Archive for Buster Keaton

Erronius

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2016 by dcairns

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM marks a specific point in my cinematic awakening. It was on TV and my young self tuned in partway through. I couldn’t quite work out what I was looking at, because it had Peter Butterworth in it, who seemed to be only in Carry On films, and it had Phil Silvers in it, who was in one Carry On film, and it was a historical farce like CARRY ON CLEO. but it had production values! And energy!

I also realized, from all the swish pans at the climax, that it was a sixties film, and I realized suddenly that I could identify films quite precisely by period based on their stylistic tropes alone. I had become a film nerd.

FORUM is also Buster Keaton’s last feature, though THE SCRIBE, an industrial short, may have been shot later. Richard Lester, the director, insisted on building a day into the schedule for a picnic, so he could talk to Buster about his craft. If it yielded an idea or two for the movie, great. Apparently it did.

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On the one hand, Lester was lucky – unbelievably lucky – to be able to work with his one hero. On the other hand, it was just a little late. Buster was dying, though he didn’t know it. Any sequences involving physical exertion had to be carefully planned, divided into short shots, and sometimes used a double. Lester was very conscious of the horrible irony — he was working with an actor who was celebrated for accomplishing the greatest things physically of any star, and he was doubling his movements with a stuntman. And what was left? Dialogue.

(In a way, the last Buster Keaton film is SPITE MARRIAGE, since it’s the last silent and the last one he exerted any control over. His last directorial credit is a musical short, STREAMLINED SWING, which is quite nice, but not recognizably Keatonesque.)

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But there’s a lot to enjoy in Buster’s performance. The disparate cast which confused me as a kid, relies heavily on old stagers like Zero Mostel, Silvers, and Jack Gilford, and Buster fits right in. The cancer that was killing him makes him short of breath, which affects his speech, but Buster even makes that work for comedy. Imagine.

Buster plays Senex Erronius, a terribly near-sighted and befuddled old man perennially searching for his children, stolen in infancy by pirates (don’t worry, there’s a happy ending: it’s a comedy, tonight). His tunic and toga and hat are all dyed one strong hue, as is true of the rest of the cast (there’s an unusual blend of pure theatricality and an attempt by Lester at a kind of comic version of historical accuracy, which he would develop further in the seventies). Buster’s hat is an ancient Roman adaptation of his trademark flat porkpie, and his sandals have been extended to give them the quality of his vaudeville flap shoes.

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He does one pratfall, a thing of beauty. I don’t know if it’s undercranked but he plays it as if undercranked, and stops you feeling any of the discomfort that a frail old man walking into a tree and falling on his ass should evoke.

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I got to ask Lester if there was any Keaton material that didn’t make the final cut — during the running battle with the film’s producer, Melvin Frank, a bunch of footage apparently got locked in a safe to prevent Lester using it. Lester said he didn’t think there was anything significant missing of Buster, though. But there are a couple of moments — in the opening credits, there’s a tiny shot of Buster descending a tiny step with a huge amount of drama, and there are the tiny cutaways of Erronius”abroad, in search of his children, stolen in infancy by pirates.” in these, Buster scans the horizon with one hand held up horizontally to shade his eyes, a familiar pose (eg THE GENERAL) given added comedy/pathos by his character being blind as a bat. In one shot he walks into the edge of his own hand and is confused by it. These latter shots might have been filmed on picnic day. The step seems like a fragment of something, but we’ll never know what.

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The film’s final gag reprised a classic Keaton trope — the Perpetual Motion Machine. Buster starts running again, but strays onto a rotating platform, there to continue his jogging in perpetuity, too blind to realize he isn’t moving. And as he puffs away, his body dissolves away and is replaced by paint, as Richard Williams’ typically elaborate end titles transform him into part of a vast fresco. The Great Stone Face.

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Joseph Keaton Jnr. and Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Recently received.

I made video essays for both of these fine collections from Masters of Cinema. With Timo Langer as editor I created THAT’S SOME BUSTER!, riffing on ideas from Walter Kerr’s magisterial The Silent Clowns. Stephen Horne edited WHAT WILL YOU BE TOMORROW?, which is mainly about THE LAST LAUGH but draws on the vast panoply of Murnau movies available from MOC.

The Murnau collection is essential if you’ve seen some of the major classics but are less familiar with TARTUFFE, SCHLOSS VOGELOD etc. The Keaton set is a real upgrade, incorporating newly discovered alternative versions of THE BLACKSMITH and MY WIFE’S RELATIONS. Both sets come with booklets that are both lavish and scholarly.

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Both are available to buy now: if you use the following links, I will get thruppence!

Early Murnau – Five Films (Schloß Vogelöd, Phantom, Der Letzte Mann, The Grand Duke’s Finances, Tartuffe) (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray)

The Complete BUSTER KEATON Short Films 1917-1923 (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray)

More Christmas shopping opportunities from Shadowplay shortly.

The Look #4: Harold and Sybil get camera-shy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2016 by dcairns

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At the end of Harold Lloyd’s BUMPING INTO BROADWAY, previously discussed on Sunday, Harold essays a trope that would become quite familiar, and may have been old even in 1919, I’m not sure. All set to go into his final fadeout clinch with Bebe Daniels, Harold and his girl suddenly seems to notice us watching. He thoughtfully repositions a nearby screen to conceal the snog, but then notices that the screen had been hiding a few of the cops who have been chasing him for most of the last reel. Thoughtfully, he replaces the screen, thus deactivating the policemen like budgies whose cage has been covered, then he lifts up a rug and holds it before himself and Bebe as a sort of curtain.

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So overwhelming is the act of kissing Bebe, however, that Harold drops the rug, and we fade out on the traditional clinch, save for the fact that Harold’s hand is held high as if still holding the rug. He THINKS he’s achieved some privacy, but like the vengeful camera which pursues Buster Keaton in Beckett’s FILM, our gaze is insatiable.

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A year later, and Buster is doing a variation on this joke in ONE WEEK. It’s a famous shot: leading lady Sybil Seely drops the soap while bathing, and notices the camera’s presence just as she is about to retrieve it. The friendly cameraman puts his hand over the lens, and Sybil is able to grab her bar and gives a grateful grin to the operator as she lowers herself back into the water, modesty more or less preserved.

Keaton’s gag is bolder than Lloyd’s, firstly because it happens in the middle of the film. I think there’s a kind of understanding that endings are allowed to be a bit self-referential, since the audience is about to be forcefully confronted with the fact that what they’ve been watching was, in fact, a film, when the lights come up. Of course we never wholly forget this anyway, but jokes about our shared, willed illusion are easier to justify if placed at the end so they don’t really disrupt the film’s reality.

(Under the right circumstances, a comedy’s ending can be allowed to trash everything that went before, and nobody minds. Surely it was screenwriter Frank Tashlin who was responsible for the ending of the Bob Hope movie THE PALEFACE, in which leading lady Jane Russell is dragged off by wild horses, prompting Bob to turn to us and remark, “What were you expecting, a happy ending?”)

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The Keaton gag goes further than the Lloyd one also by using the camera lens as prop. Lloyd admits there’s an audience, but Keaton admits there’s a camera and a cameraman who allow that audience to see the action, and who can choose to prevent it. The shameless Sybil doesn’t, apparently, mind being seen naked by the cameraman, but she’s not getting them out for the viewing public.

 

The Complete BUSTER KEATON Short Films 1917-1923 (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray)