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.

ANGORA LOVE (1929) – This really gets Laurel & Hardy’s goat

Angora Love was Laurel & Hardy’s last silent film (not counting The Tree in a Test Tube, the ’40s Government short in which they appeared without dialogue), and it’s another of their shorts in which their winning characterizations overcome a sitcom-like script. (The device that sets the plot in motion is that a pet-shop owner’s goat chews through its leash and escapes, and the owner mistakenly tells a cop on the beat that his goat was stolen, which info the cop takes in a straight-faced manner. Even back in 1929, didn’t L.A. street cops have more important things to do, like issue citations to jaywalkers or something?)

The goat latches on to Stan and Ollie and their morning donuts, and suddenly they can’t get rid of him, which makes for some tracking shots that are pretty elaborate considering they’re from a goat’s point of view. They eventually try to hide the goat in their apartment under the suspicious eye of their distrusting landlord (Edgar Kennedy).

This set-up provides the template for every L&H hide-the-animal scenario forever after (e.g., Laughing Gravy, The Chimp). The most memorable gag is when Stan, trying to repeat Ollie’s earlier subterfuge of sticking Stan’s head in the washbasin so the landlord won’t think they’re bathing a forbidden animal, sticks Ollie’s head in the washbasin after the landlord has already seen the goat. (Stan is always about half a beat behind a given plan. At one point when they’re trying to hide the goat, Ollie lifts up the end of the bed and motions to Stan, whereupon Stan tries to hide himself under the bed.)

Angora Love isn’t Laurel & Hardy’s most memorable short, but it’s a fittingly simple farewell from L&H to silent movies.

Laurel & Hardy in EARLY TO BED (1928) – A strange take on their usual characterizations

p-1

Early to Bed is surely the strangest movie in Laurel and Hardy’s silent-film canon. When L&H act out-of-character in other silent movies, there can always be some feeble excuse attached to it, e.g., they were in their Pathe period and hadn’t “kept” their characters yet. But by this point, L&H had established their characters and were all the more popular because of them — and still comes this strange little number.

Ollie inherits a fortune, Stan wonders what is to become of him, and Ollie keeps Stan on as his butler. That’s a bare outline of the movie’s synopsis, and that’s also all the thought the moviemakers seem to have put into it. After that comes a protracted routine where — for no good reason other than Ollie is drunk — Ollie abuses Stan like crazy and then wonders why he doesn’t want to take it anymore. This seems the very definition of passive-aggressive behavior, more than a few decades before the term was even coined.

Most L&H movies aren’t noted for their directors, since Stan Laurel was the uncredited director for most of them anyway. But Early to Bed‘s credited director was Emmett Flynn, who never made another film with The Boys. If this was one of Flynn’s few major film credits, it’s easy to see why.

Laurel & Hardy in SUGAR DADDIES (1927) – Not-quite-believable farce

6231724027805696

Film historians tell us that Hal Roach took Mack Sennett’s frenetic style of comedy, slowed it down some, and added believable characterizations — but try telling that to anyone watching Sugar Daddies. At one point, a blackmailed playboy (James Finlayson!) tries to escape from his blackmailer (Noah Young) by positioning his lawyer (Stan Laurel!!) on top of him, throwing a gown around the two of them, and passing themselves off as the wife of the playboy’s butler (Oliver Hardy) — and as they barely scoot pass Young, he says (via inter-title), “This looks fishy to me.”

Actually, the two-men-posing-as-a-woman routine was a decent enough gag in Love ‘Em and Weep (and its later remake, Chickens Come Home), but in those movies, the gag was milked for only a minute or so. Here, it occupies the last half of this two-reeler, practically underlining the movie’s desperation.

As for any “typical” Stan-and-Ollie interplay, there’s a quick hat-snatching routine that’s a brief promise of greater things to come. But this is one of the few L&H movies where H.M. “Beanie” Walker truly deserves a writing credit, because snappy subtitles are the movie’s main attempt to inspire laughter. When playboy Finlayson, who married a woman the night before while on a bender, asks what color his new wife’s hair is, Hardy the butler replies, “Red, white, and blue, sir — I’ll look for the stars.” That’s just the kind of wittiness that the real-life Hardy dismissed as “fresh” dialogue that makes the audience resent the characters on screen.

The best element of this indifferent movie is George Stevens’ glistening photography, particularly in the climactic chase that was shot on location at a Long Beach amusement park. Fortunately, moviegoers would soon be carrying on about other elements besides the cinematography in Laurel & Hardy movies.

DUCK SOUP (1927) – Our first glimpse at the “real” Stan and Ollie

keaton-banner

The following is my entry in The Silent Cinema Blogathon, being hosted Oct. 24-26, 2015 by the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click on the above banner to visit the blogathon and read an assortment of great blogs related to the era of silent movie classics!

laurelhardyducksoup

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Duck Soup‘s interest for movie academics might be more historical than hysterical. Yet even on that basis, it’s as worthy of L&H buffs’ attention as Unknown Chaplin is to Charlie Chaplin fans, or The Beatles Anthology is to Fab Four aficionados. It’s a worthy addition to the L&H canon, and it helps make our mental image of them more complete.

For years Duck Soup was a lost movie, and it was assumed the film was one of Stan and Babe’s back-burner Pathe numbers, where they each performed in the movie but not as a team. Then a print turned up in the 1970’s and showed that Stan and Ollie were (or should have been) a bonafide team from the start. Ollie badly needs a shave, but other than the vagabond garb, Stan and Ollie were far closer to the way we now “know” them then they were in their other Hal Roach/Pathe productions. Why they “began” as a team and then went back to doing separate appearances in the same movie remains one of movie comedy’s great unanswered questions.

But there’s enough recognizable “Stan and Ollie” byplay to warrant at least one viewing. For one thing, Duck Soup is the quite recognizable origin of its talkie version, Another Fine Mess (1930). Both films were based on an old vaudeville sketch written by Stan’s dad (though Pop later complained loudly about what his son had done to the source material).

Duck Soup shows Stan and Ollie on the run from local police, though unlike the talkie version, they are not trying to avoid arrest but are instead trying to avoid the zeal of a sheriff looking for help in putting out a forest fire (Was this a common kind of recruitment in 1920’s Los Angeles?). In later films (with their personas more firmly established), whenever Stan and Ollie are on the run from the law, it’s usually due to their fear of authority figures. Here, the cause is just plain laziness.

Anyway, Stan and Ollie hide out in a millionaire’s mansion, and as luck would have it, the millionaire is out of town and has advertised for boarders to rent the house. Ollie and Stan quickly assume the disguises of the millionaire and his maid.

And “quickly” is the key word here. The most unrecognizable element in this L&H film is its frenetic pace, making it closer to typical Hal Roach/Pathe fare than to the later, more leisurely paced L&H shorts. Also, there are no particularly memorable “set pieces” here — unlike Another Fine Mess, where Ollie revels in his disguise, or Stan has a hilarious conversation with the wife of the would-be boarder (Thelma Todd).

Yet it still makes for fascinating viewing, not least because of its view of a surprisingly undeveloped ’20s Los Angeles. The movie also shows that even from the beginning, Stan and Ollie intuitively worked as a team–it just took their own movies a little while longer to figure that out.

TRIVIA NOTE: Duck Soup proved to be an especially sturdy movie title. Six years after Laurel & Hardy used it, former L&H associate Leo McCarey nabbed it for his classic Marx Bros. movie; nine years later, Hal Roach nabbed it back for an Edgar Kennedy short subject. Maybe Judd Apatow will be using it next.

Buster Keaton in NEIGHBORS (1920) – Wherefore art thou, Buster?

Neighbors1

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

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 CONVICT 13 (1920) – Comedy that earns its stripes

convict-13-1-300x168

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Golf and prison life were two fertile subjects for comedy (Laurel & Hardy used both motifs, the latter more than once). In Convict 13, Buster Keaton neatly kills two birds with one stone.

The movie begins with Buster as a golfer, and with a surprising twist on his physical dexterity. Usually, Keaton performs his physical comedy with subtle grace. But in golf, that most frustratingly intricate of sports, Buster never makes a simple miss at the ball; every time he swings, he flies around in full-circle twice before landing on his fanny, as though his golf club was a ball-and-chain he was slinging around. This proves to be an appropriate metaphor when, at one point, Buster gets knocked out and an escaped convict trades clothes with him. (Instant Prisoner – just add uniform.)

It turns out that the warden’s daughter (again, the resourceful Sybil Seely) is the girl on the “outside” whom Buster was trying to impress with his mediocre golf skills. Despite Sybil’s efforts to prevent Buster from getting hanged as a prisoner (resulting in a long-shot sight gag that’s astounding, even for Keaton), Buster proves to be far more adept in prison than at golf. Twice, he manages to thwart prison riots – the second time by using his ball-and-chain skills to subdue potential escapees with nothing more than a medicine ball. Many film historians have compared the iconic images of Keaton and Chaplin to little Davids conquering the big Goliaths; here you actually see Keaton doing it, and it’s immensely satisfying.

Considering the many unfortunate racist jokes that turn up in Keaton’s work, it’s also kind of nice to see Keaton’s black caddy get a laugh on him for a change (when Buster knocks a golf ball into a nearby pond and actually goes swimming to find it). Funny how Buster is more adept and physically looser in a perilous situation than he is at a sport where he should be having fun.

Charlie Chaplin in A FILM JOHNNIE (1914) – Inside-the-studio humor

FilmJohnnie

The minimal plot of A Film Johnnie is that Charlie, as an outsider, sneaks inside the Keystone Studios during work hours and generally wreaks havoc on the movies being filmed.

It’s a cute enough premise for a one-reeler, but the movie is an obvious sign that Chaplin still had a way to go in his movie apprenticeship. It wouldn’t be long before moviegoers were wishing they could sneak onto a studio lot to see him at work.

Best gag in the movie: Roscoe Arbuckle (as himself) meets Charlie, sizes him up, and surreptitiously gives him a handout.