Friday, July 15, 2011

Somerville Silents for July: "Neighbors", "The Goat", and Seven Chances

Conservatively, I'd say there were twice as as many people at Seven Chances as there were at Our Hospitality last month. I'm not saying it's going to continue with that sort of geometric or even linear progression, but if it does, then the place will be sold out by the fourth show. Which actually sounds like it has a great chance of happening; though there's only one more on the schedule (Steamboat Bill Jr. on Sunday August 7th), host and accompanist Jeff Rapsis sounded very upbeat about the possibility of adding more, especially upon seeing the good turnout.

(Here's Jeff. Use the Amazon links to help fund me buying a real camera, if you want.)

I'm idly wondering if we could wind up seeing some more elaborate versions at some point, as the continuing renovations of the Somerville Theatre currently appear to involve restoring its orchestra pit. Likely, that won't mean much for movies - it's much more likely being done with an eye toward making the theater a better venue for live theater - but it's not inconceivable that it could be used for something like the silent screenings at Fantasia (and, yes, I am disappointed that my current schedule has me missing The Phantom of the Opera there, though I'm seeing Sox-Yankees with a friend instead).

Anyway... Here's the reviews. Sorry for punting "The Goat" a bit; it's been nearly a week since I saw that 22 minute short and I want to get a "This Week" and "Next Week" up before starting in on Fantasia Daily.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Classics)

Silent shorts are often so perfectly, minimally constructed that characters need not have actual names; crediting Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox as just "The Boy" and "The Girl" in something like this is all the backstory one needs: The Boy loves The Girl, she reciprocates, and he'll go to great lengths to be with her.

This being a relatively early Keaton short, "great lengths" basically means lots and lots of broad slapstick, the sort exemplified by the classic "kick to the seat of the pants, hide, see kick-ee get mad at third person who just may need to be smacked around himself, repeat" sequence, which (apparently) works better if the if the two people taking their lumps are cops. That's often the case here, although it's just as often the two fathers (including Keaton's real-life dad) who wind up wailing on each other as Keaton's Boy continues to find new ways to get past his feuding fathers to see the Girl.

So it's a more mischevious Keaton than his later, better-known persona, but still quite recognizable. And prolific - despite the shot being less than twenty minutes long, it is just packed with great physical gags, from the acrobatic to the mechanical. Keaton and collaborator Edward F. Cline string these bits together very well indeed, even if toward the end there is just a bit of a sense that the story has become dispensible . Which, to be fair, it probably is.

"The Goat"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Classics)

"The Goat", while being made roughly a year after "Neighbors", seems like a major evolutionary step when viewed back-to-back. Knockabout humor is still the rule, but it's in service to a more elaborate story of mistaken identity, with the story being a far more integral part of the comedy that in "Neighbors".

And that makes it even funnier, at times; while Keaton does a lot of great slapstick - knocking cops around again - he also has great fun with the general public thinking his character is notorious killer "Dead Shot Dan" and fleeing.

There is a bit of a downside; relying a little more on the story means that when said story doesn't make sense or bits get dropped, even a short like this can feel a little incomplete. Fortunately, there's a lot of genuinely funny stuff to make up for it.

Seven Chances

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Classics)

The play Seven Chances was a hit on the stage before Buster Keaton made a movie from it in 1925, but those seven chances wind up minimized, as if they are only still in the movie because Keaton and the screenwriters figured that the audience would want to know what the title was about without them. That's more than OK, though, as the more cinematic material Keaton put in is frequently gold, including one of the greatest chases in movie history.

Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) has two problems: He's been seeing Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer) for a year but has gotten tongue-tied every time he means to propose (or even say he loves her), and, more immediately, the firm in which he's a partner with Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) has been left holding the bag on a bad investment, with them facing insolvency or even jail time. Fortunately, there's a solution - a probate lawyer (Snitz Edwards) has just informed them that Jimmie will inherit seven million pre-Depression dollars if he marries by seven o'clock on his twenty-seventh birthday. That's today, and while Mary is initially thrilled by his proposal, she changes his mind when she suspects his motives are more mercenary than romantic. Heartbroken, but not wanting Billy to suffer, he sets his sights on the seven girls he knows at the local country club. When that doesn't go well, Billy gets a story printed in the evening newspaper, and suddenly Jimmie's problem is no longer a lack of girls to marry; it's quite the opposite!

While Seven Chances has in many ways stood the test of time as well as many of Keaton's silent classics, it is rather dated in some particulars, and not just in innocent ways like having to explain the concept of an "evening newspaper" is to some of the youngest audience members. One gag, which should give current screenwriters who load their scripts with pop-culture references pause, only works if the viewer knows who Julian Eltinge is, a nugget that many in 1925 would know but which will send most in the present day to Wikipedia. Less obscure (and less amusing) examples of it being a product of its times include how discovering that a girl is black or jewish is an immediate deal-breaker, and there's something a bit off about Jules Cowles's portrayal of the Jones' black hired hand, though to the filmmakers' credit, they do not make jokes based on the premise of non-WASPs being inferior.

(I'd prefer not to spend that much time on the subject, but it is there, and may surprise people planning to show this otherwise-entertaining film to their kids.)

Full review at EFC.

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