The Sunday Intertitle: A Most Wanted Man

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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)

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8 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: A Most Wanted Man”

  1. Can’t help with the business over the debris and never heard it discussed. I love the leap through the transom and remember gasping the first time I saw it. You don’t mention THE GOAT’s most extraordinary shot – Buster’s approach sitting on the cowcatcher of the train. Adds nothing to the narrative, but who cares? Mal St Clair (who plays Dead Shot Dan) is credited as co-director on THE GOAT rather than Eddie Cline, although it’s hard to know how much difference his input made given Buster’s collaborative style in which credits seem to have been allocated somewhat arbitrarily. It’s Paul Merton’s favourite Keaton two-reeler, by the way.

  2. In terms of memorable bits — like the accelerated motion train arrival you mention — it’s a high-ranking short, but in terms of structure and cohesion it’s a slight disapointment. There’s probably a dozen that hang together better, including the rediscovered version of The Blacksmith.

    It could be that Cline was a better structuralist than St Clair, whose co-writing credit may be more significant than his co-directing one. Mal’s other Keaton is — surprise, surprise — The Blacksmith, which underwent substantial revision.

  3. Did Chaplin recall the scene involving the equine statue when he came to make City Lights? You bet.

  4. St. Clair got a lot of praise in the trades for his direction of films of the late silent era, a praise which was tempered soon after sound came in. About all that is extant from the late silent era is The Show Off. The rest (like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) are lost AFAICT.

  5. Chaplin (and his unsung gag men) stole from everybody, but so did everybody.

    Ridiculously, I haven’t seen The Show Off, an ommission I will nown rectify. Louise Brooks! And, er, Ford Sterling as leading man…

  6. You don’t see so many mortar altercations these days.

  7. Mortar Combat.

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