I’m pleased to update this post to announce that the 2019 San Francisco Silent Film Festival will conclude Sunday May 5, with a 8:00 pm screening of Buster Keaton’s second feature comedy Our Hospitality (1923), to be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Now that Buster’s complete silent film oeuvre is available on Blu-ray, and more historic Hollywood photos become available for study, we continue to learn more about how Buster crafted his amazing comedies. For one, Buster filmed scenes from Cops (1922) at three other studio backlots, including the original Metro Studios next to his own small studio, the pre-MGM Goldwyn Studios in Culver City, and the former Brunton Studios on Melrose, now part of current-day Paramount site.
The Brunton Studio featured a unique “T” shaped concrete pool that Buster employed for two iconic water stunts; the once-lost high-dive gag from his 1921 short comedy Hard Luck, and the waterfall rescue stunt (above) that climaxes Our Hospitality.
During the climax of Hard Luck, Buster climbs a high diving platform, and hoping to impress the bathing beauties assembled to watch, performs a swan dive so far from the tower that he passes the far edge of the pool, and smashes through the brick deck creating a crater. The women peer deep into the hole, unable to see where he has gone. In what Buster would later recount as his biggest laugh-getting gag ever, years later Buster climbs back out of the crater wearing Chinese garb, followed by his Chinese wife and their children. Once considered lost, in many versions of the film the movie fades out just as Buster attempts his dive. But newer releases show the gag play out fully (see above). As Buster describes the scene in a 1929 interview, the left base of the “T” shaped pool was covered with thin wax painted to look like brick, allowing Buster to safely dive into pool deck.
As discussed in the comments below, Buster’s trajectory during the dive looks odd, and the scene cuts just as he touches the deck. Perhaps animation or some other effect supplemented the shot – perhaps what we have available today is an alternate take, while the footage of Buster filming the dive “for real” remains lost. In any case, the dive could only be staged as a true stunt with the arm of a “T” shaped pool covered over, which is precisely what Buster set up. Three years later, Keaton returned to the Brunton plunge to film the truly death-defying waterfall stunt from Our Hospitality.
During the climax of Our Hospitality, Buster rescues his girlfriend, played by his first wife Natalie Talmadge, from sweeping over the brink of a waterfall by swinging like a pendulum from a rope tied to a log jammed in the rocks, grabbing her just as she starts to fall. Buster’s waterfall stunt set was also built astride the special “T” shaped pool that stood at the Brunton Studio, readily apparent in these behind the scenes photos above and further below. The Brunton Studio plunge was located just north of Melrose, due east of the modern Windsor Boulevard entrance gate to the Paramount Studios. Buster’s small studio, at Eleanor and Lillian way, stood just a few blocks away.
Our Hospitality and Hard Luck licensed by Douris UK, Ltd. Special restored version of Hard Luck copyright 1987 The Rohauer Collection.