Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Haunted House, Hard Luck & The High Sign (all 1921)

The Haunted House (1921)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Bank Clerk), Virginia Fox (Bank President's Daughter), Joe Roberts (Bank Cashier), Edward F. Cline (Customer in Bank ).

As with most of Keaton’s shorts, 1921’s The Haunted House is a series of gags – some of which work better than others. The film is pretty neatly cut into two halves – the first which has Keaton as an inept bank clerk, who is duped by some counterfeiters (who have a house nearby that they have made the locals think is haunted to keep them away) – but that’s really just there to set up the film’s second half. Most of the first 10 minutes involve Keaton’s adventures with glue, which he basically spills all over everything. Insanity ensures, as Keaton sticks to everything in his the bank – and soon the customers are getting stuck as well. The sequence starts off as inspired lunacy, but after a while, it does start to grow a bit thin – as Keaton starts repeating himself. Thankfully, the film’s second half is better. The police, and the bank president, think that Keaton is responsible for the counterfeit money – so he goes on the run – and ends up – you guessed it – in the haunted house. To make matters more confusing, the cast of a reviled version of Faust is also hiding out from the angry audience in the same house – which is now full of people in ghost and (creepily convincing) skeleton costumes – and a strange man dressed as the devil, who is scared of all of them.

This sequence is remembered mainly for the running gag involving a staircase that can become a slide – that Keaton repeatedly (probably once or twice too many to be honest) slides down, until he finally figures it out. Those sequences, like the glue in the first half, probably go on a little long, but they still work. Even funnier to be is Keaton’s numerous run-ins with the various ghost and skeletons – especially after he figures out they’re not real, and starts messing with them (Keaton does break his Stone Face a few times in fright before he figures it out).

The Haunted House doesn’t come close to Keaton’s best work. It’s basically a two jokes film, and while it’s only twenty minutes long, both jokes are repeated a few too many times – as if Keaton needed to pad the runtime. He also uses the same (hated) clich├ęd ending that Convict 13 had – although it didn’t bother me as much this time – but it does seem like a crutch for Keaton. When he didn’t know how to wrap everything up, just make it all a dream. It’s not bad – we weren’t watching for the plot anyway.

Hard Luck (1921)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Suicidal Boy), Virginia Fox (Virginia), Joe Roberts (Lizard Lip Luke).

Hard Luck was reportedly one of Keaton’s favorite short films – that for more than 60 years was feared lost. Luckily for us, a nearly complete version was founded and restored in the early 2000s. Unluckily for us, it does not include the final gag of the film that Keaton insisted out the biggest laugh of all his gags – with only a description and a single still surviving. It’s better than nothing.

As it stands, the films best sequence is it’s first – as Keaton plays a depressed man, who has no job, no money, no girl – so he decides to kill himself. In all honesty, I wish the entire 20 minutes was just Keaton trying, and failing, to find ways to do himself in – as his attempts are hilarious. Normally, Keaton plays a character beset on all sides by a world that seems against him – but he soldiers on anyway – which I guess describes his character here as well. He will not be deterred from his desire to end his life.

At some point though, perhaps fearing 20 minutes of attempted suicides would be too much, Keaton switches gears. He gets hired to track down an armadillo for a zoo – that apparently has every other kind of animal. This leads Keaton out to the wild – the best sequence of which has him fishing. He catches a small fish, and decides to use it for bait to catch a bigger one – and then does the same thing again and again until the fish becomes ridiculously big – and he tries one time too often.

He gives up his hunt when he comes across a country club instead. He has his eyes set on Virginia Fox – who invites him on a fox hunt – that Keaton cannot find. Eventually, he has to save everyone from a gang of thieves (and potential rapists – a surprisingly dark turn) – but get spurned yet again. This sets up Keaton’s brilliant final gag (the missing one) – when he missing the pool from the dive dead and leaves a crater in the earth – emerging years later with a surprise.

Hard Luck is at its best in the first sequence as Keaton tries to kill himself. The rest of the movie is lighter – and enjoyable series of gags that don’t rank among Keaton’s best, but are certainly entertaining. I wish the final gag was still intact – if it were, I think Hard Luck may rank higher among Keaton’s shorts. As it stands, it’s somewhere in the middle of the pack – enjoyable from start to finish, with a few moments of inspired brilliance mixed in.

The High Sign (1921)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Our Hero), Bartine Burkett  (Miss Nickelnurser), Charles Dorety (Gang member), Ingram B. Pickett (Tiny Tim), Al St. John (Man on beach during target practice).

The High Sign was apparently the first short that Keaton directed himself, but he was unhappy with the result, so he released the second – the masterwork One Week – first, and held on The High Sign until the following year. While it’s true that The High Sign isn’t among Keaton’s best work – and he was probably wise to ensure his first outing was great – it’s hardly a bad film at all.

The film stars Buster as a man we first see unfolding the newspaper (which becomes ridiculously large) as he looks for a new job. He finds one – as a sharpshooter at a shooting range, that only has one problem – he cannot shoot. He steals a cop’s gun (replacing with a banana) and then goes to the beach to practice. Whatever he aims at his misses – but he hits something else instead. He goes onto the shooting range anyway – and gets his job. Eventually, he’ll get two more jobs – as a member of the Blinking Buzzards gang, where he assigned to kill a rich man, and as a bodyguard for that very same rich man.

The High Sign is enjoyable for its entire 20 minute runtime. Narratively speaking, it’s one that actually flows a little more cleanly than many of Keaton’s short films – with one segment flowing into each other a little more naturally. What there isn’t much of is the jaw dropping stunts that Keaton is known for. The biggest set piece is a huge fight sequence with Keaton and the Blinking Buzzards fighting in the rich man’s house – which involves people falling out windows, through floors. It’s a little more slapsticky than much of Keaton’s work – but it works.

The High Sign is basically an enjoyable little film. I understand why Keaton decided to not use it as his first film released by himself. He wanted to show something that was a little more of himself – and The High Sign, although it has some elements that Keaton is known for, doesn’t reach the heights of something like One Week.

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