The face of comedy, Buster Keaton
  • The face of comedy, Buster Keaton
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Is it me, or has Landmark’s Ken Cinema become San Diego’s big screen answer to the A&E Biography channel? Truth be told, my adulation over Pick of the Litter was guided more by a love of dogs than visual storytelling. Starting Friday, patrons will receive a welcome upgrade to first class with the premier of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster, followed on November 10 and 11 by a double-feature presentation of the Keaton essentials Sherlock, Jr. and Seven Chances.

Growing up, the great Stone Face was a regular on television. Who knew at the age of six that the guy on Candid Camera whose wig winds up in the soup would forever change the way one looks at comedy? I didn’t come to appreciate Buster as an artist until relatively late in my single-screen upbringing: it was 1980 when a local repertory house dedicated a series to the silent clowns: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, plus a revival of the major Keaton-directed shorts and features.

An important techincal aside: ever wonder why your earliest memories of silent movies are of choppy, unusually accelerated movement? Silent films were photographed at 18 frames-per-second. When sound came in, the frame rate jumped to 24 frames-per-second. Unless one had access to a museum-caliber variable-speed 35mm projector, silent movies spent something like four decades being shown at the wrong speed. (If the question is ever posed in the form of a bar bet, the first silent film to play television at the proper speed was a presentation of Potemkin on the 1972 omnibus series, Film Odyssey.)

When it comes to pure visual comedy, there is no greater director than Buster Keaton. Not Lubitsch, not Chaplin, not Lloyd, not Sturges, not Tashlin, not Wilder — nobody even comes close. The guy broke his back to make audiences laugh. Without the aid of a shooting script, Keaton labored on film much the same way an illustrator would on a sketchpad. The resourceful Buster instinctively knew where to place his camera so as to maximize gag potential. He also had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly where his body was in relation to everything else in the frame. Buster frequently brought along surveyor’s instruments to ensure that his lens wasn’t off by even an inch or two. (That kind of precision is important when one of your most famous gags involves a building collapsing all around you.)

My first ride on a Keaton rodeo came via a Blackhawk FIlms Super 8mm print projected on the wall of a friend’s living room. When presented in 35mm with live organ accompaniment, my newfound appreciation of silent comedy couldn’t have been made any clearer had Androcles pulled a thorn from my eye. Luckily for posterity, Keaton took care of his camera negatives, and the prints are as good-looking as they are indestructibly constructed. They’re also as laugh-out-loud hilarious as the day they premiered.

I taught film history at a Chicago college, three semesters a year for eleven years, and there was only one title in constant rotation: Sherlock, Jr.. It was difficult to convince a classroom of students weaned on Star Wars to watch a black-and-white movie, let alone one without sound. (How tough must it be for today’s educators to compete with cellular technology?) But for 44 minutes, the students sat, collectively gasping and wiping tears, astounded that something that old could still have an effect on them.

“It’s ridiculous that film culture is so weak in America that students are allowed to dictate that they don’t like black-and-white silent movies,” said director (and cinephile) Bogdanovich. Our interview took place on October 4, which would have been Buster’s 123rd birthday. “It’s the foundation of the art, really,” he continued. “Black-and-white is a much stronger acting medium than color. Orson Welles used to call it the ‘actor’s friend,’ because every performance looks better in black-and-white.”

Most documentaries of this type follow a career in chronological order, dutifully inserting clips along the way. Bogdanovich instead presents an hour or so of biographical material and a smattering of clips, saving the big guns for the last third of the picture. He came up with the idea, “early on,” he says. “I was told that the Venice FIlm Festival had done a tribute to Keaton around eight years or so before he died. He was very moved by the extraordinary reception he got — over ten minutes. The longest standing ovation in the history of the festival! That was a good ending. I didn’t want to end with him down and out. It was at that point that I decided to show the work for which he was being celebrated. Always leave them laughing!”

Frank Capra attributed Buster’s decline to a lack of available work for pantomime artists in talkies, coupled with the popularity of cartoons. I always thought it had more to do with bad business choices and alcohol.

“Well, he shouldn’t have signed with Metro,” Bogdanovich is quick to point out. “He said it was the biggest mistake of his life. It robbed him of his freedom and independence. Frank makes a good point about cartoons. I never thought about it until he said it. Cartoons took the Buster Keaton slapstick kind of stuff, only characters like Bugs Bunny and so on were indestructible. He’d blow up and be all right. Chuck Jones told me that he was very much influenced by Buster. Frank was also right about the pantomime artists. Silent movies were all basically pantomime. That kind of acting could be very naturalistic — take King Vidor’s The Crowd for example — and then it became all about talking.”

It’s time to start boning up on Buster and Bogdanovich. Visit “The Big Screen” for more of our interview, including Bogdanovich’s thoughts on his pictures as well as talk of Jerry Lewis’s unseen concentration camp comedy The Day the Clown Cried. The showtimes for the Ken’s Keaton combo can be found at: www.landmarktheatres.com/san-diego/ken-cinema.

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