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Friday, January 26, 2018

What Keaton Shorts Work Best?

The Electric House and Keaton Prints Getting Better All The Time

Buster Keaton goes a route followed by other comics who’d spoof household labor-save devices, in this case a residence wired to spare owners even getting off a chair. Now that electricity was part of virtually all homes, anything seemed possible. Buster would always be a proponent of squirrelly convenience, his personal electric train table server built in the 50’s much like one he conceived for this long-before two reeler. He also spent idle hours as Metro gagman (post-major stardom) building gadgets for amusement of office visitors like Lucille Ball, who’d later recall his ingenuity. The Electric House then, is hobbyist as well as filmmaking Keaton, who I’ll bet constructed, or at least took hand, in the short’s every device. At least one laid him low, an escalator on which BK fell and snapped an ankle. Witnesses could actually hear the break, as I almost do whenever I re-see and cringe at the mishap. There might lay disadvantage of learning how these shorts were made.

We got The Electric House among festival Keatons unspooled at Greensboro’s lost and legendary Janus Theatre, prints courtesy of Raymond Rohauer, who flew in for part of the month-long spree. At that time (1973), just seeing The Electric House was a major event. The only home-use Keaton two-reelers were Cops, Balloonatic, a Griggs-Moviedrome The Haunted House, which quality the seller rated only “fair.” Any beyond these might be had from galaxy-away South America (a dealer named Enrique Bouchard, who also offered Keaton grail feature The Three Ages). I balked at ordering on doubt that nothing so far off could make its way to NC --- how then, by mule train over the Andes? Just to see a Keaton outside handful Blackhawk or Griggs sold was excitement plenty, so it mattered less how the print looked. In fact, it enhanced the thrill to look at something you knew (or was told) had been rescued within nick of time. To the devil then was due --- had it not been for Rohauer, we’d have lots less of Keaton.

Revisit to Keaton usually stop at four to five shorts for me over two or three days I'll devote. There can be, after all, too much of even best things. Each time raises a new question, such as how many of these could you play to the uninitiated? Decision comes down less to merit than how well each short has survived. A number are missing sections, gaps filled by explanatory titles. The usual we’re lucky to have them at all is fine for Keaton loyalists, who will indeed take and treasure any footage they can get of Buster, but is it reasonable to expect newcomers to embrace Convict 13 or Daydreams in the current shape they’re in? Maybe programmers need a guide list of ones of the group that are safe for general consumption. I could offhand suggest Neighbors, The Goat, and certainly most famous of the lot, Cops. As to others, it would need thorough review, of which half might click without allowances made, a difference between general and archival interest. As search continues for truant footage, one or more of the total of nineteen could hop from second column to first, should luck bring further upgrades.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, the current Blu-ray of the Keaton shorts that includes his work with Arbuckle offers them as best as can be got right now and that is damn fino. I worship at the shrine of all things Keaton so I have all the sets released before that one plus every thing else Keaton I can get my hands on.

COPS, for my money, is where to start with people who have never seen Buster. It was where I started when I bought a 8mm print it seems a century ago and was happy to have that. We live in a surfeit of riches. There are so many things now available folks are starting to take them for granted.

Last week I looked at the latest Blu-ray of THE GENERAL. It is hard to believe people were so blind to its merits when it was first shown but they were.

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the high points of 2015's MOSTLY LOST was Serge Bromberg's screening of an alternate reel two of THE BLACKSMITH, which gets Keaton out of the titular shop. It's on Lobster's Blu-ray release.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

The original nitrate negatives of most of Buster's initial shorts released through Metro survived in pristine condition: THE HIGH SIGN, ONE WEEK, THE SCARECROW, NEIGHBORS, THE HAUNTED HOUSE and THE GOAT were "already there" in glorious 35mm prints when Rohauer debuted the BK Festival in the US in 1970. And, truth be told, these particular shorts hold up splendidly with audiences whether they're die-hard Keaton fans or silent film neophytes. Among the later First National shorts I wouldn't discount THE PLAYHOUSE, THE BOAT, THE PALEFACE or THE BALLOONATIC, in addition to COPS. As Michael noted above, Serge Bromberg's alternate version of THE BLACKSMITH has greatly improved audiences' reaction towards that short; it's now a revelatory must-see along with the above. So we're talking at least 12 outstanding BK two-reelers here that also look fantastic, and by the way, didn't Chaplin give us a "Golden Dozen" when he starred for Mutual?

10:22 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great info, Ed. I had not realized so many of the nitrate negatives survived on the Keaton shorts. I wish I could recall better just how ELECTRIC HOUSE looked when I saw it at the Janus Keaton festival in 1973. Anyway, it was a thrill to see it in whatever condition.

10:32 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Part of the trick with showing silent comedies is watching out for stuff modern audiences won't get at all.

SCARECROW opens with Buster using a Victrola as a stove and cheating a coin-operated gas meter; both of which are merely cryptic to recent generations. Fortunately, the super-efficient bachelor breakfast that follows still plays like gangbusters, and everything that follows is timeless.

ONE WEEK also plays like gangbusters; the prefab house is even more of a thing now than it was then. The title reference to "Three Weeks" is lost to modern viewers, who don't even miss it.

PLAYHOUSE is solid; all the audience needs to get is that a variety of acts arrive to do a show. Likewise THE BOAT; most of the gags would still work in modern times. THE GOAT and BALOONATIC both play.

The only rap on COPS is that it takes a little patience as Buster is fooled into thinking he's bought a wagonload of goods. Then it's pure action. MY WIFE'S RELATIONS might fly with audiences versed in the old Irish stereotypes -- and willing to give Keaton, an Irishman himself, a pass for modern incorrectness.

Keaton features all play, because the storytelling is clear and almost never dependent on contemporary references. THE CAMERAMAN opens with a tribute to the fearless newsreel photographer, which has become exposition for modern viewers. Tong wars may be history, but gang rumbles are familiar enough to us.

Chaplin seemed to have one foot in a mythical world even then; everything you need to know about that world is onscreen. Lloyd's and Chase's work, in contrast, was often tied closely to what was then everyday life. You can usually guess what's up, as you can with W.C. Fields's more domestic forays, but at the very least you should know about Prohibition and Pullman berths.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

I was part of an orchestra that did live music and effects for a presentation of PLAYHOUSE some years ago. One of my bandmates was dating a woman who was rather the militant-activist type and she felt very strongly that an audience would find the minstrel show sequence offensive. Happily she was dead wrong; nobody batted an eye at any of the showings. (Granted, the minstrel aspect isn't terribly blatant and the "verbal" jokes aren't done in stereotypical dialect, plus the sheer novelty of watching Buster play every role in the sequence kind of overshadows the content.)

On a side note, the band member who composed the score had used the DVD version, so when we discovered the 35mm print was different (the Zouave sequence was in a different place in the film) the score had to be altered and re-rehearsed.

9:11 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Enrique Bouchard I think is still around, at least in Facebook. But the last time he posted something was a couple of month ago. I managed to meet him in person by chance in San Telmo twenty years ago, a place in Buenos Aires were certain collectors that are not from Argentina usually gather (specifically, at Mercado Dorrego). Local people go to other less fancy but more serious places in the city.

Fernando Martín Peña, who has direct access to Bouchard's and others holdings along his own ones that he use in his show (I'm eager for its return since now I found a way to see it as it airs straight on television), is a big fan of Keaton and he always devote one week to him every year, having shown everything by now.

2:20 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

And just noticed something: Buster's class of job-seeking graduates appears to be 50% female. Presumably Keaton & company weren't making a comment, but simply doing a gag about typical grads not even pausing to remove caps and gowns before hitting the employment office.

I know colleges (and college pictures) were full of coeds, but I never really reflected that many of them were Modern Women embarking on careers (although the glass ceiling was a lot thicker). The movies tended to focus on heroines whose postgraduate careers were as wives to campus heroes. Granted, Keaton's class seem to have come out of trade schools but the point remains.

3:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Enrique Bouchard did the most arresting ads for the old CLASSIC FILM COLLECTOR monthly. I used to dream about owning so much of what he offered, including many rare titles in addition to the Keatons.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

While I was working for Rohauer in the late 1970s-early '80s, Enrique Bouchard ran an ad in CLASSIC FILM COLLECTOR selling the complete two-reel version of CONVICT 13. I bought a 16mm print, had a reversal made, and sold a copy to Rohauer, who only had the 35mm nitrate negative of reel two. Rohauer of course was elated, and had a 35mm blowup made of the footage he was missing. But I wouldn't divulge the source of my print -- knowing Raymond's dirty tactics for total acquisition, I didn't want Rohauer hounding Bouchard for something the latter had rescued. Rohauer routinely looted film archives and confiscated material they had preserved and I was certain he'd pursue legal action here. My silence about the CONVICT 13 source eventually became a sticking point between Rohauer and myself. I finally had to quit because the man's constant badgering began to resemble a KGB-style interrogation. I'm glad to say I never sold out to him -- nor did I condone his dirty tactics.

4:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Ed, I hope you will devote a very long section of your upcoming Keaton book to the Rohauer saga. This is a topic that really fascinates me, as does your recount in the earlier comment about the fate of film elements for the Keaton films.

4:19 PM  
Blogger FrankM said...

John, you really missed out if you never ordered from Mr Bouchard - his prints were top class and he was a gentleman to deal with. He always included a little extra, usually a one reel short, with each order. The films came without reels and part of the fun was spooling them up for showing.

Lovely to hear from radiotelefonia that Enrique J is still active, my brother and I have fond memories of his parcels!

4:48 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Regret to say I was not adventurous enough to order my 8mm films from out of the country. I seldom wandered off the Blackhawk reservation, other than for occasional Griggs prints, and a bootleg now and then from folks I knew and trusted. I have always heard good things about Enrique Bouchard. It was my loss for not making contact with him.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

"The Electric House" was the first Keaton I ever saw in a theater, in the mid-90s in Albuquerque. I just rewatched it at home with my kids a few weeks ago (at their request -- they'd seen it before). It holds up quite well. The stills on your page remind me though of how many scenes must be missing or at least shortened!

10:26 PM  

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