Keaton’s The Cameraman on the Santa Monica Pier

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!

You can read how Buster and Marceline begin their date in Manhattan, with Buster leaving his place at 201 E 52nd Street, and departing her place at 20 W 58th Street, at these URL posts.

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.

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18 Responses to Keaton’s The Cameraman on the Santa Monica Pier

  1. rbannaolcom says:

    I am screening my 16mm print of THE CAMERAMAN tonight. 

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael says:

     Great post John. Please stay safe and healthy

    Sent from my iPhone

    Sent from my iPhone >>

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another informative blog, which is truly welcome. Lucky ol’ Buster eh, for getting close and personal with Marceline day!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lea S. says:

    Holy cow, I would’ve NEVER guessed! This gives me yet another reason to head to the pier on my next LA trip (fingers crossed that won’t be too far in the future…!). Normally the grand finale to my LA excursions is a day at Venice/Santa Monica, and now that’ll always be extra special. 🙂


    • What strikes me is the scene was presented as if filmed on an ordinary little street. They didn’t want us to notice it was on the pier. I have a post about Lloyd filming in Santa Monica. Chaplin filmed a scene from By The Sea on the Santa Monica bluff, but the rest was in Venice. Did you see my recent Stymie/Buster post? The apartment in The High Sign is still standing in Venice.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Brian Barr says:

    I love reading these. Thank you so much for all your effort!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Jim Dallape says:

    As always, great work, John. It always surprises me how many movies and TV shows were filmed at that pier. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave Nelson says:

    Had anyone ever tried such a long tracking shot in the rain before ? I suspect it was easy to tap the water from the sea

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bob Borgen says:

    Thanks for another great time travel trip John — we all love your detective work!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: Caught on Camera – Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman in New York | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

  10. Pingback: Time Travelers: Uncovering Old LA in Keaton Comedies | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

  11. Skip says:

    I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while. Even though I think it’s logical that the crew could have drawn water from the ocean, and that is what prompted filing on the pier, I wonder if is not the opposite, filming on the pier made it very easy to get rid of the water, and without creating a muddy mess or flooding out somebody’s street.

    An alternate theory is that maybe it was easier to film on the pier than a public street in terms of permits. As for the drawing water from the ocean idea, I haven’t watched it in HD, but salt water tends to shed differently than fresh water (more filmy), and ocean water often foams. Looking closely at the behavior of the rain, there might be a clue as to whether it is fresh water or salt water.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Skip – I still know nearly zero about whether/when/how permits were required or obtained back then. Buster filmed exterior “rain” scenes for College on a residential sidewalk, with the actors walking towards the camera. I saw a production shot revealing the rain gear overhead. You’re right, salt water can foam. It’s all still a mystery why they would film on a pier, but hide that unique setting from the camera.


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