Archive for Big Joe Roberts

The Sunday Intertitle: A Most Wanted Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2014 by dcairns

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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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The Blacksmith’s Back

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2013 by dcairns

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One of the most impressive people I met in Pordenone, which was full of impressive people, was Fernando Pena, who discovered the lost footage of METROPOLIS. Yet “impressive” doesn’t seem the right word for someone so approachable and modest. Fernando portrays himself as a very lucky man, rather than as the skilled archivist he clearly is.

Having assumed that the near-complete METROPOLIS would forever remain the reigning highlight of his career, Fernando was stunned to find himself in possession of an undiscovered alternative version of Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH, purchased on 9.5mm off eBay by a friend. He told Serge Bromberg at Lobster Films, who checked his own holdings, and found a matching version in 35mm which he’d had for twenty years without checking. Bromberg is another modest guy, who tells this story against himself, knowing that film fans will still rightly love him for turning up this treasure. Or, if not modest, certainly honest. Not all the rediscoveries at Pordenone were presented so frankly.

So what does the alternate cut consist of? To help us compare, the festival screened the familiar version a couple of days before the premiere of Pena’s discovery. And to spice things up, they screened it with a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who provided a narration and did all the voices. Suddenly Big Joe Roberts sounded like Toshiro Mifune. It transformed the film, which I’d never particularly admired (it’s very funny, just not particularly strong by Keaton standards – in the bottom 10% of his shorts, I’d place it), and gave it a whole new energy, as well as allowing us to see it as a Japanese audience might have (if Keaton’s films screened in Japan, about which I have no idea.)

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Then came the new version, which the catalogue suggested was probably the first cut, trimmed after poor reviews and disappointing audience response. But the story has since changed, and now Serge reckons the new version is actually Keaton’s preferred cut.

What’s different? Well, the only major action not included in this new cut is a sequence where Buster the blacksmith gets oily hand-prints all over a white horse. This gag, prefiguring a very similar moment where he gets oily handprints all over a white Rolls Royce (possibly the one gifted to him by his in-laws as a wedding present, suggesting that Keaton’s marriage never stood much of a chance), always seemed to make the film rather repetitive. The complete destruction of the limo is far more effective than the mere soiling of the mare, but lost some of its impact because the equine skit came right before it.

Instead, the film adds five minutes of exterior action, in which Keaton interacts with his nemesis, the big blacksmith, and woos the leading lady, whose status as romantic interest is extremely perfunctory in the familiar version. In other words, we get plot. Where the familiar BLACKSMITH is a string of variable and repetitive gags, this newly found one is a string of excellent and fresh gags arranged into a story. It fulfils the expectations we normally have for a Keaton short, in other words.

One gag, in which Big Joe Roberts chases Buster through and around a small house, interrupting his attempts to propose to the girl he’s just met (OK, the romance is still kind of perfunctory, but now it works), until Buster finally locks both doors with Big Joe Roberts on the inside, looked familiar – Keaton reused it somewhere, I’m sure, but I can’t think where. Somebody out there must know. If he DID find a home for it, that would suggest that he was at least aware that it was cut here, but still liked it.

The best new gags are (1) a chase where Buster attempts to commandeer a roadster, only to discover it’s just a wooden mockup erected for advertising purposes. He gets in anyway, sitting on a plank, and posing in profile becomes a part of the advertisement, exploiting his wooden Indian facial immobility of legend. Big Joe is suspicious all the same, and all the more so when Buster suddenly shoots out of frame right – the plank he’d sat on was actually part of a load of timber on the back of an offscreen truck, which has now departed.

And (2) another part of the chase where Buster and Big Joe are distracted by the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a blind, and abandon their pursuit in reverent peeping. The light is switched off as the woman gets down to her slip, and the chase is on again. Interestingly, Serge told us this scene was present only in the Lobster print, since the 9.5mm format was intended for home viewing, which meant family audiences had to be considered more, and so the Argentinian print had been censored.

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It’s a great find – THE BLACKSMITH now belongs securely in the top 50% of Keaton shorts, maybe the top third. It’s certainly a stronger film than it was. A wonderful find for Fernando, who has long been a great Keaton fan. In fact, he was interested to hear I’d been talking to Richard Lester, since he wrote to the Great Man some years ago when he was researching a planned book on B.K, and received a generous reply. He was glad to hear Mr. Lester is well, and we agreed that he’s a very gracious fellow.

Sadly, Fernando’s friend who bought the print in the first place is very ill and couldn’t attend the screening. We gave him a round of applause in absentia which hopefully traveled around the world to him.