Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2005
By James Verini
Among lovers of early American cinema, there is one indispensable question: Buster or Chaplin? That is, do you prefer the elaborate sight gags and implacable frown of Buster Keaton or the intimate bumbling and sentimentality of the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin? Silent film buffs tend to believe you can peer into someone’s soul based on the answer.
John Bengtson is a corporate lawyer who has written a book about Keaton — one that painstakingly details the locations in his films, set mostly in L.A. — which he will discuss Saturday as part of UCLA’s Keaton tribute. He is also a walking encyclopedia about Chaplin. But when push comes to shove, Bengtson admits he’s a Keaton man.
“Buster was cool,” he said. “He didn’t want the audience to feel things with him like Chaplin did. Keaton was more removed. He wasn’t looking for that connection.”
Indeed, Keaton’s nom de camera was the Great Stone Face. But he was a natural performer. Born Joseph Frank Keaton to vaudeville performers in 1895, he reputedly got his “Buster” moniker from Harry Houdini, who saw the 6-month-old fall unscathed down a flight of stairs. In 1917, he started working on movies with the soon-to-be-disgraced Fatty Arbuckle, before embarking on his career as writer-director-star in the ’20s.
It is not surprising that Bengtson should prefer the auteur Keaton. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Bengtson moves his tall frame with a back-and-forth indecision that calls the silent star to mind. The 47-year-old, who lives with his wife and three daughters in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek, is even prone to the occasional inadvertent gag. Sitting down at an outdoor cafe on Lombard Street, Bengtson nearly fell out of his chair when it broke. He righted himself, a look of dampened alarm on his face.
“I guess it’s appropriate that I should take a pratfall,” he said.
Bengtson had wanted to meet at this spot because it was there that, 83 years earlier, Keaton had filmed a chase scene for “Daydreams,” a short in which he played a young bumpkin who’d come to make his fortune in the big city — so as to marry his best girl.
“Buster came running around this corner, with the cops chasing him,” Bengtson said, swiveling and pointing like a director, “and then he ran past that building and around that corner.”
Such is the devotion to detail by silent film buffs of Bengtson’s caliber. They focus on the choreography of gags, facial expressions, framings and cuts — down to the second. To the silent stars’ later, awkward talkie work they pay far less heed.
Bengtson’s specialty is places. He can watch almost any scene in almost any of the roughly 30 films Keaton directed and say in a moment where it was filmed. So canny is Bengtson’s skill that he published his first book on the subject in 1999. In “Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton,” Bengtson analyzes hundreds of frames and matches them with locations, for the most part in L.A. Because his baroque stunts and crowd scenes required so much space, Keaton usually filmed on location.
Bengtson insists he is not a fanatic. “It was just a silly little thing that was fun to do,” he said of his book, which took up his evenings and weekends for three years. “My life isn’t consumed with this stuff.”
But at other times his enthusiasm seems to betray him.
“I don’t want to sound deranged,” he said, recounting the events — meeting Keaton’s widow and son, finding like-minded souls in Web chat groups — that led to his book, “but it is like I was meant to do this.
“I guess if I’m obsessed with anything, I’m obsessed with old photographs and imagining myself in them. I’ve become obsessed with how L.A. looked in the ’20s.”
As a young man, Bengtson collected silent movies on High-8. Now he has all of Keaton’s films on DVD, a technology that has made his singular form of research possible. He freezes the movies on his computer, and then, with the aid of old city and insurance company maps and satellite photography, all of it readily available on the Web, he matches them with current-day shots of the same locations.
He is now doing the same thing for Chaplin’s larger body of work, with a book due in the fall.
“The silent era was such a distinct period of time,” he said. “There was a beginning, a middle and an end. And then it was over. And it’s never going to come back.”