Movie audiences first saw Buster Keaton on the big screen in 1917, with the premiere of Fatty Arbuckle’s short The Butcher Boy. To celebrate the centenary of Keaton’s first cinematic appearance, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum turns its theater over to the Great Stoneface with a mini festival of 11 shorts and four feature-length comedies.
All the films will have live musical accompaniment.
The greatest (in my opinion) of all physical comedians, Joseph “Buster” Keaton was a vaudeville star at seven. At 21, he almost accidentally joined up with Arbuckle, then second only to Charlie Chaplin in popularity amongst movie comedians. In 1920, independent producer Joseph Schenck gave Keaton a studio and a very long leash.
Over the next decade, Keaton created a body of work that stands amongst the best in comic cinema. His films were visually beautiful, occasionally surreal, and very funny. And they always centered on Keaton the performer, with his passive face and expressive body. A great acrobat as well as a great comedian and filmmaker, his stunts were spectacular, breathtaking, beautiful, appropriate to the story, and hilarious.
Watch this video for a taste of what Keaton could do in front of a camera. The get the full effect, you’ll have to see the movies.
Here are some of the festival’s highlights:
The Cameraman, Saturday, 1:00
Keaton’s first film at MGM after breaking with Schenck is one of his best (and arguably his last great film). Keaton plays a photographer trying to break into newsreels. With two of his shorts: The Haunted House (one of my favorites) and The High Sign. Judy Rosenberg at the piano.
Steamboat Bill Jr., Saturday, 3:30
In his last movie for Schenck, Keaton plays the effeminate son of a macho steamboat captain who’s fighting against big business. Breathtaking and exciting, and very funny, it contains what is probably the most dangerous stunt ever performed, and certainly the most dangerous one done by a major star. With the shorts One Week (one of his best) and The Play House (which contains some incredible in-the-camera special effects). Jon Mirsalis at the Kurzweil.
The General, Sunday, 3:30
Keaton’s masterpiece is probably the greatest train movie ever made. Keaton places his comic character at the center of a seemingly serious Civil War epic, as a train engineer trying to recover his stolen engine. In doing so, he created the comic adventure. With the shorts The Scarecrow and The Boat. Dean Mora at the piano.
If you want to read more about Keaton, here are some of my previous articles: