Sunday, June 17, 2018

Attending 'College' with Buster Keaton this afternoon (Sunday, 6/17) in Natick, Mass.

Buster and co-star Anne Cornwall in 'College' (1927).

Celebrate graduation season with 'College' (1927), Buster Keaton's take on higher education.

This silent comedy screens today 4 p.m. at the Natick (Mass.) Center for the Arts, with live music by me.

More details in the press release below.

It's also Father's Day, and so it's interesting that 'College' is one of those films where Buster has only one parent—and in 'College,' it's his mother.


Strange: last month on Mother's Day, I did music for Buster's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.' (1928) at the Somerville (Mass.) Theatre, and that film shows Keaton as only having a father.

I need to better synchronize these things!

But it's odd how in both cases, the missing parent isn't referred to in any way.

In 'College,' Buster may or may not have a father. We just don't know.

In 'Steamboat Bill Jr.,' I've always assumed Buster's mother passed away long before the film takes place. But there's really no mention of it. She could be below decks making coffee the whole time, for all I know.

I chalk this up to Buster's instinctive economy as a filmmaker and storyteller. In both cases, the missing parents could have been explained, and it might have been very interesting and absorbing and all that.

But Buster and his team somehow sensed this information wasn't important to the main task, which was setting up a story to focus on Buster's character.

This fits the pattern for what we know about how Buster's films were produced. Buster and his colleagues were known to be ruthless in cutting out material that didn't work.

In 'The Navigator' (1924), an underwater sequence showing Buster directing schools of fish like a traffic cop was shot at great expense.

But when the film was previewed, no one laughed because Buster's girl was in trouble on the ship, and so the timing was all wrong for Buster's antics.

What was once planned to be a highlight of the film was cut prior to release. As Buster explained later, they had no choice.

So one of Keaton's strengths, I think, was what he chose not to put in his films, especially the longer features. They achieve a remarkable balance of story and comedy, in part because they're not weighed down by unnecessary detail.

Also, one thing about 'College' is that it contains the most sister name by a villain in any of Keaton's films: "Jeff."

See what you think this afternoon by attending 'College' at 4 p.m. Details in the press release below.

* * *

A poster for Keaton's 'College' (1927).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton comedy 'College' with live music on Sunday, 6/17 in Natick, Mass.

Cap off graduation season at Center for the Arts with screening of classic send-up of campus life

NATICK, 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, clever visual gags, and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.

See for yourself with a graduation-time screening of 'College' (1927), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Sunday, June 17 at 4 p.m. at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, and will include a classic Keaton short comedy. Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

'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."

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.'

Buster gets carried away in his campus comedy 'College.'

In reviving Keaton's 'College,' the Center for the Arts aims 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.

Rapsis encouraged people unfamiliar with silent film to give 'College' a try.

"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 do connect with cinema-goers. They retain a tremendous power to cast a spell, engage an audience, tap into elemental emotions, and provoke strong reactions."

Upcoming programs include:

• Sunday, Oct. 14 at 4 p.m. 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Eye-popping spectacle starring swashbuckling star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in top form as adventurer in ancient times who must complete a series of epic tasks to save his beloved, all set in a fantastic world of monsters, underwater caves, and flying carpets.

• Sunday, Dec. 9 at 4 p.m. 'Grandma's Boy' (1921) starring Harold Lloyd. A cowardly young man must learn to conquer his fears before dealing with a larger menace to his community. Riotous comedy that helped propel Harold Lloyd into the most popular movie comedian of the 1920s. Plus short comedy, 'There Ain't No Santa Claus' (1926) starring Charley Chase.

Buster Keaton's 'College' (1927) will be screened on Sunday, June 17 at 4 p.m. at the TCAN Center for the Arts, 14 Summer St., Natick, Mass.

The program will feature live music for the movie by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, and will include a classic silent comedy short film. Admission is $10 per person for members; $12 for non-members. Tickets are available online at or at the door.

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