Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: The Four Keatons

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on May 1, 2016 by dcairns

 

Keatons - all four in wigs

I’m very glad I own the Kino box set LOST KEATON, even though the shorts Buster made for Educational in the 30s are only intermittently funny. Since Keaton had a measure of control over the stories and gags, you get to see both his potential as a talking comedian, and the problems he was up against.

Keaton’s rasping crow voice is always surprising when you hear it, but it works well with his persona. Meanwhile, his drink problem, and the passage of time, had begun to ravage his ethereal beauty, which was never essential to his comedy but served as an astonishing added benefit to it, as if God were showing us unaccustomed generosity.

vlcsnap-2016-04-30-23h43m00s65

The sole intertitle in PALOOKA FROM PADUCAH

The low budgets of these shorts — and the somewhat poor condition they have survived in, partly explain why they’re not as funny as classic Keaton. The best you can say about their hissing soundtracks and cheap, cramped sets is that they’re better than some Hollywood B-product, and they sometimes remind one of the weird affect of W.C. Fields’ dreamlike THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, perhaps the most Lynchian film made before Lynch’s birth (apart from those of Charley Bowers).

The other thing Keaton is up against is not sound itself, but the fact that undercranking is out of style. Henceforth it would only be used in extreme, caricatured form, but the slight lift it gave to the great clowns is gone — running, jumping and falling down now take a little longer, and are visibly effortful (Keaton himself may be slightly less fit but I don’t think that’s the problem). The accompanying grunts, exhalations, scuffs and thumps add an anchoring heaviness to the business, tieing the angels of silent cinema to the earth.

I would suggest that the Educational shorts might be best enjoyed by someone who had never seen Keaton — there are a few laughs, and there would be no sense of disappointment and anticlimax that comes from watching a gag from a great silent played less effectively with audio. But I myself first saw Keaton in one of these talkies, at a kids’ party where there was a film show — actual film, with a projector, because there was no home video. They showed LOVE NEST ON WHEELS.

vlcsnap-2016-04-30-23h45m08s80

I still find this a deeply distressing image

This is one of the best Educationals, though the hayseed comedy could be seen as dated and offensive (Keaton never shied away from stereotypes, including those about his own people, the Irish-Americans). But as a kid, I was alienated from it to the point of being driven from the room. The plot had something to do with a mortgage, which immediately baffled me. The gags were lumbering and painful. Keaton liked roughhouse comedy — hell, he was raised on it and in it — and whenever someone gets his head stuck in a Keaton movie, some helpful soul will try to wrench it off. Here, the mortgage man gets his neck stuck in an elevator, and Buster tries to crowbar it out with a plank. Hideous close-up accompany the creaking wood sound effects and screams of pain to make the thing far too vicious for the sensitive child I was. And the people were strange and awful-looking — I have no memory of Keaton making an impression, but his mother and sister made me feel sad and frightened, just looking at them.

vlcsnap-2016-04-30-23h45m31s60

Myra & Buster

But it is in these figure that much of the movie’s appeal lies. Buster is here accompanied by Myra, his mom, one of the original Three Keatons stage act, and Louise, his sister, as well as Harry “Jingles” Keaton, who was part of the act when it briefly became The Four Keatons. They can all act. Harry and Louise do some slapstick, and it’s interesting seeing a woman throw herself around so bruisingly. Not funny, so much, but interesting.

vlcsnap-2016-04-30-23h46m25s44

Harry “Jingles” Keaton, left, and Buster, right

vlcsnap-2016-04-30-23h45m44s189

Louise Keaton, relaxing between takes

PALOOKA FROM PADUCAH is another hayseed comedy, and this one has Buster’s dad, Joe, as well as Myra and Louise, so it’s the only film to star The Three Keatons. There’s plenty of rough stuff in this one too (it’s about wrestling, and Shadowplay favourite Bull Montana is the heavy), and Buster and Joe wear “Irish” beards as they did in the old days. The effect on Buster is disfiguring, but not as eerie as it was when he was, like, eight years old.

vlcsnap-2016-04-30-23h43m43s253

Joe Keaton & Joseph Jnr. (Buster)

Look out for a big Buster Keaton project from me in the coming months!

The Sunday Intertitle: The Keaton Gate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 24, 2016 by dcairns

89340893

THE PALEFACE is a very unusual Keaton short, because it takes two minutes and twenty seconds to set up its plot motor, before Buster enters the story.

Giving an unusually sympathetic portrait of American Indians, while still pandering to stereotypes and casting white actors in the main parts, the film establishes that the tribe at the story’s centre are being cheated out of their land. Big Chief Big Joe Roberts, who would persecute Buster for similarly arbitrary and impersonal reasons in OUR HOSPITALITY, makes a terrible threat ~

vlcsnap-2016-04-24-10h48m40s202

(It seems the film’s original intertitles have not survived — this is obviously a reconstruction.)

Walter Kerr, in his majestic tome The Silent Clowns, then observes that the film then cut to a gate, and lingers on it slightly longer than we would normally expect — “In those few seconds, somehow, we see that the gate somehow looks like Keaton.”

This got me excited. I had just watched THE PALEFACE, but I had to look again to see if Kerr was right (he always is). Here is the Keaton gate.

vlcsnap-2016-04-24-10h48m48s24

Important that Kerr used the word “somehow” as there’s no close resemblance. But the gate shares with Keaton a blank imperturbability. It is the centre of a drama, without knowing it. It is also rectangular and flat, and Keaton uses both those characteristics when he needs to. It is inexpressive, but somehow expresses something very strong and meaningful.

We get a closer view.

vlcsnap-2016-04-24-10h47m59s161

A certain roughness, a certain unevenness, but also a linearity. Is Kerr overreaching?

vlcsnap-2016-04-24-10h48m05s101

Enter the star. The straight rectangles of the front elevation of his porkpie hat form a horizontal rectangle to match the planks’ verticals. The obvious contrast with the door is Keaton’s soft vulnerability. He enters with supreme innocence — in a moment we will see he carries a butterfly net. If we had to choose, we would say that the door knows far more about what is at stake than Buster does.

The Sunday Intertitle: Yeast

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-03-20-10h46m28s79

A full day in Bo’ness at last, soaking up the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema. Four shows on Saturday —

Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline’s MY WIFE’S RELATIONS — world premiere of newly discovered ending!

Doubled with Garvin and Marion Byron in A PAIR OF TIGHTS, a Hal Roach farce from the mind of Leo McCarey!

VARIETE by EA Dupont in a fresh restoration of glistening quality!

DAYBREAK, a fascinating Chinese rarity from the thirties in a hideous DVD, cropped and lacking contrast!

WUNDER DER SCHOPFUNG — German space documentary — a film that is to sci-fi what HAXAN is to horror, using a factual basis as pretext for as many startling images as possible.

I also saw Jessie, a volunteer who mentioned that she never makes it into the videos about Bo’ness, so I thought I’d give her some publicity here.

DSC_0241

Just time maybe to comment on the new ending of MY WIFE’S RELATIONS. The original cut fizzled out with Buster battling his in-laws in their newly acquired mansion, then swiftly cut to him on the back of a sleeper car — a favourite escape ending. This time the train is the Reno Express, so a quickie divorce is intimated. As a final shot it’s perfect, but the film doesn’t seem to get as there. A colossal ellipse gapes, not entirely complete-able by the imagination.

This new ending gets Buster out the house at least, but then the film simply stops, sans resolution. It’s absolutely clear to me that the two endings must be combined — Buster escapes the house AND boards the train. Then you got an ending. I’m even wondering, based on another error in the restoration involving the Polish intertitles (don’t ask), whether a combined ending was intended and then overlooked. Such blunders do happen — I saw several in Bologna involving restored Chaplin shorts which were still works-in-progress.

vlcsnap-2016-03-20-10h54m35s74

More on the rest of these soon. I’m in the edit today! If I’m VERY lucky and efficient I might make it to STELLA DALLAS (1925) this evening.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 719 other followers