Joseph "Buster" Keaton was a tough cookie from the get-go. Born in 1895 to medicine-show performers Joseph and Myra Keaton, the silent film star's early life was so similar to a slapstick cliffhanger that it's a miracle he lived to see his fifth year. The boy got his nickname at six months of age from his godfather, Harry Houdini, who watched him fall down a flight of stairs, only to arrive at the bottom unharmed and seemingly thrilled by the ride. The great escape artist cried out, "What a buster your kid took!"
It was on the vaudeville circuit that Buster learned to weather the violent, physical demands of slapstick comedy with the stone-deadpan face that became his trademark and, as Keaton himself put it, "got more laughs." His father routinely kicked and threw him across the stage with abandon, and taking a fall became second nature to the lad. By the time Buster was eight years old, the Keaton Family's act was widely known as "The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage."
When motion pictures began to eclipse the footlights of vaudeville, Buster Keaton was already poised for stardom in a new medium that required a wealth of action sequences to make up for its lack of synchronized sound. With nearly twenty years of stage work under his belt, Keaton's deeply ingrained sense of timing made him a natural to write and direct films as formfitting vehicles for his peerless physical comedy.
Of all the films Buster Keaton made, The General (1926) was his favorite, and it's widely regarded as his best work (some say it's the best film ever made). Set during the Civil War, The General is the story of a Confederate railroad engineer's single-handed struggle to reclaim his beloved locomotive from the Union forces that stole it from him. It was filmed almost entirely aboard moving trains in Oregon, the only location that afforded panoramic scenery and the use of a single-gauge railroad track required to run the antique trains used in the film.
The General is not only a vital document in film history; it also screens at 8 p.m. Friday, October 24, at the Winifred Moore Auditorium (470 East Lockwood Avenue) as part of the Webster University Film Series. As a remarkable added bonus, world-renowned junk-instrument trio the Alloy Orchestra will be on hand to perform new, original music in tandem with the silent film. Roger Ebert has dubbed the trio "the best in the world at accompanying silent films," and with the endlessly inventive talents of Roger Miller (formerly of Mission of Burma, No Man and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic) at the helm, you can rest assured that the Alloy Orchestra won't be performing that off-key, saloon-piano-type music that normally accompanies silent movies. Instead, Miller's synthesizers build strange and wonderful vistas of sound, dotted with Ken Winokur's clarinet and "rack of junk" and Terry Donahue's accordion, banjo, musical saw and occasional kitchen-sink percussion.
Admission is $6 for the general public and $5 for seniors, Webster U. alumni and students. For more information, call 314-968-7487 or visit www.alloyorchestra.com.