Archive for Buster Keaton

Dirty Shirt McNasty

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2015 by dcairns

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From the Bo’ness Hippodrome ~

Dirty Shirt McNasty is a deceased gangster mentioned in the Colleen Moore vehicle SYNTHETIC SIN, and the mere mention of his name in an intertitle reduced Fiona to minutes of pulsating hysteria. Based on this evidence, I should say that Mr. McNasty is the greatest offstage character ever, shoving Godot back with the shipping news.

SYNTHETIC SIN was a soundie I think, released in 1929. 30-year-old Colleen plays a stage-struck teenager quite convincingly — and hilariously. I’d seen her in less typical fair, as cockney waifs and WWI French maidens, so to finally catch her in jazz age flapperdom was a revelation. It’s a very intertitle-heavy silent, as if Warners were already ulcerating to be making all-talking, snappy, spicy pre-codes. The gangster content that comes roaring in at the midway point is another pointer to things to come. Director William Seiter would helm numerous minor comedies of this kind in the thirties.

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The tone roves ambitiously about, with bloody slayings intruding on the jollity, but I think we’re meant to pretty much yock it up throughout — what’s a little gangland bloodbath to a Warners/First National comedy? The haemoglobin oozing from under the closet door was a pretty macabre touch, though.

Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London presented the film with a fluent, funny and informative intro. Outstanding jazz age accompaniment from maestro Neil Brand melted spacetime to lull and waft the audience back to 1929, and apart from some eyebrow-raising moments of political incorrectness, any sense of quaintness dissipated like dew. But the awkward moments are worthy of address ~

Lots of not-so-comfortable racial humour. Early on, Moore, playing a Southern belle-in-waiting, blacks up to upstage her sister Kathryn McGuire’s Grecian dance with a bit of minstrel-show capering. Neil Brand had described this to me as “very nearly a film-killing scene. You want it to stop after about ten seconds and it goes on for a minute and a half.” Throughout the Hippodrome, teeth and buttocks clenched in horror. Nothing can be said in defence of minstrelsy in general: this particular example of it had a couple of mitigating factors. Nothing could share the stage more incongruously with a high-art interpretive dance than a grotesque “pickaninny” impersonation; and the fact that the leading man declares his intention of marrying Colleen at this point is so downright bizarre I can’t wholly regret the scene’s inclusion.

And then Colleen has a maid, played by Gertrude Howard, who was Beaulah, of “peel me a grape” fame, opposite Mae West in I’M NO ANGEL. (I thought I spotted her also in Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR, which also features Kathryn McGuire, one of several pleasing synchronicities at the Hippodrome Festival.) I really enjoyed her performance, which covers material varying from the purely uncomfortable to the slightly refreshing. An actor’s skill can sometimes turn a stereotypical role around, and the script very occasionally gave her some assistance. Ray Turner, as the bellhop at the mobbed-up hotel, likewise did his best to break out from lazy/trembling darkie comic relief business to give a more rounded portrayal. The antagonism between the two led to an interesting, distressing, strange intertitle when it looks like Turner is going to leave Howard to carry the heavy luggage. “Tie yosef onto dem bags, Midnight,” she admonishes him. As a lady’s maid, she obviously considers him her social and thus ethnic inferior.

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One reason I want to see this again is to identify all the silent stars Colleen spoofs while practicing acting in the mirror here. Gloria Swanson is obvious —*everyone* did HER — see also Marion Davies in THE PATSY — but I missed a few I think.

The final insult is to sexual equality rather than race, as Colleen abandons her dreams of stardom to settle for wifely duties, in an intertitle which produced a good-humoured groan from the Hippodrome audience. They’d had far too good a time to let this bum note, or any of the others, spoil their evening’s entertainment, but it seemed unfortunate. Of course, many films feature a hero doggedly pursuing a dream that proves to be the Wrong Dream, with an 11th-hr Damascene conversion spinning things around in the last act — there’s no place like home — but the chauvinism here was disappointing after the rampant if misapplied girl power enjoyed throughout. But I thought I saw a doubtful look flit across Moore’s face — I have to see the film again to watch out for this — as if she herself wanted to throw into question the sexist tidiness of the conclusion and leave the path clear for a sequel to play out in our respective imaginations, even if it had to wait eighty-six years to happen…

Humming Birds and Gas Masks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 27, 2015 by dcairns

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I couldn’t see everything at the Hippodrome this year. I missed the WWI programme, which sounded interesting. Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London reported that one short was described as “stop motion animation with gas masks,” which she thought sounded like “the most David Cairns film ever.” In fact, it turned out that the animated sequences did  not include gas masks, so the alluring image of gas masks flopping about like the killer brain-aliens in FIEND WITHOUT A FACE came to naught.

But I did win credit for pointing out the hummingbird outside Buster Keaton’s home in THE NAVIGATOR.

Looking at my DVD now, I’m not convinced it’s a hummingbird, maybe it’s just a butterfly. It’s a tiny hovering thing — screen right, a broken white line parallel with Keaton’s knees. What’s amusing about it is that it’s visible when Buster leaves his house to ask Kathryne McGuire for her hand in marriage, and it’s still flopping about when he returns, disconsolate, after being rejected. A minute plus screen time. It’s quite possible that the little fluttering thing was hanging around on the threshold for hours on end, but I think it’s far more likely that Buster did the logical thing: exited the house in a reasonably upbeat way, kept the camera running, and turned on his heel and walked back in, catching two shots in one go. Whatever that little buzzing beastie is, it’s a clue to his working methods.

At any rate, even though it seems to have been wiped from the DVD in the second shot, perhaps treated as an artefact by an overzealous remover of print damage, I swear it is a real organism and not a smudge or scratch on the celluloid.

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The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2015 by dcairns

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A gentle reminder that the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival will be raging this week in Bo’ness. Among the treats in store is Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR (screening Saturday), accompanied by maestro Neil Brand upon the piano forte. I hope to be on hand to experience and write about as much of the festivities as possible.

I rate THE NAVIGATOR pretty near the top — not as dazzling as SHERLOCK JNR or as plain great as THE GENERAL, but I like how Kathryn McGuire gets to be almost an equal partner in the slapstick. Her character is exactly as helpless as Buster’s, not more helpless in THE GENERAL (“almost aggressively stupid” was Richard Lester’s affectionate description of Marion Mack’s character) or simply competent and attractive as in THE CAMERAMAN.

I’m not going to try to arrange Keaton’s films in definitive order on a Sunday morning, but I would roughly say that the first rank, for me, contains ~

THE GENERAL, SHERLOCK JNR., THE NAVIGATOR, OUR HOSPITALITY

The middle group, which are not to be sneezed at, would be ~

STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, GO WEST, SEVEN CHANCES, THE THREE AGES, THE CAMERAMAN

And the “lesser films” — ones which are still likely to be better than anything else you might see, would be ~

COLLEGE, BATTLING BUTLER, SPITE MARRIAGE

I realize that this is both subjective and impertinent, and that any attempt to say that SEVEN CHANCES or STEAMBOAT BILL JNR is less than great is likely to look philistine. All I mean to say is that they are LESS great than my top four. But I welcome disputes, if you want to make the case for a lower-down title or knock down one of my pantheon. I will say that I’ve only seen BATTLING BUTLER and SPITE MARRIAGE once, and that it’s been a while since I saw THE CAMERAMAN and THE THREE AGES.

We might also attempt a larger project, a ranking of the short films

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