A man walks through a door funny


Do I need to explain the title? I will if you want me to.

So having watched the later Esther Williams spectaculars, JUPITER’S DARLING, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, EASY TO LOVE and DANGEROUS WHEN WET (plus ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME) we eventually ran an early effort, BATHING BEAUTY, which sadly has nothing to do with Mack Sennett but features a scene I’d heard about, without recalling what movie it was from…

First, this film — it has Red Skelton as hero, getting more screen time than Esther, and it has Basil Rathbone as a louse, and an all-too brief Margaret Dumont bit. MGM evidently didn’t have confidence in Esther carrying a film yet (but her low-key performing style is DELIGHTFUL) so they stuff the film with all the crap distractions they can find — Xavier Cugat, pint-sized cutie Jean Porter, wild organist Ethel Smith, Lina Romay (not the Jesus Franco star, wonderful though that would be), Harry James and his orchestra, Helen Forrest, Colombian baritone Carlos Ramirez (although “Colombian baritone” sounds like something horrible they do to you in the drugs trade to send a strong message)… at the end there’s a big ridiculous water pageant so Esther can do her stuff, but she remains dry apart from that and the opening scene, so it’s really just a foretaste of the wonders to come. George Sidney directs with a lot of lush colour and swooping crane-work. Directorial suavity allows Harry James to float over the heads of his big band while blasting his trumpet…


The film has seven credited screenwriters, absurdly — the story is paper-thin and the runtime is about fifty per cent irrelevant musical numbers, but I’m interested mainly in an uncredited scenarist, Buster Keaton, who was back working at MGM as a gag man, getting paid about a hundredth of what he’d earned there as a star, and happy to get it. They called Buster in having trapped Red Skelton in a closet with a big dog outside. Red has to escape the house and get back to his dorm or he’ll be expelled.

First he drags up in Esther’s clothes which he can somehow fit, but the dog recognizes him even in disguise (must be those overdeveloped smile muscles). Then he gets the idea of meowing, waving a fox fur at the hound, and throwing it out the window. The dog obligingly bounds out the window in pursuit. Red slams the window and starts to leave, but the dog is now waiting at the front door.


Nice protracted bit where Red rushes from door to window and back, always finding the mutt waiting for him at either aperture. The dog isn’t really dislikably fierce — one actually admires his, ahem, doggedness.

This is all quite amusing but apparently none of the seven or was it eight writers (yup, IMDb supplies an uncredited eighth) could think of a solution that would allow Red to escape.

Buster suggested he go to the door, unfasten the hinges, and then lift the detached door. Holding it by the inside of the frame, Red turns it like a revolving door — he leaves the house as the dog enters, trying to get at him. The dog ends up stuck indoors and Red is free.


The fact that this is an engineering gag marks it out as recognizably Buster’s, even if we hadn’t been told.

There’s another Buster moment though. As the only male student at a girl’s college, (long story — it took eight writers to write it — or nine, counting Buster) Red is forced to attend a eurythmics class, which turns out to be just plain old ballet. Former vaudevillian Ann Codee is teacher, mercilessly slapping Red around. At one point, she orders him to put his foot on the bar. Red does so, stretching his poor abductor muscles pitifully, then unaccountably decides to put his other foot up on the bar too. He succeeds, momentarily, only to fall on his ass on account of not having anything holding him up.

Fiona and I both recognized this gag — I was going to sat it’s the first movie pratfall Buster ever performed. In THE BUTCHER BOY (1917), Buster’s flap shoes get stuck to the floor with molasses. Tugging his right foot free, he places it on the counter to keep it out of the sticky mess. Then he tugs the left foot free and places it next to the right, for neatness’ sake, an instant before he finds himself sat on the floor. But in fact, that’s not what happens in THE BUTCHER BOY, that version of events only occured when Buster recreated the sequence in his TV show, as seen in Kevin Brownlow’s Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. And that’s AFTER the Red Skelton iteration of the “put your feet up” gag. But I still believe it’s Buster’s idea.


The whole ballet routine is very good work from Skelton. He gets a sweetie wrapper stuck to his foot (shades of the molasses gag) and is trying to get rid of it while dancing, passing it from foot to hand to hand to other ballerina, who passes it on around the room via every other girl and back to Red. A nice idea, beautifully staged by Sidney, performed by Skelton and the cast — and almost certainly conceived by Buster.

14 Responses to “A man walks through a door funny”

  1. This is bizarre. A badly cut ‘homage’ to Bathing Beauty done to an orchestral version of Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. Still, It makes as much sense as the movie does. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ze7VunwSP4o

  2. Youtube is full of that stuff. If you want to watch Fred & Ginger you may have to wade through a thousand fan edits of them dancing to the wrong tune.

  3. Some ‘friends’ have even posted links to those youtube ‘homages’ on my facebook page, assuming I’ll love them. It’s as if the whole world had lost its mind, deciding that the most memorable form of film is the montages of reedited footage used in Academy Awards shows.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    The TV version of the Butcher Boy can be watched here:
    I think you are absolutely right about the both-feet-up gag—it appears several times in Keaton’s films, though I can’t recall individual titles. It was one of his trusted fall-back gags. If memory serves, Skelton’s use of Keaton’s door gag is also noted in A Hard Act to Follow.
    Someone really needs to write an article or monograph about Keaton’s gagwork for MGM—it would be very useful to have a list of every film he contributed to. This could possibly be established if the studio’s payroll records are still around.
    Brownlow’s “So Funny It Hurt” documentary suggests that Keaton worked on A Night at the Opera—I’m less sure about this than about Keaton’s involvement with At the Circus (established by an on-set photo of him with the Marxes) and Go West (the train scenes are pure Keaton and both Groucho and Irving Brecher confirmed Buster’s role).

  5. In “In The Good Old Summertime”, Keaton has an odd part as a clerk who loves Judy Garland in vain. I saw somewhere the claim that he was cast entirely because he could sell the plot-required bit of accidentally falling on a violin.

    It’s strange and poignant in a way that’s probably not intended. The part was probably designed for an actor who was younger than Johnson, a kid out of his league rather than a sad middle-ager. Wigged in an attempt to make him look younger, Keaton’s a pocket Quasimodo who knows the lightweight Van Johnsons always get the girl.

    The film itself I didn’t care for. It’s “Little Shop Around the Corner” moved to MGM Americanaland, clumsily sterilized (the cuckolded proprietor becomes an old bachelor whose equally old girlfriend is mistakenly thought to be untrue), and bloated.

  6. Yeah, I can’t see myself sitting through a tarted-up Lubitsch when the original repays viewing.

    Soon to check out Esther Williams vehicle Easy to Wed, which IMDb claims Keaton did some directing on… the main clown in it is Lucille Ball.

    Might be harder to establish his MGM jobs than you’d think, since he was on salary rather than getting paid by the job.

  7. In one of Keaton’s later shorts for Columbia he has the shriill and unfunny Elsie Ames perform the feet up gag. Although not to many people’s taste. Ames was aparently respected by Buster one of the few women who could match him physically in the comedy stakes. She ended up working as an elderly character actress with John Cassavetes…Go figure. Also a neat variation of the hinges gag appears in Buster’s pre code “sex comedy” Parlour Bedroom and Bath.

  8. It sounds similar to Keaton’s respect for Red Skelton: incomprehensible until you factor in Red’s impressive physical dexterity and ability as a mime. So Keaton could provide him with a gag and he could really DO it.

  9. I’d like to put a word in for In the Good Old Summertime. It’s no match for The Shop Around the Corner, to say the least, but Judy Garland and Van Johnson are both in good form, and while Keaton may be miscast, he’s fascinating to watch. He also contributed some comic business apart from the bit with the violin: the early scene in which Johnson bumps into Garland and inadvertently dismantles her hat is Keaton through and through.

  10. Oh well, I might give it a try, at least as far as that bit! Thanks.

  11. “Three Little Words,” a neglected musical pairing Red Skelton with Fred Astaire has an entire section where Red plays inept baseball full of Keaton gags from College and others, notably the fastball taking the the glove gag, one of my favourite quick takes. Red performs them all well, but when you know the source it’s hard to see past it.

  12. Grant Skene Says:

    Buster Keaton performs the both feet up gag brilliantly in his vignette for “The Hollywood Revue of 1929”, a frequently unendurable, and always creaky early sound picture.

  13. Grant Skene Says:

    Here is Buster in Hollywood Revue. The foot gag is the big finish, and I still don’t understand how he suspends himself in air for a few beats. Wires? Phenomenonal core strength? https://youtu.be/OcLvoNcaFXU

  14. Definitely not wires — that would be against his ethos. I think he does start falling as soon as his second foot leaves the ground, but he’s so quick raising it that he has it in place before gravity has lowered him more than a centimetre or two. Phenomenal.

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