Buster Keaton’s best-known short film Cops (1922) has always been one of my favorite movies. I must have been twelve when I first bought an 8mm print of it, and have since watched it dozens of times. Now that it is available on Blu-ray, Cops continues to reveal fascinating details about early Los Angeles and Keaton’s working methods.
One thing that struck me is that Cops does not contain a single interior scene. Except for the reaction shots of Joe Roberts discovering his wallet and cash are missing (filmed on location within a taxicab traveling east down Santa Monica past Gower, just blocks from the Keaton Studio), every scene in the movie is filmed out of doors. I made a mental list, and every other movie Keaton produced at his studio contains at least one interior scene filmed on an indoor stage.
The permit to build the large barn-shaped closed over shooting stage at the Keaton Studio was issued October 20, 1921. (Note: historic LA building permits may now be accessed online HERE). David Pearson advises that Keaton was away on location in late October/early November 1921 filming The Paleface, and then filmed Cops in December (the only film in Keaton’s oeuvre with no interior shots whatsoever). So coincidentally, or by design, these two films allowed the carpenters free reign at the studio to build the massive stage while Buster was away shooting. It’s fun to imagine that Cops was deliberately structured without any interior scenes in order to provide the studio carpenters sufficient leeway to complete their work.
The scene depicted above was filmed far away from downtown, 19 blocks south of the Los Angeles Civic Center, as an angry cop chases Buster from an alley into a busy intersection, where Buster then knocks down a traffic cop to trip the first cop chasing him. The clue to this discovery is the trolley car approaching in the background during the scene (left) that clearly reads “MONETA AVE.” on the destination sign. While there is still a Moneta Avenue today much further south from downtown, the Los Angeles street layout was significantly different back when Keaton was filming late in 1921.
Broadway originally ended near 10th Street (now Olympic) by merging into Main Street, but was later extended a few blocks further south to terminate at Pico. Main continued southwest until 36th Street, where it split into Moneta Avenue and Main, parallel streets both heading due south. Today Broadway has been extended much further southwest, hooking up with what was Moneta, and today most of Moneta is re-named Broadway. Simple, huh? I knew that Keaton filmed other scenes from Cops south of 11th Street, and found this location simply by using Google Street View. Although I started on Broadway, I followed the trolley route south onto Main, and somehow was patient enough to continue for several more blocks until I got lucky and recognized the setting.
Buster knocked the cop down at the intersection of Main and Washington Boulevard, with the camera looking towards the NW corner up Main. The prominent awning in the background, remarkably still attached considering the earthquake risk, belongs to the Rutland Apartments at 1839 S. Main (see color view at top of post). Other prominent buildings in the background are still standing as well.
After reporting this discovery to “Skip,” the publicity-shy, eagle-eyed sleuth who discovered the “Solved at Last” mystery building from Safety Last!, Skip quickly reported back that the preceding scene with Buster and the alley was filmed on the Washington side of the very same Rutland Apartment building – a rare instance where the cinematic geography for these two scenes comports with reality. Skip had noticed that the wall details in both scenes matched, and correctly surmised it was the same building. Although these two scenes could have been filmed at almost any urban intersection, for some reason Keaton chose to film here, roughly 150 blocks away from his studio.
Once I got over the shock that these two 91-year-old locations still existed, remarkably unchanged, it dawned on me that this intersection was just across the street from the former Washington Park baseball field. The park was the former home to both the Los Angeles Angels and the Vernon/Venice Tigers, from 1911, when the park was built, until the first few games of the 1925 season, when play moved to the recently opened Wrigley Field at Avalon Boulevard and 41st Street. Demolished in 1926, Washington Park once stood on the former grounds of Chutes Park, an early amusement center where patrons plunged a boat down a steep ramp into a pool.
I mention this because it turns out Keaton had been in this neighborhood previously to film ballpark scenes for his 1920 short comedy Neighbors. The joke in that film, such as it is, is that the cop intending to arrest Buster gets conked on the head by a home run supposedly hit out of the park by Babe Ruth. So Buster had likely encountered the intersection of Washington and Main before in 1920, but it still does not explain why he returned here to film the above scenes for Cops.
Another intriguing aspect of Cops is that with the additional clues visible in its high definition release, and the ever-increasing availability of vintage photographs and online resources, I have
been able to identify every location from the movie. Further, I have been able to identify which studio backlots were used for all but the final scene. This means that except for the set depicted below, I can now identify every single scene in the entire movie, including every shot of the policeman’s day parade filmed in New York. I’ve already posted several new discoveries here, including the scene filmed on the roof of Musso & Frank in Hollywood, and the teeter-totter fence scene filmed at the current-day site of Paramount Studios, but it may take years to cover them all.
In closing, my intimate understanding of Cops only reinforces the tremendous respect I have for Keaton, his crew, and for all of the other hard-working silent comedy filmmakers. Imagine the advance planning and logistics involved simply in capturing each of the scenes with Buster’s horse-drawn wagon load of furniture. The horse and moving wagon were transported all over town to film at nine different places; namely, in Hollywood at Cosmo and Selma, Santa Monica and Vine, on the Metro Studio backlot at Lillian Way and Romaine, and at the Brunton Studio backlot at Melrose and Windsor; then in Skid Row, on Arcadia near the Plaza de Los Angeles, and at Ducommun and Alameda; then south of downtown by Santee Alley and Olympic, and by 11th and Main; and then finally way out at the Goldwyn Studios backlot in Culver City. That’s nine widely dispersed locations just for the poor horse! Add to that the dozens of other individual scenes that comprise Cops, and you can appreciate what a remarkable feat it was creating this historic film.
Cops and Neighbors licensed by Douris UK, Ltd. Color images (C) 2013 Google.