Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: Hope Floats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2014 by dcairns

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle may not have raped and  manslaughtered anyone, but he does spank Teddy, “the Keystone dog,” in FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT, a rather good comedy he directed in 1916. Mabel, of course, is Mabel Normand. I’ve been watching lots of her stuff recently and you can expect to read about more of it here.

The film opens with a slightly uncanny, Meliesian sequence of Fatty and Mabel in heart vignettes and a naked little boy as Cupid conjoining them with a well-aimed arrow from his quiver. My DVD added soupy saxophone music to this, giving it an inappropriate LAST TANGO IN PARIS vibe, so I muted that and randomly played a CD, which turned out to be the soundtrack to THOMAS by Amedeo Tomassi, which gave everything a giallo quality. This, strangely, was less problematic. Though it did make Al St. John seem like Max Cady.

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St John plays a jealous jilted type, interfering in newlyweds Fatty & Mabel’s domestic bliss in a way that seems to prefigure the triangle in Keaton’s ONE WEEK. Instead of sabotaging the couple’s made-from-a-kit new home as in the Keaton film, St John enlists the aid of some bandits to tow the cottage out to sea. The honeymoon has been a rather asexual affair, with Mabel bedding down with Teddy the dog while Fatty restrains himself to a kiss on the brow, delivered not in person but by his shadow. You can’t get safer sex than that.

So one could argue that St John hasn’t really interrupted anything.

This is one of the more structured Keystone films I’ve seen, though arguably it begins too early, before the marriage, to no major effect. But I enjoyed how it spent time on different aspects of the central relationship, with sitcom business about Mabel’s inedible rock cakes, which even Teddy won’t touch. When Mabel tested a rock cake by tapping it on her skull, Amedio Tomassi obligingly provided two perfectly synched percussion beats, despite the fact that he was on a separate disc playing at random.

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Arbuckle throws himself about frenetically, of course, and St John’s vigorous knockabout is impressive — he’s not a particularly charming clown, so the heavy role suits him well. Mabel is domesticated, which is a shame — she gets to spread her wings more in star vehicles like MICKEY, and the crude kick-up-the-arse stuff she did with Chaplin (eg THE FATAL MALLET) is also refreshing. You don’t expect to see women mixing it with men in the more violent skits, but Mabel was a game girl.

I think more gags could have been devised out of the promising situation of a house at sea, also, but the mere sight of Fatty, Mabel and a confused Teddy bobbing about in their respective beds in the waterlogged cottage cracked me up. They make that last quite a while without anything in particular happening, and it’s all good stuff.

Anyhow, the bandit chief (Wayland Trask) is a real tough guy, swigging gasoline and eating dynamite and living in a cave on the beach. Yet he has a business card.

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Scotch Reels

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2014 by dcairns

My second trip to Bo’ness for this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema allowed me to spend the whole day there, seeing shows from 10.30am until 7.30 pm — Keaton, Bowers, Chase, Von Bolvary, Murnau, Ozu. In the company of delightful people such as Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London, ace accompanist Neil Brand, writer and Edinburgh Film Fest director Chris Fujiwara. With a weird tartan theme going on.

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I’m no expert on tartan. I think my own family pattern is the Clan MacCavebear. What was peculiar was that from the Charley Bowers film on, every movie had a strong tartan presence. THERE IT IS (1928) features cinema surrealist Bowers as Charley MacNeesha of Scotland Yard (visualised as a pen full of kilted men, milling about aimlessly), who investigates crimes too baffling and stupid for the ordinary police, assisted by his kilted flee, MacGregor. Pamela pointed out that Bowers kilt, an obscenely short plaid pelmet, grows mysteriously longer in the final scene where he’s wed Keaton co-star Kathryn McGuire. What is the hidden significance of this?

In LIMOUSINE LOVE (1928), Charley Chase, on his way to his wedding, gets saddled with a naked lady (quite a good role for Viola Richard, since she has to be filmed in close-up throughout). The tartan this time is worn by Josephine the monkey (who also co-starred with Harold Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN). She crops up quite gratuitously here, wearing an adorable little monkey kilt. Inexplicable.

German cabaret star Ilse Bois in DER GEISTERZUG/THE GHOST TRAIN/LE TRAIN FANTOME (1927, an Anglo-German co-production screened via a French print) plays a temperance campaigner all in plaid, which is stretching a point but her name is Miss Bourne — and in the Hungarian version of 1933 it’s “Miss Burns,” which does sound Scottish. Given her surliness, I suspect she’s meant to have Celtic qualities.

When I spotted two tartan blankets draped over extras in THE LAST LAUGH, I felt confident in predicting that Ozu’s DRAGNET GIRL (1933) would feature some example of the Scottish national pattern. I knew that tartans are not unknown in the east due to Tatsuya Nakadai’s tartan muffler in YOJIMBO. Thanks to an interview he gave to Alex Cox, I even know the Japanese for “tartan muffler,” which I believe is “tarutana muffura.”

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Handsome Joji Oka’s is a particularly fine example.

When I got home, I had to re-check Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH, as I hadn’t been watching out for tartans in that one. There’s a fair bit of plaid on display. And also an acrobatic lady who MAY be a young Charlotte Greenwood. I’m no forensic identification expert, but how many comediennes could do the splits back then? Perhaps somebody else with a DVD and a keen eye could look into this for me?

Moving House

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by dcairns

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There are good things in FINDERS KEEPERS (1984), Richard Lester’s penultimate fiction feature (there are good things in RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS too, but it’s overshadowed by tragedy on one side and its illustrious predecessors on the other). Lester has said that FK was the only movie he made as a hired gun, making it in theory even less personal than the SUPERMAN films, which he nevertheless managed to imbue with a lot of his personal style and attitude. In fact, FINDERS KEEPERS being a knockabout farce, on the surface it’s closer to classic Lester.

Michael O’Keefe and Lou Gossett play con artists, Beverley D’Angelo plays a potty-mouthed actress. The plot revolves around a coffin full of cash and there’s lots of action on trains, chases and other opportunities for the Buster Keaton influence to show itself, assisted by the flat landscapes and Lester’s planimetric, architectural framing (“That’s my thing.”)

Lester inherited the project from a friend, along with some of the cast, but he was able to drop a few friends into the proceedings — Brian Dennehy and John Schuck return from BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS and Pamela Stephenson breezes in fresh from SUPERMAN III. Ed Lauter’s bad guy is a stand-out — he’s a vengeful ex-accomplice, making his part of the film like a comic take on Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY. Dennehy, playing a corrupt sheriff, is my other favourite — he’s a smart crooked man with a dumb family, and his seething fury at his lot in life and his chuckleheaded clan is pretty funny. His flaky daughter is played with wondrous tall awkwardness by Barbara Kermode, in her only film role. “Did you forget to take your anti-crazy pills?” asks Dennehy wearily, at her latest eccentric outpouring. This is a line you CAN use with your loved ones, I’ve found, but only if you’re sure you can get away with it. I told Lester when I met him earlier this year that I greatly enjoyed Kermode’s perf. “She was a local girl we found on location,” he said, slightly amazed. He also said that he hadn’t seen the film since making it. (It never played Edinburgh and I’ve only seen it on VHS. There’s never been a DVD.)

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Barbara Kermode, you are a STAR!

Oh, and one other cast member deserves mention. It’s his first movie, and he’s playing Lane Biddlecoff, Dennehy’s dumbest nephew. Here he is ~

The kid is good, but Barbara Kermode really ought to have had his career.

At the climax of the film, Lauter kidnaps D’Angelo and hides out in an empty house. When they awaken next day, the house is in motion — being dragged across country by a truck, like the church in DELIVERANCE. D’Angelo becomes hysterical and starts screaming and Lauter, lacking any ready-made gag, in desperation rips off his toupee and stuffs it in her mouth, a grotesque but, too me, very funny act. Lester, who went bald at 19 and found it helped him get taken seriously by older authority figures, could never resist a wig gag, and here, quite literally, is a wig gag.

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McKean and Gossett set off to rescue her and get the loot. Spoiler alert — this is the whole ending of the movie –

It displays the film’s strengths, I think — some genuinely clever visual gags, perfectly framed, and some rambunctiously stupid ones — and its weaknesses, which for me include Ken Thorne’s score. Thorne had been a regular collaborator and his Kurt Weill-influenced soundtrack for THE BED SITTING ROOM is marvelous. He got an Oscar for arranging and scoring A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (that chase scene scoring!). Here he seems out of his element. The selection of pop songs and their placement isn’t everything I’d like it to be either, suggesting that it was no longer something Lester felt completely at home with.

But the last shot — very Keaton, and specifically THE BLACKSMITH. There’s an elegiac quality which has nothing to do with the story but fits in very well with the film’s place at the twilight of the director’s career.

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