FEATURING: Jack Brawn, Paul Panzer, Ernest Servaès, Buster Keaton
PLOT: A compilation of twelve strange, fantastic, and experimental films from the dawn of cinema (spanning the years 1902 to 1926) with new scores for each composed by the Boston-based silent film ensemble “the Alloy Orchestra.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This presentation won’t make the List solely on formal grounds, because it’s a compilation. You could make a case for several of the individual shorts, however, on the basis of their historical significance, especially “A Trip to the Moon,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” “Play House,” or “Filmstudie.”
COMMENTS: Hidden off in a corner of the Movie and Music Network‘s catalog, far away from the exploitation films in a quiet place only the cool kids know about, is an obscure little collection of classic cinema. For the most part the Alloy Orchestra’s selections in this compilation aren’t especially rare, at least to silent cinephiles, but wild and weird they certainly are. From trippy nickelodeon snippets to epic hallucinations, these films hail from a thrilling era when cinema was fresh and every new movie was an adventure in invention.
The Orchestra’s musical accompaniment is excellent and appropriate to the material. It’s mostly classical-ish, with a little bit of tasteful electronic ornamentation, and very rarely does it get avant-garde or dissonant enough to threaten the casual listener’s delicate ears. At times it’s electronic-Baroque, often it’s vibraphone and percussion heavy, with a welcome cameos by musical saws and theremins in some dream sequences. Unfortunately, the digitization used here captured some analog rumbling and distortion when the volume got too high, but in general the music is a pleasant accompaniment to the main attraction.
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)→
Buster Keaton‘s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton’s major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated.
Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact that his epic landmark, Birth of a Nation, is one of the most monstrously racist films produced in cinematic history. Griffith’s onetime assistant, Tod Browning, might earn a footnote in such sophomoric lists. Browning, of course, went onto his own directorial career, which included Freaks (1932). There is no serious argument that Browning, with static camera and discomfort with sound, could compete with Griffith aesthetically. However, Browning was ahead of his time socially. In his art, Browning bravely empathized with outcasts. Yet, Browning’s standing usually excludes the advanced social ideologies in his art. His skill with a camera, or lack thereof, is considered primary. In artistic evaluation we still rank technical skill highest.
While Keaton is not guilty of promoting racist epithets, he absolutely endorsed period racial stereotypes, repeatedly. Perhaps most so in Seven Chances, which he directed alone. To be fair, no Chaplin film went so far as Browning’s liberating manifestos. However, Chaplin certainly came close to the Browning ideal in his tramp characterization and his features Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Amusingly, both films are still seen, by right-wing extremists, as something akin to communist propaganda.
Keaton ranks lower than Chaplin in my assessment primarily for this reason. Certainly, Keaton was more skilled in narrative, originality, innovative camerawork, and set design. However, Chaplin was light years ahead of Keaton in social sensitivities. On this issue, Keaton was a product of his time. Chaplin was that rarity of rarities; an authentic religious figure who rose above his time, which ultimately counts more than his saccharine heart and aesthetic deficiencies.
Despite the brilliance to be admired and enjoyment to be had out of Seven Chances, there are moments to make you cringe: Keaton, searching for a bride, sits down on a bench near a pretty girl. He starts to flirt, but realizes she is reading a Hebrew newspaper and quickly springs up, running in the other direction (oddly, the film had a Jewish producer). Similarly, Keaton comes upon one of many brides to be, discovers her to be African-American and, again, does an exit stage left. The cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake is an excruciatingly embarrassing blackface vignette. We can, with effort, move past these and acknowledge the film’s artistry. Simultaneously, however, we cannot evaluate the work fully without factoring in the stinging racial stereotypes.
A simple plot evolves into an epic, surreal finale: cinema at its most animated. Keaton stands to inherit seven millions dollars if he is married by 7 pm on his twenty-seventh birthday. Unfortunately, he receives this news on the afternoon of his twenty-seventh birthday. Keaton’s girlfriend would be the natural choice for a mate, except that our hero is a tad awkward at expressing his love. The local gals cruelly mock Keaton’s marital efforts—that is, until they learn he is a potential heir. News of our shy protagonist’s inheritance leads to an epic deluge of wannabe brides pursuing him in a chase of mind-boggling comic inventiveness. With this climax, and the film’s timelessly shrewd satire of western avarice, it is no wonder Seven Chances was an audience favorite in revivals. Keaton literally seems to be a live action, stone-faced Speedy Gonzalez, fleeing foolish virgins and an avalanche of boulders (a justifiably famous scene that was improvised). Naturally, a wise maiden is waiting in the wings, even if she is devoid of personality or development.
The 2011 Kino edition beautifully restores a color tinted sequence.
Note: This was one of Keaton’s least favorites among his films. The script, based off a famous play by David Belasco, was purchased by Keaton’s producer and adapted by four writers. Actresses Jean Arthur and Constance Talmadge have brief, uncredited roles.
Buster Keaton further explored his fascination with the west in his feature Go West (1925). Keaton had previously parodied the westerns of William S. Hart in Frozen North(1922) and Go West is a further development of that exploration. Go West, however, is more influenced by Charlie Chaplin than by Hart; it has qualities which have to come to be termed as “Chaplinesque”, albeit filtered through “Keatonesque” sensibilities. It is said to have been Keaton’s personal favorite among his features, enough that he took solo directorial credit, which was rare for him.
Go West is the romantic (and odd) story of a cowhand drifter and his cow, with a girl in the very distant background. Keaton plays a lonely fish-out-of-water named Friendless (cue symbolism). The unemployed Friendless finally gets a job at a cattle ranch, but he is ill-equipped for the duties of a cowboy. Out of his element in this blue-collar, macho labor, Friendless is an object of ridicule to his peers. He never can bond with the other ranchers and gets so behind in his work that he always misses the company meal. Some gags are in order now, including Friendless’ clever technique for overcoming his discomfort with a six-shooter. Paralleling Friendless is an equally anti-social cow named Brown Eyes, who also does not bond with her peers. Rather, Brown Eyes gets attached to Friendless and becomes a shadow to the misfit herder, whom she loves.
Naturally, our misfit among misfits will have to overt the slaughter of Brown Eyes. Kathleen Myers, the ranch owners’ daughter, develops a soft spot for the bohemian pair and pleads with Papa to show mercy, which is about all the lackluster Myers gets to do. (With few exceptions, Keaton’s leading ladies are pretty much wallpaper and Myers’ character is true to that rule. Keaton never developed or nurtured a consistent female foil of the type Edna Purviance or Paulette Goddard played for Chaplin).
Although Keaton pulls audience heartstrings here, he never milks it with obviousness, but rather imbues it with inherent strangeness. Keaton, per the norm, builds the film to an epic climax which involves a stampede in town. Havoc ensues, although it is pretty much an extended single joke of cattle wandering into places and circumstances in which they do not belong.
The most inventive gag is Friendless donning a devil’s outfit and literally becoming a waving red flag to round-up the wayward herd. Keaton pulls out all the stops and the finale is grandly executed—although much to Keaton’s dismay, the cattle was not as cooperative as he had hoped for, and compromises had to be made in the shooting script. Naturally, the eccentric duo will save the day and Friendless will choose his longhorn over the real live girl as a reward.
One Week (1920) is co-directed by Edward. F. Cline and was Keaton’s first real solo short after a lucrative three-year apprenticeship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Keaton clearly had learned his trade and developed a vision; One Week is a masterpiece, co-starring, for the first time, Sybil Seely, who was the closest Keaton would come to a regular leading lady.
Keaton establishes a decidedly more progressive and idiosyncratic stylization here: inventive and intelligent slapstick through elaborate set demolition and madcap, highly choreographed stunt work.
Uncle Mike gifts newlyweds Keaton and Seely a house and a lot. Seely’s old suitor, Handy Hank, is incensed. Much to the newlyweds’ dismay, they discover their house comes in a box, which they have to assemble. There are directions, which simply instruct to “follow the numbers.” A vengeful Hank jumbles the numbers. Carpentry is simply not Keaton’s trade, ND the result is a surreal house which makes the Leaning Tower of Pisa look stable.
The house on sand will come a tumbling down, a gag Keaton will perfect in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Perhaps the most surprising element here is Selly’s bath scene in which she drops her soap and the cameraman spares her modesty by covering the lens with his hand. Seely is understandably grateful. It’s easy to see why Keaton preferred Seely. He may not have given her a lot to do on-screen, but her sexy and sweet personality shows through in every frame she occupies. One Week rounds up with an extended storm sequence.
The Navigator (1924) was Buster Keaton‘s biggest commercial success and remains one of his most popular features. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, it is a bona fide classic.
Affluent society heir Rollo (Keaton) wakes up one morning, sees a newlywed couple outside of his window, and, bored to tears, decides he wants to get married. Love, of course, never enters the picture. He starts planning a regal honeymoon and eventually remembers that he needs to ask the bride-to-be, another socialite named Betsy (Kathryn McGuire, Keaton’s leading lady from Sherlock Jr.).
The super rich were a favorite target for 1920s audiences, which certainly helped this film’s box office appeal. (Yes, once upon a time, the one percent were not adulated by Hollywood. Rather, they were ridiculed because that ancient, naive generation actually believed that people were not defined by dyed green paper or quantity of possessions).
Betsy turns down Rollo’s proposal of marriage and, after a series of circumstances, they find themselves aboard the adrift schooner, the Navigator. When they are left to fend for theirselves, without the aid of a servant, pandemonium is the result. Far from the idyllic honeymoon he imagined, Rollo is forced to assist in fixing breakfast. Much to his dismay, he discovers that a butcher knife is not the best way to open a can of food. Betsy learns how not to make coffee. Unground beans and seawater do not a good brew make.
An expressionistic play on shadows, via clever use of candles, reveals the consummating kiss Rollo and Betsy will never have. This is but one example we find of Keaton pushing the art of film in ways no other American filmmaker was doing at the time.
Co-director Donald Crisp makes an unbilled cameo, in the form of a sinister sea captain’s picture inadvertently placed in front of a porthole, which predictably gives Rollo a bad case of late night jitters. (With the advent of sound, Crisp abandoned directing and became a much sought after character actor, appearing in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty,Jezebel, How Green Was My Valley, and National Velvet). Roman candles, soggy cards, a rainstorm, and sleeping arrangements round off a disastrous “wedding night.”
The first night over, Betsy and Rollo have brilliantly overcome the menial chores, which of course makes way for larger-scale challenges to come. A master of the slow burn, Keaton, as usual, revels in the second half. Nothing less than cannibals craving white meat is their first obstacle. (Unfortunately, one area in which audiences of the time were indeed embarrassingly naive was in their racial stereotypes, and Keaton was not exempt from that).
In order to fix a leaky ship drifting towards the excited natives, Rollo and Betsy pull out the deep-sea divers manual. Down in the murky ocean below, Rollo meets a couple of swordfish and, in the film’s most iconic highlight, he seizes one fish and engages in an underwater fencing duel with the second.
The showdown with the cannibals is worthy of a Loony Tune, and a grand finale gag is amongst the best of silent cinema. Aside from the stereotypes, The Navigator is remarkably contemporary. McGuire is a near-perfect and sweet foil for Keaton, breathlessly matching him. In one of their best scenes together, she straddles him (in his diving gear), using him as a lifeboat, and paddles them back to the temporary safety of the ship.
The Frozen North (1922) is a seventeen minute short, co-directed by frequent Keaton collaborator Edward. F. Cline. It is another of Keaton’s venture into informal surrealism. Unfortunately, it is not an entirely successful effort, which may be due, in part, to its missing three minutes of footage. Frozen North is Keaton’s parody of western actor William S. Hart. Hart had publicly condemned Keaton’s friend and mentor, Roscoe Arbuckle, during the comedian’s famous murder trial. Upon seeing Frozen North, Hart was incensed and did not speak to Keaton for years.
Keaton plays the villain, a caricature of Hart’s screen persona: melodramatic machismo (cigarette flip), questionable ethics (two-gun firing), and saccharine pathos (tears and all). Keaton uses a cardboard cutout of Hart in order to rob locals in a tavern, then brutally murders a kissing couple, only to realize that he has shot the wrong wife in the wrong house. Keaton callously dances with his wife’s unconscious body, vacuums an igloo, plays tennis with snowballs, disguises himself as Sam the Snowman, and is envisioned as Erich von Stroheim by a woman who he is trying to rape. Keaton also pays brief homage to vamp Theda Bara, but it all turns out to be a dream.
The humor in Frozen North is atypical with Keaton at his blackest, bleakest, and strangest. With its Yukon scenes, it clearly influenced Charlie Chaplin‘s The Gold Rush (1925). Kino’s restoration is as good as it can be for a film that only exists in a dissipated, fragmented state. It is available on 2012’s equally essential Buster Keaton: Short Films Collection 1920-1923.”
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).
Buster Keaton never aligned himself with the Surrealists or the avant-garde. His late in life experience acting in Samuel Becket’s Film (1965) proved a negative experience for the actor. Yet, Keaton possessed aesthetic qualities akin to Surrealist tenets, which made him a revered figure in that movement. Together with Playhouse (1921) and Frozen North (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one of Keaton’s most pronounced ventures into slapstick Surrealism.
At 45 minutes Sherlock Jr. is often listed as both a short and a feature. By 1924 standards it was considered a feature. Either way, it is perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation among Keaton’s body of work. Being one of the earliest films about film, Sherlock Jr. blurs distinctions between real life and the dream world of cinema, but the phantasmagoric qualities always serve a linear narrative.
In this meticulously crafted, compact film, Keaton is a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective. Keaton is trying to win the affections of a girl (Kathryn McGuire), but has a dastardly rival (Ward Crane). In attempt to steal McGuire from Keaton, Crane frames our protagonist as a thief. With his “How To Be A Detective” book in hand, Keaton follows closely on the heels of Crane.
The basic theme of any Keaton film is an everyday man attempting to win a pretty girl. Naturally, he encounters unrequited love and then must overcome insurmountable odds to win the heroine’s affections, which he usually does. The consummation of hero and heroine is of no interest, it is in the journey to true love that we encounter the joy of Keaton’s cinematic foreplay. Tensions, triumphs, failures and rebounds populate his promenade.
Keaton, who disavowed any claims of intellectualism, simply was inventive in spicing that repeated dish. Yet, Keaton’s interpretation of “spice” was, by any standards, a fearless one. Although he looks the part of a stone faced average Joe, once the projectionist dreams himself into celluloid, he becomes a flawless and imposing detective. Only someone with Keaton’s athletic abilities could have pulled the transition off so brilliantly. Keaton did, however, fracture his neck during the making of the film, which resulted in years of severe migraines. This was one of numerous injuries Keaton sustained throughout his career. In addition to aesthetic muscle flexing, Keaton shows off his virtuoso prowess as a billiard player in a compelling vignette. Despite that, Keaton never fails to remember his primary goal: to be a clown.
One of the funniest and most clever scenes in Sherlock Jr. is its finale in which actors on a fifty-foot screen teach the projectionist how to kiss a girl.
Sherlock Jr. was a substantial influence on Woody Allen‘s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
Next week, a Keaton double feature: the shorts Playhouse (1921) and the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!