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This Article was released October 4th, 2021 on Buster Keaton’s 126th birthday.

BUSTER Keaton: A Ride through time …

… to Chase a Legend.     


(A retrospect of early cinema use of motorcycles, Buster Keaton, and his iconic motorcycle sequence in Sherlock Jr.)


By Joe Zimmerman


Hollywood’s relationship with motorcycles goes back to the early days of film during its infancy, around the start of the 20th century.  Even before the conception of his famous tramp character, comedian Charlie Chaplin playing an overzealous villain spent the early part of his 1914 silent B&W film, Mabel at The Wheel riding a 1910 Thor 500cc single motorbike.  In the silent classic, Girl Shy starring Harold Lloyd in 1924, Lloyd also took advantage of the motorcycle and showcased the two wheel machine during part of his spectacular climactic end sequence where he commandeers a police officer’s motorbike.  It was not Lloyd’s first use of motorcycles in his films as he had previously used 2 Harley-Davidson Model “J’s” and a Henderson Four ridden by police officers chasing him while he drove a model T Ford 4 years earlier in his 1920 film, Get Out and Get Under.  As for these particular motorcycles, the Harley-Davidson J’s were primarily developed for the military in World War 1 and then went mainstream after the war, while the Henderson’s 4-cylinder motorcycles (1912-1931) were used by law enforcement because they were the fastest motorcycles of their time.


Below:  Charlie Chaplin riding a 1910 Thor single 500cc motorcycle in the film Mable at The Wheel (left), and Harold Lloyd being trailered on a (partially built) early 1920’s police motorcycle in Girl Shy (right).


Below:  1920, Harold Lloyd’s Get Out and Get Under utilizing the 1919 Harley-Davidson Model J (left) and the 1919 Henderson Four (right).

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Riding motorcycles in films during this early period wasn’t exclusive to just men, Easter Walters an American actress and motorcyclist contracted with the Pathe Film Company did as well to marginal success.  Some of her ventures on film using a motorcycle included the 1922 comedy short Taken for a Ride, where she lets loose on a 1921 Henderson Model K 1264cc with sidecar.

Below:  Silent star Easter Walters trying to take control of a runaway 1921 Henderson Model K 1264cc motorcycle with sidecar, while towing actor/writer Bob Tansey along with her (left), and Walters on her 1919 Harley-Davidson Model 19W Sport Twin (right).

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Although Taken for a Ride is an obscure one-reel film short and not much information is available on it now 100 years later, it’s at least apparent that Walters did NOT perform her own stunt riding as some may believe and claim.  It’s clear from the film itself when Walters skids and U-turns, that she is stunt-doubled by a man.


Below: Although Walters does take control of the bike for the medium shots (where the motorcycle could be trailered) (left), it’s apparent from the jawline, size of the shoulders, and back, that a male stunt-double did all the wide shots (center, right).

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It’s interesting that Walters was publicized as a daring motorcyclist at the time.  Because if this film is any indication, it appears the studio was more than likely bolstering about more skills than she really had.


Below: Easter Walters shown to be a daring stunt rider in publicity photos (left, center), used male stunt-doubles to showcase her riding skills on film (right).

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But, Walters wasn’t the only thrilling silent star to use stunt-doubles on the motorcycle, Harold Lloyd, though an outstanding athlete himself seems to have done little to no real riding in Girl Shy for his climactic end sequence.  After Lloyd grabs a policeman’s motorbike he’s only shown clearly while being towed by the camera truck for his close ups.  Lloyd personally never actually rides the motorcycle; Lloyd only appears to be, as he’s hitched and carried through the entire action sequence on a makeshift motorbike that doesn’t even resemble the actual motorcycle that he stole from the police officer.  Most of the angles in this motorcycle sequence are either from his back or they are too far to actually see his face.  Even when Lloyd is actually seen leaving the car to grab the officer’s motorcycle, the filmmakers specifically and purposefully cut to the next shot to pick him up from behind his stunt double’s back.  To note, my previous profession was as a Hollywood stunt double for many years so if an actor actually does their own stunts, production makes it a point to clearly show them.  This is not the case here with Lloyd’s motorcycle segment (or during his thrilling horse wagon segment).   


Below:  Note the missing large front center headlight from Lloyd’s rigged towed bike compared to the officer’s bike that he just stole (left), and all the wide shots of Lloyd are either shot from the rear to hide his stunt double’s face or far enough where he’s not distinguishable (right).

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Not all motorcycling by these stars were labor related as this exclusive discovery from 1927 by Charlie Chaplin’s extended family provided to Sergeant Teal Metts of the California Glendale Police Department illustrates (Below).  A very rare find indeed, Charlie Chaplin kicking it back on a 1927 Harley-Davidson 74ci JD in a behind the scenes still of his 1928 comedy, The Circus.  


Below:  Charlie Chaplin poses with local motorcycle officer, Ralph Easton Murdy, near Verdugo Circle Dr. and Glenoaks Boulevard in Glendale, California (left).  And, Sgt. Teal Metts with this historical exhibit at the Glendale Police Department’s lobby museum (right).


Photograph location discovered by historian, Paul Ayers. To view this historical photograph up close and personal, motorcycle, law enforcement, and film enthusiasts alike can find it on display today at the Glendale Police Department’s lobby museum.

Although Chaplin and Lloyd are the best known and wealthiest stars of the silent era of film, and they were indeed deserving of their status as legends in the business, there was another, a giant in the industry who stood at a mere 5 feet, 5 inches tall (some say possibly 5’6”) and who actually did do all his own stunts during his lengthy career (minus 1 or 2 which included a pole vault scene while shooting his film College).  Known as the genius among the three superstar entertainers, this architect of ingenuity, master of the gag, actor, screenwriter, director, producer, editor, stuntman, choreographer and comedian extraordinaire, was The Great Stone Face, Mr. Joseph Francis (Frank) Keaton.  Eternally referred to as “Buster” Keaton (a name allegedly christened to him by the prominent magician Harry Houdini), the Grandmaster of early silent cinema, he ingeniously used his imagination (and extraordinary physical abilities) to entertain the world like no one else had, or ever would.


Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, Buster Keaton had a love affair with machines in his films, whether it was trains (The General), automobiles (The Blacksmith), boats (The Boat, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Navigator) or a camera (The Cameraman) – and the motorcycle was no exception.  Through his films Keaton creatively used motorcycles to great success. 


Below:  In a surreal sequence from the 1921 two-reeler Hard Luck, Keaton loses his girl and his job, and decides to end it all by standing in front of an oncoming car, only to discover the two head lights approaching him are actually two motorcycles (left).  In the 1920 short film, The Scarecrow, the farmer’s daughter (Sybil Seely) weds with Keaton while racing down the road on a stolen motorcycle (in a sidecar).  In order to place the ring (actually a large hex nut) on her finger, Keaton steers the bike with his feet while wearing slap shoes (right).   


In 1920, Keaton took full advantage of a 1919 Indian Powerplus Motorcycle with what appears to be one of the first recorded handlebar “braces” (a metal rod between the handle bars) created by Keaton’s team for a daring motorcycle stunt in his first released (but second self-produced and staring) silent short entitled One Week.


Below:  Keaton standing next to a 1919 Indian Powerplus Motorcycle (left) with one of the first recorded on-screen handlebar braces (right) most likely fabricated for Keaton’s stunt gag in One Week.

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Although there were Indian Powerplus motorcycles with designed handlebar braces as far back as 1916 for accessories like lights, this particular model 1919 Powerplus normally did not come with one.  Keaton’s handlebars here seem to have been specifically fabricated for him to fall back onto the brace, as the gag required a passing biker on his motorcycle to ride between two cars to scoop him up.


Below: As Keaton, spread-eagled, tries to maintain balance between the two moving automobiles and is about to lose footing, just as the cars separate our motorcycle comes into frame at the nick of time …

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… and scoops up Buster with the use of the handlebar brace.

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Below: Though common today on motorcycles (left), it was not very common after the turn of the century for this particular model bike and handlebar used in the film, so it appears Keaton’s Indian Powerplus in One Week is a very early record of a motorcycle handlebar brace designed for a picture gag.

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Considering motion pictures were still just that, pictures with motion, and sound wouldn’t be developed and utilized for several more years (until 1926/1927), exploiting motorcycles on film was a natural process because it offered visual thrills and laughs.  But unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, Keaton took his motorcycling to the extreme for those visual thrills and laughs.  The extent of which he rode a 1923 Harley Davidson “J” model motorcycle in one film to entertain the masses, well, one could only describe as astonishing. 


Sherlock Jr.


Keaton’s 4th feature film (after 19 short two-reelers) was Sherlock Jr.; Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, once described as “the most surreal mainstream film of its time, and possibly of all time”.  The film contains arguably the most original and outrageous motorcycle scene ever filmed for motion pictures.


One of Buster’s longer productions, approximately 4-5 months (almost as long as his epic masterpiece The General), Sherlock Jr. was a very complicated film to shoot, requiring every trick in the book, from optical manipulation, in-camera trickery, post-production effects, vaudevillian gags and so forth.  It also required re-editing after lackluster audience test screenings in Long Beach, CA.  Eventually Buster settled with a 44 minute running time and left it at that.  Basically, it was not really considered a short, yet nor was it really a full feature either - it simply was, as I like to describe it, a Buster Keaton work of art.


Production started November of 1923 and the film was eventually released on April 21st, 1924.  It was reported to have been the least popular film of Keaton’s movies, earning just under a ½ million dollars at the box office.  Not a loss for Keaton by any means at the time but also not a success either.  Like many great works of art, it would take several decades before the world eventually appreciated it and recognized it for what it was – pure genius.  In 1991, it was selected for preservation at the United States National Film Registry in the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  Then 9 years later in 2000, AFI (the American Film Institute), ranked the film as being #62 on the funniest films of all-time list.  In 2005 Time Magazine ranked it on their list of top 100 films of all time.  TV Guide listed it as one of the funniest films of all time and film critic for Combustible Celluloid, Jeffrey M. Anderson, in a review in 1999 described it as being his choice for the greatest film ever made.


The innovative plot using film within film with Buster toying with reality and imagination deserves a college study course for its brilliance in story structure, imagery, cinematography, lighting, special effects and it’s overall impact on cinema, as it’s reported after the movie was released Hollywood itself couldn’t understand how much of the film techniques were accomplished.  The movie was filled with illusion and magic because that’s what Buster wanted to showcase.  It was a technical wonder wrapped around a simple storyline about a young shy projectionist (and part-time janitor and aspiring detective) at a movie house who falls asleep and enters the film he is projecting to an audience.


Keaton, playing The Boy/Sherlock Jr. is basically falsely accused of stealing the pocket watch of his sweetheart’s father (played by Buster’s real father, Joe Keaton).  Banished from her home for the crime he did not commit, the boy (Buster) returns to the movie house and after falling asleep enters the movie being projected on screen.  It’s here within the projected movie (the dream) where Buster transforms into an incredible detective (Sherlock Jr.), and with his trusty assistant, Gillette (Ford West) works to solve the crime of missing pearls and save the girl.  While the real life portion of the missing pocket watch caper is being solved by his girl, Buster resolves his imaginary crime case in his dream.  And, as the movie comes to a close, imagination entangled with reality takes place as the actors in the projected movie on screen kiss and Keaton, now awake, follows suit by kissing his girl.


It should be noted that there is a little controversy over the director’s credit for Sherlock Jr. Although the film’s sole director’s credit is noted as Buster Keaton, it’s reported that Keaton nearly ran over the “director” of the film while Keaton was executing one of the motorcycle stunts.  Well, that mention of “another director” on set brought about questions as to whom this was and if Buster was actually the sole director of the film.  Some speculate that referenced director was Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle (aka, Fatty Arbuckle), while others state it was his pal, Eddie Cline.  It’s also reported that at one point Keaton smashed the motorcycle into two cameras, while another report stated he missed both cameras and the director when he crashed into a parked car and ended up on the windshield…and so it goes.


Although Keaton regularly used Eddie Cline to co-direct his films, at this point in Cline’s career he was directing his own projects and was not available.  So since Buster Keaton and

Fatty Arbuckle were dear close friends and collaborated on some of Buster’s previous projects like Day Dreams, Buster did indeed hire Fatty to help direct Sherlock Jr., which originally had the working title of, “The Misfit”.  But, hiring Fatty was only temporary as it proved to be a huge mistake.


Between 1914 and 1921 Fatty Arbuckle was a prominent comedian star in American movies and a close second in fame to Charlie Chaplin.  He was also a director and independent producer as well as the man who took Keaton under his wing in 1917 and helped launch Buster’s own career.  But in September of 1921 Fatty was wrongfully accused of contributing to the death of a 26-year-old wannabe actress, Virginia Rappe, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco where he was throwing a party.  Charged with man slaughter, Fatty’s career was virtually over after 3 hugely publicized trials which were covered by a press industry that tore him apart (because sensationalism sold papers).  Despite the final outcome where Fatty was found completely innocent of the charges, the scandal nevertheless led to him becoming the 1st blacklisted actor in the film industry (well before the Red Scare and McCarthyism).  This tragic scandal ruined him professionally and privately.  Though Buster had good intentions in covertly hiring Fatty for Sherlock Jr., he soon realized while Fatty was directing, that his friend and mentor was a changed man – he was now irritable, impatient and cruel.  Needless to say there are different stories as to how Fatty was eventually removed from Sherlock Jr., but Fatty’s 2nd wife, Doris Deane who married him in 1925 (a year after the film was released) claimed her husband not only provided Buster the story idea for Sherlock Jr., but that he wrote and directed the entire film himself!  But note, this was coming from a woman who 3 years later would sue Arbuckle for divorce, charging him with desertion.  So, do I believe her?  Not really.  Fatty may have contributed a lot to Sherlock Jr., but let it not be forgotten that there was a reason Fatty originally hired Buster as his head gag writer and sidekick performer at his production company, “Comique (Comicque) Film Corporation”.  Simply put, Buster Keaton was born into a vaudevillian family act and raised in front of an audience.  His entire life, until by chance when he met Fatty through a friend (Lou Anger) in Manhattan while walking down Broadway, had been devoted to entertaining people.  Fatty, although a kind, good, and loyal friend, nevertheless did understand, and capitalized on Keaton’s multi talents.  In fact, Buster even stunt-doubled Fatty at times for some outrageous gag falls.


A master at physical tumbling and self-taught acrobatics, part of Buster Keaton’s performance as a child in vaudeville was to get tossed around on stage by his father, Joe Keaton.  In fact as Buster grew older and bigger, his mother ended up having to sew on a suitcase handle to the back of his jacket so his father would have a better grip when throwing him into a stage prop, or heckling audience member.  Fatty used all of his young protégé’s talents to the maximum effect (while Keaton in turn learned all about the camera and film world) and so I’m very sure if anyone wanted to have a discussion over who contributed what for who, they’d have a difficult time 100 years later – simply put, they both ate off each other’s talents.  Regardless, when it comes to motorcycles, Keaton (and his entire team, with or without Fatty) created a sequence in Sherlock Jr. that underlined his personal love for the machine, the gag and the laugh.


Keaton’s iconic high-speed ride sitting alone on the handlebars of a runaway motorcycle speeding through congested intersections, collapsing bridges, under trucks, passing trains, explosions, and so on was a testament to his physical and creative abilities.  The sequence was brilliant in humor and filled with excitement.  In trying to absorb some of the exhilaration brought about by this film, and wanting a more personal connection to the motorcycle chase, I needed to find a way to travel back in time.


With the film’s production sites scattered throughout Los Angeles 100 years ago for the motorcycle sequence, it would simply be impossible today to find these locations without the dedicated work of a truly extraordinary real life detective.  Fortunately, one such exceptional person exists.  Historian John Bengtson, and author of the book Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton, provides a clear pathway for anyone to travel back in time and visit Keaton’s historical motorcycle sequence locations.


Below:  Esteemed silent film historian John Bengtson provides direction and encouragement to explore Keaton’s Motorcycle locations throughout Los Angeles, California.

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So, with John Bengtson’s plotted course, let’s hop on the NC700X and race after Buster Keaton as he rides to a time and place where motorcycle history was made when he defied logic and reality by riding for miles on the handlebars of a 1923 V-twin Harley-Davidson Model “J”. 


The initial start of Keaton’s classic pursuit to save his girl (Kathryn McGuire) while riding the handlebars of Harley’s 1923 Model “J” started here in Los Angeles, California.


Our journey begins by traveling North on South Lucerne Boulevard from West 3rd Street.  It’s here that Buster on foot escaping his captors is chased down by a motorcycle officer, for running over the speed limit.  Where they actually stop will lead us to another location which is North up on Larchmont Boulevard past Beverly Blvd.  To continue, while Buster explains to the officer that he’s a detective (displaying his badge) and in hot pursuit of criminals, the motorcycle cop, in disguise, removes a fake mustache, and reveals his true identity.  It’s actually Buster’s/Sherlock Jr.’s personal assistant, Gillette (his name being an inside joke with reference to actor William Gillette who portrayed Sherlock Homes in theaters at the time).  So, with no hesitation Buster accepts his assistant’s offer to give him a lift and Buster effortlessly hops on top of the handlebars and off they go.

Below:  NC700X and I traveling Northbound on South Lucerne Boulevard from West 3rd Street (left), along the same path assistant Gillette used his motorcycle to catch up to Buster (right).

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Below:  Now making my way North up Larchmont Boulevard from Beverly Blvd. (left) to where Buster converses with assistant Gillette, and hops onto the bike’s handlebars and directs him to where his girl (Kathyrn MacGuire) is being held hostage (right).


Below:  After Buster jumps on the handlebars, the two men take off which brings us back up the street traveling North at South Lucerne Boulevard just passing the west 2nd Street corner (left and right).

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Continuing on we travel East on Eleanor Avenue, crossing Lillian Way (across the street from Buster’s film studio).  It’s here after riding over a pothole that Buster’s assistant, Gillette, who’s steering the motorcycle gets bumped off the bike and lands in a puddle of water.  Buster unknowingly is then left on his own, rocketing down the road calmly sitting on the handlebars.


Below:  Buster and assistant Gillette in hot pursuit ride East along Eleanor Avenue, crossing Lillian Way (left).  It’s at this same location that I am riding along (right), where Buster famously switches roles and stunt-doubles his own driver, his assistant Gillette, to complete the fall off the motorcycle.


Unfortunately for this sequence actor Ford West, portraying Gillette, was unable to do his own (dangerous) stunt fall.  In a 1958 interview with journalist Christopher Bishop, Buster stated “I doubled him because he couldn’t fall off the motorcycle so I took my assistant prop man, Ernie Rossetti (Orsatti), and put my clothes on him to be on the handlebars and I put Gillette’s things on on the back seat and of course fell off.  I doubled him.”  Luckily for Buster, his prop-man Orsatti was the same size as him.  As a side note it’s interesting that Ernie Rossetti (Orsatti), the prop-man was also an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Buster’s camera operator Byron Houck was also a major league baseball player (pitcher) before becoming Buster’s cameraman.  Keaton loved baseball and played it with his crew every chance he could.


Below: My trying to relive Buster Keaton’s classic pratfall pose from the Motorcycle scene.


Below:  After an easy U-turn with the NC, near the same intersection as the bike fall, I now headed up North on Lillian Way towards Eleanor Avenue (left), re-experiencing the exact path where Keaton was asking assistant Gillette to slow down, unaware that he had already been ejected from the bike (right).  For this setup Keaton was obviously being towed, as focus was being empathized on his expression.  Again, Buster’s production studio was located off frame on the right side of the street. 

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Below:  Traveling West on Beverly Boulevard, crossing North Larchmont (left), where Buster shot through the same intersection nearly 100 years earlier.  As you can see, and noted by historian John Bengtson, the same building on the left side of the frame is still in existence today (left and right).

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Below:  Buster carefully and quickly riding West along Santa Monica Boulevard towards Western Avenue as he avoids congested traffic (left), and me today following his same path through traffic as well (right).


Below:  Notice the building to the right of frame (discovered by John Bengtson).  100 years later it is still there.


Although traveling through time via historian John Bengtson discovered locations (Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton) was fun and interesting, the behind-the-scenes tails of what took place in order to create the Keaton motorcycle sequence is just as fun and interesting as well, and exposes revolutionary measures of trickery by these early filmmakers.  In today’s environment Keaton’s chase would no doubt be created with computer generated imagery (CGI), using green screens and require Keaton to use a stunt double for insurance purposes and so forth.  But, because of Keaton’s exceptional physical abilities and utilization of the cameras of the day made by Bell, Howell and the Mitchell Film Camera Company (which Buster, Chaplin, and Lloyd regularly used), it allowed him the ability to create in-camera effects that assisted in lining up positions for perfect transitions and re-spooling exposed film and so-forth. 

In putting all his projects together, as Buster once stated, “you have in your mind 50% before you start the picture, the rest you developed as you’re making it.”  And so here are a few of the measures Keaton and his team developed to help create the motorcycle sequence in Sherlock Jr.


Shovel Pit Crew

In the book Buster Keaton in his own time by Wes D. Gehring, British film historian John Montgomery states in his 1954 study, Comedy Films: 1894-1954, “while making Sherlock, Jr., he [Keaton] had to ride a motorcycle while sitting on the handlebars.  [During an accident, one of several on the production], he hit both cameras knocking down the director, and colliding with a car”.  Although this comment helped contribute to the whole Arbuckle directing controversy, it also stands to reason that this accident is likely referencing the sequence where Buster passes a group of ditch-diggers because he is seriously and aggressively plastered with blinding dirt.  One by one, as he passes them they each use their shovels to toss piles of collected dirt at his face.  With no brakes, a mouth full of dirt and eye-blinding filth and dust covering his face as he passed camera, well, one could imagine that the off-camera accident mentioned above took place after Buster cleared frame in this sequence.

Below: An entire roadside shovel-crew overwhelms Buster with tossed dirt.  It would have been funny if just one worker used his shovel and tossed dirt at Buster.  But, this genius took the gag to the extreme and had a dozen men do this in one single shot as he swiftly approached the camera and astonishingly maintained his balance, affirming that he himself was actually doing this insane stunt.


The Stag Party Sequence

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The “Thomas Murphy’s Stag Party” scene where over a dozen menfolk are playing tug-o-war, Keaton zooms between the competing men and drags them by pulling the rope.  For this sequence, Buster was actually using a rigged bike while being towed forward by a cable.  His Harley was inconspicuously rigged with a large wheel on the opposite side of the motorcycle so Keaton could maintain balance while riding into the rope and dragging the partygoers.  Both the additional wheel and pulley cable can actually be seen in the film.


Below: During the Stag Party event sequence, with closer examination, its clear to see the 3rd wheel on the opposite side of Buster’s Harley providing him with stability (left), as the motorcycle is being visibly towed through the tug-o-war event (right).

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Below:  A clearer view of the 3rd wheel attached to the motorcycle to maintain Buster’s balance.

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The Bridge Gap


The establishing shot (above) shows Buster heading towards another hazardous situation, this time a bridge with a missing section!  Fortunately for Sherlock Jr., two trucks driving in the opposite directions under the bridge precisely pass each other as he crosses the top of the gap.  Using the roofs of the trucks as his passage over the opening, Buster safely crosses to the other side of the bridge.


Below: Precisely as Buster heads for the gap along the bridge two trucks drive in the opposite direction under the bridge (left), forming a passage for Buster to cross over (right).


This outrageous gag was done with trick photography as the same film was used (shot with) twice to create the illusion Keaton was riding over the two trucks that filled the gap.  This technique is known as a “double exposure”.  They simply blacked out the bottom portion of the lens and implemented a shot of a miniature Keaton riding across the top of the screen and then re-spooled the same film but this time blacked out the top portion of the lens and shot the trucks driving under the bridge and between the gap.  Both setups have completely different backgrounds and the only way you can see this is by looking for a thin line across the screen where the top of the bridge gap is located.  So, after finally developing the film roll, the final print exposed both actions which appeared to take place at the same time and thereby creating a composite shot.


Below:  Keaton used double exposure of the same film to create his “crossing the bridge-gap” scene (left, center).  Notice the line across the gap at the bridge top revealing the point where the two separate shots meet (right).


The Bridge Collapse


Below:  For the portion where the bridge collapses forward, this gag was obviously safely done using miniatures.


The Tree Trunk Blast


In this sequence, unable to brake or slow down, Buster continues racing forward while plopped on top of the Harley’s handlebars, grasping onto the grips for dear life.  He heads to a construction site about to demolish a large tree trunk blocking the road.  Buster passes through the work area just as street workers blow the tree trunk in half, allowing Buster to blaze through the smoke and through a “Street Closed” sign barrier before exiting the frame.

This one shot setup was cautiously executed.  Buster’s team cleared out a riding path along the dirt so he would have better ground traction and steering control as he approached the two hollow logs separated by the smoke-generated dynamite explosion.  The separated logs were safely attached to bases on both ends by hinges which allowed the logs to safely fold up and rise out of Buster’s way.  Continuing, Buster then crashes through the precut “Street Closed” sign obstacle which disintegrates into the precut fragments.

An important factor about this shot is that like the shovel-pit crew gag earlier it was purposefully designed to allow the audience to clearly see that the stunt was definitely being executed by Keaton himself.  With legs and feet apart in the air, Buster completely stays in character maintaining his deadpan expression as he approaches and passes the camera’s frame, and for all to see that it’s really him performing the gag.


Below:  With closer examination, it’s clear to see the aforementioned path that was prepared for the motorcycle to ride over and direct Keaton to the exact break points of the tree trunks.


Below:  Two hollow logs separated by the dynamite explosion were kept in check by hinges which allowed the logs to rise up out of Buster’s way and stay in place (left).  This camera angle also provided the audience a clear shot of Keaton’s face (center) as he crashes through the precut “Street Closed” breakaway sign (right).

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Under The Hi-Clearance Crop Tractor


For Buster’s daring head-on gag whizzing underneath and through a Ford Hi-Clearance Crop Tractor, it would require speculation.  But if I had to guess, it would appear that Keaton may have actually been standing on the bike’s floorboard and used prosthetic or fake legs inside pants mounted to the handlebars, and false feet in shoes fixed to the top of the front wheel fender to keep the legs from flopping over.


Below: While Buster heads into the opening of the Hi-Clearance Tractor (left), with closer examination it appears he is standing on the floorboard (center), and actually slows down for a brief moment (you can see the interruption of his speed) just before he enters the opening.  This would suggest he used brakes to slow down.  But note, previously he stated in a Kevin Brownlow interview in 1964 that he had no brakes because the motorcycle used footbrakes and that he couldn’t reach it.  So, for that motorcycle to have slowed down the way it did for that extremely brief moment would have required him to have his feet planted on the running board.  In addition to being shot from a long distance to conceal the possibility that he is actually standing on the Harley’s floorboards, it seems as though his previously dangling (in midair) feet are now secured to the top of the front wheel fender through the entire shot, which suggests they could have been false legs secured to the fender (right).  And to underline my presumptions, the succeeding shot then returns with Buster’s legs dangling up in the air again.  It’s done so well it’s like trying to comprehend a magic trick.

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Crossing The Path of The Oncoming Train


The shot of Keaton racing past the oncoming train was cunningly and skillfully done using reverse motion.  Basically, the shot was filmed with the action moving backwards and at an extremely slow frame rate.  Keaton had the reputation for his willingness to take enormous physical risks for his projects and his production company often tried talking him out of doing some of the crazier gags, but not for this sequence.  Keaton was extremely safe as the train and motorcycle that he was being towed along on, all moved in reverse, and were traveling at possibly 1 or 2-mph.  This allowed them to exactly time the close-call perils with the train (and a car) to take place while still keeping everything safe.  “You can actually notice the slow frame rate because Keaton and his head are jittering from frame to frame as he moved slightly (but continuously) in between the exposures of each frame of film, almost making the shot an animated sequence.  This shot is effectively a “time-lapse” shot, due to the very low frame rate.  – Dan Fiebiger (EFX tech, and EFX historian, Portland, Oregon).  As well, it’s quite noticeable through the entire shot that Keaton’s hair never blows backwards as he’s supposedly racing forward.


Below:  What the audience saw during Keaton’s railroad crossing (Left to Right movement).


Below:  What Keaton shot in an extremely slow frame rate (Right to Left camera movement).


Below:  Note, in this segment the motorcycle seat’s positioning on the towed rig was way off from its original placement.  One can only imagine that Elgin Lessley the director of photography and his camera operator Byron Houck probably didn’t think the seat was in frame when they shot this sequence.

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Speeding Through Traffic


For the sequences of Buster zooming in and out of bustling city traffic, again, Elgin Lessley the director of photography and his camera operator Byron Houck – under cranked the camera film so that Buster, on the bike, could actually move safely at a slower speed than what is actually shown on-screen, where he looks like he’s zipping through the traffic.  To verify this, one only needs to look at the people walking on the sidewalk or crossing the street, as their motion is severely rapid because someone didn’t bother to tell them to slow their movement down (to match Buster’s speed).


Below:  Along 10th street (now West Olympic Blvd.) and South Vermont Ave., Keaton appears to be rapidly zipping through the traffic (left), observing the pedestrians swiftly walking about their business (right) reveals that the camera was under cranked, allowing Buster and the cars to actually maneuver slowly and safely while performing the stunt.    

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(Geographical location provided by John Bengtson, Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton)

Eventually Keaton arrives at the bad guy’s country cabin and crashes through the window of the room his girl had been held captive in.  All the while he accidently knocks one of the kidnapers through the other side of the wall and then makes a hasty getaway with his girl.


Below:  Carefully bumping into a padded log with the motorcycle, with the camera under cranked, and Keaton harnessed and cabled, he’s hurdled feet-first towards the bad guy’s cabin window but never actually crashes into the glass (left).  The following cut showing the main cabin room (thru a removed front wall) then reveals Keaton flying through (via cable line) a clear opened window and releasing or pushing out on fake breakaway window pieces that gives off the effect that he crashed through (right).

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The technical complexity for this entire motorcycle sequence required a lot of camera tricks.  Some were simple and some were not.  Some required physical agility and others post-production manipulation.  But, more than anything, Keaton’s performance was filled with raw enthusiasm.  When asked by journalist Christopher Bishop during an interview in 1958 how he managed to keep balance sitting on the handlebars of the motorcycle, Keaton replied, “I’d just go out and learn to handle a motorcycle on the handlebars.  It wasn’t easy to keep a balance.  I got some nice spills though, from that thing”.


Below:  Keaton in explaining how he learned to ride the motorcycle from the handlebars, “It wasn’t easy to keep a balance.  I got some nice spills though, from that thing”.


On a personal note, having been a stuntman myself, one of the questions I always had was how Keaton was able to take the punishment from all his falls, like the drop from the motorcycle when he stunt doubled his assistant, Gillette.  I knew he was a master of the pratfall because of his vaudevillian years of taking pure unadulterated crashes but did he wear protective gear under his clothes?  Even world-famous comedian and action star Jackie Chan who owes his career to his idol Buster Keaton is usually stuffing body armor under his wardrobe.  So, did Buster?  To find the answer to that question, I asked his 3rd wife.


In meeting Eleanor Keaton on Nov. 2nd in 1995 at the AFI/LA Film Festival, where the Academy’s Tribute to Buster Keaton’s 100th Birthday Celebration was held, Eleanor personally explained to me that her husband “never used stunt pads” for gags.  It seems then that Keaton simply acquired a strong resistance to pain, not much different than a hand or foot acquiring years of callouses from rough use, and so it seems this was the case of Keaton’s body.  


Below:  A prize possession from my collection, Eleanor Keaton’s signature on the AFI/LA Film Festival Program book for Buster Keaton’s 100 Birthday Celebration.


No illustration of Keaton’s physical resilience is better presented than during Sherlock Jr.  Although the motorcycle scene was a mind-blowing feat requiring all his physical talents, a sequence performed on top of a moving train where he hangs on the spout of a water tower almost killed or crippled him after the power of the gushing water forced him a half dozen feet down onto the train tracks where his neck slammed into one of the two train track rails.  Although having a sore neck and repeated headaches, not until many years later during a physical exam did x-rays reveal his neck had actually been fractured.

Sherlock Jr. will be remembered for many things, but the 1923 V-twin Harley-Davidson Model “J” hurdling through Los Angeles with Buster will always be for me (and for many motorcycle enthusiasts) the pinnacle of motorcycle motion picture history (along with Steve McQueen’s end chase sequence in the classic WW2 film The Great Escape).  As time would eventually change the fun and thrilling impressions created with motorcycles during Buster’s silent era, the image of the motorcycle would eventually go on to take a drastic turn in 1952 when Columbia Pictures released The Wild One, with Marlon Brando performing as a rebel bike-gang leader.  Brando’s Johnny Strabler’s antisocial-cool mesmerized audiences and influenced an entire generation of young men (and future stars like James Dean and Elvis Presley), and eventually gave birth to the motorcycle gang films throughout the 1960s.

Only until the early 1970s when the Motorcycle documentary film by Bruce Brown and Steve McQueen, On Any Sunday, was internationally released did motorcycles become mainstream and sanitized again for family consumption.  It’s this period (the 70s) that saw bikes on screen dazzling and entertaining again on a grand scale with such “Keatonian” instances as Warner Bros.’ production of James Caan and Alan Arkin’s movie Freebie and the Bean where stunt rider Mike Bast doubling James Caan causes hilarious chaos riding his motorcycle throughout San Francisco.  


Below:  After Keaton’s monumental comedic motorcycle sequence with the Harley-Davidson Model J, in Sherlock Jr., in 1924, it would take another 50 years before master stunt rider Mike Bast would bring such a precisely timed comedic riding performance to the screen again in 1974’s Freebie and the Bean using a 1971 Montesa Cota 247 trials bike.


Sherlock Jr. eventually went on to inspire many other films, with the most famous being Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1993 Last Action Hero.  But Buster Keaton himself went on to directly (and indirectly) inspire virtually every single creative force in the entertainment world throughout the globe, and that’s why he will always be remembered as what he is fittingly referred to today, as the genius.  Keaton, with his mesmerizing deadpan, gave it his all till the day he died on Feb. 1st, 1966, the same year he completed his last screen performance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  He was 70 years old.


Below:  Paying respects to a genius.




(Contributing assistance to this article:  Aaron Zimmerman)


Photos: Location Photography by Aaron Zimmerman (Additional photos courtesy of Mr. John Bengtson and Sergeant Teal Metts).  Any additional images here/in are used for informative, promotional, editorial, and educational purposes only.  All images, logos, and other respective materials are copyright by their respective owners.  No rights are given or implied in any way).




For in-depth location information on Keaton’s films please refer to John Bengtson’s book:

Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton


(It will provide you with your own gateway to the historical locations of Keaton’s films)


For additional information on Mr. Bengton’s work please refer to:


For Mr. Bengton’s additional location content please go to:

To support the Hollywood Heritage on their GoFundMe campaign to honor the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley project, please go to:


“A lot of daring came from Keaton… He was my mentor” -Mel Brooks

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