(YouTube Streaming, September 2019) I generally like Buster Keaton’s film, but even I have to admit that many of his movies are slow burns to great finales. Our Hospitality is a bit different in that it does have a few highlights to offer along the way to its big finish, perhaps the most fascinating being a mostly accurate rendition of the earliest railways. Even to those with only the mildest interest in railway technical development, this sequence seems almost impossibly folkloric, with open-air carriage wagons being used as railcars, and a track that can be moved at will. (We shouldn’t see this section as a documentary, but Keaton was a confirmed rail enthusiast and portions of what was built for the movie ended up in a museum.) Otherwise, Our Hospitality does have a solid story, as the survivor of a murderous family feud comes back to town to discover that he has fallen in love with the daughter of the rival clan. There’s drama enough to power the plot (there’s a seriously violent death and escape in the first few minutes of the film, setting up the rest), but the comic conceit comes from the other clan refusing to kill him while he’s in their house, leading to increasingly absurd situations. It all leads to some spectacular stunts later in the film, but at a more sustained pace than many other Keaton features. As a result, Our Hospitality remains one of his most steadily enjoyable movies, and a nice change of pace from some of his more urban-centred features.
(On Cable TV, September 2019) Now this is a curio on several levels. Keep in mind that The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was made at a time when sound cinema was just getting started: It was still considered a novelty, and it’s fair to say that Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with it exactly. A natural idea was to transpose a Broadway revue on-screen: let’s just have the stars walk in, do a bit of music, dance or comedy, record everything and string them along in a plotless experience. Why not? Such a thing would be strikingly inappropriate for the theatrical experience today now that televised variety shows and streaming options can bring the best of the world to our screens at any time, but back in 1929 it wasn’t just a good idea—the result was seriously considered for the first Academy Awards. Of course, there’s quite a cliff from concept to execution: what survives of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 ninety years later is very rough on a technical level: the top of the image seems cut off, the special effects are laughable, the muddy image is of low quality, low contrast and poor sound quality. The dance choreography has little of the polish that we’d see from Busby Berkeley even a few years later. But that it has survived at all is amazing—many movies of that time never made it to this day. It’s quite an experience to see what were, at the time, the studio’s biggest stars—while we still remember Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton (very funny in a small part), and the Laurel and Hardy duo, many of the other people on-screen have faded away in obscurity, known only to early-cinema aficionados. There are a few highlights: Jack Benny’s emceeing routines have their moments. There are a few funny comic routines (including one featuring Lon Chaney). Of the good musical numbers, one number featuring Queen’s Guards dancers is rather good. There’s an early version of “Singin’ in the Rain” (later quoted in the That’s Entertainment! series). Perhaps more strikingly, three very primitive colour sequences mark, I think, the first use of colour I’ve seen in a Hollywood film and it does add an extra dimension in the film. There’s something to be said about the value of such a document travelling through the ages, now available for endless digital copies. In many ways, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is a primitive form of time travel—what if you were sitting in the middle of the front row at the time’s hottest theatrical entertainment show?
(On Cable TV, September 2019) In the universe of sub-subgenres, the early-sixties beach party musical comedy is as weird and charming as it comes. The basic ingredients were a beach, a few teenagers, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (both here in secondary roles), silly bikers, songs, and as much dumb comedy as one can stand. The result is … oddly refreshing, especially when compared to far more serious material. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, sixth-of-seven movies in the series, features some magical nonsense headed by Buster Keaton in a supporting comic performance, staring at the screen after a particularly inane bit of dialogue saying “and that’s all the plot you’ll get from me.” Keaton, despite a somewhat racist role, is quite funny—probably funnier than the rest of the film, which is light and dumb and quite proud of it. The ending motorcycle race must be seen to be believed, since it blatantly uses terrible special effects (rear projection, sped-up film, footage running backwards) to portray simple safe stunts as dangerous as possible. Among the musical numbers, Harvey Lembeck gets a bit of a highlight with “Follow your Leader” as he temporarily abandons the biker image for a suit. The gender roles are terrible and that’s part of the film’s dated charm, forthright in what it tries to be. Both Keaton and the Beach Party series would end soon after How to Stuff a Wild Bikini—not exactly a high note, but not an embarrassment either.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) Part of the charm of Buster Keaton’s early productions is simply enjoying the flow of his films as they run from one imaginative set-piece to another, never minding the plot or the contrivances required to get there. So it is that with The Navigator, there’s quite a bit of plot business to attend to before landing our lead couple aboard a ship headed to nowhere, after which they learn to live at sea, repair the boat, land on an island filled with (what else?) bloodthirsty cannibals, and fend off their attempts to board the ship. It’s not quite top-notch Keaton, but there are some ideas here and some of the gags land solidly—whether it’s swordfish-to-swordfish combat, learning to cope with shipboard equipment or repelling attackers. An interesting moment, from a cinematographic perspective, has subtitles (in 1924! Yes!) to represent music in-time with a record playing. History notes that Keaton essentially bought the ship on which the film was shot (which had a cursed history of deporting Russians from America) and could do anything he wanted with it, up to sinking it if he wanted. The rest of the film was built around the prop. As a result, it doesn’t quite have the overarching plot of Keaton’s better films (the ending is noticeably weak), nor the grandiose over-the-top gags found in many of those same better movies, but even an average Keaton is still worth watching today.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) Comedy is a weird genre: what’s funny today may not feel as amusing decades later, or even with an entirely different audience. So it is that comparing Watch the Birdie soon after its silent-movie inspiration The Cameraman shows the difference between the dumb loquaciousness of Red Skelton’s humour in stark contrast with the smart physicality of Buster Keaton. The correspondence is very, very loose, of course: We’re talking about Watch the Birdie riffing from a bare-bones plot summary of The Cameraman, as a sympathetic gaffe-prone protagonist grabs a camera in an attempt to impress a love interest. But whereas Keaton could only count on gesticulation and title cards, Skelton starts talking over the beginning credits (the film’s funniest sequence, actually) and never stops. He plays three characters (the protagonist, his father and his grandfather), which is one too much—the father character never makes much of an impression, let alone becomes funny in his own right. His humour is hit or miss—he likes making funny faces and looking confused a lot, whereas I think that’s reaching for the dumbest, least subtle comedy there is. As a result, much of Watch the Birdie feels forced—I won’t deny that it has a few laughs (the ending sequence, featuring a car chase with a tall Hyster lumber loader, feels very Keatonesque which may be explained by Keaton being an uncredited advisor for the film), but much of it labours mightily through pratfalls and grimaces. The film feels too long even at 72 minutes, especially considering its structure of gags strung along a loose plot. On the other hand, my first reason for watching the film is justifiable: Ann Miller is not only gorgeous but quite funny as well as she plays an intentionally dumb beauty queen who gets knocked around by male and female characters alike. I take it that Red Skelton did a lot of similar movies in the post-WW2 years, but that none of them are particularly well regarded today—indeed, I probably would have overlooked Watch the Birdie if it hadn’t been of its link to Keaton and Miller.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) There is definitely a slow-burn quality to Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, as the film shakes itself from a melodramatic first act (in which a young man must find a bride before the end of the day) all the way to an escalating chase sequence in which Keaton flees before hundreds of women in wedding gown, then a full-blown rock avalanche. The progression wasn’t in the early plans for the film—it’s at the audience preview stage that Keaton understood how to cap his film with its wild climax and went back to shooting in order to complete the film. Still, the result works. From the finer small-scale comic work of its first act, Seven Chances gradually works itself into more ludicrous sight gags, and then one of the great sequences of Keaton’s films in time for the finale. No, it’s not quite as inventive as Sherlock Jr., as demented as Steamboat Bill, Jr. or as finely controlled as The General, but it makes for a good second-tier Keaton feature, and those remain well worth seeing.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) At his peak, Buster Keaton was a timeless talent, and if The Cameraman is not exactly his finest or funniest film (that would be The General or Sherlock, Jr.), it’s still Keaton in top form, stringing physical gags along a decent-enough plot. Here, we have Keaton playing the kind of earnest but slightly clueless young man out to make a fortune and secure a wife by trying his luck at being a cameraman for MGM newsreels. Switching between courtship in 1920s Manhattan and the comic perils of being a cameraman in the middle of a gangster war, The Cameraman has a stream of physical gags, charming period details, and Keaton keeping a stone-face expression. The premise of the film was later reused for Red Skelton’s Watch the Birdie, but the original film remains the funniest version—no one could (or still can) outdo Keaton. For his fans, The Cameraman is also a bit of a sad junction in his career—his penultimate silent film, and the one where he started losing his independence as a filmmaker, never to return to the heights of his 1923–1928 zenith. Still, never mind that: The Cameraman is a reliably funny film, and one of the few 1920s productions that can still be enjoyed today without compromises.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) If you’re used to the classic Buster Keaton silent comedy films, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath will seem a bit odd, because it features … sound. Keaton’s career took a dive after the introduction of sound, but the declining factor was Keaton’s contract with MGM, not sound itself. Proof of Keaton’s ability to amuse with sound can occasionally be found in this bedroom farce that unusually features quite a bit of dialogue from Keaton, and a few brief moments of physical comedy. Even out of his comfort zone, Keaton proves up to the task of being a romantic comedy lead, but it does take a while for the film to get going: after a fairly dull start, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath does get funnier when Keaton gets back to his physical comedy roots. The train crossing shot, for instance, is pure classic Keaton. He even finds an able comic partner with the very tall Charlotte Greenwood—some of the hotel room sequences later in the film are an inspiring mixture of farce and Keaton pratfalls. Alas, it does lead to an abrupt and unsatisfying ending that takes away some of the fun that Parlor, Bedroom and Bath had been building up to that point. The pre-Code origin of the film is obvious from some bedroom farce material that, while tame by today’s standard, wouldn’t have passed muster throughout much of the Hays Code years. It’s not a Keaton classic, but it can be a lot of fun at times, and hearing Keaton talk is a thrill on its own.
(Hoopla Streaming, October 2018) When I consciously decided to explore older movies, I semi-arbitrarily set 1920 as my limit—I wouldn’t actively seek out any movie earlier than the 1920s, and even that was going a bit past my preferences given my lack of enthusiasm for silent cinema. But there are a few silent movie stars that I really, really like and Buster Keaton is high on that list, even beating out Charlie Chaplin. Films like Sherlock Jr. illustrate why some silent 1920s are well worth watching even today. The first half of the film is a bit messy, as a young man working as a movie theatre usher daydreams about being an ultracompetent detective. It’s a set-up for various gags and the slow accumulation of the plot’s bare-bones: The girl, her unpleasant suitor and the protagonist’s rich imagination. But then the second half of Sherlock Jr. comes by, and all the brakes come loose. Suddenly, it’s not just a great pool-table sequence; it’s a wildly imaginative trip through cinema by a hero entering the movie screen and it’s a terrific chase sequence that has us both laughing and grabbing our armrests. The special effects are still amazing, and so is the dreamlike logic of the film’s second half, abandoning strict realism for sight gags and an imaginative build-up taking advantage of movie magic and, crucially, the power of editing. The film is around 50 minutes long, and it sometimes feels even faster thanks to the pace of the editing. Keaton suffered for this film (not only was he severely injured on-set, but he also experienced the failure of the film’s then-modest commercial and critical success) but the results more than speak for themselves. Sherlock Jr. is still a wild ride and a literal joy to watch.
(On TV, October 2018) One of the pleasures of going deep in cinema history is finally encountering the progenitor of a particular gag. So it is that Steamboat Bill, Jr. is where the original classic “building façade fall on a person who survives unscathed thanks to an open window” joke comes from. It happens late in the film, in the middle of a particularly frantic sequence in which a small town is destroyed by a cyclone. That final act is something spectacular, with Keaton (who also helped write and direct the film) using all the means at his disposal for a still-inventive number of comic gags and spectacular sequences set in the heart of a catastrophe. Much of Steamboat Bill, Jr. until that point is a fairly dull affair with a plot about a disappointing son, a steamboat-crossed romance and small-town competition. Then the cyclone lands and suddenly the film finds its way, producing one gag after another. The film is now freely available from its Wikipedia page in decent quality.
(On TV, June 2018) Never ask me to choose between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, because you’re going to see the Tramp being thrown overboard. Chaplin’s highs are higher (The Great Dictator and Modern Times outclass nearly everything that Keaton has done), but for a consistent laugh-for-laugh basis, Keaton is the one I prefer. This is a weird thing to talk about in discussing The General, because compared to many of Keaton’s features (say, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sherlock Jr.), it’s a far less funny film: the jokes aren’t that prevalent, and Keaton gets less to do on a physical comedy basis. But The General proves that Keaton could deliver a sustained feature-length picture that held together as a story rather than a series of gags: Here we have a Civil-War-era train engineer who, through a set of circumstances, finds himself chasing another train across enemy lines to retrieve his beloved, and then being chased back by another train. The film’s standout sequence is a shot in which an actual multi-ton train crashes down a river when it tries crossing a burning bridge—and it was shot for real, with no miniatures whatsoever. Recognized as the single most expensive silent movie shot (costing roughly half a million in today’s dollars), it’s a spectacular piece of cinema even ninety-some years later. The film itself isn’t as spectacular, but the hunter/hunted structure works well (and doesn’t have any later imitators) and there is a very funny joke late in the film when the rescued damsel decides to be picky about which bit of wood to put in the train furnace. The General is still well worth a look—but do try to find a high-quality version of the film in order to enjoy the details of the picture.