John Bengtson

Santa Monica Press



232pp/$27.95/August 1999



304pp/$24.95/August 2006



304pp/$27.95/May 2011

Silent Echoes

Silent Traces 

Silent Visions

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Early Hollywood was a very different place than today's film making community, a fact which provides John Bengtson with the background material for his trilogy of books: Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton, Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Charlie Chaplin, and Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Harold Lloyd.  Although the most obvious difference is that Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the surrounding area has grown in size and population, there are less obvious areas of change that Bengtson also covers.

Each of the books follows a similar format.  They open with an introduction to the topic, both in terms of the way movies were made, what Hollywood was like, and the works of the specific actor the book is focusing on.  Bengtson follows by providing a film-by-film exploration of the physical, often public, spaces used by the film makers to create their iconic films. Bengtson uses maps, both contemporary and period to figure out where streets ran (in some cases streets which no longer exist), as well as photographs to compare buildings in the film and in real life.  These images sport a variety of lines and circles to help the reader see what Bengtson is describing in the text.

Although many of the films discussed were filmed on location, including in Chicago (for Chaplin’s His New Job) and New York (for Lloyd’s  Speedy), each book also contains individual chapters devoted to the studios associated with each actor/director.  This means that the reader can see how buildings were re-dressed for different movies, such as the different ways the entryway to Chaplin Studios could appear to suit various needs. Many of the shots, however, were done on city streets and the streets, and often the buildings, still exist eight decades later.

In a world in which Hollywood can create nearly anything it needs inside a computer, it is refreshing to see how innovative Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd could be in setting up their shots.  Bengtson points out that all three actors tended to re-use the same streets and intersections, simply filming in opposite directions to take advantage of different buildings. Of course, they also would shoot scenes in locations which could be several blocks, or even miles, apart to create a Hollywood that met their needs for the film, even if it didn’t exist in real life.

In addition to being a history of the movies and of Hollywood, Bengtson’s work also illustrates changing attitudes.  One of the buildings which serves as a background in Buster Keaton’s 1922 short Cops is identified as a “Female Boarding House,” which Bengtson explains was a euphemism for a brothel. In the same chapter, he points out the no-longer existent “Negro Alley.” Bengtson also doesn’t limit himself to the works of his three primary actors.  When discussing Lloyd’s 1927 The Kid Brother, he points out that the same land was used for other pictures, such as D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation and that the land is now used for the Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Memorial Park.

Bengtson does a wonderful job bringing Hollywood of the 1920s to life and shows a love of the silent comedies made by Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton.  While the stills in the book can’t match the films he describes, his descriptions will make the reader want to watch the original films with the books open to the appropriate chapters as the shots and techniques are explained, adding a new dimension to these classic silent films.

Purchase Silent Echoes from Amazon Books 

Purchase Silent Traces from Amazon Books 

Purchase Silent Visions from Amazon Books 

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