The Sunday Intertitle / Congruence 3

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I had a pretty good time delivering my first lecture of the year at Edinburgh College of Art on Monday (on the history and uses of the long take), and then a really good time screening silent comedies on Tuesday evening — Chaplin’s A DOG’S LIFE, Harold Lloyd in FROM HAND TO MOUTH, and Keaton’s SHERLOCK JNR. Enthusiastic responses from students, some of whom had seen plenty of silent-era slapstick, some of whom I think had seen none. All pronounced themselves Keatonites at the end, barring one Chaplinist (who had seen several other films so had more to base her choice on). I only asked for a show of hands because I was curious, having previously advised that they shouldn’t feel that they can only like one.

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The three films fit together well, because they’re all fairly short without being tiny, and because you can see how all the silent clowns borrowed from each other (well, I’m not sure how much Chaplin borrowed…)

The Lloyd film (which crams three hours of plot and business into 25 mins) gave him dog and kid companions and cast him as a down-and-out, a la Chaplin, and the Keaton featured a close-following scene very similar to the one in FROM HAND TO MOUTH. Of course, SHERLOCK JNR is such a surprising, peculiar and downright avant-garde comedy that even if moments owe their existence to the work of other comics, the film as a whole is sui generis. And its principle descendant is Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words.

(First, Buster literally breaks his neck falling onto railway tracks, then he climbs inside a motion picture…)

Anyway, it was a pleasure to share these eighty and ninety-year-old movies with a decent-sized audience, some of whose laughter had the delight of surprise in it — and the spontaneous applause was good too.

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18 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle / Congruence 3”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Well A DOG’S LIFE isn’t a good yardstick to strike against SHERLOCK JR. You should show Chaplin’s BURLESQUE ON “CARMEN” or EASY STREET or THE FLOORWALKER(where Lloyd Bacon plays Charlie’s doppelganger) and above all, ONE A.M.(which is more Beckett than Beckett).

    SHERLOCK JR. was the first Keaton I saw and it was one of the most fresh and adventurous films I had ever seen. The thing with that film was that it didn’t feel like it was made in pre-historic times, it still felt as immediate and fresh as the best of today’s cinema. The last scene is one of the funniest and most profound moments in film history. That said I prefer Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN which is also a self-reflexive meditation on the power of cinema. It’s also the first, last and best parody of cinema verite. It’s only truly possible when a monkey cranks the camera.

  2. i like A Dog’s Life a lot — it’s a little longer than those two-reelers and gets a little more character in. And it’s basically a series of brilliant routines, including the one with his brother at the food stand.

    The sheer variety of business in Sherlock Jnr makes it a pretty good introduction, I think. And like most Keaton it has a very tight structure compared to the Chaplin and Lloyds, which have their own charm by sort of springing from sequence to sequence in fits of inspiration.

  3. And by UTTER COINCIDENCE it’s Buster’s birthday. Happy Birthday Buster!

  4. Christopher Says:

    Keaton’s short “One Week” would have been a good one to show
    Sherlock Jr. covers so many things tho..and of course getting those grand tours of old rural Los Angeles in always a plus…does anyone remember
    THIS film..one of my few favorites from the “souless” 80s

  5. Bravo! I used to think silent comedy was all overcranked and unfunny (must’ve had it confused with The Benny Hill Show). A college professor set a bunch of us straight with a video screening of Keaton’s “Our Hospitality” in class… I’ll never forget that.

    In other news, just watched my first Hammer Horror and loved it.

    Long live new discoveries from old cinema.

  6. Which Hammer film? I’ll look forward to your review.

    You see those montages of Keystone cops chases and they look kind of interesting, quaint… then you see the Keystone films and they’re generally not very good… then you see THE REAL DEAL.

    Was pleased to hear one of my smart students talking about Keaton’s subtlety.

    I like The Purple Rose of Cairo, although on my last viewing of it I found it a little too on-the-nose. But the pastiche of 30s cinema is pretty good, and the central conceit is worked through beautifully.

  7. Christopher Says:

    (gasp)..you see?!..I suggested “Our Hospitality” for your college Class..HUMMPFT!…. :o))…
    .oh there is just no end to the pleasures you will find in “Silent Film”…treasures buried and discovered over again..before Movies were movies

  8. I have shown Our Hospitality a few times, so I went for Sherlock just for a change. It was a good suggestion though!

    Gotta finish prepping my Murnau lecture now…

  9. Christopher Says:

    well there you are..I’m not all that familiar with Sherlock Jnr..so you live and learn ;o)

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO is closer to CELLULOID HEROES by The Kinks than SHERLOCK JR. The bittersweet elegy and paean to the power of movies.

  11. Nicely put.

    I was telling my students that Keaton frequently does without the supposedly essential “character arc,” but in Sherlock Jnr I think maybe there is one. He conquers his shyness at the end thanks to movies, and also because he draws inspiration from his dream-self and because he’s emboldened by almost losing the girl. She has a greater arc, though.

    The great one for demonstrating that you can do without an arc is The General. Buster has to prove his worthiness to the girl, but the fact is he was worthy from the start. All that changes are his circumstances. The nicest irony is that the girl says he’s not to speak to her again until he’s in uniform, and the next time they meet he is — in enemy uniform.

  12. I have a fondness for Battling Butler – I recall Buster showing some ambivalence towards his girl – half keen / half propelled by not wishing to offend: the flipping between the two bordered on the abstract – a puzzling delight.

    Any chance of a Laurel & Hardy week? I’ve got a dozen lined up.

  13. I’m going to rewatch BB soon. It was Buster’s own favourite, a fact that has baffled fans of The General for generations. I remember good bits…

    Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns talks about the tightrope Keaton walks with his leading ladies — since they reject Buster, who has our sympathy, they always run the risk of being dislikable, which would be a problem, since the happy ending is supposed to be Buster getting the girl. The ways he avoids this problem, or incorporates it into his plans, are varied.

  14. Hammer film = Blood of Dracula
    Trying to get the posts up more quickly… don’t want to still be stuck on La Rupture two weeks into horror month.

    I don’t think I’ve seen a Keaton short I didn’t love… can’t say the same for his features, though. Three Ages and Go West were less than memorable. Guess I’ve gotta watch The Cameraman again, too. Also, gotta delve further into that mighty Harold Lloyd box set someday.

  15. Go West I would argue for — it works at a different pace and with a different kind of humour. I’d say the stampede sequence is memorably surreal. Three Ages is not quite a feature, not quite three shorts: an interesting structure borrowed from Intolerance that doesn’t quite come off. The improvement with Our Hospitality is astronomical.

    I don’t think there IS a Blood of Dracula. Was it Taste the Blood of Dracula?

  16. Ooops, I watched Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (’58) the same week as Paul Morrissey’s BLOOD FOR DRACULA (’74), hence that jumble of a title.

    The Morrissey came up because I was looking for a Roman Polanski movie to watch and that was all I had handy. RoPol appears in a bar scene and wrestles with Arno Juerging.

  17. Keaton likely called BB a favorite because it was one of his biggest hits–when asked about his favorites he tended to nominate the films that were the biggest successes in their time, such as The Navigator, which he also claimed as a favorite. After his critical revival, The General became his favorite, partly because it was a hit with 50s/60s audiences and because he really did feel proud of it. The only feature Keaton I know of that Keaton seems to have disliked was Seven Chances, presumably because it was forced on him and because it nearly ended up mediocre.

    Go West is worth it just for the Smile scene, but as a mood-piece it’s also very effective.

  18. Yes, the smile gag manages to traduce William S Hart and Lillian Gish in one go. Keaton’s movies are so full of in-jokes and parodies, I wonder if there are references we’re not getting because they’re too obscure now?

    I also like the tone of Go West, often referred to as sentimental but actually pretty harsh — when you laugh at Friendless, you feel kind of mean.

    The Navigator is tip-top, one of the three or four best Keatons, I think.

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