Archive for Buster Keaton


Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2017 by dcairns

To Filmhouse, where maestro Neil Brand was presenting a big Buster Keaton event on Sunday. The first half was an illustrated talk with clips and piano accompaniment, setting out Buster’s biography and creative approach, with eye-opening analyses of under-cranking, hidden jump-cuts and other tricks of the trade. The second half was STEAMBOAT BILL JR. with live piano accompaniment. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a frosty afternoon.

I’ve been researching Leo McCarey’s THE AWFUL TRUTH and was amused to discover, in a clip from OUR HOSPITALITY, a gag later borrowed by McCarey and gifted to Mr. Smith the dog (AKA Asta) in his classic screwball. Buster is trying to avoid leaving the house, so he hides his porkpie hat under a divan as an excuse. But his helpful hound retrieves it. In a panic, Buster hides it again before anyone sees. This looks like a terrific game to the dog, who fetches the hat once more. All this is given a welcome note of panic by the fact that Buster is liable to be shot dead if he leaves the house.

While McCarey’s revision lacks the life-and-death tension, it creates just as much comic excitement because his domestic situation is so small-scale and plausible, closer to relatable reality. So you can either have the intensity of melodrama or the intensity of life, both are good. Mentioning the comparison to Neil Brand over a pint afterwards, I was reminded by him that Charley Chase’s domestic comedies, supervised by McCarey, are also full of dogs getting the wrong end of the stick, as it were. Buddy the dog is particularly reliable in this respect, always being himself when it would be more convenient for the hero if he would be a cat.

Peter Bogdanovitch’s interview with McCarey turns up this quote about his days with Laurel & Hardy: “Keaton worked in a manner analogous to ours. Two or three gagmen were at his disposal, proposing gags which he could either accept or reject. All of us tried to steal each other’s gagmen, but we had no luck with Keaton because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn’t steal him!” Well, fourteen years after OUR HOSPITALITY, McCarey arguably did the next best thing by repurposing a Keaton gag.


The Sunday Intertitle: Bull!

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , on September 17, 2017 by dcairns

One last Stan Laurel solo film, then we can move on. MUD AND SAND is Stan’s epic denunciation of Rudolph Valentino (here, Rhubarb Vaseline). All the intertitles, or nearly all, rely on bull-based humour.

Hey, I’m not knocking it.

Visual gags are little more varied, depending largely on the deflation of Dorothy Arzner’s melodrama with pratfalls, but Stan’s first, successful corrida, shot from outside the arena walls, is impressively silly. As the other matadors-to-be anxiously wait for Stan to be carried out arrayed on a stretcher with limbs akimbo, like his predecessors, a stuffed cow flies over the wall, crashing unconvincingly to the ground. And then it all happens again.

The repetition of gags is an interesting phenomenon. Buster Keaton didn’t go in for it, unless he could play a variation on the gag to surprise the audience. I suspect this proud refusal to be predictable was a big part of why he was less popular than Chaplin and Lloyd.

Chaplin repeats incessantly, and the recurring arse-kicks or pratfalls become part of a structured dance. Stan just repeats where it seems likely to get another laugh. It’s been suggested that Laurel & Hardy relied more on predictability than surprise: showing the audience the banana peel before it’s slipped on. The comedy coming from the expected gag happening right on cue. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Everybody shows the banana peel first. But only Buster has characters walk over it without slipping — outsmarting or “double-crossing” the audience.

I want to try to analyse L&H’s approach more closely. I do think they’re the funniest, in terms of intensity and volume and duration and frequency of laughs, of any classic era comedians. It doesn’t matter if you personally like them or not — I think their success is measurable and would be borne out by any laffometer. And they seem to use both jokes of predictability and jokes of surprise — the former making the latter more surprising. And of course there’s the measured pace. They jettison entirely the myriad advantages of pace, to concentrate on getting the most out of every joke by worrying it to death. But there’s even more going on than that, and I want to explore it.

This will mean looking at talkies, since I think the talkies are their funniest films. But maybe a silent or two also…


Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns


You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)


Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.


Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.


S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.


Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?