Erronius

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM marks a specific point in my cinematic awakening. It was on TV and my young self tuned in partway through. I couldn’t quite work out what I was looking at, because it had Peter Butterworth in it, who seemed to be only in Carry On films, and it had Phil Silvers in it, who was in one Carry On film, and it was a historical farce like CARRY ON CLEO. but it had production values! And energy!

I also realized, from all the swish pans at the climax, that it was a sixties film, and I realized suddenly that I could identify films quite precisely by period based on their stylistic tropes alone. I had become a film nerd.

FORUM is also Buster Keaton’s last feature, though THE SCRIBE, an industrial short, may have been shot later. Richard Lester, the director, insisted on building a day into the schedule for a picnic, so he could talk to Buster about his craft. If it yielded an idea or two for the movie, great. Apparently it did.

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On the one hand, Lester was lucky – unbelievably lucky – to be able to work with his one hero. On the other hand, it was just a little late. Buster was dying, though he didn’t know it. Any sequences involving physical exertion had to be carefully planned, divided into short shots, and sometimes used a double. Lester was very conscious of the horrible irony — he was working with an actor who was celebrated for accomplishing the greatest things physically of any star, and he was doubling his movements with a stuntman. And what was left? Dialogue.

(In a way, the last Buster Keaton film is SPITE MARRIAGE, since it’s the last silent and the last one he exerted any control over. His last directorial credit is a musical short, STREAMLINED SWING, which is quite nice, but not recognizably Keatonesque.)

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But there’s a lot to enjoy in Buster’s performance. The disparate cast which confused me as a kid, relies heavily on old stagers like Zero Mostel, Silvers, and Jack Gilford, and Buster fits right in. The cancer that was killing him makes him short of breath, which affects his speech, but Buster even makes that work for comedy. Imagine.

Buster plays Senex Erronius, a terribly near-sighted and befuddled old man perennially searching for his children, stolen in infancy by pirates (don’t worry, there’s a happy ending: it’s a comedy, tonight). His tunic and toga and hat are all dyed one strong hue, as is true of the rest of the cast (there’s an unusual blend of pure theatricality and an attempt by Lester at a kind of comic version of historical accuracy, which he would develop further in the seventies). Buster’s hat is an ancient Roman adaptation of his trademark flat porkpie, and his sandals have been extended to give them the quality of his vaudeville flap shoes.

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He does one pratfall, a thing of beauty. I don’t know if it’s undercranked but he plays it as if undercranked, and stops you feeling any of the discomfort that a frail old man walking into a tree and falling on his ass should evoke.

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I got to ask Lester if there was any Keaton material that didn’t make the final cut — during the running battle with the film’s producer, Melvin Frank, a bunch of footage apparently got locked in a safe to prevent Lester using it. Lester said he didn’t think there was anything significant missing of Buster, though. But there are a couple of moments — in the opening credits, there’s a tiny shot of Buster descending a tiny step with a huge amount of drama, and there are the tiny cutaways of Erronius”abroad, in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.” in these, Buster scans the horizon with one hand held up horizontally to shade his eyes, a familiar pose (eg THE GENERAL) given added comedy/pathos by his character being blind as a bat. In one shot he walks into the edge of his own hand and is confused by it. These latter shots might have been filmed on picnic day. The step seems like a fragment of something, but we’ll never know what.

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The film’s final gag reprised a classic Keaton trope — the Perpetual Motion Machine. Buster starts running again, but strays onto a rotating platform, there to continue his jogging in perpetuity, too blind to realize he isn’t moving. And as he puffs away, his body dissolves away and is replaced by paint, as Richard Williams’ typically elaborate end titles transform him into part of a vast fresco. The Great Stone Face.

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16 Responses to “Erronius”

  1. Buster’s character is named Erronius. Senex is played by Michael Hordern.

  2. Good point! And this makes “Erronius” an ideal title for the piece!

  3. Nothing to say about Sondheim? “Forum” was his first full music and lyrics show to be produced (He had written “Saturday Night” in the early 50’s but the producer died and the show did not go on.) The brilliance of “Forum” was recognized by Frank Loesser, who knew precisely how difficult it was to write songs for a comedy show. “Forum” is overwhelmingly theatrical and Lester set out to destroy this — shredding the songs in the process. He was a one with the Beatles but Sondheim apparently means next to nothing to him.

  4. Here’s one of the show’s best numbers. Lester has no idea what to do with it.

  5. That number got the best reviews in the film! Stunning cutaway of the four old rogues on a viaduct…

    Lester wasn’t allowed to do everything he wanted with Forum, so it doesn’t fulfill what he was after and his intentions are hard to assess. I like it a lot. I’m not sure a three-hour roadshow with all the songs would have been more successful.

    But I was only really writing about Buster in it, as he’s the one whose last film this is. After How to Stuff a Wild Bikini etc, this is a pretty dignified exit for him, and he was working with people who appreciated him.

  6. John Seal Says:

    Being a huge fan of Gilford, Keaton, and Mostel, this is one of those films I should like more than I do. Alas, I’ve never been able to get enthusiastic about it…

  7. Mark Evanier, a big fan of the play, discussed the movie. Among other observations, he suggests that the stars were veteran comics with great timing, which was wasted as Lester was a director who created his own timing in the editing room:
    http://www.newsfromme.com/2014/09/09/comedy-tonight-2/

    Keaton also toured in “Once Upon a Mattress”, a Broadway show that introduced Carol Burnett as a rowdy fairy tale princess. Keaton played the mute king, constantly pantomiming information to his companions and chasing girls, Harpo-style. The part was created by a then-unknown Jack Gilford.

    Eleanor Keaton was in the company as a dancer. When they played conservative towns, they reblocked a few scenes so Eleanor was the only girl he chased. Since the king character was married (to an overbearing queen), having Keaton chase his real-life wife evidently reduced the adulterous implications.

  8. I love Keaton in everything from “Sherlock Jr.” to “Film.” I’m not against your noting this curtain call, but it’s a shame the curtain was so heavy

  9. Lester said “One only cuts because something has gone wrong.” There are actually some long sequence shots in amongst the hectic cutting. Ironically one reason for edits was Keaton’s physical trouble running, and another was Silvers, who was having one of his nervous breakdowns and couldn’t remember his lines. So the veteran comics compelled the fast cutting…

    But since Lester shoots with multiple cameras, the goal is partly to preserve the real rhythm of the performance (with room for occasional fixes). I think you can see that this is real acting, not Kuleshove-effect bitwork.

    Lester would love for the film to be better – especially for Zero, who he was in awe of, and would have been helped by a hit movie.

    Since Gilford, and Melvin Frank, and Sondheim, and screenwriter Michael Pertwee were all against Lester on this one, I have wondered if he was going through a period of egomania after his three big sixties hits. But I think he’s too stable for that: I think he’d just decided that the director should make the film and it should stand or fall on its own merits.

  10. I LOVED what Lester did with ‘Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (the long shot of the four comics sauntering, arms waving, down the aqueduct was one of the first shots in movies that sent my spirits soaring; it still does). I was sorry that “Pretty Little Picture” was lost, never really felt that way about “I’m Calm.” This remains one of my favorite comedies, even after fifty years of hearing every purist argument against it.

  11. DBenson—Interesting that you mention ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. I was lucky enough to get to know Jack Gilford’s widow, Madeline. She was a fascinating lady. He created the role of the king in this play. She said when the tour for MATTRESS was set up, Jack got to bring Keaton up to speed on the part. She said it was such an amazing experience for him, especially since Keaton was an idol of his.

  12. So lovely.

    Someone tried to count the gags in Forum, apparently. Everytime I try, I get bamboozled because the reaction shots and strange offscreen noises are sometimes funnier than the jokes, but do they count as gags? Though it may not have been a happy collaboration, the combination of Gelbart & Shevelove’s book, Sondheim’s lyrics and Lester’s visual shenanigans cram in more comedy than should be possible.

    Also: Nic Roeg (who even helped on Lester’s final script edit)!

  13. But VIADUCT?

    (as in “Why a Duck?”)

  14. The great unanswerable!

  15. I believe Groucho’s answer to that question is, “if you tried to cross that on a chicken, you’d know why a duck”.

  16. Have always loved this picture, ever since I first saw it on television.
    When I see Forum now, I’m always picking out the Dr Who connections. Peter Butterworth would play the Mad Monk, the first of The Doctor’s and Susan’s race that we meet. And, of course, Jon Pertwee as the ship captain.

    Who is the actor playing the guard who goes after Phil Silvers in drag? It’s like Lester would use him in everything. He’s trying to steal a car as the police run by chasing The Beatles in Hard Day’s Night, and once he’s gotten into the car one of the officers jumps him and directs him to follow the fab four. Later, in Juggernaut, he’s a blind street vendor whose stand is knocked over by the police car Anthony Hopkins is in.

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