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

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(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.

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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.

Buster Keaton in THE PALEFACE (1922) – Surprisingly sympathetic look at Native Americans

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Dealing as it does in many of the typical “How!” stereotypes, it’s difficult to believe that modern Native-Americans might enjoy The Paleface. But in its sympathy towards the Indians’ point of view and their eventual comeuppance of the movie’s white villains, it comes as a stark and very funny relief to the gaseous self-righteousness of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, which came almost 70 politically corrected years later.

Unusually for a Buster Keaton short, The Paleface spends a generous amount of time setting up its premise. It begins by showing an Indian tribe at peace; indeed, the movie goes so far as to show the tribe segregated by choice, not because they were relegated to it by “white men.” And based on this movie’s characterizations of said white men, the Indians are well rid of them.

It seems that some shady oil barons want the Indians’ land for their own (money-grubbing, naturally) reasons, so when an Indian spokesperson is given a deed for the land, one of the barons’ flunkies knocks the rep out cold and leaves him a silver dollar as “payment” for the deed that was “given up” by the Indian rep. With deed in hand, the barons send a note to the Indians giving them 24 hours to get off their land. The Indian chief (Joe Roberts) instructs the tribe to kill the first white man who passes through their gate.

Naturally, the first entrant is Buster, trying to catch an elusive butterfly. The ensuing adventures transform the ever-resourceful Buster into a Don Quixote for Native Americans. Buster begins his sojourn by being marked for death by the Indians, only to come full circle and be welcomed as the middleman between their tribe and the barons. As with everything else he does, Buster gets straight to the point: If the white men don’t do what’s right, they’ll get what they deserve. Sure enough, the barons underestimate Buster and live to regret it; he conducts a war dance in the barons’ boardroom (literally conducts it – as the Indians furiously dance in a circle around the white men, Buster rhythmically waves his arms as if directing an orchestra).

The Indians retain their deed, and Buster is rewarded with the hand of a beautiful Indian princess on whom he has had his eye. The movie concludes with one of Keaton’s funniest playing-with-the-movie-medium gags: Buster indulges in a long kiss with the princess. The title “Two years later” follows, leading us to expect a shot of Buster with the princess and their children. Instead, we see Buster in the very same embrace with the princess, pausing only to take a breath before he resumes the kiss. For all we know, they might still be locked in the same position.

Keaton biographer Marion Meade calls The Paleface “absurdist.” On the contrary, the movie shows why many critics and movie buffs regard Keaton’s viewpoint as more contemporary than Charlie Chaplin’s. Here, Buster never asks for pity, is resourceful to a fault, and sides with the outsider in a way that makes you automatically side with him. It’s way too much to suggest that a movie could bring about world peace; still, one wonders if a few world leaders couldn’t be at least slightly humbled by watching The Paleface and taking its modest message to heart.

Buster Keaton in MY WIFE’S RELATIONS (1922) – Art reflects marriage?

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Since the real-life Buster Keaton struggled to maintain more than a shadow in the Talmadge family (into which he’d been married and then all but emasculated in the early 1920’s), it’s not very hard to guess where Keaton got the inspiration for My Wife’s Relations, about an innocent man who is mistakenly married into a family that mostly wants to use him for a punching bag.

Still, the comedy is a bit strained here. In Keaton’s finest works, one gets the impression of an original movie-maker allowed to go to town on his imagination. But his weaker shorts seem like the inspiration for a thousand terrible sitcoms.

An Amazonian woman brings Buster before a judge under the mistaken idea that Buster broke her window. But the judge does not speak English, and as he had been awaiting a couple who planned to get married, he goes ahead and unites Buster and the woman without a second thought – almost as quickly, it seems, as this woman is willing to be resigned to her getting saddled with a husband she never asked for. (Even Seven Chances, a matrimony comedy that Keaton starred in and then spent the rest of his life disowning, presented the unlikely-marriage scenario far more convincingly.)

The movie’s second half is even more mechanical, as Buster’s in-laws come to the mistaken (and again, sitcom-like) conclusion that Buster is due to inherit a fortune, causing them to be uncharacteristically nice to him. Then for no good reason, Buster accidentally dumps a load of yeast into some home-brew, and we can see the climax coming a mile away.

As such, the final chase is typically Keaton-superb – though the best moment comes before the chase, when Buster realizes his in-laws are turning on him, and he quickly draws his coat around him as though the room has taken a huge drop in temperature. It’s a pity the movie didn’t have more such grace notes of character.

Buster Keaton in ONE WEEK (1920) – How not to build a house

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The following is my contribution to Shorts! A Tiny Blogathon, hosted May 2-4, 2015 by the blog Movies Silently. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ critiques of short subjects from the dawn of film through 1970!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“To sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then to come upon One Week is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming.” –Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

One Week was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it darn well deserves it. This is the way to start a solo movie career.

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The movie begins with an astonishing scene in which Buster and his new bride (Sybil Seely) move themselves from one moving car to another in order to avoid the advances of Hank the chauffeur (who just happens to be Mrs. Buster’s ex-boyfriend). The scene works like a cinematic Moebius strip, as the couple exits the second moving car, conks a cop on the head so that the traffic will allow the first moving car to advance in their direction, frames Hank for the cop-bopping, and then re-enter the first car as if nothing had happened. And this is a throwaway gag. Never mind Keaton’s superlative physical gifts; a director (Keaton co-directed with Eddie Cline) who starts off a movie that spectacularly has nerves of steel.

The crux of the story is the couple’s attempt to put together a do-it-yourself house from a kit they received as a wedding gift from Buster’s uncle. We already have misgivings when we see Buster saw off the end of a beam on which he’d been sitting, one story above the ground.

A harbinger of things to come.

A harbinger of things to come.

Then jealous Hank sneaks in and sabotages the kit, and from then on, it’s quite clear that Buster would have been better off if his uncle had just bought him a toaster.

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The biggest and funniest sight gag is the completed, deformed house, which endlessly produces gags like a slot machine spewing out coins. One can imagine Keaton viewing a house from all angles like a prism, uncovering every building-a-house gag imaginable. (In some of the set-ups and in Keaton’s spectacular stunts, one can also see the genesis of the wild climax of Keaton’s final independent movie, Steamboat Bill Jr.)

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Praise should also be given to Sybil Seely who, as Buster’s bride, makes the first of five appearances with Keaton. Most of the Keaton canon is not very complimentary to women (perhaps reflecting Keaton’s contentiousness with “real” women in the 1920’s and ’30s). By contrast, Seely is sunny and holds her own with Keaton here. When Buster is baffled by the house’s awkward construction, or when a raging storm turns the house into a frantic merry-go-round, Seely truly seems a partner with Buster, trying to help him or sharing in his sorrows. She grounds the movie in domestic bliss, which makes the more farcical elements that much more plausible.

(There’s also a funny non sequitor where a naked Seely is about to step out of a bathtub, when suddenly an anonymous hand helpfully covers the camera lens to help Seely avoid embarrassing herself. Keaton would probably have called this “directorial commentary.”)

Whoops!

Whoops!

In a New Yorker article celebrating the centennial of Keaton’s birth, critic Anthony Lane gave up all pretense to modesty and called One Week “a strong candidate for the perfect short subject.” I’m not prone to such superlatives, but every time I watch the movie, I’m less and less inclined to disagree with Lane.

(If you have enjoyed this blog, I heartily invite you to visit The Love Nest – A Buster Appreciation Cult, my online, encyclopedic tribute to Keaton’s glorious silent movies from 1920 to 1928. Click here to visit.)

Buster Keaton in THE SCARECROW (1920) – If it only had a brain

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Legend has it that Buster Keaton’s method for making movies was to come up with a good beginning and a good ending, because the middle would take care of itself. Upon seeing The Scarecrow and similar Keaton shorts, one could be forgiven for thinking that Keaton’s imagined endings consisted of only two words: chase scene.

Along with that hoary chestnut come some other comedy cliches in The Scarecrow, such as the string on the door to cure the toothache, and a dog who gets cream pie on his face and is then mistaken for a rabid dog. Then there’s the house that farmhand Buster shares with his work partner (Joe Roberts), with Rube Goldberg contraptions such as a phonograph player that converts into a stove, a bed that doubles as a bathtub, etc. The gimmicks are cute and sometimes funny, but never are they plausible. In fact, much of the movie has the same mechanical-gag quality – even the subtitles, one of which tells us, “All the rooms in [Buster’s] house are in one room.”

The plot’s main point is that Buster and Joe are both vying to marry the same woman (Sybil Seely), though you wouldn’t know it the way this plot point is buried among the gags. Still, the way in which the preacher is pulled off the street – literally – to perform the marriage is pretty novel and funny. Too bad the rest of the story didn’t show as much imagination.

As usual, Keaton’s acrobatic skills and sheer force of personality make you forget about the plot contrivances, at least while you’re watching the movie. But at his best, Buster’s physicality is an essential ingredient of the plot, not a diversion from it.

THE LOVE NEST (1923) – Buster Keaton’s final short subject of the 1920’s

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Considering that it’s basically a parody of macho, Moby Dick-type sea epics, The Love Nest is rather startling in its inventiveness. Its gags range from ultra-macho to feint-quaint, from physically elaborate to drawing-board basic. And as Keaton takes the sole writing-directing credit here, one is tempted to look at the movie as stream-of-Keaton’s-consciousness.

Here, Buster is suffering from yet another unrequited love. (Considering the amount of time that Buster spends [at least in his short subjects] pining for a woman he doesn’t need and is probably better off without, perhaps he deserves the slightly ditzy females he gets in the feature films.)

Buster writes a “Dear Jane” letter (to a woman who probably won’t be bothered to read it) and drifts away on a sailboat that is eventually taken up at sea by a huge whaling boat named The Love Nest – a rather feminine name for a ship with such a masculine purpose. (More baggage from Keaton’s subconscious, perhaps?) The captain (Joe Roberts), naturally, is a ruthless brute who throws crew members overboard for minor infractions, thoughtfully throwing in a sympathy wreath (of which he keeps a handy supply) as an afterthought. We can deduce that it’s only a matter of time before Buster’s well-meaning ineptitude will cause him to be pushing up water daisies as well.

Keaton’s body language has always seemed a bit delicate, but The Love Nest might be the one movie where he comes off as downright effeminate. His first scene includes a method for sealing his “Dear Jane” letter that wouldn’t be out of place in a romance novel: He brings a finger to each of his eyes, extracts their tears, and use them as moisture to seal the letter’s envelope. Later, when the captain calls for “All hands on deck,” Buster drops to his knees, places his hands on the ship’s deck, and remains in that position until the captain calls him to task for it. And the movie’s funniest non-physical gag comes when the captain has fallen overboard and Buster takes it upon himself to man the ship; in a nod to the sailors’ financial security, Buster tells the crew that he will not only raise their pay, he’ll also get them an insurance policy. (What, no 401k??)

The movie’s finale shows Buster adrift at sea, becoming the inadvertent victim of a Navy gunner ship’s target practice. A viewer who commented on this film at The Internet Movie Database has tried to claim all sorts of subconscious subtext for this motif; more likely, it was Buster and his crew desperate for an ending.

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Possibly the most bothersome image in The Love Nest has nothing to do with the quality of its gags. At one point when Keaton means to show us that Buster has been adrift for several days, he shows Buster with greasepoint slopped all over the bottom part of his face. It might be a matter of picky aesthetics, but to me it is a bothersome encumbrance for that expressive face. As Walter Kerr wrote in his invaluable book The Silent Clowns, “A faint touch of soot and the face turns storybook-stylized, a depersonalized thing of paint. Interesting as Keaton looks under these circumstances, we are always relieved when the smudge is wiped away…We want the man back; he will still be called a clown but he will now be a clown of substance.” Even when the substance is as insubstantial as The Love Nest, that beautiful face gives it weight.