For the 15th anniversary of the Silent Film Gala, a fundraiser for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Buster Keaton's 1928 comedy classic "Steamboat Bill Jr.," about a riverboat captain's effete son who is reunited with his roughhewn father, tops the bill.
Dustin Hoffman, honorary chair for the event, smiles at the choice. "There is an odd connection with me and Mr. Keaton," Hoffman explains. In 1966, the year Keaton died at age 70, Hoffman was a young actor enjoying success off-Broadway in the farce "Eh?," directed by Alan Arkin. "Eh?" brought Hoffman to the attention of director Mike Nichols, who cast him in "The Graduate." A few weeks after the premiere of "Eh?," the New York Times featured a big piece written by critic Walter Kerr on Hoffman and the play.
"I was just stunned," he says. "I read it and in it he compared me to Buster Keaton. I had never seen a Buster Keaton movie, but I saw photographs of him with that deadpan [look]. I guess that was one of the things I did in the performance, where do you outrageous stuff but your face looks like it was in denial."
Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton was a superstar during the silent film era. With his blank expression, remarkable physical prowess and inventive use of the camera, he starred in and directed or co-directed seminal comedies such as "Sherlock Jr." and "The General." At the gala Saturday night at Royce Hall, conductor Timothy Brock will lead the orchestra in the U.S. premiere of his new score for "Steamboat Bill Jr.," which will be screened along with the 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Plane Crazy."
At his death, Keaton's classic comedies had been out of circulation for years -- a fate that befell most silent films. It wasn't until the late '60s and early '70s, with the rise of revival theaters, that his work began to resurface. Hoffman recalls going to a New York revival theater sometime after "The Graduate" to catch up on Keaton. He quickly became a fan.
"He simply didn't place the camera in front of him and be funny," Hoffman says. "He considered the camera to be his partner. I think he really was able to use the camera because, I think, not only of his talent but because he was a craftsman. There was a visual excitement to his work, not only as an actor but obviously as a director."
Keaton's granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox grew up in Santa Monica and spent weekends at Keaton's Woodland Hills ranch. She knew he had been a big star but, like Hoffman, hadn't seen his landmark movies.
"I just grew up going to see Grandpa Buster and going to play at his place. It wasn't until I was in college and they were having a silent film festival at Berkeley -- I was at Davis -- that I saw his movies. To see them on the big screen was just wonderful. But it wasn't really until things came out on video that I was really able to appreciate how intelligent and talented he was. My whole generation might have known the name or they saw him on 'Candid Camera,' but it wasn't his actual talent they were looking at, so people would say, "Who is your grandfather?' It is this next generation who knows who he is."
Her three children are also big fans. " 'One Week' was one of their favorites," Cox says. "When there was show and tell at school, we would take 'One Week' and we would show it in the classroom. The kids were just in stitches. They thought it was hilarious. I think they are timeless that way."
Several members of her family including her camera-shy father, James Talmadge, will be in attendance Saturday night for the screening of "Steamboat Bill." Cox admits if she had been familiar with her grandfather's movies while he was still alive, she would have "asked him a million questions." Instead, she says, "I was more likely to say to him, 'Can I go into the barn and collect the eggs?' "
Silent Film Gala
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Where: Royce Hall, UCLA
Price: $30 for general admission; $75 for priority seating; $250 for film and post-film supper
Contact: (213) 622-7001, Ext. 215, or go to www.laco.org