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 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.