Time Travelers: Uncovering Old LA in Keaton Comedies

Criterion’s The Cameraman Blu-ray is loaded with extras, including Oscar-nominated Daniel Raim’s 2020 documentary Time Travelers: Uncovering Old LA in Keaton Comedies, revealing newly discovered connections between Keaton’s MGM debut and the earliest films of his career. Raim’s recent works include Image Makers, chronicling pioneering cinematographers such as Gregg Toland, Rollie Totheroh, and James Wong Howe, broadcast on TCM, and the acclaimed Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, rated 97% “Fresh” on RottenTomatoes, streaming on Netflix. A “reel” life Valentine, Harold and Lillian spotlights famed storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife, Lillian, a film researcher, who worked on hundreds of movies during Hollywood’s golden age. Daniel’s profile of Alfred Hitchcock’s longtime production designer Robert Boyle, The Man on Lincoln’s Nose, was nominated for Best Documentary Short.

This February I had the honor of working on Time Travelers with Daniel (a new hero) by taking one of my all-time heroes, the incredibly knowledgeable and generous Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker, on a tour of Hollywood locales where Buster filmed. Marc has appeared in over 30 Hollywood documentaries.

Another all-time hero, Leonard Maltin, reviewed our Time Travelers program as “breathtaking – I’ve never seen a more meaningful or resonant presentation of then and now footage.”

Cinematographer Battiste Fenwick, who works frequently with Daniel, filmed us walking along Hollywood and Vine and other sites. Spending that pre-shelter-in-place day conversing and sharing meals with Daniel, Marc, and Battiste was a fascinating time I will long remember.

Another frequent Raim collaborator, celebrated animator and designer Patrick Mate, honored the occasion with this cartoon of Marc and me blithely walking past Buster on our tour. Although Patrick wasn’t involved with our project, his transitional illustrations vividly enhance the Image Makers and Harold and Lillian documentaries.

While I cover The Cameraman locations extensively in my book Silent Echoes, working with Daniel inspired me to revisit the film, and I’ve now identified essentially every scene. This post supplements material discussed either in Time Travelers or in my many prior The Cameraman posts.

Time Travelers opens with a beautiful shot of the Santa Monica Pier, where (explained HERE) Keaton shot an elaborate scene drenched by overhead sprinklers in a moving car. Buster’s audition newsreel movie footage is loaded with double-exposed mistakes (fully explained HERE), including a battleship steaming along 7th Street and Figueroa in downtown LA. And with help from NYC expert Bob Egan (PopSpotNYC.com) nearly every Manhattan location is covered in prior posts, including tourist home movies of Buster filming at City Hall Park.

One highlight of the documentary concerns my favorite new discovery that comes after Buster rescues Marceline from drowning at the boat race (staged in Newport Beach (oval in 1927 photo above) near where a small public pier stands today at 2100 Channel Road). UC Santa Barbara – c-113_1098.

When Buster runs off seeking drug store supplies to resuscitate her, cowardly Harold Goodwin swoops in to play the hero. Returning too late, Buster sees them stroll away arm in arm.

I’m familiar with 1920s era Newport Beach (Buster previously filmed there four times) and knew the little drug store wasn’t located anywhere near that beach community. Checking the scene, a brief shot revealed it was a two-story building with a high digit 3689 address. Playing a hunch, I checked a vintage phone book and quickly found Mrs. C. F. Claiborne’s grocery at 3689 Motor Avenue on the corner of Regent in Palms, just north of the MGM studio in neighboring Culver City. The large generic “DRUGS” sign was a self-explanatory prop – you can see ads for grocery items like Salada Tea and Nucoa Margarine in the window, above right.

The Sanborn maps and various aerial views confirmed the site, a two-story corner shop with matching background buildings, landscaping, and wide sidewalk median all as appearing in the movie. During the scene (above) Buster scares off a cat resting on the front steps. I successfully pleaded with Daniel to include me mentioning the cat in the program because: (a) people love cats, and (b) how clueless would it look if I noticed the street address but NOT the startled cat! The Cinema Cats blog also reports this surprise feline cameo.

As I explain in the documentary, while this “drug” store was likely selected for being conveniently located just steps away from MGM, it must have had a special resonance for Buster, because he had started his career nearby, filming The Hayseed (1919) with his friend and mentor Roscoe Arbuckle just a few blocks up the street at the Arden Grocery on the corner of Motor and National. (In my on-camera excitement I erroneously inflated the timespan between the Arbuckle and MGM films from nine years to eleven.) What’s more, Buster filmed an early scene from Sherlock Jr. (1924), possibly directed by Arbuckle, across from the same Arden Grocery, also where Stan Laurel filmed Kill or Cure (1923). So Buster carried many strong associations with Motor Avenue before filming his drug store scene there for MGM.

In the program I forgot to mention, as reported HERE, Buster and Roscoe also filmed scenes from The Garage (1919) (upper left and left oval above) on Motor and Venice, just a block south of that same The Cameraman site (lower left and right oval above).

As shown above, the two Motor Avenue film locations representing the birth and zenith of his career were just blocks away from the Grant Avenue bungalow Buster rented outside the MGM studio as his dressing room (oval above), reported in detail HERE. Louis B. Mayer would later insist Buster use instead the “Keaton’s Kennel” dressing room specially built for him on the studio lot, reported HERE. Imagine Buster’s state of mind. His friend Roscoe had been blacklisted from films for years, Buster had lost his independent studio, and despite MGM’s promises, was fighting tooth and nail over every scene. Now, traveling from his bungalow to the drug store site, Buster likely drove by the very spot where long ago he and Roscoe had once made a movie together. HollywoodPhotographs.com.

My favorite moment in the documentary is when Marc and I are standing at Hollywood and Vine as I describe Buster jumping aboard a moving fire engine at this corner. Just then a bright red, equally large tour bus makes the same left turn before us, and Marc doubles over exclaiming “JUST LIKE THIS! THAT’S THE FIRE ENGINE!” That still makes me smile.

Speaking of smiling, don’t miss Buster’s priceless blink-and-you’ll- miss-it reaction closing Daniel’s show, as the over-eager crowd of extras pushing Buster around elicits a most non-stoneface-like response.

My blog now features NINE posts addressing The Cameraman. This link HERE promoting the 2019 restored screening of the film by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, provides a brief overview of the primary filming locations.

It was tremendously gratifying working with Daniel and Marc. I hope you check out the new The Cameraman release, specially priced at 50% off until August 2 at Barnes & Noble, and our new Time Travelers program. Also on sale, for which I’ve also prepared new visual essays, are Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, The Freshman, and The Kid Brother. You can read more about my The Kid Brother essay Close to Home at this post HERE.

The Cameraman images © 1928 Turner Entertainment Co. Time Travelers images © 2020 The Criterion Collection

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, the site of the Newport Beach water rescue

This entry was posted in Buster Keaton, Culver City, The Cameraman and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Time Travelers: Uncovering Old LA in Keaton Comedies

  1. Kevin Dale says:

    Thanks John! This looks fantastic – Great extras – Just ordered

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating and, of course, informative. Lucky old Buster, eh, getting to rescue Marceline Day!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rob says:

    Great Doco – just watched on the UK release.

    Have been before but just makes me want to visit again…and see the new sign on the Buster studio – as that was done a year after I came previously…damn.

    Liked by 1 person

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