Thursday, July 21, 2022

Coming up: Keaton double feature in Vermont; first, thoughts from a screening of 'The General'

Update on Saturday, July 23: Due to extreme heat, the Buster Keaton double feature scheduled for this evening in Brandon, Vt. has been postponed to Saturday, Aug. 6 at 7 p.m. Sorry for any inconvenience. We hope to see you in two weeks for an excellent program in a much more comfortable auditorium.

Buster and co-star 'The General': two-thirds of a ménage à trois?

Last night's screening of Buster Keaton's 'The General' produced some fresh observations.

First, I introduced the film by posing a question that I'd just then thought of.

"Right at the beginning," I said to the Rex Theatre audience in Manchester, N.H., "you'll be told that Buster has two loves.

"His locomotive, and..."

I paused, as the film doesn't use words, but then cuts to Marion Mack as "the girl." 

"So as you watch the film, you'll see plenty of both. And my question to you is, which do you think he loves more?"

That got a laugh, as did my follow-up observation that 'The General' may seem to be a story about the Civil War. But on an emotional level, it's about a love triangle between a man, a woman, and inanimate object with a name.

"It's like a ménage à trois," I said, to more laughter.

But it really is, when you think about it. Buster, his girl, and 'The General.' At the beginning of the film, Buster presents the girl with a photo of himself and 'The General,' just so the relationship is clear.

I also asked people why they thought Buster changed the original story to make the Confederates the heroes and the Union soldiers the villains.

"You can always make villains of the north. But you can never make villains out of the south," Buster said in a late-in-life interview. 

I feel the real reason is that for the film to do any box office at that time in the Old South, with the Civil War within living memory, the Confederacy could not be portrayed as bad guys.

Buster raises the "Stars and Bars" of the Confederacy in 'The General.'

But last night's screening brought forth a new suggestion: that Buster cast himself as a would-be Confederate soldier as a way to add to the laugh quotient. 

If I followed the logic, the thinking was that the Confederacy is worthy of mockery, and Buster was using that dynamic to get yuks. In other words: that's the best the Confederacy can do?

Not sure I buy that, as it doesn't quite mesh with Buster's original sentiment, which pointed to the need of respecting the Confederacy.

Well, the debate continues. But there's no debating what I'll be up to on Saturday night in Brandon, Vt.: more Keaton!

Yes: Saturday, July 23 brings a double helping of yet more Keaton silent film comedy: first 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), and then Buster's boxing comedy 'Battling Butler' (1926). Press release with more info is below.

I accompanied 'Butler' the other week at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, and found the audience reaction to be livelier than usual.

A contributing factor may have been my decision to deliberately underplay the accompaniment, which seems to be a key in supporting Keaton's brand of comedy.

See for yourself by making the trek up to Brandon, Vt., where the bell rings for the main event on Saturday, July 23 at 7 p.m.

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Buster  puts up his dukes in 'Battling Butler' (1926).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Buster Keaton's 'Battling Butler' at Brandon Town Hall on Saturday, July 23

Silent film series continues with knockout boxing comedy focusing on the fight game, accompanied by live music

BRANDON, Vt.—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 screening of 'Battling Butler' (1926), one of Keaton's landmark feature films, on Saturday, July 23 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, 1 Conant Square, Route 7 in Brandon, Vt.

Admission is free; donations are welcome to help support ongoing Town Hall renovation efforts.

Live music for the 'Battling Butler' and a companion Keaton feature, 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924) will be provided by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer and composer who specializes in scoring and presenting silent films.

'Battling Butler' tells the story of pampered millionaire Alfred Butler (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Sally O'Neil) by pretending to be a championship boxer with the same name.

The masquerade leads to knockout comedy both in and outside the ring, giving Keaton ample opportunity to display his gifts for physical and visual comedy.

Buster in the ring—somewhat—in 'Battling Butler' (1926).

In the 1920s, boxing rivaled baseball as the nation's most popular sport. Neighborhoods, communities, and ethnic groups all rooted for their favorite fighters, and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey ranked as an international celebrity.

Because of this, boxing stories were popular with early movie audiences as well.

"As an elemental contest between two opponents, boxing inspired early filmmakers to do some great work," Rapsis said. "It's a visual sport that doesn't require a lot of dialogue or commentary to understand, and so was perfect for silent movies."

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

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." But while making films, Keaton never thought he was an artist, but an entertainer trying to use the then-new art of motion pictures to tell stories and create laughter.

All those talents are on display in 'Battling Butler,' which holds the distinction of being the top-grossing title of Keaton's silent features.

The program will open with another Keaton comedy, 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), in which Keaton plays a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective.

The screening of 'Battling Butler' and 'Sherlock Jr.' is sponsored by Kathy and Bill Mathis in memory of Maxine Thurston.

Other films in this year's Brandon Town Hall silent film series include:

• Saturday, Aug. 13, 7 p.m.: 'Blood and Sand' (1922) starring Rudolph Valentino in his first starring role, as a sexy bullfighter in this romantic thriller. Celebrating its 100th anniversary! Sponsored by Edward Loedding and Dorothy Leysath, the Hanson Family in memory of Pat Hanson, and Sally Wood.

• Saturday, Sept. 10, 7 p.m.: 'The Flying Ace' (1926), rare example of movies produced for black-only theaters in segregated parts of the nation; added to the National Film Registry in 2021. Sponsored by Nancy and Gary Meffe.

• Saturday, Oct. 22, 7 p.m.: 'Nosferatu' (1922) Just in time for Halloween! Celebrate the 100th anniversary of F.W. Murnau's original adaptation of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' story. Sponsored by Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.

• Saturday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m.: 'Her Sister from Paris' (1925) starring Constance Talmadge, Ronald Colman. The scene: Europe. The cast: Rich people. Effervescent battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Sponsored by Harold & Jean Somerset.

'Battling Butler' (1926) and 'Sherlock Jr.' starring Buster Keaton will be screened with live music on Saturday, July 23 at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Route 7, in Brandon, Vt.

All are welcome to this family-friendly event. Admission is free, with free will donations accepted in support of ongoing Town Hall renovations.

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