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.

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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 in THE PLAYHOUSE (1921) – Multiple Busters

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The following is my first of two contributions to the Dual Roles Blogathon, being held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, 2016 by, appropriately enough, dual bloggers: Christina Wehner, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies where actors play more than one role!

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Everyone remembers the first half of The Playhouse, and for darned good reason. But the second half is nothing to sneer at, either.

The movie’s first half is an astounding piece of special-effects wizardry that must have nearly shocked audiences in 1920 and is still great to watch in this CGI era. Buster buys a ticket and enters a live-show theatre with nothing but multiple Busters – including a shot of nine separate Busters dancing in sync. As one of the patrons (another Buster) tells his wife (also Buster), “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” (A shot of the play’s program confirms this, with Buster taking every credit possible. This was a lampoon of Thomas Ince, a contemporary of Buster’s and a credit-happy Western-maker, and the gag still works in these days of “A Film By…”)

The trick-shot was done by taping up eight-ninths of the camera lens, filming Buster doing his routine, rolling the film back, and doing it all over again with the other eight-ninths of the lens. It’s no small feat, especially when two on-screen Busters react to each other as though they were really there. It’s terrific.

The whole sequence turns out to have been a dream of Buster the stagehand, who has his sleep rudely interrupted by a man (Joe Roberts) who appears to be evicting Buster from his apartment. Then the walls of the “apartment” come down, and we find that Buster was on-stage, sleeping on the job. After that, the viewer might as well give up trying to puzzle this thing out and just go along for the ride.

The ride includes twin actresses (one of whom is having an affair with Buster, but he can never tell which is which); Buster’s dead-on impersonation of a chimpanzee; and a wild climax in which everyone is swimming for his life in the orchestra pit. (Don’t ask, just watch.)

The Playhouse gives you more bang for the buck in every sense: two reels of priceless comedy, and two-dozen Busters for the price of one.

(If you enjoyed this blog entry, please click here to read my second contribution to the Dual Roles Blogathon: Laurel & Hardy in Our Relations.)

Buster Keaton in THE BALLOONATIC (1923) – Free-floating comedy

 

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As Buster Keaton’s penultimate short subject for his own studio, The Balloonatic — more even than The High Sign or many shorts that Keaton demeaned — seems more “gaggy” than most of his shorts.

The story begins with Buster happening into a carnival’s Tunnel of Love ride into which he rides a boat with a total stranger (Phyllis Haver). The movie doesn’t show Buster trying to put moves on the woman, but we guess what has transpired when the boat emerges: the woman is tight-lipped and smug, and Buster sports an upturned hat and a black eye.

Later, Buster happens on to a hot-air balloon that is about to be launched. Buster wants to be involved, so he is given a banner to hang from the top of the balloon. The balloon is launched before Buster has a chance to dismount, and the balloon takes him to a secluded area of forest, where he runs into the same girl, who is camping in the wilderness.

As always, the set-up yields its fair share of funny gags. The problem with most of the gags is that most of them don’t seem individually “Buster.” Keaton’s best comedy results from his persona’s personal reaction to the crazy world around him. But there’s not a whole lot of material in The Balloonatic that any anonymous comedian couldn’t do. (One example is when Buster paddles a canoe and then “walks” it to shore via a hole in the canoe where he has placed his feet, rather like “The Flintstones'” primitive automobile.)

Another problem is the obvious fakery of some of the gags. Keaton often expressed the view that if a gag looked as though it was faked, it was better off not being done at all. There is one scene with Buster and a real-looking, menacing bear that is quite startling in its lack of fakery. On the other hand, when Buster is atop the floating balloon or is about to ride his canoe over a deadly waterfall, the editing makes it perfectly obvious that Keaton is not in any real danger. That sounds sadistic, I know, and I wouldn’t have wished upon Keaton any more physical peril than he himself wrought. It’s just that, from the beginning, Keaton set the bar so high for such authenticity that when he really does fake something, the viewer feels let down.

One would like to attribute this situation-comedy ordinariness to the fact that Keaton was winding up his short-subject work. But his final independent short, The Love Nest, is as inventive and physically perilous as anything he ever did. In the career of most other comics, The Balloonatic would probably be a high point; coming from Keaton, it seems decidedly earthbound.

 

Buster Keaton in DAYDREAMS (1922) – Funny but fragmented

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Daydreams is really three itty-bitty Buster Keaton shorts disguised as one regular-sized short. That said, the three small shorts are pretty funny.

The premise is that Buster comes to his girlfriend’s (Renee Adoree) house to ask her father (Joe Keaton, Buster’s real-life dad) for the girl’s hand in marriage. The father is reluctant to give her up, so Buster promises that he will move to the city and “make good.” (Make good what is never quite established.)

Most of the movie’s remainder is a series of vignettes wherein Buster sends a lofty-sounding letter to his girlfriend telling her of his worldly exploits, she imagines him doing something grand, and then we end up seeing the reality of his situation. (Example: Buster writes that he is cleaning up on Wall Street; the girl daydreams that Buster is a wealthy stockbroker; in fact, he’s a street cleaner.)

Again, this does make for some pretty funny spot gags. However, taken in the context of Buster’s career, Daydreams is rather bizarre. For one thing, Daydreams was released eight months after Keaton’s superlative short Cops and pretty much plays like a diluted version of the latter movie, right down to its premise.

Secondly, unlike the other movie, Daydreams makes a Buster-like giant leap in order to accommodate yet another climax in which Buster gets chased by every cop in town. (I realize that cops-on-the-beat were far more prevalent in the 1920’s than they are today; still, how many precincts had the resources to devote to a poor schnook who committed, at most, maybe a misdemeanor?)

Also in retrospect, it’s kind of hard to sympathize with Buster’s “intended” as played by Renee Adoree. After seeing Sybil Seely taking a pro-active and pro-Buster stance in many Keaton comedies, it’s difficult to care about Renee sitting at home and waiting to moon and spoon over Buster’s letters (especially when she rejects him at the end after he has literally knocked himself out for her).

This movie has the iconic scene of Buster getting stuck in a riverboat paddle as though he was a hamster in an exercise wheel — symbolic, perhaps, of Keaton trying for profundity but just spinning his wheels.

Buster Keaton in THE ELECTRIC HOUSE (1922) – Comedy with a charge

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The Electric House is most famous in Buster Keaton folklore for being the movie in which Keaton got his foot stuck in one of the movie’s sight gags – an in-home escalator – and broke his leg, putting him out of commission for several weeks. The movie is funny enough, but it also makes one feel that Keaton went through an inordinate amount of suffering for a slightly-better-than-average sitcom.

The premise is that on college graduation day, when Buster is slated to receive a diploma in botany, the dean (Joe Roberts) mistakenly believes that Buster is receiving a degree in electrical engineering and hires Buster to “electrify” his house while he and his family are on vacation.

The movie’s punchline comes in the second act, when the real engineer, whom the dean passed over on graduation day, comes to get his revenge on Buster by bollixing up the house. But one gets the impression that the dean wouldn’t or shouldn’t be terribly thrilled with Buster’s work to start with. The escalator is so enthusiastic that it pitches its users out of a second-story window into a pool, and the train-like device that moves food from the kitchen to the dining table eventually dumps its contents on the lap of one of the residents.

The trouble with the movie is that the house’s mechanical quality extends itself to the gags. The idea of such a mechanical house – which was probably novel in its time, and which obviously reflected Keaton’s love of gadgets – has been worn thin by generations of sitcoms such as “The Jetsons.” The anonymity of the gags doesn’t help, either. Other than some nicely extended bits with Buster trying to negotiate the escalator, just about any comic could do these gags – and indeed, when Laurel & Hardy and The Marx Brothers were done in by the studio system in the 1940’s, some very unimaginative gag-writers saddled these comic greats with just such ho-hum gadgetry.

That the comedy at all reaches a risible level is due to Keaton’s resourcefulness and force of personality. But Keaton’s legendary Sherlock Jr. would soon prove how much more gratifying the comedy was when Buster labored to transform the world around him, rather than vice versa.

Buster Keaton in THE BOAT (1921) – Why is it so funny? Damfino!

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Buster builds and launches a boat. That might not sound like a rich premise for comedy, until it appears as though Buster got his boat-building kit from the same place that he got the house-building kit in One Week (1920).

Much has been made of Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, and it fits him perfectly here. Indeed, he has so many problems with launching his boat and keeping it floating, Buster seems less interested in enjoying his sailing than he is in playing a captain continually resigned to going down with his ship.

The other characters are interesting, too. Other than a couple of shots of eye-rolling, Sybil Seely again plays a wife offering Buster much sympathy and support (extremely so, in light of the ever-worsening catastrophes at sea). And two uncredited boys play Buster’s sons as though they’re carbon copies of their father, right down to the porkpie hat and their grave acceptances of life’s tragedies. When the family is about to go down for good in a leaky lifeboat, they don’t even begin to cry – they sit there frozen in resignation, as though their old man told them long ago that there would be days like this.

Buster’s choice of moniker for his boat – the Damfino – also leads to some unique problems, as well as an almost surreal ending. (By the way, that’s co-director Eddie Cline playing the ship captain who receives Buster’s S.O.S.)

Lastly, a note about the movie’s film quality. Kino Video, which insures superlative restoration of the films they handle, nevertheless provides a print of The Boat that is full of filmic glitches. But rather than besmirch Kino, be grateful the film exists at all. When actor James Mason bought Keaton’s mansion in 1952, he discovered fragile nitrate prints of what turned out to be the only available copies of some of Keaton’s best work – The Boat included. Between that and his terrific narration of the Charlie Chaplin documentary Unknown Chaplin, one could hardly ask for better contributions to film history than Mason quietly provided.

The Boat – that is to say, the movie itself, and its titular subject – is a perfect symbol for Keaton’s persona: buffeted about by life’s winds, yet standing up and coming back for more.

Buster Keaton in THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1921) – Not as scary as it used to be

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Compared to some of the astounding Buster Keaton films that come before and after it, the gags in The Haunted House sometimes seem mechanical and strained. That said, Keaton could take no more than a bottle of glue (as he does here) and milk more jokes and “reciprocal effects” out of it than any ordinary comedian could.

It’s a good thing, too, because the movie’s titular theme is as quaint and dated as a Sunday parlor game. In the 1920’s and ’30s, the haunted house was a fertile setting for comedians’ imaginations (Laurel and Hardy used it at least twice). But the idea of running around as a ghost or skeleton for laughs or scares is long gone – sadly, it takes a lot more graphic violence to get people’s attention these days.

Seen in this light, The Haunted House still manages to offer some fun. The premise is that a gang of bank robbers is hiding out in an old mansion which the locals think is haunted, and when strangers happen into the house, the robbers pull out all the stops to scare off the trespassers. Guess what happens when Buster enters the house.

Since the Halloweenie scares are a tad less scary than they were 95 years ago, this unfortunately gives the viewer a little more time to reflect on the creakiness of the premise. At one point, it seems as though every robber in the house is donning a white sheet in order to scare off Buster; if they have to go through this routine with every new stranger in the house, how on Earth do they ever get their counterfeiting done? And is there any halfway plausible reason that a touring company of Faust would happen to be wandering through the same house, other than to make Buster think that he’s shaking hands with the Devil himself?

This is definitely a movie where Keaton’s amazing physicality carries most of the story. (There’s a [literally] running gag where Buster battles a flight of stairs which seem to have a mind of their own.) And near the end comes a heaven-and-hell dream sequence that’s a total non sequitor that’s thoroughly charming nonetheless. It is such small pleasures that make even a middling Keaton comedy such as The Haunted House worth watching.