Tuesday, May 31, 2016

This week at Ogunquit's Leavitt Theatre:
Step into the ring with Buster Keaton

A vintage poster for 'Battling Butler' that renders the athletic Keaton as unusually scrawny.

Next up: Buster Keaton's boxing comedy 'Battling Butler' (1926).

I'm doing live music for this film on Thursday, June 2 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

Details about the screening are in the press release below.

But one thing about this film that has always impressed me is how it shows Keaton's sure instinct for story construction.

The storyline for 'Battling Butler' was taken from a popular stage play about a meek millionaire who must train to fight a champion in the ring.

In the play, the story climaxes in the dressing room just before the fight, when the millionaire finds out he doesn't have to face the champion. Happy ending!

However, in transferring the story to the screen, Keaton knew his character and his audience well enough to know the non-fight ending just wasn't going to work.

To quote Keaton himiself in a late-in-life interview: "But we knew better than to do that to a motion-picture audience. We couldn’t promise ’em for seven reels that I was goin’ to fight in the ring and then not fight. We knew that we had to fight."

So they changed the story accordingly—and the result was Keaton's highest-grossing film of the 1920s.

Keaton in 'Battling Butler' (1926).

How did Keaton know to do this? There was no film school at the time, and Keaton never went to any traditional school, either. He spent his childhood touring in the family vaudeville act.

I suspect that over the years, he absorbed so much about how theater audiences react that his sense of what would work in a story and what wouldn't was instinctual. He just knew.

Same thing with his masterpiece, 'The General' (1926), made right after 'Battling Butler.'

Keaton structured his Civil War story to put his role on the Confederate side, because he said (again, in a late-in-life interview) "You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South."

Why? Because the South lost? I don't know.

By the way, I'm accompanying a screening of 'The General' on Friday, June 10 at Red River Theatres in Concord, N.H. More about later.

For now, I hope you'll join us this Thursday to see Buster Keaton lace up the gloves in 'Battling Butler' (1926).

The press release is below. See you there!

* * *

A vintage poster for 'Battling Butler' (1926).

For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • jeffrapsis@gmail.com

Buster Keaton comedy 'Battling Butler' at Leavitt Theatre on Thursday, June 2

Classic silent film farce set in the boxing world to be screened with live music in historic downtown Ogunquit venue

OGUNQUIT, Maine—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.

See for yourself with a screening of 'Battling Butler' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Thursday, June 2 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine

The one-time screening will feature live music performed by Jeff Rapsis. Tickets are $10 per person.

In 'Battling Butler,' Keaton plays Alfred Butler, a pampered millionaire who is mistaken for a boxer with a similar name.

The mix-up gives the meek Butler the chance to pretend he's a prizefighter to impress the family of the woman he loves.

But then Keaton is forced to enter training for a high-stakes championship bout, with surprising results.

The boxing scenes gave Keaton ample opportunity to wring physical comedy out of the fight game, which at the time rivaled baseball in popularity.

Based on a story adapted from a popular stage play, 'Battling Butler' was Keaton's highest-grossing silent feature film and the high point of his 1920s stardom.

Keaton takes a pratfall in 'Battling Butler.'

Today Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands as one of the three great clowns of the silent screen.

Many 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."

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. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence on stage, attending school for exactly one day.

A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions ranging from sadness to surprise. In an era when movies had few special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents meant he performed all his own stunts.

In reviving 'Battling Butler' and other great films of cinema's early years, organizers of Leavitt's silent film series aim to show classic movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"These are the films that first made people fall in love with the movies, and we're thrilled to present them again on the big screen," said Peter Clayton, the Leavitt's long-time owner.

The Leavitt, a summer-only moviehouse, opened in 1923 at the height of the silent film era, and has been showing movies to summertime visitors for nine decades.

The silent film series honors the theater's long service as a moviehouse that has entertained generations of Seacoast residents and visitors, in good times and in bad.

Live music for each program will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring silent films.

In accompanying silent films live, Rapsis uses a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the full orchestra. He improvises the music in real time, as the movie is shown.

In scoring a movie, Rapsis creates music to help modern movie-goers accept silent film as a vital art form rather than something antiquated or obsolete.

Other feature films in this year's series include:

• Thursday, June 23 at 8 p.m.: 'Don Q, Son of Zorro' (1925), Douglas Fairbanks Sr. stars in this sequel to his immensely popular 'Mark of Zorro,' which opened this season's silent film series.

• Thursday, July 7 at 8 p.m.: 'A Sailor-Made Man' (1921), uproarious send-up of Navy life helped establish Harold Lloyd as a top-tier silent film comic.

• Thursday, July 21 at 8 p.m.: 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922), Mary Pickford's intense melodrama with a classic Yuletide finish. Christmas in July!

• Thursday, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.: 'Tramp Tramp Tramp' (1926); comic Harry Langdon enters a cross-country foot race to impress his dream girl, Joan Crawford!

• Thursday, Aug. 25 at 8 p.m.: 'Son of the Sheik' (1926), final appearance of silent screen icon Rudolph Valentino on the 90th anniversary of his death.

• Thursday, Sept. 15 at 8 p.m.: 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' (1927); Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper compete for a woman's favor in this epic Western filmed on location.

• Saturday, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m.: 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928); celebrate Halloween with this creepy but riveting historical tale about a man forced to go through life with a maniacal grin.

Buster Keaton's comedy 'Battling Butler' (1926) will be shown with live music on Thursday, June 2 at 8 p.m. at the Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; admission is $10 per person, general seating. For more information, visit www.leavittheatre.com. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.

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