A King in Paris

Textbook use of comedy chair.

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.

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20 Responses to “A King in Paris”

  1. I just saw the 1958 remake of Madechen in Uniform starring Romy Schneider and Paulette Dubost plays the school cook in it.

    She also played Lola’s maid in Lola Montes.

  2. Sorry to be off-topic (as ever). Was wondering if anyone had any thoughts about The Coalition’s announcement of the abolition of the UK Film Council yesterday.

  3. Judy Dean Says:

    You might like to know that someone has posted a link to your thoughts on Le Roi des Champs Elysees on the Keaton discussion group on Yahoo.

    Despite being something of a Keaton completist, I’ve never managed to see the film myself. I treat these later films of Buster’s with caution, as some of them are so painful to watch, so I can’t honestly say I’ve tried that hard to track down a copy….

  4. Well, this one wasn’t painful to anyone whose seen the MGMs. It feels like Keaton has some autonomy over the gags, and some of it’s pretty funny.

    Have been preparing a response to the UKFC announcement, which should run tomorrow.

    Have been meaning to look at Madchen, and now it’s even more likely!

  5. Christopher Says:

    Buster smiles alot in his early films with Fatty Arbuckle..but it does look weird,like a whole ‘nother person.

  6. Was looking at the Keaton interviews book, and he denies ever smiling on screen before Le Roi, but it’s there for all to see in Coney Island, for one.

  7. Oh, Doctor! is another smiling-Buster short. The MGMs are pretty uniformly painful, but for some reason I find Parlor, Bed, and Bath mildly interesting, what I saw of it. Sidewalks Of New York lets off a vomitous stench and I can’t stand to be in the same room with it. Haven’t seen some of the earlier ones like Doughboys. TCM doesn’t play them much at all, maybe out of respect. Or lack of interest. Or something. No way Le Roi Des Champs-Elysees can be as bad as SONY. Nothing could be.

  8. Going by the clip on YouTube, Doughboys perhaps has some OK moments. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvWkwJhFkcY
    I wouldn’t mind seeing the whole thing.

  9. I’ve heard mildly good things (like “not as bad as the others”) about Doughboys, but who knows when TCM is going to run it. It seems like there might be something to watch from the clip. There’s also another clip from it on YouTube where Buster and Cliff Edwards do a number together.

  10. Christopher Says:

    ..You can see how the gags in Doughboys would have been even funnier as a silent with music.
    Is it me or is Buster slightly funnier when hes with a lady friend…The Navigator,The General,Battling Butler etc..

  11. …Spite Matrriage, possibly.

    His last wife said, “Women were very important to him, AS PROPS.”

    His first wife doesn’t add much to the comedy in Our Hospitality. I think he was too respectful of her to think up gags. Still one of his finest films though. The General uses poor Marion Mack harshly, but she definitely scores laughs. Kathryn McGuire in The Navigator is the funniest, cast as pretty much Keaton’s equal in the comdey. And a whole different characterisation from her role in Sherlock Jnr.

  12. Judy Dean — ’twas me that posted the link. I naturally thought the Keaton fans would be interested to read Mr. Cairns’ most enjoyable blog entry about this rarity (which I haven’t seen, alas).

  13. And I got a few clicks from that, so thanks!

  14. Christopher Says:

    I remember when I saw The General for the first time,I merely grinned at how clever the gags were in the beginning.It wasn’t until Keaton rescues Marion Mack and they make their escape back,that i began to laugh out loud.
    Also,theres a huge amount of fan videos of Keaton and Harold Lloyd on You Tube,centering on their romantic exploits alone.I can’t help noticing how much more romantic and appealing they are as compared to the common “so called” romantic leads of the day.

  15. They haven’t dated, somehow. Maybe because the romantic side was a sidebar to their appeal, it didn’t get overemphasized. Maybe it’s the emphasis that makes Valentino etc seem slightly odd today.

    I didn’t used to laugh so much at Keaton, was more awe-inspired by the cleverness of his gags and their execution. But when I saw them on the big screen with an audience I shifted to laughing as well.

  16. Speaking of Keaton, the Fox Theatre in Atlanta is going to screen The General on August 10, with Clark Wilson accompanying on the Mighty Moeller organ (and believe me, that is SOME big organ — the sound completely fills the 5,000 plus seat theater). See ya’ll there. I plan to be front row center in the balcony, best seat in the house. :)

    http://www.foxtheatre.org/ccff2010/thegeneral.aspx

  17. Christopher Says:

    What better place to see The General than in the good ol’ South! ;o)
    Laughs are guaranteed .

  18. Well, Keaton was very sensitive to the South, he felt you couldn’t make a comedy from the North’s viewpoint, as that would be offensive to the defeated side.

    Keaton on the big screen is a whole other experience. One thing that’s interesting, among many, is that his supporting casts get a chance to shine. Amazing ensemble playing in those movies.

  19. Christopher Says:

    I’d like to see Our Hospitality get some of the recognition The General always gets.I like it slightly better.

  20. It IS just about perfect… particularly splendid with the Carl Davis score. I’ve shown it to students who are blown away by the climax.

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