Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton - Educational Shorts Part I

It’s strange to me every time I see a non-silent Buster Keaton film – especially when I hear his voice. During The Dissolve’s discussion of Sherlock Jr., one of their critics compared his voice to that of Eeyore – the beloved, almost suicidally depressed donkey friend of Winnie the Pooh – and it’s not a wrong comparison. There has always been a touch of melancholy to Keaton’s work – but it’s more pronounced when you hear him speak.

After he signed that damnable contract with MGM, he only got to make two features the way he wanted (at least in part) – The Cameraman and Spite Marriage – and then no longer had any creative control of his movies. They teamed him with Jimmy Durante and others – and although the myth says Keaton’s career was over after the talkies came in – that’s not really accurate. His sound features made quite a bit of money. But Keaton was miserable, and didn’t really hide that fact. Added to it, his alcoholism worsened, and he was considered undependable – and eventually was fired from MGM. Not long after, he signed with Educational Pictures (which, ironically enough, didn’t really make Educational Pictures) and between 1934 and 1937 made 16 talkie two reelers – six of which, according to IMDB, he co-directed (although didn’t receive onscreen credit). Rather than review all 16 of these, I choose the six IMDB lists as the ones he co-directed. At best, they are an amusing distraction, at worst downright dull. Keaton was trying to redo some of things that made him famous in the 1920s – and the results were mixed. After those 16 shorts, he directed three even shorter (around 10 minutes) films in 1938 – and then pretty much his directing career was over. The next few posts will review the 6 Educational Pictures shorts he apparently co-directed, his 3 1938 shorts and finally two films he made in the 1960s – The Railrodder for the National Film Board of Canada (which, again, he apparently co-directed, with no credit) and Film – his collaboration with famed writer Samuel Becket (and director Alan Schneider) – which he did not direct at all, and according to some reports, didn’t even understand (not that I blame him). It really doesn’t belong, since I was only reviewing the film he had a hand in directing – but it’s so interesting, I’m going to anyway.

The Gold Ghost (1934)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Charles Lamont.
Written by: Ewart Adamson & Nicholas T. Barrows & Charles Lamont & Ernest Pagano.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Wally), Warren Hymer (Bugs Kelly), Dorothy Dix (Gloria).

The Gold Ghost is a familiar plot for Keaton – he plays the son of a rich man, who sets out to prove he is a real man – sort of. What he actually does is overhear the girl he likes, Gloria (Dorothy Dix) dismiss him as a loser that she doesn’t want to marry, even though both her father and his think the joining of the two families would be good. So Keaton’s Wally, instead of fighting to prove his worth, runs away. He ends up in an abandoned mining town – full of cobwebs and rickety buildings, and appoints himself Sheriff. Then a wanted criminal shows up – although Keaton doesn’t know that. And then two miners find gold nearby, setting off another gold rush in the era. Soon the town is packed, and everyone looks to Keaton, who they think is the rightful Sheriff. – even Gloria and her father, who have come to see about their nearby mine. But there are claim jumpers, and Keaton must fight them off.

The Gold Ghost is perhaps my favorite of these Educational Pictures Shorts – and it’s still just passable. The best moments are when Keaton goes an extended period of time without talking – doing some of his patented bits of physical comedy. He didn’t have the ambition (or perhaps the funds) to do anything large scale, but he can still be funny playing around by himself, acting like a tough guy, or getting into a comical fight that ends the movie – and has multiple people getting hit in the head by mallets.

The movie meanders a little bit, but not unpleasantly. Keaton is fine in the film, but never really anything more. At 20 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and for the most part it is amusing. It’s not a great short by any means – but it’s amusing, and that’s about all it had the ambition for.

Allez Oop (1934)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Charles Lamont.
Written by: Ewart Adamson & Ernest Pagano.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Elmer), Dorothy Sebastian (Paula Stevens), George J. Lewis (The Great Apollo).

If The Gold Ghost is not the best of these shorts, that Allez Oop is. In the film, Keaton stars as Elmer – a lowly watch repairman, who meets Paula (Dorothy Sebastian – reteaming with Keaton after 1929’s Spite Marriage). He takes an immediate liking to her, and conspires a way to see her again. The feeling seems to be mutual, as she does the same thing. The pair end up at the circus together, where she falls for The Great Apollo – a trapeze artist. Keaton tries desperately to perform the same tricks, and fails miserably. That is until a fire breaks out in Dorothy’s apartment, The Great Apollo leaves her there to die, and Keaton quite literally swings into action.

In these shorts, there isn’t a lot of large scale action sequences that Keaton was known for throughout his career. The biggest of them is probably the climax of this film, as Keaton has to swing from building to building in his attempt to rescue Sebastian. It shows, if nothing else, that despite all that had happened, if given the opportunity, Keaton could still perform stunts with the best of them. That fact is almost sad, as we know Keaton didn’t really have many opportunities to ply his trade – it’s just further proof that we probably missed out on something special by Keaton not being able to direct more after the 1920s.

The film isn’t great – Keaton repeats too many gags that drag on too long, and the love story between him and Sebastian just never really seems real. But like the best of these shorts – which are still only passable – it is an entertaining little distraction. Not vintage Keaton, but not bad.

Grand Slam Opera (1936)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Charles Lamont.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Charles Lamont.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Elmer Butts), Diana Lewis (The Girl Downstairs), Harold Goodwin (Band Leader), John Ince (Col. Crowe).

Grand Slam Opera is perhaps the dullest of all the Keaton shorts that he had a hand in directing for Educational Pictures. It starts interestingly enough – with Keaton leaving his home town by train – and being given a singing send-off – Keaton even sings a few bars. And then he gets to the big city to compete in a radio contest, and the film never really finds its footing. Essentially, Keaton shows up at an amateur talent contest for the radio – doesn’t get to perform – and spends the next few minutes practicing his various routines, and annoying (and possibly stalking) a pretty girl who lives downstairs from him. He then heads back the next week to the radio program – and gets to perform. The only problem is that his is a juggling act – and this is radio. His act goes to hell pretty quickly, and spends the vast majority of his time fighting with the band leader. This sequence has its funny moments, but drags on too long. The final twist at the end – that Keaton in fact won the contest even though he was thrown out of the building makes no sense at all. His fight with the band leader was funny (mildly) to the movie audience, but is essentially silent – so why the hell did the radio audience love it so much?

I have to wonder if at this point, Keaton was merely coasting. The first two films he had a hand in directing for Educational Pictures was near the beginning of his time there – in 1934. Perhaps he thought that he could get his career back on track – as while neither film is great, they are both funny, and show a little bit of daring. This film, directed in 1936, feels like him going through the motions – as if he knew nothing was going to become of them, and he was simply doing it for the money.

There are moments that work – and I would have loved to see Keaton follow through on the setup – and making a mini-musical. But for the most part Grand Slam Opera is a very forgettable 20 minute short from a man capable of much better.

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