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Fetch!

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.

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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

A Horse of a Different Colour

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on April 14, 2012 by dcairns

I found another short directed by Buster Keaton at MGM (the first can be seen HERE). The little musicals he made are quite nice — in another universe one can imagine him working his way up the ranks as a jobbing director rather than as a jobbing actor, after the decline of his Hollywood stardom.

Of course, this lightweight thing doesn’t compare to the shorts he co-directed in the silent era, and it’s not quite as good as its companion film, STREAMLINED SWING, but it’s charming enough. The racial jokes aren’t too offensive (there are worse in SEVEN CHANCES and COLLEGE, and in the title of this post) and the Hollywood cameos are diverting — the best being Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards early on, the most evocative being Oliver Hardy. But “Babe” is part of a montage of stars captured in off-the-cuff, verité fashion, at the racetrack, maybe not even by Buster.

I’m also tickled to see Buster using the character name “Canfield” again. He’d used it as his character name in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR , and as the rival feuding family’s name in OUR HOSPITALITY. This third occurrence clinches SOMETHING — either the name had some personal significance for Buster, or it was just a lucky name, like Billy Wilder’s “Sheldrake”. Whatever the secret, the name’s inclusion strongly suggests that Buster not only directed but wrote or co-wrote, uncredited, this little item.