Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A happy crowd… Buster’s Shorts, Talkies Community Cinema, Christ Church, Southgate with David Hinitt and Adam Dickson

“Not long ago a friend asked me what was the greatest pleasure I got from spending my whole life as an actor. There have been so many that I had to think about that for a moment. Then I said, ‘like everyone else, I like to be with a happy crowd’.” – Buster Keaton

This was an irresistible first for me: the chance to watch silent comedy in a church with live improvised organ accompaniment.

Talkies organised the event superbly and silent activist Michelle Facey programmed perfectly. There were packed pews for this premier of Keaton comedies at Christ Church in leafy North London; just a dash down the A10 and a few dozen minutes of male hit-and-hope navigation (it’s really quite easy to find if you have the humility to pre-plan Paul…) from home.

Sybil never loses faith...well almost
The venue is lovely with the warmest of welcomes: this is a community cinema in all senses and there were eager helpers ready to serve the kind of refreshments required after your husband has just given you a de-tour of Enfield. This was not entirely the usual audience for a silent screening - there were a fair number of “civilians” here for the opportunity to share something different and to laugh at a man repeatedly falling over in a church.

Sometimes people can treat silent film with too much reverence (sorry) but the aisles were truly alight almost the second Roscoe and Buster started their larks in the first film: this audience were here for an unqualified good laugh. They were here to share. 

Molly Malone watches as the wall falls on Roscoe Arbuckle
Back Stage (1919)

First up was one of the 15 two-reelers Buster made with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle a huge star at the time soon to be on a $1 million a year contract. Back Stage deals with a subject very close to Buster’s heart: small-town vaudeville. Keaton had been on stage almost his entire life with his presence in the family act enabled a combination of childcare and commercial opportunity.

Buster and Roscoe play a couple of stage hands trying and failing to keep the motley performers happy. There’s a crazy-legged dancer (Jack Coogan Sr. in the days before his son made him more famous) and a giant strongman (Charles A. Post) whose strength is matched only by that of his petite assistant (Molly Malone).

Charles A. Post
Buster and Roscoe electrocute the brute but he just won’t stay down. In the end their cast go on strike and they have to complete the show on their own. Things go so badly they go really well and amongst the hilarity a stage scene house falls onto Roscoe who survives by the good fortune of an open window… the first, if not even the last time tonight, Buster deployed that device.

It was a treat to see these two in their early adventures. Now, wouldn’t it be god to see some more of Mabel Normand with Roscoe?

Roscoe Arbuckle
The Goat (1921)

The Goat was another astute choice from Michelle featuring another iconic Buster Keaton moment…

Buster thinks he's seen a ghost not a goat!
Buster gets confused with Dead Shot Dan (played by co-director Malcolm St. Clair) and all heck breaks lose as he goes on the run. Dan simply ducks as Buster watches on through the bars looking for all the world as if he’s the con.

Much confusion reigns in what could be considered a demo for Cops only with a handful not hundreds of LA’s finest in pursuit. Eventually Buster annoys the Police Chief himself – BIG Joe Roberts – and ends up romancing his daughter (Virginia Fox) or at least trying… the chase is almost all...

Buster and some Cops!

One Week (1920)

All under control
Directed by Eddie Cline and Keaton this was the first film to be released with Buster on his own. Not for long though as he is quickly wed to Sybil Seely and then off to build a new house on a plot provided by his uncle. All looks swell for the newly-weds until a jilted ex swaps the numbers round andthe pieces fall neatly out of place.

Big Joe Roberts features again as a piano mover who drops his cargo onto its relatively tiny recipient: more jokes about size not being everything: Buster always finds a way even if it leads to further complications.

I’ve previously raved about One Week and it hasn’t lost its charm or impact: the audience gasped at the ending as Keaton provides the classic gotcha moment of jeopardy-relief and then… smash!!

Looking good

The Boat (1921)

This was another Keaton revelation: I knew he had a boat called the Damfino, I just never knew what it really meant or, indeed, how it was pronounced or rather, mouthed. It was a punch-mime well worth waiting for and I’ve never heard so many people laugh whilst lip-reading.

Sybil launches the Damfino!
Buster has built his boat in his house and, best laid plans and all that, it just won’t squeeze out of the front door. He makes a few adjustments and pulls the Damfino through only for his house to collapse just behind. Undeterred the Keaton family, two boys in pork pie hats and the long-suffering Sybil Seely head sea-ward.

It’s interesting to see the character Keaton had devised across these four films. He was a go-getter, trying to sort things out for himself and in spite of every reversal he just keeps coming. A constructive clown and a man after our own hearts. Your boat’s sinking? Climb into the bathtub! Lessons we should all heed…

Buster and Sybil take a bath
In a world in which mistakes happen and you have to improvise your way ahead: and in Buster we trust!

The organists David Hinitt and Adam Dickson performed admirably on what was only their second or third silent accompaniment. It’s no mean feat especially trying to capture the mood of quicksilver comedy: take your eyes of Buster and you risk missing the punchline!

All in all a splendid time was had by all in Southgate and lets’ hope Talkies shows more silents in future.

The three Buster solos are available on the Kino Blu-ray Short Films Collection: 1920-1923 set and also with the Arbuckle collaborations on Complete Buster Keaton Short Films (1917-1923).

Christ Church's Lady Chapel complete with William Morris stained glass and decoration


  1. Great review of a great evening. We enjoyed putting on the screening and seeing people enjoying these comedy greats. Onwards to March 2017 with The Battle of the Somme with live orchestra in Wood Green then back to Christ Church in October 2017 - maybe with Battleship Potemkin??

    1. Thank you for reading! It was a lovely evening and a great audience! Potemkin would besomething to see in the churcha and The Battle of the Somme is so moving - the live orchestra will make it veen more so. Best wishes and thanks again for some good Buster laughs!!