Sunday, September 21, 2014

Coming up: Two screenings of 'College' (1927),
along with thoughts about a missing sequence

Dean Snitz Edwards gestures to Keaton's sports equipment, which includes football gear, a clue that part of the film is missing.

First, a humble thanks to all readers. This little blog about silent film recently surpassed 150,000 page views!

I'm grateful for the interest. And I'll do my best to keep things informative and thought-provoking.

And for you aspiring bloggers, here's a tip. The way to really increase hits is to find ways to mention Jesus in your blog.

Seriously! One of my most-visited pages ever was this modest post in which I compared Harry Langdon to Jesus Christ.

Okay, back to business:

Next up is a pair of screenings of Buster Keaton's campus comedy 'College' (1927) at, yes, two local colleges.

On Wednesday, Sept. 24, the film opens the 2014-15 silent film series at the Rogers Center for the Arts, on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

And then on Thursday, Sept. 25, we'll screen the film at the Putnam Center for the Arts at Keene State College in Keene, N.H.

Keaton's 'College' to me is a good example of how so much of silent film is like the Venus de Milo, or Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony.'

Yes, it's true that about three-quarters of all silent film is lost. But even films that are nominally complete are sometimes missing things, or exist in some kind of compromised state.

Like the Venus de Milo, such film are missing limbs. Like the 'Unfinished,' they're missing whole movements. (The gag Keaton image at left seemed a good way to make this point.)

In terms of its completeness, 'College' does not present the same problems as, say, Raymond Griffith's 'Paths to Paradise' (1925), which lacks its entire final reel.

With 'College,' it's a more subtle kind of loss, because Keaton himself apparently cut at least one whole sequence from the film.

How can we tell? Evidence exists right in the film, which focuses on a bookworm's incompetence at any conceivable type of sporting activity.

Early in the film, when unpacking in his dorm room, Buster makes three piles: baseball equipment, track and field gear, and a complete football uniform.

Then, as if to underscore his intentions, he reviews three pamphlets: one each on baseball, sprinting, and football.

In the body of the film, Buster shows his complete ineptness at baseball and at track and field. But not football!

Keaton, in interviews late in life, said that a football sequence was indeed filmed for 'College,' but that it was removed in order to avoid direct comparisons to Harold Lloyd's football-themed campus comedy 'The Freshman' (1925).

If so, that's a real shame! Not only does it mean 'College' is missing a sequence, but its loss undermines the film's overall structure.

Consider: near the end, Buster is forced to make a mad dash through town to save his girl. In doing so, he demonstrates remarkable competence in all the athletic endeavors he previously failed at. And at once point, he is seen running through a crowd, deftly dodging people like a running back avoiding an army of tacklers.

Keaton is the blur in the foreground.

So although 'College' is complete, the clearly missing football sequence is a real loss.

My own theory is that Keaton and his team may have found the football sequence was too much and took it out. At some point, audiences would naturally grow impatient with the "incompetent" Keaton, and want him to rise to the occasion. The football sequence might have bogged things down too much.

Keaton was known to do this in other films. In 'The Navigator' (1924), he filmed an underwater sequence at great expense that had him acting as a traffic cop for schools of fish. He and his crew thought they had a winner, but during previews the audience was silent.

Keaton reasoned that by then, his girl was in trouble, and the audience had no patience for gags that didn't relate to Keaton coming to her rescue. So the "underwater traffic cop" sequence, which included Buster pinning a starfish to his chest, was cut from the release print.

Who knows what other sequences were filmed but then cut? Probably quite a few. The only reason we know of the 'College' football sequence is that the released film has references to it.

Any beyond that, Keaton (and all silent film) suffers from modern-day cutting and rearranging. Take this version of the final chase from 'Seven Chances' (1925), which is on YouTube.

I can't say I'm in love with the music. But more importantly, the sequence is missing quite a few linking shots and other elements that tied it all together. It's still fun to watch (all the viewer comments are positive) but it presents silent film as a lot more primitive than it really was.

Well, despite this, I suppose we're fortunate to have pretty much all of Keaton's output as it was originally released.

That wasn't always the case. In the 1940s, Keaton himself thought much of his great work from the 1920s was lost forever. Luckily, prints of every title eventually resurfaced—and new discoveries are still being made.

For instance: At last year's Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas, I had the honor of doing music for some previously unknown footage from Keaton's short film 'The Blacksmith' (1922).

So even though it's football season, I hope you'll join me for screenings of Keaton's 'College' (1927) this week. A press release with info about the Merrimack College screening on Wednesday, Sept. 24 is below. For info on the Keene State screening on Thursday, Sept. 25, please click on the "Upcoming Screenings" link at upper right.

* * *

Keaton looks a little like one of the Gabor sisters in this vintage poster.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Classic comedy 'College' to open 2014-15 silent film series at Rogers Center

Public welcome; Buster Keaton movie about campus life to feature live music on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at Merrimack College

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s. Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and also admired for their authentic location shots and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a screening of 'College' (1927), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at at the Rogers Center for the Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

Live music for the movie will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free and the screening is open to the public.

'College' follows the story of a hopeless university bookworm (Keaton) forced to become a star athlete to win the attention of his dream girl. Can Buster complete the transformation in time to woo her from his rival? And along the way, can he also rescue the campus from sports-related shame?

The film was released in 1927, at the crest of a national fascination with college life. In addition to being a great Keaton comedy, 'College' offers vintage glimpses into what higher education was like nearly a century ago.

Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

Keaton demonstrates his lack of athletic prowess in 'College.'

As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'College.'

In reviving Keaton's 'College,' organizers aim to show silent film as it was meant to be seen—in restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will accompany the film. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'College' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find entertaining."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound. He improvises the complete score in real time during the screening.

"Creating a movie score on the fly is kind of a high-wire act, but it can often make for more excitement than if everything is planned out in advance," Rapsis said.

Following 'College,' the 2014-15 silent film series at the Rogers continues with a thriller, a war adventure, and even a sci-fi epic.

• Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014, 7 p.m.: 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927). Can a group of strangers survive the night in a haunted house to learn the secret of a will, even as an escaped madman prowls the grounds? Find out in the original Gothic thriller from silent film director Paul Leni. Just in time for Halloween, a movie filled with deep shadows, dark secrets, and a mix of humor and horror that will keep you guessing. Remember: in silent film, no one can hear you scream!

• Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'Woman in the Moon' (1929) directed by Fritz Lang. A grand sci-fi adventure epic about the first rocket ship to the moon. The rarely-screened final silent feature from German filmmaker Fritz Lang (director of 'Metropolis'), 'Woman in the Moon' laid the groundwork for all of the great outer space movie tales to come, complete with melodramatic plot and eye-popping visuals. Welcome the year 2015 by pondering a vision of the future as imagined by one of yesterday's great moviemakers.

• Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, 7 p.m.: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino. An extended family split up in France and Germany find themselves on opposing sides of the battlefield during World War I. The film that turned then-little-known actor Rudolph Valentino into a superstar and associated him with the image of the Latin Lover. The film also inspired a tango craze and such fashion fads as gaucho pants. A great way to celebrate Valentine's Day!

All films will be screened at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass.

"If you haven't seen a silent film the way it was intended to be shown, then you're missing a unique experience," Rapsis said. "At their best, silent films still connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

The opening selection in this season's silent film series at the Rogers Center will be Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927), to be screened on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, located on Walsh Way on the campus of Merrimack College, 315 Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. Admission is free. For more information, call the Rogers box office at (978) 837-5355.

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