Both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd warned Buster Keaton against signing with MGM studios. Keaton was enticed by a financially lucrative offer, but his peers cautioned that such a deal would not be worth losing artistic control. Keaton signed anyway and, in his own words, “wound up making the biggest mistake of my life.” MGM in the 1920s was the closest a Hollywood studio ever came to a fascist state and, as predicted, Keaton discovered he had sold his soul. He was finished as an artist.
The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton’s first film for MGM and studio interference quickly became the status quo. The Cameraman primarily succeeds because Irving Thalberg succumbed to Keaton’s pleas for “some” improvisation (much to director Edward Sedgwick’s chagrin). Although it was a box office hit, this would be Keaton’s last film in which he had any artistic input. For the most part, The Cameraman began the new formula of strictly following badly written scripts. Furthermore, Keaton was never allowed to direct another feature.
Although Keaton did not take writing credit, Cameraman follows his “keep the narrative simple” style and builds to a kinetic finale. Buster plays a street photographer in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) trying desperately to win her by landing a job at the newspaper she works at.
Keaton improvised two scenes, one of which has him playing baseball (by himself) at Yankee Stadium. It’s a brilliantly executed vignette. In the second Keaton undresses and dresses in a claustrophobic changing room shared with an oversized man.
However, it is the grand scale Tong War in Chinatown that burns the celluloid. Naturally, the stereotypes abound, but the sequence is so loaded and breathless that there is hardly time to notice. Keaton and a monkey sidekick (!) manage a daring escape. Naturally, the pretty girl winds up on our hero’s arm, even if she’s not much more than a mannequin. Still, The Cameraman is a near masterpiece, and it is the last Keaton film worth watching with one strange exception…
Samuel Becket’s Film (1968) is a short, and that may be the sole reason for not seriously considering it a certified 366 Weird Movie status. By this time Keaton had been reduced to a second-rate Stooge by MGM. Various DVD collections of Keaton’s “Lost Years” seem to indicate a revisionist thought that hidden treasures lie within those sound shorts and Z-grade features. Although, on occasion, a slither of the Keaton magic might shine through, for the most part they are a painfully embarrassing lot.
Chaplin had offered Keaton a role in his Limelight (1952). Strangely, some still consider this Keaton’s comeback. Actually, in Limelight we see Chaplin’s saccharine meltdown in overdrive, and even though it hasa few personal moments, the good parts are encased in much dreck, and Continue reading THE CAMERAMAN (1928) AND FILM (1965)→
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).
The Chaser (1928) was Harry Langdon‘s second directorial feature for First National studios. His third and final feature, Heart Trouble (1928) is considered lost. The few who did see Heart Trouble claimedthat it could have restored Langdon to prominence. However, by then First National had written their star off, canceled his contract and punished his risk-taking by yanking Heart Trouble. In most likelihood the studio destroyed all the copies.
In his review of Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde’s book “Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon,” Leonard Maltin writes: “Harter and Hayde are so pro-Langdon that they feel it necessary to disparage Frank Capra [who directed Langdon’s first film] at every opportunity… the authors take heavy-handed swipes at Capra at every opportunity, ignoring the fact that Langdon’s features did take a nosedive after the collaborators parted company. I remember sitting with an audience stunned into silence as we watched Three’s a Crowdand The Chaser when Raymond Rohauer first presented them theatrically in 1971. They are painfully unfunny. There were other factors that worked against these late-silent features aside from Capra’s departure, but Langdon was not destined to succeed as his own producer, as this book explores in detail.”
Maltin, in his turn, takes the tried and true route of putting Capra on a pedestal, while failing to grasp the nature of Langdon’s art as Langdon envisioned it. Neither of Langdon’s surviving features attempt to be typical period comedies. While Capra’s status as a consummate commercial filmmaker is well deserved, his numerous comments regarding European film, experimentalism, and film as an art form are embarrassingly sophomoric. Capra’s bourgeoisie elitism is so pronounced as to render useless his comments regarding Langdon’s aesthetic choices.
The European avant-garde and the Surrealists predictably had a better grasp on what Langdon was trying to accomplish. A revealing example might be found in Wheeler Dixon’s “The Films of Jean-Luc Godard.” Dixon writes that for the script of his film, Prenom: Carmen (1983) Godard cited Beethoven’s notebooks, Rodin’s sculptures and Harry Langdon as inspirations.
In his New Yorker review of The Chaser, Richard Brody writes: “as a director, Langdon was far more radical and original than Capra ever was, which accounts for the audience’s rejection of his films. Three’s a Crowd, from 1927, is a grimly Sisyphean comedy of a lonely man in quest of a family, and its slapstick brilliance is smeared with a mire of poverty that few dramas could rival. In The Chaser, Langdon’s directorial originality fuses remarkably with his unique performance style: he gives himself long, static, and obsessional closeups of a sort that wouldn’t be seen again until the rise of the overtly modernist cinema of the nineteen-sixties. It’s time to remember Langdon as a director, too.”
As with Three’s a Crowd, Arthur Ripley provided the story for The Chaser. The movie opens with wife (Gladys McConnel) berating Husband (Langdon) on the telephone. Husband claims to be at the lodge, but it is past 8:30! Wife’s Mother (Helen Hayward) joins her daughter in castigating Husband. Langdon’s camera lingers on Wife and Mother’s chastising for such an extended time, that it becomes progressively surreal, like a dissonant string duet. Langdon cuts to Husband, on his end, doing nothing for an elongated span of time. Eventually, Husband lethargically emerges from his lifelessness, but until then, the scene could almost pass for a still photograph. Actually, as we soon learn, Husband is engaging in voyeurism at a hedonistic party. Husband does not join in the activities himself. His lack of reaction on the telephone, coupled with his failure to join the party, strongly suggest an impotent character, an idea which will be reinforced later.
Wife and Mother go to court. Judge (Charles Thurston) denies a divorce and instead sentences Husband to 30 days of gender reassessment. Simply put, Judge forces Husband to be Wife for a month, while Wife gets to be husband. The inserts of newspaper headlines, announcing Judge’s sentence on Husband are intentionally childlike, as if culled from a dream.
From hère, The Chaser becomes postmodern.
Now parading around the house in a skirt, Husband (now Wife) sends Wife (now Husband) off to work.
A bill collector arrives, seeking a year-long overdue payment for a baby carriage. Wife calls Husband to ask. Absolutely not. We will not be needing it. The impotent Langdon is forced to return the familial dream.
After the amorous bill collector is sent a packing, the iceman cometh. After the iceman sneaks a kiss, Langdon decides on suicide. A long extended sequence on various methods of attempted self-destruction follows. When all else fails, go play golf with a buddy from the party.
Shorn of his skirt and adorned in his swashbuckling lodge outfit, Langdon reclaims his manhood with a near lethal kiss planted on a couple of bathing beauties at the golf course. This, of course, sends him back to Wife fully revived.
A sequence involving Husband mistaken for a ghost will later influence Stan Laurel.
A small slice of Langdon’s late 1920 audience had stayed with him. However, the site of the star in drag, mistakenly believing he has laid an egg and attempting suicide, rendered them aghast. The Chaser sent Langdon’s dwindling audience packing.
Posthumously, Langdon had his defenders . The critic James Agee was among them. In his Life magazine essay, Agee wrote: “Langdon had one queerly toned, unique little reed, but out of it he could get incredible melodies. Whatever else the others might be doing, they all used more or less elaborate physical comedy; Langdon showed how little of that one might use and still be a great silent-screen comedian. Twitches of his faces were signals of tiny discomforts too slowly registered by a tinier brain; quick, squirty little smiles showed his almost prehuman pleasures, his incurably premature trustfulness. He was a virtuoso of hesitations and of delicately indecisive motions. He was as remarkable a master as Chaplin of subtle emotional and mental process and operated much more at leisure.”
Charlie Chaplin‘s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as “a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth).” The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush(1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven’s Fourth, seen without Schumann’s assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber’s live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan’s devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO.
Like Beethoven’s 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. Oddly, it is the one film of Chaplin’s that was recognized for a “special” Academy Award. Despite that, it is an infrequently revived (and discussed) film.
The filmmaker himself did not help the cause for The Circus. Chaplin’s autobiography is interesting primarily as a career record. Private, painful details are omitted. Quite tellingly, Chaplin never once mentioned this film in that autobiography. Clearly, he avoided it because this film was made while he was going through a highly embarrassing divorce from one of his child brides (Lita Grey) at the time. Intimate details from Chaplin’s sex life were exposed to the public. According to Kenneth Anger‘s “Hollywood Babylon,” Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star’s hair literally turned prematurely white.
Often, assessment of Chaplin’s films include the biographical. A good example of this is Roger Ebert’s review of The Circus. Ebert takes the often-traveled road of comparing Chaplin to Buster Keaton:
Chaplin was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous, so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there’s an air of back-patting about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity. Chaplin’s untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted; Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism, but a decent enough sort with women.
The problem with Ebert’s assessment of Chaplin is his objection to Chaplin’s enormous success and his bullet point details of Chaplin’s post-stardom biography. This view reduces Chaplin’s films to the anecdotal. While remnants of personal history cannot be completely excluded in approaching Chaplin’s art, his films, inevitably, transcend biography.
To be fair, Ebert is certainly correct in his comparison of the contrasting silent clown screen personas; Keaton’s Stone Face never asked for audience sympathy in the obvious way that Chaplin’s Tramp did. However, nor can Keaton identify with the everyman on Chaplin’s level. The Tramp’s poverty, which has nothing to do with the success of the actor playing the character, imbues him with an intimate personality that Keaton lacked. Out of all Chaplin’s contemporaries, only Harry Langdon emerged with a comparable persona.
Ebert also makes a comparative notation regarding the amorous nature of the two clowns. To me, both Chaplin and Keaton are sexless, at least when filtered through a contemporary perspective. Chaplin’s celibacy is that of the adolescent, as a people’s priest. Keaton’s character, while more intelligent and ambitious, is too phlegmatic for us to imagine him as anything Continue reading CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)→
*This is the first of a three part series on the films of Paul Leni.
Paul Leni’s credentials as an avant-garde painter and art director served him well. A Jewish German refugee, he came to the United States in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios. His first film for them was the old dark house melodrama, The Cat and the Canary (1927), a critical and box office hit. Leni and Universal followed up with The Man Who Laughs (1928) and his final film, The Last Warning (1929), which was released shortly after his untimely death from blood poisoning at 44. Due to his brief life and career, Leni remains the most enigmatic of the silent horror mavericks (at least, that’s the pedestrian label often attached to him). Where his career might have gone is almost impossible to assess. Universal desperately wanted a follow up to their immensely successful version of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and they thought they had it with Leni at the helm of Hugo’s TheMan Who Laughs. Despite lavish production values and artistry, however, The Man Who Laughs was a disappointing box office failure, partly because it was released just as that new invention called “talkies” was taking hold. Today, The Man Who Laughs is rightly seen as a landmark, influential film and vivid example of exported German Expressionism.
Set in 17th century England, Conrad Veidt (another Jewish German refugee) is Gwynplaine , the young son of a recently executed political revolutionary nobleman. Gwynplaine is kidnapped by gypsies and, as punishment for sins of the father, he is forever maimed when his kidnappers carve a hideous grin into his face and abandon him to the elements of a violent snow storm. In a scene worthy of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), or William Beaudine’s grim Sparrows (1926), the child Gwynplaine comes upon the corpse of a frozen mother cradling her still Continue reading PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)→
The Road to Mandalay (1926) & West of Zanzibar (1928) represent the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration at the height of its nefarious, Oedipal zenith, brought to you, for your entertainment, by Irving Thalberg.
Unfortunately, The Road to Mandalay exists only in fragmented and disintegrated state, a mere 36 minutes of its original seven reels. In this passionately pretentious film, which is not related to the Kipling poem, Chaney plays “dead-eyed” Singapore Joe (Chaney achieved the eye effect with egg white) who runs a Singapore brothel. Joe’s business associates are the black spiders of the Seven Seas: the Admiral Herrington (Owen Moore) and English Charlie Wing (Kamiyama Sojin), the best knife-thrower in the Orient. Joe’s relationship with his partners is tense and, often, threatening.
Apparently, Joe’s wife is long dead. The two had a daughter, Rosemary (Lois Moran), who Joe left at a convent in Mandalay, under the care of his brother, Fr. James (Henry Walthall). Joe, a repulsive sight, occasionally emerges from his sordid, underworld activities to visit Rosemary, who works in a bazaar. Joe plans to clean up his act within two years, once he has enough money to undergo plastic surgery and retire. Joe wants to be a reborn man, so he can reunite with his daughter and rescue her from the confines of poverty. Rosemary, however, unaware that Joe is her father (a frequent Browning theme), is repulsed by dead eyed Joe, understandably mistaking his friendliness for sexual predation. Fr. James warns Joe that waiting two years is too long. Joe’s insistence for patience only makes Fr. James skeptical that Joe can actually achieve or sustain the redemption necessary to give Rosemary a good life.
Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped withauthority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane. No surprises there. Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint-by-numbers set. Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’s creator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and excommunicated him for life.
Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made. That honor probably goes to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.
Rarely do classic films live up to the hype. Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film. It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue. Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic. Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.
Then, in the early 1980’s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute. When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.
Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it. By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.
Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde. The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts. This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.
The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid. But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense. Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the Continue reading DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)→
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