Buster’s Brazen Bystanders

Bystanders appear frequently in the background of early films, a charming reminder of how the public witnessed the cinematic artform blossom, not only in theaters, but before their very eyes on the streets where they were made. The young girls caught on camera intently watching Charlie Chaplin through a window while he filmed The Kid (1921) (read more HERE) remains an all-time favorite discovery. Since Buster Keaton filmed so frequently on real streets, it’s not surprising onlookers appear throughout his films too. While there are many more, here are a few of the brazen bystanders to appear with Keaton in Cops (1922).

Buster’s encounter assisting Big Joe Roberts into a taxi, and pocketing his wallet, was filmed both in the late afternoon beside 590 N. Vermont (reported HERE), and in the early morning, above, miles away beside 7130 W. Sunset (reported HERE) looking east. Frozen in place, a woman stands unnoticed directly behind Buster at the corner of Sunset and Detroit to witness Joe retrieve his wallet, but not his cash.

View east along Sunset at left – click to enlarge – Buster staged the wallet scene at the lower left street corner, just a short block from the Chaplin Studio – notice the giant tent for filming The Circus. The studio corner lawn with a diagonal driveway beside the tennis court is where Chaplin posed with dogs making The Idle Class (1921) as reported HERE.

As Buster sets off with his wagon of furniture, passing the Aaron Greenfield auto wrecking yard once sited at 1019 S. Los Angeles Street, this intriguing fellow nonchalantly strolls alongside, hands in pants pockets, tie tucked between his shirt buttons. The extant Marsh Strong Building at 9th and Main, with signage for the Continental National Bank, appears to the upper left, while the buildings to the right are long demolished.

Lurking in doorways, left, heading south past the former Pioneer Lumber Co. at 1626 Cosmo in Hollywood, and heading west along 10th (now Olympic) past the side of the former E. A. Featherstone Auto Supplies Store at 958-960 S. Los Angeles St.

An army of police sneaks up behind Buster on New High Street beside the original Hall of Records Building (1911-1973) to the right, before the Civic Center was completely rebuilt, with a crowd of spectators sitting on the wall. The twin lampposts on the wall flank a sidewalk tunnel entrance into the former County Courthouse off camera further right. The landmark LA City Hall, later opening in 1928, would be built on the site to the left. Watching closely you’ll notice bystanders hunched down hiding beside almost every parked car, while the man standing between the cars at the far right even pops his head up like a gopher to stare at the camera.

Here’s a matching full view west down New High from Temple Street revealing the Hall of Records at back and the corner Court House (1891-1932). Jeffrey Castel de Oro first discovered this locale. I find it astounding Buster’s scene played out in full view of these towering public buildings, now all gone, yet only a hint of the buildings appear onscreen. The crenelated tower of the former Los Angeles Times Building at 1st and Broadway (reported HERE) appears furthest back, while the former International Bank Building, the true skyscraper Bill Strother climbs for the long view shots appearing in Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923), stands to the left.

Now the grand champion gawker, legs spread, proudly posed hands on hips like the Jolly Green Giant, as Buster pulls a fast move on some traffic cops.

Buster staged this scene near the Rutland Apartments at 1839 S. Main (reported HERE). Cops is Buster’s only film with no interior scenes, staged at four different backlots and all across Los Angeles. I have identified essentially every scene in the movie.

Buster heads east on Sunset at Detroit while a repairman works the wires and a curious child sits at the corner. The palm trees, and massive tree at back are on Syd Chaplin’s front lawn – he lived at the large home on the Sunset/La Brea corner that came with Chaplin’s studio property. 

I find these bystanders endearing. You can imagine them running home to tell their families over dinner the excitement of watching Buster make a movie. Their presence reminds us of the romance of early Hollywood, when production standards were more relaxed, while confirming that when audiences are captivated by a well-told story they are immune to background distractions. Captured forever, the anonymous images of these curious onlookers will live on at the fringe of film history.

Charlie, Buster, and Harold each filmed a masterpiece at an alley you can still visit today. Please help support naming the alley 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. This video further explains the alley – if you can, please leave a thumbs up and share it with others.

A matching view east of the corner of Sunset and Detroit. The vintage corner building has since been demolished.

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10 Responses to Buster’s Brazen Bystanders

  1. Wistful Nostalgic says:

    Yes, I find that charming too. It makes silent films even more fascinating to watch as we are seeing not only a story on early film but an element of realism too- a window into the past as it were. I love watching silent films to look at those gorgeous old motor cars, the fashions, decor etc. They are so visually appealing. It was interesting to see how those streets look today. I have to say I think they looked better as they were in the 1920s.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So much was undeveloped back then, and many commercial and residential streets appearing on film were then only 5-10 years old, looking as they were designed to look. Age, congestion, and fiberglass and florescent “improvements” lessen the appeal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Borgen says:

    wonderful post! Great to see the bystanders — I wonder if they went home and excitedly told what they saw — or maybe it was more commonplace around LA after a while? In Buster’s escape from the two cops in the street – it looks like he’s glancing at the camera! Thanks for this edition!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. rbannaolcom says:

    John ~ I am always looking for that in movies, and long ago made a comment about this phenomenon in the Our Gang book, how their curiosity about filmmakers leads to our curiosity about them a century later. Real people doing real things. Authentic time travel. Love it. You never see that in highbrow, stage-bound, posturing, “important” M-G-M films. 

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brad Alexander says:

    Hi John, Thanks for another great post. Loved the Jolly Green Giant reference. Its similar to the pose that Douglas Fairbanks was known for at the time and later used as a model for Superman.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thomas Kaufmann says:

    Great article as always John. I’m just curious do you know how long did it take to set these shots up? Were they shot on the fly, quick with little regards to who is standing or watching in the background just as long as they got their footage, or did they take time to set up the camera and perhaps that is why curious onlookers gathered when they saw a camera and film crew setting up? Thanks John.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The scene on New High must have taken much effort. All the cars are parked perpendicular to the curb, when normally they park parallel. So each car is a prop. (That block of New High was basically one block long, a T-intersection at each end, so it was easier to close off for filming.) The Jolly Green Giant shot is a true city intersection, with traffic and oncoming trolley. They must have staged it as best they could, then crossed their fingers they’d get the shot without a car blocking the view or hitting someone. Many other scenes in Cops were equally challenging. The filming locations were scattered ALL over town – the logistics of filming it all are staggering. I’m so impressed by what they did.


  6. Tommie Hicks says:

    The other day I was watching a Ham and Bud comedy and in the background I saw a woman board a streetcar. She had no idea that someone over a century later would witness her boarding a public conveyance.


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