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Glimpsing Keaton-Era Hollywood

March 22, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A fine madness and a measure of genius are at work in the pages of "Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton" by John Bengtson (Santa Monica Press, $24.95, 232 pages). Out of raw materials extracted from silent movies and photographic archives, Bengtson conjures up a vision of Southern California in its most charming and colorful era.

The result is a strange but utterly winning book that can be used and enjoyed as a filmography of Buster Keaton, a work of architectural history, urban geography and popular culture, and a kind of scavenger hunt that invites us to search out the relics and artifacts of old Hollywood.

Bengtson's approach is simple in concept but brilliant in execution. First, he studied the movies of Buster Keaton, virtually frame by frame, and then he matched up the locations used by Keaton with "then and now" photographs of the same sites.

To put his discoveries in context, he includes an array of site plans, panoramic maps, aerial shots and Hollywood memorabilia. The result is something greater than the sum of its parts--a construct of history and memory that shows us the deeply familiar landscape of Los Angeles from a wholly new and different point of view.

At moments, to be sure, "Silent Echoes" shimmers with a certain obsessive quality that reminds me of the guy in the Frosted Flakes commercial who shows off his collection of cereal that looks like dead presidents. Bengtson, for example, displays a single frame from a Keaton film titled "One Week," in which Keaton is a newlywed struggling to assemble a build-it-yourself house, and Bengtson circles a dim but distinctive roof that can be spotted in the background of the shot. Then he matches up the movie frame with an aerial photograph of a neighborhood in Hollywood where, he argues, the same roof can be identified as part of the old Metro Studio.

"By cross-matching numerous features from studio stills, movie frames, the 1921 aerial photo and the 1919 Sanborn maps," Bengtson patiently explains, "I am confident the house set was situated on the vacant Metro lot fronted by Cahuenga, Willoughby, Lillian and Waring, two blocks due south of the Keaton Studio."

You do not have to be a Buster Keaton fan to appreciate "Silent Echoes," although it certainly helps. Bengtson himself is an authentic Keaton expert who contributes a column to the newsletter of the Damfinos, the international society of Keaton fans. And, clearly, he is the kind of true believer who thrills at the discovery of some long-lost street corner in Hollywood where Keaton once performed a stunt or a sight gag. "Keaton's movies not only tell a story," he rhapsodizes, "they also preserve a real time and place, recording history itself, before freeways and strip malls smothered Hollywood's dusty orchards and lazy streets."

Indeed, I was able to appreciate Bengtson's ardor for Buster Keaton because, only recently and purely by accident, I happened upon a documentary by Kevin Brownlow that reveals Keaton as someone much more impressive than the sad-faced character actor who was reduced to cameo roles in the '50s and '60s. Keaton, in his prime, was strong and courageous, dark and handsome, an innovator and even a visionary of early Hollywood. His shot of himself performing as nine minstrels in unison in "The Playhouse," for example, is singled out by Bengtson as "the most sophisticated special effect of the entire silent film era."

And Brownlow, as it happens, contributes a brief foreword to "Silent Echoes" in which he praises Bengtson's "detective's nose and historian's tenacity," both of which allow us to "discover scores of locations that we had assumed had been flattened."

Bengtson himself takes special delight in showing us old locations that are still standing, and his book can be used to conduct a self-guided tour of such sites from Newhall to Newport Beach. But "Silent Echoes" also reminds us of much that has been lost forever--the amusement park on the Abbott Kinney Pier in Venice that burned down in 1920, for example, and the cathedral-like county courthouse that once stood at what is now the corner of Temple and Spring streets in downtown Los Angeles before it was reduced to rubble in 1932.

Even for the reader who cares not at all about Buster Keaton, "Silent Echoes" still exerts a strong and sometimes almost hypnotic allure of its own. Bengtson carries us back and forth in time, showing us the storefronts and back alleys of Southern California as they were preserved in the silent films, and then revealing what remains of them in real life.

"Los Angeles is the most photographed town in the world," Brownlow reminds us in his foreword--and precisely because these images have been so deeply imprinted on our imaginations by the movies, reading Bengtson's book is like recalling a dimly remembered dream, sometimes delightful and sometimes disturbing, but always rich in meaning.

West Words looks at books related to California and the West. It runs every other Wednesday.

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