When a skyscraper collapses in the general direction of Duane “The Rock” Johnson, moviegoers can rest assured that the computer-generated chaos is not actually endangering the world’s highest-grossing actor.
When the front of a house fell around Buster Keaton, the front of a house literally fell around Buster Keaton.
Keaton’s legacy as perhaps the silent cinema’s greatest, and certainly most fearless, physical comedian will be celebrated over the next two months at Speed Cinema, which will host five free Sunday afternoon screenings of the actor and director’s landmark works, all in 4K restorations.
“His physical agility is unbelievable,” said Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed. “He was directing or codirecting a lot of the work, so there are some extremely complex sequences, both with the shots and sets … The fact that he did all this himself is just incredible.”
The screenings kick off on Sunday, Dec. 2, with “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928), which features Keaton’s most famous stunt, the aforementioned insanity in which Keaton, as both character and stuntman, escapes death by standing perfectly in line with an upstairs window as a massive edifice slams down around him.
While Keaton’s peers certainly took risks, they sometimes used trick sets and camera angles to lessen their personal danger. (Harold Lloyd’s clock scenes in “Safety Last” (1923) were shot largely on a two-story building. It’s still amazing stuff.)
Not so with Keaton. He did his all his own stunts, and in fact was so obsessed with their absolute precision that he was known to stunt-double for other actors in his films.
The “Busting Out for Buster” series, as Otto has dubbed it, will wrap up in late January with “The General,” broadly considered to be not only Keaton’s masterwork, but also the greatest comedy of the silent era. Most of the 79-minute film is devoted to a single, stirring train chase, including an iconic scene in which a real bridge collapses, dropping a real locomotive into a real river.
In an era when physical comedy was king, Keaton’s distinctive craft as an actor and comedian distinguished him from other comedy giants. Unlike Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, Keaton didn’t rely heavily on exaggerated mannerisms to convey emotion. Instead, he portrayed long-suffering, almost stoic characters who somehow persevere through the house-dropping madness around them.
He earned the nickname “Stone Face” among fans and the unending admiration among critics and fellow filmmakers for his sense of pacing and story. Roger Ebert once suggested that Keaton’s incredible string of work in the 1920s might mark him as the greatest actor-director of all time. And Orson Welles contended that “The General” was not only the best silent comedy ever made, but possibly the greatest film — period.
Otto decided to screen the restored Keaton films after he saw “The Great Buster,” a new documentary on Keaton by Peter Bogdanovich that features the 4K footage. (“The Great Buster” screened earlier this month at Speed, as well.)
In addition to a crisper on-screen image, the restorations feature new musical scores. The restorations also are set to 18 frames a second, the proper speed for films from the silent era. Later projection equipment runs at 24 frames a second, which is why characters in silent films so often seem to be moving at an artificially accelerated pace.
Otto said he wanted to show the Keaton restorations as part the Speed’s Free Owsley Sunday series as it often draws film lovers from several generations.
“Keaton’s films really sing when they are presented with an audience,” Otto said. “Our Sunday programs have people there who have seen these films many times and now may be sharing them with their children or grandchildren.”
The five Keaton works screening in the Busting Out for Buster series are:
“Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928)
Sunday, Dec. 2, at 1 p.m.
Keaton saves his lady love and her father, a rival steamboat captain, from a cyclone and the merciless river. This may be the most purely amusing of Keaton’s films, devoted almost entirely to sight gags. Marion Byron lights up the screen in the female lead.
“Seven Chances” (1925)
Sunday, Dec. 16, 1:30 p.m.
A desperate bid to get married in order to secure a $7 million inheritance results in a rambunctious chase in which our hero must elude 500 wannabe Mrs. Keatons. A little social commentary to go with your slapstick comedy.
“Sherlock Jr.” (1924)
Sunday, Jan. 6, 1:30 p.m.
A film projectionist daydreams himself into the adventures of Doyle’s great detective.
Sunday, Jan. 13, 2 p.m. (1922)
Keaton is on the run again, this time from the police. This early short (it runs at 18 minutes) exemplifies how Keaton’s everyman on-screen persona can connect audiences to almost any situation, even though they personally are unlikely to end up sitting atop a ladder amid a throng of angry cops.
“The General” (1926)
Sunday, Jan. 20, 1 p.m.
Keaton’s greatest film is not only hysterical, it’s absolutely beautiful. A reject from the Confederate Army springs into action when his locomotive goes missing. Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman capture the scope of war more poignantly than most “dramatic” wartime period pieces. And when Buster Keaton rides a cowcatcher, Buster Keaton really rides a cowcatcher.