Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Educational Shorts Part II

Blue Blazes (1936)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Raymond Kane.
Written by: David Freedman.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Elmer Whipple), Arthur L. Jarrett (Fire Chief), Marlyn Stuart (Fire Chief's Blonde Daughter), Rose Kessner (Fire Chief's Wife), Patty Wilson (Fire Chief's Brunette Daughter).

Much like Grand Slam Opera, Blue Blazes feels like Keaton simply going through the motions. In it, he plays a firefighter, who gets transferred to a small town department because every time there’s a fire, he has trouble staying aboard the truck – as he comically falls off, and heads spinning down the street. He is given one chance to redeem himself, and pretty much screws that up as well. He’s going to be kicked off the force. And then, of course, he becomes a hero – when the Fire Chief’s two wayward daughters set fire to their house in order to get the firefighters there so they can sneak out for their dates that their parents have forbidden them to go on. Keaton saves the pair of them (who were never really in danger), and then the chief’s wife – twice! – who was.

The rescue sequence at the end is the best part of Blue Blazes. In it, Keaton uses a strange, very wide ladder – it’s almost a staircase – and it reminded me of a similar sequence in his short The Haunted House. And in that lays the biggest problem with Blue Blazes – it feels like Keaton simply repeating what he did in the past, with lesser results. Blue Blazes is not a horrible movie – although pretty much every scene when anyone talks in the film is pretty dreadful – but it is simply warmed over Keaton.

Mixed Magic (1936)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Raymond Kane.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Elmer 'Happy' Butterworth), Eddie Lambert (Professor Spumoni), Marlyn Stuart (Mary), Eddie Hall (Hector).

Like most of the other Keaton shorts for Educational Pictures, Mixed Magic feels like the genius simply going through the motions. It stars Keaton as a bumbling fool trying hard to impress a young woman, and keep his job as a magician’s assistant – despite the fact that he continually screws up the man’s act – in part because he’s a bumbling fool, and in part because he is being sabotaged by the man whose job he took. If Blue Blazes recalls The Haunted House at times, with its use of the staircase/ladder, than Mixed Magic recalls another Keaton short for the 1920s – The Electric House – where Keaton gets a job he’s unqualified for, and is sabotaged by someone who is. The resulting short feels like Keaton simply trying to repeat his past success, without getting any real results.

Most of the other shorts he made for Educational Pictures had at least one standout sequence – the fight at the end of The Gold Ghost, Keaton the trapeze artist at the end of Allez Oop, the rescue sequence in Blue Blazes – but that’s lacking in Mixed Magic. The extended gag is supposed to be Keaton assisting Professor Spumoni and his magic show – and while they are a few isolated laughs, they never really add up to much – never really achieve a proper comic velocity.

As a result, Mixed Magic is weak even by the standards of Keaton’s already weaker shorts for this period. An entirely forgettable short that is never really all that funny, but is never really quite bad either. It’s just kind of there.

Love Nest on Wheels (1937)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Charles Lamont.
Written by: Paul Girard Smith & William Hazlett Upson.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Elmer), Myra Keaton (Elmer's Ma), Al St. John (Uncle Jed), Lynton Brent (The Bridegroom), Diana Lewis (The Bride), Bud Jamison (The Mortgage Holder), Louise Keaton (Elmer's Sis), Harry Keaton (Elmer's Brother), Payne B. Johnson (Boy).

For his last two reeler for Educational Pictures, Keaton made one of his better shorts from the period. He plays a somewhat different character – not that different, but a little – and the short is more of an ensemble piece, with Keaton as its center, than a showcase for him alone. It’s an enjoyable little short – with Keaton and his family trying to get the mortgage payment together to keep their failing hotel going by selling off a trailer. The only problem is that a cow is currently living in the trailer – and its gained weight since moving in, so it cannot get back out again.

Keaton is Elmer, and when we first see him, he’s lazing on the porch alongside the rest of his family. They don’t have much in the way of ambition or anything to go. They are a family of rednecks – and Keaton even effects a little bit of a redneck accent in his speaking voice this time. They’re doomed – the mortgage on the hotel is due, and they have no money. Even when people arrive, they don’t want to stay there – the place is basically a pig sty. But if Keaton can clean up that trailer that was left when someone died, he may be able to save the hotel – for now.

The film is basically all manic energy as the family tries to please their few guests, and get rid of that pesky cow. As far as Keaton’s shorts go, it’s nothing all that special – but it’s a step up from most of the films he made for Educational Pictures. It’s at least amusing from start to finish – and doesn’t solely rely on Keaton for its comic energy.

Keaton made 16 shorts with Educational Pictures over the span of 3 years – and they are more or less forgotten now. Looking back at them, it’s easy to see why. None of them approach the level the genius of Keaton’s work in the 1920s – even the best of these sounds two reelers pale in comparison to the worst of Keaton’s silent shorts. They aren’t painful by any means – but there really is little reason to watch any of them. At their best – The Gold Ghost, Allez Oop and Love Nest on Wheels – they are entertaining time wasters. At their worst, they’re just time wasters.

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