Day 3 recap of the SEE YOU IN THE ‘FALL’ BLOGATHON

Well, there were only three submissions today. Happily, we can report a drop only in quantity, not in quality, as we present the

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(To read any of the Day 3 entries that you missed, just click on the appropriate blog’s name to get linked to it.)

LHFlyingDeuces

Silver Screenings takes a look at Laurel & Hardy’s Foreign Legion misadventures in The Flying Deuces.

KeatonArbuckle

Silent-ology adores a good love story — even if it’s just Buster Keaton courting Roscoe Arbuckle in drag, in Good Night, Nurse!

ThreeStooges

And forgive me for stealing my own spotlight, but I just had to honor the 71st anniversary of the release of the short subject Gents Without Cents, in which The Three Stooges showed us just how slowly they turned.

And if you missed the first two days of our blogathon, here are links to our previous recaps:

Day 1 recap * Day 2 recap

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Now, then…keep us bookmarked, because we still have one day left in this blogathon tribute to physical comedy. And as for those eight blog entrants who haven’t yet submitted their entries: Don’t try to hide from us…we know where to look!

BlazingSaddles

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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.

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 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.)

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.

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.

Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL (1926) – A masterpiece of a train ride

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The General, another of Buster Keaton’s movies to make it to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (in 1989), is truly Keaton’s movie epic. Keaton’s heroism and stunts in any of his movies are always amazing to watch, but often they are almost too outsized for the ordinary world in which they take place. For once, Keaton’s settings match his physicality.

The movie is based on a true Civil War incident: the Andrews Raid, in which some Union soldiers hijacked a Southern locomotive named The General and attempted to drive it up north, destroying railroad tracks and cutting telegraph lines along the way. The raid failed when two Southern train conductors caught the raiders.

In his movie of the story, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Georgia train engineer who, when the Civil War reaches his home town of Marietta, is as willing to enlist as anyone. Unfortunately, the recruiter refuses to enlist Johnnie because he is of more use to the South as an engineer than as a soldier. Even more unfortunately, the recruiter doesn’t tell Johnnie why he was turned down, leading Johnnie’s girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family to believe that Johnnie is a coward. Annabelle tells Johnnie she never wants to speak to him again “until you’re wearing a uniform.” But when Johnnie’s train is hijacked by the Northerners, his heroism eventually gets the train back, defeats the Northern soldiers, and rescues Annabelle after the Northerners kidnap her. (Ironically, Annabelle gets her wish; when Johnnie rescues her, he is wearing a Northern soldier’s uniform, which he had to don in order to get behind enemy lines.)

Keaton pulled out all the stops on this movie. He was fascinated by trains, and now one of them would be his co-star. Keaton told his crew that he wanted the movie to be “so authentic it hurts,” and the movie does indeed look like a Civil War photo come to life. The movie’s plotting is wonderfully symmetrical, as Johnnie becomes a hero by pulling the same tricks on the Northern soldiers as they had previously pulled on him. And of course, Keaton spared no personal effort either, constantly jumping on, off, over, and on top of a moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike. After seeing Keaton cowering from a boxer in Battling Butler, it’s a pleasure to watch him as a dashing hero.

(Again, a word must be said about Keaton’s lead female, in this case Annabelle. Well-meaning film historians have stated that Annabelle is another “dutiful but dumb” Keaton heroine. True, she does do a couple of silly things in the movie, but so does Keaton. When Johnnie comes to rescue Annabelle from the Northern soldiers, he is constantly “ssh-ing” her so that the Northerners won’t hear them, only to end up making more noise than she does. One wonders if Stan Laurel didn’t crib this routine from The General, since he did it so often in Laurel & Hardy comedies.)

Unfortunately, Keaton literally paid a high price for his authenticity. The General ended up costing three-quarters of a million dollars, slightly more than Battling Butler made. And it is an unfortunate fact of movie history that The General was a bomb financially, beginning the box-office decline that eventually forced Keaton to move to M-G-M.

The movie also earned Keaton some of his most hostile reviews. The New York Herald-Tribune called it “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done.” And perhaps it is, if you’re looking for only a jokey comedy. Happily, the movie was re-discovered in the “Keaton renaissance” of the 1950’s and ’60s, and it has earned its rightful place as a critical darling ever since. (One can’t help but note that it is Keaton’s most adventurous movies, such as The General and Sherlock Jr., that were the most ill-received upon first release. If a movie buff needed any evidence that Keaton was ahead of his time, this would seem to be it.)

The General was one of the costliest movies of its time (including the single most expensive shot in silent-film history, when a bridge that Johnnie has sabotaged sinks a Northern train). But unlike many of today’s brain-dead blockbusters, every dollar of Keaton’s budget is up on the screen. The General is worthy movie-watching just for its sheer spectacle; the laughs are icing on the cake.