Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields in Astoria

Click to enlarge – Buster Keaton filmed The Chemist and W.C. Fields filmed Running Wild beside the same apartment on the SE corner of 35th Ave. and 35th St. The Astoria studios where they both worked stands on the opposite NE corner.

Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields filmed alongside the same Astoria apartment building, nine years apart. Who knew? While working on a post connecting Fields’ It’s The Old Army Game with Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928) and Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928) (all filmed at 5th Ave. and 57th St. in New York), I was reminded that Keaton had later filmed a few short comedies for Educational in Astoria. I hadn’t seen them for years, and nearly fell out of my chair during The Chemist (1936), as it was clear Keaton filmed beside the same apartment appearing with W.C. Fields in Running Wild (1927) (see my detailed post about Fields filming in Astoria HERE). The apartment still stands at the SW corner of 35th Ave. and 35th St. in Astoria – opposite from the studio on the NE corner. Buster was already familiar with Astoria, as his prior Educational short Blue Blazes was also filmed in Queens, mostly along 34th Ave. north of the studio (see my detailed post HERE).

Buster plays an erstwhile chemist, who early in the film tries his love-potion on Marlyn Stuart. She’s parked beside the 35-10 35th St. entrance to the __ Gardens apartment, around the corner from the same apartment depicted from the side, above.

The apartment is one of four identical buildings that fill up the north end of the block along 35th Ave. between 34th and 35th Streets. Keaton’s unit on the SW corner of 35th St., with its adjoining twin further south, both appear above as Keaton tempts Marlyn with his love potion.

Marlyn’s boyfriend objects to the experiment, dragging Buster from the car. Looking north up 35th St. we see the studio laboratory building (box) on the NW corner of 35th Ave. up the street from the small box marking the general spot of Buster’s car. The main shooting stage (1) stands just off camera to the right. Note the barbershop pole.

Later in the film, Buster develops a powdered compound that explodes on contact with water. When the bad guys accidentally coat themselves with the powder, Buster rounds them north up the street with a threatening seltzer bottle. The same apartment awning during Marlyn’s scene appears behind them. To the right, Fields drives west along 35th Ave. towards the same corner in Running Wild, with matching barber shop poles, and corner signs for the Studio Pharmacy.

Armed with his seltzer bottle, Buster leads the bad guys west along 35th Ave. from the corner of 35th St., as first shown at the top of this post. Directly above, pausing for a moment between the two apartment blocks, the group realizes it is about to rain and dash further west along the street towards the jail house. The sepia movie frame, from Fields’ Running Wild, also looks west along 35th Ave. from the corner of 35th St.

Buster and Bill face each other, nine years apart.

The Chemist marks a reunion of sorts – the first time in 11 years, since portraying “Friendless” in Go West (1925), that Buster’s character wears his trademark flat hat. (As a joke a store clerk briefly slips the hat on Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), but that was decidedly not his character’s hat.)

The Chemist and Keaton’s 15 other short films made for Educational (1934-1937) are available in the “Lost Keaton” set from Kino Lorber.

Below, looking SW at the Astoria corner where Bill and Buster filmed. The corner of the studio stands directly opposite, behind.

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Buster Keaton’s Kennel on the MGM lot

Click to enlarge – 1932 – looking SE along Washington Blvd. towards the back of Keaton’s Kennel (box) on the MGM lot. The “New York” set appearing in The Cameraman (1928) appears to the far right.

Keaton at the MGM gate – Free and Easy (1930)

As one of MGM’s biggest stars, Buster Keaton once had a private bungalow dressing room on the studio lot, jokingly dubbed “Keaton’s Kennel.” A reader correctly wrote long ago that the Kennel stood along the north side of the lot, but the precise location remained a mystery. So when noted biographer James Curtis (who’s busy now working on Keaton) asked me to look into the Kennel, I eagerly jumped in. As we’ll see, part of the challenge is that Keaton himself conflated facts and descriptions of the place.

To begin, what did the Kennel look like? These publicity photos of Buster with his sons Bobby and Jimmy show the Kennel was quite narrow, with only a double window and a single door facing a covered porch, with a sidewalk path to the right, leading to the front steps, and a large building looming very close on the left side. At right, an inside view with grandpa Joe Keaton, taken the same day (notice the matching clothes).

View SE showing the 4 too wide bungalows (*) on Grant Ave. Steven Bingen.

Keaton writes at page 214 of My Wonderful World of Slapstick that his bungalow was located where the Irving Thalberg Memorial Building now stands, and that it was named the “Kennel” because Keaton’s 170 pound St. Bernard dog Elmer was a fixture sunning himself on the front porch. But as shown in vintage aerial views and the Sanborn fire insurance maps, the bungalows along what was then Grant Ave. (later replaced by the Thalberg Building) were more than twice as wide as the Kennel.

View NW showing the 4 too wide bungalows (*) on Grant Ave. HollywoodPhotographs.com

Keaton joined MGM in 1928, yet the Kennel does not appear on the 1929 Sanborn fire insurance map, nor in early 1930 aerial photographs of the studio. So perhaps it was built late in 1930. The Kennel photo at right, taken during the same publicity photo session as the other shots (notice the matching clothes), shows Buster and his sons hanging up to dry the distinctive pajama costume Keaton wore during Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath, released February 28, 1931, suggesting the Kennel was built prior to that date. Other accounts explain that Keaton began his MGM tenure renting a bungalow near, but off-site from, the MGM campus, infuriating studio head Louis B. Mayer, as Keaton was the only star to rent space off of the lot. Since Keaton worked at MGM for more than two years before the Kennel was built, the likely scenario is that Keaton indeed first began renting a place off campus on Grant Ave., as he remembers in his book, and then later moved on campus once the Kennel was built. For some reason Keaton conflates the Grant Ave. bungalow and the MGM Kennel in his account.

So where was the Kennel? At left, it stands in the center of this 1934 aerial view looking north. Notice how it is long and skinny, with a sidewalk path along the right to the front porch. The broad view above shows it stood along Washington Blvd. directly across from the terminus of Motor Ave, immediately to the right of Rehearsal Hall A (A). Further east of the Kennel stood the Short Subject Department (B), originally John Gilbert’s Spanish bungalow, the First Aid Department (C), the Little Red Schoolhouse (D), and more dressing rooms (E), all as reported by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan in their wonderful book M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. The red arrow above points east along the “New York” backlot appearing in The Cameraman and The Sidewalks of New York (1931).

Click to enlarge – view SE – the Kennel (box) in relation to a scene from The Cameraman.

As shown here, the Kennel stood just yards to the east of the “New York” backlot set where Keaton filmed The Cameraman in 1928 (before the Kennel was built), and later scenes for The Sidewalks of New York in 1931 (after the Kennel was built). Given the proximity, I like to imagine Keaton walking from the Kennel to film his 1931 scenes on the “New York” backlot.

Above, three views looking east along the “New York” backlot, The Cameraman, upper left, The Sidewalks of New York, lower left, and a matching 1933 aerial view.

Keaton was abruptly fired early in 1933, following completion of What No Beer? (Keaton staged the beer barrel avalanche from that film on Court Street – read about it HERE.) The Kennel remained long enough following Keaton’s departure in 1933 to appear in a 1934 aerial view, but a later aerial view shows it was demolished by 1947.

Below, the MGM gate today, where Keaton stood (see top of post) during Free and Easy.

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Buster Keaton’s Blue Blazes in Astoria

While working on posts covering W.C. Fields filming It’s The Old Army Game (1926) and Running Wild (1927) at the Paramount Astoria Studios on 35th Avenue and 35th Street, I remembered Keaton had made a few short comedies for Educational in Astoria in 1936.

I hadn’t seen these films for many years, and with the image quality available at the time, never gave them much thought for study. I did note back then that the firehouse appearing in Blue Blazes (1936) was still standing at 37-22 29th St. (Museum of the Moving Image). But once I checked out Kino Lorber’s “Lost Keaton” Blu-ray release of Keaton’s 16 Educational shorts, I was excited to see so many Astoria locales and looked deeper.

As we’ll see, Keaton filmed three sequences from Blue Blazes on 34th Ave. that runs along the north end of the Astoria Studio. When Paramount closed the plant down it became available for independent productions during the 1930s such as Keaton’s shorts for Educational. At the start of WWII the US Army bought the studio, where it became the Signal Corps Photographic Center, and later the Army Pictorial Center, covering war efforts and producing training films. This 1955 aerial view looking north at the studio, with 34th Ave. at back, comes from Bob Perkins, host of the Army Pictorial Center website, that honors the people who worked there.

Keaton kicks off Blue Blazes with an amazing stunt (A) below, slipping off the back of a speeding fire engine, and sliding and rolling into a sitting position.

(A) The turn begins looking east down 34th Ave. from 37th St., with the doorways to 37-11 and 37-17 34th Ave. in the left background.

Completing the left turn on to 37th St., we see to the south the white square corners of 34-11 37th St., the entrance (yellow line) of the two story home 34-15 37th St., and then repeating patterns of four identical apartments further down the street. I’ll mention these buildings again during scene (B) below.

Keaton’s three scenes on 34th Ave. (A) looking east down 34th Ave. from 37th St., (B) looking NE at the corner of 34th Ave. and 36th St., and (C) looking NE on the corner of 34th Ave. and 37th St.

Buster filmed sequence (A) above, and two later scenes (B) and (C) further below, at 34th Ave. along 36th and 37th Streets, within a block of the studio facing 35th Ave. between 35th and 36th Streets. This aerial detail shows 34th Ave. at the north end of the studio.

(not local) Above, following Buster’s spill, the engine suddenly stops to reverse directions. This scene was not filmed adjacent to the studio, but beside a large apartment at 30-76 35th St. a few blocks due north of the studio which is also on 35th St.

Buster chases after his engine past the apartment at 30-76 35th St.

Buster grabs the passing engine, pulling him mid-air, reminiscent of his prior stunt in Day Dreams (1922), filmed along Santa Monica Blvd. a few blocks west of his studio.

(B) Returning close to the studio, the crew races south and makes a screeching left turn. As Buster hops off to hook up a hose to the corner hydrant, the engine continues without him.

(B) Buster’s fire truck traveled south down 36th St. past a trio of  tall-short-tall homes that are still standing. The home to the right (32-79) with the side windows (box) faced a vacant lot both in 1936 and in this 2007 Google Street View photo. This home is now flanked by a modern two-story home.

(B) Continuing south down 36th St., the tree (circle) standing in front of the now lost home address 32-83 appears later in the film, at right, as the newspaper reporters snap Buster’s photo rescuing the fire chief’s daughters. The lost home’s front steps (red box) and the side of the house with windows now blocked by a modern home (yellow box) appear in the previous pair of images above. The inset view shows the reporters driving north up 36th St. from the corner of 34th Ave.

(B) Buster runs with the hose to the corner of 36th St. as his engine races east down 34th Ave. without him. The buildings to the upper right behind him are the same appearing in this prior scene (inset).

(B) Looking more closely, the matching buildings along 37th St. further confirm the site. The building at left, with the square bay towers, is 34-11 37th St., while the short building next door is 34-15. Then four identical apartment blocks stand in a row, now painted with contrasting details. These are the same buildings all appearing down the street behind Buster after he falls from the back of the fire engine during scene (A) discussed above.

(B) Another aerial view looking north at Buster’s spot (yellow circle) on 34th Ave. and 36th St., lining up with the buildings on 37th St. The red circle matches scene (A) above and scene (C) below.

Bob Perkins, the Army Pictorial Center website, reports the above 1955 aerial view was sent to him by Ron Hutchinson (HUTCHINSON, RON, SP5, still photographer, assistant cameraman and projectionist, January 1961 to January 1963).

(B) then and now – looking east down 34th Ave. from the corner of 37th St.

(C) The final sequence close to home features Buster’s one-man fire brigade, an assembly of wagons, ladders and bicycles.

(C) Buster crosses 34th Ave. at 37th St. The corner home was later extended to the rear (red circle). Notice the one-way street sign both now and at the time of filming.

(C) A closer view up the street reveals matching window details (yellow line) on the apartment at 32-85 37th St.

Above – click to enlarge – a final overview of Buster’s numerous filming sites along 34th Ave. with the studio in the foreground. The house portrayed as W.C. Fields’ home in Running Wild (1927) (inset) still stands a bit north of 34th Ave. at 32-62 35th St. beyond the left edge of this photo. You can read my Running Wild post HERE.

Blue Blazes and Keaton’s 15 other short films made for Educational (1934-1937) are available in the “Lost Keaton” set from Kino Lorber.

Below, a Google Street View of the apartment at 30-76 35th St., the more remote location not appearing in the above aerial view.


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It’s The Old Army Game – W.C. Fields in New York with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd

The wonderful new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of W. C Fields and Louise Brooks in It’s The Old Army Game (1926) is a must-have for any Fields, Brooks, or silent comedy fan. As I’ve reported at length in several prior posts, Fields and Brooks filmed extensively on location in Ocala, Florida, as well as at El Mirasol in Palm Beach. But capping things off, Fields also filmed many scenes in New York, where Buster Keaton filmed The Cameraman and Harold Lloyd filmed Speedy.

It’s The Old Army Game involves a New York real estate swindler played by William Gaxton who uses Fields’ Florida drug store to sell questionable investments to the local townsfolk, but has a change of heart after falling for Louise Brooks. Midway during the film we’re introduced to a couple of New York police detectives planning a trip south to Florida to arrest Gaxton.

The establishing shot for the detectives was filmed in 1926 on the front steps of what was then Precinct 9A in New York, formerly at 150 W. 68th St. The matching photo of Precinct 28 was taken on April 3, 1918, as posted courtesy of Lynne Awe at PoliceNY.com., whose great uncle Edward Policke is somewhere in the photo.  The NYPD precincts were redrawn and renumbered twice during the 1920s. According to NYPDAngels.com, Precinct 28 was renumbered Precinct 9A on July 18, 1924, and renumbered again to Precinct 20 on July 3, 1929. At right, a 1923 Bromley Map of New York showing the 28th.

(This matching 1930 Bromley map shows the renumbered 20th.) Pat Storino at NYPDHistory.com confirms the precinct’s identity-changing history, with this image from the NYPD Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. The caption explains the 1927 photo shows the officers of the 9A Precinct, “currently the 20th Precinct, located at 150 West 68th Street, west of Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The photo, which was taken in the summer of 1927, was lent to Brooks Costume Company in 1966 for technical assistance in the Broadway production of ‘Auntie Mame.'” Thus, the original Precinct 28, later becoming Precinct 20, was captured on film in 1926 during the brief time it was numbered 9A.

While a generic gray-glass high rise at the SW corner of Broadway and W. 68th has subsumed Fields’ precinct house, its cousin, the 19th Precinct house across Central Park at 153 E. 67th St., reveals their common architectural DNA. Given that the movie was made in Astoria Queens, where Fields also filmed Running Wild (1927) (see post here), I wondered how they chose this seemingly “remote” station, but even so, it was less than five miles from the studio.

These evocative scenes of all the policemen at the former 9A Precinct whets our appetite for when Fields visits Manhattan later in the film.

To begin, we’re introduced to Fields driving south down 5th Ave. from 57th St., the northern-most of five traffic towers behind him. Most notably, behind Fields to the left is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion (see similar detail at upper right, and as it appears, at right, looking south down 5th in Keaton’s The Saphead (1920)). When Harold Lloyd came to New York in 1927 to film Speedy, his matching view of 57th at the upper left reveals the mansion had already been demolished to make way for Bergdorf Goodman. The color view shows the Plaza Hotel towering over the Vanderbilt.

Click to enlarge maps above. As reported in the January 1921 Popular Science magazine, five traffic towers, using the block signal system originally developed by the railroads, were installed on traffic islands along 5th Ave. at 34th, 38th, 42nd, 50th, and 57th Streets. First installed in 1920, the towers were replaced with permanent bronze towers in 1923. By sending electric signals to control men located in each tower, the master signalman at 42nd St. could control the lights along 5th, allowing all 5th Ave. traffic to move at the same time. Despite its initial success, the tower islands blocked traffic lanes, and were removed in 1929.

As I report in my Harold Lloyd book Silent Visions, Harold filmed Speedy extensively along 5th Ave. while driving Babe Ruth to Yankee Stadium. Above, looking north, are the traffic towers at 34th St. left, and 42nd St. right, appearing in Speedy.

Returning to Fields, after driving a bit further south, he turns left from 5th onto E. 55th St. Notice the Vanderbilt mansion, red line, replaced now by Bergdorf Goodman in the modern view. Several buildings along 5th Ave. at back have been remodeled or rebuilt, but the two within the matching boxes appear unchanged.

Matching street signs from 1926 and today. I don’t know if E. 55th was one way at the time, or if the sign was a prop.

As Fields completes his left turn onto E. 55th we see what was then the Hotel Gotham at the left, and the 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church to the right.

Fields looking west, Keaton looking south. It nearly seems mandatory to include 5th Ave. if you’re going to film on location in New York. Two years after Fields, Buster’s sprint to Marceline Day’s apartment in The Cameraman (1928) (she thinks she’s still talking to him on the phone after agreeing to a date when he appears suddenly behind her), was filmed looking south down 5th Ave. at 55th, with the same Hotel Gotham and 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church appearing at back. In prior posts, Bob Egan located both Buster’s Manhattan apartment, and Marceline Day’s apartment, bookending this scene.

A panorama of Keaton’s sprint up 5th Ave. from 55th, compared to Fields’ left turn.

With a trick of editing, Fields is no longer on E. 55th, but on E. 62nd, where his car breaks down after being struck by oncoming traffic. Bob Egan found these locations as well. Looking west, the corner building to the left is the Knickerbocker Club, founded in 1871. The headquarters at 2 E. 62nd St. was completed in 1915. [Note: reader Andy Charity first identified these E. 62nd St. locations to me over a year ago (!), but I somehow lost track. It was Andy who solved that Buster runs past Bergdorf Goodman during The Cameraman, as explained in this post HERE.]

Still looking west, the four balcony brackets behind Fields’ head at 1 E. 62nd are easily visible. The ongoing construction behind Fields is for 810 5th Ave. (built with a 62nd St. entrance), a 13-story apartment tower that replaced a pair of 6 story and 4 story apartments facing 5th Ave.

Looking north, the impressive gated entry to 11 E. 62nd St. appears here.

Looking west, the central buildings are replaced by the modern Rennert Mikvah synagogue at 5 E. 62nd (red awning), while vintage buildings flank each side.

The following year Fields would also film Running Wild (1927) at the Astoria Studios in Queens, appearing several times during that film (see complete post HERE). Yet the studio makes a brief cameo here too, as a fleet of taxis race towards Fields’ car, the back end of the 36th St side of the studio appears in the shot (1929 photo (Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives).

Another view looking west at Fields’ destroyed car, the Knickerbocker Club appearing in the far background.

My great thanks to New York history expert, and NYC pop culture locations blogger Bob Egan of PopSpotsNYC.com, for his assistance with this post. Check out Bob’s new book Pop Culture New York City: The Ultimate Location Finder. As mentioned above, Bob has located both Buster’s Manhattan apartment, and Marceline Day’s apartment, as they appear in The Cameraman. Thanks also to Pat Storino at NYPDHistory.com.

Aside from being popular entertainment, silent movies are also an invaluable historic record, providing rare glimpses of the past that are often overlooked. The new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of It’s The Old Army Game is exceptionally deep, providing dozens of views of historic Ocala Florida, Palm Beach Florida, magazines popular during March and April 1926, and as seen here, even New York.

Below, 11 E. 62nd St.

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It’s The Old Army Game – W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks in Ocala Florida – Part Three – Fields Chased Around Town

Here’s the third and final post about W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks filming It’s The Old Army Game (1926) in Ocala, Florida. In the first post Fields plays an embattled pharmacist dealing with rude customers, nagging relatives, and pesky firefighters. Fields’ corner store still stands at the SW corner of Broadway and Main (now 1st). In the second post Fields’ employee Louise Brooks attracts an admirer, a smitten real estate promoter from New York played by William Gaxton, who follows Louise from the train station and around town. The plot gets underway here in the third post, when Fields allows Gaxton to sell real estate investments from his store. (In a reverse on the speculative 1920s Florida real estate boom, Gaxton sells New York property interests to people living in Florida!)

Above, inside the store, the property interests are selling like hotcakes. While these store scenes were filmed on an interior stage in Astoria, Queens, New York (where Fields later filmed Running Wild in 1927), the giant photo-mural in the background accurately represents the view you would have seen looking from the true corner drug store doorway – the large red brick Ocala House Hotel that once stood along the east (right) side of the town square, prominent in this vintage postcard looking north. Fields’ shop is the orange building to the lower right.

The giant photo-mural behind Fields upper left reveals the distinctive brick porch of the Ocala House, appearing earlier in the film in this true location shot above of Gaxton searching for Louise in the prior post. Later in the film Fields runs past this same porch, as described below. At left, you can read “OCALA HOUSE” on the photo-mural in this shot.

When Fields flees a mob later in the film, he runs north up Main (now 1st) towards Broadway, providing a more complete view of the Ocala House that stood east of the town square, matching this closer view of Gaxton searching for Louise from the prior post.

I’m fascinated by the Ocala House appearing on camera, because contemporary 1920s photos of this lost landmark are hard to find. (The above views are circa 1890 and 1950). When a devastating 1883 fire on Thanksgiving Day destroyed most wooden structures in town, the Ocala House Hotel was re-built with brick in 1884, serving as a local landmark for decades before being demolished in the 1960s. The hotel site today is an open lot.

Cutting from the frenzied sales inside Fields’ store, we see a pair of New York police detectives planning Gaxton’s arrest for fraud. I cover this and all other New York scenes in the film in the next post.

Next, Fields takes a break from the real estate sales for a disastrous family picnic staged on the grounds of the Stotesbury estate, El Mirasol, in Palm Beach – detailed in this post.

After discovering the real estate fraud, Fields heads to New York to try to set things right (see future post about New York). Unbeknownst to Fields, Gaxton, reformed by Louise Brooks’ love, comes through on the investment deals, and suddenly everyone in town has become wealthy. Above, Gaxton shares the good news beside the former Marion County Courthouse. At right, from the first post, the south end of the courthouse appears behind Gaxton earlier in the film as he stares into Fields’ corner shop window.

Views looking west towards the former courthouse. The bandstand in the postcard (or its replica) now stands in the center of the square.

Looking north – Fields’ route chased by the mob was limited to left-right along Broadway, Magnolia (orange) at left, and Main (now 1st) (pink). Osceola at right still has train tracks running north-south.

Returning from New York, seemingly a failure, Fields sneaks into town fearing a tar and feather mob reception. Instead, the ecstatic townspeople want to give Fields a hero’s welcome, resulting in their comedic chase around town.

To begin the chase, Fields sprints east along Broadway from Main (now 1st) towards Osceola. His corner drug store appears at far back behind him, while closer at back is the same sidewalk scale Louise strolls by in the prior post.

Fields runs south down Main (now 1st) from Broadway, upper left view looks south, lower left looks north towards a magazine rack loaded with March and April 1926 publications, all discussed in this post. The vintage postcard looks north up Main (now 1st) from Fort King. Fields ran south towards us on the right – the red line points to the “EAT” sign discussed below. The postcard striped corner awning of the Harrington Hall hotel, see postcard above, also appears behind Louise, below. The left side buildings in the postcard remain standing – those to the right are all gone. [Update: Florida historian Lisa Bradberry writes that Fields, Brooks, director Sutherland, and the rest of the crew, stayed at Harrington Hall. Here are her two articles from 2005 about the filming W. C. Fields filming in Florida – 2005 articles by Lisa Bradberry.]

The prominent “EAT” sign appearing behind Fields and Louise is barely visible in the postcard above. Here, looking south, the view behind Fields shows the truncated store corner at the SW corner of Fort King – it appears to be the same building today.

Zooming in on this view north we see the two chimneys on the right (east) end of the former Ocala Post Office – the line of sight depicted at right. The postcard photo was taken after 1924, as the Sanborn fire insurance maps from that year show no buildings north of the square that would block the view of the Post Office from Fields’ spot.

At left, a crowd of elated townspeople joyfully recognize Fields passing by, and are eager to hail him a hero. Both views show the corner brick porch of the former Ocala House, once standing at the NE corner of Broadway and Main (now 1st).

Fields dashes west along Broadway towards Magnolia. The sidewalk awnings above Fields were not yet built in the earlier vintage photo. The yellow box marks the same south window on the E. W. Agnew & Co. building. This could be the same building with the red awning, now heavily remodeled, standing there today.

Again running west along Broadway from his corner store on Main (now 1st), only this time looking east, as Fields hopes to slip by unnoticed. The blue dot marks where Fields and Louise appeared near the sidewalk scale, mentioned previously. The men’s hat window display complements the reverse view of the matching window display appearing early in the film behind Elise Cavanna.

By reversing these movie images, the combined window reflections provide a rare view of the south side of the Ocala House facing Broadway.

This combined image shows the NE corner of Broadway and Main (now 1st), and the site of the Western Union shop on the south side of the Ocala House appearing moments later in the film.

Fields races north up Main (now 1st) alongside his corner store on Broadway – the trees are part of the town square across from the Ocala House visible to the right.

Looking north up Magnolia at Broadway, Fields attempts sneaking past a security guard, with the Ocala National Bank building still standing behind him on the far NE corner of Magnolia and Silver Springs.

Looking north, a closer view of the bank visible behind Fields, along with matching corner masonry details visible in the vintage photo looking east down Broadway from Magnolia.

In the final tracking shot, Fields runs west towards the camera along Broadway from Osceola, as a huge crowd to the east masses downhill behind him. The view roughly matches the prior view of Louise at the same corner, with the train tracks running left-right along Osceola.

A bit further west, both the former Ocala bandstand (left), and prominent second floor porch of the former Hotel Hoffman (right), appear briefly behind Fields (see map above for details).

Even further west along Broadway, Fields runs past the Western Union shop (box) mentioned previously.

Fields has now run west along Broadway from Osceola past the corner of Main (now 1st). Looking due east, the corner brick porch of the Ocala House Hotel appears to the left.

A later shot of the security guard struggling to keep up was also filmed looking east down Broadway from Osceola, the train tracks running left-right along Osceola are visible in the film, and still present today. The modern view now includes a train crossing sign.

Fields dashes for safety hiding in the county jail. While I could find no confirming photos identifying this spot, the 1912, 1924, and 1930 Sanborn fire insurance maps each report that behind the original city hall near the SE corner of Broadway and Osceola there was a small attached building (see map) labelled “lock up,” so perhaps this is what portrays the jail in the film.

All’s well that ends well; Fields is the home-town hero, we’re offered sage advice about swallowing birds in the hand, and true love triumphs. This delightful comedy is a wonderful precursor to Fields’ “talkie” career, and reminds us yet again of how vintage movies are also a vibrant historic record of the past.

Update: this formerly unsolved shot of the fire crew responding to Fields’ false fire alarm (see first post) was filmed looking east down Fort King towards the Fort King Apartments at the SW corner of Tuscawilla, built some time between the 1924 and 1930 editions of the Sanborn fire insurance maps.

Historic Ocala Preservation Society President Brian Stoothoff writes that the previously unidentified scene above of people from an arched porch running to greet Fields was likely filmed at the Ritz Historical Inn, 1205 E. Silver Springs Blvd., built in 1925, and now listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. The above images certainly look consistent. Moreover, given the Ritz was brand new in 1926, it’s easy to speculate Fields, Brooks, and the rest of the film crew might have stayed here during filming, as opposed to the Ocala House that appears in the film, that at the time was already several decades old.

For any Ocala history buffs, this scene with the bus remains unidentified. [Update: be sure to check out Florida historian Lisa Bradberry’s two articles from 2005 about the filming W. C. Fields filming in Florida – 2005 articles by Lisa Bradberry.]

Kino Lorber It’s The Old Army Game.

Photo sources: The State Library and Archives of Florida, Marion County Historical Photographs.

Looking north at the Ocala National Bank building.

Posted in It's The Old Army Game, Ocala Florida, W.C. Fields | 5 Comments

W.C. Fields Running Wild in New York

Having studied the new Blu-ray release of W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks in It’s The Old Army Game (1926) (with more posts to come), let’s focus on the beautiful Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of Fields’ Running Wild (1927), another wonderful comedy loaded with visual history, this time filmed in Astoria, Queens. Fields plays a meek shipping clerk, a widower cherished by his adult daughter, but cruelly mistreated by his second wife and step-son. When accidentally hypnotized, Fields roars to life, rightfully asserting himself the master at both work and at home. The movie was filmed at the Paramount Astoria Studios on 35th Avenue and 35th Street, with many exteriors filmed within a block or two of the studio.

Looking north – three of many scenes staged close to the studio (large arched roof). Fields’ house (upper right) stands at 32-62 35th Street, while Fields walks to work (middle) along the corner opposite from the studio. Roaring with confidence, Fields drives east (lower left) along 35th Avenue from 33rd Street towards the studio. (C) 2018 Microsoft

Above, scenes from throughout the movie were all filmed close to the studio. Noted Fields biographer James Curtis explains that “in March, 1927 the Astoria studio was closed by Famous Players and all the companies moved to California where production would be consolidated under B.P. Schulberg. (It took talkies and the urgent need for stage-trained actors to force the re-opening of the studio.) It fell to Jesse Lasky to personally approve the making of Running Wild in New York, so they had the entire run of the studio while making it. Without Lasky, it would have been done in Los Angeles. Personally, I think the Long Island locations are an asset to the film, and that it wouldn’t have tuned out as well if made in California.” Thank you Jim, I agree the locations really help set off the film.

Meek and superstitious, Fields walks to work, careful to avoid stepping on any cracks, and later dodging a ladder set up on the sidewalk.

Walking to work, carefully not stepping on cracks or beneath a ladder.

These early scenes above were filmed walking east along 35th Avenue towards the SW corner of 35th Street, with the studio standing on the opposite NE corner.

Afraid to cross the street, Fields pauses beside some school kids at the NE corner of 36th Ave and 34th St.

A cop holds back traffic, the view looks SE down 36th Ave from 34th St towards the intersection of 35th St at back.

Fields and the children cross 34th St under the policeman’s watchful gaze.

Safely reaching the NW corner of 36th Ave and 34th St, Fields continues on his way to work.

Later in the film, Fields flees for his life from an infuriated shopkeeper, turning the NE corner of the Astoria Studio at 35th Ave and 35th Street.

Fields seeks refuge in a handy doorway, leading to the backstage of a theatrical hypnotist act already in progress. The doorway at 34-31 (or so) 35th St, flanked by windows on both sides, is now the side entrance to the Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Fields responds so aggressively to the hypnotic suggestion that he is a lion that he knocks out the hypnotist and flees the stage before the spell can be undone.

King of the World – Fields zooms east along 35th Ave with the 31st St elevated tracks and matching buildings east from 32nd St behind him.

This POV shot looks east down 35th Ave approaching the intersection of 34th St.

Traveling a bit further east, the NW corner building at 35th Ave and 33rd St appears at back.

Modern views of the studio front entrance, at left, and the twin apartments, at right.

As Fields races along 35th Ave towards the studio, the two story studio laboratory building appears to the far left, with the studio formal front entrance columns further at back. The arrow in this 1921 photo (Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives) shows Fields’ walking path above avoiding the sidewalk cracks – the apartment in that scene would be built on the foreground vacant lot.

The POV shot at left includes the twin apartments between 34th and 35th Streets, where Fields walks to work avoiding the sidewalk cracks.

Switching perspective, Fields drives west towards the SE corner of 35th Ave and 35th St, then along the same sidewalk, and towards the same ladder, that Fields encountered on foot earlier in the film. The corner drug store was fittingly named the “Studio Pharmacy.”

This shot was staged a bit further afield, the NW corner of 31st Ave and 34th St.

A view of Fields’ house, to the left at 32-62 35th St, one block north of the studio, moments before he slams his car into the tree out front. Though the three homes have all been modernized, their proportions and configuration remain the same, especially the stone porch of the middle house. I found this spot by dumb luck. On a whim I decided to check for homes near the studio, and found this almost immediately.

Although snapped from his hypnotic trance, Fields retains his swagger, and the film ends as he chases his terrified step-son up the street.

A careful analysis of the 1927 view above, and the matching Google Street View 90 years later below, reveals numerous unique details appearing in both images. I live in California, and may never visit this spot in person, yet thanks to the internet it’s possible to confirm vintage and remote locations by simply working from a computer.

At left, here’s one location from Fields’ race home that I have not been able to identify. Presumably it too is close to the studio, if still standing. Likewise, these scenes of Fields at the right may have been filmed against one of the studio buildings. Notice the corridor bridge crossing above a downgrade drive. Although the doorway at right reads “14th Precinct,” the true 14th had a 229 W 123rd address, conflicting with the “452” address appearing in another shot. Since the “Harvey & Co.” sign is a prop for a fictitious company, the precinct sign is likely a prop too.

Bonus: the back end of the 36th St side of the studio (1929 photo (Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives) appears during a New York scene from Fields’ earlier silent comedy It’s The Old Army Game). I already have 5 posts about It’s The Old Army Game, filmed with Louise Brooks in Ocala and Palm Beach Florida, and will soon issue a bonus post about the scenes filmed in New York, where W.C. Fields crossed paths with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd (who knew?)

Bonus update – I just discovered Buster Keaton filmed The Chemist (1936) alongside Fields’ Running Wild apartment. Stay tuned for a future post about Buster’s Astoria films.

Check out Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Fields’ Running Wild.

Below, the Kaufman Astoria Studios today.


Posted in Astoria, New York, W.C. Fields | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

It’s The Old Army Game – W.C. Fields and Louise Brooks in Ocala Florida – Part Two – Louise Strolls Around Town

This next post about the wonderful new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of It’s The Old Army Game is authored mostly by noted Louise Brooks author and expert Thomas Gladysz, with (my comments) limited to the Ocala Florida historic settings appearing in the film. Take it away Thomas! +    +     +

Released by Famous Players-Lasky in May of 1926, It’s the Old Army Game is a comedy about a befuddled, small town druggist, played by W.C. Fields, who gets involved with a real estate scam. Louise Brooks, on the verge of stardom, plays the druggist’s assistant.

Clarence Badger was originally assigned to direct, but the film was soon turned over to Edward Sutherland, a onetime actor and Keystone Cop who began his directing career just a few years before with the help of Charlie Chaplin. The film was announced, at first, as starring Fields and future “It girl” Clara Bow, but as she was needed on the West Coast to shoot Mantrap (1926), the female lead fell to Brooks. Just nineteen-years old, the film was Brooks’ fourth; it reunited her with the 47 year old Fields, who was starring in his first Paramount film under a new contract. By all accounts, Fields and Brooks were fond of one another, having worked together the year before in the Ziegfeld Follies. In Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks mentions that the two would sometimes hang out together in Fields’ dressing room, and sometimes shared a drink.

It’s the Old Army Game was in production in February and March of 1926. Aside from interiors shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios on Long Island and a few scenes at the end of the film shot in Manhattan, a fair amount of It’s the Old Army Game was shot in and around Ocala and Palm Beach, Florida. Though Paramount had made other movies in Ocala – including scenes for the earlier Brooks’ film, The American Venus – the small Florida town was more than just an amenable southern location. It fact, it was pivotal to the story told in It’s the Old Army Game. At the time, there was a Florida real estate boom, and many a northerner was duped into buying Florida lots. It’s the Old Army Game reverses the scam, and has gullible Floridians duped into buying New York lots.

Ocala Florida, looking north, with Fields’ drug store (star) still standing at the SW corner of Main (now 1st) and Broadway. The point of view (POV) directional arrows match the many shooting angles, color highlights below. The scenes where Louise and William Gaxton follow each other include the former train station, library, fire station, and city hall, filmed east-west along Broadway and north-south along Main (now 1st).

Though not especially well known today, It’s the Old Army Game is a pivotal film in career of W.C. Fields. It was the first in which he enjoyed top billing, and the first in which he had substantial input. Based on a story by J. P. McEvoy and scripted by Thomas J. Geraghty and J. Clarkson Miller, the film incorporated material from Fields’ 1924 stage show, The Comic Supplement, as well as portions of Fields’ act from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925.  Fields’ silent films, which include So’s Your Old Man (1926), Two Flaming Youths (1927), and the recent Kino Lorber release Running Wild (1927), can be seen as a kind of warm-up for Fields’ iconic body of work from the 1930s. Notably, material from the Follies as well as It’s the Old Army Game were reworked in what is widely considered Fields’ best sound feature, It’s a Gift (1934).

It’s the Old Army Game is also an important film in Brooks’ career. Though it was only the third for which she received a screen credit, critics were already taking notice of the up-and-comer with a short bob. Exhibitor’s Herald stated, “Louise Brooks is the other important person in the picture and, as insinuated rather bluntly on the occasion of her first appearance — in The American Venus — she’s important. Miss Brooks isn’t like anybody else. Nor has she a distinguishing characteristic which may be singled out for purposes of identification. She’s just a very definite personality. She doesn’t do much, perhaps because there isn’t much to do but probably because she hits hardest when doing nothing, but nobody looks away when she’s on screen. If Miss Glyn should say that Miss Brooks has ‘it,’ more people would know what Miss Glyn is raving about. But in that case she would not be raving.”

(Picking up from Part One, it’s love at first sight when William Gaxton arrives in town, spying Louise inside the Atlantic Coast Line Railway passenger station, that stood a block east of the city square. Behind him appears the west end of the Ocala library across the street – the end facing to the right in this post card.)

(Louise glances back flirtatiously at William before fleeing the station, then strides east along Broadway from Main (now 1st), hoping he’ll follow her. The sidewalk scale behind her appears both in an earlier scene from the first post, and here further behind Fields as he flees a mob later on in the film. The window right of the scale reflects the former court house.)

(Louise travels east along Broadway, a confused Gaxton seeks out her trail.) William Gaxton plays William Parker, Brooks’ love interest and the President of the High-and-Dry Realty Company. Born in San Francisco as Arturo Antonio Gaxiola, Gaxton worked mostly on stage, finding his greatest success in George Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing (1933) and other Broadway musicals during the 1930s and 1940s.

(The distinctive porch entrance of the Hotel Hoffman appears in the background, placing this scene looking east down Broadway at Osceola, the train station off camera to the left. The train tracks running left-right behind Louise continue to run along Osceola today. At back to the right of Louise is a side view of city hall, discussed in the prior post.)

(Louise stands looking east from the corner of the Merchants Block built in 1892. The vintage views look west towards her spot – the yellow box matches the stone and brick details in her movie frame.)

In Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks recounts what an entertaining person Gaxton was off camera, and how funny he was when he read aloud from Gentleman Prefer Blondes when the company wasn’t working or drinking; Brooks also speculates that Gaxton was bitter about what he regarded as his failure as an actor in It’s the Old Army Game — his first film, and role he thought would launch his film career. (Gaxton searches for Louise in front of the former Ocala House hotel, looking north to the corner of Silver Springs Blvd.)

(Four of the five buildings north of Silver Springs Blvd. appear in the film – the center vintage building (box) has been remodeled and expanded.)

(Gaxton searches for Louise in front of the distinctive brick porch of the former Ocala House hotel.)

(Louise searches for William, turning right from Silver Springs north onto Main (now 1st). Despite the modern shades the corner building appears to be relatively unchanged.)

(Louis pauses by a magazine stand on Main south of Broadway, that appears later when Fields believes he’s being chased by a mob. Notice the matching “EAT” sign behind Louise and above Fields’ hat in the shots looking south. The numerous vintage magazines are identified in this prior post.

It’s the Old Army Game is notable for another reason. Brooks married its director, Eddie Sutherland, in July of 1926, as the film was opening across the United States. Their marriage, and the fact that he was the director and she a star of It’s the Old Army Game made news just about everywhere. (The union was short-lived; news of their divorce announced here in Variety April 24, 1928.) Also notable is the fact that among the supporting players was Sutherland’s Aunt, the stage actress Blanche Ring. In this, one of her rare film appearances, Ring plays Tessie Gilch, who Brooks’ character refers to as her “Aunt.” Tessie is smitten with Fields, and early on asks him to remove something in her eye. [Ring’s sister was Frances Ring, who was married to Thomas Meighan, a rugged leading man and Paramount film star who appeared with Brooks in The City Gone Wild (1927).]

(A female clerk stops William to make a sales pitch and Louise assumes the worst. The magazine rack to the far left appears in the prior scene (red box), with other vintage magazines, including the April 1926 McCall’s, hanging center from the doorway.)

(Louise fumes at William and the female clerk  – we’re looking south down Main (now 1st) from Silver Springs Blvd. towards Fields’ corner drug store – will love prevail?)

Paramount was taking a bit of a chance on Fields, a Vaudeville actor, who despite his stage renown on the East Coast, was still a little known talent in the movies. After screening the film, one theater manager in Ohio wrote “… the name Fields, so far, means nothing in the small town,” while a Kansas manager stated “Back to the stage for this guy. He is terrible.” One North Carolina manager opined, “I don’t see where Paramount found Fields, or why they continue to boost a star that will absolutely kill an exhibitor’s business.” Advertisements for the film tried to explain its unusual title (“meaning never give a sucker an even break”) and to suggest Fields and this film were a “new kind” of comedy.

Nevertheless, It’s the Old Army Game received good notices, but didn’t prove the box-office hit Paramount was looking for. In what was a typical review of the time, the Newark Star-Eagle stated, “This picture not only affords a good deal of typical Fields comedy in a suitable story frame, but also reveals the possibilities of Louise Brooks, Follies girl who is making decidedly good in the cinema. . . . All told, Fields need not regret his first Paramount production.”

(Did Louise and William patch things up? Of course.) [Update: Florida historian Lisa Bradberry reports the above “love shots” were filmed  on the Bingham estate in Palm Beach called Figulus, bordered on the west side by Lake Worth Lagoon. The main estate is gone, but the Binghams gave a portion of it to daughter Frances and husband Chester Bolton, who built there the Casa Apava estate still standing at 1298 South Ocean Blvd. The picnic scenes (see further below) were filmed at the Stotesbury estate.] In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ward W. Marsh wrote, “Louise Brooks and William Gaxton carry what is generally known as the necessary love interest. Gaxton amounts to nothing, but Miss Brooks parades the personal magnetism to the limit, and late in the story is found wandering around in a bathing suit—for no sound reason except to display a form which assuredly needs not a bathing suit to set it off. There is no complaint, however, on the appearance in the bathing suit.”

Lisa Bradberry further reports that beginning February 28, 1926, Brooks and Gaxton spent the first of three days filming at the Silver Springs resort nearby. Hundreds of people gathered to watch them film scenes featuring a glass bottom boat ride and later feeding a deer. Director Eddie Sutherland was injured in a boating mishap, spraining his arm. (Note: these Silver Springs scenes are either missing or cut from the final print). Since W. C. Fields was not required for any of the scenes at Silver Springs, and construction on the back porch set had yet to be completed, he took the opportunity to drive through Marion County, spending some time in the country. On March 3 Fields would begin the first of several days filming scenes on the newly constructed back porch set. Check out Lisa’s two articles from 2005 about the filming W. C. Fields filming in Florida – 2005 articles by Lisa Bradberry.

(I’ll soon wrap up the visual history of W.C. Fields in Ocala, Florida in a third post, but as a break my next post will cover the many Astoria locations, see sample above, appearing in Fields’ Kino Lorber release Running Wild.)

(Check out my prior posts showing the disastrous family picnic sequence filmed in Palm Beach at El Mirasol, the estate of Edward T. Stotesbury, above, and Part One that introduces Bill and Louise in Ocala, Florida.)

Thank you so much Thomas!

Thomas Gladysz is the author of the forthcoming Louise Brooks, the Persistent Star, as well as three earlier books on Brooks’ films. He is currently at work on The Films of Louise Brooks, a comprehensive study of the actress’ movie career. Here is a link to the Louise Brooks Society webpage on It’s the Old Army Game.

Read all about Louise at Thomas Gladysz’ Louise Brooks Society Blogspot.

Also a shout-out to Ben Model for performing the musical score – Ben’s Undercrank Productions has released numerous rare silent film titles on DVD, and to author James L. Neibaur for the audio commentary.

Photo sources: The State Library and Archives of Florida, Marion County Historical Photographs.

Looking north at the corner where Louise turns up the street.

Posted in It's The Old Army Game, Louise Brooks, Ocala Florida, W.C. Fields | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment