June 25, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--The Boat & Conclusion

The Boat

The Boat is another one of my favorite shorts from this period. Unlike Keaton’s other shorts, and even his features, in The Boat, he is a family man, accompanied on his misadventures by a wife (Sybil Seely) and two little sons in look-a-like porkpie hats. I like to view the family in The Boat as an extension of the Buster-Sybil marriage in One Week. Instead of the couple building a house, Buster has now built another fool-hardy project, a boat. Faithful, ever-patient Sybil is still at his side, now joined by the couple's two trouble-making sons. The added element of the family gives Buster more bits of comic business, more props and also an extra element of pathos—it’s one thing for a single man to get into the trouble Buster does, but it’s another to disregard the safety of one’s family. It also adds a hint of black comedy to the picture, as I’ll clarify later.

The plot is simple: Buster builds a boat, The Damfino, of which he is very proud, but which is not very seaworthy, to say the least. He takes his family out on a boating trip (having demolished their house while towing the boat out of the garage--oops!) and while launching the boat into the harbor, he manages to ruin their car as well. A life on the sea it is! Having outfitted the boat with collapsible fixtures, Buster can maneuver under bridges with just a flick of a switch. That doesn't, however, protect them from a fearsome storm. It batters poor Buster all around his cabin. He tries to radio for help, which elicits the following exchange between Buster and the telegraph operator:

Ha! We laugh in spite of ourselves. Buster and his nice young family are doomed to drown, but at least now we know the correct pronunciation of "Damfino."

That bleak joke is the topper on a series of ill-omened gags. For one thing, when Sybil tries to christen the boat with a coke bottle, the bottle doesn't break and the hull sustains damage. Never a good sign. When Buster launches The Damfino, it majestically slides into the ocean, sinking straight into the deep, never even bothering to attempt to float. Strike two.

The anchor floats. While trying to hang up a painting, Buster springs a leak. Not even the galley is safe--Sybil's pancakes are so rubbery and inedible, Buster uses it to plug the hole in the hull.

During the storm, Buster nails his shoe to the floor so he won't get tossed around the cabin. Instead, he's tumbled around like a sock in the washer. To achieve this effect, the set was built inside on a rocking gimbal, producing an effect which is similar to the carnival ride, The Rotor.

Despite his best efforts, The Damfino is sinking. Buster gathers up his family in the lifeboat (a tiny bathtub) and plunges them into the rollicking sea. Buster decides, like a worthy seaman, to go down with the ship. We watch as The Damfino sinks into the inky deep, along with Buster, until we just see his porkpie hat bobbing on the waves. His family thinks he's perished (and so do we), until--pop! Buster emerges under his porkpie, and swims back to the already crowded tub.

The situation is bleak. Buster, always on the alert, strikes his characteristic scout's pose, but to no avail. It's pitch black and there's no telling how far away the nearest landfall is. In a typical turn of Keatonian bad luck, Buster's troublemaking son pulls the plug out from the bathtub. They begin to sink. Buster takes his family in his arms and they prepare themselves for imminent death.

But wait! What's this? Buster can walk! It's land! The family strides hand in hand through the darkness until the picture shows they've reached a beach. Buster and Sybil look around. Where are we? she asks. Buster looks left, looks right, looks at us. Damfino, he mouths. The End.

The Boat represents one of Buster's best film scenarios: the giant prop-driven comedy. A natural precursor to The Navigator, The Boat is both more intimate, more dangerous, and much, much darker. Although Buster is brave, valiant and self-sacrificing, he's also an idiot. He causes more harm than good to his family and with their lives at stake, the laughs are suddenly undercut with a real element of bitter cynicism. In One Week, the couple's bad luck is unfortunate but not catastrophic--they walk of hand in hand towards (it's implied) a brighter future. The ending of The Boat is literally dark (taking place at night), barren, and completely unknown. Buster's ignorance is typified by his final comment (Damfino = damned, if I know). In the course of twenty minutes, his ineptitude, however well-intentioned, has robbed him and his family of a house, a car, and a boat. The film is one of Keaton's funniest, certainly his darkest, and something of an anomaly in his filmography. It's definitely worth your time.

So, that was 1921. Six great Buster Keaton comedies, and two more years of shorts to go until we get to features (finally!). See you next time for the year that was...1922.

June 24, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--The Playhouse

The Playhouse

The Playhouse is, in my estimation, a perfect film. It perfects the premise introduced in the Arbuckle-Keaton short Back Stage, and features some of the most spectacular photography of the silent era. The film is divided into two sequences, one a dream and the other reality. It's Keaton's first real foray into exploring dreams through photographic innovations. Previously, 'it was all a dream' gags were just that--cheap gags to fool an audience. In The Playhouse, there is a reason for the trickery; it's both rooted in Buster's character and his desires to create a theater where he has mastery and control of his surroundings, and it allows for Keaton and Lessley to stretch the filmic medium, creating in-camera special effects that remained unrivaled for decades.

The first section of the film, where Buster plays all the roles, is its most famous. It's seven minutes of pure cinema magic and rather clumsy to try to explain in words, so I've embedded the sequence above. The first thing that's interesting about The Playhouse is that it open with a "curtain up" effect instead of the traditional "iris in." Immediately, you get a sense of the totality of the theatrical setting; you're within the playhouse already, a show within a show. As Buster buys a ticket to enter the theater, you don't see the ticket seller. It's not a major detail but in the later feature Sherlock, Jr., you do see the ticket girl, which leads me to believe her absence here is significant--you don't see her because she doesn't exist, or if she does, she would be Buster. Either that, or we don't see anyone because it would distract from the magic taking place inside the theater and we need to focus all of our attention on the one-man show about to begin.

The film cuts directly from Buster outside the theater to Buster emerging from under the stage into the orchestra pit. Immediately, our assumptions are challenged and our viewing position shifts--Oh, we think, he must be the conductor. We cut to a wide shot and are confronted three Busters, one on bass, one on cello and one on violin--the entire string section. The conductor turns to his right--three more Busters: clarinet, trombone, and drums. Even the curtain puller is Buster. Now we're in weird, wonderful territory. The musician interact with each other, starting and stopping the music to get in sync. Each has a distinct personality: the clarinetist is having reed troubles, the bass player seems to to abusing his bow quite violently, the trombonist stops to oil his instrument and the conductor is using his baton to scratch his back. Each interaction is so natural (more proof, as if you needed it, that Keaton was a brilliant actor, as well as comedian) and the editing is so sharp that you quickly forget the technical wizardry needed to accomplish these feats and become engrossed in the story.

Now Keaton and Lessley up the stakes--higher than they'd have gone before. The curtain rises are we're treated to not one or three, but NINE minstrel performers, all played by Buster Keaton, on the stage at once. How is this possible? Keaton told the story years later of scores of cameramen and industry professional going to screenings of The Playhouse, trying desperately to decipher how they pulled off the effect. Keaton didn't divulge that information until the 1950s. The trick was multiple exposures, which is nothing new to the silent era. In an earlier Arbuckle-Keaton short Moonshine, they were able to achieve the seemingly impossible "clown car" gag (where in dozens of men exit from a single car in a single shot) by exposing the film twice. The difficulty in The Playhouse was doing it nine times, which, to my knowledge, had never been done before.

Here's how they did it: Buster would stand in one position, Lessley block off the rest of the camera lens and crank the camera at a specific speed. Buster would then move to the next position, Lessley would block off all the lens except that one exposed area, back crank the camera to the exact beginning spot and then painstakingly crank at exactly the same speed. They would then repeat seven more times. The resulting shot made it look as if nine Keatons were on stage at the same time. The level of technical specificity on both Keaton's and Lessley's part to accomplish this feat is astonishing. A single error from either men meant the process had to be repeated again from the beginning. And there was no instant playback in 1921; they had to wait until the end of the day's filming and play back the negatives to see if a mistake had been made. For his part, Buster used music and a metronome to choreograph his movements just so.

However, technical marvel aside, Keaton & co. were always about laughs, so the sequence continues. We're now introduced to the audience members: a wealthy man and his wife, a bratty kid with a lollipop and his caretaker, and an elderly couple. They're all Keaton. In the most famous joke of the film, the wealthy man is reading the program which lists all the cast and crew as "Buster Keaton." The man remarks to his wife,

The joke works on several satisfying levels. First, it's pleasingly meta and we all get a thrill out of Keaton the director acknowledging Keaton the actor(s), as well as the audience's knowledge of Keaton the movie star. Another in-joke reference that audience of the time were aware of, is a dig at super-hyphenate, mogul, Lothario and all-around big kahuna Thomas H. Ince who was found of numerous on-screen credits. Some biographers have suggested that this was also a dig at Chaplin, another performer perhaps overly-fond of on-screen credits. I don't quite buy that theory, though. In fact, the gag wouldn't be quite so funny if Keaton himself wasn't so credit shy. He was hesitant to put his name on writing and directing credits, which is why Buster almost always listed a co-writer/director like Eddie Cline. Collaborator Clyde Bruckman, however, expressed discomfort at receiving onscreen credits because he says Keaton almost always did all of the work himself. He was just a humble guy.

The theater shenanigans fade into a shot of Buster lying on a bed, being jostled awake by Big Joe Roberts. It was all a dream! Some men come in the room and start removing Buster's possession. Buster looks distraught. Repo men, we wonder? No! In a wide shot, we see the men take down the room's walls--it's a set, Joe is acting as stage manager and Buster is stage hand! It's a wonderful sleight of hand that comes totally unexpected. After being set up to believe the playhouse was all fantasy, we realize there is an element of truth. We're back in the exact same setting, only this time, with a singular Buster.

Back stage, two new ingenues come to set up their act, but Buster only seeing them one at a time, doesn't realize they're twins. With both ladies preening in front of mirror, there are now four of them. This, Buster can't believe. He resolves never to drink again. Catching a glance of himself in a three-part mirror, however, Buster begins to realize his error. He confronts the ladies, played by Virginia Fox and another unknown actress.

Now it's showtime. Buster is ordered to dress the orangutan actor. He opens the cage and the animal promptly escapes. An idea hatches; Buster begins undressing. Now in monkey makeup and a perfect, knuckle-dragging gait, Buster is still discovered by the animal's trainer (co-director Eddie Cline in a cameo.) But there's no time to change now, they're on! Monkey-Buster walks, eats and smokes like a human, but he misbehaves like a scamp, jumping up into the balconies and scaring the patrons. He brings part of the set down and rides a bicycle around the stage to the delight of the audience of the fury of his trainer. It's another tour-de-force performance by Keaton in a film that's already chock-full of amazing Buster moments. So far he's played twenty-five humans and an ape and we're only ten minutes into the movie!

In the next scene, Buster is on another assignment for Big Joe, enlists some nearby laborers to joins the next act, the "Zouave Guards," a misfit gang of soldiers led by Roberts and featuring Buster, a little person, and a lot of pratfalls. It's a scene that exists solely for the love of performance. We're watching an audience watch a performance and that's it. In a wonderfully bizarre (and bizarrely wonderful) gag, we're treated to the reactions of two men in the audience who each have only one arm. When they both like a certain bit of the act, they join hands to clap. They get into a disagreement, however, when only one man likes the joke but the other man doesn't find it funny and refuses to join hands! Talk about a weird joke--I love it!

In the last sequence of the film (and the last act on the bill), one of the twins is performing an underwater act when she gets caught in the tank. Buster runs to her rescue, but unable to think of anything else, grabs a teacup and starts emptying out the water one teacupful at a time. This is a variation on the same gag from Arbuckle's The Rough House. Finally getting a brainwave, Buster hauls out a giant mallet and bashes the tank, saving the girl, but the water gushes everywhere, flooding the orchestra pit and chasing the audience out of the theater. Big Joe chases Buster into the orchestra, which is now a swimming pool. Buster hides in the bass drum and uses a violin to paddle to safety (perhaps inspiring Chaplin's dive into the bass drum in Limelight, the only feature film in which Chaplin and Keaton both appear.) Making his escape, Buster grabs a twin and runs outside to a justice of the peace--hold on, buddyyou've got wrong twin! He races back for his gal, borrows a paint brush from a nearby painter, marks an X on the girl's back (for future reference) and trots her up to the justice. The curtain comes down on the camera. The End.

June 23, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--The Goat

The Goat (Keaton & Mal St. Clair)

The Goat (as in the scapegoat) is one of Buster Keaton’s very best two-reel shorts which ranks right up there with his greatest features in terms of creative genius. It’s also ambitious for a short and its twenty minutes are jam-packed with as many rich comic scenarios as could easily sustain a feature length film. Along with The Playhouse, it’s also one of Keaton’s most visually inventive shorts and marks a key moment of maturation for Keaton the filmmaker. Thematically rich, The Goat prefigures later films like CopsOur Hospitality & The General, and Seven Chances in it use of police, trains, and newspapers, respectively.

The film’s opening scene perfectly sums up Buster’s character and the type of bum luck which dogs him throughout the picture. Keaton approaches the window of a bread line and grabs the loaf proffered to the man in the first position. He snatches back the loaf and gestures for Buster to get in the back of the line. Okay, he does. In medium shot, Buster walks to the back of the line, which stretches down the street. The camera stays put as we witness successive men move up the line and out of shot until there are only two figures in front of Keaton and they haven’t moved. The reason they haven’t moved is that they’re mannequins, a fact Buster doesn’t know.

In a long shot, the camera reveals a much shorter line of five men for the bread and Buster all alone behind the two mannequins.

He is growing impatient. He sits on the storefront ledge, crosses his legs, gets up to confront the bigger fellow, thinks better of it and sits back down. Plucking a pin from his jacket, he pricks the mannequin in the backside and nonchalantly turns away in case of rebuke. Of course there is none. The film cuts back to the bread line and then back to Buster. The manager of the store Buster’s sitting in front comes out, mimes like there might be rain and as Buster is looking the other way, removes the first mannequin into the store. He then comes back out and lifts the second mannequin out and away. Buster is shocked, leans in to follow the strange sight, staggers a bit and turns back around dumbfounded. Realizing there is no line, he races the length of the street to the head of the bread line, behind just one other man. He reaches the window just in time for the station to close for the day. Buster puts his hands in his pockets and walks away.

My second favorite part of the film is a brilliant shot that combines Buster’s love of trains and his fascination with film technique. The scene irises in on a long shot of train far in the distance, the tracks stretching out in front of the camera for what seem like miles. The camera never moves as the train comes closer and closer. It’s indicative of one of the first film ever exhibited by the Lumiere brothers in 1896, The Arrival of a Train, which, legend has it, terrified the audience who thought a train was actually moving toward them so much that people ran screaming from the theater.

As the train reaches mid-screen, it becomes clear there’s a figure on its front. In medium shot, it becomes clear that figure is Buster, sitting on the engine, arms on knees, porkpie hat slightly askew, looking as placidly resigned as ever. The train stops right in front of the camera, Buster now in close-up. The scene cuts. It’s a perfect pause in action of a high-pitched chase picture, one that shows off Buster’s skills as both director and actor.

June 22, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--The High Sign

The High Sign

Although the first short Buster shot, The High Sign was only released when Buster injured himself while filming The Electric House. Keaton didn't think the film would make a good debut; it wasn't up to his high standard. He was right to scrap the picture. The High Sign isn't terrible, but it is gimmicky and doesn't display the precise logic his later films would. It's typical of an artist in transition. The humor is more Arbuckle than Keaton (Buster's old Comique co-star Al St. John even makes a cameo.) The direction isn't as sharp as it would become but there are glimpses of the mechanical that showcase Buster's engineering acumen.

Buster's introduction into the picture (and, taken chronologically, what would have been his introduction to his own films), is a doozy. The film opens with the title: "Our Hero came from Nowhere--he wasn't going Anywhere and he got kicked off Somewhere." Typically Keatonesque in its existential vagary. A train passes by the frame and Buster then comes flying into view from offscreen left, as if casually tossed off by the hand of Fate--an entrance if there ever was one.

Buster wastes no time getting to his next gag, wherein he sits on a bench and starts reading a newspaper. He unfolds the paper. He keeps unfolding--it's bigger than he is. He stands on the bench and keeps unfolding until the news envelops him and he topples over. His head bursts through the newsprint and there he reads a help wanted ad--crack shot wanted at shooting gallery. Pratfall turns to opportunity. The only problem is, Buster doesn't have a gun. He solves this by lifting a policeman's revolver...and replacing it with a banana. Easy enough. Next problem: he can't shoot. At the beach, he practices hitting beer bottles, but he's such a comically bad shot, wherever he aims, he hits at least two feet to the right of the target. St. John, as a beach bum, gets the brunt of Buster's bad aim.

At the shooting gallery, Tiny Tim (Joe Roberts, again) hires Buster. Unbeknownst to Buster, Tiny is a member of The Blinking Buzzards, a ruthless gang of outlaws whose hideout is adjacent to the shooting gallery. To gain entrance to the hideout, you must give the titular sign. Because Buster can't shoot, he designs a device where every time he aims his rifle and shoots, he steps on a lever which pulls a string that runs outside the gallery. The string is attached to a piece of meat dangling out of reach of a dog. Each time the dog lunges for the meat, the bell rings so it appears Buster's shot has landed.

In a parallel plot, Tiny and the Buzzards plot to kill a businessman, who, on the search for a bodyguard, comes across the seemingly deadeye Buster and hires him to protect him from the Buzzards. At the same time, Buster is indoctrinated into the gang and tasked with assassinating the same man! Oops. The plot is full of melodramatic farce and twists of fortune, not something you usually find in a Keaton film.

Fearing the Buzzards, the business man has outfitted his house with all sorts of escape routes. Predating even One Week, it's the first draft of the trick house, a frequent Keaton comedy setting. The booby-trapped abode features trap doors in the floorboards, swinging wall panels, a collapsible drainpipe, and a painting that's disguising an escape route. Clueing in the man (and his daughter) in on the Buzzards' designs, Buster pretends to kill the man. However, Tiny Tim and the gang discover the ruse, which leads to a chase all through the house. Keaton and cameraman Elgin Lessley film the escape via a two story cutaway set so that we see all the action play out in a long shot without cuts. In the end, Tiny falls through the trap door and Buster and the girl, having bested the gang and saved the old man, embrace. The End.

June 21, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--Hard Luck

Hard Luck

First things first, the fact that Hard Luck is even available to watch is something of a miracle. It's estimated that something like 80% (you read that right--EIGHTY PERCENT!) of all films produced in the silent era are now lost or incomplete. In light of that mind-boggling statistic, and the fact that the ending to this short was recovered only ten years ago, the fact that it's not exactly a classic Keaton offering doesn't both me at all. At least we have it.

The plot starts out strong, weird and dark--just the way I like it. Buster is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, as the first intertitle informs us: "Fired from his job, jilted by his girl, down on his luck..." In a quick first sequence, a forlorn Buster engages in a series of failed suicide attempts. He lays down in front of a trolley car only to have it back up and continue on a different track; he tries standing under a giant bank safe only to have the safe fall before he can run and position himself under it; he tries to hang himself from a tree branch, but that doesn't take, either. Through the window of a restaurant, he sees a bottle marked 'Poison.' Oh, sweet salvation! He drinks it down, only to discover it's whiskey, disguised as poison by the restaurant's crafty waiter who's imbibing on the sly. In the film's cleverest gag, Buster sees two bright headlines cutting through the nighttime fog--a train! Buster races to stand in between the headlights, anticipating his welcome grisly death. As the headlights approach the camera, however, we become aware that they're not attached to a train, but two motorcycles, riding side by side. They pass by Buster, who, perturbed by his continued existence, stalks away, brow furrowed. It's a wonderful opening sequence and I wish Hard Luck had continued in this same vein. Alas, it does not. Perhaps Keaton thought the suicide gags would become redundant, perhaps he (or someone else) deemed them too dark to sustain an entire short. Whatever the reason, the subsequent plot ditches the black humor and becomes very, very silly.

Buster stumbles into a meeting of a bunch of business men bemoaning the fact that they have all the animals for the local zoo, except one--the elusive armadillo! I am 100% positive Keaton & co. chose the armadillo because its sounds funny because, seriously, an armadillo, what? So silly. The zoo pays cash up front (for some reason) and Buster embarks on the hunt, which consists of him fishing and stumbling into a fox hunt at a country club. Virginia Fox is hanging at the country club and after Buster helps her onto her horse, she invites him to join the hunt. There are a lot of shenanigans with him and his giant horse, including Buster paddling the steed across a lake. At one point, he tries to wrangle his runaway horse and ropes a bear cub instead.

Meanwhile, an outlaw named Lizard Lip Luke (Joe Roberts) robs the country club. Some more stuff happens and Buster manages to save the girl and in keeping with the conventions of silent comedies, proposes to her immediately. She demures, however, because he husband is sitting right next to them. Rut ro. Buster hightails it out of there, ending up poolside. He finds a four-leaf clover by the high dive--maybe his luck is changing. Feeling rejuvenated, he climbs the high dive...only to miss the pool completely and fall straight through the concrete! Ouch. Perhaps he's finally accomplishes his long sought-after demise? Or not. The intertitle informs us: "After several years, Buster returns to the point of impact." In the long-lost final scene, we watch Buster climb out of the hole, clad in Oriental garb. Hey...what's going on here? He proceeds to pull up a Chinese wife...and three Chinese kids! He mimes his fall to them and the family leaves the scene, hand in hand. The End. Keaton claimed that that ending was the biggest laugh-getting scene of his entire career. It was so riotous, in fact, that audiences were still laughing into the beginning of the next feature.

It is a funny gag to be sure, but it is an impossible joke, what Keaton called a cartoon gag. In making his own shorts, he had tried to avoid this kind of Looney Tunes physics. He broke his own rules, probably because it was too good to pass up, and the audiences in 1921 more than justified his decision.

June 20, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--Intro & The Haunted House

For my money, 1921 is Buster Keaton's genius year, the twelve months when everything came together for him and his team creatively. He produced five two-reel shorts in this period (The High Sign was shot in 1920 but released in 1921), at least three of which are, in my opinion, masterpieces.

Although Keaton had already lobbied his producer Joe Schenck to begin making feature films, Schenck and his shareholders were determined to stick to the tried and true two-reel format. As Edward McPherson notes in his wonderful Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, if Buster had gotten his wish, he would have had the jump on both Chaplin and Lloyd in producing feature length comedies. As it panned out, Chaplin won that race, releasing The Kid in 1921 to great acclaim; Harold Lloyd released Grandma's Boy, a film of commensurate length, the following year. Buster would have to wait until 1923 to release his first feature length film, Three Ages.

But back to nineteen twenty-one. These six films--
The Haunted House, Hard Luck, The High Sign, The Goat, The Playhouse, and The Boat--represent a codification of style and theme in Keaton's oeuvre. Gone are the traces of Arbuckle's juvenile, slam-bang style of comedy; Buster is a rock: the unflappable, implacable, put-upon, luckless little fellow--Great Stone Face of legend. These shorts offer up classic Keaton scenarios of unruly houses, the inevitable folly of man's foray into the machine age, the sheer blind, dumb, bad luck that seems to strike at every turn; thematically, there's an undercurrent of wicked black humor to many of these plots, notably in Hard Luck and The Boat. The Goat continues the thread of the relentless, faceless police force (a stand-in for any oppressive, omniscient branch of Society) begun in Convict 13 and brought to its apex in 1922's Cops. Creatively, Keaton's collaboration with cinematographer Elgin Lessley produced one of the most technically complex and visually awe-inspiring films of the silent era, The Playhouse. On the whole, it was a very, very good year.

A note on viewing practices: all films are available on The Art of Buster Keaton DVD collection. Hard Luck, which was considered lost for many years and then found without its ending, is now complete and available on the collection's supplemental disc, Keaton Plus.

A note on credits: all films are co-written and co-directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, except where otherwise indicated.


The Haunted House

***Keaton here looking a little like Tobey Maguire after a big lunch

The Haunted House is a veritable treasure chest of quality gags strung together in an absurd but highly amusing plot and executed with crackerjack speed. Its title is a bit misleading as the titular haunt is only one of several settings in the picture and it isn’t even the most exciting. Buster plays a bank clerk whose superiors, unbeknownst to him, are in cahoots with a gang of robbers to use one of their houses as a hideout for their stolen goods. To keep the police away, they’ve rigged the house with all manner of fake ghouls and ghosts. Falsely accused of holding up the bank, Buster is chased by the police straight into the haunted house which is equipped with a collapsible staircase. Naturally, high jinks ensue.

The film’s first, and best, set piece is a bit of old style vaudeville comedy wherein Buster spills a pot of glue while handling paper money at the bank. It’s an old comic bit that any modern viewer has seen in dozens of films performed by lesser comedians but Keaton’s dedication, his precise and unselfconscious acting style and the way in which each moment builds upon the next really elicit some hearty laughs. Each bit of comic business immediately leads into the next for, as Buster has just freed himself from the last sticky bill, a group of bank robbers bursts in, a clock falls knocking Keaton unconscious and he’s blamed for the robbery.

Meanwhile, there’s an acting troupe in town performing Faust. They’re pelted with tomatoes, booed off the stage and ran out of town…and into the haunted house. At the same time, Buster escapes police custody and runs for his life…and into the haunted house.

Now populated with the manufactured fake ghosts and the actor playing the devil, poor Buster has no idea what he’s getting into. Keaton and company make great use of the all the gag possibilities of the haunted house, but save their funniest for last. After falling through a trap door and blacking out, Buster dreams of ascending to Heaven on a long staircase, only to have the stairs collapse and Buster slide down into Hell, where the devil awaits, pitchfork in hand.

Although the film ends abruptly with Buster foiling the plot and getting the girl (the bank president’s daughter), that standard ending is no reason not to see the film. The manic pacing, nutty plot, the sheer volume and ingenuity of the gags is astounding, making The Haunted House a must-see.

June 19, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1920--The Scarecrow & Conclusion

The Scarecrow

Buster and Joe Roberts are roommates whose one-room house is rigged with all sorts of time-saving shortcuts. Everything doubles for something else: the mirror doubles as a portrait of Joe's gal (Sybil Seely, again.) The gal herself doubles as a love interest to both men--they share everything. The oven doubles as a phonograph player, the bookshelf doubles as a refrigerator. The salt and pepper shakers descend from the sky on strings--a more advanced version of a gag used in the Arbuckle-Keaton short The Garage, and a precursor to the same set-up in The Navigator. At the breakfast table, there's a little toy cart on strings which brings the biscuits to your side of the table when the string is pulled. It's a delightful display of kitchen acrobatics--bottles and butter trays glide gracefully through the air. The table detaches and the pair empty out their plates into a trapdoor chute that deposits their leftovers to the pigs outside. The bathtub empties out into a pond for the ducks outside, while turning into a couch! The hideaway bed turns into a piano. The now wall-mounted table (with dishes nailed down) flips over to reveal the ironic sign, "What is Home Without a Mother". The answer is clearly a clubhouse (no girl's allowed!), a gadget-heavy mousetrap designed to cut every corner andbypass hard work at every turn. As the two men exit their house, the camera lingers on the set for a moment or two. Keaton and Gabourie were understandably proud of their ingenious craftsmanship and wanted to show it off a little.

The next scene features two silent comedy staples: rivals fighting for the girl, and a chase. Buster and Joe jockey for the Sybil's hand; they're both contending with Sybil's mean farmer father (Joe Keaton). As for the chase, Buster has to contend with the farmer's mad dog, played by Buster's old Comique co-star, Luke the Dog.

Luke the wonderdog!

Luke chases Keaton into a ruined brick building, weaving in and out of doorways and windows--showcasing Luke's amazing ladder-climbing abilities. He even chases Buster along the edges of the building. Keaton, thinking he's bested the dog, taunts him an in untypically juvenile fashion. This sort of activity, and indeed, this entire chase, is something you'd expect to see from an earlier Arbuckle-Keaton collaboration, not from "Buster" Keaton studios.

Luke then chases Buster back into his house when he escapes by tumbling out of the bathtub-cum-couch...and right into the duck's puddle. Buster next hides in a giant pile of hay, only to become swept up by the farmers' sorting machine. We get a dog's point-of-view shot of Buster being launched out of the machine's shaft and landing in a pile of hay, and, having lost his clothes in the ordeal, wearing just his skivvies.

Luke and Buster call a truce and shake on it. Now sans clothes, Buster has the misfortune of running into his would-be girl (she faints) and her father (enraged, he gives chase). But, where oh where can a poor, misunderstood young man find clothes in the middle of a farm? From the corn field scarecrow, of course! Seeing Buster in scarecrow garb, Sybil Seely looks straight into the camera in disbelief.

Meanwhile, Joe Roberts and the girl's father discover Buster and give chase. Buster attempts to outwit them crossing a stream by walking on his hands (a wonderful, acrobatic stunt.) Across safely, Buster bends down to tie his shoe...when Sybil walks by and seeing him in this position, assumes he's down on one knee to propose. Baffled but accepting, Buster forges ahead as he always does; no fork in the road, be it loss of attire or unintended marriage, can stymie this dauntless young man.

The newly engaged couple mount horses for an escape...only his is plastic. Buster tries to jump on the back of hers but the horse trots away and Keaton's lands flat on his bum. Meanwhile, the two Joes (Roberts and Keaton) are on their trail. Buster and Sybil borrow a motorcycle with a sidecar and the Joes pursue by car. On their way, the couple careens into a priest who obligingly marries them right there on the road. Elgin Lessley's camera work is remarkably steady and very well done in this sequence, as it is throughout his tenure with Keaton. Not having a ring handy, Buster uses one of the lugnuts from the motorcycle. Just as the parson begins to speak, "then I pronounce you--", the motley crew crashes into a river, and as they come up for air, the priest finishes, "--man and wife!" Buster spits out a stream of water and the film irises in. THE END.

I like The Scarecrow very much, even though it does seem like a mixture between Keaton's work with Arbuckle and the later films he'd make famous. Part of the appeal for me is the quiet, understated pacing of the film. Buster's antics can be beautifully breathless--no one does non-stop chase films like Buster Keaton. Here, however, the casual, almost incidental chain of events is a nice compliment to the short's relaxed, rural setting. Nothing is frenzied because nothing is modern. The Rube Goldberg-like opening sequence is couched in a domestic setting and is quite literally adjacent to the farm's ducks and pigs. It's a nice change of pace to Keaton's more famous mechanized madness. In addition, you get a great sense of rural Southern California through the location photography. Everything is dusty, there are farms everywhere and oil derricks dot the horizon. However, there some problems. Joe Roberts' place within the Keaton crew is still being tinkered with. He's not a very viable threat as a romantic rival and I can't help but think the domestic scenes as Buster's roommate would have worked better with someone like Arbuckle, with whom Buster had a more natural rapport.

Taken together, Buster Keaton's 1920 shorts show an artist in flux. Keaton is still experimenting--with leading ladies, with Joe Roberts, and with his own personal style. Keaton plays it straight most of the time, occasionally allowing another actor to acknowledge the audience. Despite the brilliant design on display in One Week, Keaton's cinematic and storytelling tricks haven't yet achieved the sophisticated level of precision he'd become famous for. Signs of Buster Keaton's breakout innovative technical genius, however, was just around the corner.

Next time--1921!

June 18, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1920--Neighbors


Relocating Romeo & Juliet to the urban slums, Keaton is in love with the girl next door but the parents are against it. Buster’s real life father, Joe Keaton plays his dad in the two-reeler and they recreate many of their routines from the vaudeville stage. One such gag occurs when Buster gets his head stuck in the mud and his father tugs at his legs and steps on his arms while trying to unplug his screw-up son from the muddy hole.

I view this short as something of a transition between Keaton the vaudevillian and Keaton the filmmaker. While Neighbors relies heavily on Buster’s acrobatic skills in displays which were clearly devised first and material was cobbled together around them, there are also touches of his mechanical creativity such as when Buster nails a wooden plank on the fence that pivots to hit whomever passes from yard to yard.

The short is also noticeably for a gag which comments on race relations. His face blackened from the muddy ditch, Buster is singled out by a suspicious policeman. When he’s able to wipe half of his face clean, the policeman (who sees Buster in profile) leaves him alone. Buster then turns to face his “black” side towards the cop who instantly accosts him. Keaton also had gags about race relations in Seven Chances and featured a newlywed African American couple in The Navigator.

Ultimately, the feuding families take their grievances to court where the always-inventive Buster takes advantage of his officious surroundings to marry the neighbor girl, played by BK Studios newcomer Virginia Fox (she'd go on to star in more Keaton shorts than any other leading lady.) The couple has to sneak back to their houses to gather their belongs and elope, which is where the film’s final acrobatic routine comes in. Performing a three-man pyramid stunt (with each man standing on top of the others’ shoulders), Buster is able to “walk” from house to house, collecting the couples’ belongs while avoiding their incensed fathers and making a daring escape out the window.

Neighbors is not one of Keaton’s classic short films, but it is a sharp, lively and consistently entertaining display of the Buster’s prowess as a physical comedian.

June 17, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1920--Convict 13

Convict 13

Convict 13 continues the bad luck theme began in One Week, as Buster is mistaken for an escaped convict set to be hanged that very day. The short begins on the golf links where Buster encounters a lady golfer (Sybil Seely). He chips a ball which bounces off the side of a barn, hits him in the head and knocks him out. Along comes the escaped con, who switches clothes with the unconscious Buster. Revived, Buster is in mid-swing when he notices his new duds. By this time, the prison guards are already upon him. Taking flight, Buster hitches a ride on a passing car...only to learn it's the prison warden's. How unlucky can one guy be? He jumps ship and eludes the ever-increasing search party, ducking into a large gated estate...only to realize it's the prison yard. There, the guards inform him convict 13 is set to be hanged today. The gallows are all set up and the other prisoners are in the stands, hooting and hollering like spectators at a ball game; there's even a concessions man selling popcorn and beer.

Meanwhile, the warden's daughter (also played by Seely) has taken pity on Buster and changed out the hanging rope with a bungee cord. Of course, when the floor is dropped, Buster bounces up and down and doesn't die. The crowd of prisoners is understandably upset.The prison brass next assign Buster to break up rocks, where he manages to knock out a guard. Sensing the opportunity, Buster switches outfits. At the same time, a huge inmate (Joe Roberts) is planning a mass breakout. He knocks down every guard that comes after him. Of course, Buster, now a guard, catches the brunt of Big Joe's fury. He manages to contain Roberts and is promoted to Assistant Warden for his troubles. But the prison riot is already brewing; Joe steals Sybil and the bloody riot begins.

Finding the bungee cord and a punching bag, Buster gets an idea. Recreating an old vaudeville act, Buster swings the cord with bag attached, around and around his head in circles, every pass coming closer to hitting the prisoner. It was the Three Keaton's most famous, and most dangerous stunt and Joe Keaton (Buster's father) recreates it with his son; he plays the prisoner who gets conked. Buster uses this technique to fell all the rioting inmates. But, in the melee, Buster is knocked unconscious by a hammer. He finds himself again on the golf course being awakened by the lady golfer. It was all a dream.

With the exception of the old vaudeville routine (an impressive and palpably dangerous stunt), Convict 13 is a weak entry. Golfing scenes were common fodder for silent comedy and the film comes across as derivative, something you know the innovation Keaton is better than. Dishearteningly, Seely's role is non-essential; it doesn't even really make sense (what prison warden keeps his daughter inside among the inmates?!) Roberts makes a splash as very effective--and scary, and gargantuan--heavy, but the 'it was all a dream' twist feels like a cheat and undercuts Roberts' effectiveness (he's not around during the golfing scenes, which implies Buster conjured him as an imaginary bogeyman.) Ultimately, the film is not one of Keaton's better efforts.

June 16, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1920--Intro & One Week

January, 1920. You're Buster Keaton, twenty-four years old. You've just been given your own studio in Hollywood, the top gagmen and cameraman in the business and your boss is patient and understanding: Just give me two two-reel (about twenty minutes) comedies a year, he said, and do it however you choose. The boys and girls of "Buster" Keaton Studios, located on the same square block where Charlie Chaplin churned out shorts for Mutual five years earlier, get busy immediately. Buster Keaton would produce twice the requisite number of shorts that year (his first effort, The High Sign, he would hold back till a year later.) It's a period of unparalleled creative freedom in Keaton's career, and arguably, among the whole of Hollywood history. Never one to be confined indoors, Keaton often shot on location and his early shorts portray Hollywood in its infancy, a dusty desert of infinite possibilities.

Long before the studio system codified and regimented its production practices, Keaton & co. were creating and perfecting the language of screen comedy. Between 1920 and 1923, Buster produced nineteen comedy shorts. He wrote (although those crazy kids never wrote anything down--conceived is a better word), directed and starred in all of them. But even those simple terms are inadequate to describe the workings of "Buster" Keaton Studios. Everybody did everything. If another actor was needed, they threw in co-writer/director Eddie Cline. Keaton worked out sets with the indispensable Fred Gabourie, technical advisor, set-builder, special effects guru and all-around right hand man. Buster also had the best cranker in the business, Elgin Lessley, the cameraman Keaton dubbed "the human metronome" for his precision. Together, they'd create some of the most spectacular special effects in silent cinema. "Writer's meetings" consisted of Keaton and his crew bouncing around gag ideas--plot was confined to the beginning and the end (the middle would work itself out). Often, whole days were spent ruminating over a studio game of baseball. Keaton would play third base, working out his choreography, the physical exertion stimulating the creative process, resulting in some of those most athletic, kinetic films ever made.

This first year of production, 1920, is a mixed bag. The four films Keaton released this year--One Week, Convict 13, Neighbors, and The Scarecrow (The High Sign will be counted for 1921)--give a glimpse into an artist whose strong personal aesthetic is immediately evident, although there are stylistic remnants of Buster's time at Comique with 'Fatty' Arbuckle. It's a transition year; the next, 1921, is probably the best in Keaton's entire career. But, enough from me--on to the films!

A note on credits: All films are co-written and co-directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline.

One Week

The first released Keaton short is also among his best. There are two basic Keaton plots: the rival/villain storyline where the object is to somehow get the girl, and the setting/prop-based gag-fest where most of the action is contained in one place (usually a house) and silliness occurs. One Week is an example of the latter. Buster and Sybil Seely play newlyweds who're given a pre-fab house and a plot of land as a wedding gift. A former rival, still seething over his loss of the lovely Sybil, sabotages their happiness, changing the numbers on their DIY house-building kits. Keaton regular Big Joe Roberts, not yet in his regular position as dramatic heavy, has his first role as a piano mover.

The action of the story takes place over one week (hence the title), each scene beginning on a shot of a calendar, the days being torn off one by one. The first day, Monday the 9th, starts out with a couple bad omens. Some pranksters have attached a sign to the couples' wedding car: "Good luck. You'll need it." When they arrive at plot 99, a man drops off their house in a box that looks ominously like a coffin. Gulp.

Tuesday, the 10th. The rival switches the numbers on the box. Intrepid Buster saws a danging plank of wood, not realizing that he's sitting on the portion suspended in mid-air. He cuts the plank and down he goes! Sybil, all sweetness and light, pities her well-meaning hubby and gives him a kiss for support. Aw. In a re-staging of Arbuckle's gag in Back Stage, Buster stands still as a side of the house falls to the ground--he's saved by standing in the window. This stunt would gain Keaton fame (and infamy) on a much larger and more dangerous scale eight years later in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Wednesday, the 11th. Success! Their house is assembled. Too bad it's a design only Salvador Dali could love.

Buster, tools in hand, is perplexed. How...? The effervescent Sybil exclaims, "Oh, I don't think it's so bad!" as she paints two hearts on the side of the house. Buster examines this strange and lovely creature he's married, then cups her head in hands and plants a sweet kiss on his new wife. He walks away shyly before scampering off. It's a blissful scene of young love and one of my favorite scenes in any Keaton film. Buster isn't usually remembered for his tender moments but he and Sybil make a charming pair.

Wednesday, the 12th. This little vignette illustrates why I'm a little biased in my love of One Week, and these early Keaton shorts in general--they feature my favorite of Buster's leading ladies, Sybil Seely. Seely, an 18-year old unknown, immediately took to Buster's style of comedy. Although it's been argued that women in Keaton's films are never more than props (not really a criticism, since Buster himself is as much as ragdoll as anyone else), Seely's presence in One Week especially, speaks to a certain pragmatic romanticism in Keaton's work. Sybil and Buster are man and wife and what's more, they're a team. They're cute and flirty, but more than that, they complement each other. Buster is a husband who's charmed, intrigued, baffled, terrified by---and deeply in love, with his new wife. Sybil is a stalwart champion of her husband, helping with the building and the cooking, trying as much as he is to make their prefab housing disaster a home. But she's not a pushover; she's got spunk.

In one of the scene's most memorable moments, Sybil's in the bathtub, about to lean over to pick up a bar of soap. Suddenly, she becomes aware of the camera, smiles, and the cameraman's hand comes out of nowhere to cover the lens. Our vision restored, Sybil starts to scrub, giving us a coy, knowing smile. It's a wonderful moment for several reasons. First, it's a rare instance of Keaton giving a great gag to one of his female co-stars. Second, it's a great example of the playfulness and ingenuity which characterize Keaton's short films. Unlike the mugging employed by Arbuckle and the Comique crew, when Buster breaks the fourth wall, it's always unexpected--as a director, he's constantly uprooting our expectations. We might anticipate the film would cut away from Sybil and then cut back, the cameraman's hand is not something we might see coming.

Furthermore, although the gag is unconventional, it's thematically consistent. In the next scene, Buster falls through the roof--right into the bathtub! Sybil is now behind the shower curtain (subverting our expectations again), and quickly shews him out, out, out! of the bathroom. The film viewer, is privy to certain intimacies (Sybil in the tub) that even her husband isn't allowed to see. Ever dutiful, Buster obeys his wife, opening the door--the film quickly cuts to outside the house, where we see that the door opens out into thin air and Buster takes a giant, Wile E. Coyote-style dive from the second story.

Friday, the 13th. The seemingly innocuous calendar gag pays off--it's a wonderful, unexpected laugh. It's the house-warming party, just in time for a massive storm to hit! The roof leaks, the house (which was affixed to a giant, in-studio turntable) turns and tilts on its axis, chucking guests out its doors and windows and into the muck. Buster is likewise tossed outside and trying in vain to get back inside the front door.

Saturday, the 14th. We iris out on a totally wrecked house, Buster and Sybil seated in a mournful embrace, sopping wet and completely dejected. Another blow: they learn they've build on the wrong lot. Hitching up the house on barrels and towing it with their car, the couple sets out to move across the street.

Sunday, the 15th. Towing the car across the way, the rope snaps. Undaunted, Buster nails the house to the car and drives away...only the car splits in half, the chassis driving away, leaving the seat nailed to the house. Just then, Buster and Sybil hear (and feel) a train coming and try desperately to move the house off the tracks. Just as it seems train and house are about to collide--the camera pans right and we find the train is running on the next track over. They're saved! Perhaps their luck is finally changing. The camera pans back to the couple braced for impact. They're relieved but immediately take to arguing (Buster, what did you do to the car?!)--we switch to a long shot just in time to see a train coming from the opposite direction, on the parallel track, slam into the house!

Well, that was just the last straw. Buster grabs a "For Sale" sign from the rubble, leaves the the directions and walks away from the mess, hand in hand with Sybil.

One Week is a near-perfect comedy. For only his second feature as a director, incredibly, Buster's screen persona is fully formed--the diligent little fellow who's battered with all sorts of bad luck, be it man-made (a booby-trapped house, a train) or natural (a storm); these leitmotifs will recur in Buster Keaton's best films. Interestingly, One Week is more domestic than many of Buster's shorts. Usually, Buster is trying to court the girl; here, he's already got her. His relationship and rapport with Sybil Seely adds an extra dimension to what would otherwise be just another bout of mechanical mayhem.