Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: Buster’s Shorts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on May 22, 2016 by dcairns

Poster - Hard Luck (1921)_01

OK to announce my big Buster Keaton project now — wonder-editor Timo Langer and I have created a video essay to accompany Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-ray release of the complete Buster Keaton short films — now more complete than ever with longer alternate cuts of MY WIFE’S RELATIONS, THE BLACKSMITH and CONEY ISLAND. It was fun to make this one — though hard to decide whether to go for history/biography, critical or some combination. My big idea was to cut together the films in such a way as to create long sequences of continuous movement — Buster flies off screen left in NEIGHBORS and enters screening right, in a different costume, in COPS. And so on. Every silent comedy doc used to have a fast-and-furious montage of Keystone chases, spliced up into abstract gibberish and much more exciting than the films themselves. This was an attempt to do a variation on that idea, emphasising Buster’s tendency to use himself as a projectile…

The only downside to all this is that Keaton’s short film oeuvre, which once seemed inexhaustible and limitless, is now behind me, watched. I can watch it all again, of course, and I will, But you can only watch something for the first time once, as my friend Travis recently observed. One of the nicest discoveries on this viewing was THE HAUNTED HOUSE, which features numerous instances of Keaton’s Nightmare Mode, one of the subjects of my video essay…

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Buy it here and help a brother out.

Hairbreadth Harry

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2016 by dcairns

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Click to enlarge — it’s worth it!

I’ve been greatly enjoying Dan Nadel’s Art Out of Time, Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969, a stupendous compilation of funnybook esoterica. Above we see an adventure of Hairbreadth Harry, a twenties newspaper strip. It’s nice to see that Winsor McCay’s GERTIE THE DINOSAUR was still remembered in 1924 (the nightmarishly expanding creature also recalls McCay’s Rarebit Fiend short THE PET). According to Rudi Blesh’s Buster Keaton biography, Gertie inspired the dinosaur scene in THE THREE AGES, with Keaton reasoning that animation and live-action could be combined in a way inspired by McCay’s short.

This got me thinking about that dinosaur again — I’ve often wondered who made it. A Google search brought me a sample of Mark F. Berry’s indispensible-sounding The Dinosaur Filmography, published the same year as Nadel’s book, in which Lou Bunin (he of the peculiar ALICE IN WONDERLAND) named the great Charley Bowers as the artist responsible. This would make a lot of sense — Willis H. O’Brien is the only other Hollywood stop-motion man I can think of from this period, but if it was him we would know, wouldn’t we? — and would be Big News — a Bowers-Keaton collaboration! I hope it’s true, but we may never know.

Here’s another bit of Maurice Ketten’s strip with another movie reference ~

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The Sunday Intertitle: The Four Keatons

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on May 1, 2016 by dcairns

 

Keatons - all four in wigs

I’m very glad I own the Kino box set LOST KEATON, even though the shorts Buster made for Educational in the 30s are only intermittently funny. Since Keaton had a measure of control over the stories and gags, you get to see both his potential as a talking comedian, and the problems he was up against.

Keaton’s rasping crow voice is always surprising when you hear it, but it works well with his persona. Meanwhile, his drink problem, and the passage of time, had begun to ravage his ethereal beauty, which was never essential to his comedy but served as an astonishing added benefit to it, as if God were showing us unaccustomed generosity.

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The sole intertitle in PALOOKA FROM PADUCAH

The low budgets of these shorts — and the somewhat poor condition they have survived in, partly explain why they’re not as funny as classic Keaton. The best you can say about their hissing soundtracks and cheap, cramped sets is that they’re better than some Hollywood B-product, and they sometimes remind one of the weird affect of W.C. Fields’ dreamlike THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, perhaps the most Lynchian film made before Lynch’s birth (apart from those of Charley Bowers).

The other thing Keaton is up against is not sound itself, but the fact that undercranking is out of style. Henceforth it would only be used in extreme, caricatured form, but the slight lift it gave to the great clowns is gone — running, jumping and falling down now take a little longer, and are visibly effortful (Keaton himself may be slightly less fit but I don’t think that’s the problem). The accompanying grunts, exhalations, scuffs and thumps add an anchoring heaviness to the business, tieing the angels of silent cinema to the earth.

I would suggest that the Educational shorts might be best enjoyed by someone who had never seen Keaton — there are a few laughs, and there would be no sense of disappointment and anticlimax that comes from watching a gag from a great silent played less effectively with audio. But I myself first saw Keaton in one of these talkies, at a kids’ party where there was a film show — actual film, with a projector, because there was no home video. They showed LOVE NEST ON WHEELS.

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I still find this a deeply distressing image

This is one of the best Educationals, though the hayseed comedy could be seen as dated and offensive (Keaton never shied away from stereotypes, including those about his own people, the Irish-Americans). But as a kid, I was alienated from it to the point of being driven from the room. The plot had something to do with a mortgage, which immediately baffled me. The gags were lumbering and painful. Keaton liked roughhouse comedy — hell, he was raised on it and in it — and whenever someone gets his head stuck in a Keaton movie, some helpful soul will try to wrench it off. Here, the mortgage man gets his neck stuck in an elevator, and Buster tries to crowbar it out with a plank. Hideous close-up accompany the creaking wood sound effects and screams of pain to make the thing far too vicious for the sensitive child I was. And the people were strange and awful-looking — I have no memory of Keaton making an impression, but his mother and sister made me feel sad and frightened, just looking at them.

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Myra & Buster

But it is in these figure that much of the movie’s appeal lies. Buster is here accompanied by Myra, his mom, one of the original Three Keatons stage act, and Louise, his sister, as well as Harry “Jingles” Keaton, who was part of the act when it briefly became The Four Keatons. They can all act. Harry and Louise do some slapstick, and it’s interesting seeing a woman throw herself around so bruisingly. Not funny, so much, but interesting.

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Harry “Jingles” Keaton, left, and Buster, right

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Louise Keaton, relaxing between takes

PALOOKA FROM PADUCAH is another hayseed comedy, and this one has Buster’s dad, Joe, as well as Myra and Louise, so it’s the only film to star The Three Keatons. There’s plenty of rough stuff in this one too (it’s about wrestling, and Shadowplay favourite Bull Montana is the heavy), and Buster and Joe wear “Irish” beards as they did in the old days. The effect on Buster is disfiguring, but not as eerie as it was when he was, like, eight years old.

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Joe Keaton & Joseph Jnr. (Buster)

Look out for a big Buster Keaton project from me in the coming months!

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