Charlie Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton: Who cares??

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The following is my first of two entries in The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon: The Life and Films of the Little Tramp, being co-hosted by the blogs Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner from Apr. 14-16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Charles Chaplin on his 126th birthday (Apr. 16)!

(All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.)

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I first came across Charlie Chaplin when I was 11 years old and just “getting into” silent movies. I didn’t start watching Buster Keaton movies until a few years later, mainly because I never had access to any of them until a local PBS station began showing them. I find both men, in their individual ways, brilliant silent-film comedians.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been listening to the ridiculous debate about Chaplin versus Keaton — which comic is funnier, less sentimental, more artistic, etc. — as though great movie comics are so plentiful that we must compare apples to oranges. For the final word on this subject, I have two quotes. The first quote is from The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr’s invaluable study of silent-film comedy; the second is a seemingly irrelevant quote about a completely different subject by Susan Sontag. (However, in Sontag’s case, replace “The Doors and Dostoyevsky” with “Keaton and Chaplin,” and you’ll see what I mean.)

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* “…[Keaton] has been hailed, here and there, not only as Chaplin’s equal but as Chaplin’s superior. This, I think, is waste effort, a misreading of Keaton’s very values…Let Chaplin be king, and Keaton court jester. The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.” – Walter Kerr, 1975

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* “If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?” – Susan Sontag, 1996

(If you liked this blog, please click here to read my second blogathon entry, about Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.)

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Hanging on in Hollywood: Buster Keaton’s Educational and Columbia short subjects (1934-1941)

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The following is my second of two entries in The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology on Feb. 12 and 13, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of silent-film comic Buster Keaton!

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Now that Buster Keaton’s entire short-subject output from the 1930’s and early ’40s is readily available for viewing, this entire period of Buster’s film career has come under re-evaluation, in much the same way as when Laurel & Hardy’s 1940’s Big Studio films came under the light of more sympathetic biographers. Viewing these movies proves that, while none of Keaton’s late-period shorts are up to the tantalizing quality of One Week or Cops, they’re far more enjoyable to watch than was once believed.

As is well-documented elsewhere, by the early 1930’s, Keaton’s personal and professional life had hit the skids. But if none of the major studios wanted to take a chance on him, his name was still a commodity from which money could be made, and Keaton had bills to pay. Based on this matter-of-fact viewpoint, Keaton signed with Educational Pictures in 1934 and eventually performed in 16 shorts for them.

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Educational blithely billed their movies as “The Spice of the Program,” but if the studio could actually have been a spice, it might have been close to arsenic. By the ’30s, Educationals featured either up-and-coming stars who used these shorts only as a stepping stone to bigger things, or former big names such as Harry Langdon and Keaton for whom Educational was a last resort.

Many of Keaton’s Educationals get by sheerly on their audience’s goodwill; you feel they could have been great comedies if they’d just had a little more time and budget bestowed upon them. Some of them actually work as is. The one that everyone always cites as old-style Keaton (and the only short for which Keaton gets [or takes?] a screen credit) is Grand Slam Opera, and with Keaton deftly showing his physicality and his old stage routines, it does indeed work well. But others in the series are quite nice. The Chemist, with Keaton as a milquetoast inventor who runs afoul of some gangsters, is fast-paced, character-driven, and quite funny. Ditto seems to take off on The Playhouse‘s subplot of Buster falling in love with a woman who happens to have a look-alike twin. The short is so otherworldly, with an almost surreal ending, that it wouldn’t have been out of place in Keaton’s ’20s filmography.

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After Keaton’s Educational contract expired, he starred in 10 shorts for Columbia Pictures. Shorts-wise, Columbia was best known as the home of The Three Stooges, and the studio did their best to fit square-pegged Buster into a similarly round hole. Stooges producer-director Jules White served the same function on nearly all of Keaton’s shorts, and his slam-bang approach to comedy ruffled Keaton’s feathers to no end.

To be sure, Columbia, like Educational, was no return to Keaton’s salad days. The Columbia shorts were each filmed in just a few days, and after Keaton finished the final one, he vowed never again to appear “in another crummy short.” Yet it’s completely unfair to say, as Keaton biographer Marion Meade stated, that Buster “phoned in” his Columbia performances.

In his take on Laurel & Hardy’s Big Studio films of the 1940’s, L&H biographer Scott MacGillivray likened The Boys’ studio years to a magician wresting his way out of a strait-jacket, finding it interesting to see how the comedians could pull off their old tricks despite being hemmed in. Similarly, though many of the plot elements and gag structures of the Columbia films seem as old as cinema itself, they’re worth watching just for the grace and nuance that Buster brings to them. He takes moth-eaten situations and makes them look as though he had just invented them.

One element that certainly helps is the shorts’ writing, done mostly by Laurel and Hardy veteran Felix Adler and Buster’s old sidekick Clyde Bruckman. (Bruckman, a co-writer of Keaton’s famed feature The General, must have had more than a say in the making of Mooching Through Georgia, a delightful Civil War send-up.)

Although, again, the quality of these Educational/Columbia shorts is mostly middling, each series bears only one short that is downright painful to watch. Educational’s Allez Oop depicts Keaton’s Elmer becoming jealous when his erstwhile girl (Spite Marriage‘s Dorothy Sebastian) falls for a trapeze artist, and then trying to master similar trapeze tricks in his own backyard. It’s saddening to watch the man who swooped all over a moving train in The General fall flat on his face while trying to swing just a few yards above the ground. (The movie’s sped-up film and music make the situation even more garish.)

In Columbia’s His Ex Marks the Spot, Buster, much to the consternation of his second wife (Dorothy Appleby), decides to let his ex-wife (Elsie Ames) and her boyfriend (Matt McHugh) live in his (Buster’s) apartment so that Buster won’t have to pay alimony. (The boyfriend lives with the ex-wife?? How did this get past the 1940’s censors?) It’s a very mean-spirited short that simply makes Buster look like a doofus in everything he does. The film isn’t helped by its constant cutaways to close-ups of McHugh’s derisive laughter at everyone’s stupid behavior.

But the rest of the shorts are no source of shame for the Keaton buff; just watching Buster’s body language in some of the scenes is worth the viewing. For the most part, the Educational and Columbia shorts are watchable at worst, and the best of them are worthy additions to the Keaton canon — even if Buster himself wouldn’t have agreed.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, about Buster Keaton’s 1965 short subject The Railrodder.)

The 12 Days of Blogmas – Day 9

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For the ninth day in a row, I’m playing Cinematic Santa, passing out online movie and TV clips to my favorite bloggers in a concerted effort to match their tastes. (Visit here for a more complete synopsis of my new Blogmas tradition.)

Today I reach into my bag of goodies (forgive me if my phrasing offends) for Kellee of the blog Outspoken and Freckled. Kellee loves a little of everything movie-wise, and as her blog’s title implies, she has as many opinions about film as she has sunkisses on her physique.

In fact, Kellee likes so many kinds of movies, I hardly know which interest to pinpoint — so I’m going for the obvious. Kellee lives in Kansas, which was the birthplace of one of her many movie idols, Buster Keaton. And if we’re talking Buster, I can’t do any better than to reward Kellee with one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen — Keaton’s solo film debut, One Week (1920).

It doesn’t even do justice to the movie to try to summarize its plot; it goes for big belly laughs from the get-go (and it succeeds) long before the main plot even takes hold. The movie is embedded below, so just hang onto something (so you won’t fall to the floor with laughter) and watch — and please join us tomorrow for Day 10!

ARBUCKLE & KEATON, VOL. 1 (2001) – Comedy compilation more historical than hysterical

(To Lea at the delightful silent-film blog Silent-ology: Sorry for the following sacrilege.)
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Kino Video probably issued the Arbuckle and Keaton, Vol. 1 DVD based on the strength of Kino’s earlier, mostly flawless Buster Keaton compilations. And in spite of this DVD touting some short subjects of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at the height of his fame, Keaton remains the DVD’s main draw — at least, for me.

The story goes that in the late 1910’s, Arbuckle was America’s second-most-popular comedian, bowing only to Charlie Chaplin. When Arbuckle met up with Buster Keaton, he recognized Keaton’s comedy strengths and debuted Keaton in his movies as an ever-reliable sidekick.

Yet based on the evidence shown here, Keaton in even secondary roles was someone to keep an eye on, while Arbuckle’s appeal has assuredly diminished over the years. Unlike Chaplin or the solo Keaton, Arbuckle has little of a persona to fall back on. One can imagine how Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Stone Face would react in a given situation. But Arbuckle seems to change his stripes whenever any gag, in or out of character, presents itself. About the only persona that emerges for Fatty is that he’s…well, fat.

And the plotlines, concocted mostly by Arbuckle, are just as arbitrary as his character. The short The Bellboy (1918) begins in a hotel and segues strangely to a bank that’s being robbed. The Butcher Boy (1917, and Keaton’s film debut) begins in a grocery store and switches to a girls’ boarding school.

But unlike Arbuckle, who all but winks at the audience in an attempt to win their love, Keaton plays straight no matter the situation and scores points all around. Out West (1918) presents Keaton as a barroom gunslinger, and just by force of personality, he makes you believe it. And heaven knows, nobody could take a fall or elaborate a simple gag better than Buster.

Arbuckle’s hoary stories are not helped by racist humor (in Out West, barroom bullies shoot at the feet of a frightened black man, and Arbuckle goes right along with the bullies) and by musical accompaniment (by “The Alloy Orchestra,” according to liner notes) that rates as Kino’s worst.

Anyone with an interest in Buster Keaton’s humble film origins might want to give this a look. Silent-film buffs might be drawn in initially but will most likely lose interest about halfway through.

A Buster Keaton rerun

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I have never before done a “repeat” on this blog, but today I have Buster Keaton on the brain. Tonight, Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre is celebrating its 90th (!) anniversary with a screening of Keaton’s feature film Steamboat Bill, Jr., complete with live orchestral accompaniment from local silent-film music expert Tony Steve.

(If you are in the Jacksonville area and can make it to the movie tonight, it starts at 7 p.m., and admission is free. Click here for more information.)

So I thought that today, I’d repeat a blog that I wrote two months ago as part of The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon that was hosted by the delightful blog Silent-ology (which I highly encourage you to visit for some enjoyable and well-researched writing about silent movies). My blogathon entry sums up my love of Buster’s work and my feelings towards modern movies in general.

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Film blogger Jim Emerson once wrote that he could see “the end of cinema” – that is, a time down the road when he was entirely sick of going to the movies, having seen it all already. Emerson asked his readers, “Has there been a movie, or a development in movies, that made you feel like saying ‘That’s it! I’m done!’? Where would you draw the line?”

On at least some days, I would draw the line at May 20, 1928. That was the release date of Steamboat Bill, Jr., the final independently produced film of Buster Keaton.

Cinema has continued to thrive since that particular date, of course. But the essence of much of the reason I ever wanted to go to the movies stops right there.

I used to follow movie comedy religiously. But frankly, for the past couple of decades, the coming-attractions trailers have been enough to turn me off. Modern comedies seem interchangeable – the same geeky guys getting into over-their-head situations, either eager to get laid (American Pie) or wishing they hadn’t (Knocked Up), or dealing with situations that any double-digitted IQ would have avoided from the start (What Happens in Vegas, The Hangover).

And finally, there are the guys who seem to aspire to the old school, bringing a reliable persona to film after film. Except that the personas consist mostly of mugging it up (Jim Carrey) or dealing heavily in bodily functions (Adam Sandler).

When I look at all these guys, I just want to shake my head and tell them, “Buster Keaton. You lose.”

What is there to see in modern film comedy that I haven’t seen in Keaton’s best work?

Jim Carrey expects kudos for a bungee jump in Yes Man? Big deal. Try having a real-life two-ton wall fall down all around you, as Keaton did in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers doing multiple roles? Buster Keaton did nine perfectly timed versions of himself on-screen all at once, along with several other roles, in The Playhouse.

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Computer-generated special effects? Feh. Watch Keaton literally throw himself into a movie-within-a-movie in Sherlock Jr. (Woody Allen swears this movie wasn’t the inspiration for his own The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a screen character leaves his movie and enters “real life.” Yeah, right.)

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Superhero Movie-type parody? In The Frozen North, Keaton laid waste to 1920’s Western star William S. Hart, making his entrance to the titular snowy territory via a subway kiosk.

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Emerson mentions that the late, great movie-bio author William K. Everson (“Who’s that?”, I hear the teenagers saying) had little interest in movies made past the early 1950’s, preferring to stick to the movie world he knew. Like a 21st-century Everson, I find little reason these days to venture beyond my PC, where I can toss in a DVD of Our Hospitality and watch a put-upon but stoic, almost epic comedian nearly kill himself, literally, for his laughs.

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Buster Keaton’s ONE WEEK (1920) – Rain, rain, go away

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The following is the first of my two entries in The April Showers Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from March 31 through April 2, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide variety of rain-soaked movie scenes!

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Until my dying day, I will continue to tout Buster Keaton’s silent short subject One Week as one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Like all of the best comedy, its premise is rooted in reality, so that when the craziness comes, it’s nevertheless plausible and relatable to audiences.

(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

The plot is that Buster and his newlywed wife (utterly charming Sybil Seeley) have received, as a wedding gift from Buster’s uncle, a do-it-yourself house to put together. (This kind of house was all the rage at the time of this movie.) Unbeknownst to the newlyweds, Sybil’s seething ex-boyfriend Hank has sabotaged the numbers on the kit, making the finished house quite the structural deformity.

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Move-in ready?

Buster and Sybil go through more than a few misadventures in trying to furnish the fiinished house. But the highlight is surely the couple’s housewarming party.

As Buster leads his guests through the house and tries to enumerate the house’s (few) virtues, he suddenly feels moisture on his neck. Buster looks up and sees that the roof is smattered with holes. Always one to make the best of a bad situation, Buster opens up an umbrella and continues his spiel to his guests.

When the guests begin getting rained on, Buster decides to step outside to check the severity of the weather. It’s severe, all right — huge wind gusts send the house twirling around and around, making it almost impossible for Buster to re-enter the house, try as he might. The gusts don’t do Buster’s guests any favors, either, giving them dizzy spells as they try to keep their balance.

For all of the wonderful film history we have of the silent era, it’s our loss that nobody ever documented how Keaton & Co. managed to create that never-ending sight gag of a house. Thankfully, we still have the movie itself to stare at wide-eyed in awe when it’s not making us laugh ourselves silly.

One Week is embedded below. The housewarming scene begins at the 13:53 mark, but don’t deprive yourself of the rest of this delightful movie as well.

(If you enjoyed this blogathon entry, click here to read my second one.)

For the love of Buster Keaton

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The following is my entry in The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at her blog Silent-ology from Feb. 19-21, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to the movies, TV work, and life of this silent-film comedy legend!

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Film blogger Jim Emerson once wrote that he could see “the end of cinema” – that is, a time down the road when he was entirely sick of going to the movies, having seen it all already. Emerson asked his readers, “Has there been a movie, or a development in movies, that made you feel like saying ‘That’s it! I’m done!’? Where would you draw the line?”

On at least some days, I would draw the line at May 20, 1928. That was the release date of Steamboat Bill, Jr., the final independently produced film of Buster Keaton.

Cinema has continued to thrive since that particular date, of course. But the essence of much of the reason I ever wanted to go to the movies stops right there.

I used to follow movie comedy religiously. But frankly, for the past couple of decades, the coming-attractions trailers have been enough to turn me off. Modern comedies seem interchangeable – the same geeky guys getting into over-their-head situations, either eager to get laid (American Pie) or wishing they hadn’t (Knocked Up), or dealing with situations that any double-digitted IQ would have avoided from the start (What Happens in Vegas, The Hangover).

And finally, there are the guys who seem to aspire to the old school, bringing a reliable persona to film after film. Except that the personas consist mostly of mugging it up (Jim Carrey) or dealing heavily in bodily functions (Adam Sandler).

When I look at all these guys, I just want to shake my head and tell them, “Buster Keaton. You lose.”

What is there to see in modern film comedy that I haven’t seen in Keaton’s best work?

Jim Carrey expects kudos for a bungee jump in Yes Man? Big deal. Try having a real-life two-ton wall fall down all around you, as Keaton did in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

p.gif

Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers doing multiple roles? Buster Keaton did nine perfectly timed versions of himself on-screen all at once, along with several other roles, in The Playhouse.

1823220jcs1ayy8

Computer-generated special effects? Feh. Watch Keaton literally throw himself into a movie-within-a-movie in Sherlock Jr. (Woody Allen swears this movie wasn’t the inspiration for his own The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a screen character leaves his movie and enters “real life.” Yeah, right.)

18232810psn0uf4y

Superhero Movie-type parody? In The Frozen North, Keaton laid waste to 1920’s Western star William S. Hart, making his entrance to the titular snowy territory via a subway kiosk.

18232530hetxxwqj

Emerson mentions that the late, great movie-bio author William K. Everson (“Who’s that?”, I hear the teenagers saying) had little interest in movies made past the early 1950’s, preferring to stick to the movie world he knew. Like a 21st-century Everson, I find little reason these days to venture beyond my PC, where I can toss in a DVD of Our Hospitality and watch a put-upon but stoic, almost epic comedian nearly kill himself, literally, for his laughs.

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