Buster Keaton

Arbuckle Without Keaton

To coincide with a showing of the very rare Roscoe Arbuckle short CAMPING OUT on The Silent Comedy Watch Party, here’s a run-down of the overlooked shorts Arbuckle made in 1918 & 1919… the ones that don’t feature Buster Keaton in the cast!

Roscoe Arbuckle’s series of shorts made for the Comique film corporation and released through Paramount in 1917-20, are among his best-known work. Certainly, they are the best represented on DVD. This is almost entirely due to the Keaton factor – the presence of a young Buster in most of the films. This bias is confirmed by the obscurity of the films in which Buster does not appear, made during his military service in 1918-19.

You won’t find these films on any of the Arbuckle-Keaton DVD sets!

When Keaton was drafted, the Comique series continued with Arbuckle and his regular foil, Al St John. While the popularity of Keaton has ensured that all but one of the Arbuckle-Keatons are now accounted for, the survival rate drops much further for the shorts made in his absence. Only a couple are known to exist, and only one has been restored and released. Details of many of the films are sparse, with a couple remaining mysteries.

Ever since critics first took an interest in Keaton, Arbuckle has always been in his shadow. At worst, the lazy critical opinion is that Arbuckle’s style was crude and unsophisticated, and that the only merit in the films came from Keaton’s input. Silent comedy aficianados know better, of course; nevertheless, an unfortunate legacy of this view is the lack of interest in this bunch of films. Along with their unavailability, this remains in stark contrast to those that came on either side of them.

Let’s take a look at this neglected group of films, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered. Here they are, in order of release:

THE SHERIFF (24th November 1918)

late 1917, the Arbuckle company had moved to California from the East Coast, partly enticed by the better backgrounds on offer. The desert settings of the west were seen to good advantage in the first film after moving, OUT WEST, and Arbuckle reused the theme in this short.
Arbuckle plays a Sheriff enamoured of the movie heroics of Douglas Fairbanks and William S Hart. After falling asleep and dreaming a dramatic rescue in a Mexican town where He gets the chance to try a real heroic rescue, when his schoolteacher girlfriend Betty is kidnapped by bandit Al.
THE SHERIFF is possibly the most intriguing of all these films, and sounds like it was an amusing little gem. Arbuckle surely got good comic contrast from impersonating Fairbanks and Hart, and THE SHERIFF is perhaps similar to the clever, cliché spoofing Arbuckle-Keaton short MOONSHINE. While OUT WEST had been an exercise in comic savagery, reviews of the time commented that THE SHERIFF was rather more subtle and sophisticated. Here’s a review from Motion Picture News of November 23, 1918:

THE SHERIFF is better by far than anything contributed to the Arbuckle Paramount program. For one thing, it is free from vulgarity & sloppiness. The classic kick shines by its absence. For another, the situations have been developed logically, producing maximum fun out of minimum action.


One of the common misconceptions about Arbuckle is that any sophistication in his films came from Keaton’s input. While there’s no denying that Keaton had big creative input into the films, Arbuckle, rather like Charley Chase, liked to play with different styles and could happily jump from wild gags and slapstick to gentle situation comedy. Some of his earlier Sennett films, made with Mabel Normand, like HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, show a gentle and sophisticated side to Roscoe before Keaton ever appeared on the scene.

Nevertheless, Arbuckle definitely felt the loss of Keaton in his supporting cast, and hired another diminutive comic to take his place: Mario Bianchi (the future Monty Banks). His leading lady in this film is also notable; Betty Compson would become a star in features, her career getting a boost the following year when she appeared with Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN.

Incidentally, spoofing William S Hart came up again in Keaton’s later short THE FROZEN NORTH. It was an idea contributed by a writer who remained uncredited… Roscoe Arbuckle! In the short, Keaton made a mockery of Hart’s tendency to always have a scene where he cried in his films. Roscoe apparently did the same in THE SHERIFF.

SCRAPS OF PAPER (aka A SCRAP OF PAPER – Autumn 1918)

part of the regular series but made at the same time, this is Arbuckle’s equivalent of Chaplin’s THE BOND. Like that film, it is a propaganda effort designed to promote the Canadian War Bond fundraising effort. As well as each making a promotional film, Chaplin and Arbuckle made public appearances together to promote the loan drive, and newsreel footage of one of these events still exists. Like THE BOND, SCRAPS OF PAPER features our hero coming face to face with the Kaiser (Glen Cavender) and the ‘clown quince’ (Al St John). After mocking the goose-step marching of the Kaiser’s soldiers (one of whom is Monty Banks), Arbuckle tells him that there’s one thing he hasn’t considered, and unleashes a snowstorm of Liberty Bonds which engulf the Germans. Roscoe addresses the audience directly (via intertitle) telling them to do their bit and invest in the Liberty Loan Drive. Not much of a comedy, but an effective piece of propaganda and an interesting historical curio.

CAMPING OUT (5th January 1919)

CAMPING OUT is a rare survivor from this group of films, existing from two incomplete nitrate sources (one Italian print and one from the Netherlands). A composite print has received a number of screenings (most recently on the Silent Comedy Watch Party) and is held at the EYE film institute. Arbuckle again took advantage of the West Coast climate and locations, filming the short on Catalina Island in November 1918. If THE SHERIFF showcased a more subtle side of Arbuckle, then this film returned to the cruder slapstick milieu of films like THE BUTCHER BOY and THE ROUGH HOUSE. Within the first five minutes alone, there are jokes about vomiting, spitting and seagull droppings!

The basic premise of CAMPING OUT recalls FATTY AT CONEY ISLAND, a tale of Arbuckle playing hookey from his wife, and enjoying the freedom by flirting with other men’s wives. Unable to stomach his wife’s dreadful cooking, he escapes for a while, taking the ferry to Catalina for a camping trip. En route, he (inevitably) meets Al St John, and his pretty wife Alice Lake. In the the ensuing tussle Roscoe throws Al overboard. Fatty and Al’s wife proceed to the campsite, where the grizzled, one-legged camp owner is also played by St John. The highlight of the film follows as Roscoe indulges in some of his trademark food preparation gags. Here he demonstrates novel ways of shaving potatoes, and making doughnuts and mashed potatoes with the aid of St John’s wooden leg! Another highlight is his plan to filch food from grocer Monty Banks.

Inevitably, Roscoe’s chickens come to roost as his wife (armed with guns and knives!), Al and Monty all show up for a slapstick battle royale to round out the short.

Though CAMPING OUT is far from Roscoe’s most sophisticated effort, it’s a ton of fun, and the sunny location shooting around Catalina Island and the streets of Avalon only add to the summery, freewheeling tone of the film. Watch the film as part of the Silent Comedy Watch Party live stream here:

THE PULLMAN PORTER (? unfinished/unreleased film)

THE PULLMAN PORTER is a curiosity, an elusive mystery film. The Arbuckle shorts were popular and well publicised, with Paramount often placing full-page ads in the trade papers for them. For THE SHERIFF, we can piece together lots of information, for instance. But for this film, the trail runs cold. So far, I’ve found no reports of the production, no stills, no reviews… nuthin. Nada. Zilch. But, it does have a cited release date, Feb 16. It does seem strange that an Arbuckle short released at this time would receive next to no coverage in the trades.

There has been confusion between releases in the series before, for instance the earlier short A RECKLESS ROMEO was actually filmed earlier for Keystone, but bought and released by Paramount. There also seemed to be various other reisues of earlier Arbuckle shorts occurring at this time, so could THE PULLMAN PORTER fall into one of these categories?  It seems most likely that it a tentative idea, scrapped and replaced during filming. 

LOVE (2nd March 1919)

LOVE is a wonderful little short that survives complete. The film was preserved just in time, and issued on Laughsmith Entertainment’s terrific 2005 DVD set THE FORGOTTEN FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE.
The short is in the classic rural barnyard slapstick mould, one of Arbuckle’s favourite motifs. However, LOVE is way more sophisticated than the earlier Keystone shorts, Arbuckle had come as a comedian and director since those times. While the knockabout is still rough, it is developed into some terrific, well-developed set pieces .
Roscoe makes one of his best entrances, riding on a country road in his “economy model” Ford (a glorified go-kart) and using a pair of bellows to blow away huge boulders in his path. He is courting farmer Frank Hayes’ daughter (Winifred Westover), but Hayes has plans to marry her off to local boy Al St John in return for some land.
Among the comic set pieces around the farm yard is a scene where Hayes falls down a well, and Roscoe and Monty Banks try to winch him up; each time something goes wrong, sending Hayes plummeting down the well again and again. Then, we’re into a classic version of the ’broom-bashing’ routine memorably used in THE WAITER’S BALL. (Of course, the routine was originally pinched from The Three Keatons’ vaudeville act, so Buster does have a little influence over this film after all. It would be nice to think its inclusion here was a tribute from Arbuckle to his absent friend). This version is even better, turning into a nice four-handed version with Roscoe, Monty, Frank and Al St John.


Roscoe tries to elope with Winifred, but is foiled when his ladder breaks, catapulting him into the house, and leaving Winifired dangling from a first floor window. (Poor Winifred Westover takes quite a lot of punishment in this short—no wonder it was her only film with Arbuckle!)

Though there are occasional lapses in taste (like the scene mentioned above) where the slapstick maybe gets a bit too violent, the comedy scenes in the first half of LOVE are some of the best in the whole Comique series.
The second half of the short involves Roscoe’s plan to sneak into the house and sneak Winifred away from the wedding. Sneaking soap into the cook’s stew to get her fired, he dresses in drag and takes her place. Suggesting that they stage a rehearsal ceremony with the preacher, Roscoe takes the groom’s place. Once they have said “I do”, Monty pulls strings attached to Roscoe’s dress and wig, revealing his true identity.
LOVE contains several of Roscoe’s pet routines, and is a thoroughly enjoyable two reels, brim-full of exuberant gags. As a farewell to the barnyard setting, it was a high note to go out on.

THE BANK CLERK (? Unfinished/unreleased film)

Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, details about THE BANK CLERK are sparse. Initial reports in the trades that Arbuckle had embarked on a film of this title, in which he works as a window cleaner in the bank, but (excuse the pun) climbs the ladder to a career in finance. However, in April 1919, Film Daily reported that filming had to be abandoned due to both weather conditions in L.A., and for Arbuckle to make revisions to the story. It seems that his solution to both inclement weather and an unsatisfying story was to scrap it and head back to the desert to make another Western film. Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, THE BANK CLERK was probably never finished. That the two films were never released is supported by adverts for later reissues of the Comique films, which list all but this pair of titles.

A DESERT HERO ( 15th June 1919)

Arbuckle was obviously very fond of Western settings at this point in his career; this is third film in just over a year to play on the genre. Down the years, this has meant confusion for Arbuckle &
Keaton scholars, with the three films (OUT WEST, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO) often being mixed up, especially when they turned up in prints without main titles. As late as the 1970s, A
DESERT HERO often found its way into Keaton filmographies, with stills from OUT WEST being attributed to this film instead.


It’s not surprising, as there is a strong overlap between the all three films. In OUT WEST, Alice
Lake had a prominent role as a Salvation Army girl; here, Molly Malone takes on a similar part.
Arbuckle’s burlesque of William S Hart from THE SHERIFF is also revisited in this short.
The long-faced, wiry Hart played solemn tough guys, and Roscoe plays on this for comic effect
here. An opening title introduces “a gaunt, thin boned stranger from the desert”, before cutting
to the very non-gaunt Roscoe! Arbuckle carried on spoofing Hart through the film, as the press
books tell us: “He’s the toughest, hardest, roughest Western cuss that ever lived, in “A Desert
Hero”! He eats ’em alive ! Breaks rocks with his teeth he’s so ornery!”

Roscoe reforms when he meets Molly and joins her in the salvation army. Surviving stills show
lots of comic business with brass band instruments, before Molly is kidnapped by Al St John and
Roscoe has to rescue her. Molly continued with Roscoe for the remainder of the series.
Though A DESERT HERO was his last Western short, Arbuckle would return to the genre one last
time, for his debut feature THE ROUND UP the following year.


Keaton’s war service in France was over in early 1919, and after a hospital stay, he rejoined
Arbuckle in May. The Arbuckle-Keaton partnership returned to the screen for three more shorts,
BACK STAGE, THE HAYSEED and THE GARAGE, before Arbuckle moved to features.
Many of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts are deservedly well-regarded, but we shouldn’t neglect the
films Roscoe made without Buster. As a comic creator, he was at the top of his game, as
evidenced by LOVE. Hopefully one day, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO, will be available for us
to enjoy again, too.

A version of this article originally appeared in issue 12 of The Lost Laugh magazine, published May 2020. (c) Matthew Ross.

Thanks to Ben Model & Steve Massa from the Silent Comedy Watch Party, and to Elif from the Eye Filmmuseum for making CAMPING OUT available for us to enjoy again!

For more on Roscoe Arbuckle, see Steve Massa’s recent, phenomenal book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rediscovering-Roscoe-Films-Fatty-Arbuckle/dp/1629334529

Clowns in Colour

Recently, a whole load of colourised silent films have been appearing on YouTube. I won’t wade into the colourisation debate here (let’s save that for tedious flame wars on Internet forums) but it did get me thinking about genuine colour footage of silent comedians. Unsurprisingly, there’s not much about, as a) the use of colour was limited in the era and b) lots of early colour footage has decomposed. Still, there are some examples out there…

In the silent era, colour was mainly used in small doses to add some prestige to feature films. Harry Langdon filmed a fantasy sequence for LONG PANTS (now sadly lost) and Buster Keaton created a colour prologue for SEVEN CHANCES. Happily, this does exist and has been restored to current copies. It must be said that the faded 2-strip Technicolor  isn’t exactly vivid, having faded to more of a sepia effect, but it’s still nice to have it, and if you squint hard enough you can imagine Buster in living colour.

 
Keaton’s long career kept him working to the point where colour was much more widespread in the film and TV industry. As a result, there is lots of nice colour footage of him in his later years, but to see him looking more like the Buster we know from his classic silents, the best bet is HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE. This 1939 feature was a vague retelling of the Mack Sennett story and Buster appears in an on-set pie throwing sequence (thus perpetrating the myth that he was another Keystone clown). It’s beautiful vivid colour, and there are even some lovely outtakes from the film showing Buster throwing pies and laughing. Sadly, neither film nor outtakes appear to be on YouTube, but there’s a brief snippet at 9:15 in this episode of the wonderful Keaton documentary A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW.
 

Charlie Chaplin didn’t make a colour film until 1967’s A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, but his brother Syd (always the less parsimonious Chaplin brother!) took some remarkable colour home movies on the set of THE GREAT DICTATOR that capture Charlie at work. There are scenes from the battlefields, ghettos and ballrooms of the film represented, as well as the iconic final speech. The vividly coloured uniforms of the soldiers make the viewer wish the film had been made in colour!

Though there is no colour footage of Chaplin from the silent era, there are a set of remarkable colour photographs taken by Charles C Zoller in 1918. These show Chaplin on the steps of his new studio and on the set of A DOG’S LIFE:

Similar in spirit are these shots of Laurel & Hardy horsing around on the Hal Roach lot in 1938:

The most famous Laurel & Hardy colour footage is the 1940s public information short THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE, which features some mute film of them clowning around with wood products. Their first colour film was actually made over a decade earlier; THE ROGUE SONG was an MGM musical starring Lawrence Tibbett, with the boys added for some comic relief.  Alas, this is another early colour film that has decomposed, but a small fragment of the boys’ footage does remain. Murphy’s law of course dictates that the existing scene takes place almost in a dark cave so there’s not much colour to be had! Here’s the clip, which ends with that famous stage direction, “exit, pursued by bear!”

Another comedy team, another clip from 1930; here’s a behind the scenes glimpse of the Marx Brothers on the set of ANIMAL CRACKERS: 
 

It wasn’t just the highest profile stars who made some colour appearances. Here’s Lupino Lane singing a tune in 1930’s GOLDEN DAWN. It’s one of the few bright spots in this turgid and dated drama of Africa; not one that stands up to repeated viewings these days.

And to finish off with here’s  Charley Chase as ‘Charley Chan Chase’, host of the oriental themed MGM novelty, HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1937) . Maybe another one that doesn’t stad much chance of being revived today… nice Technicolor, though!

 

Buster Keaton remembers

George Eastman Museum has just shared the sound file of an extensive interview with Buster Keaton from 1958. A few snippets of this found their way into the documentary A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW, but this is the first time the complete audio has been available, allowing us to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Like other Keaton interviews, it starts out a little slow, but Buster always warms up after a few minutes. This one is an hour and a half in length, and after a few familiar repeated stories, Buster really loosens up and it turns into a great conversation. With a lot of these interviews, I find myself wishing the interviewer had done a bit more research or asked better questions. This time round, the interviewer really has his facts right and is clearly a fan. He’s clued up on the details of Keaton’s career and manages to tip into some nooks and crannies not covered elsewhere.

Some highlights include:

* Buster’s memories of his classic shorts like THE PLAYHOUSE, THE ELECTRIC HOUSE, THE FROZEN NORTH and THE BOAT. (It’s especially fascinating to hear that he considered THE BOAT to be the sequel to ONE WEEK, and even considered editing them together as a feature!).

*His work with Arbuckle, and his fondness for the short THE GARAGE.

*Details of an unfinished script idea that would have seen Buster in Harold Lloyd territory, stranded on top of a skyscraper with his girl.

*His thoughts on keeping spontaneity in films

*Shooting the illusions in SHERLOCK JR and re-enacting them on Ed Sullivan’s TV show (does this still exist?)

*Details of the leading ladies in his short films

*Filming on location for THE NAVIGATOR, GO WEST and THE GENERAL.

*An even-handed account of his time at MGM. Interestingly, apart from SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (“the world’s worst picture!”), he describes all the other pictures there as “good or fair” (even WHAT! NO BEER?).

*Working with Chaplin in LIMELIGHT.

All in all, this is a great immersion into Buster’s world. His career is covered in detail, and it’s wonderful to hear that characterful, gravelly voice telling these stories with real warmth and humour. What wouldn’t you give to have been a fly on the wall..? Take a listen below.

PS. Here’s another Keaton interview (this time with video as well) I posted a while ago: https://thelostlaugh.com/2018/03/22/keaton-in-conversation/

Buster’s Last Stand

In the 1950s and 60s, Buster Keaton found a nice sideline making ‘Industrial’ films. These varied from company training films to promotional advertisements, and even one (1952’s PARADISE FOR BUSTER) that was a pure comedy to be shown as a treat for employees of John Deere.

In October 1965, shortly after his 70th birthday, Keaton travelled to Canada for another industrial assignment. He didn’t know it then, but it would turn out to be his last appearance before a camera.

Some years earlier, he had been involved with an abortive film called TEN GIRLS AGO. Among the journalists covering that project was editorial photographer John Sebert; now Sebert found himself helming an industrial safety film for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. The acquaintance was renewed and Keaton had a job.

THE SCRIBE is very obviously an instructional film, its purpose being to hammer home company safety policy ‐ “16 steps to LIVE!”. Buster’s job is to brighten proceedings by demonstrating how flouting each step can cause accidents, in his inimitable manner.

Given the set-up, it’s not fair to hold the film to the same standards of your average Keaton comedy. Certainly, nobody could call THE SCRIBE a forgotten classic, but for what it is, it’s not half bad.

Buster plays a janitor at a newspaper office, who promotes himself to journalist when a call comes in to investigate industrial safety at a building site.

Once there, he finds a list of safe working guidance rules, and wanders around the building site trying to enforce them, but usually making matters worse. It’s a pretty efficient way of getting the message across, but more importantly allows Keaton to indulge in little sight gag vignettes. Sebert is obviously a fan of Keaton’s comedy, and lets him do his thing. Some are better than others; Sebert sometimes bites off more than he can chew, and sequences of Buster being hoisted aloft on a crane or dangling from a rope are unconvincing, especially as a lanky, much younger double is used. Some gags are also sabotaged by the fact that the rest of the cast are genuine construction workers… as actors, they’re very good builders!

Much better are the simple visual gags: Buster’s constant loss of his hard hat, or his fascination with an ominous red button. Best of all, there are a handful of throwaway gags that don’t serve any health and safety purpose at all ‐ a falling door gag gives just a hint of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR, and Buster even uses a ladder gag from Laurel and Hardy’s THE FINISHING TOUCH. These are surely on-set additions by Buster himself, proof that his comic mind was active right until the end.

You can tell that all isn’t well with him though. As well as the use of a double, scenes of Buster running show his movements much slower than usual. With hindsight, we now know that he was terminally ill, and making this film at all was quite an achievement.

If THE SCRIBE isn’t the wonderful final hurrah that THE RAILRODDER had been, there certainly could be a less fitting final role. 46 years earlier, Buster’s first starring short had been ONE WEEK, based around house construction. Now, in 1965, with the wooden house changed to a skyscraper, here he was, still pottering about a building site, making gags with planks and doors and cement. There’s something quite touching about Buster persevering in the brave new world of the atomic age, as plans were made to put a man on the moon, and as The Beatles were recording RUBBER SOUL. It was a totally different era, but after all he’d been through in his career, he was still in demand and still funny.

The final scenes see him re-enacting one of his earliest comic routines, a floor scrubbing scene from THE BELL BOY (1918). While he is immersed in this, the ‘End’ title appears on the screen. Buster looks up and taps it away; a nice playfully cinematic final gag for a comedian who had always stretched the possibilities of film for comedy.

Take a look at THE SCRIBE here:

A few song and dance moments

Many of the great comedians had come up through the stage and had to be all-round entertainers. When sound film came in, one of the benefits was allowing them to show off these talents. Many of the silent clowns seemed to enjoy the novelty of performing a song or dance once in a while, and of course performers who primarily worked in this area now had a new outlet for their talents. These routines always make me smile, so here are a choice selection.

Let’s kick off with Laurel & Hardy doing a bit of a dance. Nope, not that dance! While their moves to ‘At the ball, that’s all’ in WAY OUT WEST are iconic, this scene from BONNIE SCOTLAND is less well-known, but has a charm of it’s own. There’s a kind of infectious joy to L & H’s dancing moments, and this one is no exception.

Fellow Roach studios comic Charley Chase positively flourished with the chance to strut his stuff in talkies. Chase had a deep love of music, writing his own songs and choreographing routines for them to use in his comedies. This example, from his penultimate Roach short ON THE WRONG TREK, is  a real charmer.

Over to Britain now. The bright and breezy Jack Hulbert had made his name in musical comedies on stage, often partnered with his wife Cicely Courtneidge. His lanky frame made him quite a talent as an eccentric dancer, and here he gives us a song and a bit of tap. This is from JACK OF ALL TRADES (1936), one of several dated but extremely charming romantic comedies he made for Gainsborough Pictures in the 30s.

Another British comic who made his career in musical comedy (though opposite in build to Hulbert!) was Stanley Lupino. This routine comes from OVER SHE GOES, one of his plays adapted for film in 1937. Leslie Halliwell was right on the money when he called this scene “one of the most dextrous routines I’ve ever clapped eyes on”. It’s glorious.

Did someone mention Lupinos? Here’s Stanley’s cousin, Lupino Lane, in a wonderful slapstick ballet with Lillian Roth. It’s from THE LOVE PARADE (1929), and is one of my very favourite scenes of his. That Lupino family training really paid off, didn’t it?? (By the way, if you like what you see of Mr Lane, don’t forget there’s currently a Kickstarter appeal running to get some of his films on DVD). This clip is a little slow to get going, but kicks in at about the 1.50 mark..

 

Carrying on the theme of slapstick dance, here’s a wonderful routine from Buster Keaton. Buster’s MGM sound features were undoubtedly a waste of his talents compared to his silent masterpieces, but they do have some charming moments of 100 proof Keaton in them. The studio’s zeal for making the most of sound with singing and dancing lets us see another side of Keaton’s talents not often displayed. Like the other comics here, he was a stage veteran too, so could pull off this stuff very well indeed, even if it’s not really the idiom we expect of him. Here he is in the highlight of DOUGHBOYS, an Apache dance routine. Quite a few comedians incorporated their knockabout into one of these , but Keaton’s superior athleticism makes this really something special.

And, to finish off, just a tiny but more Buster. Here’s his international dancing medley from the short GRAND SLAM OPERA (1936). He’s waiting backstage at a radio station when hearing the band spurs him into motion… Great fun.

 

 

 

Charades with Buster

Here’s a nice bit of Buster Keaton I’ve not seen before: his appearance on TV series BURKE’S LAW, from 1964. Buster is being interviewed as a suspect in a murder case, but unfortunately he has laryngitis. This provides up the perfect excuse for a nice bit of pantomime, as he acts out his witness statement. It’s a funny little scene that raises to a nice level of absurdity as the two hard-boiled detectives gradually get more and more excited by their attempts to guess the meaning, turning the whole thing into a party game.

 

Buster on the Radio

Here’s an odd one: a radio appearance by Buster Keaton from 1936. At the time, he had just made the brilliant GRAND SLAM OPERA, in which he appears as a juggler on a radio amateur hour (!). While it has received latter day praise from Keaton fans, even at the time it was received as something special. There were great review and Educational Pictures went all out with the publicity, taking full page ads in the trades. Someone at Educational obviously realised that it would ge a great tie-in to get Buster to actually appear on the radio, and that’s exactly what he did here.

It’s a bit of an odd listen to be sure. Part of the reason that GRAND SLAM OPERA works so well is that it presents the incongruity of Buster doing a visual act on the radio (and makes a sly comment on his perceived obsolescence in the process).

On the real radio, of course we can’t see any of the visual stuff, and Buster has no option but to jump in to the All-talking world he spoofs in the film. The material is a variation on the interrupted act from the film, but this time a dramatic monologue rather than juggling. His handling of dialogue is fine, but the material isn’t amazing and this isn’t really his thing. In fact, this is more like one of the routines MGM might have had him do. Still, an interesting little curio of two worlds colliding.

Here’s GRAND SLAM OPERA, the film which inspired it..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?=dvnYMx2Uiiw

Keaton in Conversation

bk at home.jpg

It’s always a pleasure to hear Buster Keaton speak. That deep and rasping voice so full of life and stories. Here he has a genuine audience in interviewer Fletcher Markle, who seems fascinated by him, and has at least read his autobiography. The interview takes place at Buster’s ‘ranch’ home, and there are some nice shots of him and Eleanor at home in the garden.

Some of Keaton’s answers ramble away from the question a bit, but they are always entertaining, and he seems engaged in the conversation. There are some chunks missing here and there, so occasionally the subject of conversation changes abruptly. Overall, this is a fascinating document though. What wouldn’t you give to be a fly on the wall…?

Fletcher Markle interview

 

A Perfect Gentleman, the sheik of slapstick and the funniest woman in the world: A weekend at the Kennington Bioscope (part 1)

DX8lxP1WsAEtrNa.jpgI’ve just returned from SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND at London’s Cinema Museum. The fourth such event run by the lovely folk at Kennington Bioscole, these are now a real highlight of my year, and I was privileged to have some involvement in selecting and presenting  a few films. Of course, we’re lucky to have silent comedies so freely available on DVD, YouTube and everywhere else, but the real way they’re meant to be seen is like this: on a big screen, as a shared experience with other cinemagoers, and with live musical accompaniment. Stand up and take a bow, John Sweeney, Meg Morley. Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulos, Cyrus Gabrysch, whose wonderful playing brought these films to life. To hear the expert introductions of historians such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson only heightened the experience. Here’s part one of a review of the weekend. Part two to follow!

The weekend began with THE NIGHT CLUB (1925), starring Raymond Griffith (promoted as ‘The New Sheik of Slapstick!”). His first starring feature, it is a wonderful vehicle for his understated, unique comic style. The film launched his career in features with a high pedigree; produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, it was directed by his protégées Paul Iribe and Frank Urson and based on a play by DeMille’s brother.

raymond_griffithThis is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women but has to undergo an arranged marriage to inherit a fortune. He genuinely falls in love with his arranged bride (Vera Reynolds), but she thinks he’s only after her for the money. A despondent Griffith pays a bandit (Wallace Beery) to bump him off, but Vera finds out the truth and they are reconciled. Now Griff’s only problem is to tell the bandit that no, thank you, he doesn’t want to die anymore…

It’s a complicated story and even that summary doesn’t take account of many of the tangents and subplots that arise. It’s easy to see why it was a failure as a play, but as a Griffith vehicle it succeeds admirably. Our hero wins through with a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.

There are also great performances from Beery, William Austin and Louise Fazenda, not to mention some great suicide gags and lovely location shooting on the dusty paradise of Catalina Island.

Director Eddie Sutherland contended that Griffith’s failing as a comic was that he tried to mix too many styles, but the inclusion of sight gags and slapstick alongside more gentle material makes films like THE NIGHT CLUB much more entertaining than many of the light comedies of the era.

Griffith’s best films were yet to come, as he refined his suave, sly style; his best surviving films are probably PATHS TO PARADISE and HANDS UP. THE NIGHT CLUB, however, remains a fun and different comedy. By the way, if you’re wondering where the night club of the title comes in… it doesn’t. Kevin Brownlow explained in his introduction that this was a side effect of the studios’ block booking system. Often films were sold to exhibitors before they were filmed or even written. Paramount had promised a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, so they delivered a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, even though their new story had nothing at all to do with one!

Next it was on to a programme of British shorts, titled THE BRITISH ARE COMING and presented by Tony Fletcher. Now, these can be a mixed bag. There are some fantastic British silent comedies, but many are a bit too polite and ponderous. Certainly, they were created in a different idiom to the American model of silent comedy.This programme had a higher batting average than many, showcasing some offbeat efforts.

‘BOOKWORMS’, made in 1920, is a charming little vehicle for Leslie Howard. Written by A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories), it shows Milne’s literary instincts in a witty modern fairytale pastiche. Substituting suburban villas for castles and fiery housemaids for dragons, this is an updated Rapunzel-style tale of Howard’s attempts to contact Pauline Johnson, who is locked away by her Aunt and Uncle, and made to read books all day. Howard’s love note arranging a rendezvous, sent inside her library book, also reaches three other people, resulting in a farcical meeting of several different characters, each thinking the other has sent it. This is a mild, but very charming tale. Much of the humour comes from the breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the intertitles.

This was a pet tactic of director Adrian Brunel, who loved to play with the medium of film. More of Brunel’s whimsical humour was seen in CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA. A spoof travelogue, this skewers the pomoposity of the genre superbly. Again, much of the humour coems through intertitles, juxtaposition of images and bizarre use of stock  footage. In its sublime silliness, the short anticipates Spike Milligan’s work (especially sketches from ‘Q’, like ‘First Irish Rocket to the Moon’)

Also experimental was THE FUGITIVE FUTURIST, in which an inventor produces a magic device that shows visions of the future. Through the magic of double exposure, animation and an effect that makes the emulsion seem to melt off the film, we see waves lapping at the shores of Trafalgar square, Tower Bridge turned into a monorail, and houses that build themselves. A bizarre little film!

There was a chance to glimpse behind the scenes at the film industry (and film fandom) with STARLINGS OF THE SCREEN. This short chronicles the progress of a competition run by Picture Show magazine, whereby 3000 young ladies entered to be in with a chance of winning a film role; kind of ‘THE X FACTOR’ of its day! The 15 shortlisted provincial candidates are seen trying their hardest to act at a series of screen tests at Oswald Stoll’s studios. Also on hand is comic actor Moore Marriott, later best known as one of Will Hay’s sidekicks, who puts the girls through their paces in a series of short little sketches. This was a great little item: a fascinating time capsule, often (unintentionally) hilarious. There was also a touch of poignancy in the doomed ambitions of the film hopefuls, who simply didn’t have ‘it’ and would soon return to obscurity. Nancy Baird of Glasgow, and Sheilagh Allen of Londonderry, whatever became of you?

So far, so good. The only one of these films to disappoint was ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’. Starring Guy Newall & Ivy Duke, this too played with the medium of cinema, having a prologue breaking the fourth wall, in which Duke & Newall invite the public to join them in their dressing rooms preparing for the film. The story itself was the tale of Duke’s perpetual discomfort caused by her woollen underwear. At the theatre, Newall is sat behind her, absentmindedly fiddles with a thread he sees dangling from the bottom of her chair and soon has unravelled her entire vest. It was a nice little idea for a throwaway gag, but stretching it out to almost half an hour was fairly infuriating! I could have seen Lloyd or Keaton doing a similar gag, but as a little aside, rather than building a whole film around it! Nevertheless, an interesting little item, and overall this showed that British films were often very creative and playful.

the_nickel_nurser__poster___stan_taffel_After lunch, I was thrilled to be able to present an overview of CHARLEY CHASE. Chase is one of my absolute favourite silent (and sound comedians), and he’s often been a neglected figure, so it’s always a pleasure to show his films to new audiences. The 1920s, with their increased focus on human comedy, were Chase’s decade. In front of the camera, he played an eternally embarrassed young man, while behind it he was an enormously inventive, prolific and consistent comedy craftsman.

An extract from ALL WET (1924) provided an early example of a classic Chase situation, escalating from simple, believable beginnings to peaks of absurdity. Charley is on his way to meet a train in his car; he helps another motorist out of a mud puddle, and in doing so becomes stuck himself. His attempts to free the car end in it being completely submerged, necessitating Charley’s repairs of the car from underwater. ALL WET builds gags brilliantly, and is a fine example of the teamwork between Chase and its director, future Oscar-winner Leo McCarey (who once said “Everything I know, I learned from Charley Chase”).

Together Chase and MccCarey thrived off each other, developing a unique style of intricate storytelling. When Chase’s films were expanded to two reels, they were able to use the extra space to construct beautifully elaborate farces, mini-masterpieces packed with gags, situations and great characters. To illustrate this, we saw large excerpts from ‘WHAT PRICE GOOFY’, ‘FLUTTERING HEARTS’ and ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’, the latter getting some of the biggest laughs of the weekend with its split-second timed multiple exchanges of trousers.

Two things struck me forcefully while selecting the clips:

1 – it’s incredibly hard to take excerpts out of Chase’s films, as they are so tightly and masterfully constructed.

2 – Chase really realised the value of his supporting casts. Perhaps it was background as a director, but he never seems egotistical about his own performances, always allowing others to shine; his films are true ensemble pieces. Oliver Hardy, Katherine Grant, Gale Henry, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Vivian Oakland and Buddy the Dog are just some of the performers given great opportunities in the films we saw.

The closing scenes from ‘THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG’ showcased Charley’s illustrious career in talkies, and we finished off with the complete ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’. The apotheosis of Charley’s taking a simple idea to ridiculous extremes,  this tale follows him and and his wife as they both have plastic surgery, fail to recognise each other and embark on an affair! This has righty been recognised as a masterpiece, and has been added to the USA’s National Film Registry along with other classics like ‘THE GENERAL’ and ‘BIG BUSINESS’.

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It was a real delight to hear the laughter at Chase’s films, with several people in the audience commenting that it was their first time seeing them. Charley didn’t live long enough to see his work being appreciated; if only he could have heard the response his films got on Saturday…

Also in the comedy of embarrassment mould was Monty Banks’ 1927 feature ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. We saw it in a pristine 35mm copy from the BFI, albeit with Spanish intertitles. Monty was, for my money, one of the hardest working silent comedians. He was an Italian, real name Mario Bianchi, who arrived in the US in 1915.  He spoke very little English, but through hard work and a good deal of good luck,  scraped by in a series of Chaplinesque film roles. These included supporting Roscoe Arbuckle, who gave him his new screen name. Making a series of comedies for obscure and independent companies, he eventually found a toehold in the industry with a cheerful little character, trying his best to be dapper, but always on the back foot. In the 1920s he shifted focus to vehicles with a Lloydian mix of comedy with thrills and speed, turning out a series of features that pitted him against racing cars, speedboats and runaway trains. From 1926, Pathé had been promoting him as Lloyd’s successor, but had more or less given up on him by the time of ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. With some evidence of budgets being cut, it features less of the high-speed stunt climaxes, but makes up for it with brilliantly gag-packed sequences and situation comedy. Monty works in a bank, and is due to marry the president’s daughter. En route to his wedding he innocently becomes drunk; suffice to say, his wedding does not end well, especially as he spends much of the time trying to kick his future mother-in-law in the rear!

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Meanwhile, Monty’s colleague has robbed the bank, planning to pin the robbery on Monty. Waking with a terrible hangover to a broken engagement, Monty decides to leave town, but mixes his bags, and ends up with the stolen money. The rest of the film takes place on board a ship and follows Monty’s attempts to:

  1.  foil the crooks trying to get the money back
  2. win back his girl who is aboard the ship
  3. return the money to her father and prove his innocence.

He might be on a ship, but plain sailing, it ain’t! A new complication arises as Monty is constantly caught in compromising situations with the purser’s wife, a running gag that has some brilliant variations. Best of all is a sequence where Monty, finding her unconscious, accidentally tears her dress off. His attempts to remedy the situation end up making even more of her clothes fall off, but he manages to improvise an entirely new outfit for her. A wonderful routine of physical comedy, in a film full of them; it’s the funniest Banks film I’ve yet seen.

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Part of the credit is surely due to Clyde Bruckman, one of the very best silent gagmen, hired by Banks due to his work with Keaton & Lloyd. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN does indeed borrow some gags from the Keaton/Lloyd vehicles. Overall though, it shows Monty moving from a direct Lloyd influence to a more farcical style redolent of Charley Chase. In fact, this could have been the ideal vehicle to launch Chase in features. A great little film, and one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Nevertheless, however good performers like Banks or Raymond Griffith are, the following programme, KEATON CLASSICS, made it clear just why Buster Keaton has attained his mythical status in comparison to the more forgotten comics. Four authors – Kevin Brownlow, David Robinson, Polly Rose & David McLeod – presented their favourite sequences from Buster’s features. Each sequence was, of course, magnificent, and I almost felt like I was seeing them for the first time again. It was a lovely idea to have personal introductions, as Keaton means so many different things to so many people.

David Robinson praised the dramatic strength of OUR HOSPITALITY, reminding us that it was a stunning debut in feature directing (THE SAPHEAD was not directed by Keaton and THREE AGES planned as three shorts glued together, in case it didn’t work out; ergo, HOSPITALITY was BK’s first planned feature). He had picked the river scene that culminates in Buster’s dramatic plunge across a waterfall to rescue Natalie Talmadge, a sequence that gives me the shivers every time I see it.

 

Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the wonderfully action-packed Tong War sequence from THE CAMERAMAN, and David McLeod opted for the iconic cyclone climax of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. Most fascinating of all was Polly Rose, a newcomer to writing about BK; an editor by trade, she was ideally placed to share discoveries about how Keaton achieved his visual effects walking into the cinema screen in SHERLOCK, JR. Through her research, she also shared discoveries about alternate versions of the scene, in which Buster seemed to enter the screen on a beam of light shone from his projector, before being spat back out into a tangle of film. Polly shared evidence of this version being previewed from at least three trade papers, and found clues in publicity stills that point to the action that might have occurred. A fascinating theory and who knows? Maybe one day one of those preview prints will turn up. Stranger things have happened!

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I know Keaton’s films so well by know that I sometimes take for granted how incredible they are. Seeing excerpts like this from different films reminded me just how diverse and special his films were, for not just his performances and gags, but also his storytelling, stunts and technical wizardry, not to mention that intangible quality that makes him so compelling.

How to follow four of Keaton’s finest sequences? Step up to the plate, Beatrice Lillie! Miss Lillie made only 7 films in her long career, and 1926’s EXIT SMILING is her sole silent. Nevertheless, her brief stay in Hollywood elicited devotion from the West Coast royalty; Chaplin described her as “my female counterpart”, while Buster Keaton guarded her hotel room door, “lying there like Old Dog Tray”. EXIT SMILING shows exactly why. One of the sadly few silent feature comedies to really show a female comedian to good advantage, it gives her opportunity for both great comic acting and genuine pathos. As Violet, Bea is a dogsbody with a travelling theatre company who longs to play the part of a vamp. She gets her chance to act not on the stage, but in real life, where she has to seduce a villain to save the man she loves. The scenes of her vamping the villain are simply brilliant, especially the moment where her pearl necklace disintegrates. If only shexite’d made more films!

EXIT SMILING was given a marvellously authoritative introduction by Michelle Facey, who summed up Bea’s career and appeal brilliantly. Accompaniment was by the wonderful Meg Morley. The screening was, in fact, of Beatrice Lillie’s personal 16mm copy of the film, and the personal connection of the evening didn’t end there. The last word must go to David Robinson, who shared his poignant story of attending a screening of the film with Beatrice Lillie in 1968.

“She was starting to forget things… They’d taken her to see the film ‘STAR’ that afternoon, so I asked her how she liked the film.

“What film?” she said. She didn’t seem like a star, she was just a little, worried old lady, who was always asking where her coat and purse were. It would be “Where’s my coat?” then “Where’s my purse?”

“So we went on and on, the coat, the purse, the coat, the purse… until the time came to go into the theatre.

“Where’s my coat?” she said, again. I told her I’d carry it, but she just said “I must have my coat”.

“We walked into the auditorium, and I was wondering what on earth was going to happen… then I noticed she was dragging the coat along behind her.

“Come along, Fido!” she said, and everyone roared with laughter. She came to life and kept doing these little bits of business, but knew exactly when to stop. Throughout the film, I heard the sound of her laughter.

Afterwards, I asked her what she thought of it.

“Oh, it was very good,” replied Beatrice Lillie, “and she’s so funny. And you know, she does things just like me!”

 

*Part two coming soon!*

 

Les Aventures de Monsieur Keaton

Who says Buster Keaton never made a decent sound feature? His 1934 French film, ‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES’ is an obscure and often overlooked gem. le-roi-1

After falling from the heights of making prestigious features at MGM to taking whatever low-budget work he could get in the mid 30s, not to mention going through a rough patch in his personal life, it’s perhaps not surprising that Buster had a fairly low opinion of the work he was doing at this point. For all that, his first films after leaving in MGM, a series of two-reelers for Educational Pictures, have some fine moments amongst them. Clearly, this was a great demotion for him though,  and he jumped at the chance to regain his slipping stardom when the offer came for him to appear in a feature length film. The only catch was that he had to go to France to do so; Buster was still revered in Europe at a time when America had put him on the scrap heap. Happily, this meant he was pretty much guaranteed a sympathetic ear to his ideas.

So, in the early summer of 1934, with two Educational shorts under his belt (‘THE GOLD GHOST’ & ‘ALLEZ OOP’) Buster and his then-wife, Mae, left for France. Travel expenses weren’t included in the contract, so they travelled by freighter to save money.

As might be inferred from this, the budget of the film was not bottomless; while certainly much more generous than the Educational films, there were financial troubles from the start. The production company, Margot films, became unable to complete the production due to financial difficulties, and proceedings were picked up by producer Seymour Nebenzal. Nebenzal ran Nero Film, a Berlin-based company whose top successes had been director Fritz Lang’s ‘DR MABUSE’ series. As the Nazis’ stranglehold began to tighten on Germany, Nebenzal, Lang and the rest of the company had relocated to Paris.

The change in production was probably a good thing; while the budget was still relatively small, Nebenzal was an experienced man and used to juggling costs to sensitively fit the budget to the film ; The shooting schedule was a fairly hasty 12 weeks, and the film isn’t as elaborate as the best of the Keaton silents, but in other areas there was no skimping; there’s a full orchestral score, some lavish sets and plenty of location shooting.

 

The plot of the film is strong and fairly elaborate. Buster Garnier works as a publicist for an ailing company, but dreams of becoming a great actor. His job is to hand out ‘bank note’ flyers while pretending to be a millionaire; meanwhile, the company has just received 5,000 francs in cash to solve its financial worries;. Of course, there’s a mix-up, and Buster ends up giving out the real banknotes to all of Paris, including a pretty young waitress (Paulette Dubost) who he falls in love with. Fired from his job, he contemplates suicide, but his mother (Madeleine Guitty) gets him a job in a theatre production, “Le Roi des Champs Elysees. It’s been fairly simple thus far, but now things start to get a bit more involved. Buster’s part in the play is an escaped convict; the same night, an American gangster, Jim Le Balafre (also played by Keaton), escapes and his gang pick up the wrong Buster and take him back to their hideout! After a variety of mix-ups, there’s a wild chase back to the theatre, where Buster arrives back on stage, captures the crooks, makes the play a roaring success, and gets the girl!

 

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Buster on location in Paris; the Café du Trocadero is still in business today!

The film opens with scenes of Buster riding in the back of a car down the Champs-Elysees, throwing away bundles of his fake money. As Buster rides past famous landmarks like the Arc De Triomphe and L’Opera, it’s almost as if the scenes were filmed just to say “Look! We’ve really got Buster Keaton here! In Paris! Wow!”. Nevertheless, the wonderfully bright and sunny atmosphere stops the sequence becoming gimmicky and captures the feel of silent comedy nicely.

 

 

In fact, ‘LE ROI…’ is closer to the spirit of a silent comedy than perhaps any other of his sound films (far more subtly so than his later pastiches). There are lots of throwaway pantomime bits, and many of the sight gags, especially during the early scenes, are very subtle and witty. When handing out the genuine money, Buster wanders through a wedding party. One minute the groom is declaring his undying love to his homely bride; when Buster hands him the money, he runs away down the street shouting “SAVED! SAVED!”

 

There is barely any dialogue at all until at least 20 minutes in; Keaton’s lines were purposely reduced to bypass his need to speak French. The film has recently been subtitled, but is so primarily visual that it makes perfect sense even if you don’t speak the lingo. Of course, this fits Keaton’s own sound dictum of only using talk when necessary, and Buster is the calm at the eye of the hurricane, remaining passive as he causes havoc around him. He’s surrounded by some rather stereotypically verbose European actors, but none of them mow him down like Jimmy Durante had, and in fact it makes a rather good contrast to his stoic demeanour.

His first meeting with Paulette Dubost is entirely wordless, and yet beautifully expressive, as he becomes totally captivated with her and just looks deeply into her eyes. As he eventually leaves, he keeps popping back round the street corner to have one last look at her. It’s a bit reminiscent of Harold Lloyd’s meeting with Jobyna Ralston in ‘THE KID BROTHER’, but only Keaton could create such a convincing expression of lovelorn longing with such minimal action.

When he does speak, he’s dubbed in a rather slimy and unappealing voice. Why this was deemed necessary is puzzling; while not a great linguist, Keaton could at least get by in French, and had spoken it in phonetic versions of his MGM films. Furthermore, he obviously did speak the lines in French before he was dubbed over; his lip movements match, and in some scenes, a few utterances like “Oui” and “Moi?” remain in Keaton’s own husky voice. At the very least, they could have let him use his own voice for the American gangster character, for which his accent would have been perfectly acceptable.

No matter, most of Keaton’s performance is pantomime anyway. It should also be mentioned how well he plays his dual role; his deadpan demeanour works surprisingly effectively as a villainous trait, and he imbues each character with different traits, never leaving you in any doubt which Buster you’re watching.

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Two Busters for the price of one!

 

 

Another strong suit of the film is its wonderful music score; obviously expense was not spared on this. The result is perfect, jaunty in the comedy sections, beautifully wistful in all the romantic spots, rousing in the chase sequences, and often very carefully synchronised to the action onscreen. There’s even an overture before the film begins, and exit music! Best of all, the clunky wordless segments that characterised some of the Educational films are filled, giving a real rhythm to the film.

Many of the gag sequences return to familiar themes in ‘LE ROI…’: Buster’s unsuccessful attempts at suicide recall ‘HARD LUCK’, the gangster’s tricked up hideout ‘THE HIGH SIGN’ and his wrecking of a stage show is familiar from both ‘SPITE MARRIAGE’ and ‘SPEAK EASILY’.

Interestingly, it’s not just Buster’s own past that is revisited; the final chase sequence, with Buster trying to get the entire police force to chase him, is lifted from Harold Lloyd’s short ‘FROM HAND TO MOUTH’ (1920). The cheap budget necessitated use of stock footage from Fritz Lang’s ‘THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE’ to fill out the sequence, but it’s used sensitively and effectively. The scene, and the onstage slapstick battle that follows it, is an exciting and effective climax to the film. It’s also not the only Lloyd gag to be seen in the film. As well as the previously mentioned similarity to ‘THE KID BROTHER’, there’s also one suicide gag lifted from ‘NEVER WEAKEN’(1921). It’s interesting to speculate whether this was Buster’s decision, or if the credited scenarist Arnold Lipp threw them in. If it was Buster’s call, then was it in homage to Harold, or due to a lack of inspiration on his own part?

Probably, like the Educational films, the short shooting time didn’t leave Buster with the luxury of all the time he needed to dream up the perfect gags. My main criticism of the film is that we do get rather too many gags that riff on the theme of Buster getting stuck on ladders, door frames, chandeliers, etc. Of course, he always performs them well, but such scenes of frustration are hardly the trademark of swift-paced silent Keaton, nor as inventive.

le-roi-6The other rather un-Keatonesque thing about the film is his smile at the film’s fadeout. Yes, you read that right; in the final scene, Buster tentatively kisses Paulette, then grabs her in his arms, purrs “Ohhh Baby!” in his dubbed French voice and breaks into a massive grin! Keaton had fought this his entire career; he told Rudi Blesh how director Chuck Reisner insisted on a smile to close ‘STEAMBOAT BILL, JR”, but how the audience hooted it off the screen at preview, and faced the same fight when making ‘THE CAMERAMAN’ at MGM. It’s puzzling that he agreed at this point; perhaps the more emotional Europeans insisted on it, substituted it for a stone-faced ending in the cutting room, or maybe Buster was just losing the will to fight.

 

The film did good business in France, and was exported across Europe, but was destined never to make it across the Atlantic. Unlike the market for Spanish-language films with the large Hispanic community in some areas of Los Angeles, there was not a large ex-pat community of French speakers in America. Long before the dawn of the Art-house cinema, Paramount, or anyone else just didn’t have a market for French language films. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when William K Everson turned up a 16mm print, that American audiences would get the chance to see Buster’s French almost-classic.

 

Most likely, this failure to reach America and and re-invigorate his stardom, was Buster’s main reason for his subsequent low opinion of the film. As you can probably tell by now, I’m really a big fan of ‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ELYSEES’, and so, in terms of quality alone, I find his views puzzling. As with his Educational films, part of the blame probably lies with the fact that it was generally an unhappy time in his life that he later wanted to forget (of his marriage to Mae, he later said “it didn’t last very long, which is the nicest thing about it that I remember”!) .Additionally, Keaton’s purist nature must have hated both the restricted budget and, especially, the idea of using stock footage, no matter how intelligently it was done. In fact, it’s very likely that he never saw the finished film! Had he seen how well it was put together, with careful editing and an excellent score, he may have had a better opinion.

‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES’ has always been one of the most obscure Keaton films to pick up, but it’s definitely worth the effort. For the time being, at least, it’s on YouTube, in a print apparently off Spanish TV. Even with a fraction of a budget of the MGM sound films, for me it manages to surpass them all. Take a look and enjoy this most underrated of Bk films:

 

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This article is adapted from one I wrote for issue 2 of The Lost Laugh magazine (then called ‘Movie Night’)