Buster Keaton in CONVICT 13 (1920) – Comedy that earns its stripes

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(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

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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.

Laurel & Hardy in WITH LOVE AND HISSES (1927) – Regulation comedy

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As seems appropriate for a movie that derives most of its comedy from offensive odors, With Love and Hisses mostly stinks. As L&H’s Flying Elephants is largely derivative of Charlie Chaplin’s His Prehistoric Past, With Love and Hisses tries to milk the last drops of comedy from territory already covered in Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms.

There are small traces of great L&H comedy to come, as when Hardy’s brute of a sergeant lords it over Laurel at the beginning, but they’re quickly abandoned as the movie settles into the trite kind of filler that Laurel & Hardy would eventually transcend. Laurel’s mincing routine during military formation is only a faint echo of funnier military mess-ups in L&H’s Pack Up Your Troubles and The Flying Deuces.

The movie’s most-quoted gag is when Hardy’s troops, having taken a skinny-dip at a nearby pond and then being left without their uniforms, stick their heads through a movie billboard of The Volga Boatmen and walk back to camp “dressed” this way. But even that decent-enough gag is protracted via a run-in with some hornets.

The movie’s opening title tells us that “There were cheers and kisses as the Home Guards left for camp — the married men did the cheering.” By the time With Love and Hisses is over, it’s mostly the audience who is cheering the movie’s end.

Buster Keaton in THE NAVIGATOR (1924) – Stays afloat, but not without treading water

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

As The Navigator was Buster Keaton’s most financially successful (up to that time) of his independent movies; because Keaton worked so hard on it and considered it one of his best feature films; and because it was added to the National Film Registry in 2018, one wants to like it more than one eventually does. But coming as it does after the daring and inventiveness of Sherlock Jr., The Navigator can’t help but be a bit of a letdown.

The legend goes that Keaton’s art director, Fred Gabourie, found out about a five-thousand-ton ocean liner, the Buford, sitting in a San Francisco boat yard, just waiting to be sold for scrap. Keaton immediately began thinking about the comic possibilities of the ship and arranged to get it. Yet in hindsight, The Navigator seems like a 1920’s version of latter-day big-scale comedies such as Ghostbusters or Men in Black, where the gargantuan setting threatens to overshadow the comedy.

The movie begins promisingly, as Keaton reprises his Saphead persona of the clueless, indulgent rich boy, here named Rollo Treadway. Rollo is so spoiled that he decides on a whim to get married – without first consulting his girlfriend Betsy (Kathryn McGuire), who lives just across the street – and must have his chauffeur maneuver his car to the girl’s house (!) so that he can propose to her.

In a strange bit of plotting, Betsy turns down Rollo’s proposal and is then shown to be in tears for having done so. Why? Was Keaton afraid that Rollo’s derring-do aboard the ocean liner wouldn’t be plausible enough to show why Betsy would eventually want to marry him? The normally adventurous “scenarist” Keaton shows a bit of cowardice here.

Anyway, via some elaborate (not to say credibility-stretching) plot twists, Rollo and his girl end up aboard the same deserted ocean liner, after which the comedy is somewhat hit-and-miss. For every bull’s-eye gag, there are a couple of duds. For the past few decades, much has been made of how the leading ladies in Keaton’s movies are well-meaning but dumb. But Rollo is no prize package, either. When Rollo can’t even hold a plate right side up (one of the “gags” here) and, at one point, nearly drowns the girl who is trying to scoop him out of the ocean, one tends to think he gets what he deserves. (For her part, Kathryn McGuire is Buster’s physical equal here, giving as good as she gets.)

The movie’s gag mechanisms completely break down in its final third, as Rollo and Betsy are threatened by backwards savages, a plot device worn thin by decades of comedies such as “Gilligan’s Island.” We’re supposed to root for this couple who’ve managed to survive for weeks alone on a ship but threatened to be outwitted by primitive tribesmen. After a while, the cat-and-mouse game of Buster-vs.-the-primitives gets a bit tiresome, as does a closing gag swiped from Keaton’s own The Boat.

One is grateful for any excuse to see Buster Keaton at his peak on-screen. But in The Navigator, a large inanimate object seems to get the best of Buster Keaton. It doesn’t seem (sea)worthy of him.

(Trivia: Navigator co-director Donald Crisp, with whom Keaton had much-publicized disagreements, can be seen in a “cameo,” in a still photo as a captain whom Rollo misinterprets as a ghost.)

Laurel & Hardy in SLIPPING WIVES (1927) – Hal Roach Presents Priscilla Dean

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Ironically, Duck Soup, the first movie that showed Laurel & Hardy as a bonafide team, was followed by Slipping Wives, another one of those Pathe alternate-universe numbers. The first anomaly is the opening title: “Hal Roach Presents Priscilla Dean.” Who? If she was one of Hal Roach’s Comedy All-Stars, it’s a good thing L&H hit it big when they did, because even though she’s the star of this show, her non-presence makes Mae Busch look like Meryl Streep.

Then the credits treat us to Laurel and Hardy receiving third and fourth billing, which unfortunately is quite appropriate, given their sub-standard antics here. Even given that their Pathe comedies allowed for little of their later interplay or character development, their slapstick here is pretty forced. Ollie (er, excuse me, Jarvis) is a snooty butler, Stan (here nom de plumed as Ferdinand Flamingo) is an intrusive outsider, and so Ollie spends most of the movie beating Stan up. Other than a brief and hilarious moment where Ollie forcibly bathes a fully-dressed Stan, this doesn’t allow for much risible comedy.

Most ironic of all is that the plot of this wheezer was later re-worked as The Fixer Uppers, regarded by most L&H buffs as one of their weaker shorts. But at least in the later movie, the plot was simple and everything was in character. Here, the meager plot — Dean, neglected by her artist-husband, hires Stan as a pawn to make the husband jealous — is quickly larded down with what film critic Roger Ebert calls “The Idiot Plot,” where the movie would be over in two minutes save for a contrived misunderstanding. In this case, the contrivance is that Stan keeps mistaking the wrong man for the husband, and he keeps flirting with Dean in front of some man who wants him to flirt with her. This makes for an awfully long 23 minutes.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it’s astounding the way this movie treats us to glimpses of future L&H comedies. Stan’s mannerisms and Ollie’s daintiness (not to mention one brief but loving look at the camera); a two-shot of Stan and Priscilla Dean that reminds us of Stan and Thelma Todd’s hilarious by-play in Another Fine Mess; Stan taking a fully-clothed bath in what appears to be the same bathtub where he does a similar number four years later in Come Clean…these are like comic teasers to take us away from the dreariness of L&H’s current situation. Despite the presence of Pathe’s trademark rooster at movie’s end, there’s little to crow about here.

(Much has been made of a brief scene where Stan pantomimes the story of Samson and Delilah, an obvious echo of Chaplin’s David-and-Goliath routine in The Pilgrim. It’s cute, but once L&H hit it big as a team, Stan would be making his own contributions to physical comedy instead of ripping off someone else’s.)

THE SAPHEAD (1920) – Buster Keaton’s first (weighed-down) feature film

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Saphead is another of American cinema’s Great Lost Films that lost its greatness once it was found.

This movie was based on The New Henrietta, a 1913 Broadway play that had been a hit for its star, Douglas Fairbanks. In the play, Fairbanks played “Bertie the Lamb,” the milquetoast son of Nicholas Van Alstyne, a shrewd and rich investor known as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” By the time the play’s producer, John Golden, got around to getting a filmed version of the play underway, Fairbanks was unavailable. Keaton spent the rest of his life claiming that Fairbanks personally recommended him for the part, but Keaton biographer Marion Meade theorizes that Golden probably got Keaton’s name from Joe Schenck, who saw this famous show as a way of ballyhooing Keaton as a star.

Although audiences can be grateful that all of Keaton’s silent films have come to light – this was not the case in the 1950’s and ’60s, when a few of Keaton’s films were thought to be lost or incomplete – The Saphead‘s interest is more historical than hysterical.

Besides its being notable as Buster Keaton’s first feature film, The Saphead is, if nothing else, interesting as a filmed record of what constituted a Broadway play in the 1920’s. Like The Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930), The Saphead shows the pacing of a ’20s Broadway show was leisurely, bordering on glacial.

Keaton’s character Bertie goes through four main plot points in the movie. (1) Bertie stays out all hours of the night in order to act like a playboy because he thinks this is how to impress his girlfriend Agnes, when in fact Agnes would rather that Bertie be the homebody he really is. (2) This misunderstanding is cleared up, and Bertie and Agnes plan to get married. (3) In the middle of the wedding, Bertie is falsely accused of having had a scandalous affair, and Bertie’s father Nick throws him out. (4) Bertie goes to his new seat on Wall Street and unknowingly saves Nick from financial ruin, thus returning to Nick’s good graces.

If Keaton had been directing the movie, he probably would have either done away with many of the clingy subplots, or he would have zipped through the entire story in a two-reeler. But since Keaton was basically a hired hand in the movie of a proven hit play, he is simply put through his paces, while the story sputters in fits and starts.

One segment that Keaton surely would have cut down to size is the scene where Bertie first visits Wall Street. Still marveling at the fact that he had to invest $20,000 to get a “seat” on Wall Street, Bertie tries out a particular “seat” (actually, an ordinary chair), briefly wriggles around in it, and concludes that it’s certainly not worth twenty grand. This routine is brief, but charming and funny. But then it is protracted when some investors discover that Bertie is a naive first-timer on Wall Street, and they continually taunt and bully him as though he’s a freshman on his first day in high school – because we all know that big-money investors have nothing better to do with their spare time.

This is not to say that Keaton himself is bad in the movie; he acquits himself admirably as an actor (just as he did decades later when he was given “straight” dramatic roles by directors too unimaginative to use Keaton for comedy). (And is it my imagination, or does Keaton give us a near-smile in the scene where Bertie sees his name in the newspaper?) But the only part of the movie that looks truly “Keatonesque” is his climactic scene, where he unknowingly saves his father’s stock by running to anyone who yells the stock’s name and tells them, “I’ll take it!” His speed and physical polish in this scene are the first thing in the movie to warrant a belly laugh – which comes about five minutes before movie’s end.

The ending is a loss, too. It establishes that Bertie and Agnes have married and are having a baby a year later. We see Bertie pacing outside the delivery room and are primed for a closing gag. Then Bertie finds out he’s the father of twins, Bertie tells his dad the good news, and the movie’s over. Huh?? Not even a gag as elementary as naming one of the kids after the Henrietta stock? If this had truly been “his” film, Keaton would have puzzled over that ending for a month before he would have let it go out like that.

The Saphead is watchable enough, but a Keaton buff can plainly see that our hero has been strait-jacketed in a “straight” story. Keaton would depart on cinema’s finest flights of fancy once he was in charge of his own movies.

Charlie Chaplin in BETWEEN SHOWERS (1914) – Caught in a rainstorm of macho

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Sometimes the Keystone shorts are very funny. Other times, the Keystone shorts are filled up with a lot of frantic action in the hope that you won’t notice how little comedy there is. Between Showers is an example of the latter.

It begins with a tediously laborious gag in which Ford Sterling steals an umbrella from Chester Conklin (who plays a preoccupied cop). Next, we see the aftermath of a rain shower. A lady (Emma Bell Clifton) wants to walk across the street but cannot negotiate a huge puddle. Ford says he’ll find a plank of wood to place across the water, and with designs on the woman, he rushes off to find one. Then Charlie happens upon the woman and attempts the same plan of action.

Meanwhile, a cop helpfully guides the woman past the puddle, negating the gentlemen’s efforts. But that doesn’t stop the two from thumping their chests and acting all macho about what they would have done if they’d had the chance. Pretty soon, both of them are hitting on the woman to the point that you wish she’d file a sexual-harassment complaint on the two of them.

Then Ford has a temper tantrum because the lady won’t give back his umbrella, so he goes to find a cop and demand justice. Guess which cop he finds. This can’t end well.

But then, it didn’t start out all that wonderfully, either.

Buster Keaton in GO WEST (1925) – Starring a cow as the leading lady

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Go West is the most picaresque and Chaplinesque of Buster Keaton’s features. Normally, Buster just goes through his stone-faced paces, letting the pathos take care of itself and not worrying about whether or not the audience will care about him. But here, Keaton goes out of his way to get the audience’s sympathy. Buster’s character in this movie is named “Friendless,” and the first fifteen minutes seems meant to establish how put-upon he is, literally getting stepped on by an apathetic world. Keaton had just lost his regular gang of gag men — Jean Havez had died of a heart attack, and Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman had been snapped up by other studios — which perhaps explains the movie’s unusually sentimental prologue.

After somewhat meandering adventures in Indiana and New York City, Friendless ends up as a cowhand on an Arizona ranch, and the story gains its footing. Much of the comedy derives from the juxtaposition of Friendless’ stoic resignation versus the rootin’-tootin’ life of a cowpoke. (When Friendless plays in a poker game and accuses the dealer of cheating, the dealer points a gun in his face and commands, “When you say that, smile,” not knowing of Buster’s inability to do so. Friendless puts two fingers to his lips to try and paste a grin on his face.)

Go West gives Keaton his most unusual leading lady: a mourn-faced cow named Brown Eyes, the only friend that Friendless has. She gets a credit in the movie (and even got a salary for her acting — $13 a week), and she deserves it. She’s every inch a co-star.

While Go West isn’t Keaton’s greatest movie (Keaton, typically, said he “didn’t care for it”), it’s hardly laugh-free. It has some strangely touching gags (as when Friendless refuses to hurt Brown Eyes by branding her and instead uses a razor to “shave” a brand onto her). And even when the movie isn’t terribly funny, it’s beautiful and often downright astounding to watch. Keaton’s usual cameraman, Elgin Lessley, captures the Arizona desert on film in a painterly fashion. And some of the scenes — such as Friendless running atop a moving train, and a climax with Friendless blithely escorting a herd of cattle through downtown Los Angeles — leave you almost scratching your head in wonder as to how they got mounted and filmed.

The title Go West, of course, comes from Horace Greeley’s famous command to “Go west, young man,” and fifteen years later, M-G-M copped the title (and even Greeley’s command) for one of The Marx Brothers’ later, weaker comedies. If nothing else, Keaton’s Go West is the funnier one, and while it’s a bit of a take-off on the traditional Western, it nevertheless captures the spirit of the Old West nicely – even when it’s depicting a tenderfoot who falls in love with a cow.

Charlie Chaplin in MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914) – Quite a lively hotel

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Strange, indeed. Mabel Normand gets her name in the title, and Charlie Chaplin walks off with the film.

Chaplin provides what might be called “punctuation” to the movie’s comic conceit – but what grand punctuation! The movie begins with Charlie trying and failing miserably to flirt with Mabel in a hotel lobby while she is walking her dog. After Charlie gets snubbed by Mabel and several other women, he spends the rest of the evening getting drunk.

Meanwhile, Mabel has gone to her room, gotten into her pajamas, and is playing fetch with her dog. The ball bounces out into the hallway. Mabel quickly tries to retrieve it but ends up locked out of her room. Charlie happens upon Mabel in her “scandalous” state (a woman in her PJ’s, outside of her room! Shocking! At least in 1914!), and never was lust more hilariously conveyed. Charlie flits in and out for the rest of this one-reeler, but whenever he appears, he makes it clear that Mabel is carnal manna sent from heaven just for him. Harpo Marx couldn’t have done it better.

The rest of the movie is the broad farce you’d expect – Mabel hides under the bed of a nearby lodger, she’s found and the lodger is accused of sleeping with her, etc. But every time Chaplin comes upon the scene, we forget the hoary contrivances and wait to see Charlie’s next reaction. It’s the kind of delight the one-reeler was invented for. Superb.

Laurel & Hardy in 45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD (1926) – Together at the Hal Roach Studios, but still not quite together

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45 Minutes from Hollywood is a cute little comedy, but in retrospect, it’s even more alien to Laurel & Hardy-style comedy than the usual Hal Roach/Pathe movies where Stan and Ollie appear in the movie but not together. Here, Laurel doesn’t appear until the final scene and doesn’t even get a screen credit.

The story revolves around a mama’s-boy who must go to Hollywood to pay the family’s rent. Once there, he gets mixed up with a gang of bank robbers who have dressed as movie-actors-and-crew who are supposedly faking a bank robbery for their film. (Hope you followed that.) In a tag-along subplot, Hardy plays a house detective who gets mixed up with one of the robbers. Near the end, Laurel plays a hotel tenant who gets mixed up in the middle of the film’s final chase. (Obviously, Hal Roach [who also gets a story credit here] thought that if he mixed up enough disparate elements, some comedy would eventually emerge. More often, though, the final result is not so much disparate as desperate.)

The funniest gags are some of H.M. Walker’s intertitles. We get an immediate take on the family’s grandfather, courtesy of the title that tells us he “saw a 1910 beauty contest [and] they had to blindfold him to get him home.” Later, when the mother gives her son the money to pay their debt, she warns him to “beware of confidence men and assistant directors.”

(There’s also a cute inside joke where Grandpa is thumbing through a fan magazine and gets all worked up about a photo of Vivien Oakland. Non-L&H buffs will be scratching their heads over this reference, but Oakland memorably appeared in the L&H shorts We Faw Down and Scram!, and the feature film Way Out West.)

As for Laurel & Hardy, considering that they never get together in the movie, they have some surprisingly Laurel-&-Hardy-esque moments: Ollie, when he plays coy to try to placate his angry wife; Stan, when he is crying about getting beat up only for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (However, it’s pretty obvious that Stan’s role was intended for James Finlayson, as he is made up to look like Fin, right down to the walrus moustache.)

45 Minutes from Hollywood is a funny enough 20 minutes from Hollywood. But astonishingly, Laurel & Hardy’s very next movie would get them together properly — before separating them again for a few more films.