Thursday, July 14, 2011

Buster Keaton and Live Musical Accompaniment at the Somerville Theater

A coworker mentioned to me back in May that the Somerville Theater was showcasing a Buster Keaton film festival. I thought she may have confused that with the Charlie Chaplin festival they were having. I put it out of my mind until I saw something in a local town blog about the Somerville Theater showing 2 Buster Keaton shorts and 1 full-length film along with live musical accompaniment. WHAT?! And I had missed a similar showing on June 5th in which one of the shorts was my FAVORITE BUSTER KEATON SHORT EVER, The Scarecrow (1920). Well there was no way I was going to miss this new opportunity, so on a gorgeous Sunday evening, Carlos and I head out to Somerville to enjoy some Buster Keaton.

The films screened were Neighbors (1920), The Goat (1921) and Seven Chances (1925). We got to see these Buster Keaton films the way they were meant to be seen. And how is that exactly? The scenerio fit the following criteria:

1.) 35 mm print
2.) original Thomas Edison aspect ratio of 1:37:1
3.) in a theater that was around during the Buster Keaton era
4.) live musical accompaniment
5.) an enthusiastic and lively crowd that laughs at the real humor

The musician was Jeff Rapsis, a silent film accompanist and composer who travels all over the northern parts of New England performing and screening silent films in theaters. Lucky for us, he traveled further south to the Boston area to perform at the Somerville Theater. Boston is a classic film loving town so of course he was welcomed with open arms. Rapsis improvises his music. He has an idea of what he's going to play but nothing is written down. He reacts to the film and to the audience. After the screening, he told a few of us that sometimes he'll play very quiet music or none at all to get the audience to wake up and pay attention to what's going on in the film. Rapsis demonstrated a genuine love for silent films and encouraged the audience to react to the film. When the first film, Neighbors (1920), played the audience immediately erupted into laughter. Rapsis plays on a keyboard and will switch between different instrumental sounds. So at times it sounded like a full orchestra and at other it's was just organ music. I love how Rapsis played variations of the Wedding Theme in various points in Seven Chances.

Neighbors (1920) - This was Carlos' favorite film of the three and my least favorite. I enjoyed it but not as much as the other two. Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox are in love with each other and want to marry but her dad, Joe Roberts (Fatty Arbuckle's replacement) is opposed. Keaton's real-life dad Joe Keaton plays his on screen dad and they have a hilarious scene together where Buster's head is stuck in mud and Joe tries to pull him out much to Joe Roberts' amusement. I particularly loved the scene at the end with Buster standing over two other men in a three-person tower and they go back and forth across the tenement yard. Hilarious!

The Goat (1921) - Now I know where the famous Buster-behind-bars image comes from! Buster Keaton plays a scapegoat. Dead Shot Dan is on the loose after he tricked a photographer into taking a picture of Keaton instead of himself and escapes jail. Now everyone is after Keaton because they think he's Dead Shot Dan. Everyone including cop Joe Roberts. Keaton helps Virginia Fox and she takes him in but uh-oh her dad is that cop who has been chasing him! Lots of great stunts in this film and there are a lot of great gags. A slight bit of blackface but not so much that it's very offensive. This is 1921 after all. Keaton's family almost make appearances in this film.

Seven Chances (1925) - Contemporaries may be more familiar with the Chris O'Donnell remake The Bachelor (1999). This is a full-length feature with more plot but just as many wonderful stunts! Keaton plays Jimmie Shannon. A shy man who is head-over-heels in love with Mary (Ruth Dwyer) but doesn't have the balls to ask her to marry him. When it comes to light that his law firm is about to be disgraced, he learns that he could save his reputation and his company with his $7 million inheritance. However, in order to inherit the fortune he needs to marry by 7pm on his birthday, that day! When he flubs his proposal to Mary, his friends try to get him a new bride and all sorts of hilarity ensues. This film is particularly known for the famous boulder scene which happened by accident. At a screening, his tripping over some rocks got the most laughs so they shot the film again with bigger fake rocks that got bigger and bigger. It's a wonderful scene and shows Keaton at his best physical comedy prowess.

I've said it once and I'll say it again. It's great being a classic film fan in Boston!


  1. Lovely! Buster Keaton is so wonderful...

  2. This is Fantastic! I adore Buster Keaton, great images!

  3. wow how awesome that you got to see those in a nice old theater! i love all 3 of them, probly seen them each a dozen times or so :)

  4. Wow. I would love to see Buster Keaton on the big screen. His films (whether shorts or features) seem as if they were so clearly made to be shown in cinemas. I can just imagine how impressive they were!


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