Month: February 2016

Not-so-Blue Monday: 3 clips to start your week with a smile!

 

Ah, it’s Monday. But fear not, here are three clips to make everything better! First up, Groucho v Chico in HORSE FEATHERS. Swordfish!

Buster Keaton, live on ‘The Ed Wynn Show’, 1949. A cracking spot, which proved to a new audience that BK was back!

Lastly, here’s a great little Lupino Lane short that’s been pieced back together from a couple of sources by David Glass. It has most of Lane’s pet routines, as well as an interesting look at the Educational studios as Lane tries to crash the movies. Look out for a brief Lloyd Hamilton cameo, too! ‘MOVIELAND’ was released in 1926.

 

All for now! More posts coming later this week, on Harry Langdon and Stanley Lupino. Stay tuned!

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Pierre Etaix: The Forgotten Frenchman

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Running late again and battling traffic this morning, I found my thoughts turning to a film I saw a couple of years ago. ‘HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE’ is a short film starring the French comedian Pierre Étaix , which follows his frustrated attempts to rush home for an anniversary dinner with his wife. He must contend with rush hour Paris (the traffic is so gridlocked that the drivers read novels, polish their vehicles and play cards between occasional movements inching forward). While he struggles with driving home, parking, and picking up an anniversary  present, his wife tires of waiting, drinks all the wine and ends up comatose by the time he finally arrives home. Happy anniversary, indeed.

Although he is from a much later heyday than most of the comics featured here, Pierre Étaix fits right beside them. A disciple of classic silent comedy, he also found himself unfairly cast aside by history.  Most of the comedians featured on this site are largely forgotten because they are long dead, and many of their films do not exist anymore. In the case of  Étaix, neither of these statements are true.  He is still alive at 87, and his films, although admittedly few in number, all still exist. And yet, if he has been written about at all, it has been as a footnote to the career of Jacques Tati.

Originally pursuing the ambition to be a circus clown, Étaix was instead drawn into illustration and cabaret work. He met Jacques Tati, and was hired to work on designing and co-directing his 1958 film ‘MON ONCLE’. In 1961, he set out to work on his own in a series of shorts and features. Although his style contained elements of Tati, the most frequent stylistic comparison is to Buster Keaton, with whom Pierre shared a stoic demeanour as the dapper little man who fate confounds at every turn. However, he absorbed not just Keaton but all the great clowns, adding a leisurely Gallic twist to the comedy to make something uniquely his own. Étaix’ cinematic output was small – just 3 shorts and 5 features in the 1960s – but each was full of golden moments of witty visual comedy.

In old age, the silent clowns found themselves forgotten as their films disappeared from view due to forces beyond their control. In a bitterly ironic comparison to the clowns he so admired, the same fate, for years, fell Pierre Étaix. It is not nitrate decomposition or changes in taste that are to blame however, but an unpleasant saga of legal battles and rights issues. For 40 years, the rights to his classics were held by unsympathetic companies who treated them as assets and nothing more (a situation similar to, but much more prolonged than, Hallmark’s treatment of the Laurel and Hardy films in the USA.). The films disappeared from cinemas and TV. A fickle public soon forgets when they are not given a reason to remember, and with Pierre Étaix’ films in this legal purgatory, he soon slipped to footnote status in the textbook of comic history.

Finally, the murky clouds of litigation have cleared. Étaix  has been on the comeback trail, restoring his reputation with DVD releases and screenings at festivals, such as Cannes and the 2012 Bristol Slapstick festival.

At Slapstick, it was a thrill to see a great clown in the flesh. Sat hunched beside the screen, M Étaix was a small, lugubrious looking man with great, watery eyes. The comparisons to Keaton aren’t just stylistic; he shares Keaton’s passive stocism and  has the same kind of cheekbones that make the silver light from the cinema screen fall dramatically on his face as he watches himself. Watching the opening clip, an excerpt from ‘LE SOUPIRANT’ (1963), he seldom smiled whilst the rest of us rocked with laughter, and I had a twinge of worry that he would be a saddened and withdrawn man. However, in conversation there is nothing at all morose about him; in fact, he’s a complete charmer, who frequently breaks into animated bouts of mime accompanied by an infectious gap-toothed grin. His gift for visual business is undimmed by the years, and frequently he uses it to get over the language barrier; asked the reason for his films’ disappearance, he responds with a very funny, but obviously heartfelt mime of lawyers stuffing money in their pockets.  Similarly, while he holds Keaton as “a demi-God”, when asked who his favourite comedian of all is, his response was an absolutely pitch-perfect mime of Stan Laurel mannerisms.

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Monsieur Étaix receives his award at the Slapstick festival in 2012

Both Laurel and Keaton’s slapstick helplessness with props are evident in ‘RUPTURE’, the first film he made. This short takes a simple premise, Pierre trying to write a reply to his girlfriend’s break-up letter, and extracts a great deal of comedy business from it as he struggles with broken pens, stubborn desk drawers and an uneven surface that his writing materials slide about on.  HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE takes these to even greater levels.

The dapper dignity that he tries to keep up in the face of slapstick calamity came to hallmark Étaix’ work and was, he says, inspired by a tremendously po-faced opera singer; “Something as trivial as losing a button would be catastrophe to him, and I find that idea very funny”. This character also fitted into natural, situational comedy. Unlike the bewildering modernity that Jacques Tati stranded his oddball character M. Hulot in, Pierre Étaix had all the material he needed in the day-to-day trials of love and life. After making 5 feature films (the last of which, LE GRAND AMOUR features a brilliant fantasy sequence in which beds replace cars on the roads), Étaix focussed his attentions on TV and setting up the French National Circus School.

Like almost everyone else, I’d almost never seen most of his work until that evening in Bristol, but I’ve since been working through the long overdue box set of his films. M. Étaix absolutely charmed the Bristol crowd, and is on his way to regaining his standing  as the third great clown of French Cinema, alongside Max Linder and Jacques Tati. There are lots of jewels amongst his films, which provide more out and out laughter than much of Tati’s work.

It is fitting, given all the comparisons that have been made between Étaix and Buster Keaton, to finish with a nod to Buster; In Rudi Blesh’s book ‘Keaton’, written during the twilight of its subject’s life, he poignantly describes Keaton’s race against time to restore his reputation.

“It is a timely restoration, with the public tired of stand up and one-line comedy and turning back eagerly to the visual gag and the timeless silent art of the mime. But it still is late, late evening for the mime himself. His race with time quickens.”

Pierre Étaix today finds himself in the same circumstances, and, in his 88th year, the same race against time. Already, though, the films of this sweet, humble and quietly brilliant man are beginning to be seen again and earn the praise and following they should have had for the last 45 years. They are wonderfully creative visual comedies. Don’t miss a chance to see them; we owe it to him.

EDIT 15/10/16. After the paragraph cited above, Rudi Blesh had to update his biography with a poignant last sentence noting Keaton’s passing. Unfortunately, today the same is necessary for Pierre Etaix. It is at least of some consolation that he got to see his reputation restored, but deeply sad that perhaps the last truly visual film clown has left us. Sleep well, Pierre, and thanks for the laughs.

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Étaix is also a talented artist, as evidenced by this lovely, minimalist Keaton piece.

Pierre’s films haven’t made it to DVD in the UK, but are available subtitled on this American release, or in their original French versions.

This article by Matthew Ross has been adapted from one included in issue 3 of The Lost Laugh Magazine

Roscoe’s Return

 

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 In 1932, Roscoe Arbuckle returned to cinema screens after 11 long years in the wilderness. Since he was unfairly banished from the screen in 1921, a lot had changed. Talkies had arrived. The independent comedy studios had, for the most part, gone under or been absorbed into bigger concerns. Slapstick was passé. And yet, audiences greeted with open arms one of the pioneers of slapstick, an old friend who they had shared mud puddles and food fights with many years ago. Finally he was allowed the comeback that no-one, least of all he, thought could ever happen…

Let’s get the mention of the scandal over with right at the start and have done with it. There’s no need to recap the ins and outs of the trial, although it is always worth shouting from the rooftops “He was INNOCENT!” one more time. Of the whole sorry saga, the one redeeming feature is that Roscoe Arbuckle was, eventually, allowed to be rescued from his exile and return to doing what he loved best.

After being blacklisted, Arbuckle had made a living directing Lupino Lane, Al St John, Lloyd Hamilton, Johnny Arthur, Marion Davies and many others under the pseudonym ‘William Goodrich’. However, while this gave him some outlet for comedy creativity, he yearned to perform again. Gradually, as the social climate of the 1920s turned toward the more liberated jazz era, public opinion rebelled against the kind of draconian censorship that had unfairly banned him from the screen. Roscoe started to become less a symbol of scandalous debauchery and more of an emblem of the unfair suppression of fun.

Slowly, but surely, there were promising signs: he embarked on well-attended vaudeville tours, and opened his own nightclub, ‘Roscoe Arbuckle’s Plantation’. He even snuck in a cameo appearance in a film, ‘CHARACTER STUDIES’. This gag reel presents Carter De Haven as a quick change artist impersonating celebrities, the joke being that through trick photography, he changes into the actual stars. Made in 1925 as a private joke for the stars, the film saw release in 1928 by Educational Pictures, and happily Arbuckle’s brief appearance was not edited out.

The advent of talkies provided a new dawn, and producers showed an interest in showcasing Roscoe once again. There were abortive plans to make films in Germany, where there was no ban on his films, and Hal Roach even considered making a series of Spanish-language Arbuckle talkies for export. However, for one reason or another, all these projects fizzled out. In the USA, Arbuckle was just too much of a risk, even though the initial ban on his employment was subsequently lifted. Roscoe remained hopeful of making a comeback, but was becoming resigned to the fact that he probably wouldn’t. In an interview with Tom Ellis of ‘PHOTOPLAY’ in 1931, he said “The people who hate me have a right to their opinion and I have a right to mine, which is that I’ve suffered enough and I want to get back to work. If I do get back, then it will be grand. If not, then o.k..”

The ‘Picture Show’ article is, on the whole, very sympathetic towards his case and is indicative of the changing attitudes. Arbuckle was now recognised for the innocent scapegoat he had been made. The next issue of PHOTOPLAY saw a damning editorial stating that “Arbuckle’s treatment is unfair. The Mothers of America should exercise a little of the values they preach so glibly on a Sabbath morn”. Many letters poured in, all in favour of Roscoe. More articles began to appear, complaining of his plight, and there was even a song published, dedicated to him. In 1931, the Hollywood community signed a petition requesting that Arbuckle be returned to the screen. A year later, one cinema owner in Kansas defied the Mothers of America by screening an Arbuckle Keystone, with the star in attendance.

Finally, in late 1932, the go-ahead was given for our maligned star to make his comeback. Sam Sax of Warner Brothers signed him to make a pilot film for a potential series of two-reelers, “just like the old days”. In October of that year, Arbuckle once again dressed up in a plaid shirt, derby and ballooning pants, and walked before the cameras to begin filming ‘HEY POP’.

Despite all the changes of the last decade, ‘HEY POP’ retains an old-time atmosphere. We open with Roscoe in his frequent role of short-order cook. His very first appearance is a gag from the Arbuckle-Keaton short ’THE BELL BOY’ revisits gags from ‘THE WAITERS BALL’ (1916) AND ‘THE BUTCHER BOY’ , including the famous moment where he dons a fur coat to enter the walk-in freezer. Meanwhile, in the restaurant, a mother abandons her child, leaving a note to look after him. The restaurant owner will have none of it and threatens to send the boy to the orphanage. Arbuckle finds the distraught child and agrees to help him, hiding the boy in the freezer disguised as a sack of meat! Fired from his job, Roscoe struggles to make ends meet; when the authorities close in, he dons a female disguise and hides the boy in a pram. The two are caught up in a baby show and almost take the prize, until Roscoe’s wig slips and the chase is on again. The pair take refuge behind a locked gate, but it turns out to be the gate of the orphanage.

Although the ending is very abrupt, and it’s a shame that nobody thought to properly round out the story (a similar dilemma to that befalling Laurel & Hardy’s ‘THEIR FIRST MISTAKE’‘), there is much fun to be had in this short. There is a fun, freewheeling quality in the gags reminiscent of his silent work; Roscoe gets to try his hand at some dextrous food preparation gags a la ‘THE WAITERS’ BALL’ and revisit his knife-throwing speciality. He also gets to essay one of his famous ‘Miss Fatty’ drag roles, as well as some effective new gags. One fun sequence has the starving heroes goading a greengrocer into pelting them with food they can make into a stew.

‘HEY POP’ leads us on a merry chase, forever trying to sidestep the shadows of Arbuckle’s ordeal and, for the most part, it succeeds. Inevitably, though, there are a few overtones of what had happened. Most glaringly obvious is the lack of a real romantic interest for Roscoe, a pattern continued in all the subsequent films. Similarly calculated is the orphan subplot, as though the scriptwriters have said “how can we prove that this man is safe for family entertainment? Let’s have him rescuing an orphaned child..” Along the same theme, is the old-time atmosphere purely to fit in with Roscoe’s nostalgic appeal, or is it a conscious attempt to hark back to the more innocent, pre-scandal era?

With hindsight, it is easy to let such thoughts cloud our judgement when looking at Arbuckle’s work, but we must try to divorce the entertainment from the mundane real life and judge the films as comedies on their own merits. Happily, ‘HEY POP’ wins out as a very entertaining comedy and the considerations above do not hurt it. Arbuckle tackles dialogue confidently, his voice a warm, bouncing burr like pumpkin pie. His work as a director during the early sound era, and his vaudeville tours, enabled him to sidestep the hesitancy of many talkie debuts. Best of all, despite the years of depression, dashed hopes and alcoholism, he has retained his boyish charm, and puts plenty of verve into his performance. His delight to be back in front of the cameras is palpable in both the film itself and the stills taken on set, in which he is always beaming. With his comeback underway, and a new marriage to Addie MacPhail (who appears briefly in ‘HEY POP’) he was once again a happy man.

Although some of the reviews criticised the old-time slapstick style of the film, audiences greeted it with open arms, and Film Daily commented “mebbe you think Sam Sax is feeling chipper after the response awarded to the first of the shorts starring Roscoe Arbuckle last night. Mr Arbuckle is definitely back!”

With his popularity re-confirmed, more films went into production. The next film, ‘BUZZIN’ AROUND’, is perhaps the best, retaining a fun, freewheeling quality and again harking back to his silent years. After the initial eggshell-treading in engineering his return, now the fun could really begin, and this is reflected in the short. Country boy Roscoe goes to the city to demonstrate his formula for making china unbreakable. Unfortunately, his cousin Al St John has mixed up the jug with his potent home brew, with disastrous consequences for New York’s china merchants!

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Roscoe and Al St John in BUZZIN’ AROUND

The slapstick is broad and predictable, but Arbuckle has lost none of his verve for pulling off such material with finesse. His misplaced confidence while breaking plate after plate is uproarious, as he doggedly tries to create a successful test. There is also a very funny sequence showing the aftermath of him swallowing a bee; every time he opens his mouth, stranger and stranger buzzing sounds emanate from deep within the Arbuckle anatomy! The humour is heightened by his panicked facial expressions. Arbuckle is confident in his new medium; this routine is visual humour played almost without dialogue, but with sound, providing a great update of his silent style. Speaking of the silent years, one of the joys of ‘BUZZIN’ AROUND’ is Roscoe’s reunion with nephew Al St John, frequent foil. Here Al is more benevolent, but has some funny moments. Sadly, it was to be the final time that the pair appeared together.

Another former collaborator seems to have been on Roscoe’s mind when he turned to making his third short, ‘HOW’VE YOU BEAN’. In the film, Roscoe is opening a grocery store with his partner, a little man with a flat hat and a stoic demeanour… yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s… Fritz Hubert. I know, disappointing, isn’t it? At the time ‘HOW’VE YOU BEAN’ was being filmed, Buster Keaton was in a sanatorium on the opposite coast of America, being treated for alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. Who knows, if the location or timing had been different, perhaps Keaton might have popped up in a cameo or supporting role, as he had all those years ago. I’d like to think that the ersatz-Buster is Roscoe’s tribute to his ailing friend. Whatever the truth, the Keaton similarity extends to a reworking of the famous Arbuckle-Keaton ‘can of molasses’ sequence from their first collaboration, ‘THE BUTCHER BOY’.

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Ersatz Keaton and a familiar can of molasses…

It’s a fine reworking, if inevitably not up to the standard of the original. In fact, the entire first reel of ‘HOW’VE YOU BEAN’ is good, vigorous slapstick, played for all its worth. The second half meanders somewhat, but still has some entertaining moments, as Roscoe and Fritz attend a wedding dinner dominated by some Mexican Jumping Beans. Hubert is no Keaton, for sure, but he proved a decent foil for Roscoe, and the two would be teamed again in the next short.

 

Sadly, the success of the first three films was not repeated in the short that resulted; ‘TOMALIO’ is an almost total misfire. Arbuckle and Hubert end up stranded in a strange Latin American republic, dominated by a tyrannical general (the scenery-chewing Charles Judels), who Roscoe ends up competing with in a cross-country race. The main problem is that Judels totally dominates the short with his overacting, which is often excruciatingly unfunny. There is actually precious little for Roscoe to do but stand around most of the time and wince at the histrionics. The climactic race is robbed of its humour by some bad undercranking, and, in hindsight, the physical strain that Arbuckle seems to be going through.

 

Warners evidently knew they had a dog on their hands; ‘TOMALIO’ would be swept under the carpet, only limping out into release after all the other Arbuckle shorts in the series had been distributed. What a shame that, to moviegoers at least, Arbuckle’s career would seem to end with such a damp squib.

‘CLOSE RELATIONS’ was a distinct improvement, and also showed something of a switch from slapstick to (admittedly broad) situation comedy. Roscoe is off to meet a distant uncle to discuss an inheritance but spends his journey there annoying a man who turns out to be his cousin. After an uncomfortable journey, the cousins arrive to find the Uncle, his nurse and their other cousin (future Third Stooge Shemp Howard) are all somewhat mad. Although this sort of depiction of mental illness is far from our more sensitive age, it’s all done without malice and contains some funny moments. Shemp Howard, in particular, gives a scene-stealing performance, wandering in and out of scenes while performing some surreal deed or another.

Shemp reappears in ‘IN THE DOUGH’, playing a comic sidekick to gangster Lionel Stander. The villains are targeting a bakery as part of their protection racket. Enter Roscoe in his frequent role of cook, to become the new head baker. There are some new gags in the great Arbuckle tradition of eccentric food preparation, my personal favourite being his method of icing a cake. After Roscoe randomly squirts vast quantities of icing at an off-camera cake, we cut to the result: a beautiful design, tastefully iced with roses and calligraphed writing. There is also some nicely timed slapstick with the kitchen doors, although some of the material is rather more basic slapstick (a dough fight with the gangsters seems rather forced.) On the whole, ‘IN THE DOUGH’ is a fun film, not quite up to the series’ best, but certainly worthwhile

The Warners executives were certainly pleased with how their gamble on the series had panned out, and, the day after ‘IN THE DOUGH’ wrapped, Roscoe was promoted to a contract for feature films. Even now though, fate ominously crept up to deal his career the final blow. After a night celebrating with friends, he returned home in good spirits. Two minutes after returning to his hotel room, he relaxed in his chair and peacefully suffered a fatal heart attack. Arbuckle biographer David Yallop rightly pointed out the bitter coincidence that Arbuckle’s life ended in a hotel room, just as his career had done 11 years earlier.

What happened to Arbuckle is almost too sad and unfair to bear contemplation by those of us who love and admire him. Tattered by persecution and disappointment, there’s an unavoidable tendency to view his life in terms of “What-if?”. What if he hadn’t died just on the verge of making a comeback? What if he’d been able to reunite with Buster Keaton? What if the scandal had never happened? What if he’d been able to equal Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd in the 20s?

Of course there is this sense of indignant loss for Arbuckle, but, difficult as it is, we must try not to view his career purely by the terms of this loss. Arbuckle may have died young and before he could fully re-establish himself, but he died knowing that he was on the way up, that he could be funny again, and that audiences loved him. His final 6 films are hardly the painful. last motions of a bitter has-been either. Although they are sometimes tentative, awkward and only sporadically equal to his silent peaks, they are fun and, more importantly, they were allowed to happen. The fact that they gave Arbuckle fulfilment is really the only justification needed for their existence. That they are frequently genuinely funny is a bonus. Watch them and forget your pity for Roscoe. Smile with him as he smiles, and enjoy his final works. There’s no need to laugh out of pity, he’s still charming and hilarious even after all his ordeal. Now there’s a positive story after all…

This article has been adapted from issue 5 of Movie Night Magazine .

And now… Mr A on DVD!

Happily, the Arbuckle shorts are now available on DVD, courtesy of Warner Archive. The 6 shorts have been paired with a bunch of Shemp Howard shorts, the link being Shemp’s appearances in 2 of the Arbuckles.

Here are the full contents…

ARBUCKLE: HEY POP/BUZZIN’ AROUND/HOW’VE YOU BEAN?/TOMALIO/CLOSE RELATIONS/IN THE DOUGH

SHEMP HOWARD: PAUL REVERE JR/MUSHROOMS/SALTWATER DAFFY/ART TROUBLE/HERE COMES FLOSSIE/I SCREAM/CORN ON THE COP/VERY CLOSE VEINS/RAMBLIN’ ROUND RADIO ROW/PURE FEUD/THE WRONG, WRONG TRAIL/PUGS AND KISSES/HOW D’YA LIKE THAT?

Go buy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laurel & …Lane?

 

The British Newspaper Archive is a tremendous place to procrastinate. A fully searchable database of regional and specialist British newspapers from the last couple of hundred years, it’s great for searching film listings, theatre appearances and careers of British-born stars. One of the most interesting offerings is the complete archive of theatrical newspaper ‘The Era’. I was idly searching Laurel & Hardy clippings within its pages when I found this curio from March, 1936, linking Stan Laurel with terrific acrobatic comedian Lupino Lane :

Stan Laurel Lupino Lane The Era March 18 1936

Two of my favourite comedians together! Now, there’s a show I’d love to see.

But was it ever really  going to happen? Well, for starters, I don’t believe that Lane and Laurel had ever “worked together on the English stage years ago.” This is probably lazy journalism alluding to their both being graduates of the English Music Halls. However, I guess they could have worked on the same bill in their early days. Lane was at this point billed as ‘Master ‘Nipper’ Lupino Lane, the boy comedian’, a more successful contemporary of young Stan Jefferson. As Stan’s stock rose, perhaps the two became acquainted; although I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any reference to them being friends, Stan did love to surround himself with music hall types so it seems like they would have got on. However, it should also be mentioned that Lane, in his memoirs, is quite a name dropper! Is this just another example, coincidentally providing some publicity for his current show…?

On the other hand, in early 1936, Laurel was at quite an uncertain point in his career. He and Hal Roach had already had a serious rift, based around disagreements over ‘BABES IN TOYLAND’. For a time, Roach had announced the break up of the L & H partnership, threatening to replace it with ‘The Hardy Family’, teaming Babe with Patsy Kelly and Spanky McFarland. Facing an uncertain future, perhaps Laurel was open to moonlighting on the London stage, combined with the attraction of visiting his homeland again. The rapturous reception greeting him on his 1932 visit would surely have been fresh in his mind at times when Hollywood seemed unwelcoming. Perhaps he really was considering the venture at one point.

Of course, it all remains speculation at this point. Both men had spectacular successes around the corner that would preclude any such collaboration if it had really been intended. Laurel had, by mid 1936, patched up his differences with Roach. The formation of Stan Laurel productions allowed him greater creative control (and pacified his ego), resulting in two of the very best L & H pictures, ‘OUR RELATIONS’ and ‘WAY OUT WEST’.

As for Lane, his then-current show, ‘TWENTY TO ONE’, proved so successful that he developed a sequel in which he played the same cockney character. ‘ME AND MY GIRL’ became the apotheosis of his life’s work on stage, a long-running hit that begat the dance craze ‘THE LAMBETH WALK’ and is still revived to this day. Here’s an early TV recording of Lane onstage at the Victoria Palace:

Speaking of famous dances, Stan didn’t too badly with his dancing either in the future, come to that…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keaton & Karl: another connection

The other day, I wrote about the connections between Buster Keaton and tragic comic actor Karl Dane. On a happier note, there is one more comedic connection between Buster and Karl.

One of the Paramount shorts made by Dane and Arthur, 1931’s ‘A PUT-UP JOB’ is a partial remake of Keaton’s classic ‘ONE WEEK’.

Karl and George K Arthur find work as builders assembling a flatpack house for Neely Edwards and Marjorie Beebe. Of course, things don’t go to plan and, after several catastrophes, the house ends up with all the rooms assembled upside down. The topper comes when it turns out that George has accidentally nailed the side of the house to their truck. As they drive away, congratulating themselves on a job well done, they take the whole wall with them!

While inevitably nowhere near the standard of Buster’s original, this is a really fun short with some lovely sight gags and an excellent supporting cast. Karl is excellent as the gum-chewing goofy strongman, with a great line in pop-eyed double takes. He even gets to do a patented Keaton gag from the original…

Buster:

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Karl:

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Of course, Buster had already done the definitive version of this gag in ‘STEAMBOAT BILL, JR’, but it’s still nice to see it turn up. In my last post I speculated on how a Keaton-Dane team might have worked. On the evidence of this short, very well it seems. Another lost opportunity…

While it doesn’t seem to be available on YouTube anywhere, ‘A PUT UP JOB’ has been made available on Kino’s ‘PARAMOUNT CAVALCADE OF COMEDY’ DVD. Check it out, it’s a good one and a reminder of Karl Dane’s engaging talent.

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Top Marx! New U.K. event dedicated to the Marx Bros.

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Exciting news for Marx fans here in the U.K. A new event in Bath this Easter is set to pay tribute to Groucho, Chico, Harpo and erstwhile Zeppo.

In its organisers’ rather wonderful words, “Bath, with its rich absence of any known connections to the Marx Brothers, seemed the perfect place to mount the festival, and 2016 was specially chosen on the grounds that it wasn’t the centenary of anything at all.” Love it.

The Marx Brothers Weekend Festival is a smorgasbord of classic and rare Marx film clips, guest authors and even live performance as Frank Ferrante brings his show ‘An Evening with Groucho’ over from the States for its sole UK performance.

You can find more about the event here , and also follow it on Twitter @BathMarx

Ghostly Gold & Grand Slams: Buster Keaton at Educational

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 Edited 25/2/16: Thanks to Richard M Roberts for straightening me out on the budgets of the shorts. I’ve never had much of a head for figures!

Buster Keaton’s sound era work work has tonnes of interesting nooks and crannies for the curious. Of course, you’re not going to find ‘THE GENERAL’, but once you accept this there are some fantastic jewels in unexpected places: in foreign films, on grainy TV kinescopes and even in the cheap two-reelers that Keaton himself scorner. Thanks to some great archival DVD releases and books in recent years, finally the view of Keaton as all washed up in talkies has been busted.

I’ve always been fascinated by the start of Buster’s work in these more obscure fields, his series of two reel talkie shorts for Educational Pictures. Famously cheap and unspectacular, the antithesis of his silent films, they have always been placed as a very minor part in BK’s career. Keaton himself liked only one of them, the comprehensive documentary ‘Hard Act to Follow’ glosses over them with a couple of clips, and most of the books give them a similar cursory paragraph.

Oh sure, they’re not perfect. After all, Both Buster Keaton and Educational were in a sorry state when they got together in late ’33. Buster had been fired by MGM after an unhappy contract making films he hated, had just come through a messy divorce and was a chronic alcoholic. It was a year after being fired by MGM before any studio would take a chance on him. Educational, meanwhile, had been weakened by the depression and some ill-advised business ventures, leaving it much reduced from its silent heyday. While its budgets weren’t as dire as legend, they were still a big comedown from what Keaton had previously enjoyed. In any event, Educational’s slogan, ‘The spice of the program”, rarely matched its product.

So, these unhappy circumstances need to be taken into account before we begin. But do the films manage to beat them and be a success anyway? Well, truthfully, they’re a mixed bag. Some of them never reached their potential, but others throw out lovely little surprises and with suitably lowered expectations, they transcend their lowly status to become almost minor classics. I’d like to give a few thoughts on them, and explain why I have a soft spot for these lowly little films.

Let’s begin with the strikes against them. The Educationals are undeniably cheap, a great come-down from the big budget extravaganzas of the silent era, and accordingly, there are no epic settings or lavish costume pieces here. Even compared to his less expansive silent shorts, they don’t match up. There was never any chance of being able to spend a month cranking out something of the technical complexity of ‘THE PLAYHOUSE’ or the troublesome huge props in ‘ONE WEEK’ or ‘THE BOAT’ given the rushed shooting schedules and shoestring budgets that the films had. Accordingly, most of the films are simple love stories, with rural settings and a freewheeling ‘string-of-gags’ quality to them; perhaps the closest comparisons are with the early Arbuckle –Keaton films.

I’ve always thought that one of the worst aspects of the small budget is the supporting cast. While there are some good actors in the BK films (of which more later), by the time they got to the smaller parts, there was obviously only enough money to hire amateurish people who read their (admittedly, pretty bad) dialogue with all the emotion of an IKEA flatpack bookcase. An example, from ‘THE GOLD GHOST’:

 

WOODEN ACTOR #1 (VERY SLOWLY): Jim, *PAUSE*, you’ve raised a remarkably fine girl in Gloria. *LONGER PAUSE* And I’ve raised a remarkably fine boy in Wally.

WOODEN ACTOR #2: * PAUSE* That’s right, George.

WOODEN ACTOR #1: (SLOWER THAN BEFORE) Now don’t you think a union of the two would be desirable…?

Contrast this with a scene from a typical Hal Roach film, where even the smallest parts go to somebody like Charlie Hall or Harry Bernard, and you see the difference. The leading ladies are often similarly stiff, Lona Andre being a key example. Part of the blame must be laid at the feet of the scriptwriters rushing to fill a deadline. There was surely little time, as at Roach, for supporting actors to experiment with rephrasing dialogue in a more natural way to suit them.

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From a more subjective point of view, If you love Buster Keaton, then to see him looking haggard and obviously depressed, as he does in some of the Educationals, is really quite distressing. Although it’s painful to admit it, Buster’s athletic youth and looks are succumbing to alcoholism around this point; deep lines are starting to appear in his face, and his hair is starting to thin. Adding to this, the dour black suit he wears in most of the films only makes him look more miserable.

 

But enough grousing. While its sad to see Buster in such reduced circumstances, its also fantastic to find the little moments where his spark of genius comes alive. The great thing about Buster Keaton is, of course, that he could make something out of nothing, regardless of cheap sets or incompetent actors. I’ve yet to see a Keaton film that wasn’t worth my time, purely because he was in it. Furthermore, in his favour, he had people sympathetic to making comedy his way. Educational seem to have done their best to keep him happy and give the best they could within their resources; they allocated him director Charles Lamont, an old friend who actively sought Keaton’s input in making the films. The results show in a peppering of the unmistakeable Keaton touch: exactly what was missing from the MGM films. Furthermore, the worthy actors in the films all seem to have been chosen by Keaton himself. Many of them are old friends from his silent films, like Harold Goodwin and Dorothy Sebastian. Best of all are the two films which feature members of his family, ‘PALOOKA FROM PADUCAH’ AND ‘LOVE NEST ON WHEELS’. These are the nearest we have to a filmed record of the family act, and present a wonderfully freewheeling and cartoonlike atmosphere. You can almost feel the family trying to crack each other up. Buster must have felt happy having the flexibility to surround himself with friends in his work, and in these films he rises to the occasion wonderfully. All in all, there are a lot of moments that conjure up the old Buster Keaton

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Above: BK and Ma Keaton in Palooka from Paducah

The first film, ‘THE GOLD GHOST’ has many such moments, and is a very strong start to the series. Abandoned by his girl, rich playboy Buster goes for a long drive alone, and ends up in a Nevada ghost town, where he is mistaken for sheriff when a new gold rush begins. He ends up having to battle crooks who want to steal the concession on his girl’s father’s mine.

I’m sure it’s completely unintentional, but nevertheless there are quite a lot of symbolic elements to the film. In the opening scenes Keaton leaves behind the top-hat and tails, high society settings that MGM had kept him in, and ends up alone in a wilderness where everything is out of date as times have moved on. There, he finally gets to return to the type of silent comedy he wanted to make, in scene after scene of pantomime and sight gags, all with classic Keaton twists. A great scene has him washing his clothes in a horse trough, apparently naked, unaware that behind him, hundreds of gold prospectors are filling the scene. Another magical moment is a little silent film pastiche as he imagines the ghostly double exposures of old western characters in the saloon, as tinkly old time piano music plays. The finale, a fight in the saloon, briefly shows us some Keaton athleticism, as he leaps on the end of a broken table, causing the other end to snap up and knock a gun out of the villain’s hand.

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‘THE GOLD GHOST’ is almost 100% Keaton, and a lot of effort obviously went into making it. The cheapness of the film really doesn’t affect it too much; the sets naturally look shabby and empty. It’s a ghost town after all! And while the lack of a music track is noticeable on many of the shorts that followed (‘THE E-FLAT MAN’ for instance, cries out for something, anything, to make it move a bit) in ‘THE GOLD GHOST’, the silence only heightens the atmosphere of the eerie abandoned town.

‘ONE RUN ELMER’ follows a similar template. Here, Buster runs a petrol station on a completely empty stretch of road in the desert, where customers are so few and far between that his rocking chair has rocked grooves into the ground below him One day, Harold Goodwin opens a rival petrol station… right across the road! Their rivalry extends to battling over the hand of a pretty customer, and culminates in a comically surreal baseball game in the desert rammed full of Buster’s gags.

HAYSEED ROMANCE also makes much out of nothing. Buster answers an advert for a handyman and potential husband. He thinks pretty Dorothea Kent placed the ad, but actually it was her matronly auntie, Jane Jones. Buster effectively milks the handyman situation for all it’s worth, packing in lots of great slapstick and sight gags. One extended scene that has him continually falling through the roof into the bedroom below could almost come from a Laurel and Hardy film. While the use of sound remains sparse, Buster handles his dialogue well; when he finds out about the true origin of the ad, all he can do is expressively mumble to himself “She didn’t put the ad in the paper” as the news sinks in. There are also some lovely visual gags as Buster tries to use a huge two-person hacksaw on his own, and in leaning on a table, accidentally sends a spoon flying into a pot. These are little throwaway moments, but they have the wit, practicality and surprise that marks out the best Keaton sight gags, and make a simple little film like this much better than you’d expect.

Conversely, some of the more ambitious films don’t fulfil their promise. ALLEZ OOP is pleasant, but the stunt climax is stilted, and a scene where Buster attempts to become a trapeze artist is ruined by quick, tacky undercranking that makes it look cheap. Most disappointing of all is THE E-FLAT MAN. On paper, it sounds just like one of his silent shorts; while eloping, Buster and his girl end up in a car owned by gangsters, and have to go on the lam until the mix-up is sorted out. This is reminiscent of ‘THE GOAT’, and one scene recalls ‘THE SCARECROW’, so I went into it with high hopes. However, it’s all just a bit dull. Whereas the silent films shoot gags out fast and furious, ‘THE E-FLAT MAN’ just presents one missed opportunity after another, where things happen that move the plot along, but aren’t as funny as they could have been. Laurel and Hardy make an elopement scene in ‘OUR WIFE’ hilarious, but here it’s clunky, and all Buster really does is get mixed up, and get slightly stuck on a ladder. He lifts the famous scene from ‘IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT’ where Claudette Colbert lifts her skirt to get a ride in a car, but there’s no parody or real payoff involved. His scarecrow imitation also lacks the finesse and little added gags of the original.

My guess is that the short shooting schedule just wasn’t long enough to develop the scenes, or to keep ad-libbing takes the way Keaton worked best. While once he could spend a week getting a gag right, now he had to shoot a whole film in 3 to 5 days.This is the main problem with the Educationals. The worst of them aren’t terrible films, they just feel quickly strung together and… well, a word so rarely applicable to Keaton, forgettable. ‘TARS AND STRIPES’ and ‘THREE ON A LIMB’ aren’t horribly misguided films or out of character for Buster, they’re merely dull and unworthy of him.

‘THE TIMID YOUNG MAN’, directed by Mack Sennett, is ok, but its not hard to imagine it with Eddie Gribbon or almost any other Mack Sennett comedian in Buster’s part.

It’s also quite likely that at points where he was drinking, Keaton’s creativity suffered. When this happened, we simply get the void filled with clunky slapstick without the style one associates with Keaton. It’s surely no coincidence that most of the weakest Educationals are from 1935, when his drinking was just about at its worst.

Happily, at the beginning of 1936, he finally kicked the habit, and accordingly, the films of 1936-37 are generally a lot better. Not only does Keaton look healthier, but he’s being more playful with material, even poking fun at himself. ‘DITTO’ casts him as ‘The Forgotten Man’; an outdated iceman who has so few customers that he has a full library of epic novels on his wagon. In ‘GRAND SLAM OPERA’ he is asked if a bottle is empty; “Oh yeah.. I made sure of that” is his response. This playfulness extends to revisiting his past, and it’s in most of these later films that re-used gags from his silent days pop up. The storylines and editing of the films both seem to have been tightened up too, reducing the amount of clunky longeurs in plotless films like ‘TARS AND STRIPES’.

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‘GRAND SLAM OPERA’ is generally held as the best of all the Educationals. Fast moving, full of new sight gags and an exhibition of Buster’s talents as dancer, singer vaudeville trickster and juggler, and with a wonderfully offbeat story – Buster travels to the big city in the hope of winning fame as a juggler on the radio! – it is a dazzling whirlwind of a CV for Keaton, and benefits from being so different from all the other films. It’s ambitious, but by now he’s got the hang of how to channel this into the limited template he had, and it works. He even put his hand in his own pocket to pay the $300 licensing fee for the song “So Long, Mary”, enabling him to sing his own parody version. He was proud enough of the film to receive script credit for it.

However, while the other films were more orthodox, there are a couple that are just as good. ‘JAILBAIT’ is similarly fast-paced, with a strong storyline in the Keaton tradition. There are also some fantastic new sight gags, such as a moment where Buster, caught in the middle of a prison break, manages to wear both a prisoners and a guard’s uniform at the same time, turning to show whichever side is relevant to the group passing him.Here’s the resourceful Keaton we love. He’s also there in ‘BLUE BLAZES’, performing a one-man rescue in a burning house, and in ‘THE CHEMIST’, cooking his breakfast using laboratory equipment, then later winning over a gang of crooks who are after him. He’s even back in his trademark porkpie hat from this point on!

 

LOVE NEST ON WHEELS, the last of the Educationals, contains almost all the good points of the shorts in two tasty reels. Co-starring his mother, brother and sister, it has the old faces from his past; it makes the most of cheap sets by having a shabby setting based in a crumbling hotel; the editing is tight, and the film fast-paced. As a remake of the Arbuckle-Keaton short ‘THE BELL BOY’, it revisits the past, puts new twists on elaborate old gags, and even brings Al St John from the original! Best of all, its funny and Keaton is alert and having a ball. It was a high note to bow out on.

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As his last short for Educational was filmed, things were looking up for Buster. He had beaten alcoholism and depression, was free from his ill-advised second marriage, and was making funny films in his own style again. He would soon meet the lasting love of his life, Eleanor Norris, and while it was still a long road to regaining recognition, he was at least out of the wilderness and on that road. To be quite honest, I doubt if he could have done it without the grounding that the Educational films gave him at this point in his life, when being out of work just led to another drink. For that reason, if nothing else, I think they’re a much more major part of his life then they get credit for. They’re his ‘Cinderella’ films, and there’s more of the Buster we like than in his MGM films, for instance. The spice of the program, indeed!

 

 

 

Keaton & Karl

I love those mysterious stills that turn up from the silent era, asking more questions than they answer. Here’s an interesting one with Buster Keaton, that tells a great story.

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First, a bit of background to the picture: you might recognize the other chap in the picture as Karl Dane. Dane was (appropriately) a Danish actor working at MGM. Originally a carpenter, and then a farmer, his lumbering size had him handpicked for a role s a blustering sergeant in ’THE BIG PARADE’. Subsequently, MGM kept him on playing comedic variations on this role. In 1927 they decided to team Dane with moon-faced English actor George K Arthur. Their initial teaming vehicle, ‘ROOKIES’, was a smash success. In the wake of this, and of Laurel & Hardy’s success, comedy teams were the in-thing and the partnership was assured of continuing . Several other films followed, including ‘ALL AT SEA’, ‘DETECTIVES’ and ‘BROTHERLY LOVE’ (1928) which is where this photograph is believed to originate.

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The mystery Keaton -Dane still has caused a bit of consternation. Does it merely show MGM’s newest comic dropping in to visit the set of another comedy? Is it an off-the-cuff gag shot? Or, does it show an unknown scene from this missing film? It certainly seems to show the middle of a scene. Certainly, reviews of the film mention a barbershop scene. However, there is no mention of Keaton. Of course, there is the possibility that such a scene was filmed but deleted from the release print. Certainly, Keaton made several other cameos in MGM films in this period; he craved performing and was frustrated with the lengthy process of getting films started at the studios. In the period between 1928 and 1930 he performed a stunt in the Lew Cody vehicle ‘THE BABY CYCLONE’ (1928), a routine in ‘HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929’ and a small part in an unfinished film ‘TIDE OF EMPIRE’ . It is distinctly likely that the po-faced studio heads of MGM frowned on ad-hoc scenes being added to their prestigious and rigorously plotted films (a difficulty that Keaton would come to know all too well). If this were true, a Buster scene in ’BROTHERLY LOVE’ could well have been removed. They may also have been concerned that Keaton could devalue his box office appeal if he appeared too frequently in small parts. Of course, this is just speculation on my part and it is just as likely that no such scene was ever filmed.

Supporting the still-only hypothesis is a theory dating the photograph to 1930. Keaton’s costume seems to match the suit he wears in that year’s ‘FREE AND EASY’. In the scenes in which Keaton’s hapless ‘Elmer’ crashes MGM’s studios, an array of personalities make cameos: Fred Niblo, Dorothy Sebastian, Cecil B DeMille and… Karl Dane. Dane is filming a scene involving an explosion. In walks Buster and accidentally steps on the plunger… Could the still have been taken as a gag while Keaton and Dane were on the set together?

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Karl as he appears in Buster’s ‘FREE AND EASY’.

 

One thing that is certain, however, is that this photograph is a potent reminder of the power of MGM. Here, the two comedians were at the height of their fame and success. Neither could have known that the studio would leave him on the scrapheap within a few short years. Keaton’s difficulties at the studios and in his personal life are well-known and by 1933 he was unemployed, divorced and an alcoholic. As we know, Keaton had the resilience to bounce back, but Karl Dane’s fate was more tragic. His Danish accent hampered his success in talkies, and despite some early attempts by MGM to use him, he was quickly dropped. 

It’s a real shame that this had to be the case. Karl Dane was a talented comic actor with real charisma. His accent, while undeniably thick, is hardly impenetrable; Greta Garbo did alright for herself in talkies, after all! In fact, it’s a good match for his lumbering but good-natured burliness. But, of course, elocution was everything in early Hollywood, and although one of the most tragic cases, Karl Dane was one of many to be brushed aside by the talking craze.

The Dane-Arthur partnership initially continued, reduced to appearing in shorts, which mostly remain obscure. By 1932, even this had fizzled out. In a final connection with Keaton, one of Dane’s last (if not the last) appearances was a tinybit part in Keaton’s ‘SPEAK EASILY’. It’s a shame MGM didn’t actually team Dane with Keaton; he certainly would have been a better match than Jimmy Durante and his limited English wouldn’t have been a problem in Keaton’s dialogue-free idiom.

Such a venture was not to be, and Karl embarked on a doomed mining venture. When that failed he wound up, incredibly, operating a hot dog stand outside the studio gates where once he was a star. Such an enterprise was an unpleasant reminder of the perilous nature of celebrity, and MGM’s stars stayed away in droves. Depression and self-loathing engulfed poor Karl, and he put a pistol to his head in April 1934.

Forget whether Keaton appeared in ‘BROTHERLY LOVE’ or not, the photograph of Keaton and Dane together is more important as a chilling reminder of the studio system’s dark side. MGM could destroy not just careers, but lives as well.

On a more positive note, Karl Dane has been achieving some belated love lately. Laura Belogh has produced a biography of him, along with a superb website remembering this forgotten comic who brought laughter to millions before suddenly finding himself out in the cold.

 

 

 

The Mystery Mirth-maker

Now, here’s an obscure comedian…

Nicol Parre

I came across this ad while flicking through old editions of ‘The Exhibitor’s Review’, an old film trade magazine available to browse through online at The Media Digital History Library. One of the joys of digitally leafing through these is the fact that little oddities like this turn up. I’ve certainly never heard of Nicol Parre before, and no reviews seem to exist of this film, which begs the question of if it ever found a release at all.

A further search through the archives revealed only one more mention of Nicol Parre, not as star, but as producer for the ‘N.P. Film Company’ in another prominent ad in ‘The Exhibitor’s Review’:

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However, if we look a bit closer, I’d say the star they’re now promoting, ‘Dom Ferre’, is actually the same guy. Probably a classic example of trying to make a one-man operation seem bigger than it actually is. There’s a hint of desperation, too, in that blurb: “open to contract with any distributors”. Certainly, the surnames are suspiciously similar.

Both names sound French to me; was Nicol/Dom an ex-pat with previous experience in the French industry? Or was he of a French immigrant family in New York, trying his luck at films? We’ll probably never know, and I doubt ‘THE FARMER’ was much more interesting than its title. Still, an interesting reminder that for all the clichéd stories of extras and studio janitors crashing the movies, it could actually be pretty hard to break in as an independent film maker or comedian.

As a footnote to the story, the address above, 412 Lake Street, appears to be still standing on Google Street View.

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I wonder if there are any film cans buried in the backyard…?

 

 

 

Remembering Buster

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50 years ago today, Buster Keaton left us.

He was aged just 70, a relatively young age by our modern standards. However, he sure as hell packed a lot in to those seven decades. From roughhouse boy comedian to apprentice screen comic, star, writer and director; through years of crushing hardship, painful recovery, stoic resilience and final, well-earned resurgence as TV star and rediscovered genius, Buster Keaton never did anything by halves.

In his autobiography, Keaton closes with the wish to make it to 100:

I intend to do it. For who would not wish to live 100 years in a world where so many people remember with gratitude and affection a little frozen-faced man who made them laugh a bit long years ago when they and I were young?

It would have been easy to imagine him doing it. Full of boundless energy until the very end of his final illness, Buster left us entirely too early.  Despite his problems over the years, he had weathered the advancing Twentieth Century well. The same technocratic spirit that led him to films, “to tear that camera to pieces”, and produce the technical brilliance of his films, saw him unafraid of television and the brave new world of the 1960s. Sure, work like the ‘Beach Party’ films was beneath him, but we shouldn’t feel sorry for Buster. This work wasn’t just paying the bills, it was indicative of his admirable desire to live in the present. Eleanor Keaton, for instance, told stories of how he found many of his silent contemporaries tedious company, stuck as they were in the old days, and abhorred their lack of knowledge about modern sensations such as The Beatles.

His rejection of old age and living in the past are seen best in two films from  the late Autumn of his career: THE RAILRODDER, a silent, open-air rail travelogue of Canada, and its documentary companion piece, ‘BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN’. Together, they present a beautiful summation of Buster the comedian and Buster the real man.

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Here is Buster the railroad engineer, speeding along with the same determination as in ‘THE GENERAL’. With the same eternal calm, here is Buster the classic silhouette scanning the horizon hand to brow. Here too is Buster the adventurer, zooming off into the unknown; Buster the film-maker, working out gags and discussing the technicalities of shooting; Buster the great stone face, his stillness matched by vast swathes of Canadian wilderness. Even Buster the human comes along, signing autographs for kids, relaxing with Eleanor and laughing as he recalls scenes from Laurel & Hardy films. And, at age 69, here is Buster the stuntman, speeding across a high trestle, wrapped in a huge map. I never get tired of watching these films, and they’re given an added poignancy knowing how little time he had left.

Who knows what Keaton might have continued doing had he lived into the 70s, with appreciation of his work at an all time high? Of course, a question that has no answer. In its place, we have the precious memories of all that he did achieve in his turbulent, brilliant, inspiring life.

I couldn’t let today pass without writing some kind of tribute to Buster. Still, words aren’t his ideal tribute. As we know, he was himself a man of few words. Instead, his images and films will forever be his epitaph. Whether placid and still at the centre of a cyclone, or staring into the camera from the front of a moving train; whether blinking quizzically into silver light, or scanning the horizon, or grasping at vans or streetcars… Or running, always running… Here’s Buster the way we remember, and love him:

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 Thanks for the laughs, and the inspiration, Buster.