Buster Keaton in Northern California

Being the Buster Keaton fans that we are, my friend and I made sure we stopped by to see as many filming locations as we could during my stay in northern California. We mapped out some of the destinations used in four of his films, and felt that we were pretty successful with visiting them all in the end!

Starting in the heart of California’s capital, our first order of business was to find the point where the Sacramento and American Rivers meet: this is the area Keaton mainly used to portray a fictional Southern town in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). We looked through John Bengtson’s guide prior to coming here, and found that the set is built just slightly across from where we were standing.

My friend noticed that telephone poles were used in the town set, and we spotted a lone wooden pole on the far right hand side of the scene pictured below… Could it be?

We walked to the outermost edge of the riverbank, where the opening panning shot was filmed. Following the camera’s eye of looking back into the park, we tried comparing our view to the image we found, but things have obviously changed since then.

The same field can be seen right in the middle of the below panoramic image from the film. With our limited view, however, we began wondering if the scene was filmed on higher ground, or if there was more land to walk on behind the camera—before it was eroded away by time.

We then decided to go across the bridge that led to a small beach, where we had a better view of the vantage point dividing the two rivers. You can see the slight bend in the Sacramento River (left side) matching up to the scene shown above.

The last location we sought out in the area didn’t turn out as planned. We tried finding a couple of ways to reach the riverbank where the set was built (and where Buster did his most famous stunt), but we were ultimately faced with nothing but sketchy pathways and restricted access signs. Nevertheless, we took our last photo in the general direction of where those four tall towers used to be.

The following day, we set out through winding roads and sunlight-filtered forests for our next destination: Donner Memorial State Park. It was here that Keaton filmed The Frozen North (1922) on a very frozen Donner Lake. My friend brilliantly recognized the mountain peak occasionally shown in the background, and it was a perfect match!

The above photo displays what is presumably Buster’s dog (Captain) resting on top of an igloo, with Donner Peak clearly shown in the background. As we walked further along the river, the full silhouette of the mountain became much more visible to us.

The mountain can be seen at the very beginning of the film, where Buster emerges from a subway exit and  steps into the snowy wilderness. Unfortunately, the horizon is pretty washed out in the still we found, but we just had to get a photo of Buster within the perfectly-matched surroundings.

Our next task was to try and find a possible location match for another still from the film. The closest similarity we could find that resembled the slight slope of the hillside is just opposite Donner Peak.

Of course, it’s difficult to determine the location without the snow or lack of recognizable landmarks (not to mention the other factors), so we’ll just have to accept our find as wishful thinking for now.

Keaton also filmed Our Hospitality (1923) in the surrounding areas of Truckee, but finding the exact locations along the river would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Nearby, the underwater scene from The Navigator (1924) was filmed in Lake Tahoe. We had planned to go there afterwards, but the sun was inching closer towards the west, and we much preferred soaking in the Waldenesque serenity of Donner Lake for just a little while longer.

While in San Francisco, we scrambled to find all the locations within the span of two days. We decided to head up the dizzying hills to Pacific Heights first, which is where Keaton mainly filmed the beginning of The Navigator. We used this as our reference.

Note: as we were searching for a hotel a couple of months ago, we were about to give up until I suddenly came across one that seemed promising and affordable. My friend immediately recognized the street name, and it turns out that it’s on the same street where Buster filmed this scene. As if our trip couldn’t be any more Keaton-related, this happens!

There was a line of cars passing through the moment we stepped out to walk around, so we obviously couldn’t match up the photo with the right perspective. To add further inconvenience, there was a big ol’ delivery truck that blocked our chance of getting the closest match from the side of the street. However, it was a sure thrill to see that the house prominently featured in the background is still there today.

Besides the traffic, you can slightly see just how much the layout has changed with the addition of trees and more houses.

I had to scoot closer to the intersection in order to have the house included in the modern-day comparison picture, otherwise it would have been completely shrouded by foliage. Comparing my position to the above photo, I was probably standing much farther behind Buster—right next to where those finials are, which oddly look similar to the one pictured below… Stop it, brain!

The last few locations are from Day Dreams (1922), and we followed this guide to find some of them. The first one we came across is on the intersection of Bay and Taylor.

The street looks completely unrecognizable now, but the Powell & Mason cable cars are still up and running. They are located to the right of the above image in the closed-off part of the intersection.

The second location we found is the scene where Buster runs down the street before grabbing hold of a cable car at Columbus and Lombard.

Once again, our view is just slightly off since we didn’t want to step into any oncoming traffic.

The final location shows Buster running down an alley with a swarm of cops hot on his tail, just past the intersection of Minna and Second.

We were standing a little farther back from where the camera was, but some of the architectural elements can still be seen: such as the building with the tiered column towards the middle-right, and the building just in front of it.

On the opposite side of where we were facing (sadly, we forgot to take a picture), Buster walks across the street before stopping in front of a seemingly-empty cable car that is suddenly filled with police officers. We were standing on that exact corner in the lower right, just MERE INCHES (oh, and y’know, ninety-four years apart) from Buster!! Even as I write this a week later, the feeling of having seen and been in the presence of these locations is nothing short of surreal—like a kind of pleasant daydream where you’re caught between the realms of real life and cinema, unsure where one ends and the other begins.

6 thoughts on “Buster Keaton in Northern California

  1. Awesome pics. I love this kind of matching the present with the past. Of course, I, too, am a fan of John Bengtson’s amazing detective work.
    Great post, Nicole :)


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