July 1, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1922--Intro & The Paleface

Nineteen twenty-two was a banner year in the life of Buster Keaton. He had been making his own short films at Buster Keaton Studios for two years now, and the previous year he'd settled down and got married. The bride was former Comique script girl Natalie Talmadge, a friend of Buster's for nearly five years. Natalie was the sister of the uber-famous Talmadge sisters, Norma (the #1 female box office draw at the time) and Constance. Guided by their commanding stage mother, the Talmadge girls had made good. Norma had married Joe Schenck, Buster's boss. Now with a Keaton-Talmadge union, it really was all in the family.

Besides being a year of absurdly productive output (seven two-reel comedies), this was also the year Buster and Natalie's first child was born. Joseph Frank Keaton VII would later star, along with Natalie, in Buster's second feature film, Our Hospitality.

Overall, 1922 is a rather uneven year in Keaton films. While the previous year had featured his best work, 1922 would have highs (Cops) and lows (My Wife's Relations), but mostly a lot of in-between pictures. Of course I say this with the confidence that even the worst Buster Keaton film isn't bad, just maybe not a masterpiece. Without further ado, onto the films...

Unfortunate racial stereotypes aside, The Paleface is actually a pretty good Keaton short. Joe Roberts plays the chief of a tribe of peaceful Indians who, although being introduced as modern, still live in teepees and wear buckskins. The tribe is the victim of some nasty oil barons who've connived to steal the deed to their land. Enraged, Roberts orders the next white man that enters their land to be killed on the spot. Guess who shows up?

Enter Buster, giant net in hand, as a clueless lepidopterist who's chased a butterfly onto the tribe's land. He continues, pleasantly unaware of the tribe's massing menace; he's focused entirely on his butterfly. Buster's naivete is milked for maximum comic effect: frustrated, he tries to punch the butterfly; he catches a bee, it stings him, he stomps on it and turns to the Indians for sympathy--It stung me! Can you believe it stung me?! Finally, Buster corners the insect, which has landed on Chief Roberts head and whop! the net comes down...and Buster is strung up to be burned at the stake.

This leads to a sequence of Buster escaping the tribe, slipping out of his ropes and running away. He makes his way to an abandoned cabin where he fashions a suit of clothes out of some fire-proof asbestos (!!!). In a stunt-filled chase sequence, Buster jumps off a cliff, using a blanket as a parachute to float to safety, topples head-over-foot down a giant sand dune and is then launched head-first into a tree. The tribe catches up with him and holds out a blanket for Buster to land on. He jumps, bounces off the blanket and lands back on the cliff face.

The stunt is actually composed of two pieces of film, skillfully edited together. Keaton's jump from the tree onto the blanket is one piece, which is done with no tricks. The second piece is actually Keaton jumping from the cliff face onto the blanket, which is played in reverse to make it look as if he's landing on the cliff instead of jumping off from it. The next stunt is even more impressive. Buster faces a dilapidated rope bride with incomplete slats, maybe only a dozen span the great length--certainly not enough to get across. But he must get across or die! Buster scrambles out onto the bridge and physically moves each plank of wood from behind to in front of him, effectively evading the tribe chasing him. He makes it all the way to the other side of the bridge, only to be confronted by Chief Roberts. Frightened, Buster falls backwards and straight through the bridge--down, down, down until he splashes into the water below! If you're wondering, yes, Buster Keaton did all his own stunts. The sequence is two pieces of film again. In the first, Keaton really does fall eighty-five feet (take a second and ponder that) into a net off-camera. In the second shot, he falls considerably less (probably fifteen feet) into the water. Edited together, the effect is of Buster falling from the bridge straight into the lake below.

All ends happily however, as Buster is able to save the tribe from the oil barons and Buster is rewarded with the Chief's lovely daughter (Virginia Fox). In a cute and silly final joke, the new couple embraces, Buster dips her daringly, and they kiss. The film fades out and the intertitle says, "Two years later." We fade in and the couple are still kissing! Buster finally comes up for air and the film ends.

Ultimately, The Paleface seems like an excuse for Keaton and co. to get outside and shoot. The faithful reproduction of the Indian's camp and the beautiful location shooting in Southern California's oil wells, prefigures the documentary-style reality of later features Our Hospitality, Go West, and The General. The athleticism and stunting daring displayed (an unheard-of amount of danger for a twenty-minute short) will become a Keaton hallmark. The Paleface feels like a warm-up for Buster's later features, a testing ground for the expanded scope of the seven reelers.