For their first date in The Cameraman (1928) Buster Keaton and Marceline Day strip down and go swimming in a public pool, because, why not? As reported in my book Silent Echoes, their natatorium adventure was filmed inside the Venice Plunge (1908-1945), once a huge beachside tourist attraction. There’s a keen sense of time-travel to the interior pool scenes, the shiplap walls, the tile floors, you can almost smell the chlorine. LAPL.
When it’s time to return home Buster and Marceline fail to catch an overcrowded bus, not in Venice where the plunge was located, but running down the Santa Monica Pier. The downhill slope in the background was the initial clue. The bus strategically blocks the side of the pier from view, and no shot in the sequence betrays it was filmed on a pier.
Click to enlarge – while Keaton had filmed at other amusement piers, this marked Santa Monica’s first appearance with Buster. Huntington Digital Library. Buster later filmed scenes from Spite Marriage (1929) beside the Hotel Carmel at 1451 Second Street in Santa Monica (read more HERE).
Click to enlarge – after missing the bus, Buster’s rival for Marceline’s affection, smooth-talking Harold Goodwin happens to drive by, and offers them a ride home. Notice the giant La Monica Ballroom in the foreground. Inset above, Buster helps Harold with his car roof. Huntington Digital Library.
As they adjust the roof, the entrance awning to the landmark La Monica Ballroom (1924- 1963) appears at back. Situated on the far end of the pier, the La Monica was once the largest dance hall on the west coast, with a capacity of 5,000. Again the camera angle hides nearly all of the background detail. LAPL.
Of course there’s only room for Buster at back in the rumble seat. As soon as they take off it begins to pour, completely drenching Buster by the time they return to town. As shown above, they drive east along the pier past the Bowling-Billiard building and the Loof Carousel-Hippodrome, both still standing. USC Digital Library.
I was stunned to discover this elaborate sequence was filmed completely on the narrow pier. The complex traveling shot with Buster being drenched required mobile overhead rain sprinklers keeping pace with the car and camera car, and plays onscreen as if staged on a local street rather than 20 feet above the water. The logistics seem staggering.
This begs the question – since they filmed the entire sequence so we would NOT notice it was filmed over the water, on a pier, WHY of all places did they film here? The tracking shot travels quite far, so perhaps instead of relying on hundreds of feet of hose lying beside the route, they simply dropped the feed end of the hose over the side of the pier, and ran the submerged feed line in pace with the car. If true, they soaked Buster with sea water!
The Criterion Collection is set to release the Blu-ray restoration of The Cameraman on June 16, 2020, including a bonus feature directed by Daniel Raim interviewing me and Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.
Please help support naming the Chaplin Keaton Lloyd alley in Hollywood by posting a review on Google Maps. Prototype alley sign design by noted Dutch graphic artist – Piet Schreuders. Download a 4-page brochure about the alley HERE.