Here Comes Buster

If I had to pick one film that tied together the interests of most visitors to the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre, it would be Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent comedy The General. A close second would be The Phantom of the Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney. 

Keaton’s acrobatics and storytelling skills in The General have both artistic and entertainment value, and the wide range of scenes in the movie have given organists and other musicans at these theaters plenty of chances to show off their stuff.  I’ve seen The General a total of about five or six times at these movie palaces.

This spring, all three theaters will be showing different films starring Keaton.  On March 26, the Ann Arbor Film Festival at the Michigan will present the 1925 feature Seven Chances.  Later, the DFT’s current Saturday afternoon series of silent films will include four short Keaton films from the early 1920s.  And the Redford’s 80th anniversary celebration will include another short Keaton film, The Electric House.

These films follow the March 8 showings of Keaton’s One Week (1920) and The Blacksmith (1922) at the Redford.  Organist Lance Luce’s smooth, skilled accompaniment was part of an evening of entertainment that also included popular songs, sacred music, and bouncy audience sing-alongs.

One Week was the first chance for audiences to see Keaton in a starring role, after starting his career in support of Fatty Arbuckle.

“…the very first film Keaton released as a star, once his association with Arbuckle had ended, was, breath-takingly, an explosion of style,” wrote Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns (1975). “To sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then come upon One Week is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming.”

This movie will also be part of a four-film salute to Keaton on April 19 at the Detroit Film Theatre that also will include Daydreams (1922), The Boat (1921), and The Balloonatic (1923).  These comedies helped bring worldwide fame to Keaton, who in 1923 started focusing on feature films.  Live musical accompaniment will be provided at the DFT for these movies by pianist David Drazin.

Later on April 19, you can see another Keaton short movie from this period at the Redford, which will be celebrating its 80th anniversary that day.  The birthday entertainment will include organist John Lauter’s accompaniment for The Electric House (1922).

Keaton’s peak period of feature films (1923-1928) included Seven Chances (1925), where, “to inherit a fortune, he advertises for a bride; 500 turn up at the church—and give chase—perhaps the best he did, bedeviled by falling boulders.” (The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, David Shipman) 

This film will be screened on March 26 at the Michigan Theater as part of this year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival.  Providing musical accompaniment will be bLuE daHLia, with a distinctive array of instrumentation that includes guitars, mandolin, flute, and saxophone.  It promises to be a unique evening, as skilled musicians expand the possibilities of silent film music, which plays a big part in the emotional and narrative impact of these ancient, glittering images.   

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Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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