Archive for Buster Keaton

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.

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Red All Over

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2017 by dcairns

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I had never seen a Red Skelton movie. In the clips I saw he looked kind of awful, but on the other hand, Buster Keaton liked him. A friend said, “There was talent there, but the volume switch was faulty.”

So, we got on an Esther Williams kick — there’s talent there too — which led us to run ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, which has a nice little water ballet directed by Vincente Minnelli — interesting to see how he handles it, as opposed to Busby Berkeley or Charles Walters or George Sidney. It also has Red Skelton hamming it up in one sketch (like KING OF JAZZ, it intersperses songs and sketches). The sketch is pretty unfunny, and Fiona’s immediate reaction to the mugging was revulsion. But then he actually got a few laughs, overcoming our resistance to his overkill with more overkill. Overandoverkill. And he certainly had some chops as a visual comedian.

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A gag from THE HIGH SIGN! Was Buster working as gag man at MGM in 1943? It seems likely.

So then my same friend mentions DU BARRY WAS A LADY, and that seems like a suitable medium for further investigation. If Skelton gets too much for us, we have his fellow redhead Lucille Ball, and third-billed Gene Kelly, and Tommy Dorsey and his band, and a practically juvenile Zero Mostel doing a really good Charles Boyer impersonation — not just the voice — he kinda morphs his face so as to actually resemble Boyer, albeit a pudgy, ugly Boyer.

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Too bad Zero doesn’t get to sing a note, except as part of the chorus. But maybe best of all, the film has Virginia O’Brien, singing a song not in the Cole Porter show ~

Like KISS ME KATE, this play has had considerable damage done by rewriting, moving of songs, substitution of songs. It’s verging on a revue, like ZIEGFELD GIRLS, but with just enough connective tissue to be able to call itself an actual movie. And Skelton has it dialled down slightly — he’s playing an awful obnoxious dope, though, and Skelton’s particular comic instrument does not reduce the less appealing qualities.

But — in a Twitter conversation I was just defending the musical, but saying that even the worst MGM musical will still tend to have a few jaw-dropping moments. This one has QUITE a few.

Best gag: Red wins the sweepstake, and as he passes out in shock we get the traditional newspaper montage, only each headline carries only a fragment of the story —

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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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