Buster Keaton

Silent Laughter 2018 is coming soon

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It’s back! The annual weekend celebration of classic, rare and forgotten silent comedies returns to London’s Cinema Museum.

The programme will be announced shortly, but a few teases: expect Buster Keaton, classic Charley Chase shorts, a wonderful, rarely-seen Monty Banks feature, Beatrice Lillie, Raymond Griffith and lots more…

With weekend passes a steal at £30 (the price of only two or three screenings at some film festivals..) it’s safe to say you won’t be disappointed. Tickets are on sale now.

Get it in your diaries for March 10th and 11th, and stay tuned for more details!

 

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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’)

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

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.

 

 

 

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.