Friday, June 6, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: One Week, Convict 13, The Scarecrow, Neighbors (all 1920)

One Week (1920)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Groom), Sybil Seely (The Bride), Joe Roberts (Piano Mover).

One Week is Keaton’s first real movie – and one of his greatest shorts. Keaton stars as a young man who has just gotten married – and after a brief car chase (included a dangerous looking motorcycle stunt, where Keaton is straddling two cars, when a motorcycle drives between them, taking him along with it), they arrive at their “new home” – purchased for them by his uncle. To Keaton’s surprise, it’s not a home – yet. Just a bunch of numbered boxes that he has to assemble himself – being careful not to mix up the order of the box. His previous rival for his wife’s affection, re-numbers the boxes on Keaton – and the resulting house is a hilariously crooked mess. When a storm hits, the house spins around on the ground – and eventually Keaton will find out that he actually built the house on the wrong side of the street and has to move it. Amazingly, there is no model work in the film. Keaton actually built the house on a turntable so it could spin. And he and his wife really are trying to push the house across the street.

The film is the first time we really get to see Keaton doing what he does best. Keaton’s great Stone Face is on full display here – as he takes every mounting disaster in stride, and tries to make the best of it. The film is full of Keaton’s patent slapstick – including a moment when he runs out of a bathroom door and falls two stories (one of the only times he actually hurt himself making a movie). There is also an amazing sequence where one of the walls of the house starts spinning – and will eventually fall – which would result in Keaton being crushed, except of course, that Keaton happens to be standing right where the window is (Keaton would reuse this now infamous gag in Steamboat Bill Jr).

What One Week makes clear is right from the beginning, Keaton knew what types of films he wanted to make. He would continue to hone his skills, and his gags, throughout his career, but One Week still stands as one of his best two reelers – a film that packs more laughs, and jaw dropping stunts, than most feature comedies do today. In short, it’s a short masterwork by Keaton.

Convict 13 (1920)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Golfer Turned Prisoner, Guard), Sybil Seely (Socialite, Warden's Daughter), Joe Roberts (The Crazed Prisoner), Edward F. Cline (Hangman), Joe Keaton (Prisoner).

One Week showed Keaton at his best, but his follow-up, Convict 13, is one of his more lackluster shorts – a two
reeler with a few good sight gags, that nevertheless never really achieves the comic momentum needed to make it a truly memorable film. The film is contrived (including a clichéd ending that was already a tired cliché in 1920) Рbut it does have its moments.

In the film, Keaton stars as a golfer, trying desperately hard to impress Sybil Seely – despite the fact that he’s awful at the game. When he hits a ball off a building, and it ricochets back into his head, he gets knocked unconscious. An escaped convict, lurking nearby, takes the opportunity to switch clothes with Keaton – who is surprised when he wakes up and tries to continue his golf game, and finds himself being chased by police. He thinks he has escaped – only to discover he’s actually locked himself in the prison they want to take him to.

The film contains a lot more lowbrow, slapstick humor than most of Keaton’s work. Instead of elaborately staged stunts, we get a lot of people being smacked in the head by mallets and falling down. Even the big comic set piece – where Keaton is supposed to be hanged, only to discover the rope has been replaced by an elastic exercise band by Seely (who had tried to convince her father, the warden, not to execute Keaton) – resulting not in Keaton being hanged, but bouncing around like a dummy (which the person at the end of the rope clearly is) – feels phony and more staged than most of Keaton’s best gags. The prison riot that ends the film – and has Keaton, now dressed as a guard (the result of another knockout) foiling it – is almost cruelly violent, full of people getting shot, and convicts gathering around a fallen guard and beating with hammers. It’s hard to laugh at that one.

The best moments then are the small ones – including the priceless look on Keaton’s face when he realizes he has locked himself inside the prison. A few moments of him playing golf at the beginning were also quite funny. But overall Convict 13 feels like a cruder Keaton vehicle than normal – one that is somewhat beneath him.

The Scarecrow (1920)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Farmhand), Joe Roberts (Farmhand), Sybil Seely (Farmer's Daughter), Edward F. Cline (Hit-and-Run Truck Driver), Joe Keaton (Farmer), Al St. John (Man with Motorbike).

Buster’s Keaton’s genius for invention is on full display for the first half of The Scarecrow. Along with frequent co-star, Joe Roberts, Keaton plays a farmhand and shares a house with Roberts. When the pair sit down for breakfast, they bring down a series of pulleys from the ceiling that allows them to get whatever they need for their meal. If you need something from the fridge – no problem, the pulleys will do it. When they finish, everything packs away nicely out of sight. The sequence is not all one unbroken take (I imagine that would have been too hard to pull off) – but the takes are still fairly long, meticulously choreographed and ingenious. Watching Keaton’s films is often like playing spot the reference to later films – and here, I couldn’t help but the elaborate system that Aardman’s Wallace & Grommet have in their home.

As is often the case, even in a two reeler like this, The Scarecrow has a bare bones plot that ties together a series of gags. The elaborately constructed kitchen set is the best – and most famous – of the gags Keaton does in the film, but there is more here than just that. Perhaps the sequence where a mad dog chases Keaton around goes on a little too long, but it’s still hilarious. While Keaton (deservingly) always gets credit for his daring in making his films, how about some love for the dog – who climbs a ladder, and chases Keaton around atop the not very wide walls of a dilapidated structure. The sequence also allows Keaton to get another few laughs out of his ridiculously outfitted house.

It’s only near the end that the romantic plot of the movie comes out – as Keaton and Roberts are both in love with the farmer’s daughter (Sybil Seely again). It’s in a scene here that the film gets its name – as Keaton disguises himself as a scarecrow, which makes it easier for him to turn his rivals against each other.

The sequence in the house – especially at breakfast – is as ingenious and inventive as anything Keaton has ever done in his shorts. The rest of the film cannot really reach the same level – it’s more standard issue Keaton craziness – which is still hilarious. Overall, the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of Keaton’s best shorts – but it comes damn close.

Neighbors (1920)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Boy), Virginia Fox (The Girl), Joe Roberts (Her Father), Joe Keaton (His Father), Edward F. Cline (The Cop).

Neighbors shows Keaton at his most inventive and daring. The story is typical Keaton – he plays an earnest young man in love with the girl who lives on the other side of the fence from him. Their parents hate each other though, and they are forbidden from seeing each other – a love note that gets passed back and forth, so at one point one of each sets of parents thinks the other is cheating on them doesn’t help matters. So Keaton takes matters into his own hands – and tries to rescue the girl from the hands of her brutish father.

The best gags in Neighbors revolve around Keaton on a clothesline that runs between the two houses. In the films best gag, Keaton thinks he has escaped the grasp of the girl’s father when he flings himself out the window onto the clothesline to take him safely to his house – only to realize the clothesline spins around and lands him right back in danger (this is of what is known as the Keaton curve – where Keaton thinks he has escaped, but ends up right back where he started from – he does it a lot in his films). Keaton’s precise framing of the clothes line gags is brilliant – allowing him to do the stunts with no need of cutting, which makes them all the more impressive.

Another great gag has three men, each on another shoulders, walking from Keaton’s house to the neighbors – and each leaping into another window to hide from her father – and eventually escaping, the same way. Again, this is all done in one shot, and one marvels at just how exactly it was pulled off.

There are more standard jokes in Neighbors as well – though they work – like Keaton going to his wedding at the end of film without suspenders or a belt, and has to keep a tight grasp on his pants to keep them from falling down. If Neighbors is marred in anyway, it’s in one of the ways typical of movies from its time period – a casual, thoughtless series of somewhat racist jokes. Keaton ends up with a dirty face, and chased by the police, who think he’s a black man – only to let Keaton go when he’s able to clean his face, and instead grabs another black man in his place – but ending up with Keaton again, when his face, once again becomes dirty. To be fair to Keaton, he’s not really in black face – and neither are the actual black characters (who appear to be played by African Americans) – though they are undeniably rather offensive caricatures (especially the woman whose eyes bulge out of her skull at one point). This is one of those things you have to accept when watching movies from this period – and Neighbors is far from the worst example (it’s actually relatively tame in comparison to other movies) – although that doesn’t make it any better.

Still, other than that, Neighbors ranks highly on the list of Keaton shorts – an early example of his brilliance, with brilliant set pieces, and a relentless comic pacing for 20 minutes.

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