- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The American Film Institute Silver Theatre has added a Sunday matinee series called “The Best of Buster Keaton” to its repertory programs during the next several weeks. This idea has so much merit that it should become a perennial attraction, similar to the theater’s summer revivals of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”

The obvious way to improve a “Best of Buster Keaton” collection would be to expand it as generously as possible toward a “Complete Buster Keaton.” The current series, which began Sunday with the close-to-sublime “Our Hospitality” of 1923, proceeds chronologically through seven of the 10 silent features made by the great comic performer and innovator during the remainder of the 1920s. The eight titles on the AFI Silver calendar are the consensus “best” among Mr. Keaton’s features, but plenty of fun and fascination remain preserved in the five missing ones. The series definitely comes up short when recalling the Keaton two-reelers of 1920-23 that anticipated his longer comedies. He made 19, but only three are being revived.

A truer sense of moviegoing and of Mr. Keaton’s own evolution during the decade would be simulated by showcasing a majority of the shorts along with the features, the astute policy of Kino Video, when compiling “The Art of Buster Keaton” for VHS and then DVD release.

The young Keaton spent a two-year slapstick apprenticeship as sidekick and gagman to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle before becoming a movie headliner in his own right. Much of that backlog is arguably expendable, but neglecting the shorts made under Mr. Keaton’s own supervision for his own production company is a dubious shortcut.

This body of work methodically familiarized a mass audience with an exceptional comic presence and imagination. The Keaton two-reelers (typically, a reel ran about 10 or 11 minutes in the silent era) appeared quarterly, more or less, and paved the way for a successful feature career, in which semi-annual Keaton comedies were the rule. The performer himself would have preferred a speedier transition to features. In retrospect, he regretted failing to get the jump on both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as a feature specialist.

Joseph Schenck, a legendary Hollywood producer and insider, persuaded Mr. Keaton to play it safe. Not so coincidentally, he was Mr. Keaton’s brother-in-law and business manager. Later, during the transition from silents to talkies, he contributed a catastrophic piece of career advice, arguing that the independent Keaton production company would be better off as a tenant at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That misjudgment undermined Mr. Keaton’s career while he was still in his late 30s.

Organ accompaniment for Sunday’s 44-minute attraction, the famously playful and inventive “Sherlock, Jr.” of 1924, will be entrusted to Ray Brubacher, a familiar and reassuring musical collaborator at silent screenings. “Sherlock, Jr.” is the cinematically defining classic in which Mr. Keaton plays a lovelorn, dreamy theater projectionist-janitor who aspires to be a master sleuth. He dozes off during a showing of the current attraction, “Hearts and Pearls,” and projects his own double into the plot and shot continuity of the picture. An astonishing sequence illustrates how elastic “reality” becomes when controlled by film editing and sudden changes of scene.

Initially at a loss, the dream intruder metamorphoses into the Sherlockian genius suggested by the title. In this guise he’s adept at foiling all attempts to confuse or kill him. Then he abandons evening dress and reverts to a figure not unlike the hero, but possessing enough dexterity and luck to survive a cross-country chase that eventually obliges him to sail an automobile across a lake. Reviving from his dream state, the hero patches things up with his sweetheart — ironically, a much better amateur detective in real time. Stealthily, he consults the screen for pointers on how to handle a fadeout love scene.

When Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” was new, confirmed moviegoers were charmed by its conceptual resemblances to “Sherlock, Jr.” There was also an amusing forecast of “The Hustler,” when the Sherlockian figure performs a sequence of trick shots at a pool table. Now it can be recognized that there was also a forecast of a running gag in Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” series, when the dream sleuth subjects several suspects to long, searching, almost nose-to-nose stares. The movie ends with a quizzical scratch of the head, which Mr. Keaton had patented quite a while before it became one of Stan Laurel’s trademarks. More than ever, “Sherlock, Jr.” seems an indispensable comedy text.

The AFI Silver is also reviving Max Ophuls’ most accomplished and stirring movie, “The Earrings of Madame de …,” this weekend. Made in France in 1953, it was his next-to-last feature and summarized an exceptional cinematic sensibility, attuned to fables of misplaced or calamitous passion and expressed in a camera style that emphasized graceful and continuous movement, utilized thematically as well as sensually. The most rapturous example in “Madame de …” is a ballroom dance sequence that contrives to alter settings and wardrobes while tracing the progress of a love affair between Danielle Darrieux as the title character, a French countess, and Vittorio De Sica as her lover.

Mr. Ophuls had directed three exceptional movies in Hollywood during the late 1940s — “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “Caught” and “The Reckless Moment.” The very titles seem to evoke his attraction to doomed romantic liaisons. James Mason, a co-star of both “Caught” and “Reckless Moment,” composed a memorable short verse about the director’s style: “A shot that does not call for tracks/Is agony for poor dear Max,/Who, separated from his dolly,/Is wrapped in deepest melancholy./Once, when they took away his crane,/I thought he’d never smile again.”

SERIES: “The Best of Buster Keaton”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.

WHEN: “Sherlock, Jr.” with “The Blacksmith,” Sunday at 3:30 p.m.; “The Navigator,” May 20 at 4 p.m.; “The General,” May 27 at 3:30 p.m.; “Seven Chances” with “The Paleface,” June 3 at 2 p.m.; “College,” June 10 at 4 p.m.; “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and “The Scarecrow,” June 24 at 2 p.m.; “The Cameraman,” July 1 at 4 p.m.

TICKETS: $9.25 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 301/495-6700

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

TITLE: “The Earrings of Madame de …”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1953, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with infidelity as a key thematic element)

CREDITS: Directed by Max Ophuls. Screenplay by Mr. Ophuls and Marcel Achard, based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin. Cinematography by Christian Matras. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, Silver Spring

WHEN: Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m., Monday at 9:30 p.m., Tuesday at 7 and 9:10 p.m., and May 17 at 9:30 p.m.

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