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!

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