Monday, October 17, 2011

Project Keaton: “How about a little dinner and a show?”

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to Project Keaton—a tribute to the man I truly believe was the greatest motion picture comedian in the history of cinema.  The project was instituted at The Kitty Packard Pictorial in recognition of Buster’s 118th birthday on October 4th, a new Kino DVD release of his classic silent two-reel comedies and being chosen as Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month for October.

By the end of the 1930s, the form of motion picture entertainment known as the two-reel comedy was pretty much on life support.  Granted, R-K-O was still making shorts, with the likes of Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol, and both Warner Bros. and M-G-M dabbled in short subjects though they preferred the one-reel variety (M-G-M with the Our Gang, Pete Smith and Robert Benchley comedies).  But the studio that had established itself as the heir to the kind of two-reel entertainment made famous by such comedy producers as Mack Sennett and Hal Roach was Columbia, which under the supervision of department head Jules White continued the slapstick comedy tradition with such stars as Andy Clyde and the Three Stooges.

White hired many of the creative minds behind those classic comedies of the 20s and 30s to work at Columbia; for example, he found one of Mack Sennett’s best directors, Del Lord, languishing in retirement as a car salesman…and hired him on the spot (Lord, considered by Mack to be one of “the masters,” would later work magic with many of the Columbia funsters).  Other veteran directors hired by White included Arthur Ripley and Harry Edwards, while the writing pool was made up of talents like Clyde Bruckman, Felix Adler and Al Geibler.  Jules was also able to poach comedians from other studios, most notably the Stooges (who had split with Ted Healy and were no longer working at M-G-M) and Clyde (who had once been Sennett’s biggest star for a period of time).  He signed former silent comedy great Harry Langdon to a Columbia contract in 1934, and obtained the services of Charley Chase in 1937 after Chase was let go by Hal Roach. 

White’s hiring of Clyde Bruckman (who had once worked for the likes of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields, to name just a few) would actually lead to his landing Keaton to work on the Columbia lot; Bruckman approached Jules one day and told him that Buster wasn’t working but that it would be possible to get him for something not costing an arm and a leg.  The three men met in White’s office and not long after that, Keaton was on the Columbia payroll.  Buster, whose stock in the industry had plummeted since his silent movie classics (due to personal and professional troubles that led to a nasty bout with alcoholism), had headlined a number of two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures between 1934 and 1937 but his short stint at Columbia (in which he made ten comedies from 1939-41) would be the last time he starred in any series for a motion picture studio.

Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, the authors of the invaluable reference book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, acknowledge that “Buster Keaton was undoubtedly the greatest comedy talent to work for Columbia” but are also careful to point out that the “shorts are the worst comedies he ever appeared in.”  I flatly refuse to agree with this assessment, and I’ll be more than happy to tell you why.  I’ll concede that Buster’s Columbia output can’t even begin to compare with—and in fact, probably shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as—his classic silent comedies.  But when I was in my formative years as a young couch potato, a TV station in Charleston, WV showcased a package of the Columbia shorts (titled The Hilarious Hundred—which was a bit of a misnomer in that there were two hundred shorts in the package) along with the popular comedies featuring the Stooges, and that was my first exposure to Buster Keaton.

The most vivid memory I retained from my childhood was seeing Buster dressed up in bizarre costumes running back and forth to a boat, and when he would try to run off the boat he ended up in the drink, with two men dressed as sailors attempting to fish him out.  It wasn’t until the 1980s when I purchased a number of the Columbia comedies on VHS from a dealer in Tennessee that it all came flooding back to me…and that what I was remembering was Buster’s first effort for the studio, Pest from the West (1939).  It’s considered by most Keaton fans to be the best two-reeler he made at Columbia; a funny outing in which he attempts to woo a Mexican senorita (Lorna Grey, aka Adrian Booth) despite risking the wrath of her jealous employer (Gino Corrado).  The falling-in-the-water gag was a recurring bit in the short where Buster’s millionaire intends to pay for some cigarettes he’s purchased from Lorna but, forgetting his wallet, keeps rushing back to get the money…and when the two men (Ned Glass, Eddie Laughton) in his employ see him tearing back to the boat they assume he’s on the run from a jealous husband and make every effort to set sail…resulting in a thorough soaking of the hapless Keaton.

Pest from the West is a condensed version of a feature film Keaton made in 1935, The Invader (aka An Old Spanish Custom), and the highlight of Pest is a sequence in which Buster attempts to serenade lady love Lorna by singing In a Little Spanish Town and playing the ukulele as accompaniment.  Alas, our hero is under the wrong window—and above is a cranky Bud Jamison who objects to Keaton’s repeated interrupting of his siesta with his musical interlude…so he periodically pelts Buster with pieces of fruit and crockery, adding comic  punctuation to certain moments in his rendition.  The scene never fails to break me up, and Pest is one of my favorite outings of the comedian; he has this line in the short that he delivers to Grey in that wonderful baritone croak of his (“That’s darn nice of ya…”) that I use to this very day.

Pest, which could be considered the “pilot” for Keaton’s series at Columbia, had a bit more budget and polish than the usual two-reeler from the studio…unfortunately, the remaining nine shorts that followed can’t quite match it for laughs and/or inventiveness.  Though both Keaton and Columbia comedy department head Jules White were members in good standing in the Church of Physical Comedy, the two men diverged wildly in their devotion to the slapstick arts.  White hailed from the “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” school of slapstick; his comedies have an uncomfortable violent streak that on occasion tends to mar one’s enjoyment of potentially funny films.  Keaton’s style of physical comedy was much more nuanced and cerebral…and did not mesh well at all with White’s roughhouse approach, which was far more suited to the studio’s bread-and-butterers, the Three Stooges.  (White’s philosophy of comedy direction was simply “make those pictures move so fast that even if the gags didn’t work, the audiences wouldn’t get bored.”  Keaton believed that the most important thing was structuring the comedy so the audience wouldn’t be restless regardless of the film’s pace.)

The key to enjoying Buster’s Columbia work is finding those moments (described by one film critic as “a whisper”) where there is but the briefest glimpse of some of the master’s old magic.  There are other watchable shorts in Keaton’s Columbia canon, don’t get me wrong—I think Pardon My Berth Marks (1940) is a lot of fun; an entertaining outing in which Buster plays cub reporter by trying to get the goods on a notorious gangster (Richard Fiske) but winds up wreaking havoc on a moving train bound for Reno with the gangster’s wife (Dorothy Appleby).  (As entertaining as Berth Marks is, it worked even better when the studio remade it in 1947 as a vehicle for announcer Harry Von Zell, Rolling Down to Reno.)  Some of Berth Marks’ early sequences involving Buster and irascible editor Vernon Dent are very funny, and there are also some first-rate gags on the train as well.

Nothing But Pleasure (1940) is another good Keaton offering; Buster and Dorothy (she’s his wife in this one) are driving their new car back from Detroit and encounter a misadventure or two along the way.  Writer Bruckman revamped a well-known sequence from W.C. Fields’ Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) in a funny bit involving Buster and a traffic cop (Bud Jamison again), and there are echoes of Keaton’s Spite Marriage (1929) in another scene where Buster has his hands full dealing with a woman (Beatrice Blinn) who’s invaded his cabin and is completely spiffed.  She’s Oil Mine (1941), the last of the Keaton Columbias, delightfully reworks Keaton’s M-G-M feature The Passionate Plumber (1932) but contains some newly inventive gags (the sequence in Buster and partner Monty Collins’ workshop is hysterical) and highlights a routine that Keaton later used in his extensive touring of circuses in the 1940s, “A Duel to the Death.”

General Nuisance (1941), the penultimate Keaton Columbia comedy, features one of the most entertaining sequences in any of the studio’s two-reelers in which Buster (whose character's name, "Peter Hedley Lamar, Jr.," may have inspired Mel Brooks to borrow part of it for his Blazing Saddles villain) and “leading lady” Elsie Ames do a wonderful musical slapstick duet (anytime you see a musical number in a Columbia comedy it’s cause for celebration).  Ames, a talented acrobat whose acting talent was miniscule (not to mention obnoxious) at best, was featured in about half of Keaton’s two-reelers beginning with 1940’s The Taming of the Snood—an abysmal comedy rescued by a routine in which the two of them perform some breathtaking antics on a table that harkens back to the act Buster did in vaudeville with his mother and father.  The nadir of Buster’s Columbia comedies is considered by many to be The Spook Speaks (1940) (though to be honest, I dislike His Ex Marks the Spot [1940] even more), simply because “scare comedy” simply wasn’t Buster’s forte—and yet oddly on its initial release, audiences were quite taken with Speaks…according to film historian Ed Watz.

She’s Oil Mine also scored a hit with movie audiences, and White wanted to sign Buster to an extended contract at the studio but he vowed “not to make another crummy two-reeler” and he was good as his word.  But as I previously mentioned, I grew up watching those “crummy” two-reelers and immediately became a big fan of the Great Stone Face.  I didn’t get to see Keaton’s classic silent two-reelers and features until the 1990s (save for The General [1926], which I saw on public TV in 1975)…so if watching what so many consider the worst films of his career spurred me on to seek out his more critically-lauded work—how bad could the comedies be?  (And it wasn’t just Keaton; I developed an affinity for Harry Langdon and Charley Chase through their Columbia shorts, too.)

Keaton fans can judge for themselves because in March 2006 Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released all ten of Buster’s Columbia two-reel comedies in a “65th Anniversary” DVD collection—the first time the company ever issued any of their classic short comedies in anything other than DVD paeans to the Three Stooges.  The shorts are accompanied by commentaries from historians Watz, David Weedle and Patricia Tobias (in tandem with her hubby, Joe Adamson), plus there’s an interesting featurette (Buster Keaton: From Silents to Shorts) and a reproduction of the script for She’s Oil Mine.  According to the grapevine, the sales of the set impressed many of the PTB at Sony and until the economy went into a tailspin there were plans to release a set of Charley Chase’s Columbia two-reelers (boo economy!).

In The Columbia Comedy Shorts, Watz and his collaborator Ted Okuda observe: “While these shorts invariably disappoint, they’re important as Keaton’s final starring series for any movie studio.  Like his later television work and Beach Party epics, these films are worth a look only because he’s in them.”  I’m probably a little sloppier with sentiment than Ed and Ted; these ten two-reelers allowed a young boy from the hills of West Virginia to see the comedic brilliance that was Buster Keaton…and because of them, they will always occupy a special place in my heart.

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Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Fantastic piece, Ivan. I've not seen most of those Keaton short subjects, but what a swell job you've done selling them. I agree he was the best comedian. His intelligent understanding of human nature was as big a part of it as his astounding athletic abilities.

Caftan Woman said...

You have piqued my interest in a part of Buster's career I hadn't delved into before. You're right of course, if Buster is involved, how bad could it be?

Kevin Deany said...

That was a fabulous piece, Ivan. I wasn't familiar with any Columbia shorts outside of the Stooges, so when I purchased the Keaton set I was surprised to hear all those famous sounds effects I knew from the Stooges shorts show up in the Keaton ones.

I've also heard the rumors about the Charley Chase shorts set, and hope it sees a release one day.