The St Valentine’s Day Intertitle #2

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Great pleasure in Portobello — Buster Keaton’s ONE WEEK and SEVEN CHANCES on the big screen (albeit via DVD) with live accompaniment by composer Jane Gardner on piano with Hazel Morrison on percussion. A nicely chosen Valentine’s Day double feature, with the short film playing out over the course of a week which, just like this one, includes a Friday the 13th, Saturday 14th, Sunday 15th…

Once again it was great to see so many kids in attendance — the front row was crammed with them, and they were in hysterics. One quacking cackle in particular was a joy to listen to. And at a key bit in SEVEN CHANCES, when it seems Buster is too late to win the day, a cry of “Awww!”

Over a drink afterwards, Hippodrome producer Shona Thomson, Jane, Fiona and I and some friends had a wide-ranging discussion which included our thought on the various troubling race gags in SEVEN CHANCES. Buster is so apolitical, basically accepting the world as it is, that it seems useless to get in a fuss about his more politically incorrect gags, which usually touch upon something unfortunately true (such as the female victim of domestic violence in OUR HOSPITALITY who turns on Buster when he tries to help her). While Chaplin had the sensitivity to see that minstrel-show humour was unacceptable, his response was to basically exclude black characters from his films altogether, which is far from a solution. Harold Lloyd has the occasional bit of the comedy manservant terrified of “spooks.” But Keaton made a Civil War film from the Southern perspective (ironically because, in a rare moment of political sensitivity, he felt you couldn’t cast the losers as antagonists); he blacks up in COLLEGE, and in SEVEN CHANCES …

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Firstly, there’s Jules Cowles in blackface as the hired hand. No excuse for this is really possible. There are actual black people in the film, but for the one major-ish role, a white actor is cast. It could be argued that the gags about this character being dull-witted are the same kind of jokes Keaton would make about his own characters in his short films, but it’s all very unfortunate.

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There’s a startling moment when Buster, puzzled by his inability to get any girl to agree to marry him, takes a look at his reflection to see what can be the matter with him. The mirror he chooses is set in a door, and as he checks his jacket front, the door opens, so that when Buster looks up, he sees a (very handsome) black man in place of his own reflection. He’s startled, as anyone might be (save the black man himself). This isn’t particularly offensive, I don’t think, though it may point towards a kind of racial panic more obvious elsewhere.

Buster proposes to every girl he meets, and there are a whole series of inappropriate/inadmissible woman jokes. There’s one who turns out to have a wedding band, one with a baby, one reading a Jewish newspaper who apparently doesn’t speak English (one hopes that’s the reason she’s ruled out), a drag artist, and one who turns out to be a schoolchild. No particular notice is taken of the lady in mannish attire panned past in THIS shot —

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And then there’s the black woman, whom Buster approaches from behind before reeling away in horror. Now, until 1948, if I have this right, a white man like Keaton would not have been able to marry a black woman in California, so the joke is merely taking notice of an existing fact, I guess. It’s just that the fact in question makes most modern audiences feel sad, and not able to laugh.

And then there’s the other black woman. When an advertisement for a bride brings rather too many hopefuls to the altar, among them is a middle-aged black lady (most of the unwanted aspirants are on the mature side) who either doesn’t know the anti-miscegenation laws or just isn’t going to let them stand between her and seven million dollars. It was Hazel the drummer who spotted the fact that another bride-to-bee is already sporting a prominent wedding ring, so evidently Keaton’s pursuers are desperate enough to throw off all society’s restrictions.

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Keaton is quite rightly beloved, and we generally agree to overlook his occasional lapses. At this historic distance, his willingness to make fun of terrorist bombings (in COPS) and hurricanes (in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR) seem kind of admirable. With the race gags, I kind of like the way we don’t get hysterical in either sense of the word. They just create slightly awkward gaps in the laughter before we can move on to the next bit of comic genius.

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“AWWW!”

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11 Responses to “The St Valentine’s Day Intertitle #2”

  1. If I remember rightly there’s a film where Buster is trying to repair a car and a small black boy “helps” him with disastrous effects. The interesting thing is that there is no reference to race; the boy behaves the way small boys do in silent films and he just happens to be black.

  2. Trying to remember which one that could be. Daydreams? Haven’t watched than one for ages. I think children were all regarded fairly equally as characters in Hollywood films. You couldn’t ever be mean about children of any race.

  3. F here – And there’s ANOTHER besuited woman right behind him in the church.

  4. Interesting to consider that the drag artist is Julian Eltinge, a man known for taking a swipe at anyone who dared suggest he was homosexual.

    Interesting too that Eltinge doesn’t actually appear in the film, just his image. That is, unless he’s somewhere in the bevy of brides who appear at the Broad Street Church. Wishful thinking, I suppose.

  5. There’s nothing too defamatory about Keaton’s use of Eltinge, in fact in reinforces his claims to be gay, so I guess one could get away with such a gag even in our litigious times.

  6. Nothing at all defamatory, in my opinion. I even wonder whether the gag wasn’t inspired in some way by Keaton’s association with Donald Crisp, who had directed Eltinge in The Clever Mrs Carfax.

  7. I think it’s a Lloyd short where a black boy — Sunshine Sammy Morrison? — finds Harold trying to fix a car and expertly gets in the way.

    Meanwhile, it may or may not be pertinent that the Irish Keaton and his father wore apelike Irish caricature makeup onstage. Later, the short “My Wife’s Relations” had a non-ethnic Buster married into a clan of brutish Irish stereotypes. His wife is a hulking shrew; his brothers include a cop, a prizefighter and a laborer. Much of the film is about how awful they are when they think they have money. Keaton may have been blind (or indifferent) to ANY racial sensitivities.

    In “Buster Keaton Rides Again,” there’s a charming moment when a smiling Keaton assumes a brogue at a birthday celebration. “To show you me heart’s in the right place, I’ll fight any man in the house.”

  8. I think when you’re as ready to laugh at yourselves as the Irish (or the Irish-Americans, a slightly different proposition), it may be tempting to assume that jokes about other ethnicities are just as acceptable and uncomplicated.

    In Seven Chances the main characters are all of Irish descent, so that may have helped suggest the idea of more ethnic humour elsewhere in the story.

  9. revelator60 Says:

    The Arbuckle/Keaton short “Out West” (1918) also has a disturbing bit of racial humor where Arbuckle, Keaton and Al St. John shoot at a black bar patron to make him “dance.” It’s ugly to behold, though slightly mitigated when the heroine enters and rebukes them. I’m guessing the gag was Arbuckle’s idea, but since I like Fatty I remain disappointed.

  10. Maybe it also helps that there’s quite a bit of bad behaviour in that one, as I recall, so it’s not like this is being held up as commendable. Still, anything like that is uncomfortable.

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