Buster’s Manhattan Project – on Film


During the summer of 1964, Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett collaborated making a black and white, avant garde, nearly silent short movie entitled Film.  Keaton, who is seen only from the rear, plays a man attempting to evade perception, eluding everyone except himself.  It was Beckett’s only screenplay, and one of Keaton’s final films.

Production began on July 20, 1964, by filming exteriors within the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Film critic Leonard Maltin, then a young teenager, had read about the planned shooting in the newspaper, and traveled from his home in New Jersey to witness Keaton at work.  Leonard brought along a handful of stills for Buster to autograph, and spent a few moments chatting with Buster between takes.

Click to enlarge. The red box marks the Manhattan Project Building (see below). At right, Google Street View (C) 2011 Google

Keaton began his career in New York with the Roscoe Arbuckle short film The Butcher Boy (1917), filmed at the old Colony Studio at 318-320 E. 48th Street, and made five more short films with Arbuckle on the East Coast; A Reckless Romeo, The Rough House, His Wedding Night, Oh, Doctor!, and Fatty at Coney Island, all released in 1917.  Keaton returned to New York to film a few sequences on location for his 1928 silent masterpiece The Cameraman (see new discovery here), and would later film three of his short films for Educational Pictures; Blue Blazes, The Chemist, and Mixed Magic , all released in 1936, at Educational’s New York Studios.

Looking west, Buster is sitting in the middle of Frankfort Street, east of the former corner of Cliff Street, that ran north through an arch under the Brooklyn Bridge. Cliff Street was immediately west of Pearl Street. The tall yellow building stood on the corner of Gold Street and Frankfort. The shorter red building in front of the yellow building stood on the former corner of Jacob Street and Frankfort. The center building in the far background is the Manhattan Project Building.

The prominent building in the center background above, overlooking City Hall Park, and known today as Tower 270 (also known as 270 Broadway and the Arthur Levitt State Office Building), served as the secret headquarters for the Manhattan Project during World War II.  The Army Corps of Engineers’ North Atlantic Division, responsible for building ports and airfields, was already situated in the building.  When the Corps was made responsible for developing the atomic bomb, it brought the new project into its existing headquarters.  Dr. Robert S. Norris writes that in order to avoid undue attention, the Corps followed standard bureaucratic protocol for naming new regional organizations.  Thus, the new project, based in Manhattan, was named the innocuous-sounding Manhattan Engineer District, which in time was shortened to the Manhattan Project.  You can read the full New York Times story about the building’s history here.

During the opening scene from Film, the tip of the Woolworth Building rises above the now lost foreground buildings. At right, the Woolworth Building: Google Street View (c) 2011 Google

Click to enlarge. The two color photos look east down Frankfort towards Pearl Street. The red oval at right marks Samuel Beckett at the filming site, to the left of him is the Brooklyn Bridge tower. Buster is sitting about where the "O" of "Frankfort" is on the central map, between Cliff Street at the top, and Pearl Street/Franklin Square at the bottom. The triangular pink building on the map was already demolished at the time of filming. It stood where the dirt lies on the left photo.

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2 Responses to Buster’s Manhattan Project – on Film

  1. Pingback: More Buster in Manhattan – The Cameraman, Part II | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

  2. Pingback: Buster’s Manhattan Project – on Film | Samuel Beckett | Scoop.it

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