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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THE PRODUCERS (2005) – I’m a prisoner of love…for Mel Brooks

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There are countless groups who are certain to be offended by Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers. There are those who didn’t like Brooks’ initial 1968 film, those who thought his Broadway version was a bad idea, and those who will think the new, twice-removed film version is even worse.

A pox on all of them.

I’ve been a Brooks fan since Blazing Saddles. But though Brooks is famous for wallowing in excess and bad taste, his more recent movies were downright benign, as if Brooks had turned into the eccentric uncle who tells risque stories at the dinner table. The musical Producers returns Brooks to full-throttle bad taste, and it is all the more hilarious for it.

You probably know the basic story by now: Loser Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) scheme to produce the worst show ever, so that it will close in one night and they can keep the investors’ money. They choose to produce “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an unrepentant Nazi (Will Ferrell). And to treat themselves, they hire Ulla (Uma Thurman), a beautiful but ESOL-impaired Swedish secretary.

If you liked Brooks’ 1968 version, you can regard this one as The Producers on steroids, and that’s mostly a compliment. People who seemed like one-joke numbers in the original — Ulla, the Nazi — get to blossom here. Who knew that Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell could sing and dance so well? (As for me, this is the first Ferrell movie performance I’ve actually enjoyed.)

And that’s another of the movie’s surprises: Satiric or not, it’s presented as an honest-to-gosh musical, as if Guys and Dolls had collided with the scatological Brooks. Some of the numbers are straightforward, others are slightly wacko (the tap-dancing ladies with walkers are one for the ages), but they’re all done with old-style panache. For that, kudos to Susan Stroman, who directed the Broadway version as well as this one.

People will complain that it’s all too over-the-top. Of course, any of Brooks’ best work is. They’ll complain that Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (of the original version). No, they’re not — they’re Lane and Broderick, and they do just fine as such.

Best of all is Brooks’ relentless effort to score laughs, big and small. It’s been a long while since a moviemaker worked so hard for his comedy, and an even longer while since I’ve laughed until I cried. It was worth the wait.