Buster Keaton – Ghosts of Go West

I’m pleased to share another post by guest blogger Jeffrey Castel de Oro, who has made many wonderful Keaton discoveries over the years (read his popular prior post about the adobe appearing in Buster’s The Scarecrow HERE.) This ghostly image above shows Buster sitting in what is now the downtown Arts District. Where? How? Jeff will explain all – take it away, Jeff.

Recently John shared images with me from Buster Keaton’s Go West. It’s a short but pivotal scene early in the film. Buster portrays “Friendless” who, due to his lonesome social status, finds himself wandering from town to town. After a stop in bustling New York City where he quickly finds himself overwhelmed by the crowds, he pauses for a moment near this loading dock where he discovers a woman’s handbag containing a small pistol. The sight of this firearm prompts an imaginary ghostly vision of Horace Greely to appear, giving this young man the idea to board a nearby railcar and “Go West.”

Assuming this scene was likely shot in Los Angeles, John noticed the “ghost sign” faint lettering “IMPERIAL WARE” on the building just over the train car, but the clues for this location weren’t adding up. There was a local business named Imperial Warehouse that existed at 2415 E. 14th Street in Los Angeles, contemporary to the time Go West was filmed in 1925, but examining aerial photos of this location showed details that did not appear to match the film still. And why was the lettering so faded? Was this perhaps a former location of the Imperial Warehouse?

I decided to take a different approach and focus on the lettering of the neighboring building. One of my favorite resources for researching older historic material is Google Books. It can help to differentiate from standard Google search results which are often too contemporary. Sometimes just a partial glimpse of a publication (often all that Google makes available, due to copyright issues) is enough to reveal some clues. Searching the terms “CHAS. S. – FRESH MEATS” visible on the far back wall behind Buster revealed the name “Hardy” (above left) in the United States Congressional Serial Set (1912). Further searching for Chas S. Hardy Meats in Google Books led me to this report showing a Chas S. Hardy in San Diego (above right) from the Report of the Federal Trade Commission on the Meat Packing Industry, Part 1. The hearings were in 1919, which seemed like a good ballpark date since Go West was made in 1925. I also noticed there were few other meat packers listed here for California during this time period.

Could Buster have filmed this small scene in San Diego? Further research revealed an address for the Charles S. Hardy Meat Company at 702 6th Street in San Diego, in an area now known as the Gaslamp Quarter – not a match for the industrial warehouses and railroad tracks indicated by the film frame. It also would have been impractical and unnecessary for Buster to film such a short scene so far away from Los Angeles. Was “Hardy” a false lead?

Still searching in Google Books, I then found a legal document Decisions of the Railroad Commission of the State of California: Volume 8 which details a complaint filed by Charles S. Hardy regarding the commodity rate for shipping fresh meats and packing house products from Los Angeles to San Diego, citing an unfair advantage for Los Angeles companies. This indicated Charles S. Hardy also had facilities in the Los Angeles area. I searched the Los Angeles Public Library online historic phone directories and discovered a listing for Chas. S Hardy in the 1924 volume. Then another hit from Southwest Builder and Contractor (1922) provided the street number 861.

Armed finally with an actual address, I visited another favorite website for research; Historic Aerials. Their collection of images is a virtual time machine. Simply entering an address can reveal multiple aerial shots and topographic maps spanning many years. The following image reveals 861 Traction Ave in 1948. Several details seem to match the film still, including nearby railroad tracks and a loading dock that comes to a point.

Checking contemporary Google Earth for 861 Traction Avenue, the location is now a parking lot, however the adjacent building at 843 Traction Avenue still exists!

Returning to the historic phone directories, I found the California Warehouse Company at 843 Traction Avenue in 1923. Also sharing this address in 1923, the Binford Building.

It turns out this is the back of a building (actually two very closely adjacent buildings) in the Arts District of Los Angeles that includes the Binford Lofts. This exterior filming location recently depicted the home of the main characters in Zooey Deschanel’s television series New Girl – a location explored in detail by Lindsay Blake on her excellent filming location blog iamnotastalker.com.

After checking back in with John he located this excellent image from 1934, showing the Chas. S. Hardy building, still standing in the spot which today is a parking lot. FrameFinder c-2917 z-36.

It turns out Buster is utilizing an area he would return to later in the film. In the sequence pictured above, Buster is standing on top of the train as it turns right entering the Santa Fe freight depot off 4th Street near downtown. We can see the California Warehouse Co. and directly above Buster’s head a sign that says “Hardy.” The matching color views were taken in 1996 and 2020. Note the long row of rectangular windows behind Buster along the Santa Fe loading dock.

This same dock with the rectangular windows appears viewed from the other side, visible in the far left background, beyond what appears to be a picket fence, as Buster takes his seat near the beginning of the film.

This aerial shot from 1931 further illustrates the spatial relationship between these locations: Yellow Star = seated Buster location; 1  Binford Lofts (New Girl future location) at 837 Traction Ave.; 2  California Warehouse Co. at 843 Traction Ave.; 3  Chas S. Hardy Fresh Meats at 861 Traction Ave.; 4  Santa Fe Loading Dock – the red arrow indicates the path of the train. FrameFinder c-1930_86.

[Update: Click to enlarge – here’s an early view of the Santa Fe freight yard, looking to the NE, showing the front of the California Warehouse building to the left (the arrow marks where Buster sat at back), before the Binford Building was built next door to the left.]

Above is a photograph of the location taken by me on a visit to the site last month. The prominent building is the former California Warehouse Company (2). Buster’s location is again marked with a yellow star. The lone tall palm tree approximately marks the spot where the Chas S. Hardy Fresh Meats building once stood (3). The reddish-brown structure below it is a dog park for the massive Aliso Apartment complex to the left, construction has now been completed since the corresponding Google Earth image above.

Matching views – 1925 and 2020. So often Buster Keaton’s filming locations reveal interesting aspects of Los Angeles history. It’s also intriguing that in this case, even the simple location standing in for “New York” utilized the Chas S. Hardy Meat Company and the California Warehouse Company – actual industrial sites that played a role in the California cattle and agricultural economies.

Above, the neighboring Maxwell House Coffee warehouse on 4th and Mateo Street, across from the depot site, in 1925, 1996, and 2020, now converted to office space. The 1996 image still bears ghost signs for Maxwell House Coffee. The color views are somewhat blocked by the 4th Street Bridge built in 1930. LAPL.

So, why does a faded ghost sign for “IMPERIAL WAREhouse” (above) appear in 1925 on the back wall of the California Warehouse Company? I have not found any evidence that it was a location for the business called Imperial Warehouse. My theory is that the term was used as an adjective rather than a proper name. Perhaps it was a term for a public warehouse where tenants would rent space, similar to a Roman horreum. Or perhaps it was simply a place to store agricultural goods from the Imperial Valley. I’m still unclear why that label was on the side of the California Warehouse Company, or why the letters were so faded in 1925.

Above, the east side of the Binford Building (Buster sat behind at the back right corner) now boasts this striking mural. Visiting the site in 2020 during a global pandemic was certainly a unique experience. This area of Los Angeles known as the Arts District is experiencing yet another re-imagining designed to attract technology-based companies. (Here’s a link to the Los Angeles Conservancy PDF tour of the LA Arts District.) Ample new residential construction is mixed in with the older revitalized industrial buildings. Traffic was light and most of the businesses were closed. The few people I saw were all wearing masks and everybody was keeping their distance. Much of the area is hemmed in with various fences and locked gates, even under the best of circumstances. An overzealous security guard prevented me from entering a completely empty parking lot to take a photograph.

Above, similar views from 1925, 1996, and 2020. The freight depot site is now a modern apartment complex. The long freight building to the right now houses SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Above, three views of the Coca Cola Building on 4th Street, now modern lofts. I often wonder what Buster might think of a stranger from the future, wandering around his filming locations with a clipboard and a camera. He probably would never have imagined the technology that brought this person there in the first place (however, in 1925, he certainly would have remembered the tragic 1918 Influenza Pandemic). Exploring these locations somehow makes the past more tangible, by grounding timeless cinematic art in contemporary reality. It’s a form of time travel which drew me to John Bengtson’s work in the first place, and why I continue to find his discoveries so fascinating. I’m all too happy to join in the hunt for clues when I can. [Modern color photos by Jeffrey Castel de Oro].

Thank you so much Jeff for sharing where and how you found these remarkable locations. I still can’t get over how you solved “CHAS. S. – FRESH MEATS.”

In closing, I’m pleased to report that Jeff’s discoveries will be part of a new visual essay I’ve helped create for Eureka Entertainment’s upcoming Masters of Cinema box set release of Go West, along with Keaton’s Our Hospitality and College. Dedicated EPA attorney and devoted Keaton fan Marie Muller visited the remote Arizona ranch site where Buster filmed (see above), and shared her wonderful photos, that will be featured in this program too.

Please help support naming the Chaplin Keaton Lloyd alley by posting a review on Google maps at this link. Prototype sign design – Piet Schreuders. Download a 4-page brochure HERE.

Below, a view from the 4th Street Bridge, built in 1930 after Buster completed filming in 1925.

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7 Responses to Buster Keaton – Ghosts of Go West

  1. Chris Bungo says:

    Marvelous research Jeffrey and thank you John for showcasing it here.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. badfinger20 (Max) says:

    Thanks John.

    Like

  3. Bob Molee says:

    Absolutely fascinating !!! I love this stuff !!! Thanks for all the hard work/research you do

    Like

  4. Tony Gannon says:

    Wonderful. I enjoy these discoveries so much. Thankyou

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jeffcdo says:

    Reblogged this on JeffCDO's Blog and commented:
    Guest post #2 for John Bengtson’s Silent Locations blog.

    Like

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