Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Goat, The Playhouse & The Boat (all 1921)

The Goat (1921)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Mal St. Clair.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Malcolm St. Clair.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Goat), Virginia Fox (The Police Chief's Daughter), Joe Roberts (Police Chief), Malcolm St. Clair (Dead Shot Dan), Edward F. Cline (Cop by telephone pole).

Buster Keaton’s The Goat is one of his very best shorts. Slightly longer than most of Keaton’s shorts – running 27 minutes instead of 20 – the film’s energy never flags as it proceeds at a breakneck pace from start to finish. In the film, Keaton stars as a poor young man who we first see in a breadline – although by the time it’s his turn, there’s no bread left for him. Walking along hungry and alone, he stops by and peaks into a jail cell – just as the infamous Dead Shot Dan is about to have his picture taken from the “Rogue’s Gallery” – but of course, sometime goes wrong, Keaton has his picture taken instead, and when Dead Shot Dan escapes shortly thereafter, it’s Keaton’s picture that gets distributed around town.

The movie has several great, extended chase sequences. After escaping from multiple police men chasing him – including an hilarious sequence where Keaton is stuck on a telephone pole by his jacket – he makes a daring train escape to another town. He saves a young woman (Virginia Fox) from a ruffian – but when he sees his face on a wanted poster, he thinks he may have killed the other man. Frequent co-star Joe Roberts then tries to chase Keaton down – but once again, Keaton outwits him. When he runs into Fox again, he accepts her invitation to dinner. But wouldn’t you know it – Roberts is her father, and the chase resumes – this time with Keaton making brilliant use of an elevator.

I’m not sure any of Keaton’s shorts more resembles a live action Looney Tunes cartoon than this one. When Keaton wants the elevator to arrive at his floor quickly he simply moves the arm above the door that indicates what floor it’s on to his – thus ensuring its prompt arrival. Later, when he wants to get rid of Roberts, he cranks that arm well past its end point  - and the elevator goes crashing through the roof (the special effects there are not exactly convincing – but this is 1921 we’re talking about). The whole film plays like a live action Bugs Bunny cartoon – which is all the more impressive when you consider that Keaton is more bound by the laws reality than a cartoon character is. This one is a short masterwork by Keaton.

The Play House (1921)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Audience / Orchestra / Mr. Brown - First Minstrel / Second Minstrel / Stagehand), Edward F. Cline (Orangutan Trainer), Virginia Fox (Twin), Joe Murphy (One of the Zouaves), Joe Roberts (Actor-Stage Manager).

The Play House is perhaps the greatest technical achievement of all of Keaton’s shorts. This is Keaton’s salute to his vaudeville roots – where he plays a stage hand in Play House, asleep – and is soon every character in the film – often being multiple characters in the same frame. That sort of thing may be easy to achieve now, but in 1921, it required Keaton to shoot with a special shuttered lens, that would only film part of the frame at a time, so he could splice together different shots of himself playing different characters. He is the entire orchestra, hilariously playing every instrument, and also conducting. He is everyone in the audience – from a society lady and her drowsing husband, to a young child with a lollypop and his mother. Keaton is brilliant in each of these of roles. Unfortunately, Keaton also has a sequence where he plays the “Keaton minstrels” – so yes, he’s dawning blackface, which is never acceptable. Here, it does fit into the narrative – audiences going to see this type of theatrical work in this time period would undoubtedly have encountered performers in blackface. And while in blackface, Keaton doesn’t do anything overtly offensive (except, of course, the blackface). But still – it’s hard to completely forgive a movie for it’s using blackface no matter the context.

The next sequence – with Keaton, the stage hand, being aroused from his dream by the stage manager (Joe Roberts – again). Eventually, Keaton will once again dawn makeup – this time that of a monkey to take part in a trained animal act – and once again, Keaton is brilliant in these scenes. The film drags – just a little – after the monkey sequence – as Keaton gets involved in another act (the Zouaves) and falls in love with one twin (Virginia Fox) – although he’s constantly getting confused which one it is he in in love with (he ingeniously solves this problem at the end).

The Play House is a little tame on the stunts – at least by Keaton’s standards, because he was recovering from a broken ankle when they filmed it. Yet Keaton, ever the genius, found a way to make a hilarious, endlessly inventive, quite surreal little masterwork even without his greatest strength – his body – being of full use. It’s a brilliant little film.

The Boat (1921)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Boat Builder), Sybil Seely (The Boat Builder's Wife Wife).

The Boat almost plays like a sequel to Keaton’s first short masterpiece – One Week. After appearing as Keaton’s wife in that film – and his love interest in the next two Keaton shorts, Sybil Seely had pretty much been replaced in Keaton’s films by Virginia Fox. But Keaton brings her back for this film. The pair play a married couple – and Keaton has just completed building a boat in his basement (the only trouble is getting it outside now – which of course, ends in his destroying another house, like in One Week). They get to the beach along with their two sons, and eventually launch the boat into the water. Like the house that Keaton built in One Week, the boat in this movie is constantly on the verge of falling apart.

Keaton makes good use of the boat – and his child cast members. Keaton was a vaudeville performer pretty much from birth, and earned his name Buster early for his ability to take a fall. He doesn’t require the kids to do too much in the way of pratfalls, but he isn’t above picking them up by the back of their shirts, and hauling them around.

Keaton’s Boat Builder is a classic Keaton type – someone who is beset on all sides by one setback after another, but keeps grimly finding ways to fight off the inevitable. He has crafted a boat where the mast and all tall structures on the deck can be brought down so it can pass easily under bridges – which works until he isn’t paying attention. When the boat first springs a leak, he uses one of his wife’s god awful pancakes to patch the whole. When more and more water starts pouring in, he tries to catch it in a teacup to bail out the boat (recalling the gag in The Rough House, where Fatty Arbuckle tried to put out the raging fire – with one teacup of water at a time). By the end of the movie, this family will have seen their house destroyed, their car fall into the water, their boat sinks and they are now on land. “Where are we?” Keaton is asked. “I don’t know” he responds – but the family goes resolutely out into the unknown, undaunted by their losses.

The Boat is just a notch below Keaton’s best shorts. It isn’t quite as inventive as One Week – or as funny – but it comes close.

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