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.
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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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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.