Archive for Joe 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: Anti Bellum!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by dcairns

Thursday evening was wild — we’d booked seats for Buster Keaton’s OUR HOSPITALITY at the historic Cameo Cinema (as featured in Chomet’s THE ILLUSIONIST) at 7, and then belatedly found out that, after initially being rejected, we had, after all, been granted free tickets (as part of a promotion for Grolsch beer and Little White Lies magazine) free tickets to see SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, at 8. Depending on projection speed, OUR HOSPITALITY is about an hour and ten minutes long. It looked dicey.

Fortunately, I realized that both films were playing in the same auditorium, so unless they intended to project the first ten minutes of SCOTT P on top of the last ten minutes of OUR HOSPITALITY, it looked like we were OK. And while, yes, I agree that would have been interesting, I’m glad they adopted the more traditional one-film-at-a-time approach.

Neil Brand on the piano — live! Fully amplified, and making a dramatic racket to simulate the onscreen thunderstorm in Scene One. I’ve seen solo piano accompaniments before, but none as effective as this at the serious bits. I once saw NOSFERATU with a pianist who made it seem funny and quaint with his tinkly counterpoint, and wondered whether a single instrument could do justice to a more serious tale. Now I’m itching to hear Brand’s take on Murnau.

This was ideal musical treatment, melodic at times, percussive at others, standing in for absent sound effects but in a discreet and elegant way. With the Edinburgh Festival raging outside, the audience wasn’t as big as I’d have liked, but the laughter still resounded at these eighty-year-old gags. Fortunately, despite the film’s deep south setting, Keaton eschews the racial caricaturing endemic to films of the time, so there’s nothing to greatly embarrass amid the pleasure. A joke about domestic violence (Buster intervenes to protect a battered wife, and she furiously drives him off with heavy blows, before proudly surrendering to her husband’s brutality once more) is certainly non-PC, but contains an uncomfortable kernel of psychological veracity.

I hadn’t actually seen a 35mm projection of this, Keaton’s second feature as (co-)director. My first big-screen viewing of SHERLOCK JNR had allowed me to appreciate the fine ensemble playing more (on TV, Keaton completely dominates). Since everyone save Keaton and a couple of locomotive workers (one played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, athletically kicking hats off tall men’s heads — a trick that once rendered Buster unconscious) is played straight here, that wasn’t the revelation this time, although I appreciated Natalie Talmadge (Keaton’s real-life wife) a little more.

What came over were the production design details, like the little brushes affixed to the front of the train (a working copy of Stephenson’s Rocket) to clear small obstacles from the track, which incidentally is also Henry Fonda’s job description in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. What was also noticeable was the storytelling style, which isn’t as refined as it would later become. While it’s fascinating to see Keaton shoot the melodramatic opening in a serious manner, he hasn’t quite reached the minimalist perfection of his coverage of THE GENERAL. Richard Lester said of that film, “You can’t take a single thing from it.” Every shot is absolutely essential to the scene it’s in, and every scene essential to the plot. This theoretically means that if a single shot hadn’t worked, the film would be fatally flawed… based on this assessment, THE GENERAL may be one of the very few objectively perfect films, in terms of construction at least.

OUR HOSPITALITY doesn’t aim for such economy and precision. When Natalie is introduced, her dog, who has no narrative function whatsoever, gets a length closeup. When Buster goes for a ride on his bike, there are numerous shots of him running along astride it. The later Keaton would have settle for one. But these “flaws” are so charming they can hardly be objected to. They merely characterise the film as a more loose and rough-edged production than the “so real it hurts” detail of THE GENERAL.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 721 other followers