Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Blacksmith, The Frozen North & The Electric House (all 1922)

The Blacksmith (1922)
Directed by:  Buster Keaton & Mal St. Clair.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Mal. St. Clair.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Blacksmith's Assistant), Virginia Fox (Horsewoman), Joe Roberts (Blacksmith).

The Blacksmith is an agreeable two reeler from the start – with a series of very funny gags that feature Keaton an inept blacksmith’s assistant who is constantly screwing up. There is nothing wrong with the film at all – every scene in it works. I don’t think it rises to the level of genius, but neither does it ever drag or become repetitive like some of Keaton’s lesser shorts. It falls pretty much squarely in the middle.

One of the best gags in the film is the first – an intertitle card gives us the quote "Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands” from a famous poem by Longfellow – cut to Keaton standing calming, resting against a tree – the camera slowly tilts up to show how ridiculously tall the tree is, and how small Keaton is by comparison. Throughout the film, Keaton will try to do his job as best he can – and constantly screwing up, much to the anger of his boss (Joe Roberts, of course). Another classic cartoon gag may well have begun here –as Keaton first stands with one foot, then the other and finally falls on his butt on top of a burning hot horseshoe, so he has to submerge himself in a tub of water to cool off.

Perhaps the funniest gag in the movie involves a woman who brings her house in to be shoed. Keaton treats the horse like a human customer in a shoe store, bring down one pair after another off the rack (which he gets to on one of those sliding ladders). The horse proves to be a particularly hard to please client. Later, when Keaton has to work on a Rolls Royce (the blacksmith shop doubles as a mechanic) – he comes up with an ingenious way to jack the car up – using a balloon (the end result isn’t good).

Is there anything particularly inspired about The Blacksmith? Not really. If you saw this film by itself, you may not guess that Keaton was a comedic genius. It is a by the numbers films to be sure. But it is also consistently funny from start to finish, with a few inspired gags – and the comic pace doesn’t lag. It isn’t vintage Keaton – but it’s still very good.

The Frozen North (1922)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Bad Man), Joe Roberts (The Driver), Sybil Seely (The Wife), Bonnie Hill (The Pretty Neighbor), Freeman Wood (The Neighbor's Husband), Edward F. Cline (The Janitor).

Perhaps The Frozen North played better to audiences in 1922 than it does today – audiences then would have gotten all of Keaton’s references that I didn’t realize were references until after I saw the film. In the film, Keaton is satirizing the Westerns of William S. Hart – a famed actor at the time, and one of the people who was openly critical of Keaton’s friend and mentor Fatty Arbuckle during his trial. The Frozen North took Hart’s typical good guy persona – and mannerisms (the way he flips his cigarette, his two gun shooting style, his overly melodramatic crying) and turns him into a bad guy. Keaton even uses a cutout of Hart in his failed attempt at a saloon robbery. Needless to say, Hart was not amused.

The Frozen North is dark by Keaton standards. He plays a bad guy who at various times tries to rob a saloon, murders a kissing couple (by accident – he thought it was his wife), dances with his wife’s unconscious body and at one moment, seems like a potential rapist (this sequence also contains Keaton’s hilarious impression of Erich von Stroheim).

The Frozen North has a few moments that are quite good, but overall, I found the movie to be inconsistent – both in terms of the quality of the gags, and the tone of the film. Keaton didn’t play characters this dark often – and for good reason – his character is usually a hard worker, honest but incompetent. Here, because he wanted to parody Hart, he plays a role outside his comfort zone – which can be freeing for an actor, but doesn’t seem to be for Keaton.

I’m not saying The Frozen North is bad – it has its moments, and I admire Keaton for stretching a little. But by leaving his comfort zone, I think he ran into some limitations. I also hate, that for at least the third time, he used a tired clich√© to end his film. There is a reason he didn’t play The Bad Guy very often, and The Frozen North shows us that reason.

The Electric House (1922)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Buster), Virginia Fox (The Millionaire's Daughter), Steve Murphy (Real Electrical Engineer), Joe Roberts (Millionaire).

Keaton loved gadgets and inventing new ways to do things. You can see this in many of his shorts, and perhaps nowhere as much as The Electric House. He plays a recent graduate of a “correspondent college” who gets his botany degree mixed up with another student’s Electrical Engineering degree – and ends up with a job “modernizing” Joe Roberts’ house – putting in all sort of electric gizmos and gadgets to make things “easier” – but which basically destroy the house. I can think of any number of Looney Toons cartoons where a similar thing happened – and I also thought of Jacques Tati’s brilliant Mon Oncle (1958) – with an absurdly modern house – while watching this short. Keaton’s, of course, is more destructive.

There are many inspired gags in this films – perhaps none more than the simple sight of Keaton trying, repeatedly, to walk up an downward going escalator (a gag George A. Romero used in Dawn of the Dead). It was apparently this contraption on which Keaton broke his ankle in 1921 when originally filming this movie (he started from scratch once his ankle healed). Keaton’s inventions are ingenious – a model train bringing out the supper dishes for example. Things get out of control when the real electrical engineer shows up, and starts messing with Keaton’s gadgets to make him look bad.

The Electric House is inspired from the moment Keaton’s starts showing his gadgets until it ends (a surprisingly dark ending, as Keaton tries to kill himself). The film never quite rises to the level of his truly brilliant shorts, but it comes close at times. Too bad the prologue – which featured Keaton’s real life mother, father and sister, is lost to the ages.

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