Archive for Buster Keaton

Battleships

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns

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You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)

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Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.

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Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.

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S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.

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Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?

Davy Jones’ Looker

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by dcairns

OK, nobody wanted to wade in (excuse the pun) and guess which of these Esther Williams stories are true, which is probably just as well they’re ALL true. Even the one about Victor Mature eating cardboard.

As she admitted, Esther’s movies were largely made to a formula, which makes them great comfort food if you’re low, and we were pretty damn low over the purportedly festive season. Esther Williams movies we have watched —

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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — not a proper Esther Williams movie — she only swims once, briefly — but a very good musical, though a lesser example of Comden and Green’s scripting and song-writing, Busby Berkeley’s direction, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical staging (they essentially got Berkeley fired so they could handle the dancing themselves) and Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munchin’s team comedy playing. But it does have a great scene of Betty Garrett aggressively pursuing Frankie. A nice limbering-up for ON THE TOWN.

Kelly hated Esther for being taller than him. “The sonofabitch even sits tall!” he complained.

Esther’s singing was dubbed and she struggled to dance but we were so charmed by her acting — she compared notes with her non-actor co-star, Sinatra. “I just talk like I’m talking to one of my friends.” “Yeah, that’s what I do too.” So we wanted to see more of this terrific actress.

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We quickly discovered another part of Esther’s appeal. Her films are sexy, at least as long as the swimming is happening. Actually, her acting is pretty sexy too. (She has a posed, skeptical quality. She always seems like a challenging girl to impress.) In the forties and fifties, an Es film would be one of the few places you could get a realistic idea of the feminine form, shorn of shoulder pads and bullet bras. Though swimming gave her a streamlined form — flat ass, small breasts — it was a form audiences could actually SEE and appreciate. There is absolutely no conflict between her athleticism and her feminine allure.

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BATHING BEAUTY. See here. Esther complained later in life that she overacted in this one — “all that eye-rolling” — but she was too hard on herself. The film is disjointed and overstuffed with random novelty acts, but Esther manages to humanize Red Skelton somewhat and this is the movie that really gave us synchronized swimming. The script calls for Esther to be a little unsympathetic, which in turn requires us to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than we’d have to during the insane water ballet.

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NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER uses the title of an earlier film starring the first screen swimming star, Australian champion Annette Kellerman, but has nothing in common with it. Much business is given to Red Skelton, who we’ve actually started finding funny, and to Betty Garrett, who is ALWAYS welcome. Throw in Ricardo Montalban (I explained the Good Neighbor Policy to Fiona) and you have a pretty entertaining bag of bits.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is the famous one, and it does have the sensational and retina-melting Busby Berkeley number near the end, which is Esther’s real claim to immortality. Just as well, since they contrived to break her neck shooting it. The movie is a bio of Annette Kellerman. Even though they made most of it up, they saddled themselves with a disjointed one-thing-after-another non-structure. Most of Esther’s roles have a mildly feminist tone, but his one craps out by crippling her before the fade-out. I *think* they imply she’s going to recover in Victor Mature’s arms, but it could be clearer, especially since it never happened.

The real Kellerman visited the set, looking morose. “It’s such a pity you’re not Australian,” she told Es.

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This is the costume that broke Esther’s neck. The crown acted as a cup, catching the water when she dove in, and thrusting her head back, HARD. Three vertebrae cracked. When she surfaced, everyone had gone to lunch and she had to tread water until she could get help.

THE HOODLUM SAINT. Dull. This was MGM’s experiment to see if audiences would take to Esther out of the water and out of Technicolor, but it wasn’t a fair test as the script is so sluggish. Too much saintliness, hardly any hoodlummery. William Powell is, of course, enjoyable. In Esther’s very first onscreen moment with him she has to slap his face. They told her just to go for it, disregarding her athletic form… She smacked him, and half his face collapsed like he’s had a stroke. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I broke your face!” Make-up rushed in, to re-attach the little bits of tape tightening his skin to make him look younger…

The main reason this one doesn’t seem such a good vehicle for Es is not the lack of sub-aqua dance, it’s that the plot doesn’t allow her to look around her in skeptical amusement. She can direct some of her disbelief at Powell, but a Technicolor musical gives you far more scope to project that aura of “Can you believe this? Me neither. But let’s play along with it.”

DANGEROUS WHEN WET is the other best-known one, and it actually has a story. Es has great chemistry with the self-satisfied Fernando Lamas — the script stops him from ever getting macho. This is the one where she swims with Tom & Jerry (dream sequence), and though the logic of an underwater cat and mouse escapes me, it’s a fun sequence. Preview audiences couldn’t process it and didn’t know how to response until Hanna-Barbera animated in $10,000 of bubbles to PROVE that it was underwater.

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Esther’s bit is beautifully lit and designed — Vincente Minnelli is the man in charge. James Melton sang away but ended up on the cutting room floor. Esther felt his section never made sense because “I was underwater. I couldn’t hear him sing and he couldn’t see me swim.”

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EASY TO LOVE has Berkeley again but he doesn’t get to do much spectacle until the climactic waterskiing scene. Esther, who had never skied, has to do it while avoiding explosive water jets, and she was too short-sighted to actually steer away from the danger spots… Van Johnson and Tony Martin compete insipidly.

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EASY TO WED is a remake of LIBELLED LADY, with Es in the Myrna Loy role, Van Johnson as William Powell and Johnson’s real-life partner Keenan Wynn as Spencer Tracy. Lucille Ball gets some laughs in the Jean Harlow part but can’t actually convince us she’s dumb enough. Buster Keaton seems to have contributed to Johnson’s slapstick duck-hunting scene, which is actually pretty funny (there’s very good canine actor — a veritable Spaniel Day-Lewis). Great mariachi band gag at the end, but not a great end. Johnson appears to come out of it bigamously wed to Esther and Lucille, which is a surprise. Made us want to watch the original.

Mere seconds of swimming in this one.

JUPITER’S DARLING. See here. Has spectacular deep-sea swimming and amazing dream sequence where Greek statues come to life and swim with Esther (rather than sinking to the bottom as you might expect). This one stirred the suspicions of the censor since the scantily-clad marble Adonis seemed a bit too frisky, and had not even been properly introduced to Esther’s character. There’s really no way to read him other than as a sex fantasy by a woman who just isn’t satisfied with what George Sanders is offering…

A man walks through a door funny

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2017 by dcairns

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.