Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: A Most Wanted Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2014 by dcairns

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At Edinburgh’s late, lamented Lumiere (a terrible room with great programming), one of the treats was a screening of Keaton’s THE GENERAL, with THE GOAT (1921) in support. Apparently some kids had been dragged to see it by parents, and one of the pleasures was hearing a small boy say, after the short, “That was GOOD!” with a touch of amazement in his voice. They know their own minds from an early age, so this was a definite victory.

I thought of THE GOAT again when looking for something to watch while we decided what to watch on our anniversary. Fiona hadn’t seen it, so far as she knew. The thing is, it has a great set-up and some great gags but isn’t the most scrupulously well thought-out Keaton short by a long chalk. But there’s a certain charm in the slapdash, or I hope there is, given that I’m at work on a script written in two weeks.

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Buster is introduced in the bread-line, which gets some sympathy for him –Keaton always wanted to generate sympathy, “but you mustn’t ask for it.” This opening sequence really has nothing to do with anything, though. The movie could begin with the following bit, where Buster gets himself photographed in place of a murderer. There’s then a scuffle in which Buster knocks a heel unconscious and meets a girl (Virginia Fox, in one of her most undercharacterised roles). And then a mini-version of the chase in COPS with some very good gags, particularly the cunning way Buster locks his pursuers in a removals van, and the surprising way they turn up again later.

Buster now escapes to the next town, which serves no great narrative purpose except to stop the cops chasing him, and have a passage of time. The wanted poster for the escaped murderer has now gone up, bearing Buster’s image, motivating another chase by cops, including town sheriff Big Joe Roberts, a Keaton favourite.

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My frame grabs seem to be emulating Beckett’s FILM.

Keaton plays with the idea that Buster believes he must have killed that heel he knocked out — he plays with it for about one minute, then drops it, never to resolve the issue. And Dead Shot Dan is never recaptured, a fairly major loose thread. Instead of neat resolutions we have even more brilliant gags.

Fiona particularly liked Buster throwing himself out of a hospital, to land in front of an ambulance, whose stretcher-bearers calmly transport him back in — and the horse.

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This one needs a special set-up via intertitle to even make sense — a sculptor is presenting the clay model of his masterpiece, which is to be presumably a bronze statue of a racehorse. The sheet is lifted to reveal Buster posed on the fake horse, hiding from cops. The horse slowly droops in the middle, legs buckling, eventually snapping off at hoof level as Buster and the sagging torso fall from their plinth, to the dismay of the sculptor. It’s somehow extremely funny in its grotesquerie, but it’s not the most elegant gag — the horse has to be suspended on wires and gently lowered to simulate its collapse. Keaton preferred not to fake anything, and if you could have made the shot work for real, it would certainly have been better. But it’s funny.

Buster meets Virginia again, gets invited home to meet the folks, and pop turns out to be the sheriff. HUGELY prolonged suspense as Buster plays with the family dog, so that he doesn’t see Sheriff Joe and Sheriff Joe doesn’t see him. Then the family say grace, so everyone is looking down at their soup so they STILL don’t see each other. And then they do.

Walter Kerr admired Keaton’s escape here. Sheriff Joe locks the door and bends the key, so Buster jumps onto the dinner table, onto Joe’s shoulder, and exits via a flying leap through the transom. Beautiful, logical, surprising, and only possible because all the important objects are arranged in a straight line across the screen in classic Wes Anderson formation.

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Lots of business with the elevator, climaxing with Sheriff Joe crashing through the ceiling in what appears to be an animated special effect — it looks like something Charley Bowers would do, and you know how stop-motion has a very distinct quality of movement? . That’s what I’m seeing here. And one recalls the dynamation dino in THE THREE AGES. But the elevator tips a lot of debris off its roof as it topples — could this be animated debris, as in EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS? It looks too dusty. And no method existed in 1921 for combining an animated elevator with live action debris into a single shot. I’d love to hear the solution to this one.


Anyhow, Buster exits with the girl, who is sublimely unconcerned that her beau just shot dad through the roof. And Buster is STILL wanted for murder.

These are essential possessions: help me out and buy one via my links –

The Complete Buster Keaton Short Films [Masters of Cinema] [DVD] [1917]

Buster Keaton – Short Films Collection: 1920 – 1923 (3-Disc Ultimate Edition)

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?

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