July 10, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1923--The Balloonatic

This year, 1923, we only have two Keaton two-reelers to cover: The Balloonatic and The Love Nest. This is because this same year, Buster was given permission to begin filming his first feature film, a take-off on DW Griffith's Intolerance called Three Ages. Interestingly, Ages was divided in three parts (duh), each time period structured like a two-reel short. As Keaton explained, this was to hedge their bets. If the film wasn't successful or didn't turn out as Buster wanted, they could cut up the film and release it as three separate short films. This would have brought the hypothetical tally for 1923 to five short films, in keeping with Buster Keaton's previous yearly output. On to the films...

This short is kind of like Keaton & co. leafed through all their gag ideas, pulled three at random and glued them all together--presto!--The Balloonatic. The three main settings of this film, a carnival fun house, a hot air balloon, and the wilderness, neatly encapsulate Buster Keaton's primary habitats: the "fun" house (One Week, The Haunted House, The Electric House), the large mechanical prop, usually a form of transportation (The Boat, The Navigator, The General), and rural America (The Paleface, Our Hospitality, Battling Butler). If you want a crash course in the Keatonian method, you could do worse than this short. 

Themes and motifs aside, The Balloonatic is very loosely bound together. Fans of the intricacies and sophistication Buster would later perfect in his features might be charmed by the individual segments but not so amused that the elements never come together in any kind of consistency. 

Nevertheless, the first shot of the film is a beaut: in pitch darkness, Buster lights a match; we see the crown of his porkpie hat. He lifts his head up, fear evident on his harshly lit features. A bold cinematic opener to a mostly silly short. 

Petrified of the skeletons in the fun house, he's shot out through a trap door, landing backside-first in front of The House of Trouble. Buster gets out of there quickly enough and stumbles upon a balloon launch. The giant balloon is a typically gargantuan prop to dwarf Keaton's already undersized frame. The unexpectedness of its appearance (as opposed to common transports like cars or boats) lends this short an air of the fantastic. It also offers up a smooth thematic transition, from the amusement park (where Buster is denied any of its pleasures) to another form of Sunday afternoon merriment. 

Buster wanders into the balloon launch and a workman gestures for Buster to attach a good luck pennant to the top of the balloon. The ballooner (seriously, this is what balloon pilots are called) climbs into the basket, releases the ballasts, and...the bottom falls out. An unexpected and totally unexplained joke. The ballooner is left on the ground and no one, least of all Buster, is aware anyone is aboard the wayward dirigible.

Like a spider, Buster has to make his way carefully along the web of ropes and lines to the safety of the basket below. His jungle-gym efforts are rewarded with a bottomless basket! Poor, old Buster. The scene fades out, time passes, and fades back in. Buster has tamed the perils of hot-air balloon flight, having mastered the art of carefully balanced air travel. At ease in his new domestic digs, he attempts to rustle up dinner via duck hunt. The decoy birds are lowered. Buster spots a beauty clinging to his balloon. He fires. The balloon deflates and he falls and falls, and lands, in a tree. In the middle of nowhere. 

The remainder of the short plays out like Babes in the Wood. Buster meets a wild mountain girl played by Keaton newcomer Phyllis Haver. She's totally at home in the wilderness, a sporting fisherman and swimmer (whereas Buster nearly drowns several times). Buster can't fish traditionally, so he cheats, damning up a small stream and picking up the fish that get caught. Unbeknownst to him, there's a hole in the bottom of his pail. Buster definitely has a problem with bottomless containers in this movie. The dam bursts and Buster is sent rushing down the river, ending up right in the path of Phyllis' swan dive. City boy and country girl collide.

The next sequence involves a canoe Buster has built. He tries to fish from it, roasting his catch between two tennis racquets (and setting the canoe on fire). Now with a big hole in the middle of his boat, Buster is able to gracefully transfer from river to land. (Imagine the Flintstones' car as a canoe.) When Buster flips the craft going over a mini-waterfall, it's Phyllis to the rescue. She can't avoid it anymore; they're a couple. Buster embraces their union, serenading Phyllis on the ukelele. She, tired of having to save his skin from bears, begrudgingly goes along. 

On one of their romantic boat trips, the new couple is heading right towards a giant waterfall. Phyllis panics; Buster remains serene. No trouble, he indicates toward the sky. The canoe goes right off the fall and continues on. How...? It's attached to the balloon, now mended. The couple floats away, free to cavort among the clouds. 

The Balloonatic is unusually upbeat for a Keaton feature, positing the blissful freedom of nature as a retreat from a dreary urban milieu. At the amusement park Buster had no luck with women. In the Tunnel of Love he gets a black eye; he puts his jacket over a puddle, but is spurned by the girl's suitor and his car. At The House of Trouble, an overweight women falls on top of him, causing injury. (In the forrest, when Phyllis falls on top of him, it's love.)

Miraculously, in the wilderness, Buster is able to construct a canoe, and shoot and fish adequately enough to feed himself (apparently). All this rustic domesticity seems to come out of nowhere, as does Phyllis, which makes me wonder if prints of The Balloonatic are incomplete. As Keaton & co. never wrote anything down, there's no written record of the plans for the film, and Buster never (to my knowledge) mentioned the short as being incomplete or unsatisfactory. The beginning third of the film at the amusement park and in the balloon are my favorites; the majority of the picture in the woods feels like it's from another short entirely. In fact, the basic premise of the inept city boy and the country girl will be recycled in Keaton's later feature, Battling Butler.

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