A few months ago, I may have completely lost my marbles upon seeing that a Buster Keaton film would be screening in my “Television-Film Aesthetics” class this semester—and not just any film either, but the one that got me more into silent films (and Buster) in the first place. Needless to say, I hold it very near and dear to my heart. When I first saw it back in January, it was like watching a narrative interwoven with a seemingly all-too-real magic act. I instantly fell in love with the aesthetics (such a perfect choice for this class) and, well, the wonder that is Buster Keaton in general.
In his 1924 film, Buster Keaton plays a projectionist (and part-time detective amateur) who is in love with a girl—played by Kathryn McGuire. When his rival (who also tries to pursue said girl) manages to steal her father’s pocket watch, he sneakily puts the blame on Buster.
Dejected, the projectionist returns to the movie theater, and starts playing a film that carries a plot oddly similar to his situation. He begins to fall asleep and a dream sequence ensues, where he literally steps into the movie that’s playing and the actors are then replaced by his acquaintances. In the dream-film, Buster’s character plays a renowned detective, and the unfolding scenes give way to some pretty elaborate stunts and gags.
Once the screening was over, my professor reminded us that comedy breaks rules in order to make fun, which can be seen right down to the editing. For instance, the seamless dream sequence editing is something that was fairly new at the time, in which the depicted movie screen included Buster stumbling to keep up against a changing mise-en-scène. It goes without saying that a film-within-a-film done like this calls for some incredible use of matched action and continuity, yet it still manages to bring about some laughs.
The ending sequence portrays the importance of movies in people’s lives, because they mirror happy endings and how lives should be. Here, Buster parallels the action of the onscreen actor who attempts to woo the girl, and tries to get his happy ending too. Censorship is also poked fun at, in which an onscreen kiss cuts to the image of the couple with two newborn children. Confusion is evidently shown on our main character’s face, as it simply doesn’t follow real life in that sense.
Part of the reason why I love being present at screenings for older films is to get a glimpse of how other people react. I noticed the audience especially laughed at the billiards scene, the stunning detective chase sequence, and at the ending when Buster turns to look at the projecting film without the girl noticing. I also heard someone behind me utter an amazed “wow” at the scene where Buster-turned-Sherlock escapes through a window and is immediately dressed as an older woman in order to disguise himself from the villains. My thoughts exactly.
Compared to the Sherlock, Jr. screening I went to back in March (where everyone seemed to be in hysterics), the reaction was much more tamer—but hey, I’m just glad to hear some people around my age getting a giggle out of a comedy filmed over 90 years ago! However, it wasn’t until I started to pack up my things at the end of class when I overheard this delightful bit of conversation between my professor and a student: the student admitted to not being a fan of silent films, but said that after watching this movie, it immediately became her favorite. We can file that under Things That Make Me Feel Like Sunshine.