If you’re a classic film fan and not aware of John Bengtson, there’s a big gaping hole in your life. John is a rock star film historian. I’d say he’s the David Lee Roth of film historians, and if you’ve seen one of his lectures, you know why. For the last couple of decades, John’s specialty has been identifying precise locations of movies shot outside of studio lots. This happened a lot in the early days of film, particularly in Los Angeles in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. These movies now serve as amazing time capsules of a city that once was.
John focused his earliest efforts on Buster Keaton, which resulted in the book Silent Echoes (Santa Monica Press, 1999). I like to add that the research for that book was done in the dark pre-Internet days without the aid of such online marvels as Google Maps. Plus, his research was conducted largely from his home base in San Francisco! The guy doesn’t even live in Los Angeles and was able to pin-point locations and buildings that no longer exist with hard copy maps and photos, etc. Since then, he’s given the treatment to Charlie Chaplin in Silent Traces (Santa Monica Press, 2006) and Harold Lloyd in Silent Visions (Santa Monica Press, 2011).
Maybe I am not doing John’s projects justice, but trust me, they are incredible. I first saw him lecture at UCLA around 10 years ago and the audience was mesmerized by his weaving though all these different sources to give a visually dazzling presentation that traced the footsteps of these early film giants throughout Los Angeles. When he pieced together three screen captures from different films to create a panoramic image of Downtown Los Angeles, I think we have him a standing ovation. Yeah, it was that kind of crowd.
In the ensuing years I have gotten to know John through my work at the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Leave it to him to teach me a thing or two about Ann Dvorak movies that I did not know. The most recent post on his excellent Silent Locations website focuses on location shots from Three on a Match and G Men. While I figured the kidnapping scene in Match was filmed at Hollenbeck Park, I never caught that the schoolyard scene was filmed at the long-departed Los Angeles High School. I also had no clue that G Men provided a great look at the interior of the long-gone Southern Pacific Depot (yes, there’s a lot of “long gone” in John’s work).
A little birdy told me just this morning that John has another book in the works, and I certainly hope so. In the meantime, check out his books and website and run, don’t walk, if he comes to your town to do a lecture.