Battling the Elements at 16 Frames Per Second

Buster Keaton had an astounding grasp of what works at what cranking speed and how best to compensate for these frame rates physically. It’s part of his comedic toolbox and was part of his filmic style. This is what makes the second reel of The Boat (1921) something of an anomaly.

There are a few elements of nature and human existence that cannot be compensated for to accommodate the speed-up of Silent Film. They involve the human body’s reaction to wind, water and gravity. There are exceptions, of course, but when falling, running or being blasted by water the lizard brain takes over the ability to choreograph a physical reaction. Falls can usually be handled in a controlled, victim-led scenario, but not when the impact causing the fall is a surprise or can’t be controlled.

Is is the exterior night filming of scenes in reel 2 of The Boat the reason Elgin Lessley wasn’t cranking a little faster so Buster’s physical battles with a raging storm while up on deck would register more clearly to the audience? The artificial lighting used for these scenes seems sufficient, and cranking at 85 feet per minute instead of at 80 makes very little difference in exposure.

We’ll never know. Not without a DeLorean and a working flux capacitor.

But in playing at shows and in trying to score the film for Kino’s out-of-print 2011 “ultimate edition” set of the shorts, I’ve found myself instinctively working harder to help the audience decode or register the physical comedy in these scenes. The way I would if I were playing for a film being run too fast.

The second reel lands better I’ve found, save for its final minute, when presented at 21 fps. Buster was a brilliant physical comedian, but there’s only so much you can do to stay in control of your own body’s reactions to being pummeled and thrown about on a small boat that’s being tossed and turned in a windstorm. The rest holds up just fine at 90 feet/min (24 fps), the speed the film was shown at when it was in release.

Fortunately, Keaton and his staff got this all figured out by the time planning and film the last reel or two of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) rolled around.

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