Where did Charlie Chaplin stage a throwaway gag in his classic 1931 movie City Lights—and does the street look the same today, eighty years later? The answer is yes, and John Bengtson just figured it out.
John isn’t the first person to track down locations where famous scenes from silent films were shot, but within the past decade he has become the preeminent authority on this arcane but fascinating subject. He has two books to his credit, on Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton locations, with a new volume on Harold Lloyd due shortly. Now he’s blogging about his latest discoveries online, and his site should be a regular destination for any silent comedy aficionado: silentlocations.wordpress.com
When I first met John at the annual Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas fifteen years ago, he had amassed a scrapbook full of then-and-now pictures which he—
—shared with everyone who cared to take a look. John is a lawyer by trade who lives in the Bay Area, and I marveled at his ability to pinpoint Los Angeles streets, intersections, long-defunct stores and businesses. He explained that he had learned how to use the Internet to find old telephone directories, fire-insurance maps and other public records without leaving his office! A few years later, John led an unforgettable walking tour of Buster Keaton locations in Hollywood for an eager group of Damfinos. (If you don’t know this Keaton appreciation society, you should: busterkeaton.com)
He continually refines his search methods and never seems to run out of discoveries, the City Lights “find” being the latest. The gag involves Charlie spying a cigar butt on the sidewalk while driving in his millionaire pal’s car. Charlie leaps from the car, grabs the butt before another bum can take it, and then drives off, leaving the bewildered bum behind.
John writes on his site,
“As we can see, the joke was filmed on South El Camino Drive, south from Wilshire Boulevard, across the street from the east side of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I had always surmised this was a true location, and not shot on a backlot, as the numerous balustrades, columns, and other building details in the background seemed too elaborate to be merely a set. I kept an eye out for this setting for years, but nothing ever matched up. One day it struck me that perhaps the setting was the back side of a grand downtown hotel, such as the Biltmore, but that proved false.
“For some reason I then remembered that the Beverly Wilshire Hotel appears during another scene from City Lights as part of Charlie and the millionaire’s drunken drive home. Since Chaplin had already filmed in that neighborhood, it struck me to check out the hotel on Google Street View, where I quickly matched the shot. This shot at the left from the drunken drive home actually shows the corner (oval) where Charlie grabbed the cigar butt.”
He makes it sound easy, but of course, it isn’t…and there’s more to the story, as you’ll see online.
John has great instincts and a superior memory. He is a super-sleuth and a passionate film buff. What’s more, he’s a genuinely nice man who loves sharing his work with like-minded people. That’s the magic combination that makes his books, illustrated lectures and website so enjoyable.