Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #56: "Buster Keaton Festival" (1921-1922)

Writer-director-star Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton is considered a genius of early film comedy.

Joseph M. Schenck gave
Buster his big break.
NOTE: This program contains four silent films, each about 20 minutes in length, which comedian Buster Keaton made in 1921 and 1922, starring in them as well as co-directing and co-writing. Born Joseph Frank Keaton on October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, young "Buster" (a nickname which, according to legend, was bestowed upon him by Harry Houdini) entered show business at the age of three as part of his family's slapsick-oriented vaudeville act, with his alcoholic father Joe and his beleaguered mother Myra, who played the saxophone. Never receiving much in the way of formal schooling, Buster nevertheless became a rising comedy star as a member of "The Three Keatons" and broke with his father to start a solo career in the late 1910s. 
After serving in World War I and suffering permanent hearing damage as a result, Buster met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1917 and soon signed a film contract with producer Joseph M. Schenck, a key figure in the early motion picture industry. Schenck assigned the young comic to work with Arbuckle as a supporting actor, gag-man, and all-purpose crew member. Satisfied with the young man's work, Schenck generously allowed Keaton to make his own silent comedies under the personal banner of Buster Keaton Productions. First came a number of successful short films, including the four I am about to review, then a series of features which are among the most-acclaimed in comedy and film history. Critic Roger Ebert pinpoints the years between 1920 and 1929 as Buster's creative peak. During this era, Buster Keaton earned the nickname "the Great Stone Face" for his never-changing stoic appearance. 
In features and shorts, Keaton wowed audiences and critics alike with his daring stunt work and innovative gags. His film-making career declined, however, once he signed on with MGM and lost the creative independence he had enjoyed with Schenck. Like his father (who was killed by a passing automobile in 1946), Buster also became an alcoholic and nearly lost his career because of it. Happily, though, he made a comeback in the 1940s as a busy and in-demand comedic character actor, and he racked up many, many film and television appearances right up until his death in 1966 at the age of 70.

This ad for The Blacksmith parodies Longfellow, but they should have changed "brawny" to "scrawny."
C'mon, guys, that's Parody 101.

The first flick: The Blacksmith (First National Pictures release of a Buster Keaton Productions film, 1922) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.0

Directors: Buster Keaton (The General; Sherlock, Jr.) and Malcolm "Mal" St. Clair (The Goat, The Bullfighters; busy director of shorts and features of all genres in the silent years; career faltered a bit in the sound era, but he did direct four Laurel & Hardy features in the 1930s and 1940s; famed as one of Hollywood's tallest directors)

Actors of note: Buster Keaton (Sunset Blvd., Around the World in Eighty Days, The Villain Still Pursued Her), Virginia Fox (1920s comedienne who mostly worked for Mack Sennett; married for 55 years to film tycoon Daryl F. Zanuck), Joe Roberts (Our Hospitality, One Week; appeared in nearly all of his pal Buster Keaton's short films but not much else; died of a stroke the year after this movie was released)

Publicity shot with Keaton, Roberts, and Fox.
The gist of it: Opening with a few lines from Henry Wordsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Village Blacksmith," this film depicts Buster as the predictably incompetent assistant to a burly, ill-tempered blacksmith (Roberts). Buster's duties include shoeing horses and repairing automobiles, but he excels at neither of these. When he goes to assist his disagreeable boss, a giant magnet over the door of the workshop snatches two hammers and a wheel away from the hapless Buster.

When the boss starts pushing him around, a sheriff tries to intervene... only to find that his badge and gun have been grabbed by the giant magnet, too. A group of deputies manage to drag the blacksmith off to jail after Buster knocks him out by falling on him. But our hapless hero's problems do not end there. An attractive female equestrian (Fox) brings her white horse in to be shoed and groomed. Buster chooses to do this while simultaneously working on a car, so he manages to get oily handprints all over the animal. Another horsewoman comes in, complaining about the roughness of the ride, and Buster sells her a ridiculous contraption called a "saddle shock absorber" and sends her bouncing off down the road. Later, a wealthy man brings his fancy car into the shop to be repaired, and Buster wastes little time in destroying it.

While he's doing this, the blacksmith gets out of jail and comes looking for revenge. He and some of the shop's dissatisfied customers (including the wealthy man and the shock absorber lady) form a lynch mob and go after him. Meanwhile, Buster has managed to (accidentally) save the life of Virginia Fox's character, and the two of them hop on board the "honeymoon express," while the lynch mob is drenched by a railroad water tower.

Buster's famous hat
My take: One aspect of Buster's on-screen character I have thus far neglected to mention is his famous hat: an absurdly flat porkpie-style topper. It looks either like a cake which has failed to rise or a flying saucer piloted by tiny aliens who have inadvertently parked their vehicle on top of Buster Keaton's head. In The Blacksmith, Buster wears the hat at all times, and his long, thin face makes the pitiful little chapeau seem all the more inadequate and undersized for the job it's supposed to be doing. You get the impression that this guy has owned the hat since he was a small child and didn't stop wearing it even though he'd outgrown it.

Anyway, the plot of The Blacksmith is par for the course in comedic shorts of this nature: a guy screws up at his job in a variety of ways, causing mayhem along the way and angering both the boss and the customers. I'd say that sitcoms and movies are still doing variations on that basic formula, wouldn't you? This could have been The Butcher, The Baker, or The Candlestick Maker, and the plot wouldn't have been that different.

The challenge here is: what kind of jokes can you do in a blacksmith's shop? Well, there are hot coals, which Buster can use to cook his lunch. And he can also manage to accidentally sit on a red-hot horseshoe, forcing him to cool his ass off in a bucket of water. (I think this the first time that beloved cartoon joke has shown up in one of these Mill Creek comedies.) Buster increases the number of comedic possibilities by having the blacksmith's shop offer both horseshoes and auto repair, allowing him to do horse jokes (Buster treats a horse as if it were a human customer at a shoe store) and car jokes (Buster uses a child's balloon to hold up one end of an automobile's frame until it pops, sending the car crashing down).

In general, the gags work as intended, and the film is fast-paced and amiable, making The Blacksmith a success. I can't say I would have sensed genius here, but there is a definite skill in the way Keaton sets up his jokes. Notice, for instance, the big "reveal" of the oily handprints on the side of the white horse. From one side, the horse looks completely normal. Then, its rider turns her steed around, and we see the extent of the mess Buster has made.

Is it funny: Yeah, I laughed a few times, particularly at the movie's opening joke. The first intertitle card is a quote from the famous Longfellow poem: "Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands." Cut to Buster leaning against a very tall palm tree. The camera methodically tilts upward to show the top of the tree, then a wide shot reveals how small Buster looks standing next to it. Big, bald Joe Roberts makes a perfect foil for Buster; they're a classic Laurel & Hardy-type "angry fatso vs. dimwitted beanpole" duo. Buster's utter detachment is the key to his comedic persona. He doesn't react visibly to the events around him; he simply accepts them as they come, good and bad, with that same stoic countenance. In the tableaux of domestic bliss at the end of the film, Buster is now apparently a husband and father, but he looks neither happier nor sadder than he was as the blacksmith's lowly assistant.

My grade: B+

P.S. - No real racist humor here. Buster does get his face covered in motor oil, but there's never any attempt to convey this as "blackface."

Interestingly, "Eddie" Cline does get a co-writer and co-director credit in this ad for The Boat.

The second flick: The Boat (First National/Buster Keaton, 1921) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.1

Director*: Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill, Jr.; The Cameraman)
*He doesn't get an onscreen credit in the print I saw, but the IMDb says that Edward F. Cline of The Villain Still Pursued Her was Keaton's co-writer and co-director on this and other films.
Actors of note: Buster Keaton (It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Edward F. Cline (stalwart director of comedies from the 1910s through the 1940s; last credit was Life with Buster Keaton, a 1951 TV series; as an actor, appeared in Cops, The Scarecrow, and other short films of the 1910s and 1920s), Sybil Seely (One Week, The Scarecrow; one of Buster's frequent leading ladies but quit the business after just a few years to marry a writer named Jules Furthman)

Buster's fans call themselves
Damfinos because of this short.
The gist of it: Buster has built a boat, the Damfino (a play on "damn if I know"), in the workshop under his house, but it's too big to fit through the door once it's completed. He widens the door and tows the boat outside with the family car, bringing down the entire house in the process. Undaunted, he salvages a bathtub from the rubble and takes his wife (Seely) and two small sons out on the road, dragging the boat behind them. They arrive at a marina, where Buster gets out of his car while it's still rolling, sending it tumbling off the pier into the water.

After an unsuccessful first launch, Buster finally manages to get the Damfino afloat, and he takes his family on a sea cruise into the mighty Pacific Ocean (destroying a bit of the pier in the process). Once anchored out at sea, the Damfino is hit by a mighty storm and begins to take on water. Buster wires for help, but the SOS receiver (Cline) thinks it's a prank when he hears the vessel's name. The would-be sea captain manages to get his wife and sons into the bathtub lifeboat, while he apparently goes down with the ship. His porkpie hat rises to the surface, and his family members begin to mourn -- until they see that Buster is still under it. He climbs into the bathtub with them, but this makeshift dinghy also begins to sink. That's when Buster and his family realize that the water beneath them is only a few feet deep, and they simply walk to shore.

My takeThe Boat is quite an accomplishment, both as a comedy and as an example of early cinema. Buster attempts -- and, better yet, achieves -- some very ambitious moments here. The destruction of the Keaton homestead, for instance, is perfectly handled. And that's good news, because there's no way he could have gotten a second take of it. Once the boat is out on the water, Keaton manages to use camera tricks, pantomime, revolving sets, and models to create the illusion of nautical discord. It's really quite something. You ought to see it.

A Keaton-esque moment from Malcolm in the Middle.

With his permanently blank facial expression, Buster serves as his own straight man. Throughout the many calamities in this film, Buster's mood never changes. Twice during The Boat, Keaton calmly stands atop the Damfino as it sinks into the Pacific Ocean. It reminded me of a moment from Malcolm in the Middle in which the show's four rowdy brothers betray almost no emotion as their golf cart is submerged in a water hazard. The outlandish visual jokes were Buster's specialty, of course, but he also used the captions and intertitle cards to his advantage. In The Blacksmith, he was able to ironically contrast his pitiful character with the paragon of manliness described in Longfellow's verse. In this film, he uses the cards to convey a bit of comedic "dialogue" between himself and Eddie Cline.

After a few viewings, I can easily see why Buster Keaton's hardcore fans have decided to honor this particular film by dubbing themselves "the Damfinos." Modern day viewers, however, might be horrified at Buster Keaton's terrible parenting style. He himself was physically abused on stage as part of his family's act when he was a child, and his character's sons are treated just as roughly in this movie.

Is it funny: Yes, happily. I've already mentioned the film's major visual gags, but there are a lot of funny little moments along the way, too. My favorite moment comes when Buster has accidentally dumped his son overboard; the selfish father tests the water's temperature before deciding whether or not to jump in and rescue the child. Then, there's Buster's ill-advised attempt to nail a painting to the wall of the ship's cabin. When water starts pouring in, the confused man seems to think that perhaps the painting itself (a nautical scene) is leaking. Later, when the Damfino starts taking on water in disturbing quantities, Keaton drills a hole in the bottom of the boat to let some of it out. Needless to say, he's unhappy with the results. I also appreciated the fact that the bathtub's faucet somehow still worked and could provide fresh drinking water on demand. Buster catches some in his hat, but then puts the hat back on his head.

My grade: A-

P.S. - Any racial stereotypes? Nope. No room for 'em on the boat, I guess.

Buster Keaton shares the screen with a fake Indian (Joe Roberts) in The Paleface.

The third flick: The Paleface (Assorted First National/Buster Keaton Productions, 1922) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.0

Director*: Buster Keaton (Our Hospitality, The Navigator)
*Again, Edward F. Cline was an uncredited co-director.
Actors of note: Buster Keaton (Convict 13, Beach Blanket Bingo), Virginia Fox and Joe Roberts (both from The Blacksmith, as seen above)

Buster's winsome co-star, Virginia Fox
The gist of it: An unscrupulous oil tycoon wants some land which currently belongs to a peaceful Indian tribe, so he sends one of his thugs to knock one of the tribesmen out and steal the deed away from him, leaving a silver dollar in the man's palm as "payment." The tribe's Chief (Roberts) gets notice that he and his people have to vacate the land, so he instructs his warriors to kill the first white man who sets foot on the property. That happens to be an oblivious butterfly collector (Keaton) who has no clue what is going on. The Indians tie Buster to the stake to burn him alive, but he escapes and takes shelter in a nearby cabin, where he he designs a fireproof bodysuit to be worn under his clothes.

Once he's recaptured by the tribe, Buster survives being burned at the stake because of his "asbestos BVDs" and is initiated into the tribe as a member in good standing. A lovely Indian maiden (Fox) takes notice of this odd new tribesman, who is dubbed "Little Chief Paleface." He and his fellow Indians go to the office of the oil man and do a war dance around his desk. But the bad guy sneaks out, steals a horse, and escapes. Buster and the Indians go after him, but the oil man gets the drop on Buster and demands that they switch clothes, so the approaching Indians will aim their arrows at Buster instead. It works for a while, but eventually the tribesmen realize that the man they thought was the oil tycoon is really Buster, aka "Little Chief Paleface." Better yet, the oil man forgot to take the deed to the land out of his suit pocket. Triumphant, Buster kisses the Indian maiden (whom he calls "squab" instead of "squaw") in a moment of passion which goes on for a ridiculously long time.

My take: Much shorter and incalculably funnier than Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, The Paleface is an excellent showcase for Buster's talents as both a comedian and as a director. Of course, the holocaust of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans was not so distant in the country's rear-view mirror at the time. In the 2009 documentary Reel Injun, which includes clips of The Paleface, critic Jesse Wente puts it this way:
There were more than a hundred silents made involving Native Americans, very much as this part of American history, of course, was really still ongoing at the time that cinema was really being born.
So the wounds were still fresh when Buster Keaton made this film. While The Paleface does not present an enlightened, complex view of Native Americans, it at least makes them (mostly) the heroes of this story. The villains are greedy jerks who want to take the beautiful land away from the Indians and drill for oil there. Buster is caught in the middle and, admirably, sides with the natives. The Paleface is not really intended as any kind of racial or political statement, though. It's a showcase for Buster Keaton, and it's quite a magnificent one.

Filmed mostly outdoors, The Paleface makes excellent use of its locations, especially in the long shots which show the action at a distance so that the audience gets a good look at the natural surroundings. This helps when Buster is, say, falling off a cliff or trying to cross a canyon on a precarious rope bridge. While modern audiences may cringe a bit at the very "Hollywood" depiction of Native American life, it's difficult to deny the artistry and craftsmanship that Buster Keaton brought to this film.

Is it funny: And how! Sorry, but I couldn't resist that terrible, terrible joke. The Paleface is chockablock with classic Keaton routines. He starts earning laughs from the moment he makes his first appearance, trying in vain to beat up a butterfly. And there's a very amusing sequence when he discovers that the stake to which he has been tied is not embedded in the ground. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that his character takes great advantage of this situation. More than the other comedians of this era whose work I've been seeing lately, Buster really tries to defy the laws of gravity and physics in his films. His "Chief Paleface," who cannily adds a feather to his trademark porkpie hat, soars and tumbles and goes flying through the air like a cartoon character. Probably the film's best sequence is the one in which he builds a bridge while he crosses it. But there are funny little moments, too, as when the butterfly collector stands behind a tiny tree for the sake of modesty when he and the oil tycoon trade clothes.

My grade: A-

P.S. -  Obviously no African-American stereotypes, but Native American stereotypes? You betchum, kemo sabe. There's a little bit of phony "Injun talk" in the title cards, and members of a rival tribe are inelegantly referred to as "savages" who "went broke playing strip poker." All the usual Hollywood cliches are here: war dances, peace pipes, scalping, burning at the stake, an exotic Indian princess who falls for the white hero, etc. Like I said, a documentary this ain't. But for the time, the politics of The Paleface are fairly progressive.

A lovely Dutch advertisement for the film. The foreign title translates as The Daydreamer.

The fourth flick: Daydreams* (First National, 1922) [buy the set]
*The IMDb spells it Day Dreams.
Current IMDb rating: 7.0

Director*: Buster Keaton (In the Good Old Summertime, Excuse My Dust)
*Again, Edward F. Cline is Buster's co-director. He's credited on the print I saw.
Actors of note: Buster Keaton (episodes of TV's The Twilight Zone, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, and Burke's Law), Renée Adorée (French-born ex-circus performer turned film star; died of tuberculosis at age 35), Joe Keaton (Buster's dad, a drunken ex-vaudevillian; Buster threw a few parts his way once he made it big in silent pictures), Edward F. Cline (see The Boat above), Joe Roberts (see The Blacksmith above), George Rowe (Stan Laurel's Oranges and Lemons)

Buster evades the police in a giant paddle wheel. 

The gist of it: A young man (Buster Keaton) wants to marry his sweetheart (Adorée), but the girl's crotchety father (Joe Keaton) wants to know if this ne'er-do-well can support his daughter. The young man says he'll go to the city and try to accomplish great things. If he fails, he vows to shoot himself. The girl's father agrees to this and says the young man can use his revolver.

Our hero does go to the city and starts sending back letters to his girlfriend, stretching the truth outrageously about his supposed triumphs. First, he tells her he's heading up a sanitarium with 200 patients... when he's really working at a veterinary hospital, and his "patients" are cats and dogs. He gets fired from this job after mistaking a skunk for a cat and bringing it into the doctor's examining room. Then he writes his girl that he's "cleaning up" in the financial district. And he is... as a street sweeper. The problem is, he's having no luck whatsoever removing dirt from the street, dumping some of it in open manholes and onto the heads of unamused sewer workers.

His fortunes further decline when there's a messy ticker tape parade for the Mayor (Roberts) and he unwisely chooses a fire hose to clean the street. Finally, he tells his beloved that he's playing the lead in Hamlet. In truth, he's merely an extra, apparently portraying a Roman soldier in a historical pageant. When he winds up on the wrong side of the curtain at the end of a scene, the angry theater director (Cline) tosses him out on the street with only his skirt-like Roman soldier costume. He tries to steal a suit of clothes from a second hand shop and attracts the attention of policemen, leading to an uproarious chase which ends with Buster jumping in the water and being caught by a fisherman... who throws him back.

Our sad protagonist returns as a failure to his girlfriend and her father and agrees to accept his fate, but he misses when he tries to shoot himself. Buster asks the girl's father how he can set things right, and in response, the father tosses the worthless young man out the window.

My take: Considering the rocky relationship Buster and Joe Keaton must have had, Daydreams is a fascinating artifact indeed, seeing as how Buster spends the entire movie trying and failing to win Joe's approval. This turned out to be my favorite of the four Keaton shorts in this collection, though I liked each of them individually.

What sets Daydreams apart is the sheer variety of settings and the wild inventiveness of the jokes on display in this one film. Because Buster's luckless (and, truth be told, brainless) character attempts three different jobs, we get to see him in three very different environments. First, he struggles with the animals at the veterinary hospital, stupidly putting a cat into a bottomless basket and then even more stupidly grabbing a skunk by its tail and bringing it inside. (Later, we see Buster in a robe burying his clothes in the backyard.) Next, we see Buster as a street sweeper whose job is like a comedic version of the myth of Sisyphus. The more he attempts to "clean" the street, the messier it gets.

His final career, as a bit player in the theater, flashes by all too briefly but leads to one of the greatest comedic foot chases I've ever witnessed. The climactic riverboat scene, with Buster running around inside the vessel's paddle wheel like a hamster in a wheel, is a classic. It's funny because it's unexpected, and it's also quite a feat on Keaton's part. Make no mistake: this man was a great athlete. Just examine the scene in which he manages to jump aboard a moving streetcar. I hope his dad was suitably impressed.

Buster Keaton's Daydreams evokes harakiri. 

Is it funny: Oh, yes. Quite. The movie quickly sets up what is, to me, a very funny pattern: Buster sends letters to his girl in which he lies about his job, and the girl swoons and dreams of the success her paramour is having. If nothing else, this affords us the chance to see Buster Keaton very briefly play Hamlet, complete with tights and a skull. Buster's pledge to kill himself, a Westernized version of harakiri or seppuku, gives the film a dark undertone which, to me, made it even funnier. Since this movie is about impressing one's elders and maintaining honor at all cost (even death), I wonder how well it played over in Japan. In any event, Daydreams (unlike its spectacularly incompetent protagonist) works extremely well from start to finish, with Keaton's intricate jokes landing right where they're supposed to. What can I say? I loved this one.

My grade: A


P.S. - Not a stereotype for miles.