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.
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
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.
‘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’.
‘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.
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!