Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: Gas-s-s-s Again

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2018 by dcairns

You don’t expect the disturbing from Harold Lloyd, the sunniest of the great silent comedians. The darkest business I knew of before watching RING UP THE CURTAIN was the menacing hobo in GRANDMA’S BOY, played by Dick Sutherland with considerable subhuman meanness. Critic Walter Kerr actually identified Lloyd’s unproblematic outlook as a problem: he risked blandness by being so All-American and nice and positive. The glasses helped suggest vulnerability, but as Kerr says, Keaton and Chaplin carried a shadow within them. So to avoid things getting too comfy, Lloyd heaped troubles on his character: hence those tall buildings.

RING UP THE CURTAIN is an early knockabout, when Lloyd hasn’t fully determined the parameters of his character or approach, I’d say: there was considerable flexibility in what Lloyd could embody (city swell or country boy) but he wasn’t generally loutish. In this one, he’s dressed all droog-like as a stage-hand, knocking over little people left right and centre. He tramples a dwarf, like Mr. Hyde carelessly knocking down that urchiness. There’s a romance (with Bebe Daniels) but it’s pursued with competitive toughness (Lloyd is often fiercely competitive, even later), which certainly doesn’t prepare you for him KILLING HIMSELF at the end.

Lloyd could do gags about attempted suicide and make that work fine with his persona, as did Keaton. Buster even succeeds at the end of COPS, which is a little dark and disturbing even for him. But in that case, the situation is comic and the neat structure establishes some kind of framework of APPROPRIATENESS. The Lloyd ending is just one of those random “how do we finish it?” jobs, with somebody saying, “Would it be funny if…?” and nobody else thinking of a better idea that week.

But really, Harold (and producer Hal Roach and director Alf Goulding), having your hero put his mouth to the gas nozzle and asphyxiate himself is not a socko finish.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Primitive Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2017 by dcairns

Was there some kind of rule compelling all great silent comedians to make a film set in the stone age? I’m not aware of a Harold Lloyd variant, but Chaplin had HIS PREHISTORIC PAST as early as 1914 (was he the very first comedian to don furs and act Neanderthal?), Buster Keaton ventured into THE THREE AGES in 1923, and Hal Roach, long before his ONE MILLION BC, made the rather simian comedy FLYING ELEPHANTS in 1928, featuring Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.

Ollie is kind of hard to look at, half-naked in a fright wig, but the dainty way he plays with his club when flirting, as if it were a necktie, is adorable.

Stan also makes for a vaguely repellant sight in blonde curls. Though this movie emerged after the boys had been paired several times, in this one it takes ages for them to meet, and Stan is playing a flighty and poetic youth fairly distinct from his usual brand of simpleton.

This is probably the worst L&H silent I’ve seen, with some titles writer deciding cavemen should speak in a kind of Shakespearean/biblical/medieval argot, Stan spending fully 10% of the running time pulling cactus thorns from his arse, and actual flying elephants (OK, animated drawings) for no good reason.

We do get James Finlayson with a toothache, and a lot of prehistoric mating rituals (the cavegirl flappers are cute), but there’s such a thing as too dumb, even for the boys. Their separation, and Hal Roach’s story credit, gives the lie to his claim to have forged the team, and making Leo McCarey’s right to that honour seem more believable.

By some kind of magic, the laughs begin not with L&H’s first meeting, but immediately before, when the Finn falls down a cliff (always good value). As if the chemistry had seeped through a few rolls of celluloid from the picture’s first bit of Stan & Ollie shared screen time. Unusually, the movie seems to end with Ollie, Stan, Finn and the girl all dead, variously hurled from a precipice and eaten by a bear.

“Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”

Fetch!

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2017 by dcairns

To Filmhouse, where maestro Neil Brand was presenting a big Buster Keaton event on Sunday. The first half was an illustrated talk with clips and piano accompaniment, setting out Buster’s biography and creative approach, with eye-opening analyses of under-cranking, hidden jump-cuts and other tricks of the trade. The second half was STEAMBOAT BILL JR. with live piano accompaniment. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a frosty afternoon.

I’ve been researching Leo McCarey’s THE AWFUL TRUTH and was amused to discover, in a clip from OUR HOSPITALITY, a gag later borrowed by McCarey and gifted to Mr. Smith the dog (AKA Asta) in his classic screwball. Buster is trying to avoid leaving the house, so he hides his porkpie hat under a divan as an excuse. But his helpful hound retrieves it. In a panic, Buster hides it again before anyone sees. This looks like a terrific game to the dog, who fetches the hat once more. All this is given a welcome note of panic by the fact that Buster is liable to be shot dead if he leaves the house.

While McCarey’s revision lacks the life-and-death tension, it creates just as much comic excitement because his domestic situation is so small-scale and plausible, closer to relatable reality. So you can either have the intensity of melodrama or the intensity of life, both are good. Mentioning the comparison to Neil Brand over a pint afterwards, I was reminded by him that Charley Chase’s domestic comedies, supervised by McCarey, are also full of dogs getting the wrong end of the stick, as it were. Buddy the dog is particularly reliable in this respect, always being himself when it would be more convenient for the hero if he would be a cat.

Peter Bogdanovitch’s interview with McCarey turns up this quote about his days with Laurel & Hardy: “Keaton worked in a manner analogous to ours. Two or three gagmen were at his disposal, proposing gags which he could either accept or reject. All of us tried to steal each other’s gagmen, but we had no luck with Keaton because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn’t steal him!” Well, fourteen years after OUR HOSPITALITY, McCarey arguably did the next best thing by repurposing a Keaton gag.