June 13, 2010

Buster & Fatty: The Hayseed (1919)

The Hayseed (1919)

In contrast to Back StageThe Hayseed is a much more modest and traditional picture. It’s also somewhat of a disappointment. In keeping with its rural setting, nothing much happens in the picture. Fatty has a girl, Molly (Molly Malone again), and a rival, the sheriff. Buster plays his friend and driver. The main conflict is who will marry Molly first, the noble but poor Fatty or the crooked sheriff. Like I said, not much of a plot. The gags aren’t anything to write home about either. The bright spots of the short are Luke the dog, who is adorable, a fine actor and admirable stuntdog.

The main action in the picture is a town social they hold at the general store. In an interlude, Buster performs a magic act wherein he produces a rabbit from behind a sheet. The illusion is successful until his assistant turns his back to the audience to reveal the rabbit dangling from a hook on his coat. In real life, Buster Keaton was friends with Harry Houdini while they traveled together in medicine shows around the turn of the century. Buster was a gifted magician and often included sleight of hand tricks in his films. To see him perform such an inept magic act, then, is amusing if you know the backstory, but not amusing enough in itself to qualify as a successful gag. Also at the talent show, Fatty sings. Complaining of a sore throat, he eats dozens of green onions (apparently they have some kind of medicinal properties). Unfortunately, when he speaks to anyone, he stinks up the joint! It’s a lame premise of a joke, executed lamely, chiefly because we can’t hear Fatty sing and the period tunes he choose don’t exactly resonate with modern audiences. Also, bad breath jokes? They just don’t cut it.

Professor Onion >>>> stinky green onions

Though not a very successful picture, The Hayseed does highlight a recurring feature of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts: the act of performance for performance’s sake. In several of these two-reelers the action stops so that the characters can perform in some way either for a gathered audience or more likely, purely for the enjoyment of the film audiences. These dances, magic shows, and songs are part of a larger self-conscious style of performance that includes knowing winks and references to the audience watching the film. Fatty constantly stares into the camera to bring attention to a certain joke or talk to the audience. Today, he would be considered breaking the fourth wall, but at the time, the code for film (especially comedies) was more flexible. They were making up the rules as they went along and especially in the short form (in 1920, comedies were all two-reelers; no feature-length films yet), experimentation and innovation were the name of the game. In Keaton’s own films, even the shorts, he adopts a more mannered, mature style where self-referentiality is slyly inferred, never outwardly expressed. Keaton’s so-called “Stone Face” was an extension of that rigidity; Buster much preferred to manipulate the medium with trick photography, letting the film speak where he didn’t.

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