The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


April 16, 2009

Adding sound to silence

Orchestra will accompany famous silent film

LEWISBURG — The world-famous Paragon Ragtime Orchestra will accompany the classic silent film “Steamboat Bill Jr.” during a one-show-only screening of the Buster Keaton comedy at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Campus Theatre on Market Street.

The music for the film is the original score for the 1928 production, and Saturday night will be the first performance of the score since 1928.

Rick Benjamin, conductor of the Paragon and Lewisburg resident, said “Steamboat Bill Jr.” was one of the last silent films made. “Talkies,” or sound films, had already rendered silent film obsolete, and with them, the orchestras that accompanied the action on the screen.

Benjamin managed to save the original score for “Steamboat Bill Jr.” when the Capitol Theater in Washington, D.C. was demolished in 1992.

“I got a phone call about it, and I rented a U-Haul truck and drove down there,” he recalled. He found 26 crates of sheet music in the basement of the theater, which had closed in 1942. Music for hundreds of silent films, some of which have completely disappeared, was in the treasure trove of scores.

Among them was the music for “Steamboat Bill Jr.”

Benjamin describes the film as a “character comedy” in which Keaton plays Bill Canfield Jr. His father, Steamboat Bill Canfield, is a crusty old steamboat captain on the Mississippi River. Young Bill and his mother had disappeared many years before, and Capt. Canfield is very surprised one day to learn that his son has graduated from Harvard and is coming to visit.

When he meets his son, he despairs, as it appears the young man is a dandified wimp. Eventually, though, the younger man shows his stuff, saving the boat from a tornado.

“Steamboat Bill Jr.” features the only comedy tornado scene ever filmed, Benjamin said. During the scene, Keaton stands open-mouthed as buildings around him are drawn into a funnel cloud, and in a spine-tingling climax, the front wall of a building topples over Keaton, who stands befuddled and unscathed in a window opening.

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