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.

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