Wednesday, September 25, 2013

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

Buster Keaton at the beginning and end of his career. Notice that Buster is missing the tip of his left index finger.

Eddie Cline
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.

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

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 in a 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 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.

Buster 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 that raises or lowers the water in the pool; a model train that carries dishes from the kitchen to the dining room and back; a conveyer belt that 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 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 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. 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.