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Get into a cinematic time machine to appreciate comedic genius of Buster Keaton

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Searching to learn more about Buster Keaton? Netflix has only a few of his movies available for instant streaming. If you think you've seen some of these shots and sequences before in other movies, remember, it's more likely that Keaton did them first.

The star, the playwright and the director of Sacred Fools production "Stoneface" have been living with the subject of Buster Keaton for a while--first through workshops, then at the Sacred Fools production and now, until 29 June 2014, at the Pasadena Playhouse, so they'll be our experts. French Stewart ("Mom" and "3rd Rock from the Sun") who stars as the older, broken down Buster Keaton in the play named his favorite Keaton movies:

  • "Seven Chances"
  • "Sherlock Jr."
  • "The General"

It was French Stewart's admiration for the silent film legend that inspired his then-girlfriend and now mother of their daughter, Vanessa Claire Stewart, to write the play as a very special birthday present for French. Her favorite is "Seven Chances" because "while 'The General' is his masterpiece, I tend to go for the sweeter stuff. 'Seven Chances' has very sweet moments in it that make me cry."

Director Jaime Robledo has been with this project from when it was workshopped and has tweaked the play for the bigger stage and audience at the Pasadena Playhouse. Robledo's choices were more eclectic.

  • "Film": This 1966 experimental short is Samuel Beckett's only screenplay. Keaton was not the first choice; Charlie Chaplin was. Keaton's character attempts to evade an all-seeing eye.
  • "Twilight Zone" TV series episode "Once Upon a Time" (1961): A janitor uses a time machine to jump from 1890 (with intertitles) and to visit 1962. He brings back someone wishes to go back to simpler times, but the more modern man finds he misses the conveniences of the 1960s.
  • "Sunset Blvd." (1950): Keaton has a bit part in this movie where he plays cards with Gloria Swanson
  • "The Cameraman" (1928) is about a photographer who has a crush on a secretary who works for a newsreels company and buys a move camera in order to work at the same company and woo her. Filmed in Culver City at the MGM Studios.
  • "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) is about the owner and captain of a paddle steamboat whose college student son joins him as he competes against another businessman. Instead of a burly young man, his son is a slender man with a pencil moustache and a ukelele. The kid is in love with competitor's daughter. Filmed on the Sacramento River.
  • "Go West" (1925) follows a young man as he heads west to make his fortune. Somehow the young man does well as a cowboy, gaining the affection of a certain cow and ending up with his herd in the middle of Los Angeles.
  • "The Play House" (1921) is famous for its opening sequence in which Keaton plays all the roles.

As a Southern California girl, I recall Buster Keaton from the 1965 "Beach Blanket Bingo" and the 1965 "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." Keaton also appears in the Annette Funicello sans Frankie Avalon movie "Pajama Party" (1964). Other movies where Keaton has roles in include:

  • "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966)
  • "Pajama Party" (1964)
  • "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963)
  • "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956)

The following films are available VoD on Netflix. Some, like "The General," are available on YouTube.

"The General" (1927) was a financial disaster for Keaton, but is now thought of as his masterpiece.

The historical James J. Andrews was born in what is now West Virginia and moved to Kentucky. Before the Civil War he has been a house painter and a singing coach, but his daring raid, known as the Great Locomotive Chase or Andrews' Raid, is what made him famous and inspired both Buster Keaton's "The General" and the Disney movie "The Great Locomotive Chase."

Buster Keaton's comedy is told from the Confederate point of view and has a happy ending.

The Disney movie is more historically accurate and doesn't opt for a happy ending and featured Fess Parker.

The real Andrews' intent was to hijack a train and drive it north while leaving the Western and Atlantic Railroad line from Atlanta to Chattanooga as damaged as possible to prevent the Confederate Army from uses the rails for supplies, etc. The Union men cut down the telegraph lines first so that the Confederates could not warn people. Still the raiders were caught after sooner after taking the northbound locomotive called General during a rest and refuel stop.

William Allen Fuller, the train's conductor, pursued his hijacked locomotive by foot, locomotive and handcar along with two other men.

The raid began and ended on 12 April 1862, when the raiders abandoned the General at milepost 116.3, just north of Ringgold, Georgia and 18 miles away from Chattanooga. All of the raiders were caught and tried as spies. Andrews was found guilty and hung 7 June 1862 in Atlanta. As a civilian, Andrews was not eligible for the medal of honor; some enlisted raiders later received that honor. Not all of the men were executed.

"The General" is about a train engineer, Johnnie Gray (Keaton) in Marietta, Georgia. He loves his locomotive, the General, and his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Because of his position, he is rejected from the Confederate Army which humiliates him and causes Annabelle to reject him.

Later, as Annabelle is on the General, traveling to see her wounded father up north, Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) hijacks the train with Annabelle still on board. Johnnie pursues his two loves on foot, handcar, bicycle and even another locomotive.

Johnnie not only saves Annabelle, but is able to learn Union secrets to help the Confederate Army. Eventually, he becomes a soldier and gets the girl. Despite the happy ending for Johnnie (although not for the South), the movie didn't prove to be a happy investment for Keaton.

The Buster Keaton movie was not well-received in its time and failed to turn a profit. That meant Keaton was no longer an independent movie maker. "The General" entered the public domain in the U.S. and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made and includes one of the most expensive stunts of the silent era.

"Go West" (1925) follows a young man as he heads west to make his fortune. Somehow the young man does well as a cowboy, gaining the affection of a certain cow and ending up with his herd in the middle of Los Angeles.

"Our Hospitality" (1923): Buster Keaton takes us to the 1830s where a young couple's love is complicated by their feuding families, the Canfields and the McKays standing in for the Hatfields and the McCoys. Filmed in California, the movie features Natalie Talmadge, Keaton's wife at the time, and a waterfall rescue scene performed by Keaton.

"Seven Chances" (1925): A young man must marry before his 27th birthday in order to inherit $7 million from his grandfather. That's today and he must do it before 7 p.m. His longtime love refuses him as do others, but a news story brings out a stampede of gold digging brides dressed in wedding white .

"Sherlock Jr." (1924): A projectionist is studying how to be a detective. He's in love with a lovely girl. His rival steals a pocket watch and implicates him. The projectionist's lady love breaks off of their engagement. After trying some of his newly learned detective skills, he dreams himself into a detective movie where he is rich, suave, debonair and has a talent for avoiding the dangers of billiard ball bombs--an Inspector Clouseau inspiration? Luckily the girl discovers the truth and exposes the culprit to her father.

"Three Ages" (1923): A love story is portrayed during three distinctly different time periods (the Stone Age, the Roman Age and Modern Times) with the same cast. Wallace Beery plays the villain. Keaton performed a stunt that went horribly wrong, leaving from one building to another, but he was badly injured and had to take a couple of days off. Yet he decided to keep in the accident and edit in more bits for comedic effect.

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