Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Somerville Silents: "One Week", "The Scarecrow", and Our Hospitality

Sunday was a good day - got up, went to North Station to meet my mom and her husband who were down from Maine for the day, had brunch with them, my brother Matt, and his wife Morgan, saw the Red Sox win a game against the A's despite the fact that John Lackey came off the DL to pitch the game, had really good fish & chips for supper, and then got Mom & Bill to their train in time to catch mine to Davis Square for this program.

So, I probably can't say this set of films was the highlight of my day, but it was certainly a highlight. It's part of the Somerville theater's summer repatory and classic program, a three-pronged attack which includes Sunday morning/Monday evening classics, Friday/Saturday midnights, and a monthly silent film program on Sunday nights. All are playing on their main screen, all in 35mm (at least - there are hints that some may be 70mm).

Let me just say - if all the prints look as nice as the ones we saw Sunday night, it's going to be pretty nice. These are 90-year-old movies, and the prints seemed to be at least second-generation from the copyright notices (maybe newer - the intertitles had a digital look to them), but they looked as good as anything playing at the Somerville, and they are right up in the top tier of presentation in the Boston area. It wasn't a great turnout, but a good one, and I do hope that even more show up for Seven Chances (with "Neighbors" and "The Goat") on 10 July.

Especially the girl behind me who enjoyed it, but admitted she was mostly a big Harold Lloyd fan. Call me. That's the sort of thing that makes me develop a crush more or less instantly.

One bit of terrible photography before getting to the reviews:

Jeff Rapsis
Jeff Rapsis at the keyboard, warming up for the big show. He was really impressive tonight - his music for the prologue to Our Hospitality was especially terrific, and I'm sure my musical brothers will tell me that playing to fast-paced movies for two hours straight (no break between films), at least partly improvising, is difficult, and he did an excellent job.

"One Week"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Somerville Summer Silents)

As frantic and nutty as silent comedy features are, the shorts are oftentime even more so. "One Week", for instance, starts as a goofy little concept - a new groom (Keaton) and his bride (Sybil Seely) attempt to build their house from a kit with her old suitor (Joe Roberts) lurking about making trouble. In just twenty minutes, it becomes an increasingly elaborate series of set pieces as the house gets screwier and screwier.

Keaton and co-writer/co-director Edward F. Cline keep the jokes coming, and for a twenty-minute comedy short, the kit-house is a remarkably intricate construction, with some jumbo-sized slapstick in the latter half of the movie. They also have a little bit of fun with a bathtub scene, breaking the fourth wall with a wink and a smirk.

"The Scarecrow"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Somerville Summer Silents)

More or less the same cast and crew are together again for "The Scarecrow"; this time, Keaton and Roberts are farmhands living in a different elaborate house (this one complete and multi-functional) competing for the affection of the farmer's daughter (Seely), though neither really has the approval of her father (Joe Keaton). It's a bit of a thin story; indeed, much of it comes down to "Buster Keaton gets chased by a dog".

Not that there are very many people that you would rather see spend ten minutes getting chased by a dog, especially when you consider that this is Fatty Arbuckle's dog and quite a talented one, running, jumping, and climbing to keep up with Buster. Many of the other gags in the movie are based on the Rube Goldberg contraptions built into the farmhands' bunker - not quite as elaborate as the house of "One Week" in some ways, but still quite amusing in their ingenuity.

Much of the rest is knockabout humor, sort of akin to the Three Stooges. You don't really see this sort of "smacking-each-other-around" comedy that much these days, and that's probably a good thing, all told, but there's a sort of pure, rapid-fire, "nobody really gets hurt" innocence to it that absolutely works in this sort of unreal context.

Our Hospitality

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Somerville Summer Silents)

Consider this: There is roughly as much distance between the present day (the 2010s) and the time when Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality was made (the 1920s) as there is between when it was made and when it was set (the 1830s). Strange, right? It gives a little extra kick to some of the jokes, too. And while a little perspective doesn't hurt, you do not need this in the front of your mind to enjoy the movie: This early Buster Keaton feature is highly entertaining even without that sort of context.

In the early 1800s, blood feuds weren't uncommon, and the one between the Canfields and McKays got particularly ugly one night in 1810, leaving the widow McKay to flee north with her baby to live with her sister. Twenty years later, son Willie (Buster Keaton) gets a letter telling him he has inherited the McKay estate, and he hops a train to claim it - with his loyal dog following - the feud something his urban mind doesn't take seriously. But old Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts) hasn't forgotten, and has passed it down to his sons (Ralph Bushman & Craig Ward). Naturally, the nice girl Willie meets on the train (Natalie Talmadge), who invites him to dinner, turns out to be Canfield's daughter. It's a good thing that the Canfields' code of honor won't let them kill Willie while he's enjoying their hospitality. After dinner, though, all bets are off.

Our Hospitality is among Keaton's first feature-length comedies, and it shows some growing pains. The train trip between Jersey City and Rockfield at times seems to be shown in real time, with beats and gags that we see more than once but which don't necessarily benefit from the repetition. In some ways, time has hurt it - some of the gags are visual things that would work well in later cartoons, the weird, elastic worlds of 1930s animation that themselves look odd and dated now - but even then, it was a longish sequence that doesn't really involve or tell us anything about Willie. Like many silent comedies, it seems quite modular - the various segments likely break quite cleanly on reel marks, so that if the projectionist had any trouble with the switchovers, the flow of the movie wouldn't be broken.

Full review at EFC.

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