LE ROI DES CHAMPS-ELYSEES got fairly short shrift from its star Buster Keaton, and one can see why. But, having finally tracked down a copy of the film, I thought it was a bit better than its slight reputation would have suggested.
Firstly, unlike the wildly off-tone MGM vehicles which had driven him to Europe, the movie uses Keaton primarily for visual gags. The bulk of the dialogue is distributed among the supporting cast — Keaton’s employers chatter incessantly, with a good bit of overacting. I should mention, by the way, that I don’t speak the French, and my copy is unsubtitled… but the movie was still perfectly comprehensible.
Perhaps the fact that Keaton couldn’t really speak French helped the film. Here, he mouths the French words, and a stranger’s voice emerges — not a perfect match for his uniquely rasping voice, but not bad. I’d love to know who spoke the lines. I’d have hired Louis Jouvet, who looked like Buster’s older, funhouse-mirror brother. The effect is often strange, as if the voice isn’t coming from his body — the audio quality is discernibly different from the other characters’ speech, and at times he sounds a bit like a Raudive recording of departed spirits of the ectopshere…
Buster’s visual bits are good, and I suspect he worked out some of them himself. The story is a string of loosely-connected devices, climaxing in Keaton, an actor playing a convict, is mistaken for the real thing, a doppelbuster, if you will. For me, the prospect of Keaton playing a dual role was the most exciting aspect of the movie: unlike in THE PLAYHOUSE, this isn’t a multitude of Busters, it’s two distinct personalities. Gangster Buster is a serious bad guy, which you can tell by the way he keeps punching people in the face.
Mean Mister Buster.
Director Max Nosseck (with Robert Siodmak as “supervisor”) seems more at home in the crime parts of the story, shooting and cutting a nocturnal car chase with manic energy, than in the comedy, but he frames the gags reasonably astutely. I guess the habit of using tighter shots appropriate to dialogue scenes in filming slapstick only really caught on, damagingly, in the ‘forties. Nosseck’s enthusiasm for gangsterism would pay off in his later Hollywood career, where he helmed DILLINGER and THE HOODLUM, both with Lawrence Tierney
The most unfortunate part of the film is the ending, where Buster and his cute leading lady, Paulette Dubost (looking kind of like Annette Benning — she’s best known for THE RULES OF THE GAME and she’s STILL ALIVE!) are reunited. Buster actually smiles. I guess the Europeans thought it would be a neat surprise. Buster says he only did it to show them it wouldn’t work, “And I was right.” He looks like he’s baring his teeth rather than actually smiling. Given Buster’s problems with drink, a collapsed marriage and a career in freefall, creative interference of such an intrusive kind (recalling his parting shot to Louis B Mayer, “You warped my character!”) must have been painful, so it’s not surprising he couldn’t make it convincing. Though Keaton is losing his looks and some of his grace, it’s the only bit of the film where the strain really shows. A shame they fade out on it.