Archive for Buster Keaton

Scotch Reels

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2014 by dcairns

My second trip to Bo’ness for this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema allowed me to spend the whole day there, seeing shows from 10.30am until 7.30 pm — Keaton, Bowers, Chase, Von Bolvary, Murnau, Ozu. In the company of delightful people such as Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London, ace accompanist Neil Brand, writer and Edinburgh Film Fest director Chris Fujiwara. With a weird tartan theme going on.

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I’m no expert on tartan. I think my own family pattern is the Clan MacCavebear. What was peculiar was that from the Charley Bowers film on, every movie had a strong tartan presence. THERE IT IS (1928) features cinema surrealist Bowers as Charley MacNeesha of Scotland Yard (visualised as a pen full of kilted men, milling about aimlessly), who investigates crimes too baffling and stupid for the ordinary police, assisted by his kilted flee, MacGregor. Pamela pointed out that Bowers kilt, an obscenely short plaid pelmet, grows mysteriously longer in the final scene where he’s wed Keaton co-star Kathryn McGuire. What is the hidden significance of this?

In LIMOUSINE LOVE (1928), Charley Chase, on his way to his wedding, gets saddled with a naked lady (quite a good role for Viola Richard, since she has to be filmed in close-up throughout). The tartan this time is worn by Josephine the monkey (who also co-starred with Harold Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN). She crops up quite gratuitously here, wearing an adorable little monkey kilt. Inexplicable.

German cabaret star Ilse Bois in DER GEISTERZUG/THE GHOST TRAIN/LE TRAIN FANTOME (1927, an Anglo-German co-production screened via a French print) plays a temperance campaigner all in plaid, which is stretching a point but her name is Miss Bourne — and in the Hungarian version of 1933 it’s “Miss Burns,” which does sound Scottish. Given her surliness, I suspect she’s meant to have Celtic qualities.

When I spotted two tartan blankets draped over extras in THE LAST LAUGH, I felt confident in predicting that Ozu’s DRAGNET GIRL (1933) would feature some example of the Scottish national pattern. I knew that tartans are not unknown in the east due to Tatsuya Nakadai’s tartan muffler in YOJIMBO. Thanks to an interview he gave to Alex Cox, I even know the Japanese for “tartan muffler,” which I believe is “tarutana muffura.”

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Handsome Joji Oka’s is a particularly fine example.

When I got home, I had to re-check Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH, as I hadn’t been watching out for tartans in that one. There’s a fair bit of plaid on display. And also an acrobatic lady who MAY be a young Charlotte Greenwood. I’m no forensic identification expert, but how many comediennes could do the splits back then? Perhaps somebody else with a DVD and a keen eye could look into this for me?

Moving House

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by dcairns

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There are good things in FINDERS KEEPERS (1984), Richard Lester’s penultimate fiction feature (there are good things in RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS too, but it’s overshadowed by tragedy on one side and its illustrious predecessors on the other). Lester has said that FK was the only movie he made as a hired gun, making it in theory even less personal than the SUPERMAN films, which he nevertheless managed to imbue with a lot of his personal style and attitude. In fact, FINDERS KEEPERS being a knockabout farce, on the surface it’s closer to classic Lester.

Michael O’Keefe and Lou Gossett play con artists, Beverley D’Angelo plays a potty-mouthed actress. The plot revolves around a coffin full of cash and there’s lots of action on trains, chases and other opportunities for the Buster Keaton influence to show itself, assisted by the flat landscapes and Lester’s planimetric, architectural framing (“That’s my thing.”)

Lester inherited the project from a friend, along with some of the cast, but he was able to drop a few friends into the proceedings — Brian Dennehy and John Schuck return from BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS and Pamela Stephenson breezes in fresh from SUPERMAN III. Ed Lauter’s bad guy is a stand-out — he’s a vengeful ex-accomplice, making his part of the film like a comic take on Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY. Dennehy, playing a corrupt sheriff, is my other favourite — he’s a smart crooked man with a dumb family, and his seething fury at his lot in life and his chuckleheaded clan is pretty funny. His flaky daughter is played with wondrous tall awkwardness by Barbara Kermode, in her only film role. “Did you forget to take your anti-crazy pills?” asks Dennehy wearily, at her latest eccentric outpouring. This is a line you CAN use with your loved ones, I’ve found, but only if you’re sure you can get away with it. I told Lester when I met him earlier this year that I greatly enjoyed Kermode’s perf. “She was a local girl we found on location,” he said, slightly amazed. He also said that he hadn’t seen the film since making it. (It never played Edinburgh and I’ve only seen it on VHS. There’s never been a DVD.)

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Barbara Kermode, you are a STAR!

Oh, and one other cast member deserves mention. It’s his first movie, and he’s playing Lane Biddlecoff, Dennehy’s dumbest nephew. Here he is ~

The kid is good, but Barbara Kermode really ought to have had his career.

At the climax of the film, Lauter kidnaps D’Angelo and hides out in an empty house. When they awaken next day, the house is in motion — being dragged across country by a truck, like the church in DELIVERANCE. D’Angelo becomes hysterical and starts screaming and Lauter, lacking any ready-made gag, in desperation rips off his toupee and stuffs it in her mouth, a grotesque but, too me, very funny act. Lester, who went bald at 19 and found it helped him get taken seriously by older authority figures, could never resist a wig gag, and here, quite literally, is a wig gag.

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McKean and Gossett set off to rescue her and get the loot. Spoiler alert — this is the whole ending of the movie –

It displays the film’s strengths, I think — some genuinely clever visual gags, perfectly framed, and some rambunctiously stupid ones — and its weaknesses, which for me include Ken Thorne’s score. Thorne had been a regular collaborator and his Kurt Weill-influenced soundtrack for THE BED SITTING ROOM is marvelous. He got an Oscar for arranging and scoring A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (that chase scene scoring!). Here he seems out of his element. The selection of pop songs and their placement isn’t everything I’d like it to be either, suggesting that it was no longer something Lester felt completely at home with.

But the last shot — very Keaton, and specifically THE BLACKSMITH. There’s an elegiac quality which has nothing to do with the story but fits in very well with the film’s place at the twilight of the director’s career.

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 *** 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. *** 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 *** 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.

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