Buster Keaton in NEIGHBORS (1920) – Wherefore art thou, Buster?

neighbors1

Neighbors, as is fairly obvious from the get-go, is Romeo and Juliet set in a tenement. Just as obviously (knowing who co-wrote, -directed, and starred in the movie), Buster isn’t given to long soliloquies; he is going to act upon his impulses, not discuss them in iambic pentameter.

And act he does. In many of his movies, Keaton asks only for a premise simple enough to use as a clothesline for his gags. In Neighbors, the clothesline is the gag. The apartment buildings of the two rival families (Buster’s and his girl’s) are connected by a clothesline, and you’ve never seen such a seemingly sparse prop milked for comic possibilities.

The action consists of three set-pieces, two-thirds of them superb: (1) the opening business with that clothesline; (2) a long sequence in which the camera follows Buster down the street as he is taken into custody by an ever-changing succession of cops; and (3) the final scene, where he uses two men perched beneath him as a human ladder so that he can rescue his lady love from a second-story perch.

Sadly, it is the second set-piece that is the most troublesome, as it tries to garner laughs from African-American stereotypes. One can complain about too much political correctness in our times. But when Buster, his face accidentally covered in black paint, is dragged down the street by a cop, and Buster casually replaces himself with a nearby black man without the cop noticing the difference in the two men, one starts to wriggle uncomfortably instead of laugh. Since the black man gets a brief comeuppance in a later shot, one could almost forgive the stereotype, were it not followed by an equally offensive one where Buster emerges from a black woman’s laundry pile, and the woman and her family run away in cliched I’m-feared-o’-ghosts fright. (Keaton isn’t quite as vindictive with his stereotypical black humor as was his mentor Roscoe Arbuckle, but it must be acknowledged that Keaton has his questionable moments.)

Other than that unfortunate tangent, Neighbors is one of Keaton’s most satisfying shorts.

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