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Buster Keaton’s Comic Masterpiece with Live Piano Accompaniment

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr

By Fredric Dannen

The most famous, and quite possibly the most dangerous stunt in all of American cinema takes place about one hour into Buster Keaton’s 1928 masterpiece Steamboat Bill Jr. Born into a vaudeville family, Keaton was a superb acrobat, and did all his own heart-stopping stunts. Physical comedy, performed with a deadpan expression, was his trademark.

In the movie, Keaton’s character, Willie, must rescue his father and girlfriend after a cyclone hits the town. Cars are blown off the road, trees are uprooted, and houses disintegrate. Willie stands in front of a building with a V-shaped roof and a high window, unaware that the two-ton façade of the building is falling and about to crush him. But instead of being crushed, he passes safely through the open window. Keaton filmed the stunt with a mere two inches of clearance on either side of his body. “It’s a one-take scene,” he recalled later. “You don’t do these things twice.”

Steamboat Bill Jr. is today regarded as one of the greatest movie comedies. In a five-star review, TimeOut pronounced the film “in a class of its own,” and “insanely inventive” and noted that “the physical stunts are, of course, extraordinary.” The reviewer added, “If your faith in humanity needs a little pick-me-up, there’s no better place to start.”

The classic movie will be presented at 7pm on Wednesday, May 16, in the Miguel Malo Auditorium on the second floor of the Bellas Artes, Hernandez Macias 75. Those who attend the screening will experience the film just as audiences did at movie houses in 1928. Superb digital restoration has made the film appear as it must have looked when it was brand new. And the soundtrack will consist of live piano music performed on the Bellas Artes’ nine-foot concert grand Steinway by the Canadian pianist Susan Varcoe.

Formerly chief répétiteur of the Calgary Opera, Varcoe has developed a subspecialty in the mostly lost art of silent-movie accompaniment. She researches music of the era and then creates an original score using melodies and themes from the movie’s time period. Last year, at the Bellas Artes, Varcoe played live piano for two other silent classics, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Keaton’s The General. Her performances were greeted with expressions of amazement, and her return to the Bellas Artes as accompanist for another 1920s comedy has been much anticipated.

This screening, with live piano, is the May installment of the Steinway Series, a quasi-monthly series of piano-centered concerts held at the Bellas Artes in support of Libros para Todos, a nonprofit organization that inspires children in Mexico, particularly those in rural areas, to read more. (For additional information, visit makingreaders.org.)

All tickets for this special event are 150 pesos and may be purchased at Solutions, at Recreo 11, online at steinwayseries.com, or at the door, starting one hour before the screening. Since there will be a single showing, advance purchase is recommended. The movie will be shown with Spanish subtitles added.

 

Film and Music

Steamboat Bill Jr., starring Buster Keaton

Live piano accompaniment by Susan Varcoe

Wed, May 16, 7pm

Miguel Malo Auditorium

Bellas Artes, Hernandez Macias 75

Tickets: 150 pesos

Sale at Solutions, Recreo 11

steinwayseries.com

At the door, one hour before showtime

 

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