The Sunday Intertitle: The Four Keatons


Keatons - all four in wigs

I’m very glad I own the Kino box set LOST KEATON, even though the shorts Buster made for Educational in the 30s are only intermittently funny. Since Keaton had a measure of control over the stories and gags, you get to see both his potential as a talking comedian, and the problems he was up against.

Keaton’s rasping crow voice is always surprising when you hear it, but it works well with his persona. Meanwhile, his drink problem, and the passage of time, had begun to ravage his ethereal beauty, which was never essential to his comedy but served as an astonishing added benefit to it, as if God were showing us unaccustomed generosity.


The sole intertitle in PALOOKA FROM PADUCAH

The low budgets of these shorts — and the somewhat poor condition they have survived in, partly explain why they’re not as funny as classic Keaton. The best you can say about their hissing soundtracks and cheap, cramped sets is that they’re better than some Hollywood B-product, and they sometimes remind one of the weird affect of W.C. Fields’ dreamlike THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, perhaps the most Lynchian film made before Lynch’s birth (apart from those of Charley Bowers).

The other thing Keaton is up against is not sound itself, but the fact that undercranking is out of style. Henceforth it would only be used in extreme, caricatured form, but the slight lift it gave to the great clowns is gone — running, jumping and falling down now take a little longer, and are visibly effortful (Keaton himself may be slightly less fit but I don’t think that’s the problem). The accompanying grunts, exhalations, scuffs and thumps add an anchoring heaviness to the business, tieing the angels of silent cinema to the earth.

I would suggest that the Educational shorts might be best enjoyed by someone who had never seen Keaton — there are a few laughs, and there would be no sense of disappointment and anticlimax that comes from watching a gag from a great silent played less effectively with audio. But I myself first saw Keaton in one of these talkies, at a kids’ party where there was a film show — actual film, with a projector, because there was no home video. They showed LOVE NEST ON WHEELS.


I still find this a deeply distressing image

This is one of the best Educationals, though the hayseed comedy could be seen as dated and offensive (Keaton never shied away from stereotypes, including those about his own people, the Irish-Americans). But as a kid, I was alienated from it to the point of being driven from the room. The plot had something to do with a mortgage, which immediately baffled me. The gags were lumbering and painful. Keaton liked roughhouse comedy — hell, he was raised on it and in it — and whenever someone gets his head stuck in a Keaton movie, some helpful soul will try to wrench it off. Here, the mortgage man gets his neck stuck in an elevator, and Buster tries to crowbar it out with a plank. Hideous close-up accompany the creaking wood sound effects and screams of pain to make the thing far too vicious for the sensitive child I was. And the people were strange and awful-looking — I have no memory of Keaton making an impression, but his mother and sister made me feel sad and frightened, just looking at them.


Myra & Buster

But it is in these figure that much of the movie’s appeal lies. Buster is here accompanied by Myra, his mom, one of the original Three Keatons stage act, and Louise, his sister, as well as Harry “Jingles” Keaton, who was part of the act when it briefly became The Four Keatons. They can all act. Harry and Louise do some slapstick, and it’s interesting seeing a woman throw herself around so bruisingly. Not funny, so much, but interesting.


Harry “Jingles” Keaton, left, and Buster, right


Louise Keaton, relaxing between takes

PALOOKA FROM PADUCAH is another hayseed comedy, and this one has Buster’s dad, Joe, as well as Myra and Louise, so it’s the only film to star The Three Keatons. There’s plenty of rough stuff in this one too (it’s about wrestling, and Shadowplay favourite Bull Montana is the heavy), and Buster and Joe wear “Irish” beards as they did in the old days. The effect on Buster is disfiguring, but not as eerie as it was when he was, like, eight years old.


Joe Keaton & Joseph Jnr. (Buster)

Look out for a big Buster Keaton project from me in the coming months!

5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Four Keatons”

  1. DBenson Says:

    Watching the Educationals, I had the feeling they were never meant to be shown in actual theaters but projected on sheets in drafty barns, supporting the saddest Monogram features. It was like watching badly dubbed old anime as a child and wondering if those were intended for poor kids, like off-brand sodas at dubious little groceries.

    They made you feel a little better about Buster’s Columbia shorts, where he was working at a real studio which probably had a decent cafeteria for lunch.

    My favorite dislodging-a-head bit comes from a Three Stooges short. Moe gets his head stuck through a wooden wall; his associates try to liberate him with a crowbar. We then see the other side of the wall: Moe’s disembodied head expressing suspicion and anger at the seemingly alive crowbar persecuting him.

    For unfunny violence, I commend to you the Famous / Paramount / Harveytoon cartoons. Created by men who had just lately created brilliant Fleischer stuff, they’re stunningly tone-deaf on what’s funny and what’s disturbing (Bluto looking half-conscious and in pain while Popeye finishes him off; Katnip the Cat suffering tortures that inspired the Simpsons’s “Itchy and Scratchy”; Baby Huey making one uncomfortable with his gigantic diaper and his adult-with-a-fetish behavior; etc.).

  2. Yikes! As a fan of disturbing, tone-deaf cartoons, I must check those out.

  3. DBenson Says:

    You can’t go wrong with Herman and Katnip: Your basic wise-guy mouse versus a mentally deficient cat, somehow playing as more mean-spirited than Tom and Jerry.

    Baby Huey combines violence with a certain creepiness. The one plot is a wolf convincing Huey — a duck, I should mention — that they’re playing some game while trying to kill and eat him (“Now you hide inside the stove!” “Oh boy! I get to hide in the stove!”).

    Casper the Friendly Ghost is mostly his cringeworthy self-pity (he always ends up sobbing over his lack of friends). An early entry had him befriending a cute fox cub, who’s killed by a hunter. The happy ending is Casper sobbing at the humble grave as the cub’s ghost rises up to play with him. Sadly they retreated from the implications in future shorts.

    The post-Fleischer Popeyes tend to be merely weak (They actually try to make Olive cute and Bluto handsome), but now and again you actually feel for Bluto.

  4. Wow, the Katnips are really horrible. Most of them end up with the cat somehow paralysed and subjected to torture. Military training films.

    I have no memory of ever seeing Baby Huey but I owned a Caspar doll. If you pulled his head off, it retracted back onto his shoulder on a string while making a lachrymose statement. I adored this. The cartoons showed briefly then vanished, to my puzzlement at the time — I suspect there were complaints.

  5. Back in the early 1970’s, one of MAD magazine’s rivals (CRAZY, I think) published a rather stunning Caspar parody called “Caspar the Dead Baby.” It was the cover story and the local stationary store put it on the comic book rack in a brown paper bag, making it impossible to miss.

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