance away from the screen to answer a text, or you might miss something. But if you can force yourself to pay attention, and to avoid other distractions, you will find yourself being drawn into the film. Your mind has to supply the sound and nature of the characters' voices. Your imagination has to fill in the missing words. If you give in to the process, if you unconsciously start to fill in the blanks, you will find yourself becoming an active participant in the viewing experience. This helps to explain, in part, why silent films have such an emotional appeal. When they are successful, the viewer plays an essential role in the process.

John Bengtson's "Silent Footsteps" lecture
Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm
Taper Auditorium, Central Library

More by Adrienne Crew:
Previous blog post: Theo Ehret, 1920-2012
Next blog post: LA-centric text-speak
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed