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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ghosts In Comedy's Past

I have, this past weekend, chased Buster Keaton into a dark cave from which I’ve yet to extricate myself. Did he make a 1928 cameo appearance that has so far gone unknown and uncredited? Based on the image below, it’s possible he did. Were it not for the fact Brotherly Love is itself a lost film, we could verify Keaton’s apparent routine with Karl Dane, as shown here. Erstwhile barber Buster looks poised to give Karl a too-close shave, but did he actually do so in the released film? Brotherly Love was directed by Charles Reisner, a Keaton friend who’d recently helmed Steamboat Bill, Jr. It was the fifth in a series of feature comedies teaming king-sized Karl Dane with diminutive George K. Arthur. There were seven of these in all. Every one made a profit. After awhile searching for contemporary reviews of Brotherly Love (and discovering few), I found myself drawn into the weirdly fascinating saga that was Dane and Arthur themselves. How could MGM’s premiere laugh team of two seasons and an unbroken chain of seven hits come to be so utterly discarded and forgotten? How does a leading Metro star in 1929 end up selling hot dogs just outside the studio gate five years later? Potential debates over Keaton’s fleeting participation in Brotherly Love became a question less compelling than these. I’d still like to know if Buster’s in the film. Perhaps a more seasoned Keaton scholar can enlighten me. Puzzle pieces beyond the still shown here are few. It’s an "X" (meaning exploitation) captioned pose, as opposed to scene shots which were issued without the lettered designation. You might conclude this is a mere visit to the set, but would Keaton and Dane go to the effort of setting up what looks to be a routine for filming? --- with Buster holding a razor? Rumors persist that Raymond Rohauer had a 16mm reduction of a single reel from Brotherly Love. There were seven total. Otherwise, it doesn’t exist. Know any ninety-year-olds that caught this one first-run? That seems the only way we’ll ever clear the question up, because from everything I’ve been able to determine, neither Brotherly Love nor any of the six other Dane/Arthurs were ever exhibited stateside after the late twenties. The possible whys are the subject of today’s investigation.

The Dane/Arthurs were studio-manufactured product from the start. George K. Arthur had played comedy and character parts, few of them substantial, though he’d shown promise in the title role of The Boob. Karl Dane was a recent sensation in The Big Parade (shown here with John Gilbert), a silent era phenomenon still playing roadshows when Metro executive Harry Rapf informed the two they’d be working together. Neither were committed to blazing new trails in laugh making, but both understood how to take orders. Rookies was the trial balloon. Dane would vary his tobacco-chewing, Big Parade self but slightly to play for laughs opposite effeminate small-fry George, a calculation designed to meet lowbrow audience expectation and satisfy exhibitor demand for feature comedies among seasonal bookings. It is funny from start to finish, came word from Emlenton, Pa. This one’s a scream, said management in Atkinson, Nebraska. If Garbo was what sold in urban markets, Dane and Arthur were what they cried for in the sticks. Rookies (and that's director Sam Wood with D&A here) showed profits of $255,000 and better yet indicated a series would sell. Other companies tried homegrown comedy units to counter independent juggernauts Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Paramount teamed W.C. Fields and Chester Conklin around the same time, but three entries were all these two could sustain. Antic inspiration was a difficult thing to maintain within a factory environment. Dane and Arthur might have realized this but for non-stop schedules and conveyor belt scripts. Baby Mine was next. Karl and George played roommates at a chiropractic school. Now why didn’t Abbott and Costello ever think of that? Assigned directors were picked less for comedic aptitude than for ability to stay ahead of the clock. Baby Mine realized $113,000 in profits, while their next, Circus Rookies, took the most in black ink for the series ($175,000). This kind of success was seeming confirmation that MGM knew comedy packaging as assuredly as other formulae their artisans mixed. The last thing they needed was Buster Keaton to come in and tell them their business.

I’m betting the Dane/Arthurs were business models for Metro’s Keaton series. Comedy was comedy, after all, and theirs were working. Buster pushed up the negative cost on The Cameraman by location shooting in New York. $362,000 was more than twice the expense of any Dane/Arthur, and final profits for The Cameraman ($67,000) were way below what the team’s efforts were showing. That comparison was MGM’s best argument in favor of increased control over the Keatons. Professional jealousy was a thing unknown to Buster, and he had made friends with Karl Dane. A cameo in Brotherly Love would have been effective cross-promotion benefiting both series. The Achilles Heel for Dane and Arthur revealed itself with the installation of microphones. English was decidedly a second language for Dane. You couldn’t cut through his accent with a pick-ax. The second season of 1928-29 got by on silents. Metro’s wait-and-see attitude regarding sound forestalled oblivion that would come to a number of contract players. Several Dane/Arthur features went out with music and effects scores in lieu of dialogue. All At Sea and China Bound found a comfortable berth on positive ledgers. As Keaton’s expenses increased, theirs actually lowered. Free and Easy was Buster’s first talkie, and negative costs ran to $473,000. China Bound got done for only $98,000. Keaton’s rentals were higher (worldwide $875,000), but Free and Easy’s final profit was a minimal $32,000. China Bound scored $129,000 to the good. The party had to end when audiences finally heard Karl Dane speak. That was delayed well into the new year. Why was he seen and not heard in The Hollywood Revue Of 1929? A supporting role with William Haines in Navy Blues revealed the truth. MGM probably overreacted. It seems they never gave Dane’s voice a chance to register. Could his legion of fans accept dialogue with a Danish twist? The studio assumed not and shunted him off to invisible support. As for the Dane/Arthur series, that ended when all-talkies could no longer be avoided.

Machine gunner comics supplanted Karl and George. They would encroach even upon Keaton. Who was Jimmy Durante but a frightful preview of things to come on talking screens? The color image here is hapless Dane pounced upon by a yapping Benny Rubin (at left) in footage from MGM’s abandoned The March Of Time, itself cannibalized and released as varying short subjects. They called this incarnation Crazy House (included as an extra on Warner’s The Champ DVD). Dane’s a butt for cruel humor, his halting line readings, often unintelligible, a poor defense against vaudeville predators. Bits and diminished support at his home studio would send Karl Dane on the road for what proved to be a disastrous stage tour. Paramount tried reteaming Dane and Arthur for a short subject and bally appearances in affiliated theatres, but A Put-Up Job only emphasized the hopelessness of continuing with this pair in talkies. It's actually available on DVD, via Kino’s Cavalcade Of Comedy. This may be our sole opportunity to watch the team at work. A half-dozen two-reelers for independent producer Larry Darmour exist, if at all, in ancient 16mm prints. Dane tried other work, going bust on mining schemes with Benny Rubinesque fast-talkers clearing what was left of his meager accounts. The former star comedian went begging to MGM for any job --- extra, carpenter, handyman --- whatever. Onetime studio pals shunned Karl when he turned up just outside the gates peddling frankfurters. Perhaps this was a too uncomfortable reminder of how easily such a fate could befall one of them in that perilous business. Either way, there were no helping hands. Dane finally put a pistol to his head in April 1934. Friend and Metro contractee Jean Hersholt guilted employers into claiming the body and giving their cast-off headliner a decent burial. Internment for the Dane/Arthur features would follow. Of what value were late silents against early talkies? Archival interest was non-existent, and would remain so. Storage fires and neglect claimed at least half these shows. Rookies, Detectives, and China Bound exist, but for all our chances of seeing them, they might as well be London After Midnight, The Divine Woman, and Rogue Song. Might some adventurous Young Composer for TCM tackle one of these? A disc score with effects was distributed with China Bound. Have any Vitaphone rescuers come across those platters? There were at least happy endings for George K. Arthur. He stayed with the industry by way of producing and distribution, living to a ripe eighty-six. The legacy of Karl Dane is beautifully maintained by Laura Petersen Balogh, whose website celebrates his life and career. Some of the images used for this posting are courtesy Laura and her gallery of rare photos.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Great job, as always. Barely heard of these guys before reading your article -- now I hope somebody stumbles over prints in some abandoned Alaskan movie theatre.

Aside: am I the only one who gets ticked off at the old MGM print ads claiming the Hal Roach comedians as their own? I mean, I know Metro distributed them, but still...

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keaton didn't move to MGM until after Steamboat Bill Jnr which was 1928 I believe, so the use of him as a cameo in 1927 would have been prior to his move to MGM. He only found out that Schneck was selling his contract during Steamboat Bill Jnr so unless MGM knew something Keaton didn't - which is possible then I doubt they would have used him in a cameo role to cross-promote in 1927.

12:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

As to your comment, Anonymous, "The Cameraman" was released September, 1928, and "Brotherly Love" followed three months later in December 1928, so Keaton as a cross-promotion would have certainly been possible, if not likely. The still shown in the post would, at the very least, make clear to readers in 1928 that Keaton was now a star with MGM. Indeed, I would assume that was its purpose. The question is whether he actually appeared in the film itself.

5:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why didn't Karl Dane move to Denmark, the way Emil Jannings returned to Germany when talkies arrived?

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous,
I am the one John mentioned who runs the Karl Dane website, and am writing a book about his life. Regarding your question about why he just did not return to Denmark, it may have been impossible for him. When Karl came to the USA in February 1916, he had just been discharged from the Danish Army, but they apparently called him up again late that year. Of course, he did not return since he wanted to be a US citizen, which was finally granted to him in 1928. I am currently trying to find out more in the Danish archives through a researcher friend--it is proving to be a fascinating, if sad, story.

10:05 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I think the issue was how to adjust to sound films.

In his last film, the mediocre "The Whispering Shadow" (which features a few other actors that knew better in the silent era), he has an accent.

I don't care for an accent as long as I can understand what somebody say. And that comes from somebody with an accent himself. It is difficult to change an accent. I have been trying for a few years, although it is not an impossible thing to achieve.

Sound films were new, today things could have been quite different: either working around the accent or hiring a speech therapist to resolve the issue.

I learned about the Dane-Arthur comedies by reading a coffee table book on the history of MGM, and it was fascinanting to learn about such an obscure comedy team. According to that book, they were reunited as a sort of answer to a Paramount comedy team with Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton.

Although the films might be quite standard fare in comparison to Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin, they will be interesting to see again in order to study how a major film organization like MGM tried to compete against top rank independent artists.

1:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Know any ninety-year-olds that caught this one first-run?

Hi John. Here's an idea. On Friday night in London I went to the third of four evenings devoted to Chaplin's twelve Mutual pictures, with new scores composed & conducted by Carl Davis. In the audience was Roland Totheroh's 93 year old son.

If you can find him on his return to the US, he may have the kind of information you need. I don't know if he was an industry participant.

Best wishes,

Malcolm Blackmoor

4:12 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

George Arthur gives a nice comic performance, full of skillful facial humor, in Norma Talmadge's Kiki (shown at Cinecon and Cinesation in recent years following its Library of Congress restoration), and a well-shaded dramatic one in the Norma Shearer vehicle Lady of the Night, which has played TCM.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Erica Simpson said...

Once again a great article. I had never heard of these guys either until this blog, although George Arthur looks familiar.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

How nice of you to mention Karl Dane, and Laura's website on the actor's life. It will be one interesting book when she's finished if she includes enough of the background history of that era of history and of moviemaking (and I'm sure she will) The very sad thing is the photo you included of The Big Parade. Not only was Dane a casualty of the talkie revolution, but so was Gilbert. And poor Renee Adoree died in the early 1930s as well. So many of those great actors from that incredible film didn't make it much longer than a decade after its release... it makes the film that much more poignant for me anyway.

1:25 PM  
Blogger daphne said...

Great article.

There is a copy of "Brotherly Love" at UCLA Film and Television Archives. I have no idea how to go about getting a screening.

3:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Daphne ---

Sure wish I could see "Brotherly Love," but not enough to fly those 3000 miles ...

5:43 AM  

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