Each month, the CMBA profiles one of its members and their classic movie blog. This month, we’re featuring John, who writes at Silent Locations/Chaplin-Keaton-LloydFilm Locations.
CMBA: What do you find most intriguing about silent film locations, which you showcase in your blog?
Silent Locations/Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Film Locations: Movies inspire, inform, and entertain. But they’re also time machines, a window into the past. What fashions did people wear in the 1930s? What cars did they drive in the 1950s? Just watch a classic film.
With time, each movie becomes its own documentary, reflecting the era and culture in which it was made. Silent movies evoke this time travel even more profoundly. Unburdened by film permits and truckloads of sound equipment, the early filmmakers were free to film wherever they wished, capturing real-life settings and events now a century or more old. Los Angeles in particular would become the most photographed city in the world.
Each location tells a story. But collectively, as with the tiles of a mosaic, patterns and stories emerge, revealing long-forgotten interconnections, and providing a narrative view of filmmaking in Los Angeles from an entirely new perspective, as captured in the background of early film. For example, we now know Buster Keaton filmed scenes a block from the Chaplin Studio, and across the street from the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio. Did he stop to visit? Perhaps. But knowing this context, knowing Buster was fully aware of his proximity when filming, allows us true and previously unknown insight into his private thoughts. Not by reading often unreliable newspaper accounts, but by believing our own eyes. With each location, with each connection, this lost world becomes clearer and more immersive.
CMBA: Is there a classic film that you find yourself watching again and again?
Silent Locations/Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Film Locations: Buster Keaton’s short film Cops (1922) remains my all-time favorite repeat-viewing film. The movie is remarkable for so many reasons. First, it features Buster’s famous stunt where he runs from an alley pursued by a mob of angry police officers and escapes by grabbing a passing car one-handed, flying out of frame. I later discovered Charlie Chaplin filmed scenes from The Kid (1921), and Harold Lloyd filmed scenes from Safety Last! (1923) at the same alley. Each landmark film has been inducted into the Library of Congress (LOC) National Film Registry, and Hollywood Heritage has now honored the site, the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley, with a bronze plaque.
Next, Cops is Buster’s only self-produced film to be filmed entirely outdoors, at exterior locations, without a single studio interior scene. The single filming stage at Buster’s small studio, originally open to the air, was finally enclosed during the time Cops was being made. So perhaps by necessity, or by inspiration, Cops contains no studio interior scenes, allowing the studio carpenters free rein to do their work.
Last, except for the final scene where Buster locks all the cops inside their own police station, only to deliver himself into their clutches when Virginia Fox rejects him (likely filmed at the Metro lot), I have identified EVERY scene in the movie. Buster filmed all across Hollywood, in Pasadena, downtown, at the University of Southern California (USC), and at four different studio backlots. The planning, logistics, and work Buster undertook staging these complicated scenes across Los Angeles is nearly beyond belief, and yet it all unfolds seamlessly onscreen.
Cops is also a fascinating time capsule. Buster’s favorite shooting spot, near the corner of Alameda and Ducommun, appears in more than a dozen shots from Cops and The Goat. This was also where D. W. Griffith had earlier filmed “modern” scenes for Intolerance, and where Chaplin filmed the rooftop chase from The Kid. Demolished around 1923, no trace of this remarkable corner exists, not even in photo archives. Instead, our only memory of this cinematic heritage site appears in the background of silent movies.
CMBA: What is most rewarding about blogging for you?
Silent Locations/Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Film Locations: I love reading reviews and posts about classic films that deepen and enrich our understanding and enjoyment of the films. Such essays are subjective, that’s the point, to share another person’s insights and analysis. In turn, what I find most rewarding, both with my books and now with my blog, is that my content is almost entirely objective, presenting newly discovered facts and history hiding in plain sight in the background. My goal is to promote such “new” history and information until it becomes widely known among classic film fans.
I first met Leonard Maltin twenty-six years ago when I shared with him some initial Keaton discoveries. At the time, he wrote, “I was stunned to learn that one of my all-time favorite gags—in which Buster runs through an alley and casually grabs a handle on a passing car that enables him to fly out of frame—was shot on Cahuenga Boulevard at a spot I pass several times a week!”
During the ensuing quarter century, by sharing the alley with other fans and historians, first with my books, then on my blog, and now by also creating new media such as YouTube videos, thousands of people around the world now know about the alley, now recognized with an honorary plaque. The hidden history of this once anonymous alley has finally taken hold. Uncovering new bits of history, previously unknown connections between different actors and films, and sharing this visual history so that it may become better known, is intensely gratifying and what I find most rewarding.
CMBA: What makes a film a “classic” in your opinion? Why should people care about “old” black-and-white films? What classic films do you recommend to people who may not have seen many older films?Silent Locations/Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Film Locations: Regarding what makes a film classic and why we should care about and recommend older films, I’ll leave these answers in more capable hands. Suffice it to say, when something is great, it’s great and will always be great. These films capture styles, eras, storytelling, and star power that we’ll never see again but can revisit whenever we want. Everyone loves pizza, while a century ago maybe hot dogs were more popular. But why limit yourself? Why deny yourself either choice?