The Blacksmith’s Back

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One of the most impressive people I met in Pordenone, which was full of impressive people, was Fernando Pena, who discovered the lost footage of METROPOLIS. Yet “impressive” doesn’t seem the right word for someone so approachable and modest. Fernando portrays himself as a very lucky man, rather than as the skilled archivist he clearly is.

Having assumed that the near-complete METROPOLIS would forever remain the reigning highlight of his career, Fernando was stunned to find himself in possession of an undiscovered alternative version of Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH, purchased on 9.5mm off eBay by a friend. He told Serge Bromberg at Lobster Films, who checked his own holdings, and found a matching version in 35mm which he’d had for twenty years without checking. Bromberg is another modest guy, who tells this story against himself, knowing that film fans will still rightly love him for turning up this treasure. Or, if not modest, certainly honest. Not all the rediscoveries at Pordenone were presented so frankly.

So what does the alternate cut consist of? To help us compare, the festival screened the familiar version a couple of days before the premiere of Pena’s discovery. And to spice things up, they screened it with a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who provided a narration and did all the voices. Suddenly Big Joe Roberts sounded like Toshiro Mifune. It transformed the film, which I’d never particularly admired (it’s very funny, just not particularly strong by Keaton standards – in the bottom 10% of his shorts, I’d place it), and gave it a whole new energy, as well as allowing us to see it as a Japanese audience might have (if Keaton’s films screened in Japan, about which I have no idea.)

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Then came the new version, which the catalogue suggested was probably the first cut, trimmed after poor reviews and disappointing audience response. But the story has since changed, and now Serge reckons the new version is actually Keaton’s preferred cut.

What’s different? Well, the only major action not included in this new cut is a sequence where Buster the blacksmith gets oily hand-prints all over a white horse. This gag, prefiguring a very similar moment where he gets oily handprints all over a white Rolls Royce (possibly the one gifted to him by his in-laws as a wedding present, suggesting that Keaton’s marriage never stood much of a chance), always seemed to make the film rather repetitive. The complete destruction of the limo is far more effective than the mere soiling of the mare, but lost some of its impact because the equine skit came right before it.

Instead, the film adds five minutes of exterior action, in which Keaton interacts with his nemesis, the big blacksmith, and woos the leading lady, whose status as romantic interest is extremely perfunctory in the familiar version. In other words, we get plot. Where the familiar BLACKSMITH is a string of variable and repetitive gags, this newly found one is a string of excellent and fresh gags arranged into a story. It fulfils the expectations we normally have for a Keaton short, in other words.

One gag, in which Big Joe Roberts chases Buster through and around a small house, interrupting his attempts to propose to the girl he’s just met (OK, the romance is still kind of perfunctory, but now it works), until Buster finally locks both doors with *** on the inside, looked familiar – Keaton reused it somewhere, I’m sure, but I can’t think where. Somebody out there must know. If he DID find a home for it, that would suggest that he was at least aware that it was cut here, but still liked it.

The best new gags are (1) a chase where Buster attempts to commandeer a roadster, only to discover it’s just a wooden mockup erected for advertising purposes. He gets in anyway, sitting on a plank, and posing in profile becomes a part of the advertisement, exploiting his wooden Indian facial immobility of legend. *** is suspicious all the same, and all the more so when Buster suddenly shoots out of frame right – the plank he’d sat on was actually part of a load of timber on the back of an offscreen truck, which has now departed.

And (2) another part of the chase where Buster and *** are distracted by the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a blind, and abandon their pursuit in reverent peeping. The light is switched off as the woman gets down to her slip, and the chase is on again. Interestingly, Serge told us this scene was present only in the Lobster print, since the 9.5mm format was intended for home viewing, which meant family audiences had to be considered more, and so the Argentinian print had been censored.

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It’s a great find – THE BLACKSMITH now belongs securely in the top 50% of Keaton shorts, maybe the top third. It’s certainly a stronger film than it was. A wonderful find for Fernando, who has long been a great Keaton fan. In fact, he was interested to hear I’d been talking to Richard Lester, since he wrote to the Great Man some years ago when he was researching a planned book on B.K, and received a generous reply. He was glad to hear Mr. Lester is well, and we agreed that he’s a very gracious fellow.

Sadly, Fernando’s friend who bought the print in the first place is very ill and couldn’t attend the screening. We gave him a round of applause in absentia which hopefully traveled around the world to him.

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8 Responses to “The Blacksmith’s Back”

  1. Buster long regretted the destruction of the Rolls Royce as it soon became clear that audiences resented watching something they envied but could never afford being treated in this way. When it came to filming THE NAVIGATOR, his decision not to sink the ship was made for that reason. He told his team “Those same people who wished THEY had a Rolls would be wishing they could inherit a liner just like I had, or even just take a trip on one.” So I’m suprised, if this is a later version based on audience response, that the scene survives.

  2. My feeling is that it’s an earlier version, his preferred one, and the version we know is some kind of botch-up. But I’ll try to get the story out of Serge. There is evidence based on the locations which may tell us which scenes were filmed when, but my instinct is that Keaton wouldn’t have chopped his film in this way, though he might well have cut the business with the oily horse.

    Hollywood has made quite a habit of wrecking expensive cars in more recent years, suggesting that tastes have changed or else Keaton was wrong. Or that Hollywood misjudges popular taste when it comes to the regular trashing of Mercedes in Jerry Bruckheimer films.

  3. Here’s an article by W.C. Fields, talking about ruining nice cars and other fine points of comedy:

    http://animationresources.org/?p=7575

    The gag he describes in from Lloyd’s “For Heaven’s Sake.” In that one he’s a shallow, comically blase rich kid for whom a totaled car is no big deal. The earlier “Hot Water” also has a new car wrecked. But this time Harold is a middle-class newlywed, for whom the car is a huge event. And its mostly-plausible wrecking is part of a drawn-out reign of destruction brought on by unpleasant in-laws. You laugh at devil-may-care Harold; you might worry about put-upon Harold.

    I remember reading a piece (thought it was this one) that covered similar ground, noting that a comedian should beat up a car a bit before destroying it on camera. It also warned against gags about infirmities, then cited a gag that successfully broke both rules: A showoff parks his shiny new car on the curb. A blind man walks by slowly, aggressively probing the way ahead with his white cane. The car owner is distressed, but too polite to speak as the cane scratches, dents or breaks something with every step.

    Fields broke both rules, but separately: In “If I Had a Million,” he smashes up a fleet of new cars (and old ones) while wreaking vengeance on road hogs. In “It’s a Gift,” an irascible blind man nearly destroys Fields’ general store while buying a stick of gum (and wants it delivered). As a topper Fields reveals the man is the house detective at the local hotel.

    Comedy is a tricky thing. Last time I watched a chunk of “Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” I was more puzzled than amused when large-scale destruction was inflicted on the property of non-wealthy innocent bystanders. At the same time, I always enjoy the riot that climaxes Laurel and Hardy’s “Two Tars.”

  4. Kramer’s film always struck me as hugely unfunny, it’s length alone being evidence that he didn’t understand comedy. More than unfunny: it left a pall of depression. Even Spielberg’s homage, 1941, is more amusing.

    Llloyd (see The Freshman) often pushes comedy right up into the shadow of emotional distress, and usually gets away with it, but it’s a surprising compulsion.

    Fields’ Mr Muckle is a great illustration of turning the afflicted character into a threat. Too much modern comedy is just nasty about difference, although I guess it trades on our uneasy awareness that we ought not to be laughing — if this understanding is maintained, the audience and filmmakers can get along OK. If it’s broken, you have a film that creeps you out, like The Hangover series.

  5. Hello there,
    Many thanks for your kind words and perceptive comparison of the two BLACKSMITHs.
    The car was not a Rolls Royce after all. Some guys who seem to know their stuff say it was a Pierce-Arrow but they do not agree on the model. One of them believes it is a prop, made to resemble a Pierce Arrow, but easier (and cheapier) to destroy.

    http://www.imcdb.org/vehicle_41934-Pierce-Arrow-Model-49-1920.html

    Very best,
    f

  6. Thanks! Would love to know more about the current thinking on the origins of this superior version, too!

  7. John Bengtson makes a case that the familiar version includes footage shot AFTER the newly discovered one, strongly suggesting that the familiar version represents the final cut. The question seems to be whether changes resulted from Keaton’s artistic judgment, a studio decree or a grim preview.

    http://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/found-a-new-version-of-keatons-the-blacksmith-part-2-more-surprises/

  8. He’s definitely right that the long version existed first. But I’ll be fascinated to hear the new version of the history that Serge Bromberg hinted at after the screening.

    I think, incidentally, that the two edits should be combined to make one super-version, and that a future DVD should contain all three cuts. A good way to turn a single short into a decent DVD package.

    Bergstrom: “NOTE: The version of The Blacksmith known in America today was discovered by James Mason in Keaton’s private vault (Mason was a subsequent owner of Keaton’s Italian Villa mansion in Beverly Hills). This “American” version appears to date from mid to late 1921, and does not contain any of the “Pena” scenes filmed in 1922. Thus, it is plausible Buster’s privately held 1921 vault print was not intended for wide distribution, and that the “Pena” version, containing numerous subsequently filmed gags, was the “official” version widely released in July 1922.”

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