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

p

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!

p-2

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

p

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.

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.

Buster Keaton in OUR HOSPITALITY (1923) – Hilarious and perilous

buster-blogathon-second-21

The following is my entry in The Second Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology from Feb. 7-8, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read a variety of blogs related to the movies, TV work, and life of the wonderful comic artist Buster Keaton!

ourhospitality1

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Our Hospitality represents a quantum leap forward for Buster Keaton’s filmmaking. By this point, we’ve grown so accustomed to laughing at Keaton the moment he appears on-screen that when his first few scenes are developed at a leisurely pace, we start to wonder if Keaton will reward our patience. All I can say is: Wait for it.

The story is a take-off on the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud, here set a few decades back from when it actually happened. Otherwise, the movie is very authentic-feeling. Keaton created his setting based on period photos, had his art director Fred Gabourie make a reproduction of an early, rickety steam locomotive (trains were Keaton’s passion), and also rode on a period-style bicycle. All of this contributes to the movie’s atmosphere, as well as providing the impetus for some inspired gags.

7153021oyLWM06x

(Credit for the movie’s direction is given to both Keaton and John G. Blystone, who later got directing credit for Laurel & Hardy’s Swiss Miss and Block-Heads. Since Stan Laurel didn’t take any direction on his own movies any more than Buster Keaton did, it’s not to difficult to guess who the auteur is here.)

The movie begins with a startlingly dramatic prologue showing the on-going feud between the Hatfields and the McCays. When the McCays’ father and a Hatfield brother are killed, Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts, in his final role before his death a few months after the movie’s release) vows vengeance on the next male McCay, who at present is an infant named John (played by Buster’s son).

Mrs. McCay sends her son to an aunt in New York for safety’s sake, but twenty years later, John (Keaton) returns to handle his late mother’s estate. John is so courtly to Virginia (Natalie Talmadge, then Mrs. Buster Keaton), who rides with him on the train home, that she invites him to her house for dinner. Unfortunately, he discovers too late that she is a Hatfield and that her brothers have blood lust on the brain. The Canfields’ code of honor does not permit them to kill any guest in their house; needless to say, John does everything he can to prolong his stay inside.

p (1)

The movie’s final third is nothing less than breathtaking, as the Canfields pursue John to a tall gorge over a river that leads to a waterfall. When Virginia tries to help John and is nearly swept over the waterfall, John’s rescue of her inspires one of the most stunning shots in Keaton’s filmography (there would be plenty more to come). As always, Keaton had a Canfield-like sense of honor and could not allow himself to fake any stunt he thought he could do; in the shot of Virginia’s rescue, Keaton inhaled so much water that a doctor had to be called to give him first aid.

th

(It was not Keaton’s only death-defying stunt in the movie. When he first fell into the water, Keaton had been attached to a safety wire, but the wire quickly snapped. Thus, much of Keaton’s peril in trying to save himself wasn’t acting.)

Nevertheless, there are also plenty of laughs in the movie, especially in John and Virginia’s train ride and in John’s machinations to keep from leaving the Canfield home after dinner. Natalie Talmadge, despite her having been regarded as the least thespian of the famous Talmadge sisters (she would never do another movie role), acquits herself admirably as the lone Canfield concerned for John’s life.

Any modern movie that combined such period detail, risible comedy, and eye-popping suspense would probably be regarded as a masterpiece. Come to think of it, there’s little reason not to regard Our Hospitality in the same way.