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Buster by the Bay

Buster Keaton in The Goat (1921)

On Saturday morning, three Buster Keaton shorts—The High Sign (1921), The Electric House (1922), and The Goat (1921)—will open A Day of Silents, a marathon run of six programs presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in the city’s legendary Castro Theatre. Then, on Sunday, Camera Man: Buster Keaton, a series cosponsored by the festival and running at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through December 21, will open with Sherlock Jr. (1924). Both series will feature live musical accompaniment at every screening.

Before turning to the BAMPFA series, let’s devote a moment or two to the remarkable Day of Silents program. The Keaton shorts will be followed by Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise (1924). Pola Negri plays Catherine the Great “and everyone else acts awestruck,” as Pamela Hutchinson noted in 2018. “Hearts and reputations are won and lost. Mustaches are twirled. Fingers and furtive glances are everywhere. A revolution rages and is quashed, and always, behind a door Negri is making a conquest or throwing a plan into disarray. It’s ironic and light, but also physical and passionate.” In Pour Don Carlos (1921), Musidora (Les vampires) directs herself as the leader of the Carlist faction fighting in the Spanish civil wars of the mid–nineteenth century.

Then Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward star in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915). “A brilliantly realized, sexually charged melodrama from a director whose name would soon become synonymous with a very different kind of Hollywood film,” wrote Thomas Doherty for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016, “The Cheat reveals an astonishingly different DeMille, not the grand conductor of a cast of thousands, orchestrating lush pageantry and pretending to embrace Judeo-Christianity while wallowing in pagan idolatry, but an artist who might have gone on to direct moody film noirs or slow-burn melodramas.”

King Vidor’s 1928 Hollywood sendup Show People stars Marion Davies and features cameos from Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and John Gilbert. It’s a “warm satire of the dream business, perfectly attuned to Davies’s sparkling clowning,” finds Fernando F. Croce. A Day of Silents will then wrap with Anna May Wong, who stars in The Toll of the Sea (1922), written by Frances Marion and directed by Chester M. Franklin. The festival notes that this is the “earliest surviving feature displaying the two-color Technicolor process” but also that the film’s “orientalism is problematic.” At the time, as “a photoplay in colors,” the New York Times found The Toll of the Sea to be “a distinct achievement.”

Back to BAMPFA. Bill Weber, writing for Slant in 2010, called Sherlock Jr., in which Keaton plays a projectionist who dozes off and dreams himself into the movie he’s screening, a “clockwork tour de force running about forty-five minutes with no fat, it stands as perhaps its maker’s most delightful creation.” Weber found Our Hospitality (1923) “not fully possessed of the surreal, dreamlike qualities that came to mark the best of Keaton’s subsequent features,” but it’s still “the first major work of his peak era, when a stone-faced young ex-vaudevillian became American film comedy’s first action hero with a singular, finely honed physical poetry that was made for the movies.”

In The General (1926), regarded by more than a few critics as his masterpiece, Keaton plays an engineer who must win back both his girl and his train after the outbreak of the Civil War. In 2014, the Telegraph’s Tim Robey wrote that The General “boasts the most sustained passages of virtuoso slapstick genius Keaton ever shot and an unflagging momentum that lets it get away with being a reel longer than most of his best-known pictures.”

On December 14, Slate film critic Dana Stevens, the author of Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,will arrive in Berkeley to introduce a string of screenings. She’ll first establish a frame of context with an evening of films by Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Bert Williams. Let’s mention here, too, that Stevens can be heard on A Very Good Year, the fun new podcast from Jason Bailey and Mike Hull in which guests discuss their five favorite films from a year of their choosing. Stevens decided to go with 1927.

Talking to Keith Phipps at the Reveal back in February, Stevens called The Cameraman (1928) Keaton’s “last great film, which also gives it this real sadness. This is the film that Imogen Sara Smith—she wrote Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, a great book on Keaton—calls ‘the last rose of summer’ . . . It wasn't even 1930, so he was not yet thirty-five, and this is Keaton’s last expression of a vision that isn't in some way encroached on by the studio and very soon so completely encroached on that he loses creative control entirely.”

The series then switches back to Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1927), the last film Keaton made for United Artists before moving to MGM to make The Cameraman. Steamboat gives us Buster’s most famous stunt when the facade of a house pulls away from its frame and threatens to flatten him. He stands perfectly still as his body slips through an open window. “The climactic storm that destroys the town and very nearly destroys our hero is one of the most ambitiously conceived and brilliantly sustained comic set-pieces in cinema,” wrote Phil Concannon for Little White Lies in 2015.

The BAMPFA series will close with Film (1965)—written by Samuel Beckett, directed by Alan Schneider, shot by Boris Kaufman, and starring Keaton as an unnamed man being followed by a camera—and Notfilm (2015), Ross Lipman’s fascinating documentary essay on the project. Keaton “did not think much of Beckett or Film,” notes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “All the same, Keaton’s performance in it is full of pathos and professionalism, as is Notfilm, which in exploring the intersection between the Beckettian and the Keatonesque finds a hitherto uncharted dimension of human and cinematic experience.”

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