Archive for Buster Keaton

A Year-Long Short

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 9, 2016 by dcairns

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Damned odd. I couldn’t work out what was the point of this strange, expensive-looking Snub Pollard comedy from 1922 until I realised it was a riff on Buster Keaton’s ONE WEEK. It has house built from kits, one of which ends up on a railway line, just as in the Keaton, and so it also has a time-based title and structure — for it was originally released as 365 DAYS. (home-cine print has been retitled for some damned reason.) It even has the same actor, Noah Young, playing the villain, only here they neglect to give him any real villainy.

Lots of things get neglected here — the plot hinges, somewhat creakily, upon the idea of a bunch of relatives living together for a year, but the action we see could easily be completed in a day. The magnificent setting, all those houses built from kits stacked on top of one another, seems ripe for comedy spectacle, and fairly boggles the mind, even with the fairly crude special effects balloon trip, but the gags don’t really exploit the large-scale potential.

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Still, Snub gets a bathing scene, and we are disconcerted to discover that the mustachioed funnyman has a body like Arnold Schwartzenegger. “A body like Arnold with a Snub Pollard face,” as Salt ‘n’ Peppa didn’t sing. Future comedy star Charley Chase directs. Although the set-up is, nominally, domestic, and Chase would be the champ of dom-com, everything is too elaborately fantastical to allow him to stretch his nascent situation comedy skills.

But there are some good gags, especially the accordion, and the whole thing’s odd enough to be worth watching.

Litter Louts

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by dcairns

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Richard Lester has said “Someone should teach a class on film openings,” pointing out that this is where the director is often most free to lay out the themes of the film without the pressure of narrative.

The making of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was a running battle between Lester and his producer, Melvin Frank, an old-school Hollywood type. Frank couldn’t comprehend the idea of Lester shooting a musical without a camera crane, refused to let him hire a screenwriter to rewrite the script (Lester eventually did it himself with Nic Roeg, his cinematographer), wrote a long memo explaining exactly why the film must and should contain a water ballet on the theme of “flags of all nations” (Lester framed this and hung it in his bathroom), and eventually locked some of the footage in a vault to prevent it being incorporated in the edit.

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Reading all this in Neil Sinyard’s critical study of Lester, I surmised that the title sequence of the film, climaxing in a collision between two Roman litters, with the producer’s name superimposed over one and the director’s over another, was a sly comment on the fraught nature of their “collaboration.” The first time I met Lester I congratulated him on this.

“No. That wasn’t intentional.”

Chalk up another victory for the power of the unconscious mind.

Titles are by Richard Williams. Editing is by John Victor-Smith. Perhaps it was their idea. The sequence is rather remarkable for the way it shuffles Zero Mostel introducing the story direct to camera (with song), Zero Mostel conducting a crooked game of dice (the start of the story itself), cutaway portraits of the dramatis personae as they are introduced, documentary shots snatched of extras who Lester had actually living in the set, flashforwards of highlights to come (so that the movie contains its own preview of coming attractions), and deleted footage that doesn’t appear in the movie at all (perhaps rescued from Frank’s safe?). Lester told me there wasn’t any more footage of Buster Keaton than appears in the movie, but there are a couple of tiny, suggestive moments here…

The Sunday Intertitle: Frozen Expression

Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 22, 2015 by dcairns

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Forecasts hinted at snow so I watched Keaton’s THE FROZEN NORTH to get in the mood.

An odd one — Buster acts wildly out of character throughout, robbing a saloon, shooting a man and a woman dead, and then threatening another woman with rape. This is at least a bit funnier than it sounds — a dissolve shows Buster as his prospective victim sees him, in white Prussian uniform and monocle, as Buster Von Stroheim. So we’re in the realm of movie fantasy, not the realm of sex crime, which would be a crap realm to be in. But it’s all quite odd, since getting audience sympathy was normally something Keaton was careful about.

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The ending reveals the whole story to have been a dream sequence, experienced by Buster after falling asleep at a movie show, which retroactively makes sense of everything and means you could then watch the film again without the same sense of nagging confusion/dissatisfaction.

A minor effort, then, but an interesting experiment, with Buster knowingly spoofing a lot of stock tough-guy poses. He doesn’t even wear his sawn-off porkpie hat until the end. In the shorts, Buster is usually consistent, though his role in life varies from vagabond to family man. In features, he could play a resourceful engineer or a feckless millionaire, with zero adjustment of performance style. This one has him not only acting out of character, but acting in a different style.

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