Monday, June 23, 2014

Silents, Please! with Buster Keaton: "Convict 13", "The Electric House", and The Navigator

The Somerville Theatre's monthly silent film series got put off a bit earlier in the year, but few movie lovers would really complain about the circumstances behind it, as the 100th anniversary programming was a ton of fun and there have been other programs for those of us that like the silents: The 100th birthday of the Little Tramp at the Brattle, for instance, the annual visit from the Alloy Orchestra, and various shows at the Coolidge and Harvard Film Archive. But now, it's back, with a date a month staked out through November, and both theater manager Ian Judge and accompanist Jeff Rapsis mentioning that they plan to get right back into it next January after a December hiatus.

This year's slate is kind of exciting; I noticed it when I saw the announcement, but one thing mentioned in the introductions from Jeff, Ian, and projectionist Dave Kornfeld was that they're going a bit deeper into the catalog than is often the case this year. Sure, there's one show each with Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, but it's some of their less famous pictures, either shorts or movies that we wouldn't quite consider feature-length today - The Navigator, for instance, runs just under an hour. There's also more dramatic features that don't play much - D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm (with the Gish sisters) for Bastille Day in July, King Vidor's The Crowd in October, and Frank Capra's The Strong Man in November.

I love the standards - that we in Boston had three opportunities to see Safety Last! on the big screen last year was great! - but a lot of these movies don't hit the big screen very often, and being able to see them on 35mm and with Jeff at the organ is pretty great.

"Convict 13"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm)

Buster Keaton's "Convict 13" takes "just roll with it" as an attitude from early on, when Keaton's hapless golfer is able to knock himself out with a ricocheting ball, so that an escaped prisoner can switch outfits with him so that this sap can wind up back in jail where he's to be hung except... Well, it goes on from there. It's the classic sort of silent comedy set-up where the gag reigns supreme, and whatever is necessary to get from one gag to the next goes so long as it seems vaguely possible for the two or three seconds that said journey takes

And that's great; packed tightly into a twenty minute reel, "Convict 13" is a pretty brilliant demonstration how sometimes this sort of moment-to-moment cause and effect is all you need if you're Keaton's particular sort of comedy genius, because he's seemingly able to deftly redefine what the movie is with each new scene, making the brilliance of how perfectly he executes stand up. It gives him the chance to pull off any number of terrific sight gags, including some literal gallows humor, while also keeping his nameless protagonist just enough the same guy to keep things moving.

it's a goofy little movie that doesn't necessarily make much sense, but moves things from joke to very funny joke with practiced charm.

"The Electric House"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm)

I saw a stage play a couple of months ago which was based upon the idea of twin Buster Keatons in a house full of Rube Goldberg devices meant to make their lives easier despite their absurd complexity. If any specific Keaton short inspired that piece, it was probably this one, although it's one that shows up in silent comedies a lot, both because it's a wonderfully visual bit and one that reflects how the start of the twentieth century was the everyday home life was being changed by technological advancement.

It this case, it's Buster - who graduated from school with a degree in botany but was hired as an electrical engineer thanks to a mix-up with the diplomas - being tasked with "electrifying" a millionaire's house while he's away on vacation. He manages it, naturally, although the man who should have received the job sneaks in and screws things up, looking for revenge.

It's a fun little trick, in that it lets Keaton use each gag - the escalator with the bad habit of ejecting the rider out a window into the swimming pool, the table with the automated service, etc. - multiple times. The first time, it's about how clever an idea it is, even if it isn't ideally implemented, then things go haywire, and then Buster can do something resourceful and heroic (albeit with a few detours along the way). It's a classic structure, teaching the audience how something works before playing with variations on the theme - but it works almost every time when the joke is worth the effort, and Buster Keaton makes the jokes more than worth the effort

The Navigator

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2014 Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents, Please!; 35mm)

There is something wonderful about the genesis of The Navigator, with Buster Keaton and his producing team purchasing the USAT Buford on spec, figuring that they would come up with a story to take place on the retired ship once they had it in hand. It's not necessarily what one would call organic development, but it led to a cute idea and a number of funny scenes, which as far as the audience is concerned is a pretty good return on the investment.

The boat in question takes the name of "The Navigator" in the film, where its owner John O'Brien (Frederick Vroom) has just sold it to the representatives of a small nation, which has spies from that country's rival looking to destroy it - although rather than blow it up, they plan to cast it adrift and let the ocean do the rest. Before that happens, though, circumstances will put wealthy idler Rollo Treadway (Keaton) on board, along with John's daughter - and Rollo's former girlfriend - Betsy (Kathryn McGuire). Neither of them possess any particular knowledge of how to operate a ship... Or do much of anything, really.

They will, of course, figure a thing or two out as they go along, although the methods they come up with may be amusingly nonstandard (but, then again, how many people watching the movie now know how to use a key to open a can anyway?). Kathryn McGuire makes a good match for Keaton in doing this sort of deadpan comedy; she's not quite so completely stone-faced as she goes about doing simple things in silly ways, but their scenes are funnier for how neither can talk down to the other (or even give a withering look). There's also a nifty romantic antagonism that you don't always see on this period's comedies, in that while they'll run to each other after being frightened or work together, they're both stubborn enough to not want to be shown up on small things.

Full review at EFC

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