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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Buster Keaton Shorts --- Part Two

How much influence was Buster Keaton's physical prowess on high-spirited 20's youth? I'm sure many a boy broke limbs mimicking Doug Fairbanks. How could you not, at adolescent age, try DF leaps for size? Buster had to have bred daredevil attempts among his following as well. I say that with certainty of having twice tried to be Buster. First occasion was High School junior year. We were staging Anton Chekov's The Brute (aka The Bear and The Boor) for an entire student body. I was to play Luka, "the aging footman." Senior (and gridiron ace) Nick Bumgarner essayed the title role, and one scene called for him to shove Luka aside when the latter steps between "Grigory Smirnov" and our lead lady. I wanted to startle the audience with a full-on tumble over chairs positioned for Luka to crash into. Rehearsals pulled the big punch, but I told Nick to really give it to me on performance day. No problem, I said to his protestation that my neck might get broken, for after all, hadn't Buster Keaton accomplished such things routinely? Nick indeed threw me like a fifty-yard pigskin to a crowd's stunned reaction, chairs flying which-way as I slid nearly off stage front. What looked to be a serious injury stopped the show, divine intervention having spared my life and limb(s), but I showed them what thrill comedy was about!

Again I'd try the following year. We did a Super 8 silent movie for Dramatics class. Mine was the Keaton part, gags borrowed from Blackhawk reels at home. This time I jumped off the top of a school bus as a mob gave chase, unmindful until too late of how high one stands (then plunges) from atop such a vehicle (try it some time ... no, don't try it). Courting on-camera risk was quite a high, fool recklesness lending valued assist. I knew they'd all gasp when our footage came back. Was this what attracted Buster, Harold, and the rest to habitual death-defying? (only unlike me, they knew their business) It's a good thing I grew out of ersatz Buster-ing, though I've got to wonder how many others from the 20's onward looked at his stuff and said I could do that, only to come a cropper upon trying. Are there casualties among would-be Keatons still limping among us?

To be Buster, of course, required conditioning oneself from infancy. He took falls before he could walk, say books (and Keaton himself, if you buy his account of coming by the "Buster" name). I chill a little at photos of the Three Keatons. He looks like a play-doll that's been dropped (or thrown) enough times to be resigned over bruises to come. Did any of us register as stoic in child portraiture? Buster's was a hard luck life understood and accepted from beginnings, but wait ... didn't vaudeville pay handsome to acts climbing up the bill? Keaton never once claimed victim status for being the human mop he was. We'll never again encounter bark so tough as his. I've pondered alternate reality of Buster missing movies, clinging to the boards until a wearied public saw him out, then retiring to yellowed clippings and a Baby Jane finish. Wasn't that the fate of most ex-vaudevillians?

Much of Keaton's greatness lay in high standards he set for himself. The man was secure enough to take his own (extraordinary) level of competence pretty much for granted. Watch The High Sign on Kino's Blu-Ray set and marvel over Buster wanting to shelve it as unworthy to begin his solo series. If this was a dog, give us a kennel-full. Keaton thought The High Sign was too much like recently done comedies with Roscoe Arbuckle. He wanted to deliver better, and would of course, but what a tour-de-force going in! The High Sign has, among pleasures, a remarkable cut-in-half house with Buster up, down ... then down and up, two floors shown full-on, no tricks/edits to betray shortcutting or a comic sans chops to put over acrobatics (minus Buster, you'd need a George Méliès to stage much of The High Sign). Keaton's long view required situations to play believably though, as he knew careers weren't built performing two-reels of the impossible.

They said you could hear Buster's ankle snap during a botched take on The Electric House, which made me appreciate having gone a life (so far) of not witnessing someone's bones break, let alone my own. The sight (and sound) had to be unnerving, though I guess Keaton's crew was used to it. He got hurt a lot and persevered ... what other choice was there? I wonder if Joe Schenck ever tried getting insurance on Buster. Follow-up to the fracture was The Playhouse, a short that managed being even more inventive to cover the fact BK wasn't as much physically engaged. We might thank a busted ankle for his brilliant all-the-cast-is-Keaton dream opening, or the scarily accurate chimpanzee he impersonates a reel later (supernatural Buster again). Did Chaplin build The Gold Rush's chicken act on what he'd seen in The Playhouse?

Kino's much upgraded print comes to The Playhouse's rescue. This one looked particularly bad in collecting yore. Previous DVD release Industrial Strength Buster had access to vintage 16mm that was better, and now Blu-Ray ties a ribbon on what I guess is the clearest Playhouse we'll ever see. Upgrades like these, steps up a ladder, can lead to new-found status for a comedy we'd known too long in compromised form. For seeing The Playhouse so buffed and presentable, I can finally place it at or near top echelons of Keaton. If such altered rankings can come of better prints showing up, plus goosed resolution as here, maybe it's time to revisit Best Of Buster lists and revise a few placements.

Trades called One Week "The Year's Comedy Sensation," which makes me ask what the previous (and following) year's comedy sensations might have been. What did it take for a single two-reeler, out of hundreds released per annum, to break out of the pack? I do know from theatre ads that Shoulder Arms was considered gold standard for laugh-making, a repute it maintained for over a decade past the teens when first released. Something about One Week clicked, the roaring reception being what Keaton needed to launch his one-man craft. Distributing Metro sold BK like features, and presumably got rentals not far short of what longer forms earned. I can understand reluctance to use him in multi-reelers. These shorts, and Keaton was prolific getting them out, could prop up a whole season's slate of duds. Trade ads here (and certainly the theatre front display for The Scarecrow in Part One) confirm Keaton's two-reelers were tails wagging many a dog for his distributor.

I've read that Buster got 25% of profits from his shorts. Did he trust Joe Schenck and Metro as to accounting? I suspect so. Schenck seems to have been like a father, or at the least big brother, to BK, much as Roscoe Arbuckle had been. Keaton trusted his friends, and neither of these appear to have cheated him. Maybe the comedies made such piles of cash for all concerned to swim in gravy. Times were obviously good if Keaton could afford giving Arbuckle a cut after Roscoe was kicked out of movies (was there industry precedent, before or since, for such generosity?). Investing partners in the BK venture included both Schenck brothers, Marcus Loew, banking tyro A.P. Giannini, and Irving Berlin. Talk about heads of the five families! They had "stockholder meetings" over weekends in Atlantic City, bacchanal-ing there I'll leave to speculation (bet Fatty's Frisco frolic was a pink tea by comparison, though).

To answer the key question here --- should you upgrade from earlier Kino DVD releases? Big yes, emphatic yes. I compared most of the Blu-Ray with old versions. No contest ... they're like different shows altogether ... darkness into light. The only way we'll improve on these is if someone comes across better pre-print on Hard Luck, Convict 13, the missing parts of Day Dreams ... whatever remains on the Keaton wish list. I'd almost expect that to happen at current rate of thought-lost stuff turning up.

More Buster Keaton at Greenbriar Archives: Keaton Misses Grand Hotel, Le Roi des Champs-Elysees, The General, Best Keaton Book I've Read, They Dood It Twice (Spite Marriage), The Night It Came Together (Sherlock Jr.), and Keaton Columbia Comedies.


Blogger Dr. OTR said...

"was there industry precedent, before or since, for such generosity?" Didn't Chaplin keep most of his stock company on the payroll, in some cases (such as Edna Purviance) decades after they'd last appeared before the camera?

10:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Chaplin did keep Edna Purviance on salary for life, as I understand it, but according to what I've read a few places, Keaton gave Arbuckle a significant percentage of his take from the shorts series, which must have amounted to a far greater stipend.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Dbenson said...

Always wondered if Dick Van Dyke or Carl Reiner ever connected with Keaton. While Van Dyke was very much a friend and disciple of Stan Laurel, his portrayal of the washed-up comedian in "The Comic" draws very heavily on Keaton -- in makeup as well as voice. Director/writer Carl Reiner also seemed to be referencing Keaton when the elderly "Billy Bright" does TV commercials and pratfalls on talk shows. There's alcoholism and even a near-marriage to a much younger woman when he achieves a mild comeback (Keaton's happy marriage came long before any comeback).

One guess is that Van Dyke and Reiner, after letting their wildly unsympathetic hero do so many explicitly Laurel gags, wanted to emphatically declare this wasn't a portrait of their idol Stanley. So they gathered up the cliches and general public memory of Keaton as a weathered bit player, perhaps consoling themselves that Keaton outlived that phase long enough to enjoy rediscovery and its rewards -- and died a few years before "The Comic."

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Malcolm Blackmoor said...

Two points about Buster Keaton from the interview with Kevin Brownlow (The full length unpublished recording):

It was Keaton who helped Roscoe Arbuckle work secretly on productions by inventing his new name - William B. Goodrich - Will Be Good.

And unlike Chaplin whose torturous interminable production methods can be seen in The Unknown Chaplin, Keaton worked fast. Kevin asked him about a very complex gag in The General and said: 'OK, How many takes did that need?'

He answered ONE and was still pleased with himself almost forty years later.

6:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer e-mails some observations about Buster Keaton and Blu-Ray ...

I'll have to take your word that the new Blue Ray versions of the Keaton DVDs are much better than the older edition. Much depends upon one's equipment, after all. I'm still using a CRT. The results would not impress John Logie Baird, let alone allow for distinctions between one version and another.

From what you've described, however, Kino has offered a colletion of the finest extent materials from an important period in the work of a major artist. Even something like The High Sign, hitherto considered a minor Keaton, now offers insight into his skill and ambition.

It is another example of the DVD cornucopia, but not without its irony. Many of us are fascinated by early color and sound processes. A Chronocolor demonstration film or a part talkie like Weary River offer a different perspective from which to see the world of another period. It is a perspective, however, which was imposed by the limitations of those photochemical or mechanical systems. Even silent film, that melding of image and music, was an artistic response to the inability of the technology of the time to reproduce the spoken word from the screen. DVDs, of course, have no such limitations, other than the quality of the system used for playing them. As such, they provide a means of presenting those early film technologies, and since they do not incorporate the flaws of the reproducing systems originally used--such as the difficulty in the Vitaphone system of synchronizing the sound disc to the image or the fringing inherent in Kinemacolor--the presentation is even better than the films using them might have appeared originally.

There is another irony, unfortunately. What makes the work going into such a collection as this economically viable is that the DVD is available only in a discrete issue. While piracy is a problem, for most people, if they want to see it, they have to buy the disc. Just as DVD has replaced the VHS for home showings and is supplanting film in commercial exhibitions, however, it is in turn being displaced by internet streaming or downloads. Obtaining a return through this medium has proven difficult. There are still wonderful materials waiting to be discovered in vaults or archives. Whether Kino and other companies will find it worthwhile to do so, when newer technologies have replaced the DVD, remains to be seen.


8:31 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

If any "I was there" proof is needed as to Buster's generosity I remember Donald Crisp (who co-directed "The Navigator") on This Is Your Life, half-praising, half taking to task in a "parental" way, Buster, by saying, "This man virtually gave away his salary every-week, and you know that's true young man". I understand that after Eleanor married Buster in his "has-been" days, when his draw was vastly more modest as an MGM gag-man, her biggest challenge was to keep an eye on the purse-strings!

As your posts go John, this, for me, is really as good as it could possibly get! Many thanks, R.J.

1:29 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'd forgotten about that Donald Crisp segment, R.J. Buster surely was generous, as witness the way he supported the whole Keaton family for all of their lives.

And thanks for YOUR generous praise.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

And let me ladle some more to the overflowing burgoo of praise; even by your lofty standards, most recent posts have been fabulous. LOVE the Buster stuff!

You and your readers have touched on some interesting aspects unique to Keaton. Gotta remember, unlike other comic icons, Buster was a celebrity his entire life. Even in the most humbling years of personal failure and low-rung employment, everyone, I mean EVERYONE knew who he was. No solemn faced Snub Pollard or Hank Mann without make-up. He was instantly recognizable Buster, that special little guy and, as far as Buster's rock solid self image was concerned, a special little guy with special talents and powers that never deserted him. I think that helps explain how he could show up for work and do a great job, no matter how demeaning the assignment. He LIKED trouble shooting gag work, LOVED making cute beer commercials. By that point in his career, he never had the urge to act above these tasks because he was good at them and that fact alone was certainly good enough for him.

I always thought what little we know of what the major stars at MGM in the forties thought of Keaton indicates a combination of pity, embarrassment and revulsion... this, in sharp contrast to Keaton's own uncomplicated, straight ahead work ethic. Groucho Marx, it seems, was just plain creeped out by the guy, maybe seeing him as a walking ghost symbolizing overnight failure. Lord knows Red Skelton had weird enough issues about all his writers, but his decades long silence on Keaton is, still, just unbelievable. I mean the man bought Charlie Chaplin's old studio pretty much on a hero worshiping whim, but couldn't acknowledge his association with, not to mention his professional debt to this other comedy giant. Even long after Keaton's rep was restored to levels far greater than it had been in the 20's! Pretty sure Buster himself wouldn't know what to make of insecurity this huge.

Anyway, great posts and keep up the terrific work!

5:26 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

There was a great little bookstore in Beverly Hills years ago, on the corner of Rodeo Drive and "little" Santa Monica Blvd. where we all liked to hang after school and after we'd probably been thrown-out of every other public place in the neighborhood, called, if I remember, Hunters.

I naturally loved to haunt the movie/theatre section for anything new. I remember this like it was 5-minutes ago. A new book (paperback) had just come-out on Keaton. Since most of these films were considered, at that time, either lost or just plain unavailable, I sat on a little stool, devouring it. Suddenly, I can feel a pair of eyes staring down at me. I look up, a very tall man, well-dressed, with a cigar, was smiling at me, quite benevolently, I thought. It was Red Skelton.

1:10 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

Incidentally, Keaton will be the star of the month on TCM in October. Should be fun! I got my first major introduction to Keaton (I had seen one or two films before) when TCM featured him in, oh must have been around 1999 or 2000.

10:02 AM  

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