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.

Make me laugh!

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This week, one of my favorite bloggers, TV scripter and novelist Ken Levine, asked: “Can comedy stand the test of time?” As an example, Levine cited Steve Martin’s once-famous catchphrase, “Ex-cuse ME!”, and posited that a current teenager wouldn’t have any idea why someone from the 1970’s would laugh at such a thing. Levine also mentioned how the Marx Brothers enjoyed a 1960’s and ’70s revival that seems to have dimmed down considerably since then.

Well, can comedy stand the test of time? My answer is:

If it’s comedy that you’re still talking about, then yes.

I grew up in that hallowed era of the 1970’s. All around me, on TV and in revival movie theaters, were testaments to the eternal comedic appeal of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy. Then I got to witness the budding of comic masters such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Monty Python.

These days, my college-age son and daughter do the usual scoffing at their old man’s pop-culture tastes, yet they’ve managed to pick and choose things they like from that era. My daughter has enjoyed Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the musical version of The Producers with me. I’m not the Cheech & Chong fan that I was as a teenager, but my son definitely enjoys their streetwise humor. And while neither of my kids is a die-hard Monty Python fan like me, my son is head over heels over Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and my daughter has let down her guard enough to let the “Fish Slapping Dance” and “Argument Clinic” sketches make her laugh like crazy.

Conversely, the kids enjoy comedy that doesn’t terribly interest me, such as Amy Schumer (daughter) and Louis C.K. (son). I’ve watched some of their work and don’t particularly “get” them, but I can appreciate why the next generation does.

The thing is, there’s nothing more subjective than comedy. If someone enjoys the same comedy that you do, you have had some measure of bonding with that person. And if someone doesn’t pick up on a comedian who makes you tear up with laughter, expect the very definition of “stony bitch face” from that other person.

Anyway, I’m in my mid-fifties, and I’ve long given up on trying to apologize for or rationalize my tastes in pop culture. Like any comedy fan, I like what I like, and if you don’t agree…

Well, ex-CUUUUUUUSE ME!!!!!!!!

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Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball in a 1965 TV appearance

Forgive me if you’ve heard this, but I have to provide a little background for those who haven’t.

Lucille Ball and Buster Keaton became friends on the M-G-M lot in the 1940’s. He was a gag man and some-time supporting player with his movie-starring days behind him; she was a supporting player with her TV-starring days ahead of her. It’s said that Ball gained much of her physical comedy skills from Keaton.

The only time they ever appeared together was in “A Salute to Stan Laurel,” a well-intended but majorly botched 1965 tribute to Laurel broadcast by CBS a few months after his death. One of the few highlights of the special was Ball and Keaton’s sketch, a routine that Keaton had previously done on stage with his wife Eleanor.

Here, at the 6:07 mark, Dick Van Dyke introduces the bit. Harvey Korman can be seen as an irate cop. Also, the unfolding-newspaper bit is taken wholesale from Keaton’s 1921 short subject The High Sign.

Buster Keaton in THE GOAT (1921) – A dead-shot-perfect comedy

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In appearance, The Goat is the story of a vagabond (Keaton) who gets mistaken for an escaped murderer named Dead Shot Dan. In actuality, the movie is but a warm-up for Keaton’s epic two-reeler Cops.

Indeed, Keaton the “scenarist” (as they called movie-story men in the 1920’s) drops the “Dead Shot Dan” angle into the story pretty quickly and then abandons it for half the movie. Buster is on the run from the cops, all right, but it all starts because he throws a horseshoe over his shoulder for good luck, only to bean a street cop. From there, the movie glides into one of Keaton’s (and maybe cinema’s) funniest chases ever. You’d never guess there could be so many variations on a chase motif, but the best of them are definitely presented here.

When the “Dead Shot Dan” part of the story resumes, the chase mostly narrows down to Buster and a private detective. From there it gets a tad routine, though “routine” for Keaton entails running endlessly up and down the same flight of stairs to avoid his hunter. As if that wasn’t triumph enough, he even gets a girl at the end. Quite a feat for a guy who began the movie being unable to wrangle even a free loaf of bread from a food line.

Meanwhile, Dead Shot Dan is still at large.

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.)

Kiss

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.