Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #58: "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928)

Buster Keaton is a dandy who tries to impress his father in the surprisingly emotional Steamboat Bill, Jr.

"That boy ain't right." 
-Hank Hill, discussing his son Bobby, King of the Hill

The flick: Steamboat Bill,  Jr. (United Artists release of a Joseph M. Schenk production, 1928) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.9

Director*: Charles Reisner (The Hollywood Revue of 1929; The Marx Brothers' The Big Store)

*Buster Keaton was an uncredited co-director.

Actors of note: Buster Keaton (Buster Keaton Festival, Buster Keaton Classics), Tom McGuire (The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, Meet John Doe, Little Caesar, etc.), Ernest Torrence (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tol'able David), Tom Lewis (a handful of obscure 1920s films; died before this one was released), Marion Byron (Trouble in Paradise, They Call It Sin), James T. Mack (busy 1930s character actor; appeared in Buster Keaton's College; made an uncredited cameo as a prompter in Citizen Kane)

The film's climactic storm.
The gist of it: Rough-mannered sea captain "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Torrence) receives a telegram informing him that his son, whom he has not seen in many years and who has been away at school in Boston, is coming to visit him in the seaside community of River Junction, as per his mother's wishes. There, Bill and his loyal "last and first mate" Tom Carter (Lewis) operate a battered but durable old steamboat called the Stonewall Jackson, but they are in danger of being run out of business by pompous tycoon J.J. King (McGuire), who owns many local businesses and has just launched his own, super-deluxe steamboat, the King. Undaunted, Bill and Tom go to the depot to meet Bill's long-lost son, but they have a tough time picking him out of the crowd.

Eventually, they meet up, and Bill is utterly horrified to learn that his offspring, William Canfield, Jr. (Buster Keaton) is a foppish, dandified wimp. Worse yet, William almost immediately strikes up a Romeo-and-Juliet-type romance with J.J. King's pretty daughter, Kitty (Byron). Both fathers disapprove of the union and do everything to keep the young lovers apart. Meanwhile, Bill keeps trying to make a man out of William but has little success. When William won't stop seeing Kitty, Bill buys him a ticket back to Boston and tells him to get out of River Junction. But things take a turn for the unexpected when King has the Stonewall Jackson condemned by the safety commission. Infuriated, Bill physically assaults King and is tossed into jail. William throws away his train ticket and attempts to break his father out of jail, but he succeeds only in getting himself taken to the hospital with a closed head injury. But just then, a tremendous storm comes through River Junction, destroying nearly everything but the Stonewall Jackson, and William gets a chance to prove himself a hero to his girlfriend, her father, and his own father all at once.

Hank and Bobby Hill struggle to find common ground.
My take: I never went into Buster Keaton's films with the intent of psychoanalyzing the man, but Steamboat Bill, Jr. makes it tough to avoid the issue. Quite simply, this whole movie is about Buster trying to win the approval of his gruff, imposing father. There are obvious parallels here to Buster's own life, in which he fled from his violent, alcoholic father, Joe, in terror in the 1910s, leaving the Keaton family's vaudeville act for a solo career. After becoming successful, the comedian did not sever all ties with Joe but instead hired him repeatedly to act in his short films. And here is Buster Keaton's most elaborate meditation yet on father-son tension.

I think Steamboat Bill, Jr. will strongly resonate with any weird, nerdy kid who ever felt like he was disappointing his father by never learning to properly throw a football or change a tire. Certainly, there are echoes of this relationship in Mike Judge's animated series, King of the Hill (1997-2010), which was mainly about a proud, traditionally "manly" father, Hank Hill (voiced by Judge), and his goofy, misfit son, Bobby (voiced by Pamela Adlon), as they struggled to understand each other and build a workable relationship. Hank's main interests in life were beer, propane, BBQ, football, and mowing his lawn. Bobby was more drawn to stand-up comedy, puppeteering, music, and other creative pursuits. But to their credit, these two very different people worked to find common ground on a week-by-week basis.

Being only about 70 minutes long, rather than 13 years long like Judge's show, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has to condense this father-son saga into one bite-sized story with little vignettes that speak volumes about the relationship between the two men before wrapping everything up in a way that will satisfy the audience. The incredibly elaborate storm sequence -- which I did not know in advance was coming -- is an admittedly extreme yet effective solution to that narrative challenge. It's also an incredible feat of movie-making, especially considering when it was made, and a sublime showcase for Keaton's fearless, athletic physical comedy. Incidentally, it is here that Buster performs his absolute most famous stunt. During the storm, the wall of a house falls down on top of Buster, but the young man is not harmed because he was standing right where the window landed. It's a joke countless comedians have imitated, including "Weird Al" Yankovic in the "Amish Paradise" video.

Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie (1928)
Sadly, although the film is generally lauded by reviewers today, Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s critical reputation is not quite so sterling as it ought to be. Movie historians rather grudgingly declare it one of the last "classics" of Buster's golden age of the 1920s before he signed on with MGM and lost creative control over his films. However, to a man, they point out that Steamboat cannot be considered on the same "level" as Keaton's The General (1926). But why does there need to be a caste system among films anyway? Why do critics feel the need to turn everything into a horse race or a pissing contest? What good -- what single, tangible benefit -- has ever come from that? Name me one, and I'll bow at your feet.

I'd advise these critics and other viewers to concentrate on the movie they're actually watching and not worry so much about how it stacks up against other, "superior" films. It's all subjective and impossible to "measure" or "prove," so there's little point in worrying about it. I'd give the same recommendation to those folks who fiercely debate such topics as who was the greatest rock drummer of all time or which one novel they'd want on a desert island. Fellas, relax! You're wasting precious brain cells!

Upon its release in 1928, Steamboat Bill, Jr. received a rather vicious panning in the New York Times from short-sighted critic Mordaunt Hall, who in the same column raved about a now almost totally forgotten Dolores Del Rio melodrama called Ramona. While the sole remaining copy of Ramona today collects dust in the Czech Film Archive, Steamboat is available as a special edition Blu-ray from Kino Video, so perhaps history has rendered a different verdict than Mr. Hall did. (This same critic also gave Fritz Lang's Metropolis a rather sniffy appraisal. Could he pick 'em or what?) Despite Mordaunt Hall's objections, Steamboat Bill, Jr. received a high-profile and durable tribute the very same year it was released when Walt Disney's first cartoon with synchronized sound was titled Steamboat Willie. That particular 'toon launched the career of Mickey Mouse and has eclipsed even Keaton's film in fame and popularity. For the record, Mordaunt Hall liked the cartoon, proving that even a stopped watch is right twice a day.

Buster and his umbrella.
Is it funny: Yes. That's what really matters in a comedy, isn't it? Take away the flashy effects and the psychological underpinnings, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is still a well-functioning and productive joke machine. A lot of the humor comes from the contrast between crude, no-nonsense "man's man" Ernest Torrence and fussy, effete "college boy" Buster Keaton. One review claims that Buster was "too old" for the part, but he looks young enough to me. The thick, almost kabuki-like makeup he wears renders his age difficult to discern.

Buster's very appearance at the beginning, complete with a beret and a ukulele, is funny because it's so out of place and inappropriate for River Junction. At one point, Buster prepares to board the Stonewall Jackson dressed in the fancy uniform of a Titanic crew member, and Tom tells his boss that "no jury would convict" him for shooting his son at this moment. There's a great extended sequence in which Buster tries on a great number of hats (including his signature porkpie, which he quickly discards) while his increasingly impatient father looks on. After all that fuss, Buster's new hat blows away the second he leaves the store, and the young man winds up wearing the same beret that had upset his father in the first place.

There are a few other nice extended comic sequences, like Buster's futile attempts to break his father out of jail with tools hidden inside a suspiciously large loaf of bread. Some of my favorite moments in the film, though, are the little ones -- like the running joke in which Steamboat Bill repeatedly injures his feet by stepping barefoot on the nutshells his son has carelessly left on the floor. Buster also gets some nice comedic mileage out of an umbrella that gets turned inside out and ends up collecting rather than deflecting water.

My grade: A

P.S. - Viewers should know that there is a bit of racial humor in the film, though not much. At one point, Bill is searching for his son and makes several wrong guesses -- including one man who turns out to be black, a situation that provokes gales of laughter from Tom Carter. In another scene, Buster falls into the ocean while attempting to see his beloved Kitty King. Soaked to the bone, Buster climbs back aboard the Stonewall Jackson, which for some reason terrifies a Negro guitar player who runs away in utter horror. Actually, in retrospect, maybe it wasn't so cool to name the heroes' steamboat after a Confederate general.

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison: Their obscure, late-career masterpiece

Two friends, captured decades apart: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison

That's the "om" symbol.
I have written of my atheism on this blog several times in the past, but I wouldn't want people to get the impression that I think I have the universe figured out or that I'm immune to the charms of nature. On the contrary, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty and complexity of this world and of what lies beyond it. Some of my favorite art has been created in service of religions to which I do not subscribe, and sometimes this very art -- particularly music -- makes me wish that I were a believer, too. That's the experience I had when listening to the little-known album Chants of India (1997). I didn't go out looking for the album. I'd never heard of it until I (more or less) accidentally found it through a YouTube search, and even then I didn't know exactly what it was. I just wanted some relaxing music to listen to while I worked, and I prefer longer videos because they're more practical for such purposes. (I didn't want to go looking for new clips every four or five minutes.) I saw a YouTube video of something called Chants of India that ran for 1 hour and 3 minutes, so I clicked on it and went to work. Soon, however, I began to notice how truly beautiful this music was and stopped what I was doing to investigate this album.

As it happens, Chants of India was recorded by world-renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), the most famous Indian musician of the last century. A great deal of his popularity outside India was due to the fact that his music was strongly advocated by the Beatles, particularly George Harrison. Shankar and Harrison formed a long-time friendship, and the two organized the famed Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Over a quarter-century later, George produced and sang on Shankar's Chants of India LP. Despite the participation of a Beatle, the album is not currently in print as far as I can tell. At the time of this album's appearance, George had not put out a studio album under his own name in ten years; he died only four years after Chants of India's under-the-radar release. Shankar would live another 15 years, but Chants was his last major professional collaboration with the ex-Beatle. Why it's not instantly available on iTunes in 2013 is beyond me. Still in all, one track in particular stands out: "Prabhujee," a devotional hymn whose lyrics translate as:

     Oh Master, show some compassion to me.
     Please come and dwell in my heart.
     Because without you, it is painfully lonely.
     Fill this empty pot with the nectar of love.
     I do not know any Tantra, Mantra or ritualistic worship.
     I know and believe only in you.
     I have been searching for you all over all the world.
     Please come and hold my hand now.

Of course, when I first heard the song, I didn't know any of that because the lyrics are all in Hindi. I didn't even know who had recorded it. My thoughts during that first listen were of a traveler who had spanned a great distance, crossing a vast ocean, and had arrived safely at the shore. I felt that this journey was a metaphor for life itself and that the shore was the afterlife or one's ultimate destiny. Knowing that George's own life was nearly over when this was recorded gives the song a special significance, as does the line about hand-holding, since it beautifully (if unintentionally) echoes the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and gives that uptempo Lennon-McCartney rock number an unexpected religious significance. I was also struck by the fact that "Prabhujee," while not tied to any particular era in music, was so similar to the music being made by contemporary bands. Specifically, the song combines the slow, sweeping grandeur of Sigur Ros with the keen melodicism of Arcade Fire. In fact, if I were describing this song to someone who'd never heard it (as I am doing now), I would say, "Imagine Sigur Ros covering an Arcade Fire ballad and stretching it waaaaaaaay out."

Here is the song which so impressed me. I hope it impresses you as well.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Your Complete Guide to the Series

Why not be like Shirley and catch up on your reading this weekend?

Since July 2013, I have been devoting as many Humpdays as possible to the career of writer-director Edward D. Wood, Jr. in a series I've dubbed "Ed Wood Wednesdays." Originally planning only to watch his movies in roughly chronological order, I have since greatly expanded the range and scope of the project and have commented on many facets of Ed's life and work. The project's been running for a while now, so it's possible you may have missed an article along the way. Well, here they all are in a convenient list form. Read them at your leisure... and don't necessarily shy away from the unfamiliar titles. Those are sometimes the most fascinating of all.

Greg Dziawer has taken over Ed Wood Wednesdays since October 2015, principally focusing on Ed's writing career in pornographic paperbacks and adult magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. Of special interest to Greg is the question of which books and articles Ed actually wrote during this time period and which were written by others. These entries in the series are of particular value to collectors of vintage porn and experts on the career of Ed Wood. For the most part, Greg has divided his articles into various "odysseys." Enjoy.

The Wood Magazine Odyssey
Titles marked with an asterisk (*) consist of indexed magazine titles from Calga, Pendulum, Gallery, SECS, and Edusex.
The Wood Paperback Odyssey

The Wood Erotica Odyssey

The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey

The Wood Musical Odyssey

The Wood Loop Odyssey

The Wood Poughkeepsie Odyssey

The Wood Magazine Orbit

The Wood Loop Orbit

The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey

The Glen or Glenda Odyssey

The Young Marrieds Odyssey

The Wood Ancestry Odyssey

Miscellaneous Articles

Thanks for keeping the series alive, Greg.

But there is much more Ed Wood-related content to be found on this blog. From October to December 2014, I wrote a series of articles reviewing each individual story in Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Plus a few Ed Wood extras:

Media sightings of the Ed Wood Wednesdays project:

Happy reading, my dear friends.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, Week 12: "The Sinister Urge" (1960)

"A psycho with the urge to kill": The Sinister Urge isn't coy about naming one of its main influences.

A slightly paunchy Ed in The Sinister Urge.
The year is 1960. Edward D. Wood, Jr., 36 years of age, has been in Hollywood for twelve years at this point and in that time has done virtually everything there is for a young man to do in showbiz. He's acted in films and onstage. He's been employed by a major studio, Universal, in a position of some responsibility as a night production coordinator. He's worked in local television as a writer and director as well, sometimes even getting paid for it. He's written, directed, and produced his own feature films, starring at least one certified movie legend, Bela Lugosi, and a whole host of colorful, nationally-known pop culture figures, including Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Criswell, not to mention several of the "B"-movie cowboy actors (such as Kenne Duncan, Tom Keene, Bud Osborne, and Tom Tyler) whom Ed had once idolized when he was a young moviegoer in Poughkeepsie, NY. Several of Wood's scripts have been purchased and produced by other filmmakers, too, occasionally to financial success. He's staged a Las Vegas revue and even made technical training films for the government.

In short, Ed Wood has been around the block.

But none of this has made him wealthy or famous. In fact, he's always broke. "I should have a million dollars right now," he sadly tells his friends during his moments of self-pity. But his enthusiasm for show business is unshakable, and he's always focused on the next project with a tragicomic sense of optimism. Unfortunately, his drinking will become an increasing problem in the years to come, and Ed will be forced to rely more and more on favors from friends to find work as he steadily descends the ladder of respectability from low-budget science-fiction, horror, and crime films to softcore "nudie cuties," smutty paperbacks, and finally hardcore pornography. In the pivotal year of 1960, his career is at a crossroads, and he seems to know it.

Wood's last mainstream film.
Those, my dear readers, are the circumstances under which Ed Wood directed his so-called "last" feature film, The Sinister Urge (1960), and they're not especially pretty. Actually, a good chunk of the film had already been made back in 1956, when Ed did one day's worth of shooting on a rock-music-themed juvenile delinquent picture to be called Hellborn. Producer George Weiss, who had shepherded Ed's debut film Glen or Glenda? (1953), couldn't raise any more money, and the production shut down.

Several years later, actor Conrad Brooks sold the rights to the precious Hellborn footage to independent producer Roy Reid, who agreed to let Eddie make a "new" movie out of it for Headliner Productions, which had previously distributed The Violent Years (1956). As with Night of the Ghouls (1959), Ed wrote and directed an original story that incorporated the existing film footage. The cast was a mixture of Wood's typical repertory players (Harvey B. Dunn, Duke Moore, Connie Brooks, Kenne Duncan, and Carl Anthony) with a few prominent newcomers, mainly LA nightclub performer Jean Fontaine, who supplied her own wardrobe, and a hungry up-and-comer named Michael "Dino" Fantini, who was culled from an acting school. Perhaps out of loyalty, Ed hired his longtime cinematographer, William C. Thompson, to shoot The Sinister Urge, even though the veteran cameraman was losing his eyesight.

As nearly every single biographer of Ed Wood has noted, the plot of the film, in which a once-legitimate filmmaker has gotten involved in the manufacturing of illegal pornography, very much mirrors Ed's own life and career. Perhaps taken together, Glen or Glenda? and The Sinister Urge form a more complete self-portrait of Ed Wood.

But how does the film stack up today? Let us succumb, you and I, to our sinister urges and investigate.

Title screen from the film.

Alternate titles: Racket Queen, Act of Compulsion, Hollywood After Dark, Immoral Intruder, Chains of Evil, Hellborn.

Availability: The film is available with an introduction by filmmaker Ted Newsom as part of the Big Box of Wood collection (S'more Entertainment, 2010). It's available as a standalone DVD as well (Sinister Cinema, 2008).

The backstory: Much like Ed's previous films, Jail Bait and Night of the Ghouls, the plot of The Sinister Urge revolves around a criminal couple. The twist here is that the no-nonsense, tough-talking mastermind in the relationship is the woman -- brassy blonde Gloria Henderson (singer Jean Fontaine, in her first and last screen role), who runs a pornography or "smut" ring for her thuggish bosses in "the Syndicate." (That's what people used to call the mafia.) Her lover and accomplice is the wonderfully-named Johnny Ryde (Plan 9 from Outer Space veteran Carl Anthony), a formerly-respected movie director who now oversees the making of sleazy, no-budget pornographic films and photos. It's a lucrative but highly dangerous operation, with the police (led by Duke Moore and Kenne Duncan) constantly raiding their studios, confiscating their films, and tailing their every move.

The reason for this drastic police intervention is the fact that Gloria and Johnny's pitiful little racket is somehow the hub of the entire city's criminal community. The immoral pornographers even have a greasy, low-rent thug in their employ named Dirk (played with genuine menace by Dino Fantini in his only notable screen role) who kills anyone who may pose a threat to the operation, i.e. models who squeal to the cops. Dirk is basically Gloria and Johnny's vicious "attack dog," but he's getting to enjoy his work too much, not only killing but sexually assaulting his victims as well... and doing so without much subterfuge in broad daylight. Dirk's exploits have brought on even more police scrutiny, and the Syndicate wants him taken care of "permanently."

From there, it's a series of murders, attempted murders, and double crosses that lead to a very moralistic Dragnet-esque finale, with all of the scumbags either dead or headed to jail.

Disappointingly, there do not seem to be many colorful anecdotes surrounding the making of The Sinister Urge. Perhaps sensing this was his last chance at legitimacy or even semi-legitimacy, Ed Wood very much wanted to prove that he could bring a film in on time and on budget with no screw-ups or shenanigans. Producer Roy Reid had every confidence in him, and Wood submitted a carefully-written proposal called "My Plans for Shooting Arrangement and Why" (sample line: "There is an excellent chance of bringing this picture in in four days and one pre-production.") and an itemized budget (Ed's fee for directing: $2600; total budget: $20,152, which today would be about $160,000).

Much of the shooting was done on a ranch owned by cast member Harry Keaton, brother of Buster Keaton, making his last-ever screen appearance in the role of "girly" photographer Jaffe under the semi-pseudonym "Harry Keaten." The micro-budgeted film seems to have played mostly in LA but did make it to New York's then-infamous 42nd Street "grindhouse" circuit, where it ran for 13 weeks. What's notable is that The Sinister Urge is the first of Ed's directorial efforts to contain a brief flash of female nudity, which occurs when a sex-crazed Dirk rips the brassiere from one of his female victims.

Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy includes a photograph of a "bondage" scene, but no such sequence survives in the existing print. It should be noted that a few frames from one scene, in which Kenne Duncan shows some grisly photos to Harvey B. Dunn, have been clearly chopped out by the censors. Nightmare of Ecstasy also mentions that Ed filmed some "additional scenes" for The Sinister Urge in 1961, the year after its original release. Considering how very tame the film is, it's likely that these scenes were a little racier than what was already in the movie.

A threat to American womanhood? This?!?
The viewing experience: Stultifying and drab, but not worthless. The Sinister Urge is an extremely hypocritical film which preaches against pornography with the same fervor that Reefer Madness condemned marijuana but at the same time invites viewers to ogle the (somewhat) scantily-clad women on display in the film and take pleasure from their debasement. Certainly, the two sanctimonious cops on the case must spend a lot of their time poring over "dirty" films and photos. Could that perhaps be why they're so willing to spend virtually all their waking hours on this case? At one point, Kenne Duncan (also in his last screen role) tells us that smut is even more addictive than dope. This is interesting news, since by pure coincidence, I just read about a recent scientific study that suggests that the brain does not actually react to porn the way it does to narcotics and that "porn addiction" may not even exist.

Perhaps because of censorship issues, The Sinister Urge never depicts anything like real pornography anyway. At the moment of the big police raid, here is what is happening: Jaffe is taking some still photos of three women in swimsuits lying on their stomachs next to each other. When the cops kick in the door and start arresting everyone and seizing everything, it seems like a glimpse of a fascist police state, yet I think the movie wants us to feel glad that these lawmen are doing their job to protect the innocence of American womanhood. I've mentioned before that Ed Wood's personality was a strange, self-defeating combination of swinger and square, playboy and prude, and never is that more clear than in The Sinister Urge.

Before embarking upon this project, I had no idea how much influence Jack Webb and Dragnet had over Eddie, but now it's crystal clear. The hard-working plainclothes detectives portrayed by Kenne Duncan (a sexually-voracious sleazeball, by the way, whose boastful nickname was "Horsecock") and Duke Moore (whose character, just as in Night of the Ghouls, is kept from taking a date to the theater in order to focus on police work) are supposed to remind us of Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday, but instead their scenes play out like an alternate universe version of Dragnet in which two dull sidekicks are paired together without a leading man.

In many ways, The Sinister Urge suffers from a shortage of charisma, a problem that  also plagued Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid, another Ed Wood project with Kenne Duncan. In the past, Wood's films had larger-than-life personalities like Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Criswell to spark the audience's interest. Here, unfortunately, too many of Ed's loyal but dull second stringers have been promoted to leads. I've already mentioned the tedium of Duncan and Moore's talky scenes at the police station. The boredom there is briefly relieved by a welcome appearance from Harvey B. Dunn as a concerned taxpayer, but then Dunn disappears after being shamed by one of Kenne Duncan's Dragnet-esque sermons. (In his shooting plan, Wood says that the "taxpayer" character, Romain, is crucial. That's perhaps why he cast Dunn in the relatively small part.)

On the criminal side of the film, hard-boiled Jean Fontaine (who was married to a rich man and only pursued showbiz as a hobby) and twitchy, greasy Dino Fantini add some much-needed color and eccentricity, but the central character of Johnny Ryde, who by all accounts was Ed's onscreen surrogate*, is too demanding for a pedestrian actor like Carl Anthony, who seems supremely stiff and uncomfortable. Gloria's "syndicate" bosses, too, are a flop. They seem like bland bureaucrats rather than flashy gangsters. Maybe that was part of Ed's plan, effectively deglamorizing the world of crime by showing mob bosses as bean counters and number crunchers.  I must say that Gloria and Johnny's pad, supposedly a den of sin and vice, looks like the standard living room set from every late-1950s/early-1960s TV sitcom. You get the sense that Rob Petrie might come in and trip over the ottoman at any moment.
*Yes, in a much-noticed "in joke," Johnny's office contains lobby cards for Plan 9, Jail Bait, The Violent Years, and Bride of the Monster. Johnny refers to the maker of those films as "a friend."

Actress Jean Fontaine, aka "Gloria."
But what about the standard "Ed Wood" brand of eccentricity? What about his pet themes? Oh, they're here. Have no doubt of that. First and foremost, The Sinister Urge is a clumsy patchwork job that tries to incorporate old footage into a new story by means of dubbed-in dialogue and cutaway reaction shots. The mismatches aren't as crazy as the ones in, say, Bride of the Monster (1955), but they'll do. Similarly, the dialogue is oddly formal and heavy on exposition and outdated slang. While not as quotable as some of Wood's other films, it's noticeably off-kilter at certain points. ("I don't dig the angel bit," says Dirk after Johnny unsuccessfully tries to bump him off.) If there's a character you'll be quoting or imitating afterward, it's probably going to be Gloria, whose climactic "that's not Dirk" speech is already well-known to fans of MST3K.

In the aforementioned scenes from Hellborn, Ed himself appears as a clearly over-aged, somewhat paunchy delinquent, fighting with Conrad "Connie" Brooks outside a pizza joint, thus making his first major acting appearance in one of his own films since Glen or Glenda? seven years earlier. That pizza joint is highly reminiscent of the teen hangout repeatedly mentioned in Ed's novel Devil Girls (1967), and one of the female spectators is wearing -- you guessed it -- a fuzzy angora sweater. (I almost typed "a fuzzy pink angora sweater" before remembering that the film was in black-and-white.)

Alcoholism runs all through this film, with Gloria and Johnny boozing it up from one end of the picture to the other. And, yes, there is a scene of transvestism. In order to lure Dirk out of hiding, the police send a male officer dressed in drag to Griffith Park (Dirk's favorite crime scene) to act as "bait" for the mad killer. Does he go for it? Like a moth to a flame, baby. And did I mention that the first victim in the film is a model named Shirley? For those of you just joining us, "Shirley" was Ed Wood's drag name. If you get a kick out of technical mistakes, furthermore, you'll be happy to know that the boom mic is prominent in several scenes, perhaps indicating that either Ed Wood or Bill Thompson was getting sloppy by this point.

Meanwhile, just to show you how interconnected Ed Wood's works truly are, there is a portion of The Sinister Urge that plays like a dramatization of his posthumously-published manuscript, Hollywood Rat Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998). In that book, Ed writes about would-be starlets who come to Hollywood with big dreams after being the lead in a high school play but then wind up being exploited by sleazeballs and phonies. In this movie, the cops discuss such unfortunate young ladies, and then we get to actually see one such victim  in action -- an ingenue named Mary (with all the innocence that name implies) who winds up owing money to Gloria and Johnny and, in order to pay them back, begins a sordid life of indentured servitude as a model for their smutty pictures and films. Such a shame. If only she'd read Ed's book before coming to Hollywood.

Next week: Have I got a treat in store for you? Actually, to be honest, I don't know because the next film is one I've never seen. Could be great. Could be terrible. Could be somewhere in the middle. One of Wood's occasional collaborators in the 1950s and 1960s was a Russian-born director-producer named Boris Petroff. Wood was an unbilled "consultant" (and perhaps more) on Petroff's Anatomy of a Psycho in 1961, and Petroff borrowed the character of Lobo (as played by Tor Johnson) from Bride of the Monster for his infamous 1957 anti-classic The Unearthly. Well, in 1963, Boris Petroff effectively ended his filmmaking career with a backwoods, "hick-sploitation" movie based on a script ghost-written by none other than Eddie Wood. Join me in seven days for an unabashed look at Shotgun Wedding aka Child Brides of the Ozarks. Sounds tasteful enough, doesn't it? Y'all come back now, hear?

Mill Creek comedy classics #57: "Buster Keaton Classics" (1921-1923)

Buster Keaton at the beginning and end of his career. In between these photos, he made many films.
In the photo on the right you can see Buster is missing the tip of his left index finger.

Eddie Cline, a crucial figure in comedy.
NOTE: This is another collection of Buster Keaton's innovative two-reel silent comedies from the early 1920s, made under the banner of Buster Keaton Productions for producer Joseph M. Schenck and distributed theatrically by First National Pictures. The Roaring Twenties were Keaton's peak years as an actor and director, the golden age when he reached his pinnacle of popularity and creativity. An unsung hero in the Buster Keaton saga is Edward F. "Eddie" Cline (1891-1961), a super-prolific director, writer, and occasional actor who was Keaton's most frequent collaborator during this crucial era. 
Although not always credited as such, Cline co-wrote and co-directed most of Buster Keaton's famous two-reelers and pitched in as an actor whenever necessary, too. Born in Kenosha, WI, Cline signed on with Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios in 1914 and began his career as a supporting actor in Charlie Chaplin's Keystone films. It wasn't long before he was writing and directing films in addition to acting in them. Happily, Cline's career did not end with the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s. In fact, during the 1930s, Cline began his professional relationship with another legendary comedian, W.C. Fields. Cline directed Fields in several highly-regarded features, including My Little Chickadee (1939) and The Bank Dick (1940). Fields did not take "direction" in any conventional sense, so Cline was one of the few filmmakers who could successfully work with him... or around him if need be. Interestingly, Stanley Kubrick named The Bank Dick as one of the ten greatest films up to 1963. 
Although Cline dabbled occasionally in other genres, including melodrama, he worked almost exclusively in comedies through the 1940s, occasionally re-teaming with his old pal, Buster Keaton, who by then was a character actor. The 1950s marked the end of Cline's career. He died about 11 years later, never having been fully recognized for his crucial role in the history of film comedy. One of his last gigs was on Buster's short-lived TV show, Life with Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton meets Buster Keaton in Buster Keaton's The Playhouse, also featuring Buster Keaton.

A very accurate description of 1921's The Playhouse.
The first flick*: The Playhouse (First National Pictures release of a Joseph M. Schenck Productions film, 1921) [buy the set]

*The IMDb lists this as The Play House.

Current IMDb rating: 7.8

Directors: Buster Keaton (Allez Oop, Grand Slam Opera) and Edward F. Cline (W.C. Fields' You Can't Cheat an Honest Man)

Actors of note: Buster Keaton (Paradise for Buster, The Man Who Bought Paradise), Edward F. Cline (The Boat), Virginia Fox (The Blacksmith), Joe Murphy (Calamity Jane; played Andy Gump in many short films from 1923 to 1928), Joe Roberts (The Paleface)

Zouave Guards of the French Army.
The gist of it: Buster goes to an opera house where every performer and every audience member, male and female, young and old, looks exactly like him. One patron opens a program and sees that everyone in the cast and crew is named "Buster Keaton." All this turns out to be the surreal dream of an absent-minded stagehand (also Buster), who is roused from his bed by a belligerent stage manager (Roberts) in what turns out to be a set on the stage of an actual opera house. Buster's girlfriend (Fox) works at the opera house, too, but he's always getting her confused with her twin sister (Fox again) who dresses exactly like her. Buster resolves "never to drink anymore... but just as much."

An animal trainer (Cline) unwisely gives Buster the job of dressing a monkey, but the mischievous orangutan immediately escapes. Buster's solution is to disguise himself as the monkey and go on in the creature's place. Later, Buster is tasked with finding men to play Zouave Guards (French light infantry) in the show. He recruits a bunch of laborers (including Murphy) who were napping on the job next door, and the men do an elaborate but disastrous gymnastics routine. A burly actor (Roberts again) sets his phony beard on fire, and Buster uses an ax to knock it off the man's face. Enraged, the actor chases Buster around the theater. Meanwhile, a young woman in the show gets trapped in a glass tank full of water, and Buster comes to the rescue. After unsuccessfully trying to bail her out one teacupful of water at a time, he smashes the tank and floods the entire theater. Sensing dire consequences, Buster grabs his girl and dashes to the Justice of the Peace. But he's grabbed the wrong one, so he goes back to the theater and collects his real girlfriend, carefully marking the nape of her neck with a large "X."

Was this Keaton's comment on showbiz vanity?
My take: An extraordinary technical achievement as well as a pint-sized masterpiece of surrealist comedy, The Playhouse is one of the most amazing things I've seen in this collection. Painstakingly shot with a special shuttered lens that could film only a portion of each scene at a time, this short is a special effects tour de force and a terrific showcase for the versatility of Buster Keaton, who gets to play women, children, musicians, performers of all sorts, and even a monkey. As a writer-director, Keaton was clearly interested in pushing the limits of cinema and seeing how far he could go with the existing technology.

The Playhouse would merely be an interesting but dry technical exercise if there weren't any sharp comedic ideas behind it, but fortunately Buster Keaton's mind was ablaze with such ideas in 1921. The dream sequence, for instance, could be interpreted as a parody of show business egotism and megalomania. (It's also an obvious predecessor for the infamous restaurant scene in Being John Malkovich.) After the dream ends, we think we are back in the "real world," only to find that the supposed bedroom is just another theatrical set! From there, the movie lurches from one bizarre vignette to the next as Buster's slyly subversive character causes chaos throughout the theater. Why Buster Keaton ever decided to make himself up to look like a monkey is beyond me, but he certainly takes to the role with abandon. One wonders about the fate of the escaped orangutan, who is never seen again after making his getaway.

The "Zouave Guards" sequence is another seemingly random, out-of-the-blue choice in the film's diverse script, and it somehow leads to an elaborate slapstick acrobatic routine with a cannon and at least two dwarf actors. (Though maybe it's just one dwarf made to seem like two through camera trickery. In this film, who knows?) The IMDb claims that Keaton's stunts in The Playhouse were "tame" because the actor was recovering from a broken ankle, but he certainly does a lot of running, jumping, climbing, and falling in this film. The water tank sequence, for instance, must have been physically punishing for all the actors involved, including Buster.

Incidentally, the film's little joke about Buster's vow "never to drink anymore" after confusing his fiancee with her identical twin becomes bitterly ironic when you consider that alcoholism would nearly ruin Buster's career and life.

Is it funny: Yes, and frequently, too! It's a shame Buster didn't do more drag humor, because he's awfully good at it. Just the sight of Buster as a society matron in a dress, makeup, and wig is comical because these trappings make him look just like Maggie Smith. He makes a good "bratty kid" and "negligent mother," too. That mother, perched in a balcony, carelessly spills her Coca-Cola on some poor spectators below her. With typical Keaton stoicism, the victim of this rude behavior simply takes out an umbrella to cover himself. Some of my favorite jokes in the film are the simple ones, like when Buster walks up to a punch clock, ponders it for a moment, then very literally punches it. As usual, big bruiser Joe Roberts makes an excellent foil to "twig boy" Buster, and it's fun to see the wily comedian get on the nerves of his physically imposing rival time and again. Buster's main asset as a comedic character is that he's basically unshakable and can quickly adjust to any catastrophe. When the orchestra pit floods, for instance, he merely turns a bass drum into a makeshift canoe and uses a violin as a paddle. Problem solved!

My grade: A

This YouTube clip, though subtitled in French, is much clearer and sharper than Mill Creek's print.

P.S. - Yes, regrettably, there are some racial stereotypes in this film. Namely, Buster appears in full blackface makeup playing a character called "Mr. Bones" as part of a minstrel show, and there's a poster outside the theater showing a caricatured African-American man playing a banjo. No getting around that. But at least the intertitles make no attempt at replicating "Negro" dialect, and the lame joke "Mr. Bones" tells is a standard schoolyard riddle with no racial overtones. Considering that the theater's marquee promises "twenty-five of the world's greatest minstrel stars," the blackface portion of The Playhouse is mercifully brief and not at all central to the film.


"Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon?": Buster Keaton in The Balloonatic.

The second flick: The Balloonatic (First National/Buster Keaton Productions, 1923) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.7

Director: Buster Keaton (The High Sign, The Love Nest) and Edward F. Cline (The Villain Still Pursued Her)

Actors of note: Buster Keaton (Palooka from Paducah, Oh Doctor!), Phyllis Haver (Don Juan, Yankee Doodle in Berlin; broke into showbiz as one of Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties; retired from acting to marry a millionaire in 1929; she divorced him in 1945 and committed suicide in 1960), Babe London (plump comic actress who worked in films from the 1920s to the 1950s; appeared in The Snake Pit, Road to Rio, and Buster Keaton's The Paleface)

Phyllis Haver and Buster Keaton in their flying canoe.
The gist of it: On a fine summer day, Buster visits an amusement park and is bedeviled by phony skeletons, man-made fog, and fabricated demons at a spooky attraction called the House of Trouble. After unsuccessfully attempting to woo a young lady with the old Sir Walter Raleigh cloak-and-mud-puddle routine, our hero then attends a demonstration of a hot air balloon... which, of course, accidentally takes off with Buster on board. While he's up in the sky "three and a half miles higher than a kite," Buster decides to do some duck hunting and manages to deflate the balloon with his rifle.

After plummeting to earth, he safely lands on top of a tall tree in a wooded area. By the next morning, Buster has set up camp and has somehow constructed a canoe, the Minnie-Tee-Hee, whose three separate sections keep coming apart. Meanwhile, there's an attractive young lady (Haver) who is also fishing and hunting in this same forest, and she keeps crossing paths with the disaster-prone Buster. At first she is irritated with him, but over time she begins to like him. After the hapless man narrowly escapes being eaten by a bear, he and the lady begin a "backwoods romance." The young man and woman float down the river in the newly-refurbished Minnie-Tee-Hee, blissfully unaware that they're about to go over a waterfall. But at the crucial moment, the canoe miraculously doesn't fall. We then see that Buster has attached the hot air balloon to the vessel. As Buster and his sweetheart sail through the air in their curious balloon boat, the front and back of the Minnie-Tee-Hee again fall off.

Buster on top of the balloon.
My take: Unlike the other films in this Mill Creek project, the Buster Keaton shorts have often required me to take notes before composing my reviews. The reason for this is that they don't follow any conventional logical patterns, plot-wise, but instead consist of almost-unconnected events strung together in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Just when you think the story is going to be about one thing (Buster is pushed around by creatures in a haunted house), it switches to something else (Buster tries to put the moves on a brunette, only to get a black eye for his troubles), then something else again (Buster climbs on top of a hot air balloon, which then unexpectedly takes off). The hunting and fishing plot seemed to come out of nowhere (a clear blue sky, so to speak), and until the last scene, I thought Buster had forgotten that this was supposed to be a movie about hot air ballooning.

The Fatty Arbuckle and Keystone Cops shorts had only a small handful of comedic ideas apiece; Buster's films seemingly contain dozens, all trying to elbow each other out of the way. The Playhouse obviously had a strong central location to keep things grounded. The Balloonatic, like the hot air balloon itself, is not tethered to anything in particular and simply floats from place to place. The only thing these scenes really have in common is Buster Keaton himself. Maybe that's why Buster insisted on wearing the silly hat and keeping his facial expression the same all the time; it's a way of establishing continuity in a movie which would otherwise be totally disjointed.

Is it funny: A good number of the jokes still work, yeah. I got some yuks out of the physical bits, like Buster pouring water out of his boots by standing on his head, for instance, or Buster diving into the water to save the girl but totally missing the river and flopping on the dirt instead. The House of Trouble (with its irresistible slogan "Get Into Trouble - 10 Cents") is a very promising locale, and I wish we'd seen more of it. One of the film's best gags is that visitors to the House of Trouble are rudely ejected via a slide which dumps them on the front sidewalk. After his experience leaves him befuddled, Buster stays in front of the attraction a little too long, and a hefty customer (London) lands on him. And I enjoyed the scene at a log-flume ride called "Ye Old Mill" in which Buster sits next to an attractive woman. We don't see what happens when their car enters a dark tunnel, but our hero emerges with a broken hat and a severely blackened eye.

My grade: B

P.S. - Apart from the faux Native American name of Buster's canoe, there's nothing racist here, though there is a lot of implied violence towards animals.


Family reunion: Buster gets up close and personal with the in-laws in My Wife's Relations.

The third flick: My Wife's Relations (First National Pictures, 1922) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.7

Director: Buster Keaton (The Railrodder, The Rough House)

Actors of note: Buster Keaton (The Gold Ghost, Nothing but Pleasure), Monte Collins (Our Hospitality, The King of Kings), Wheezer Dell (Major League pitcher, 1912-1917), Kate Price (prolific, mostly forgotten silent screen comedienne of the 1910s and 1920s; career petered out in the '30s), Harry Madison (spent a quarter-century on the vaudeville circuit; made only two films, the other being King of the Circus), Joe Roberts (a regular in Buster Keaton's short films until a second stroke killed him in 1923), Tom Wilson (normally a blackface performer; appeared without the burnt cork makeup in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid)

Buster and the clan pose for a portrait.
The gist of it: In "the foreign section of a big city" where "people misunderstand each other perfectly," Buster is a young artist who works as a taffy puller in a candy shop. Unfortunately, he gets a little too into his work, knocks over a helpless mailman, and winds up with someone else's envelope stuck to his shoe in the process. The mailman tosses a bottle at Buster, smashing a window, and our taffy puller takes off running. Unfortunately, he collides with Kat (Price), an enormous and unpleasant woman who sees the broken window, assumes Buster is responsible, and drags him in front of a judge. The judge, however, only speaks Polish and was expecting to perform a marriage ceremony that day, and before you can say "annulment," Buster and Kat are man and wife.

A surprisingly delighted Kat drags the young man home to the small-ish apartment she shares with her father (Collins) and her four enormous, rough-mannered brothers (Dell, Roberts, Madison, and Wilson). Buster gets knocked around a lot at first by the whole family, who say he "won't last a week," but while Buster's asleep, his in-laws rifle through his possessions and find the errant envelope, which leads them to believe that Kat's new hubby has just inherited $100,000. (That's $1.3 million in today's money.) Treating the penniless taffy puller like a king, Kat sends Buster out the next morning to rent a nicer place for the whole family to live. He opts for a townhouse with sky-high rent, and he and his new family begin to live like royalty.

During a party, however, the relations discover that the envelope wasn't intended for Buster, and our young hero has to make a quick getaway before they kill him, bill him, or both! Fortunately, some home-brewed beer (to which Buster has added too much yeast) floods the house with foam, providing Buster the chance to escape from Kat and hop on the first train out of town.

My take: It may have been an omen that Buster Keaton made My Wife's Relations the year after he married actress Natalie Talmadge. Their union came to a bitter end a decade later. Natalie was so thoroughly disillusioned by the experience that she opted never to marry again, but Buster gave matrimony two more chances. (The third time was, in fact, the charm for him.) While The Balloonatic was all over the place, literally and figuratively, My Wife's Relations is a straight-down-the-middle sitcom-type story with a clear narrative through-line. I can imagine the same basic thing happening to, say, one of the Three Stooges. (Most likely Shemp.)

As "marital hell" stories go, Relations can't really compete with the acidic wit of W.C. Field's domestic comedies, but then again, a Fields film wouldn't have the rigorous physical buffoonery on display here. One particularly astonishing sequence occurs when the brothers are chasing Buster around the townhouse. Buster tumbles down one flight of stairs, getting himself rolled up in the carpet, then falls down another flight of stairs, perfectly unrolling the carpet again. After the groundbreaking experimentalism of The Playhouse, Buster Keaton proved with this film that he could do more "normal" stories and still hold the audience's attention with well-conceived and perfectly-executed gags. It's no world beater, but My Wife's Relations is a modest winner.

How about putting some coffee in your sugar, man?
Is it funny: Yes. Keaton isn't trying to dazzle us with cinematic technique or surreal storytelling here the way he did in his other, more daring films. My Wife's Relations is just a clothesline on which he pins a series of goofy jokes. But they're well-done, clever jokes, so it works out just fine, both for him and for us.

As I see it, the comedic highlight is probably Buster's first meal with his new family. He ends up passing so many items to so many people that he doesn't have time to eat! (A similar thing happened to Danny Kaye in The Inspector General.) Then, the main course -- I think it's supposed to be meatloaf -- is served, and after taking a moment to say grace, Kat and her family go after it like a pack of wild dogs, leaving none for Buster. He craftily comes up with a plan to change that, though, by surreptitiously tearing a page off the wall-mounted calendar and convincing his new family that it's actually Friday instead of Thursday. They must be Catholic, because they immediately stop eating the meatloaf, meaning Buster can have as much of it as he wants. In that same scene, Buster gets tired of seeing his brother-in-law add one sugar cube after another to his coffee, so he simply takes the brother's coffee and dumps it in the sugar bowl. Voila! A truly Keaton-esque solution! Another shining moment comes when the entire family is posing for a photographic portrait. Buster has to go to some extreme lengths to make sure he's actually visible in the picture. Watch the movie. You'll see what I mean.

My grade: B

P.S. - I don't think Polish-Americans will be too thrilled with the portrayal of Kat and her piggish family in this film. But their ethnicity is not really the joke here, just that Buster has accidentally stumbled into a terrible marriage with a woman who happens to be Polish Catholic. After the scroll at the beginning, which describes the communication difficulties among non-English-speaking immigrants in large cities, I was expecting much worse than this.


Shocking, isn't it? Buster Keaton rewires a mansion in The Electric House. At left: a Swedish poster for the film.

The fourth flick: The Electric House (First National Pictures, 1922) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.2

Directors: Buster Keaton (Hollywood Handicap, Spite Marriage) and Edward F. Cline (Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus)

Actors of note: Buster Keaton (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), Virginia Fox (The Paleface), Joe Murphy (his last film, The Misfit with Clyde Cook, was released posthumously in 1924), Steve Murphy (Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.), Joe, Myrna, and Louise Keaton (Buster's real-life father, mother, and sister)

"Electric snooker": A Buster Keaton innovation.
The gist of it: Buster has just graduated from "State University" with a doctorate in botany, but he gets his diploma mixed up with that of an electrical engineer (Murphy). The wealthy dean (Roberts) offers Buster a job wiring his mansion for electricity, and Buster accepts because he has a crush on the rich man's daughter (Fox). The real engineer is none too pleased with this outcome and seethes with resentment at Buster. The dean and his family then go on holiday, expecting Buster to be done with the job when they come back home.

When they return, they find that the young man has indeed added all kinds of crazy electrical gadgets to their house, including: a lever which raises or lowers the water in the pool; a model train which carries dishes from the kitchen to the dining room and back; a conveyer belt which loads and unloads the balls from a snooker table; and an escalator to the second floor. The escalator moves too quickly, though, and sends the dean crashing through an upstairs window into the aforementioned pool. Despite this and other mishaps, the family throws a party to show off their "newfangled" home to some guests. But the real electrical engineer sneaks into the home with the intention of sabotaging Buster. It works, and the machines start attacking the guests.

Buster then attempts to get a little retaliation of his own against the engineer by using the escalator to dump his rival in the pool. Unhappily for Buster, he ends up inadvertently depositing the dean into the pool, too. Buster is fired by his outraged employer and then tries to commit suicide by jumping in the pool with a heavy rock from the garden tied to his waist. The dean (who hates Buster) and his daughter (who now loves him) use the electric lever to alternately raise and lower the water in the pool, either saving or drowning him. But while they argue whether the botanist should live or die, a huge drain pipe carries Buster away to a remote spot in the woods... where he's reunited with the soaking-wet electrical engineer.

Design for Leaving: Daffy modernizes Elmer's home.
My take: Buster Keaton was rather famously injured during the filming of the escalator sequence of The Electric House, so he shelved the film temporarily and worked on The Playhouse instead, limping along on a broken ankle. But he started again from scratch on The Electric House with all-new sets and all-new footage the very next year. Why? I'm guessing it was because he sincerely believed in the underlying concept and knew it would work. And he was right! Our lives and homes are so technology-saturated today that the basic premise now seems a little quaint, giving this short some added historical value. It reminds me of that great Daffy Duck/Elmer Fudd cartoon, Design for Leaving (1954), in which the mercurial mallard plays an overeager salesman who installs various "push-button" devices in a cranky suburbanite's home for a ten-day free home trial. These machines, of course, end up trashing the house and brutalizing its owner -- not by malfunctioning, but by functioning too well.

The same basic thing happens here, except that the homeowner has volunteered for this treatment. I wonder if the makers of Design for Leaving saw The Electric House. I'm sure they must have at some point. In any event, while Keaton did not have the freedom afforded to filmmakers through animation, he did come up with plenty of ingenious devices and wild, gadget-centric situations in this satire of technology in the days of the Warren G. Harding administration. The escalator, of course, is probably the most impressive of all... even if it did temporarily hobble the great comic. All told, Design for Leaving is one of the strongest Keaton shorts I've seen and, as always, features some dazzling stunts. I'm tellin' ya, man, this Buster Keaton was a world-class athlete! The exteriors of the electrified house, by the way, were filmed at Buster's real-life home, so if you want to see how he was living in those days, here's your chance.

Is it funny: Oh, yes. Probably the single-funniest sight in this film is that of Buster trying in vain to run against the direction of the escalator and getting nowhere fast. Perhaps the best use of this device comes when Buster tries to lug a heavy trunk up the stairs, not knowing that a female servant has crawled inside after being bedeviled by the vengeful engineer's tricks. Meanwhile, Buster and Joe Roberts have a great skinny-guy-annoys-fat-guy dynamic going, making it all the more sad that Roberts only had a year or so left to live. But pretty much everybody in The Electric House is injured in some way by Buster's strange machines, as when Buster's famous model train simply bypasses all the other people sitting at the dinner table and deposits all the dishes right in the lap of the dean's wife. In real life, Buster was so taken with the train that he set up a similar one in his own dining room at home. I'm guessing he didn't do the same with the escalator.

My grade: A-


P.S. - Noting even remotely like a racial or ethnic stereotype here.