Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Balloonatic (1923)

Screen capture from Kino DVD
WHO: Buster Keaton co-wrote, co-directed and stars in this alongside Phyllis Haver, perhaps the biggest female star he ever played opposite, at least in the silent era. Haver is perhaps best known for playing Roxie Hart in the 1927 silent Chicago, but she worked with many top directors such as John Ford (in 3 Bad Men), Raoul Walsh (What Price Glory), Howard Hawks (Fig Leaves) and D.W. Griffith (The Battle of the Sexes) and retired very shortly after talkies took over in Hollywood.

WHAT: Keaton's penultimate short before making the switch to feature films later in 1923 (tentatively at first, with The Three Ages, which could easily have been broken into short films had it flopped as a feature). He'd revert back into the short film world in the mid-1930s, well into the talkie era.

Without giving away any of the film's gags, it's fair to say that The Balloonatic is not one of Keaton's most inventive films story-wise, but it still features many very wonderful and hilarious sequences, including some of his most physical work to that point in his career. You really get a sense of Keaton battling the elements (quite literally, as he takes on air, water, fire and even earth, in approximately that order).

WHERE/WHEN: Screens this morning at the Castro Theatre, on a San Francisco Silent Film Festival program beginning at 10AM.

WHY: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been gradually working its way through showing all of Buster Keaton's silent films. By my count they've shown the following features over the years: Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 2000, Go West in 2003, Our Hospitality at the February 2009 Winter event, Sherlock, Jr. at the December 2009 Winter event, The Cameraman in 2012, The Navigator in 2014, and The General at the 2014 Silent Autumn event. Which leaves only six more of his eligible features unscreened by the organization (for the record: The Saphead, Three Ages, Seven Chances, Battling Butler, College and Spite Marriage) But then there are the shorts. I believe SFSFF has shown The Cook (in which he's the featured player to Roscoe Arbuckle's star), The Goat, The Love Nest, One Week, The Scarecrow, The Playhouse, and The Blacksmith. Today Cops and The Balloonatic add to that list, leaving another eleven shorts in which he stars, and thirteen in which he features with Arbuckle. At this rate, it'll take the 21-year-old festival at least another 21 years to come close to covering Keaton's entire pre-talkie filmography. It'll be quite a while before they'll have to start scraping the bottom of the barrel, or resorting to repeat showings. Cops is one of my very favorite of his shorts, and The Balloonatic is excellent as well.

They screen this morning along with The Battle of the Century, a Laurel and Hardy short that has not been seen in its complete form in decades. It's no coincidence that pianist Jon Mirsalis makes his long-delayed return to SFSFF playing the accompaniment for this program, as he's the one who found the long-missing reel 2 in a private collector's stash and brought it to public light for the first time (although a very small portion of the film still remains missing- so check your attic!) Also on the program: the delightful/disturbing (can't decide which) French short The Dancing Pig.

Also screening SFSFF today are Axel Lindblom & Alf Sjöberg's The Strongest and Anthony Asquith's debut Shooting Stars, neither of which I know much of anything about, Black American director Oscar Micheaux's earliest surviving film Within Our Gates, Rene Clair's most famous (but not my personal favorite) silent film The Italian Straw Hat, and finally The Last Warning. This, Paul Leni's final film before his untimely death from an infected tooth in 1929, was the 2016 SFSFF film I was most excited to see programmed when the schedule was initially announced, simply because it was one of the few films that I'd heard of but never seen before. After yesterday's disappointingly corporate-boilerplate-heavy Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation from the Universal team involved in its digital restoration, I'm actually slightly less interested in seeing it tonight than I was before. But I probably will anyway, and am thankful that the other Amazing Tales presentations were strong enough that it was still well worth running out the door early for. The Last Warning will have to be pretty amazing to match last night's late-show screening Behind the Door, perhaps the only silent film that ever made me think of Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara by the end.

HOW: Both the Keaton shorts, the Battle of the Century and the Dancing Pig are expected to screen digitally, with live piano accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

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