A Walking Tour of Silent Hollywood

Excerpt from John Bengtson's "Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin"

Entertainment journalist Jonathan Melville writes for the Guardian Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Evening News and ReelScotland. That is to say, Melville is quite proudly Scottish. (brownie point#1) Recently traveling the three thousand miles from Edinburgh to Hollywood for the TCM Classic Film Festival (brownie point #2), one item at the top of his itinerary was to retrace silent film history with a walking tour of historical Hollywood (brownie point #3). And who better to lead this noble pilgrimage than the Sire of Silent Hollywood, John Bengtson.

Older, wiser, more mature cities have duly dedicated plaques memorializing places of historic import, whereas Hollywood…. well … we have John Bengtson. For much of the late 20th Century, the City of Los Angeles went out of its way to systematically raze its precious architectural heritage from existence. A fairly recent and resounding call to arms has resulted in a Civic consciousness that has taken great strides to  reverse the pattern to try and preserve what’s left. Or at least, reverse the indifferent attitude that made demolishing history so easy. Which is why  Bengtson’s books, Silent Traces and Silent Echoes, are so vital. A prodigious work of obsessive research,  Bengtson has resurrected early Hollywood with a meticulously curated collection of then-and-now shots of filming locations from the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and (coming soon) Harold Lloyd. Writer John Patterson called it a “mesmerizing lost geography of the emergent city of Los Angeles” and it is with considerable envy (of the most amiable sort) that I post Melville’s walking tour with  Bengtson.

And do be sure to check out Jonathan Melville’s blog— an insightful treat for classic and modern film fans alike.

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

10 thoughts on “A Walking Tour of Silent Hollywood

    1. It is a real treat to have you post here, John, and I absolutely did NOT know about The Egyptian’s lineup next week– thanks for giving me the heads up! Seeing as GIRL SHY is probably my favorite Harold Lloyd film, I will absolutely be there! For the screening and for the tour beforehand– would not miss it for the world!

  1. LOVE THIS. Thanks so much for posting about it and including the video. I, too, am one of those people who go around taking photos and scouting out locations related to certain old celebrities and films (namely Larry and Vivien, haha). I think I will do a similar video for the Weekend with the Oliviers event next week! Thanks to John for the inspiration!

  2. This sort of thing always fascinates me — every time I watch an older film shot on location, particularly a city I am familiar with, I find myself obsessing, ‘That looks so familiar. I wonder where they shot it?” I haven’t been to LA in about 20+ years, but whenever I watch a Harold Lloyd film or a Chaplin Keystone, I marvel at how pristine the houses, lawns, sidewalks and streets (newly paved it seems) look, and would love to know what those locations look like now!

    When I was preparing this post on DW Griffith’s first trip to California in 1910,
    I had a similar feeling (although he and his company shot mainly in rural locations, and maybe someone visiting your site can identify these locations:


    PS: I dig your new look . . . the blog, i mean 😉

    1. Ain’t it the truth, Gene: when you watch LA location shoots in silent film, you can almost *smell* the newly poured cement. My personal favorites are the Palm Trees: today they are the iconic, towering palms bent with age. In silent film they were stubby little munchkins.
      Looking forward to reading your new post!
      (cheers for the blog’s “new look”– it is by no means permanent. going through an identity crisis at the moment. 😉

  3. Oh that I lived on the left coast so I could indulge in this bit of nostalgia. The Fort Lee, NJ silent walking tour would probably end up being quite the hike!

  4. Thanks for all the kind words, I had a great time shooting the film (it was all done in around 20 minutes, so no retakes!) and John knew all the information by heart – no notes! I’d love to get the chance to do something like this again, but it might not be in Hollywood for a while as Edinburgh is pretty far away…

    1. Cheers, mate! You know, I would be absolutely thrilled to see something similar to this video, only about your home turf. Much movie lore exists on those foggy Scottish moors of yours (NOT Brigadoon, obviously) But I’m sure I would not be the only one interested to see you take some famous Scottish locales under your keen lens…

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