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.

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