End Credits & A Look Ahead by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on June 9, 2011 by mchoffman

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I would like to thank the following individuals for their support and contributions to the Legends of Laughter film series at the Park Ridge Public Library:

Laura Scott, Program Coordinator; Maggie Hommel, Reader Services Dept. Manager; and Jan Van De Carr, Library Director.

Rachel Depcik, Assistant Film Historian

Becky McMorrow, Staff Artist

And the entire staff and Friends of the Park Ridge Public Library.

Pictured: Matthew C. Hoffman with the “projectionist,” Rachel Depcik.

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Also:

Suzanne Lloyd and the Harold Lloyd family

&

Melissa Talmadge Cox and the Buster Keaton family

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Special thanks go to:

Dennis Wolkowicz and the Silent Film Society of Chicago

Dino Vlahakis, owner of the Pickwick Theatre

Bonnie Marshall, coordinator at the Harold Lloyd Foundation

To our friends in the media:

J.T. Morand and Pioneer Press; J.R. Jones and the Chicago Reader; Michael Phillips and the Chicago Tribune; and Steve Darnall, radio host of 90.9 FM’s “Those Were The Days” (and our special guest during the Speedy screening).

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A word of gratitude to the silent film historians who have been a great source of information and inspiration: Jeffrey Vance, Annette D’Agostino Lloyd, John Bengtson, and James L. Neibaur.

Thanks to Annette Bochenek, my video narrator and guest speaker.

Ben Burgraff, caricature artist

And finally, most importantly, many thanks to all those who have attended the Classic Film Series on Thursday nights. You’ve helped show how valuable these films are to a community. Film study can be fun, and you’ve proven that by your presence every week. The combined attendance for our three month series: 1,228.

Click here for more photos!

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Many good suggestions have been offered as to what the next series should be. However, whenever you deal with specific genres, there is a tendency to lose some of your audience, whether it’s musicals or Westerns or mysteries. I always look for subjects I feel passionate about– but will have an appeal as well.

We can’t make a program bigger than Legends of Laughter. We can’t afford to; this was an amped-up silent film series and a one-time deal. (But as long as it was, we had a couple potential guests that would’ve made it even more epic.) But you can make a series more original. You can out-maneuver the programming at other libraries by putting together something no one has ever seen before. This is what I’m doing now. As far as I know, there has never been a series quite like the one people will experience next year. Last Thursday night, ninety-five patrons got a 3-minute video preview. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

In 2012 I will return to the kind of eclectic programming I did when I operated the LaSalle Bank revival house: rare, obscure films from the Warner Archive that will force people to come out. You won’t find these titles on Netflix or in the RedBox or even on youtube. There will only be one place in the Northwest Suburbs where you can find these films, and that will be at the Park Ridge Public Library beginning next spring.

If you would like to be included in our film series (e)mailing list, please email me at this address:

spysmasher1942@yahoo.com

The Classic Film Series will return…
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The official Screen Deco blog!

Against the Current: Some Final Thoughts by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2011 by mchoffman

“It struck me that I was witnessing a dead art, a wholly defunct genre that would never be practiced again. And yet, for all the changes that had occurred since then, their work was as fresh and invigorating as it had been when it was first shown. That was because they had understood the language they were speaking. They had invented a syntax of the eye, a grammar of pure kinesis, and except for the costumes and the cars and the quaint furniture in the background, none of it could possibly grow old. It was thought translated into action, human will expressing itself through the human body, and therefore it was for all time. Most silent comedies hardly even bothered to tell stories. They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit.” ~ Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions

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*          *          *          *          *          *          *          * 

“What kinds of parts do you play?”

“Uh, heroes.”

~Harold Lloyd, Movie Crazy

The screen has gone up. The lights have gone out. Our banner has fallen to the floor. The Legends series is now over. But for three months, residents of Park Ridge got their heroes. They came in the comic personas of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Thirteen of the fourteen films we played were silent, and yet, we averaged 75 patrons. Buster Keaton was our attendance winner at the library:

Keaton: 323

Lloyd: 314

Chaplin: 273

In addition, 318 people attended our screening of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy in 35mm at the historic Pickwick Theatre on April 10, 2011. Of the three comic actors, Lloyd received the most positive response. He was a big surprise to many people who had never even heard of him before.

The most rewarding aspect of this series for me was not so much the numbers as the demographics. Several high school and college students attended, seeing their first silent movies. Guys even brought their dates to Speedy. There were younger kids who came with their grandparents, but most importantly, everyone seemed to enjoy and appreciate the program. It was wonderful to see so many age groups come out and make the sacrifice of leaving their homes. Even if they had seen the films before, they still came out and supported us.

Too many people are trained by television and have grown accustomed to its limited format. But the films I’ve shown were never intended to be transmitted through a 12-inch screen. We know that these films were designed to be seen on a large screen. Chaplin’s sensibilities especially were always theatrical, so watching one of his films on a computer– much less an iPad– is a disservice to the film as well as to the person watching it. Though our meeting room is not an actual theatre– and the films are digitally projected– it is still a facsimile of the theatrical experience.

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Just as important as the venue is the need to see these comedies with a large audience. There was consistent laughter and applause during the course of our event. The full impact of a scene or comic moment can only be judged by the collective response. Some of the films played even better than I expected, such as Movie Crazy, and this experience would not have been possible if people had been watching the films alone at home. They would’ve only shortchanged themselves on what the film offers. Unlike my previous programs, I wanted to be in that meeting room every moment to see what they were laughing at. I was charting the responses on my own “Lafograph.”

In his book Keaton, author Rudi Blesh writes about the restoration of Buster’s films shortly before his death, “It is a timely restoration, with the public tiring of stand-up, one-line comedy and sick comedians, and turning back eagerly to the visual gag and the timeless silent art of the mime.” That was written in 1965, and yet those words are just as true today when our cineplexes are filled with stand-up comics. There’s little visual humor or physical comedy. It’s all about jokes and visual unpleasantry and excess. It’s low comedy, and it’s weak.

There’s no question that the most discriminating audiences in Park Ridge are the ones who supported our Classic Film Series. They deserve better than mainstream fare and pop culture ephemera. They don’t want their intelligence insulted. They don’t want mean-spiritedness in their comedy. So they came to the first floor meeting room every Thursday night; they were not in the lobby checking out Jackass 3, Dinner With Schmucks, The Dilemma, or Meet the Fockers. All that is fast food entertainment designed to be consumed on demand and then forgotten just as quickly. The RedBox outside your Walgreens is no different than a snack vending machine. (Working in Circulation at the library, I’m paid to be an entertainment facilitator. I just have to bite my tongue when patrons ask me if “hot” dvds like Burlesque and No Strings Attached are good movies.) But as the program host of the film series, I have a voice. Why be outspoken at all? Answer: Too many parents telling their kids, “Oh, you wouldn’t like that; it’s in black and white.” Too many teenagers checking out Gossip Girl with no knowledge of anything made before 2000.

Commercial films today are geared to viewers with short attention spans. Films are loud with quick edits.  Kids are being weaned on Transformers and not Buster Keaton. As a result of this dumbing-down, a society has lost its viewing patience. Most people can’t sit and make the effort to get involved in a black and white silent movie or allow a gag sequence in it to develop. Everything has to be immediate and now. Attention is instead directed towards graphic novels and videogames and comic book movies in 3-D. This is how a generation expresses itself, so who has time to read intertitles in silent movies?

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We do. The Classic Film (Lecture) Series of Park Ridge veers off the beaten track. “The Chaplin Room” was our refuge. We’re not part of that crowd out there. But everyone is invited to join our crowd. And we won’t even make you give us the secret “high sign” to get in. Leave your perceptions of old movies at the door and you will be surprised by the discovery. That’s what our programs are about: discovery. We may even turn you off that other stuff. Our film programs are a community service and they are needed in Park Ridge. I want to see it continue to grow, and we need your help to do that.

Of the three programs I have done for the Park Ridge Public Library, Legends of Laughter has been my favorite. These films are absolutely amazing. Not all “classic” films deserve that status– so many kids roll their eyes at the mention of the word and imagine some old black and white film their grandparents liked. But these films speak to their generation as well.  Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton all had universal themes– themes we can relate to. Chaplin’s loneliness or Lloyd’s optimism or Keaton’s stoicism are all qualities that resonate today. And they each offered a style of acting or a method of filmmaking that is refreshing. Nothing compares to it. It is true that silent film itself is a dead art, a lost world from another time. But it is our cinema heritage, and it must be passed down– a heritage of physical comedy and the lost art of the gag.

Chaplin’s art of pantomime could fascinate an audience even with the absence of props. No one could build a whole scene out of the smallest of actions better than Chaplin. Buster Keaton’s innovative use of a camera challenged the medium and the audience. He did his own stunts without relying on trickery. Today they can do anything in a computer, but see what he could visualize without one. Harold Lloyd’s flawless comedies are filled with a warm beauty that uplifts. His acting gets overlooked, but few actors could convey thinking as well as he could. He was someone just like us, and his normalcy helped him create what could very well be the first romantic comedies. The legends make us laugh, but they make us feel good about life. When life beats us down, there are characters like the Little Tramp who get up, dust themselves off and keep on going down the road. No matter how beaten down we might feel inside on some days, these films inspire us in ways few others can. Only the most hardened of cynics can resist the joy the great clowns bring us.

People were surprised by how well-constructed these films are, so shouldn’t we expose younger people to their magic silence? Few people have seen films like The Kid Brother or Steamboat Bill, Jr., and that’s a shame because it’s classic Americana. Why can’t we make these films available to kids instead of the newest animated feature no parent really wants to sit through? There are no Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd films available in our Children’s Department. As for the adult section, we own a copy of Yogi Bear (!) but there is not one Harold Lloyd film available in the collection (as of this writing).

Oliver Hardy summed it up well in a 1950 interview when he was asked if there was still interest in the old-time slapstick comedy: “I think that there’s more interest but there’s so little of it done. I think that people want to laugh now but they don’t have the things to laugh at.”

For three months, we gave people things to laugh at… And now it’s time to say goodnight.

Fade-out.

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Shadow of the Porkpie: a personal reflection by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on June 5, 2011 by mchoffman

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“Who is your favorite?” That was one of the most frequently asked questions that came out of Legends of Laughter. Though my response was always a bit vague, it’s a question that does have an answer. Perhaps this entry is it. As to who was the absolute “greatest,” though, that’s something I can’t answer because how can anyone compare three distinct styles and say one is superior? Those who are quick to call Chaplin or Keaton the greatest often have not even seen the films of Harold Lloyd! Why must one comic be the “greatest” at all? Must everything have a label? Chaplin will always be the most recognizable and the most gifted of the world’s mimes. Keaton will always be more inventive with the most cinematic of props, and Lloyd has yet to disappoint an audience anywhere with his well-polished comedy of embarrassment. More people have come up to me after the show to express how surprised they were by Harold Lloyd! So I can’t put one over the other. What I can do, however, is say a few words about the one who has been with me the longest.

He made no claims to be an artist– nor did he try to “say something” in his films. But the profundity was always there in the themes of Buster Keaton. He could show the futility of love without sentiment and present us with man’s fate in an unbalanced, mechanical universe. Buster’s strange, comic vision was uniquely his own. At his peak, Keaton was one of the most innovative of all filmmakers. I first started appreciating his technical skill when I watched Sherlock, Jr. in a History of Cinema class at Columbia College, taught by Scott Marks. I could relate to a character who disappeared into the movies, and I in turn disappeared into the movies of Buster Keaton. I learned that anything by him was preferable to just about everything else. You can’t go wrong with his stuff. He had such screen presence that even in the junk that came later there was always something to be appreciated.

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That’s one difference between Keaton and the others whom I’ve profiled. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd never had to appear in sub-standard films because they produced their own and they controlled their own destinies. Buster Keaton, by contrast, was everywhere, literally all over the map. He made a film in France called Le Roi des Champs-Elysees; he appeared in a Mexican film called El Moderno Barba Azul. In his later years, he had cameos in silly 1960s beach films before finally making one last return to silent film form in the Keatonesque The Railrodder in 1965. But even in work critically dismissed or buried by time, I’ve found gold, and I’ve shared these nuggets with my library audience.

His Educational Pictures sound shorts were, at the time of release, written off as “cheaters” by Buster himself– cheap two-reelers he made for a low-budget studio. And yet, one of the best of these, Grand Slam Opera, I played during my series. The audience reaction was terrific. In it, Keaton played his small-town Elmer character who travels to the big city to perform a juggling act on a radio show contest. A highlight of the short is Keaton trying to dance in his room like Fred Astaire and soft-tap a girl to sleep.

After Educational, Buster made sound shorts for Columbia Pictures. Pest From the West (1939) is one of my favorites…

One of the appealing qualities that Buster maintained in his onscreen relationships was a believable awe of women. He was genuinely captivated by them.  He never had the quick pick-up line. The best he could get out was, “How ’bout a little dinner and a show?” Getting to first base did not come easy. The most modest response from a girl could send him into rapture. He could be quite gallant with women, but it was a gallantry that seemed to backfire or go unnoticed. One of my favorite moments in his 1923 silent short The Balloonatic is when he takes off his coat for a lady so that she can cross a puddle of water. All of a sudden her male companion drives up over the coat and the girl gets in the car, leaving Buster with a wet and muddy coat. It’s both funny and sad. Chaplin could explore love in a more profound way, but Keaton’s statement was funnier.

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Keaton was the most silent of the clowns. His character actually seems to prefer the silence of the ghost town at the outset of Educational’s “The Gold Ghost,” and perhaps this is the elusive quality that draws me to Buster Keaton the performer. It’s nothing that makes him better than the other comics, only something that connects to the viewer on a personal level, something that relates to me. Sometimes I feel as though I would prefer to live in a silent world where all the inconsequential banter is eliminated and only your actions carry you through the day. Only the lack of  sound technology in the 1920s kept Harold Lloyd from speaking like everyone else, and once Chaplin was heard in 1940, he couldn’t stop talking– either as a narrator or as the conscience of the world. But with Keaton, even in his sound films there was something intrinsically silent about him.

I love the opening of One Run Elmer– yet another Educational film I first discovered on video many years ago. The short opens with Buster operating a gas station in the middle of the desert, and yet somehow, he manages to give directions to a driver without saying a word. It is silent action, done in pantomime. Had he been given the opportunity, Buster Keaton would have used sound in a way no other comic ever had.

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One of the great tragedies in the history of movies is what happened to him at MGM when he became part of the studio system. He was the one swallowed up by the cogs of the machine, not Chaplin’s factory worker. It was a system that stripped Buster of most of his creativity. In place of the old proven method that relied on improvisation, the genius studio bosses threw him into bedroom farce and then paired him up with the overbearing Jimmy Durante in three films that passed for comedy in the 1930s. Keaton had interesting ideas for his own projects. He proposed a Western costarring Marie Dressler (shortly before she became a huge name at MGM); he wanted to do a spoof of Grand Hotel with Laurel and Hardy (but MGM was incapable of laughing at itself), and he wanted to do a World War II sequel to his best sound film, Doughboys, which had been set during the First World War. All these ideas were shot down or dismissed with the casual “We’ll get back to you on that.” The epic failure of MGM was in its refusal to give Buster his own production unit.  But this wasn’t the era of creative thinking. It was a time of assembly-line product– of proven formulas. The sound era was new territory, and so the studio wanted to stick with material that was safe. For Buster, the studio system was an environment where two dozen monkeys in a barrel thought they knew comedy better than the guy hired to be funny– the one who had been funny since childhood on the vaudeville stage.

Buster Keaton in The Scarecrow

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Buster could’ve done anything asked of him at MGM, and he could’ve been a great character actor in their later films. I like to think that if The Wizard of Oz hadn’t already been cast with the perfect ensemble, Buster could’ve played the Scarecrow. He wasn’t a song and dance man, but in films like Free and Easy, he did sing. He could’ve branched out in sound, but he was given material that was not even close to the real Buster; there was no real inspiration in it. Static talkies filled with puns and dull chatter were the norm, and this was removed from the physical comedy that had made him so famous. He went from a great silent comedian to just another comic on the lot, and the roles he played could’ve been performed by just about any other in the studio stable. Despite this, there were moments where Buster made something his own and where the old brilliance shined through.

I sometimes think that those individuals who have lived life to the fullest, those who have made an impact in this world, those who have created and inspired on a worldwide level, are more keenly felt in death, as though their presence is still with us. Not even death can snuff out the positive energy they had brought to the world. It just keeps going. I’m sure some film fans who have made the pilgrimmage to tour locations like Cottage Grove, Oregon, (where The General had been filmed in 1926), felt Buster’s presence along the river banks where he had filmed the most expensive scene in silent cinema all those years ago. It’s not just his shadows on a theatre screen that are immortal, but an immaterial presence that can still inspire.

In a science fiction writing class I had at Columbia, I wrote a short story inspired by a dream. I had a sense of character and place, but the material’s greatest failing was that it wasn’t actually science fiction. It was more a fantasy in which a boy must make his way to a world of tomorrow designed all in art deco. The man to take him there is a rather sad-looking airmail pilot by the name of Elmer. The stone-faced pilot, in his military costume, lived out in the wasteland far away from the futuristic city, and he traveled in his dilapidated biplane with his bags of mail to be delivered. Puppet strings controlled the direction of the plane, and they stretched up into infinity… I had no strong sense of story direction in those days, but I had a sense of character, and I knew that the pilot was Buster Keaton, and that it was based on the sad clown he had played at the end of Free and Easy. I had everything down, even the Midwestern drawl and hesitation in Buster’s voice. And this Elmer of my story, helping the boy find the city, took me back to the Wizard of Oz.

Free and Easy was material beneath Buster– one of his least effective sound films– because it was a characterization disconnected from the silent days. He had gone from comic hero to comic victim. The controlled energy that had propelled him in the 1920s was contained and sealed. And yet, there was still something there in that movie that made me feel for him. It was the heartbreak and sadness he projected in that role in those last moments onscreen.

MGM’s sad clown becomes tragic in Free and Easy (1930).

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I have said before that Buster was a legend because he was a larger than life figure whose life story had been written in the stars like a great American tall tale. Of course, none of this had been captured in the bio-film that had been made of him called The Buster Keaton Story. Featuring Donald O’Connor in a porkpie, the movie turned Buster’s life into a lame, 1950s melodrama– on a par with James Cagney’s Man of a Thousand Faces (a film purportedly about the great Lon Chaney, Sr.). But those who know the real Buster Keaton story know the great potential in telling it again to a new audience. Having read Rudi Blesh’s definitive biography on Buster Keaton recently, I recall the image of Buster in the sanitarium; he drank himself into a breakdown…. Bound by a straitjacket, a figure from Buster’s past comes to him.  Perhaps what he sees is something only from a fevered imagination (which would be more cinematic than merely a memory), but there next to him is Harry Houdini, the great escape artist and family friend who had passed away years before. In his hour of need and desperation, Buster remembers the escape trick Harry had taught him in his youth… Scenes like this play out when I imagine the hope and tragedy, the rise and fall and rise again of the real Buster Keaton story.

I’ve said more than a few words here about the lesser Keaton efforts because I’ve already chronicled his best films in this blog. But I hope I’ve captured some of the essence of Buster in my reflection of how he has affected me. I wish Legends of Laughter could keep on going so we could play films like Our Hospitality and Go West and College. These are the films he should always be remembered for. In a day and age when audiences are jaded by CGI effects, here we have authenticity and imagination and pure wonder on the screen. No trickery in his stunts. No cheating in their design. Keaton respected the intelligence of his audience in a way most mainstream filmmakers today do not. These are the comedies kids should be exposed to. The same way “old” books find their way into classrooms, these films should find their way into your homes. The films of Buster Keaton’s have more to say to us than whatever animated feature your kid is watching right now. Though lacking sound, these films have a far greater voice by what they tell us about our place in the world. Buster was the saddest-looking of all the great clowns, but his silent reactions to an unstable world created some of the biggest laughs. The only real sadness here is the knowledge that there will never be another Buster Keaton film.

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The last true Buster Keaton film…

This blog will go dormant soon, but I will still update old entries should there be new information. Also, if Legends of Laughter appears at other libraries, I will resume blogging.

When Buster Keaton was on the MGM lot he had a famous “land yacht” he tooled around Hollywood in. With a land yacht I could take my comedy crusade on the road (minus the Nelson-at-Trafalgar-type hat)!
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Series Finale: The General (1927) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on June 3, 2011 by mchoffman

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NOTE: We had 90+ show up on our final night for The General, making it the largest turnout for the Legends of Laughter series. The following is the transcript of my talk…

This year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. Two thousand and eleven is also the 85th anniversary of one of the greatest films about the Civil War. It is a film universally regarded as Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, The General. We began Legends of Laughter with Chaplin’s comedy epic, so it is only fitting that we conclude the series with Keaton’s– the only other epic in the silent comedy tradition. It is a visually-beautiful film that features Buster Keaton’s greatest prop, a locomotive. Whether you are a history buff, or a train enthusiast, or, as most of you are, students of film, there is something in The General to be drawn to. It is an especially rewarding film to those of us who admire the work of Buster Keaton.

The genesis of this film came to him when his longtime gag writer, Clyde Bruckman, handed him a copy of William Pittenger’s book Daring and Suffering: a History of the Great Railroad Adventure. The story told of a real incident in 1862 in which a group of Union raiders, commanded by one James J. Andrews, hijacked a Southern locomotive. Their plan was to head north with it and destroy the railroad tracks and telegraph lines in their wake. The Union spies almost got away with it before being captured 19 miles short of their rendezvous. Some of the men were hanged. Those who survived were awarded the first ever Medal of Honor by Abraham Lincoln.

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From this historical adventure, Keaton and Bruckman fashioned a story symmetrical in structure, essentially comprised of two chases: Buster as engineer Johnnie Gray, chasing after his beloved General, and then in the second half, Buster being pursued by the Northerners. He told the story from the Southern point of view because as he said, “You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” The story blends dramatic action with gags, but The
General
is not a gag comedy as we’ve come to know a Keaton gag comedy. There’s something much more at work here, and that’s Keaton’s dramatic sense. Audiences and critics at the time, however, expected more laughs. But Buster was ahead of his time and transcended the comedy genre by creating something more than just a string of easy laughs and pratfalls.

Buster Keaton was enthusiastic about the project and was determined to make it as authentic as he could in terms of sets and set pieces. His eye for historical accuracy had been evident three years earlier with the making of Our Hospitality, another period comedy of his with a great sense of place. Buster was once asked why The General looked more authentic than Gone With the Wind. Keaton responded modestly, “Well, they went to a novel for their story. We went to history.”

As a result of this approach, the look and texture of the film has been compared to the photography of Matthew Brady. Brady, whose camera had captured the human devastation of the War Between the States, left a photographic legacy that became a strong visual influence on Buster’s film. Without the sad-looking, recognizable Stone Face present to remind us that it’s a Buster Keaton movie, individual, sepia-tinted images from The General could almost be mistaken for the real thing– like a history book come alive on the storyboard of Buster’s mind.

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Keaton tried to film in the actual South where the chase had taken place; however, he had to settle for a substitute in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon Pacific and Eastern railway still operated on the narrow gauge variety of railway track that was needed to accommodate Buster’s re-constructed, 1860s locomotive. The location his crew found was Cottage Grove, Oregon, a timber and mining town that resembled Georgia, the scene of the chase.

The General ran over budget in no small part due to a forest fire which the wood-burning locomotive had started. Fortunately, Keaton had 500 members of the Oregon National Guard at his disposal. These men had been hired as extras and made up the armies of the North and South. With their help, Buster and his crew were able to put out the fire.

The General also contains the single most expensive shot ever taken in silent cinema. On July 23, 1926, Buster and his crew permanently retired a locomotive by having it crash through a bridge they had built. The shot cost $42,000. Spectators had gathered on the banks of the Row River to witness the filming. Author Lon Davis, in an article called “Saluting the General in Cottage Grove,” writes, “At three o’clock in the afternoon, Keaton gave the signal to the six cameramen to begin cranking. The unmanned engine made its way across the tracks. The timbers of the bridge had been partly sawed, and when a dynamite charge went off, the bridge snapped in half. The engine dropped with a huge splash of scalding steam into the river below. The train’s whistle was said to have emitted a long, mournful scream, signaling to the spectators that something catastrophic had occurred. A dummy had been left at the throttle to give the impression that a live engineer had perished in the crash. When the dummy’s severed head floated by in the adjoining stream, more than one woman in the crowd fainted.”

The wrecked locomotive remained a tourist attraction until World War II when it was finally salvaged for scrap metal.

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Twenty-three year old Marion Mack plays Annabelle Lee, Buster’s other great love in the movie. She’s most famous for this film. She did not appear in too many films afterward. Marion made a choice to work behind the camera. She became a Hollywood screenwriter and worked with her husband on various short subjects. Also in the cast, Keaton’s father, Joe, who has a small part as a Union general. There is one mystery figure in the cast. Though he’s uncredited– and the casting is unconfirmed– that could be horror icon Boris Karloff as the Union general who burns a hole in the tablecloth with his cigarette, indirectly leading Buster to rescue Annabelle.

The film has an epic sweep. Buster had directed large groups of people earlier in his 1922 two-reeler The Paleface, but now in The General, he has heightened the movement of those masses on a much grander scale. Buster was not alone in shaping this film. He shared directing credit with writer Clyde Bruckman, and it would be a mistake to minimize this contribution. Bruckman did work on the structure of the story as well as the gags and the dramatic scenes, leaving Keaton to concentrate on his performance and stunt work.

The final cost of The General was $750,000. The film only grossed about $474,000.  It was a train wreck at the box office, but I think that had more to do with the booking of the film. The General had been released through United Artists and not Metro, which had released his earlier silent film successes. Metro had the better distribution capabilities.

The original General locomotive was not actually used in the film. It has long since been retired, currently on display in Georgia. But tonight’s film will never be retired. It is fueled by the enthusiasm of those who run it on screens like this. Buster Keaton considered it his favorite of all his films. It was rediscovered in the 1950s during the Keaton Renaissance that eventually restored his name and reputation as a filmmaker. It has gone on to become an acknowledged classic– not just in the Keaton canon, but in the history of cinema. In 1989 it was selected as one of the first films to be preserved by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Also selected that year: Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane.

Speaking of Citizen Kane, I thought for this final show, I would have someone else introduce the film…

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The Audience Responds: fan (e)mail

Posted in Uncategorized on June 1, 2011 by mchoffman

NOTE: The following is a wonderful email from one of my regulars. It means a lot to me to have received a response like this, so I thought I’d share it in the hope of getting more people to experience our program. Needless to say, I made sure Max and Dorothy received a (well-deserved) standing ovation…

Hi Matthew–

My wife and I have attended every night of the “Legends of Laughter” series except for the first show, and we have been more and more delighted withe program every week. We enjoyed it so much that we convinced my mother-in-law and father-in-law to join us, and they have been coming as well, often seeing it as one of the highlights of their week. You’ve met both of them because they’ve come up to talk with you almost every week after the night’s programs. My mother-in-law has been ordering movies we see to add to her DVD collection, and it is growing at a rapid pace.

Anyway, tomorrow is my in-laws’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary, and my wife Kate and I wanted to take them somewhere special to celebrate, and both of them said that they could not think of a better way to spend the evening of their anniversary except at the library in our usual spot watching the Legends of Laughter.

I was wondering if it would be possible if you could wish them a happy anniversary tomorrow at the show. I know they would be tickled, and they both like and respect you and the work you’ve done very much. If this is possible, their names are Max and Dorothy Ranft. They live here in Park Ridge, and as I said, they are celebrating their forty-ninth wedding anniversary.

With kind regards,

Tom Wetzel

Program Host (center) with Dorothy & Max

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Silent Pages by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 29, 2011 by mchoffman

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Just a quick word of praise for an exceptional book I received in the mail today which I had ordered off Amazon. It’s film historian John Bengtson’s most recent exploration of silent filmmaking production in the 1920s. This is his third in a wonderful trilogy of books that record the various movie locations used by the great silent clowns. The latest is Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd (Santa Monica Press, 2011).

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One of the comments I’ve received from patrons during the Park Ridge Public Library’s Legends of Laughter series concerns the wonderful location work we’ve seen on the screen. Filmmakers like Harold Lloyd recorded a time and place which has been preserved forever on film. Using archival photos, Silent Visions shows us with visual precision where these memorable scenes were shot– both in California and New York. There are also fascinating side-by-side comparisons of how the streets and buildings have changed over the decades.

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Combining history and exemplary film commentary, these detailed and nostalgic volumes are must-own for those of us devoted to silent cinema. Silent Visions features a foreward by historian Kevin Brownlow and an introduction by Harold’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd.

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Also by John Bengtson:

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Nothing But Trouble: Movie Crazy (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 by mchoffman

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NOTE: The Park Ridge Public Library had the largest turnout of the LOL series tonight (5/26/11) with Harold Lloyd’s Movie Crazy. Eighty-six people showed their support, and the reaction was phenomenal. This is further proof that comedies need a group setting in order to be fully appreciated. Moments that might come across as flat with a few jaded viewers come alive with a room full of people who appreciate classic comedy. (The audience’s overwhelming response to the film, in fact, answers the one question I posed to them before the show.) The following is the complete transcript of my talk…

“How long I continue to make pictures will depend on how long I hold my popularity and avoid monotony in my stories. One, even two pictures, are no criterion, but if ever three fail consecutively the handwriting on the wall will need no translating. I can only hope that when the time comes I shall not try to fool either the public or myself, but will bow my way out as gracefully as I can manage and turn to directing, producing or developing a younger actor. I will not have the excuse others have had, if I do not. There are men and women in Hollywood who were so overwhelmed with sudden riches that they spent as they made. When their popularity waned they had no choice but to go on, good or bad.”

Harold Lloyd wrote those words in 1928 in his rather premature autobiography, An American Comedy. Ten years later he would retire as an actor, only to make an ill-fated comeback in 1947 with the Preston Sturges film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Though 1932’s Movie Crazy was a critical success and made a profit, box office returns were diminishing. His next three films, The Cat’s Paw, The Milky Way (directed by Leo McCarey), and Professor Beware were all commercially disappointing. The writing was indeed on the wall. Harold’s go-getting Glass Character had fallen out of fashion during the Depression. To his credit, though, he recognized this and, as he had predicted a decade before, bowed out.

This is one of the many things I admire about Harold Lloyd. He left the stage with a quiet dignity. How many actors today keep on going as though their lives depend on the paycheck? Does the world really need another Robin Williams or Jim Carey or Vince Vaughn movie? But it’s an industry now where even the least talented of the modern, stand-up comics seem to thrive and crank out films like sausages. We wish they would just go away.

Harold getting an autograph from actor “Will U. Scram.”

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It’s a shame the box office receipts forced Harold to retire because except for Professor Beware in 1938, his sound films were actually quite good. A case in point is The Cat’s Paw, which I highly recommend. Since we had a mayoral race in Chicago I wanted to show The Cat’s Paw– an offbeat, rarely seen film in which Harold runs for mayor in a corrupt city and applies his Eastern philosophy to politics and gangsterism. Tonight’s film, though, is the one most Lloyd enthusiasts consider his best film of the 1930s.

My friends who run the Northwest Chicago Film Society at the Portage Theatre on Wednesday nights were kind enough to ask me to write the mini-review of Movie Crazy for their schedule when they showed it a couple months ago. I was fortunate to see a 35mm print of it projected there, and trust me, there is no comparison between seeing something on film and seeing one that is digitally projected, which always looks flat and lifeless. Movie Crazy really did come alive on the screen in a way that no digital technology can reproduce. The close-ups of actress Constance Cummings looked stunning. I know I’m obligated to work with dvds here, but please never settle for less if there is an opportunity to see a film in 35mm or even on 16mm.

My original review for the March 23rd screening at the Portage Theatre:

In Movie Crazy, Harold Hall is a small-town boy with silver-screen fantasies. But it is only by an accident that he makes it to a sound stage at Planet Studios. He meets Mary (Constance Cummings), an enigmatic actress with a strange desire to test Harold’s loyalty. The film successfully weaves the silent comedy technique of visual gags into a sound film. Harold’s screen test, a clever use of verbal humor, turns into a parody of the overly-dramatic stars of early talkies. The film’s climax on a movie set, with an eerie lack of background music, is one of the many highlights. Though Clyde Bruckman is credited, Lloyd directed most of the picture himself. Determined this time to have a strong script, Lloyd secured the services of Broadway playwright Vincent Lawrence to write the screenplay.

Mary Sears (Constance Cummings) and “Trouble” (Harold Lloyd)

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Just a few points I’d like to elaborate on before we show the film… Chaplin’s success with City Lights inspired Harold to take more care with Movie Crazy. It has a funnier script than his previous film, Feet First, and it relies more on the silent film style than Welcome Danger. For instance, the film opens with a wonderful visual gag in which we think Harold is riding in a car. That is a typical Lloyd moment we could easily imagine seeing in one of his silent films. Likewise, there are sequences in Movie Crazy that are inspired by scenes from his best silent comedies. The dinner party with the magician’s coat reminds us of the Fall Frolic in The Freshman, and Harold’s fight on the movie set is reminiscent of his shipboard fight in The Kid Brother. Both films we have shown in this series, which is another reason why I wanted you to see Movie Crazy. Though recalling the past, these comedy sequences stand on their own. They are so perfectly constructed and executed, especially the gag set-up with the magician’s coat at the gala party.

Constance Cummings

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Constance Cummings plays his co-star in this film. She was born Constance Haverstadt in Seattle in 1910. She became a stage actress and made her Hollywood debut in 1931. Besides Movie Crazy, she had appeared in Frank Capra’s American Madness. She starred in James Whale’s Remember Last Night?– an obscure, mystery-comedy I’m very fond of which I had played back when I used to operate the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago near Six Corners. Constance would eventually leave Hollywood and return to the stage. She had resided in England for many years and in the 1970s was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to British entertainment. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.

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When I played Movie Crazy for some friends of mine it didn’t get the reaction I thought the film deserved. One of the criticisms that came up in our post-Movie Night talk was the on again/off again relationship between Mary Sears and Harold. She’s almost schizophrenic in this film since she also plays a Spanish vamp, but I would argue that Mary has a motivation for what she does to Harold. It’s only when he mistakes her for someone else that the charade begins in the first place. She doesn’t initially intend on manipulating him. But I’d like to hear your thoughts about it after you see the film. Does this interplay make you feel uncomfortable? His leading lady is certainly a very independent character, and it’s one of the most complex relationships Harold Lloyd ever had to contend with!

Movie Crazy was directed mostly by Harold. In an interview he said, “I got one of the gag men to direct and he had a little difficulty with the bottle and we practically had to wash him out and I had to carry on… But I still give the credit to this other boy, the gag man, for it…” The other boy with the drinking problem was Clyde Bruckman, and we’ll talk more about him next week when we show Buster Keaton’s The General, a film Bruckman co-directed. (Anyone whose name is associated with perhaps the greatest silent comedy ever made deserves some recognition, no matter how small his contribution may have been as a co-director.)

In an interview with silent film historian Jeffrey Vance, Constance Cummings backed up Harold’s account. “Harold was a very sweet man and was like the character that he played in the film. He was without question the most important person on the set. I believe Harold worked out everything with the director before they would shoot a scene. His directors I think mainly remained in the background and made certain the scene was done the way Harold wanted it. That was the case with Movie Crazy.”

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Movies about movies was a popular subject in the 1930s. Even Buster Keaton had done it in 1930 with Free and Easy, which was set at the MGM studio and which also gives us a look at early talkie-era film production. But the Keaton film, by contrast, was very static and talky. Though far more cinematic, tonight’s film lacks a musical score; the sound of silence is deafening during the climax in which only sound effects are used. We as the audience are so used to film scoring that its absence here strikes an odd chord– or rather, no chord. Despite this, Movie Crazy does succeed in blending the physical comedy of the silent era with dialogue. The past and present Harold Lloyd are successfully fused together for the first time. This was still the silent screen characterization audiences had been familiar with, but now he was able to break the sound barrier with greater confidence.

In Movie Crazy, Harold takes us to a world so many of us are crazy about. Maybe we don’t act out lines of dialogue from movies in our kitchen the way Harold Hall does—at least most of us don’t– but we love movies, and he takes us behind the scenes of the fabled dream factory as it was then. There is a joy and enthusiasm to this film, which makes our one and only excursion into sound that much more rewarding.

“Kiss me, Trouble, and stop thinking. Thinking only brings you confusion.”

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