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.

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