Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: 1938 MGM Shorts

After his stint with Educational Pictures, Keaton returned to MGM – not as a director or an actor, but as a gag writer for other comedians – at a much reduced salary from his heyday. In 1938, MGM did give him the chance to direct three, 10 minutes movies – all of which have been forgotten, and if I’m being honest should remain that way. It’s somewhat sad to see a man of Keaton’s genius stuck directing this dreck. At least he didn’t star in them.

Life in Sometown, U.S.A. (1938)
Directed by: Buster Keaton.
Written by: Carl Dudley and Richard Murphy.
Featuring: Carey Wilson, William Bailey, Margaret Bert, Marie Blake, Betty Blythe, Chester Clute, Grace Goodall, Sheldon Jett, Cy Kendall, Edward LeSaint, Howard M. Mitchell, Lee Phelps, Josephine Whittell. 

The first of three 10 minute quickies he made for MGM in 1938 – Life in Sometown USA is probably the best of the three – although that’s not saying much. It is a pseudo-documentary about a small town where a rich woman is angry that the police chief won’t enforce the laws she wants. A young boy playing baseball has broken her window – and the judge orders him to pay the woman back. But he has no money, so the chief sneaks it to him – only to be found out. The woman and her friends decide to get together a petition to get rid of the chief in order to get someone else in who will enforce the laws. So the chief conspires with the woman’s browbeaten husband to do exactly what his wife wants – and enforce all the laws on the books – even those that are antiquated – like the punishment for a woman who talks back to her husband in public.

I’m not quite sure what the point of this film is. It seems at first like it’s nothing more than a mildly amusing little short – a 1930s version of those internet posts about “crazy laws” in different parts of the world that keep popping up. But the film gets surprisingly preachy by the end – almost as if it was funded by Libertarians, complaining about all the laws that Americans are subjected to. The last line in the short advocates going back to few laws starting with the First Commandment (Thou shalt have no other gods before me).

You can tell Keaton’s heart really isn’t into this movie – it’s lazily assembled and acted. The first few minutes are at best mildly amusing. Then the film gets kind of strange – requiring people to carry guns to church, and the aforementioned law against wives talking back to their husbands, which takes a strangely ugly turn. If Keaton’s name wasn’t attached, this would probably be in the junkbin of history by now – it’s practically there already with his name attached – and to be honest, that’s where it belongs.

Hollywood Handicap (1938)
Directed by: Buster Keaton.   
Featuring: The Original Sing Band, Charles Ruggles, Mickey Rooney, Stuart Erwin, June Collyer, Charles Butterworth, Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, Edgar Bergen, Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby, Robert Montgomery,
Edmund Lowe, Billy 'Red' Jones, Warner Baxter, Oliver Hardy.

Streamlined Swing (1938)
Directed by: Buster Keaton.   
Written by: John W. Krafft & Marion Mack.
Featuring: The Original Sing Band, Richard Cramer, Lester Dorr, Walter Soderling.

The other two 10 minute shorts that Keaton directed for MGM in 1938 both feature The Original Sing Band – an African American singing group, who use limited instruments, but who make all sorts of strange sounds with their mouths. They really do appear to be talented. Unfortunately the two shorts they are in for Keaton this year saddle them with playing rather ugly stereotypes – they are very smart, but they “sho’ is happy”.

In the first, The Original Sing Band is gifted a race horse at the track – and they hope it will win. But, he of course he loses – but things turn out because he’s a talented horse actor. This is a star studded short – with all sorts of stars making cameo appearances (they basically wave at the camera). In the second, the group is given a Private train car, and somehow get it off the tracks and set it up as a restaurant. Unfortunately the person who gave it to them was a mental patient – and it wasn’t his to give. They seem to be in trouble – but a rich man loves their home cooking – and wants to buy the car for them. Unfortunately, The Original Sing Band is too dumb to know what he if offering them.

The highlights (and I use the term loosely) of the two films is watching The Original Sing Band perform – they really are quite good. But I had trouble enjoying either film that much. I have not exactly defended some of Keaton’s racial humor (some would say racist) in his other films – from his use of blackface, red face and stereotypes – because in Keaton’s film, it never seemed to be used to mock the characters, and was rather gentle when compared to much of what was being done at the time. Here, again, I don’t think there’s any real malicious intent. However, seeing a group of talented musicians reduced to playing this sort of offensive stereotype certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s beneath both them and Keaton to have them behave this way.

Keaton clearly made these films because he pretty much had to – he was under contract and you did what they told you to. I suppose we can be glad these two shorts didn’t prove to be more popular (they only made these two according to IMDB) – and Keaton The Original Sing Band didn’t have to keep degrading themselves. Still, these two certainly represent the nadir of Keaton’s directing career.

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