These two Buster Keaton films, separated by seven years, represent the artist at his most hyperkinetic.
Playhouse (1921), co-directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, is a twenty-two minute short and one of Keaton’s most surreal efforts. The movie iris-ins on Keaton’s Opera House. It’s actually a vaudeville show, in which Keaton is the conductor, every member of the orchestra (dubbed Buster Keaton’s minstrels), a stagehand, and the entire audience. The crowd consists of the actor in three drag guises, a spoiled tyke, a befuddled husband, a lethargic old man, and (alas) Keaton in (mercifully brief) blackface. This is the sole area in which Keaton proved less progressive than rival Charlie Chaplin, who, atypically for his time, was sensitive to racism and usually refused to resort to blackface.
The surrealism here turns out to be a dream. Keaton’s bedroom, however, is merely a theatrical backdrop, adding yet another narrative layer. There is a delightful bit of business with a pair of twins, which confuses Keaton, inspiring a vow to lay off the sauce (this IS cinema. He made no such vow in real life). Again, the surrealistic elements serve Keaton’s narrative. A mirror transforms the twins into quadruplets, predictably causing more mayhem.
Keaton doubles as a trained monkey in an act. The simplistic simian face paint is brilliant; Keaton’s face perfectly structured for it. The scene of Buster-chimp going ape amidst the assembled patrons might serve as a reflection of Keaton’s own relationship with his audience. The audience is mystified, and eventually accepting, rather than idolatrous. Keaton does not seek the crowd’s adulation, nor does he have the audacity to portray them proclaiming their love for him, the way Charles Chaplin did in both The Circus (1928) and (more sickeningly) in Limelight (1952). Of course, both of these iconic silent clowns had their virtues and faults, and comparisons are inevitably moot. Earlier, Keaton does not hesitate to engage in self-parody when he sides with the audience over the performer: “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” That self-parody also might serve as a dig at Keaton’s limelight-craving competitors.
Keaton also pays brief, unsentimental homage to Harry Houdini here, who had given him the nickname of “Buster”.
Although half the length of Sherlock Jr. (1924), Playhouse lacks the compactness and polished narrative of that later film. Still, it remains a tour de force, aided greatly by Elgin Lessley’s camerawork combined with Keaton’s boundless innovation.
Keaton also served as an uncredited co-director and writer in the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). This was Keaton’s last independent production. He looks considerably aged, with a touch of pathos, yet still elegant, romantic, and athletic. The film is understandably most remembered for the startling, stirring imagery of its third act. It begins with a reunion of a father (Steamboat Bill—Ernest Torrence) and son (Steamboat Bill Jr.—Keaton).
Sr. is a seafaring captain of towering machismo, and not sure what to make of his citified dandy of a son. He takes Jr. to a barber and attempts to get him a new hat (Jr rejects a series of hats, including his famous pork pie). Torrence’s portrayal of Sr. is an astute parody of blue-collar mores and traditions. In avoiding a maudlin relationship between father and son, Keaton’s handling seems remarkably fresh and less dated. So too it is with Jr’s romance with the daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s rival (Tom McGuire). While avoiding heart-on-sleeve propensities, Byron’s character is underdeveloped, serving primarily as decor. Thus, Jr’s intense attraction to her fails to register.
The fifteen-minute cyclone finale is an apex of silent cinema entertainment. The stunt work, cinematography (by Bert Haines and Dev Jennings) and set design are simply jaw dropping, regardless (or perhaps even because of) its age. Remarkably, much of the death-defying action is continuous and unbridled. Even more remarkably, Steamboat Bill Jr., like The General (1926), was a box office flop. Shortly afterwards, Keaton made a move to MGM and was coerced into relinquishing creative control of his films to a fascistic studio. His voice, already marred by drink, was unsuited to sound. Clearly an instinctual artist, Keaton was predictably unable to meet MGM’S mass commercial sensibilities, which accelerated his already rapid decline. Alcoholism, depression and institutionalization followed. Yet, courageously, Keaton rebounded, and it is his genius which has endured, while the studio stormtroopers faded into well-deserved oblivion.
* Next week: The Navigator (1924) and Frozen North (1922).