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|
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|
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|
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?
The Goat was another astute choice from Michelle featuring another iconic Buster Keaton moment…
|Buster thinks he's seen a ghost not a goat!|
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|
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!!
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!|
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|
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|