From foppish Bostonian to maritime Mississippian hero

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Lea of Silent-ology is hosting her fourth annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, a yearly celebration of all things Buster. Click on the button for more information and a list of participants and their themes.

This year, I decided to do Steamboat Bill, Jr., my favoritest of Buster’s features.

Released 12 May 1928, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Buster’s final film as an independent. Due to its financial failure, Buster had to stop making films for United Artists and move to MGM. He never enjoyed this much creative control ever again.

The title comes from “Steamboat Bill,” a popular Arthur Collins song from 1911. Collins was known as The King of Ragtime Singers. In turn, the film inspired Mickey Mouse’s début cartoon, Steamboat Willie.

In November, I’ll have a series in honor of Mickey’s 90th anniversary.

There’s a new steamship in Muddy Waters, King, owned by local bigwig J.J. King (Tom McGuire). The proud owner of the older steamship, Stonewall Jackson, is William Canfield (awesome character actor Ernest Torrence), nicknamed Steamboat Bill. Bill’s first and last mate is Tom Carter (Tom Lewis).

Everyone flocks to King, ignoring Stonewall Jackson. The arrogant King believes his floating palace will drive his rival’s junky ship out of business. Carter thinks it’s hopeless, but Bill swears he’ll run his boat even if he’s the only one on it.

Bill is thrilled when Carter gives him a telegram which arrived four days ago. He hasn’t seen Willie since he was a baby, and imagines Willie is now bigger than he is.

Shortly before Willie arrives, King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) also comes home from school.

Bill has a devil of a time finding Willie, since many men are wearing white carnations. There’s a bit of ethnic humor many people may now find dated, as two of the guys with white carnations are an African–American and a stereotypically bearded Jew.

Bill is far from thrilled when he realizes Willie is a short, slight, ukelele-playing fop with a pencil moustache and beret. He warns Carter, “If you say what you’re thinking I’ll strangle you!”

Bill insists upon a makeover for Willie, which starts with a trip to the barber to get the moustache shaved off. Who else should be in the chair across from Willie than Kitty, his sweetheart!

The next order of business is a hat shop, where Bill makes Willie try on a parade of hats to replace the beret. Willie is open to a new hat, but Bill doesn’t like any of the ones he does.

This part of the film reminds me a bit of Putting Pants on Philip (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s first official short as a team.

Bill then takes Willie to get working clothes for the boat. While Willie’s in the store, Bill steps on his ukelele.

From the jump, Willie proves himself to be hilariously inept at any and all boat-related tasks. He’s only interested in sneaking away to meet with Kitty.

King is just as displeased with Willie as Bill, and orders him off the boat unless he wants his neck wrung. As bemused as Bill is with his son, he dislikes his rival more, and realizes he and Willie have a common enemy.

A silver lining in Willie’s mismanagement of the boat is the resulting mayhem it wreaks upon King and his boat.

That night, Kitty sends Willie a message, asking him to meet her. Both fathers are adamantly opposed to their relationship, but Willie, determined to see Kitty, outsmarts Bill’s attempts to keep him on the boat.

In the morning, Bill gives Willie money and a ticket back to Boston. His day gets worse when he discovers Stonewall Jackson has been declared unsafe and condemned.

Bill gets into a fight with a newspaper salesman who agrees with the condemnation. After he throws a rock and breaks a window, a lot of people come running, and Bill is arrested.

Willie tries to smuggle him a loaf of bread with escape tools baked in, but the jailer discovers this scheme. A short-lived prison break follows, and then even more trouble begins, accompanied by a growing storm.

Regardless of all the obstacles, Willie remains determined to save the day and prove his worth.

Buster spent over $100,000 building the sets, and spent $25,000 more on the famous storm scene. The storm scene includes Buster’s most famous stunt, depicted above.

Had Buster not stood at exactly the right spot, he might’ve been killed or seriously injured. Buster named that as one of his greatest thrills.

In spite of the mixed reviews and box office failure, today the film is rightly regarded as a classic.

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Limelight at 65, Part I (General overview)

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Today is my English birthday. My Hebrew birthday was the fifth day of Chanukah, 16–17 December. I’m older than I’d prefer to admit to, but still young enough to have a baby.

Released 16 October 1952, Limelight was Chaplin’s penultimate starring role, and is a beautiful summing-up of his life and career. While I’m glad he made A King in New York (1957), Limelight would’ve been a great swan song.

In summer 1914 London, has-been clown Calvero drunkenly struggles to open his building’s front door, while three kids (Chaplin’s real-life kids Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael) talk to him.

Inside, Calvero smells gas. He breaks down a door and finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) passed out, the stove open, a bottle in her hand. He sets her on the stairs and runs for a doctor (Chaplin’s halfbrother Wheeler Dryden), though doesn’t remember to turn off the gas.

Calvero and the doctor carry her upstairs to his room, where she regains consciousness. The doctor gives Calvero instructions on how to nurse her back to health. If she goes to hospital, she’ll be arrested for attempting suicide.

Calvero’s busybody landlady, Mrs. Alsop, sees the broken-down door, and decides not to let this woman back. She’s convinced this is a woman of ill repute. Mrs. Alsop is even more outraged when she discovers her in Calvero’s room.

Calvero says it’ll cause a scandal if word gets out she allows unmarried opposite-sex roommates, and rented to an attempted suicide. And for all anyone knows, they might be married.

Calvero then goes onstage, in very animated form. It ends in every performer’s worse nightmare, as he gazes out into an empty audience. It was all a dream.

That evening, Calvero and his guest finally get acquainted. The young lady introduces herself as Thereza Ambrose, called Terry. She’s a ballerina who’s all alone in the world, and deep in depression since having rheumatic fever. Calvero assures her she only has to pretend to be his wife in name, and that he’ll take good care of her as a platonic friend.

Calvero has another dream of performing onstage, this time with Terry. It ends in applause instead of an empty audience.

In the morning, Terry says she tried to get up, but collapsed. She’s convinced she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t want to bother with a doctor, for fear of wasting his time. Terry remains deep in depression, and doesn’t think she has any future.

Calvero says he was given up for dead six months ago, but now has a new outlook. He tries desperately to convince Terry life is worth living, and that someone her age should have more hope and desire for survival than someone his age.

He admits he lost contact with his audience as he got older, and thus became less funny. He turned to drink, had a heart attack, and almost died.

Calvero’s mood lifts when he gets a telegram from his agent. When they meet, the agent promises a week by the Middlesex Music Hall. If Calvero’s name is poison to the audience, he’ll use another one.

When Calvero comes home, he bumps into the doctor, who says he couldn’t find anything wrong with Terry. He believes her paralysis is all in her head. She either invented it or convinced herself she has it for some deep-seated psychological reason.

Trying to get to the bottom of things, Calvero talks to Terry about her past.

Terry says she was in love with a customer at her music shop, Mr. Neville (Chaplin’s son Sydney). She often gave him extra change and music sheets, and came to listen to his music.

Neville fell on hard times, and Terry got fired for giving him extra change.

Calvero urges Terry to find him and admit her feelings, spinning a beautiful, romantic story about their reunion, but that still isn’t enough. No matter what he says, she’s convinced her life is hopeless and that she’ll never dance again.

Calvero says life is just as inevitable as Death, if only she has courage and the will to use it.

Calvero says since he’s begun preaching and moralizing to her, he’s begun to believe it himself. His mood is on the upswing.

Calvero’s comeback performance isn’t a success. The only person who doesn’t walk out early is someone who’s sleeping. His contract is terminated.

This time, Terry is the optimistic one trying to cheer him up. While she lectures him, she realizes in jubilation she’s walking.

Six months later, Terry is dancing by the Empire Theatre, and uses her influence to get Calvero a position as a ballet clown. By this point, Mrs. Alsop’s attitude has completely turned around, and Calvero has gone back to drinking.

Neville plays the music by Terry’s audition for prima ballerina. Afterwards, Calvero says she’s a true artist, and Terry confesses her love. She asks him to marry her.

When Terry and Neville become friends, Calvero leaves, feeling they’re a much better match. He starts performing on the streets, while Terry goes from strength to strength in the ballet.

Terry tracks Calvero down and begs him to return to the stage. With his former partner (Buster Keaton), he gives a triumphant performance with a bittersweet, poignant ending.

I highly recommend this beautiful, personal film. The mature roles in his sound films wouldn’t have worked with the Tramp, but were perfect for who he grew into as an elder actor.

Buster Goes to College

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To celebrate Buster Keaton’s centenary of starting his film career, Lea at Silentology is holding the third annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Click on the button above to see all the other participating posts.

I chose one of Buster’s less-popular films, College, which released 27 September 1927. For an added lift, I’ll also discuss how the film provides a look back at 1920s society and culture.

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Buster plays Ronald, the most brilliant scholar at his high school. On the day of graduation, he and his mother brave a rainstorm to get to the ceremony. We see a pricetag of $15 on Ronald’s suit, indicating he might be returning it afterwards and doesn’t come from a lot of money.

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By the graduation, Ronald gets a medal of honor and is asked to speak. His fellow students hate his speech, since he totally excoriates athletes and celebrates books and the life of the mind. They all laugh at him, and eventually get up and leave. During the speech, he also finds his suit shrinking and splitting.

At the end of the speech, only his doting mother is left in the audience.

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Ronald thought he couldn’t afford Clayton College, but changes his mind when he learns his crush Mary is going there. He’s determined to work his way through, and to join an athletics team so he might finally impress Mary. He first finds work as a soda jerk and then as a “colored waiter,” though neither of those jobs last very long.

He also tries out for the baseball team and the track and field team, but isn’t very successful at either. Mary’s heart starts to soften when she sees how hard he’s trying. She admires his determination, even if he isn’t a natural athlete. Her jock boyfriend Jeff derides Ronald, and tries to remind her of their relationship, but Mary retorts that he takes the seriousness of their couplehood too much for granted.

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Ronald is called into the dean’s office on account of his poor grades, after how proud the dean was to have such a brilliant scholar among his academic ranks. Ronald confesses he’s been trying to impress his crush, and the dean tells him he too had an unrequited love in youth, but he was stubborn and chose his books.

The dean hits upon a possible solution, and orders the rowing coach to make Ronald coxswain. The coach doesn’t want to accept Ronald onto the team, and tries to sabotage him. Before a big race, he slips a sleeping potion into Ronald’s drink, but Ronald winds up drinking from the wrong cup. The other coxswain is the one who gets roofied.

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During the race, Jeff springs a surprise visit on Mary and announces he’s been expelled. He wants to drag her down with him, and locks her door. The plan is for them to get caught alone together, so Mary will be expelled.

In spite of disasters all around, Ronald’s team wins the race. Afterwards, Mary manages to get a phonecall through to him, and he races to the rescue. All of a sudden, he’s transmogrified into a star athlete as he jumps over tall bushes, pole-vaults through the window, and fights with Jeff.

Mary is caught with Ronald in her room, and to avoid further scandal, they announce their engagement and run into a nearby church to be married.

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I love seeing the cost of living in old films. A $15 suit in 1927 would cost $279.13 today, which is on the low end. A designer suit can cost up to $5,000.

The name Mary in 1927 was like Jennifer in my generation. After slipping so far in popularity, it actually seems like an original choice today!

College culture was really hot. The college boy was a national icon, with men aspiring to be one and women aspiring to date one. The popular lure of college was indeed athletics and social life, not intellectual life. There’s an obvious parallel between this film and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though The Freshman has a lot more character and plot development.

Getting a job was so much easier. You could just walk in and get hired, no need for 3–5 years of entry-level experience or an advanced degree.

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How awesome was it that soda fountains used to be so commonplace! Even more awesome that many of them were in regular stores.

In 1927, it wasn’t illegal to advertise jobs specifically for a certain sex or race. Help wanted ads were divided by sex until 1968.

Blackface was a matter-of-fact, accepted part of the culture. When Buster blacked up for the short-lived waiter job, he wasn’t doing it to be offensive and racist. So many modern-day people who get bent out of shape over historical examples of blackface fail to look at the context and intent.

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Until a few decades ago, college authorities acted in loco parentis, in the place of parents. There were curfews, prying-eyed house mothers, and severe consequences for a woman caught with a man in her room. Even if they were only talking instead of making out or even close to one another, it was considered scandalous.

So many modern young women have no idea how much freedom they have, in spite of a continued sexual double standard. It’s commonplace now to have children outside of marriage, live with a boyfriend, marry after having several kids, and sleep with more than one guy ever. All those things had severe consequences in 1927. This wasn’t the era of casually hooking up with lots of partners. I’m laughably old-fashioned for not pursuing casual sex and feeling compromised by having slept with someone I didn’t marry!

1927: An actor carries Buster Keaton, in the role of Ronald, in the 1927 movie College.

This isn’t Buster’s strongest or most memorable film, but it’s a pleasant diversion.

The General at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

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The General had been slated for its U.S. première on 22 January 1927, at NYC’s Capitol Theatre, but there was a delay of several weeks due to the blockbuster Flesh and the Devil (a film I highly recommend!). When the film finally made its way to NYC, the real General‘s engine bell was displayed in the lobby for promotional purposes.

After spending $750,000 on the film, Buster earned $50,992 during the single week it was by Capitol. Overall, it made $474,264 in the U.S., and was Buster’s biggest financial failure. One has to remember Buster wasn’t necessarily considered one of the Big Three of silent comedy during his original theatrical run. It was only a few decades later his reputation began increasing.

Thankfully, he did live long enough to see this renaissance and critical re-evaluation of his creative work.

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Critics in 1927 weren’t exactly wild about the picture, using descriptors such as “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done,” “long and tedious,” “far from funny,” “a flop,” “drags terribly,” and “not up to Keaton’s best standards.” A rare positive review came from The Brooklyn Eagle.

It’s important to remember how tastes change. A lot of films, books, TV shows, plays, paintings, etc., which were originally considered flops and 1-star efforts are now widely celebrated. Conversely, many blockbusters or otherwise  popular works have aged very badly.

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In 1963, Buster went on the record as saying he was prouder of The General than any of his other films. Film critics and audiences of later generations came to view the film in a much better light than it was originally seen in, and in 1989, it was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. This special honor is allotted to films considered to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

It was among the first crop of films chosen for such preservation, in the first year this program existed. Other inductees of the Class of 1989 included Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

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The General was the first American silent film to be issued on Blu-Ray, and the film has been on many of those incessant “best of” lists. Cottage Grove, Oregon, where much of the filming took place, has a building with a mural of the film.

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of both The General and Portland’s Hollywood Theater in 2016, a new score was commissioned, and the film toured Oregon. Following its showing in Cottage Grove, the president of the National Film Archives offered the master print to aid in the creation of a new DVD. This DVD is currently in the works, and an international tour is planned after its release.

The General at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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The General was based upon a true story, William Pittenger’s 1863 memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. Though Mr. Pittenger (one of the first Medal of Honor recipients) was a Union, not Confederate, soldier, the source material concerned a military raid in the South. It began 12 April 1862, when Union Army volunteers hijacked a train and drove it to Chattanooga. Along the way, they severely damaged the Western & Atlantic Railroad line.

Since the Union forces had cut telegraph wires, it was impossible to send warnings. However, the Confederates eventually captured them. Some were executed as spies, while others escaped. The U.S. Congress gave the Medal of Honor to some of the raiders, though they couldn’t award leader James J. Andrews, since he was a civilian and not in the military.

Obviously, I understand some Southerners wouldn’t consider these guys heroes!

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Though the book was written from the Northern POV, Buster didn’t think the audience would accept Confederates as villains, and switched the story’s perspective. The trend in that era to portray the South as underdogs, heroes, victims, etc., may have been due to retrospective romanticizing of “the lost cause,” even among writers and filmmakers who weren’t Southern themselves.

I’m a Northerner myself, but I don’t have any problem with the other side being portrayed sympathetically, just as I don’t have any problem with a positive portrayal of, e.g., a normal family in Nazi Germany. It can be done well, so long as there’s no historical revisionism or sugarcoating of negative aspects of history. We’re all humans, even if some humans have ended up on the losing side of wars.

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Buster filmed in Central Oregon, where there were old-fashioned railroads perfect for the treatment. He’d tried to rent the real-life General, but his request was denied. The owners didn’t want it used in a comedy. In its place, however, Buster bought two vintage Civil War trains from the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railway, and bought a third train in Eugene, Oregon, to depict The Texas.

Producer Joseph Schenk (Buster’s brother-in-law at the time) allotted a $400,000 budget. Buster worked on the script for weeks, and grew his hair long for an authentic period feel. When the cast and crew arrived in Oregon, they had 18 freight cars full of Civil War-era stagecoaches, cannons, passenger cars, wagons, houses, and laborers. Regular train service ceased during filming, and 1,500 locals were hired as extras.

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Film production being what it is, the budget began ballooning. Buster built real dams to change the depth of rivers, and also built bridges. There were also a number of on-set accidents adding to the swelling budget, among them Buster (who did all his own stunts) being knocked unconscious.

Other accidents included fires from the train’s engine spreading to farmers’ haystacks (costing $25 per stack) and forests; a train wheel running over a brakeman’s foot and resulting in a $2,900 lawsuit; and an assistant director getting shot in the face with a black cartridge.

It was reported that the budget had grown to between $500,000 and a million dollars. Schenk was quite upset at Buster for spending so much money.

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Between three to four thousand residents of the town of Cottage Grove turned out to watch the climactic train wreck scene, which cost $42,000 and is said to be the most expensive single shot in the history of silent cinema. Among the locals in attendance were 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. Shooting began four hours late, used six cameras, and required several long runs.

The wreckage was left in the river, and was a minor tourist attraction until 1944–45, when it was salvaged for scrap metal for the war effort.

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Buster and his company were forced to return to Los Angeles on 6 August 1926, due to excessive smoke left in the air after yet another fire, which broke out during a fight scene. This fire cost $50,000. In late August, heavy rains cleared the air, and they returned.

Finally, on 18 September, shooting wrapped. Buster had accrued 200,000 feet of film, and planned a late December release after the long editing process.