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Buster Keaton Movies in Canton — With a Live Orchestra!

When I taught English at Loyalsock High School, I sometimes took a single class-session and introduced my students to silent-film genius Buster Keaton.

It was a bit of a stretch connecting this to my curriculum — though Keaton worked with Samuel Beckett and was also a master of the nonverbal cues covered in my speech courses. It was worth the side-trip, however, because most of these youngsters had never even heard about this wonderful wizard of the silent screen.

Indeed, legendary critic Roger Ebert called Keaton “the greatest actor-director in the history of cinema.” Fellow-director Orson Welles said Keaton was “beyond all praise. No one came near him.”

And this Friday, you can catch two of Keaton’s greatest works the way the were meant to be seen — not only on a large theatrical screen, but also accompanied by live music!

Exactly 100 years old, Keaton’s whiz-bang 45-minute feature Sherlock Jr. (1924) is showing April 19 at the Rialto Theatre in Canton — with musical accompaniment by Lewisburg’s world-famous Paragon Ragtime Orchestra.

Slated for 7 p.m., the one-night-only event is entitled “The Rialto’s Roaring 20s Revisited.” Period costumes are encouraged — and the evening also includes one beloved Keaton short (Cops), plus a Mack Sennett silent.

Both Cops and Sherlock Jr. are among six Keaton works included on the National Film Registry — ranking him as one of the most-honored figures on that prestigious list.

I first caught Sherlock Jr. at a Manhattan revival house in those rarefied pre-DVD, pre-streaming days — and it knocked me silly.

Directed by and starring Keaton — who also did his own stunts — Sherlock Jr. concerns a mild-mannered film projectionist who somehow winds up getting inserted into the movies showing onscreen. According to Wikipedia, it was an influence on Woody Allen’s similarly plotted 1985 comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo.

But even with this innovative storyline, the film’s best feature is its jaw-dropping stunts, with Keaton emerging more as a magician than a mere movie-maker.

At one point, pursing bad guys escaping in a car, he jumps from a two-story roof and grabs an upright railroad crossing-gate — which descends under his weight and drops him right into the back seat. Keaton then spends much of the pell-mell climax sitting on the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle — including a long stretch with no driver!

In another scene, he wedges a circular dress-box into a window and then later, evading villains, jumps through the window and emerges in disguise — wearing the dress.

And in the movie’s most momentous magic moment (one of Keaton’s greatest tricks), he plunges headfirst into a man’s stomach and completely disappears — at which point the man simply straightens his clothing and walks away! And this, like much of the master’s other work, was accomplished without photographic tricks.

(If, like my students, you are afterwards dying to know how this was done, it’s explained in Marion Meade’s delightful Keaton bio Cut to the Chase — and also shown, if memory serves, in the Emmy-winning miniseries Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.)

Cops likewise features several great stunts, including one with a teetering ladder that I won’t even try to describe.

Now as we wind up: I had intended this article as a tribute to the comedian’s complete career; but we are out of space, so I will comment on other Keaton triumphs next week — and finish instead with a final famous story from Sherlock Jr:

One scene involves the actor hanging from the spout on a giant railroad water-tank; while he was supposed to get flooded when the spout came down, the water poured out more heavily than expected, dumping him down onto the tracks, where he banged his head so hard on a rail that, according to Meade, Keaton fainted (the camera kept rolling, since he was also director and hadn’t called “Cut!”).

Revived with more water, Keaton found himself in so much pain that he dismissed his crew for the rest of that day — but he did thereafter continue production, despite weeks of blinding headaches.

Ten years later at a routine check-up, his doctor asked, “When did you break your neck?” “Never,” said Keaton. But in fact, an X-ray had revealed a small and very old fracture on one vertebra — a grave injury that, as far as he could tell, must have occurred on that fateful day filming Sherlock Jr.

As for the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra:

This is an accomplished ensemble of a dozen or more players under the direction of Bucknell University’s Rick Benjamin. They have performed at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian and the Brucknerhaus in Austria.

Doors for Sherlock open at 6:30, with adult beverages available for purchase. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for kids 12 and under.

The show is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Canton Nursing Association and Rockgirt AirBNB.