NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

PortWatch

September 6, 2013

'Cameraman' gets silent film fest rolling

He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname “The Great Stone Face.”

Buster Keaton’s comedies, however, rocked Hollywood’s silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s.

Keaton’s “The Cameraman” will be shown with live music Wednesday night to launch the Rogers Center for the Arts Silent Film Festival at Merrimack College in North Andover.

“The Cameraman” is the 1928 story of a young man (Keaton) who tries to impress the girl of his dreams (Marceline Day) by working as a freelance newsreel cameraman. His efforts result in spectacular failure, but then a lucky break gives him an unexpected chance to make his mark.

Music for “The Cameraman” will be performed live by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire composer regarded as one of the nation’s leading silent film accompanists.

“These films weren’t intended to be watched at home by, say, just you and your dog,” said Rapsis, who uses a digital synthesizer to improvise live scores for silent films. “It’s kind of a high-wire act, but the energy of live performance is an essential part of the silent film experience.”

The series at the Rogers Center aims to recapture the magic of early Hollywood by presenting silent films as they were intended to be shown: on a big screen with live music and a large audience.

“If you can put together those elements, it’s surprising how much power these films still have,” Rapsis said. “You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies.”

In “The Cameraman,” Keaton relies heavily on physical comedy and his pantomime skills.

However, his skills as an actor are undeniable. Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that “in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”

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