Category Archives: Silent Cinema

Show People at the 2012 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

A few weeks ago I found myself returning to the town of Bo’ness here in Scotland for the opening night of the second annual Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

Taking place in the Bo’ness Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema which celebrates its centenary this year, Friday 16 March saw the organisers screen the 1928 King Vidor silent comedy, Show People, starring Marion Davies and William Haines as Peggy Pepper and Billy Boone.

I won’t go into too much detail on the film, which is a joy from start to finish, undoubtedly inspired The Artist (even if the director won’t admit it) and deserves a DVD release pronto, as I’ve written about it at length on my other site, ReelScotland.

Over there you’ll also find the following video I shot with silent film pianist, Neil Brand, a man who knows his movies and has had a lot of time to think about just what it is that makes them so special for modern audiences.

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Holyrood or Bust(er) #4: Love and Marriage

Buster Keaton in Day Dreams

Buster Keaton in Daydreams

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ve been following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog.

This final Holyrood or Bust(er) post takes many liberties with the TCM schedule and I’ve decided to end my personal Buster marathon with 1925’s Seven Chances.

Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances is a film which Buster had little interest in making and that I find hard to label top level Keaton, even if he doesn’t falter for a moment.

Opening with a clever gag involving the passage of time that sets up Buster’s ineffectual character perfectly, here he’s a young bachelor who inherits money, a cool seven million dollars, from his grandfather. The only catch is that he must be married by his 27th birthday, which happens to be that day. Cue Buster and his cronies trying to come up with the goods, namely a viable wife, before 7pm.

For many of Buster’s contemporaries the story that follows would make a fine film, but for Keaton it’s not particularly inspired. Trying to get both Buster and a girl to the alter results in a number of fun sequences, but it’s the chase towards the climax that has endured more than anything else here.

It begins with hundreds of potential brides-to-be chasing Buster through the streets and climaxes with him being “chased” down a hill by dozens of boulders, the little man dodging them as best he can. On a TV set it’s impressive but it deserves to be watched on a cinema screen, particularly the bit where he’s whacked by a giant boulder.

If you haven’t seen the film I won’t spoil things by saying whether or not he does get himself a wife, hopefully you’ll enjoy finding out.

In conclusion

Spending many of my October evenings in the company of Buster Keaton provided me with some of the finest viewing experiences I’ve had for a long time. I hadn’t seen all of the films before, meaning some of those 85-year-old misadventures were as fresh as they were to the original audiences, even if my sitting room and TV aren’t quite as impressive as the cinemas and big screen that they witnessed his antics in and on.

What has hopefully become obvious in these brief write-ups is that Buster’s work was endlessly inventive and pretty much timeless. I suspect that if I can still enjoy a silent black and white film almost 100 years after they were made, in another 100 years the basic idea of a man taking on the world and winning (in one way or another) will still be funny.

It’s also become obvious that while modes of transport and communication have changed radically, human relationships haven’t. It’s still about boy meeting girl. There are still men who’ll fight for no apparent reason and little guys who have to fight back. We still want to improve ourselves and we still have to bounce back when things go wrong.

Buster Keaton may be shy, romantic, hopeful, happy, sad and determined but so are we. Buster takes things to the next level and often stretches credibility, but most of his films are based in some sort of recognisable reality and audiences want him to succeed, just as they try to in their own lives.

I’ve still got more Buster to watch, and I may blog about them at some point, but for now I salute Turner Classic Movies for taking the time to screen such a wealth of material and apologise I didn’t manage to write about every film. As long as I showed that Buster is still relevant to film fans and the world all these years later, and perhaps inspire one of them to check out a film on DVD, at a film festival or on YouTube, I’ll be smiling as much as Buster is behind that old stone face.

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Holyrood or Bust(er) #3: Detectives, Cameramen and Charlie Chaplin

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jnr

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jnr

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ll be following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog.

This second Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover many of the films being screened on TCM on Sunday 9 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of An Artist at Work: Sherlock, Jr, Good Night Nurse, Steamboat Bill, Jr, The Cameraman, Coney Island, Back Stage, Limelight, The Bell Boy, She Went to the Races, The Haunted House and Hard Luck.

Sherlock, Jr (1924), Good Night Nurse (1918) and Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928)

Week two of this Buster-a-thon has started slightly later than planned but Sherlock, Jr isn’t a bad place to do so.

A recurring idea in Buster’s films is the dream sequence, something which allowed him to come up with even more outlandish ideas than his films set in “reality” would allow.

Here, Buster is a cinema projectionist who wants to be a great detective, but who is destined to pine after Kathryn McGuire while Ward Crane’s nasty piece of work con man tries to get her first. The opening minutes, as Buster goes about his duties at the cinema, may be more leisurely compared to what comes later, but anyone who manages to get that much humour out of sweeping some trash clearly knows what he’s doing.

The major dream sequence of the film, which sees Buster enter the cinema screen to interact with the locations being screened, is one of the most impressive moments in any of his films, and with Buster Keaton that’s saying something.

As ever, he’s not content to go for the simple gag, instead lining up each scene change seamlessly so that the joke is flawless. We’re an audience who are watching an audience watch Buster and it’s hard to imagine quite how audiences in 1924 would have reacted to something so unique.

But that’s Buster all over, always trying something new and experimenting with the medium he’s working in, while other performers were happy to work within the constraints.

That’s certainly the case with 1918’s Good Night Nurse, a Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle picture featuring Buster in a supporting role.

The pair were good friends and it shows here, Buster seemingly having a good time – he even smiles a few times! – and going with the flow as Fatty indulges in the bizarre routines that made him so popular. Fatty’s tendency towards cross-dressing mixed with a man-child type persona make him an acquired taste today, though Good Night Nurse is by no means a bad film. It just isn’t a proper Keaton film, which is the real problem.

We’re back on track for 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, a wonderful slice of Buster which casts him as the estranged son of an old sailor who comes to work with his dad, only for the latter to worry that his boy is too soft to do anything much.

I love watching this film, particularly the sequence in the jailhouse, when Buster arrives with a loaf of bread that has clearly fallen into the tool chest…ahem. The entire 10 minutes is a joy and it could have been a film in itself, Buster’s expressions and hand movements as he tries to convince his father to take the bread. Bliss.

The infamous stunt involving a house falling on Buster can be found here (he’d done it before, but never on this scale), and it still shocks 80 years on. Considered to be one of Buster’s last great films, it’s a joy from start to finish (a phrase I may have used before in these blog posts, but there are only so many ways to describe the man’s work).

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Holyrood or Bust(er) #2: Trains, boats and air balloons

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ll be following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog. This post will remain at the top of the blog until the next Sunday.

This first Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover the initial 14 films being screened on TCM on Sunday 2 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of A Genius on the Move: The General, Cops, Our Hospitality, The Love Nest, The Navigator, The Boat and The Goat, The Play House, The Scarecrow, The Electric House, The Balloonatic, The Paleface, Convict 13 and Speak Easily.

The General (1927)

Across the pond they’ll be settling down to The General on TV on Sunday evening at 8pm. Here in Edinburgh I had to go for an early start thanks to other commitments tonight, and if I did try to match the outpouring on Twitter at 8pm US time it would be around 4am in the morning here. I’m devoted but not that devoted.

I’m using the 2005 Cinema Club edition of The General, a two disc set stuffed with extras and offering two scores for the film, a 1995 Robert Israel version and a more recent Joe Hisaishi track, which I went for (listen to an excerpt here).

Written and directed by Clyde Bruckman, The General takes us back to 1861 and casts Buster as locomotive driver (The General of the title), Johnnie Gray, heading to see his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), in Georgia. Sporting longer hair than we’re used to in his earlier films (it suits him), Buster is soon caught up in the events of the Civil War, as Annabelle’s brother decides to enlist with the Confederate Army and Johnnie is expected to follow suit.

Although he’s not a coward, there’s no real sign that Johnnie wants to fight and potentially die for his country, preferring to spend his time with his beloved Annabelle and his train. Aware that not enlisting won’t be popular with his girl but being too important to the Confederate railway, Johnnie finds himself shunned and left to continue his work minus Annabelle.

It’s here that the plot really kicks in (well, just after a lovely scene of Buster sitting on the side of the train and being taken away down the tracks) as we skip forward 12 months, discover that Union soldiers are planning to play dirty and watch as Johnnie becomes the perfect anti-hero.

For anyone used to seeing Buster in his short films, finding him in a feature film, on location in the woods of Oregon and taking control of a full size locomotive can be a shock to the system. Of course it’s only right that he’s given such a broad canvas to work against, the expanded running time reflecting the actor’s increased status in the silent film arena.

With a hefty budget of $400,000, there was almost nothing Buster’s imagination couldn’t afford and the action sequences prove that he was revelling in the freedom. It seems that audiences and critics of the period weren’t quite as ready as Buster for The General and its poor performance at the box office proved he was ahead of his time once again.

Thankfully Buster and Bruckman left us with a film that is both epic and small-scale. Epic in that the various explosions, action sequences and train wrecks work perfectly on the big screen but small-scale in that close-ups of Buster’s facial expressions (don’t believe the Old Stoneface moniker) and glances (check out the scene beside the cannon near the end when Buster looks around him trying to work out how the soldiers are being shot) keeping the viewer emotionally invested in Johnnie’s plight.

An excellent start to this month’s Buster-fest, the smaller scale Cops from 1922 is up next.

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Holyrood or Bust(er) #1: celebrating Buster Keaton with TCM

Buster Keaton on TCM

Buster Keaton on TCM

There’s good and bad news for Buster Keaton fans this month. The good news is that a major TV station, TCM, has named him their Star of the Month, screening Buster’s films every Sunday in October. The bad news is that TCM is for US residents only.

Born on 4 October 1895 as Joseph Frank Keaton, the young son of vaudeville performer Joe Keaton was nicknamed “Buster” after being thrown around the stage once too often. Clever, athletic and determined, Buster worked his way up through the ranks of the entertainment world to make himself one of the greatest silent film stars alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

I’m something of a recent convert to Buster, discovering his work properly around 2006 on DVD. I was soon hooked, something about his lack of sentimentality and willingness to innovate meaning that every picture was like an experiment with the medium that we were priviliged to see.

For those of us not in America it’s hard to imagine quite how huge TCM is over there. I was introduced to the channel, and its many fans, in April when I flew to Hollywood for the second annual TCM Classic Film Festival, a chance for classic movie lovers to gather and watch fantastic films in legendary surroundings.

Buster flyer at the Egyptian

Buster flyer at the Egyptian

Buster was celebrated with a screening of The Cameraman at The Egyptian Theatre, where the film was accompanied by New York band, Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks. I was in the audience for the event and, even though I’ve watched the film many times, I noticed things I hadn’t seen before as the packed auditorium shook with the laughter of the crowd. A truly wonderful evening that was worth the air fare alone.

On leaving The Egyptian I noticed a programme promoting screenings at LA cinemas [see image on right], including a weekend of Buster’s films at the Aero Theatre. Film fans have it easy in that city.

While I can’t sit and enjoy TCM’s Buster screenings, as a huge fan of the actor (I rate him above Chaplin and Lloyd in case you hadn’t guessed) I intend to follow proceedings with the aid of my various DVD sets, the TCM Twitter feed and this blog.

I’ll provide some commentary on my rewatch of the majority of the features and shorts that the US audience will be seeing and I’d recommend anyone with a Buster Keaton set on the shelf dusts it off as well, or order Masters of Cinema’s stunning boxset as soon as you can.

I’ve also got Edward McPherson’s 2004 Buster biography, Tempest in a Flat Hat, to read this month, and some compilation DVDs, Keaton Plus and Industrial Strength Keaton, which I keep meaning to watch.

You’ll also find a lot of Buster love over on film blog The Kitty Packard Pictorial, where Carley Johnson is hosting a month-long celebration.

Here’s TCM’s Scott McGee discussing the season on the latest TCM video podcast:

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