The Buster Keaton Retrospective

One of my undergraduate film professors curates an on-campus educational retrospective each semester, which mainly focuses on a particular director’s oeuvre. I remember approaching him sometime in 2016 to ask if he’d be interested in doing something for BK100, and he seemed thrilled by the prospect. Once 2017 came around, I was delighted to hear that he would be organizing a retrospective for Buster during the Fall semester, and asked if I wanted to co-curate it! Naturally, I said yes.

We started figuring out a weekly schedule towards the end of the Spring semester, and over the summer, he sent me a couple of choices. One focused more on Buster’s silent films, while the other featured a more comprehensive list of his life-long career. I chose the latter, thinking that not many people get a chance to see anything past his silent work, and I was mighty curious to see how audience members would react to his talkies, which are rarely screened even here in Los Angeles.

I wasn’t sure how I wanted to format this post, but here’s a little diary I put together of my thoughts post-screenings, which somehow mainly ended up focusing on audience reactions towards the films—just in case anyone was curious!

August 31st: The Bell Boy (1918) | One Week (1920) | The Saphead (1920)

The first week of my last semester of college. I was worried I’d bitten off more than I could chew, especially since my Thursdays were packed to the brim of all-day activities: an internship shift in the morning, a three-hour class in the afternoon, followed by the retrospective screening (with hardly a fifteen-minute break in between). By the time the program started, I was already worn out, hungry, and battling vicious stomach cramps. I sat in my usual spot towards the back, but felt pleased to see the turn out was more than I expected (the theater seats 130, and the room looked packed). My professor introduced each of the films, providing some general history to them along with anecdotes of Buster’s earlier life. He also gave me a shout-out, and asked to confirm the correct title for Buster’s first independent (but later released) short, which was The High Sign. By the time The Saphead rolled around, I was feeling very ill and had to step out for a few minutes to get a snack. I debated going back inside for fear of a noisy stomach (or getting sick), but I toughened it out since there was only a half-hour to go. I hope I don’t end up feeling like this for the rest of the screenings, because it was so nice to hear audience members enjoying the program all throughout the evening. Though the laughter was not as loud and infectious as I have heard in other screenings, it always gives me a warm feeling that people (students, no less!) are still getting a giggle out of his films nearly 100 years later.

September 7th: Three Ages (1923) | Our Hospitality (1923)

My professor showed us a short clip on the shooting locations for Buster’s first feature film, plus two short clips on the making of Our Hospitality and its mysterious counterpart. I remember people loving the football and lion scenes in Three Ages, which are also my favorite parts. However, I had to leave in the middle of Our Hospitality, which was disappointing because I had never seen it on the big screen before. I was feeling so sick: sore throat, nauseated stomach, and a splitting headache that seemed to worsen the more I sat there (wouldn’t you believe my luck), but I’m glad I stuck around for as long as possible.

September 21st: Sherlock, Jr. (1924) | The Navigator (1924)

We watched a twenty-minute clip on the “magic” of Sherlock, Jr. before starting the film. Not as much laughs for this one, probably because the audience seemed so absorbed in wonder. I know I was when I first watched it as my introduction to Buster Keaton. Before The Navigator screened, my professor showed us another (very short) clip on the making of the movie, especially the underwater scene. Everyone loved the beginning bit where Buster’s character is driven across the street, but then walks back after his marriage proposal gets rejected. More laughter occurred during the “haunted ship” scenes with Donald Crisp’s portrait, and some (younger!) audience members reached hysterics over the little cannon scene. I was so happy to have finally been able to stay for the full double-feature screening without any sickies getting in the way.

September 28th: Seven Chances (1925) | Go West (1925)

While waiting to be let into the theater, a gentleman approached me and asked if I was the co-curator. When I said yes, he proceeded to ask how I started becoming interested in Keaton and if I’ll be presenting at any point. I told him an abridged version of how I became a fan, and mentioned that I might talk about Doughboys later on in the semester. We had a nice chat, and I’m tickled pink that someone recognized me as co-curator! I feel like a Buster scholar already ;) Tonight’s program started out with Seven Chances, which got the biggest laughs of the two features for this evening, and it only escalated during the bride chase sequence. Go West received a milder response, but people reacted to some cute and endearing moments with Brown Eyes (especially when Buster’s character puts antlers on her to protect herself), but both films received a hearty applause at the end from a packed audience.

October 5th: Battling Butler (1926) | The General (1926)

There weren’t too many laughs with Battling Butler, unfortunately, but I wonder if the humor might be too subtle for first-time watchers? However, waves of laughter emerged when Buster’s character started learning how to box. I enjoyed finally seeing it on the big screen since it’s one of his lesser-known works. Before our next feature, my professor showed us a quick video clip of Orson Welles introducing The General. There were a bit more laughs during this one, although I had to leave towards the end of the movie since it was getting so late and I still had homework to complete.

October 12th: College (1927) | Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1927)

Another good-sized crowd today! I was speaking with the same gentleman just outside of the theater, and we talked about Buster again, as well as his various filming locations. Once inside, my professor showed a brief introduction by Serge Bromberg, along with Lillian Gish introducing College. People seemed to like this one, especially the commencement speech and bumbling sports scenes. Right before “Steamboat,” we saw another intro from Bromberg, and I was pleased to hear many more laughs in this film. I mean, people roared over the “dough in the toolbox” title card! I even heard a person utter a whoa! over a stunt Buster did, though I can’t remember which one, but people did react to his famous falling-down façade gag. It was incredible to witness.

October 19th: So Funny It Hurt: Keaton & MGM (2004) | The Cameraman (1928)

Tonight, we watched a documentary focusing on Keaton’s MGM career, and how it unfortunately went downhill for him during the 1930s. Afterwards, we were treated to The Cameraman, and the laughter started to pick up more once the changing room and indoor pool scenes came about. However, as soon as Josephine the monkey appeared, she ended up stealing the show. Everyone seemed to love her antics and her complementary pairing with Buster, as well as Buster’s nonchalant and determined attitude during the Tong War sequence. People actually gasped when the film showed that Buster “forgot” to put film in the camera, and aww’d when Josephine hugged Buster’s face. I honestly can’t say it enough, but it’s so great to see/hear such a gratifying response to a silent film.

October 26th: The Gold Ghost (1934) | Free and Easy (1930)

The audience looked considerably scattered today, and not as packed. My professor wanted to start off the program with one of Buster’s talkie shorts from Educational Pictures, The Gold Ghost. Some people actually laughed, especially over Buster’s fumbling once he arrives in the ghost town, as well as his shootout with the gangsters. Then, Free and Easy promptly followed. It is so easy to get this song stuck in your head, but despite the abrupt shift from dynamic to static character (aka Buster being made to look like an incompetent fool the entire movie), this was the first Keaton talkie I’ve seen within an audience setting, and it was still interesting to hear people’s reactions to it in comparison to his silent films. People laughed at several parts, especially Buster’s scenes with Trixie Friganza. They even reacted anxiously when Trixie was about to clobber Buster for a part in a movie. Finally, once the movie ended on its heartbreaking note, I heard a girl say, “That was awful!” in response to how Buster’s character ended up.

November 2nd: Jail Bait (1937) | Doughboys (1930)

My professor borrowed my DVD due to a mishap with his copy, so we thankfully continued on with the scheduled program. He also tried to screen the promo for the Buster Keaton plaque fundraiser, but technical difficulties ensued. Tonight’s short was Jail Bait, which prompted scattered laughter all throughout, but not as much as the feature. While I wasn’t able to prepare a presentation for today (this semester has been crazy busy), I was so happy to hear people reacting to it positively, as it’s my favorite Keaton talkie. Most of them really loved the scenes of Buster’s interaction with Sgt. Brophy, as well as Cliff Edwards. They also reacted in shock to Buster’s eerily-predicted “See you sometime in the next war!” line. After the screening, I overheard a young woman telling her friend how funny the movie was, and it made me smile. This was definitely a talkie that people really seemed to enjoy.

November 9th: Pest from the West (1939) | Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath (1931)

We finally got around to watching the promo video for the BK100 plaque campaign, and my professor even gave me a little shout-out as the artist for the Keaton silhouette! We watched another short, this time from Columbia Pictures. The audience was really engaged in this one, laughing here and there (especially when Buster ran back and forth from his yacht, changed into an assortment of over-the-top outfits, got hit on the head for singing, etc.), and one guy even applauded him for knocking the antagonist down. There were also some shocked responses, such as when Buster hit the leading lady over the head with a guitar. People also really seemed to enjoy the feature for tonight. There was so much infectious and wheezy laughter, which made me beam and laugh along with them. My cheeks were hurting by the end of the night. I loved hearing people’s various yet collective responses, especially towards the latter part of the film with all the screwball, knock-about physical comedy. The room was buzzing with conversation after the lights came back on.

November 16th: She’s Oil Mine (1941) | Sidewalks of New York (1932)

Before the theater’s side door opened, a fellow Media Theory student approached me, introduced himself, and started asking questions about Buster. Again, I felt so scholarly. We ended up talking quite a bit about Buster, along with general Old Hollywood actors and films. After everyone was seated, my professor showed a clip from a documentary I wasn’t familiar with, which featured Buster’s involvement with Columbia Pictures. Next, we watched She’s Oil Mine, and there were some laughs in this one. I noticed that not too many people had shown up tonight (compared to previous screenings at least), but the laughter continued throughout “Sidewalks,” especially during the scenes where Buster and Cliff ham it up during the play. It seems like their onscreen chemistry is well-received by contemporary audiences, and the laughter only escalated in volume and frequency up until the very end.

November 30th: Compilation of skits from Keaton’s TV career | Speak Easily (1932)

As my professor began his short lecture about the program, he checked in with me to see if he mentioned the names of Buster’s TV shows correctly. I gave him a thumbs-up and said, “You’re good!” while the audience chuckled. We watched some of his material from the 1950s, including the detective, gymnasium, turkey stuffing, and haunted house skits. Speak Easily followed right after, and most of the laughs emerged towards the middle and latter part of the film, especially over his tipsy scene with Thelma Todd, as well as the stage production’s disastrous opening night. People seemed to enjoy it, and at this point, I’m still delighted to see a decent-sized crowd coming out to watch a Keaton talkie.

December 7th: What! No Beer? (1933)

Canceled due to campus closure as a result of nearby wildfires :(

December 14th: “The Awakening” (1954) | “Once Upon a Time” (1961) | Film (1965)

I can’t believe this is the last night of the retrospective already! I was waiting outside and chatting with a couple of regular attendees, including the one I’ve spoken with before. At one point in conversation, he said, “Thank Nicole, if it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t have this retrospective.” (I blush.) The other proceeded to say, “If only you had Buster Keaton as a special guest.” (Wouldn’t that be nice!) Tonight’s screening started very late (almost an hour later because of finals week), and because the material was more on the dramatic side, the room fell quiet this time around (apart from The Twilight Zone episode, which garnered slight laughs over the TV scene and the evading-the-policeman-while-putting-on-pants gag). This was also my first time seeing Film, and it was long overdue to say in the least. Definitely something different.

It feels bittersweet to end the series (I wish we could have shown even more of Buster’s films), but I’m so glad I had the chance to help organize such an amazing opportunity right before graduating, and hopefully a few new Buster fans walked away from it, too.

This is my contribution to The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology. For a complete list of posts, click here.

28 thoughts on “The Buster Keaton Retrospective

  1. Pingback: The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon | Silent-ology

  2. Sounds like a great series of events! I’ve occasionally put on a Keaton screening (nothing as ambitious as this, mind!) and it always delights me how much people enjoy them and also the different ways they enjoy them.

    I recently showed One Week and Sherlock Jr, and it was striking how many people responded much more to the romance than the comedy.

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    • How fun! I already want to put together another program or series again. It’s so fascinating to see what other people pick up in these films! Almost makes me feel like I’ve watched something for the first time all over again.

      Thanks so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Nicole. What a great opportunity, and you took good advantage of it. That was a tasteful selection of films. If anything had to get canceled, What! No Beer? was probably the right one. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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  4. So glad you took advantage of this terrific opportunity – helping to organize a Buster Keaton retrospective doesn’t happen every day!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us…although I was sorry to hear you were ill for part of it. :(

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    • Thank you very much! I’m still so thrilled I got to do it. And as difficult as that obstacle was, I’m glad it was only for a short amount of time. I didn’t want to let myself miss what I’ve been looking forward to doing for over a year.

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  5. Nicole! I didn’t know you made the silhouette for the BK100 logo, that’s fabulous! It must’ve been cool seeing your work pop up all throughout 2017. :-)

    I loved this post, I think it’s fabulous that you got to be involved in curating such a well-balanced retrospective. I’m glad to hear audiences enjoyed Buster’s talkies, they get a bad rap much of the time that isn’t always deserved.

    Thanks for contributing your “diary” to the blogathon, it was a perfect fit!

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    • Aw thank you, Lea! Yes, it’s a remarkable feeling, to say in the least.

      And thanks so much for your lovely words. It was a treat getting to experience their reactions. I totally agree with you on that, there are definitely some good ones, but I enjoy watching them all from time to time just the same.

      As always, thank you for hosting! :)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, this certainly was a remarkable experience! I’m so happy that there are so many people interested in Buster’s work and legacy – and that we’re still working so he’ll never be forgotten. You made all cinephiles proud!
    Kisses!

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