One of the most impressive people I met in Pordenone, which was full of impressive people, was Fernando Pena, who discovered the lost footage of METROPOLIS. Yet “impressive” doesn’t seem the right word for someone so approachable and modest. Fernando portrays himself as a very lucky man, rather than as the skilled archivist he clearly is.
Having assumed that the near-complete METROPOLIS would forever remain the reigning highlight of his career, Fernando was stunned to find himself in possession of an undiscovered alternative version of Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH, purchased on 9.5mm off eBay by a friend. He told Serge Bromberg at Lobster Films, who checked his own holdings, and found a matching version in 35mm which he’d had for twenty years without checking. Bromberg is another modest guy, who tells this story against himself, knowing that film fans will still rightly love him for turning up this treasure. Or, if not modest, certainly honest. Not all the rediscoveries at Pordenone were presented so frankly.
So what does the alternate cut consist of? To help us compare, the festival screened the familiar version a couple of days before the premiere of Pena’s discovery. And to spice things up, they screened it with a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who provided a narration and did all the voices. Suddenly Big Joe Roberts sounded like Toshiro Mifune. It transformed the film, which I’d never particularly admired (it’s very funny, just not particularly strong by Keaton standards – in the bottom 10% of his shorts, I’d place it), and gave it a whole new energy, as well as allowing us to see it as a Japanese audience might have (if Keaton’s films screened in Japan, about which I have no idea.)
Then came the new version, which the catalogue suggested was probably the first cut, trimmed after poor reviews and disappointing audience response. But the story has since changed, and now Serge reckons the new version is actually Keaton’s preferred cut.
What’s different? Well, the only major action not included in this new cut is a sequence where Buster the blacksmith gets oily hand-prints all over a white horse. This gag, prefiguring a very similar moment where he gets oily handprints all over a white Rolls Royce (possibly the one gifted to him by his in-laws as a wedding present, suggesting that Keaton’s marriage never stood much of a chance), always seemed to make the film rather repetitive. The complete destruction of the limo is far more effective than the mere soiling of the mare, but lost some of its impact because the equine skit came right before it.
Instead, the film adds five minutes of exterior action, in which Keaton interacts with his nemesis, the big blacksmith, and woos the leading lady, whose status as romantic interest is extremely perfunctory in the familiar version. In other words, we get plot. Where the familiar BLACKSMITH is a string of variable and repetitive gags, this newly found one is a string of excellent and fresh gags arranged into a story. It fulfils the expectations we normally have for a Keaton short, in other words.
One gag, in which Big Joe Roberts chases Buster through and around a small house, interrupting his attempts to propose to the girl he’s just met (OK, the romance is still kind of perfunctory, but now it works), until Buster finally locks both doors with *** on the inside, looked familiar – Keaton reused it somewhere, I’m sure, but I can’t think where. Somebody out there must know. If he DID find a home for it, that would suggest that he was at least aware that it was cut here, but still liked it.
The best new gags are (1) a chase where Buster attempts to commandeer a roadster, only to discover it’s just a wooden mockup erected for advertising purposes. He gets in anyway, sitting on a plank, and posing in profile becomes a part of the advertisement, exploiting his wooden Indian facial immobility of legend. *** is suspicious all the same, and all the more so when Buster suddenly shoots out of frame right – the plank he’d sat on was actually part of a load of timber on the back of an offscreen truck, which has now departed.
And (2) another part of the chase where Buster and *** are distracted by the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a blind, and abandon their pursuit in reverent peeping. The light is switched off as the woman gets down to her slip, and the chase is on again. Interestingly, Serge told us this scene was present only in the Lobster print, since the 9.5mm format was intended for home viewing, which meant family audiences had to be considered more, and so the Argentinian print had been censored.
It’s a great find – THE BLACKSMITH now belongs securely in the top 50% of Keaton shorts, maybe the top third. It’s certainly a stronger film than it was. A wonderful find for Fernando, who has long been a great Keaton fan. In fact, he was interested to hear I’d been talking to Richard Lester, since he wrote to the Great Man some years ago when he was researching a planned book on B.K, and received a generous reply. He was glad to hear Mr. Lester is well, and we agreed that he’s a very gracious fellow.
Sadly, Fernando’s friend who bought the print in the first place is very ill and couldn’t attend the screening. We gave him a round of applause in absentia which hopefully traveled around the world to him.