July 7, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1922--Daydreams & Conclusion

Regrettably, Daydreams is an incomplete film. The premise is simple: Buster wants to marry his fiance but first he has to move to the big city and make good. If he doesn't, he's promised to shoot himself (the girl's father will provide the revolver). The film cuts back and forth between Buster in the big city and the girl at home. She reads his letters about the jobs he's doing (written in the vaguest of terms) and imagines his grand occupations. The reality is always a lot less spectacular. This joke is repeated throughout the short--exaggerated expectations dashed by banal (often cruel) realities. Unfortunately, the humor of this set-up is undercut somewhat because much of the footage of the fiance's daydream is missing, replaced in the KINO DVD version I watched with production photos.

Although the set-up/punchline scenario is the same, Keaton uses this opportunity to structure some very clever call-back gags. For instance, his first job is working at a pet hospital and his second job is as a street sweeper. In the first job, he puts a cat in a basket with a hole in the bottom; in the second job, he totes around a trash can with the bottom fallen out. Neither joke is the centerpiece of the sequence and the audience's knowledge of the running gag comes on gradually in a gentle peal of laughter.

The chase sequence of the film builds in Buster's third job and into his fourth. He writes home to say he is beginning a theatrical career. She imagines him as Hamlet (see above) but he's really part of a chorus as a Roman soldier with two left feet. It's a classic comedy sight: the petite Buster Keaton surrounded by burly Centurions--adding insult to injury, he can't even keep in step with them. This is a man who can't even walk right! Poor Buster. After wrecking the show, Buster is thrown off the stage and out of the building, still clad in his Roman costume.

Suspiciously outfitted, Buster is trailed by an inquisitive cop. Gradually, Buster's stride turns to a fast walk, then a jog, then an all-out sprint. The entire sequence is captured in a single tracking shot, a long take past parked cars and real Los Angeles locations. The chase careens into Chinatown and then past a clothing shop. In perhaps the film's cleverest sequence, we see a man pickpocket the store proprietor. When the owner accuses the man of stealing his money and calls a beat cop over to investigate, the thief slips the wad of bills into a pair of pants on a display counter. The store owner apologizes and the thief stalks away empty-handed. 

Enter Buster. The camera pans to reveal Buster perched on a clothing display, a stalk-straight living mannequin. Buster, desperate for a change of clothes, slips on the pants in which the thief left the cash. The store owner emerges to confront Buster in his newly acquired black suit and bowler (a reference to Chaplin's Tramp, perhaps?). Stuck between a cop and a hard place, Buster resignedly puts his hands in his pocket...but, wait, what's this? The wad of cash! Buster pays the store owner five dollars of his own money and then scampers away in his new duds.

Despite his evasive maneuvers, Buster is still being chased by the police. And not just one anymore but, in a recall of Cops, hundreds. He catches a passing trolley car and, in the film's best stunt, runs at pace with it until he allows himself to be carried away into the wind until he's completely horizontal, hanging onto the trolley rail by one hand--spectacular! Climbing onto the trolley, Buster thinks he's safe. He doesn't notice the car turning back around toward the police mob. He has to jump off the car and the chase is on foot once again.

A whole gaggle of cops chase Buster to the waterfront, where he makes a flying leap onto a debarking ferry. He makes the jump! Ah, success! He's doffing his porkpie to the coppers stranded on the dock, when...the ferry returns to the dock! The chase is back on. Desperate, Buster drops down onto the paddle wheel hoping to outsmart the cops. It seems he's home free...and then the boat starts to run again. And so does Buster--around and around, like a hamster. At first, it's a jaunty stride, then panic creeps into the gait. The water sloshes around his feet; he has to run!--which leads to slipping, falling, and tumbling, until he manages to grab hold of the outer wheel. Now he's securely fastened--and enjoying a nice head-soaking every 360 degrees. Finally, he makes a jump for it, into the ocean harbor. 

This sequence completes some nice parallel construction with the earlier tracking shot chase. Both are single shots of Buster accelerating into futility. It's a nice touch that reveals more about Keaton's genius as a director than perhaps the film does when taken on the whole.

Although free of the cops, Buster's humiliation is far from complete. He's caught by a crusty old fisherman and stung up with the rest of the fish. Back at the fiance's house, she receives a special delivery: Buster, battered and bruised with a crushed porkpie and a black eye. The girl's father doesn't miss a beat--he hands Buster the revolver. Off camera, we see a plume of gun smoke. The girl winces, her father comforts her. Is this the end of our beloved Buster? No, he missed! The father kicks Keaton squarely in the tuchus and right out the second story window. The End.

Daydreams has a lot going for it and I wish it was in better shape. It's easy to see Keaton's passion for staging authentic versions of every gag (if only the Hamlet scene was complete!). The film is characteristically dark, in keeping with the pessimism of Cops and the continuing suicide theme of Hard Luck and The Electric House. But even when little Buster fails and fails and fails, he never stops trying. Bullet-headed optimism in the face of preposterous, insurmountable odds is the Buster Keaton trademark, and the source of his pervasive popularity.

Next up, 1923: this year Keaton produces only two short films, as he begins his first feature,Three Ages! Two charming fantasies, Balloonatics and The Love Nest, next time...

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