The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

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A gentle reminder that the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival will be raging this week in Bo’ness. Among the treats in store is Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR (screening Saturday), accompanied by maestro Neil Brand upon the piano forte. I hope to be on hand to experience and write about as much of the festivities as possible.

I rate THE NAVIGATOR pretty near the top — not as dazzling as SHERLOCK JNR or as plain great as THE GENERAL, but I like how Kathryn McGuire gets to be almost an equal partner in the slapstick. Her character is exactly as helpless as Buster’s, not more helpless in THE GENERAL (“almost aggressively stupid” was Richard Lester’s affectionate description of Marion Mack’s character) or simply competent and attractive as in THE CAMERAMAN.

I’m not going to try to arrange Keaton’s films in definitive order on a Sunday morning, but I would roughly say that the first rank, for me, contains ~

THE GENERAL, SHERLOCK JNR., THE NAVIGATOR, OUR HOSPITALITY

The middle group, which are not to be sneezed at, would be ~

STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, GO WEST, SEVEN CHANCES, THE THREE AGES, THE CAMERAMAN

And the “lesser films” — ones which are still likely to be better than anything else you might see, would be ~

COLLEGE, BATTLING BUTLER, SPITE MARRIAGE

I realize that this is both subjective and impertinent, and that any attempt to say that SEVEN CHANCES or STEAMBOAT BILL JNR is less than great is likely to look philistine. All I mean to say is that they are LESS great than my top four. But I welcome disputes, if you want to make the case for a lower-down title or knock down one of my pantheon. I will say that I’ve only seen BATTLING BUTLER and SPITE MARRIAGE once, and that it’s been a while since I saw THE CAMERAMAN and THE THREE AGES.

We might also attempt a larger project, a ranking of the short films

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4 Responses to “The Mothering Sunday Intertitle”

  1. Enjoy the comic and filmic brilliance.

  2. See you there David! I can’t hardly wait

  3. SPITE MARRIAGE I was always a tad leery of, perhaps because it made Buster so pitiful and aware of it. It even used the sniffly ending of the loser preparing to mope into the sunset despite saving the girl, convinced of his worthlessness until the girl states her consent.

    Like Harold Lloyd in GIRL SHY. He saves the girl from marrying a bigamist. His work done, his impulse is to get out of the cab and sulk off. Or Jerry Lewis on various occasions, requiring the girl and/or others to rhapsodize over him.

    Contrast to the CAMERAMAN, where he has the heartbreak moment but isn’t a wallower. He struggles to present himself as a worthwhile suitor, but in a way that’s extremely identifiable. He’s not the tragic clown writ large, absurdly out of his league.

    Keaton rarely courts his heroines. Most often he either tries to fit some role to impress them, or they get involved in something he was doing anyway (retrieving his engine in THE GENERAL, surviving in NAVIGATOR, reconciling with his father in STEAMBOAT BILL JR).

  4. Walter Kerr is very good on how Buster contrives to keep his heroines sympathetic enough even when they’re apparently rejecting the lovable hero. Spite Marriage is again an exception to this. But it does have some very good sequences. I like the action climax, which isn’t so much funny as just proper exciting, like a Fairbanks flick.

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