Archive for Buster Keaton

Jiggety-Jig

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2016 by dcairns

Laughter_Hell_1933_1@2xLAUGHTER IN HELL: Pat O’Brien, Clarence Muse, Noel Madison

Home from Bologna, caught up on at least some of my missed sleep, and buzzing (in a bleary way) to write up in more details some of the wonders witnessed. 32 screenings in all, many of them containing more than one (short) film. 26 of them marvelous, and the others merely delightful.

By the way, Fiona came too. She didn’t want me to announce it on social media because she’s seen THE BLING RING and didn’t want Hermione from HARRY POTTER magicking her way into our vacant property and stealing all our bling crap.

Here’s the rundown of our last day’s viewing, a fairly light one —

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9.00 a.m. I had been enjoying Mariann Lewinsky’s curation of the Krazy Serial, and wanted to see how it turned out. Bologna always has a 100-year-old serial, and this year the centenary of Dada was celebrated with an eccentric collection of episodes from incomplete serials, standalone shorts and scratch-assemblies of found footage. The last show memorialized WWI, with DIE ENTDECKUNG DEUTSCHLANDS DIE MARSBEWOHNER, a German sci-fi film in which Martians visit Munich (they are greatly impressed by the lid action on beer steiners); CAMP OF GOUDA, a newsreel study of a Belgian refugee camp in Holland (lacework and brush-making, the start of occupational therapy); NAPOLEON AND SALLY, in which the war is reenacted by two chimpanzees in fancy dress with ghastly, wraithlike shaved faces.

I congratulated Mariann on the serial’s climax: “It all came together beautifully.”

10.15. LIFE’S HARMONY, a very early Borzage. A sweet, naively ridiculous plot about rival church organists in a small town. Manages to pack amnesia and an evil twin into its denouement. Some beautiful shots in darkened rooms lit by source light including a fireplace. Borzage is already spreading his wings.

11.30. LAUGHTER IN HELL, a Universal pre-code which is everything everyone has already said it is, since it’s New York screening.

14.30. (long lunch to recover from previous) THE PALEFACE (Fiona was knocked unconscious by the heat and missed most of this); MAIDS AND MUSLIN, a wearisome Monte Banks comedy with some interest raised by Oliver “Babe” Hardy as villain, and some animated explosions and impacts scratched into the living celluloid; MONSIEUR DON’T CARE, a seven-minute fragment of one of Stan Laurel’s hilarious Valentino parodies. Stan plays Rhubarb Vaselino, fleeing the court of Louis IV in a world which features yellow cabs and giant safety razors. Also Stan in drag. Produced by Joe Rock, who later gave us EDGE OF THE WORLD. Even in fractured, flickering and fragmentary form, this laid them in the aisles, and made up for Fiona’s lapse into unconsciousness. A Keaton film like THE PALEFACE unfolds with measured logic in a way that can lull the sleepy viewer, but Mr. Laurel’s loopy spoofs (or perhaps spooves?) keep everyone caffeinated.

And then I was going to see FAT CITY in the Piazza Maggiore, a film I love, but it was late, I was drunk, the film was delayed, the pubs were roaring with football, and I drifted home.

But there was more to follow, on the very day of our leaving…

Gone West

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2016 by dcairns

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Continuing to look at the non-Marxian aspects of the Marx Bros’ films.

The Marx Brothers’ GO WEST is the one where Buster Keaton’s contributions as gag writer really make a difference — the train climax, which manages to be reminiscent of THE GENERAL without recycling any specific gags, is one of the best bits of Hollywood slapstick the 40s produced (see also the hyper-kinetic chases climaxing a couple of W.C. Fields movies, which make up in manic speed what they might lack in finesse).

Buster may have played the brothers at high-stakes bridge, and collaborated successfully with them more than once, but he didn’t care for their casual attitude to movie-making. I guess this led to his otherwise inexplicable preference for Red Skelton, who evidently took his job seriously.

Edward Buzzell directs — he was fresh (or exhausted?) from AT THE CIRCUS, and had a background in pre-codes and would later provide the narrative bread for the Technicolor sandwich which is Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams’ JUPITER’S DARLING NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER. He manages one truly memorable shot, which you can’t quite believe you’re seeing ~

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A love scene occluded by horseflesh. It feels like an accident, left in the film whimsically, but I guess it’s a joke on censorship or privacy or something. If there were any real sexual chemistry imaginable behind the equine barrier, those readings would make sense. I like the gag, but I’m sort of glad there aren’t more like this. You don’t want the boring bits in Marx Bros films (the plot, the romantic interest, the musical numbers) to strive for zaniness. You would prefer they weren’t there. If they have to be there, you would like the girls to be charming, the songs to be tuneful, and nothing to go on too long. I don’t know what I would wish for the Allan Jones type leading men — a quick death, probably.

Here we have John Carroll and Diana Lewis, who is perky. We also have a couple of bland villains, who do that grating angry thing when annoyed by the Bros, which makes them suitable targets. In DUCK SOUP, the only reason Edgar Kennedy is a worthy target for destruction is the grating way he says “WHAT’S THE IDEA FIGHTIN’ IN FRONT OF MY STAND AND DRIVIN’ MY CUSTOMERS AWAY?” He is actually quite justified, but his tone is so obnoxious he must be systematically dismantled. The Marxes don’t put up with anger. Even Groucho’s “So, you refuse to shake my hand?” is transparently trumped up, a pose, a parody of real outrage.

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Piano interlude — a natural for a saloon sequence. This starts out as the most promising Chico solo ever, with Harpo reacting in extreme excitement to the music, until he feels compelled to throttle a bar girl just to show how happy the melody makes him. Rose McGowan would not approve, but this may be the biggest laugh in a Marxian musical interlude ever, discounting the great Groucho comedy songs. Unfortunately, Harpo then calms down and we have to endure twice as much piano. Chico’s numbers are sort of amusing, but when you’ve seen one you’ve kind of seen them all.

What else? Uncomfortable humour with Indians. This is a lengthy bit that doesn’t really contribute to the story, and also contains the inevitable harp interlude (using a loom as improvised harp). Buzzell gets desperate enough to track in a semi-circle around the offending instrument, the most elegant and imaginative move in the film. Makes me wonder how creative the average Hollywood hack would become if forced to shoot a whole movie full of tedium.

Fiona was impressed by the strong hints of miscegenation, with Harpo obviously drawn to the flirtatious Mini-Hahas. But squaws were always kind of fair game, weren’t they? It’s probably good that Harpo’s rapacious sexuality is tamped down here, since a white guy chasing screaming Indian girls would maybe feel unpleasant. Chasing peroxide cuties in a mansion-house in ANIMAL CRACKERS is something Harpo still somehow gets away with in the modern age, I think

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Oh, there’s also an old-timer, the heroine’s grandfather or something, who must be placated so the plot can work out happily (which we don’t care about). This guy disappears from the movie almost completely, despite being the lynchpin of the whole narrative. He’s glimpsed at the happy ending, but more or less subliminally. A shame, perhaps he could have become a kind of male, rustic Margaret Dumont. He’s meant to be a beloved curmudgeon, but he’s also standing in the path of love, so the Marxes new MGM role as anarchic cupids could have them assaulting his dignity.

Actually Margaret Dumont playing the role, in overalls and stubble, would make EVERYTHING better.

 

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.

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