Gray Market DVD --- Le Roi des Champs-Elysees
Discredited as he was in Hollywood by 1934, there was still enough residual fame in Buster Keaton’s name to interest producers outside industry mainstreams. Europe was mad for our sight-gagging comedians and spent more to look at them than domestic audiences. Chaplin’s foreign revenues were often leagues ahead of what he realized stateside, and Keaton was revered by French audiences whatever the reduced circumstances he’d come to on US shores. Euro producers came calling after ignominious dismissal from MGM left Buster unemployed but for a season of low-budget shorts at Educational. American majors might shun him, but starring feature work was but an ocean away (and here’s Buster shipboard with second wife Mae). Le Roi des Champs-Elysees was for Nero Films in France. It never had a United States release. There is no English language or dubbed version. There was a 16mm print that Bill Everson used to run for his class and occasionally loan to film cons. My seeing it initially was upon one of those rare occasions. Le Roi is a must for Keaton purists. His voice is substituted by an inexpressive double, but there’s so little dialogue as to make the switch unimportant. Buster was experienced with at least phonetic readings of varied tongues in Metro foreign versions he’d done previously, so it’s likely the comedian took a whirl at speaking French for Le Roi (lip readers say yes to that). Maybe producers decided as after-thought not to use his tracks, which is too bad because it would have enhanced the finished product. Le Roi floats among fans on DVD-R and each of them roll dice (or a ten-dollar bill) hoping copies scored off E-Bay or dealer tables will be watchable. The one I found turned out to be unusually nice, with overture and exit music (!). The feature runs not much over an hour. Buster performs routines traceable back to his silent shorts. He’s bound to have given plenty in a creative capacity, for much of the humor is unmistakably Keaton’s own. There’s plenty of street shooting as well with pedestrians reacting to a prominent American clown in their midst. I'd like to think Buster was accorded respect by Le Roi's French producers, as Von Stroheim would be when he traveled there to do Grande Illusion. Keaton looks healthy and from all appearance seems to have bucked up from the Metro descent. Perhaps he was energized by co-workers who recognized his genius long before we would. I’d say Le Roi surpasses then-recent Keaton features just for being his vehicle and not one to be shared with Jimmy Durante or other MGM comics (Polly Moran, Cliff Edwards) nibbling at margins. It was made for a price, but doesn’t look so cheap as Educational shorts coming before and after. Effort and energy is clearly put forth here, not only on Buster's part, but also by those in support both behind and in front of the camera. There’s a music score throughout that really helps, and a nice payoff to what’s actually a well-constructed little story. For lack of Hollywood polish, Le Roi’s a bit raggedy at times, but it’s no disgrace to Keaton and he acquits himself nicely throughout. Too bad a US release couldn’t be managed. Paramount seems to have handled it in at least some foreign territories, and doubtless considered distribution for here. Being they'd pass on Harold Lloyd’s The Cat’s Paw the same year, I guess the studio figured visual comedy was, at least for 1934, a dead issue.