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Silent Film Society Of Chicago Salutes Buster Keaton

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 17, 2014 8:35PM


Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton would be slam-dunk inclusions on a Silent Film-era Mount Rushmore. Both were outstanding comedians and physical actors who didn’t need stuntmen as stand-ins. But where Chaplin’s feats of physical prowess utilized a dancer’s grace, Keaton’s physical comedy laid the foundation for the modern stuntman. Keaton’s stunts were among the most physically taxing of the silent era but emphasized feats of strength and dexterity over character development. Keaton would sign a deal with MGM in 1928 that severely hampered his independence in filmmaking (the studio insisted he use stuntmen for some of his more dangerous scenes to which he replied “stuntmen don’t get laughs”) and even though his films were popular hits they were nowhere near the successes of his silent-era heyday.

That there are so many of Keaton’s films still in circulation, either through preservation efforts or streaming online, is a testament to an actor and artist at the height of his powers, although admittedly Keaton’s deadpan countenance can be a bit trying for some viewers. The Silent Film Society of Chicago celebrates Keaton’s career March 7-9 by screening three of his most popular films at the Des Plaines Theatre.

The “Buster Keaton Weekend” kicks off 8 p.m. March 7 with a screening of The General. Arguably Keaton’s most popular film, Orson Welles called The General "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made." Keaton stars as a train engineer who, despite his best efforts, is not drafted into the Confederate army as he’s more valuable as an engineer. The film contains one of the most famous scenes in film: a locomotive/trestle collapse scene regarded as the most expensive stunt of its time.

The festival continues 8 p.m. March 8 with Steamboat Bill Jr. This was the last film Keaton would make for United Artists and contains a beautiful storm scene that is a masterwork of Keaton hitting his marks and stepping away from his stunts unscathed.

The festival concludes 3 p.m. March 9 with College. The film finds Keaton as a bookish student in a college full of jocks who tries to varying degrees of success to impress coed Anne Cornwall. Keaton can't even be a successful soda jerk in this film.

Tickets for individual screenings of the Silent Film Society of Chicago's "Buster Keaton Weekend" are $10 in advance via Paypal at the society's website or $12 on the day of each screening at the Des Plaines Theatre box office (1476 Miner St., Des Plaines). festival passes are $24 and available at the Silent Film Society's website; student and senior discounts are $9 in advance or $21 for the weekend pass.