Monday, December 31, 2012

Le Roi des Champs-Elysees (1934)

Le Roi des Champs-Elysees is so palpably better in every way than anything else Buster Keaton was making at the time, it is a shame it is not better known. This is certainly his best film since Spite Marriage, and maybe better, because while Spite Marriage may have more of the Keaton physical skill and stunts, this one has more of the Keaton heart and soul. It is a sweeter and smarter movie that feels worthy of him for the first time in a while.

Unfortunately it is all but unknown to those outside the die-hard fandom, because its a French film that saw limited contemporary release (it was not released in the USA) and, to my knowledge, has not been subtitled in English or yet released on dvd. That really is too bad, because its quite a good film. The production is solid, the acting consistently fine, and the story funny and well-suited to Keaton's skill.

I watched on Youtube and am very grateful that it was available at all, so I'm not complaining, but the version I saw was in French (with Buster's part dubbed by a not-very-convincing French actor). There were thankfully, subtitles. But these were in Spanish! haha. Which I sadly don't speak -- though I don't speak it less poorly than I don't speak French, so I paid attention to the Spanish subtitles and kept Google translate open at the bottom of the screen to translate Spanish to English as much as I needed/could stand to do. This turned out to be a tedious, but ultimately very cool, adventure!

Now that I basically know what's going on, I'll have to watch it again without the constant pausing. I bet it will even better. Watching in this way, there are certain plot points that I never really got -- but with or without full understanding of the plot intricacies, one can enjoy it on other levels. It presents one of Buster's most remarkable performances as an actor that I can think of. He is fabulous in a dual performance, playing a down-on-his luck actor and an escaped convict. In the first role, Buster mistakenly distributes large amounts of cash to the public in a publicity ploy gone wrong. One of the accidental recipients is a lovely young woman with whom he becomes friendly.  In the second role, Buster plays a mean, tough-guy criminal boss. He plays them both so well, I forget that they are both Buster. It is so refreshing to see him with that harder tough edge after all these Elmers! It is clear exactly which character he is playing at any time (even though both are dressed alike and look, duh, identical), he emotes so differently when he's the classically bad dude. Its wonderful to see him like that.

The part of the film that everyone talks about comes at the end when Buster (in the good guy role) and his flirty new friend share a kiss that brings out Buster's beautiful smile. I've seen a still photo of that moment and have been anxious to see the scene from which it came. The whole embrace is a wonderful moment, far beyond just the smile, with a warm emotive feel that is unusual in a Keaton film. The still shots don't do the scene justice. It is charmant!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sidewalks of New York (1931)

I'm getting tired of saying this, but after watching "Sidewalks of New York" last night I have to conclude: "it's really not that bad." Also getting tired of sharing that there is a kernel of a good story idea in the film that clearly got overproduced away. There is an unmistakable feel of too many hands on deck and no one's vision coming through.

The story involves Buster as a slumlord (did I just type that? seriously) who goes to visit his tenement and gets involved with a beautiful girl, Margie, played by Anita Page, and her ruffian brother. By far the best thing about this flick is that Buster is NOT playing Elmer. Yes, his character is seen as the butt of some jokes, but Buster does not use the "Elmer affect" in his performance (you know: that hangdog look, the dimwitted earnestness, the strange stilted speech that makes it look like just getting words out is hard). Although his character in SNY is described in various internet film sources as "dim witted," he really isn't. He comes across as quite normal. In fact, this is as close as I've ever been to hearing Buster in what is probably his normal voice, and I really loved that!

In fact, his voice is beautiful when he's not doing the Elmer. If there is anyone out there that wants to watch a talkie of Buster's just to hear what he sounded like, this is definitely the one I'd recommend.

The major shortcoming is the ridiculous plot, which is somewhat heavier than normal Keaton films - with thugs, criminal activity, juvenile delinquency, and great poverty. It walks a line somewhere between crime melodrama and comedy - and does neither well. The way the gangs of kids were portrayed was so irritating and so grating that I longed for merciful silence. Their shouts and jibes were so jarring. Characters do not behave in reasonable ways in this film -- either irrationally hating Buster's character, Harmon, or changing too quickly from hate to approval, or, as Buster always seems to do, falling in love for no apparent reason.

But, in the plus column are: an incredibly whimsical and romantic kiss in the gym between Harmon and Margie and several moments of vintage Keaton skill including some hilarious boxing, an amazing scene with a feast of duck, and a very charming scene when Harmon and his sidekick, played by Cliff Edwards, improvise a marriage proposal for Harmon using popular sheet music titles. The movie is not entirely rescued from itself by these features but, it does make the film "not that bad" to watch. In fact, I actually enjoyed it a good deal.

I read on TCM's film notes that before he made this film, Buster was sent away by MGM to dry out from his alcoholism and he came back fit, excited and ready to work. That clearly shows in this film. He looks fantastic here; there is a sharpness about him I hadn't realized I'd missed so much. Physically he is in fine form doing plenty of falls and flips that look great. Apparently Keaton was devastated to be given this "dog" to work on when he came back. However, it seems to me he nevertheless tried to give it his all. That attitude and coherence in him really comes through in the film, even though the project is not a great one. Leading me to once again pine for the lost creativity that hampered Buster at this time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What, No Beer? (1933)

For a while I avoided this movie. I understood it to be nearly "unwatchable" due to how far Keaton had sunk. No one needs to argue that point with me. I don't like to see Keaton in these slow-witted dofus roles either, nor do I wish to have evidence paraded before my eyes of his inability to work due to growing alcoholism. By his own admission this film represented a low point in his career, so I wasn't looking forward to it. But, ultimately, I figured if you're gonna write about the guy, you've got to watch the films. So I watched.

And what I found is that this film was not horrible at all. I personally found it harder to watch him in Free and Easy than this one. The thing is, if you are going to watch Keaton in any post-Cameraman work, you have to get over the shock and horror of seeing him playing inept, flat characters in a world where his incredible talents are squandered. If you can accept that at all, which I admit is not an easy thing to do, then you are likely to find things to enjoy in these films.

I even found a bit of chemistry between Keaton and Jimmy Durante here and was actually glad for the latter's presence. Keaton has clearly given up the fight and turned to alcohol. In this movie he is sloshed; you can tell. Because of this, the movie falls to Durante and with the full force of his personality he shoves it through. I really ended up liking Durante in spite of his irritating loud voice and pushy demeanor and was grateful Keaton had him for support, because he could not have carried the weight of this picture by himself.  I'm not sure he could have stood by himself. . . .  I don't mean to overstate this point. The drunkenness really is not glaring. You could easily watch and not notice Keaton is blotto, but, once you tune into it, you see evidence everywhere. In some scenes he's literally leaning into the other actors, eyes half closed and speech slurred. He's a skilled enough performer and they must have done enough editing that you aren't hit over the head with the incapacity, but after seeing this film I'm not at all surprised that MGM felt they couldn't work with him anymore.

The backstory about this being Keaton's last major studio feature film, about how his life was falling apart, about how his drinking was taking over and how his subsequent firing made that drinking even worse does make watching the film a sad experience. But in truth, it is the backstory that is sad. The film itself is funny and NOT terrible.

In fact, after watching it, I'm surprised the Keatonites, er, Keatophiles? Busteraphiles?, don't pay more attention to it for the great sexy scene in which very beautiful Phyllis Barry flirts with and teases Elmer about taking off her dress, then (while wrapped in a man's coat and her underclothes), purrs her demand for a foot rub -- which he accommodates and begins to slide his hand up her leg. Yes. You are reading this right. Given that Buster's films don't tend to include a lot of seductive material, this has to be some of the best. There should be more folks checking out the film for that scene alone. Speaking of Barry, although not a particularly great actress, she is enjoyable here. She projects a great persona. And, not only that, but she wears some truly wonderful gowns!

It's a curious film with its theme of over the top beer-lust. Although released in the year prohibition was lifted, it was many months before the ratification made drinking legal. It is funny to think that while prohibition was still in force during the time of the film's release, censorship was not. So what could be depicted on screen about beer in 1933 was liberal, flowing, lustful, and over-the-top; though, meanwhile, the actual drinking of beer was still constrained. Prohibition traded places with censorship the next year, and I'm guessing that had the film been made then, though beer would have been legal, the Hays code would probably have prevented numerous scenes in this exuberant film from being included.

Funny, how you can think of "prohibition" as providing almost end-caps to Keaton's core Hollywood years. His film career began in NY in 1917 then swiftly took off in Hollywood right after he came back from service in WWI -- right near the start of prohibition. It ended with his firing from MGM which took place in the year prohibition lifted. I suppose when I have more time to think on it, I will find lots of value in analogies for this framing, for now, I see simple irony.  I have seen so many films throughout the silent-era/prohibition-era where characters drink or talk about drinking. Hollywood streets were flowing with alcohol, and the very period of prohibition was the one in which Keaton acquired his drinking problem.

But, I digress. Back to the film itself and what it has to offer. No, it is not classic cinema. But it has a basically interesting and simple clean-cut plot (which is more than you can say for a lot of these films). The whole thing revolves around prohibition ending and a couple of guys seeking to capitalize on that. Gangster squabbles are involved as is a mixed up love interest, confusion over whether the beer actually has alcohol in it, etc. In fact, in some ways, this is one of the better plots of the Keaton MGM years. Had Keaton been in fine form and in any sort of artistic control (which, to be fair, there's no way he could have handled at this point anyway), this movie actually could have been pretty great.

There are two flashback moments (intended or not?) -- one when Elmer goes to the jobs window (reminding me of the waiting in line at the bread window in The Goat and one when the beer barrels start rolling off the truck and chase him down the hill (a la Seven Chances) -- serving as swan songs to a career that Buster was too blotto to see.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Doughboys (1930)

I liked this film. There. I said it. As a matter of fact, one of my next posts is going to be about how these MGM-era Keaton features are not as bad as they are often made out to be. The first principle toward finding enjoyment in them is to adjust your mind to the great change that has come about in Keaton's career. No, it is not an easy adjustment. But if you can temporarily let go of Cops and The General, accept that this is a totally different situation for Keaton, and that you aren't going to see his best work or his most competent skills on display, you may be in for a surprise. Just because they aren't his best doesn't mean they aren't good at all.

Doughboys is very watchable and at parts even enjoyable. It reminds me of any other boot camp show with its bossy sergeant and its mishmashed troops (think Stripes, Private Benjamin, Gomer Pyle USMC). Further, I understand that I'm in good company liking this film, as Keaton himself thought it was his best MGM talkie.

Buster is here again playing Elmer; but this time it's not Elmer Butts -- and oddly, that seems to make a difference. His character is a snooty rich boy who accidentally joins the army, thinking he is hiring a new chauffeur. Reminding me ever so slightly of his character in The Saphead, Battling Butler, or The Navigator, its great to see him with a bit more power in this role. If nothing else, he uses some of the same facial expressions that hark back to those earlier films, making me sense that a bit of his personal spark is smoldering under this character.

There's a fair amount of exterior filming which is really refreshing. I'm not sure how they swung that given that this is a sound film made in 1930, when sound cameras were generally so difficult to work with outdoors people generally didn't bother. I am very glad they made the effort though because outdoor locations gave it an expansive feel, more like the silent films that Buster so excelled at.

The time setting, WWI, is also an excellent choice for a Keaton feature given that Keaton, like his character here, was deployed to France during that war. In the war, Keaton described himself as a sort of self appointed morale officer, performing for his mates; and here, its great to see him as part of the stage set, dancing in drag and doing some great stunts.

The plot is a bit disjointed and strange, but Keaton is enjoyable to watch. If you are a fan, don't be scared away by this one. And if you aren't, well, this one probably isn't for you.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Passionate Plumber (1932)

I hate this film title. It leads me to believe that Buster's character, doofus Elmer, is going to be made fun of for his prowess or desire, but this is not the case at all.  In fact, Elmer, here, gets to show glimmers of intelligence we have not seen much of from Buster Keaton since his joining MGM.

The plot goes something like this: Elmer is an American plumber living in France; Jimmy Durante plays McKracken, a chauffeur, who brings Elmer to his employer's (Patricia's) house when she needs a plumber. While there, Elmer's clothes get wet and, appearing in a towel, he is mistaken for Patricia's lover, by her caddish boyfriend Tony.

Although Patricia loves Tony she wants to leave him because he won't divorce his wife. Meanwhile, we learn that Elmer has invented a sighting-handgun that shines a light where you are trying to shoot. (By the way, this actually sounds like a great invention; I don't know much about guns, but, of course we have such things now with lasers; I wonder when those got invented. . . ).  Because he's always trying to show the general his invention by pulling out the gun, people keep thinking he's trying to assassinate the guy. Although the gun plot never really goes anywhere, it does cause Elmer's path to collide again with wealthy, ditzy Patricia. Ultimately she hires Elmer to pretend to be her lover and to keep herself away from Tony.  He takes on the job with aplomb, showing plenty of spunk and stubbornness that I really like.

I don't know why this film gets such a bad rap, relative to Keaton's other films of this era. Of course its not great, but none of them are. As I've noted elsewhere, MGM has clearly missed the point of Keaton's talent and featured him in films that are far below his skills. They have put him in fluffy, overproduced farces -- places where Keaton assuredly does not belong. But, the upside is, even in fluffy overproduced farces, Keaton is still entertaining.  And here, in the Passionate Plumber, there's something more: his character is actually in control of the picture; he is the one driving the action and acting (somewhat) forcefully. He exhibits brain power and, through clever thinking, manages a final scene that brings about the ending that makes him happy. He also executes a fair amount of nice physical comedy gags, such as the serving breakfast in bed scene and the whole interlude in the casino.

Another thing this film has going for it is some good supporting actors. Gilbert Roland as Tony is wonderful. I don't know what counts as an "A-list" actor exactly, but he has to be one of the few recognizable names to appear in these Keaton talkies (other than Jimmy Durante who co starred of course).  In addition to Roland, there is Mona Maris as Nina the Spanish lover. She is a whirlwind of beauty and energy. I love her intensely stereotypic performance. Polly Moran is very good as the maid, Albine. I also enjoy Irene Purcell in the lead female role, but I admit she can't actually act. Or rather, she overacts. But she is likeable enough and her scenes with Buster are warm and genuine. She plays someone who (though torn and presumedly in love with the other guy and exasperated with Elmer) at least seems to value Elmer and act kindly to him throughout most of the movie.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Spite Marriage (1929)

After you watch all of Buster's "own" work -- that amazing hunk of film over which he had artistic control and which rightfully establishes him as a silent genius -- and there's nothing left in the well, you will be understandably sad. But, take heart, you're in luck. There are a dozen short comedy collaborations he made with Fatty Arbuckle that you can drown your sorrows with. Though not anywhere as clever as Buster's own work, these films are still uniformly solid, fun and  enjoyable. Unfortunately once you've exhausted those -- and you still need more Keaton -- there's nothing else to do but to plunge forward into the MGM-era work.

And that, friends, is just what I've been doing.

The MGM films start off auspiciously enough with The Cameraman,  still bearing his unmistakable artistic stamp. In fact, many Keaton fans consider it his finest work; it enjoys a lovely polished feel that blends superbly with his signature physical comedy to create a masterwork. But unfortunately, just after making that film, Buster's ability to control the details of his movies fell off sharply and the films that followed are serious disappointments for his modern fans. They are just not in the same league as his earlier work. Watching them causes a certain internal struggle as the desire for more Keaton clashes hotly with the trauma of lost potential.

Spite Marriage, which followed The Cameraman, was Buster's last silent film of the era and was released in April of 1929 when the movies were undergoing a massive upheaval. It is important to note that backdrop because it frames one's expectations for movies of this timeframe. The advent of sound created crazed changes for the industry that are hard to understand without immersing yourself in the time period. As anyone reading this is probably already aware, around 1927, especially with the release of The Jazz Singer, the technological advances necessary to adding a synchronized audio to films had begun to change the industry. Although the public was ravenous to "hear" the movies they were seeing, adding sound to films was not as simple as flipping on the sound switch. Everything about how films were being produced needed to change to accommodate sound filming -- cameras were no longer as mobile as they had been, microphone placement became important, acting styles shifted to take into account speech as a way to emote, ambient background sounds started to matter, and most of all, comedy was changing too.

Because the public was heady for new things, the style of comedy associated with silent films -- physical, visual comedy -- began to give way to dialog comedy. I do believe that it is that change -- the change in comedy style -- not the fact of sound per se, and not even the change from his own studio to that of MGM, that caused Keaton's career to suffer the most. The loss of public interest in the style of comedy Keaton was a genius at was a huge barrier to his success in this "transition era." The changes in Hollywood were huge, and so were the changes in the world at large. Keep in mind that the transition from silent to sound was happening on the threshold of the stock market crash and great depression. In larger social context, the era is one of many upheavals.

I say all this by way of noting how massively Spite Marriage has already shifted from Keaton's brilliant Steamboat Bill Jr. (from the prior year) or even from The Cameraman, made just a few months before. Spite Marriage is and feels like a "transition era" film. Unpleasant in the same awkward teenage way other films being produced at this time were, this is not entirely a silent film -- there are synchronized sound effects and a music track.  However, the sound effects are grating. We don't need comic sounds to underscore that Buster is doing something funny. Whoops, whizzes, zips, and tweets are just stupid when the comedy speaks for itself.

The fact that Keaton was now making movies in a group-think format at the MGM factory is on full display here. The plot is no longer a simple, understated Keaton affair; it is convoluted, over-produced, and overstated. In fact, though I watched this film just a few weeks ago, I cannot honestly remember much of the plot at all. But, I also recognize that in this era, people just weren't making great films. They were too preoccupied with sound -- whether to include it or not, whether to have a music number, or some sound effects -- rather than the business of crafting an exceptional story.  This film actually has several good kernels of story ideas, but squanders them. (There are parts that reminded me of All About Eve with its backstage spectator fantasy theme. But nothing ever really comes of that. Or, rather, that theme gets blurred together with some others in an unfinished way.)

So, no, this film does not have an exceptional story, but it is still exceptional in that it has a great deal of Buster in it. Some of his scenes are laugh-aloud funny (such as where he puts on the stage whiskers, or, of course, the famous putting the drunk wife to bed scene). There is also a short scene where Buster is being chased by cops, that is not only excellent, but bittersweet. Fans of his earlier work will remember what he can do when allowed to let loose and feel twinges of regret that we will not see it again. These same vignettes of memory may strike you during his scenes on the boat. It is exhilarating to see Keaton in his element on his beloved boats. . . but sad to know that the physically powerful Keaton -- the in control, zen-like Keaton -- has left us for good.

This film inspires another set of musings for me, this time with the idea of Buster's image. Here, he looks so much more like a man than he does in his own films. He is in his mid-30s, and for the first time actually appears to be a grown up.  It makes me wonder how Buster might have milked his own changing look for more and different laughs had he been able to stay in control of his image. Unfortunately, he gets held in a child-like limbo, ratcheted down to a dumber version of his younger self, hijacked by the Elmer persona (his character here, played for the first time and blessedly without dialog.). Slowly, over the next half-dozen MGM films, Keaton's persona, image and style morph into something almost unrecognizable from the peaceful intelligent matter-of-fact likeableness of his earlier style.

MGM films have missed the point of Buster's genius.  The smart viewer knows, as Keaton knew, that it's pathetic to laugh at a fool who doesn't have a clue. Buster was never funny, amazing and interesting because he was a bumbling fool. He was wonderful because he sat on that ironic edge -- between someone who appeared to be a loser, but who was actually in supreme control of his world.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Free and Easy (1930)

A painful struggle goes on when a Buster Keaton fan attempts to view one of his post-Cameraman works.

On the one hand, there is Buster, still looking cute as hell and still capable of doing wonderful things, though sometimes beneath ridiculous pants or stupid clown makeup. . . . On the other, it is impossible not to notice how badly MGM missed the point of this man and you wonder how they could have gotten it so wrong.

So, when people speak of movies like Free and Easy as "only for the Keaton die-hards," I think they've got it all wrong. In the case of these MGM travesties, it is Keaton fans that have the most to suffer when we see his talent being thrown away. Others need not feel that particular pain.

This film is actually best suited to those fans of early cinema who are not attached to Keaton. Those folks won't have to suffer like we do when we see him in something so far beneath his talent, trying gamely to go along. However, they will get to see what provides a surprisingly interesting behind-the-scenes glimpse into movie-making inside the MGM studios circa 1930 -- right at the dawn of the talkies and the powerful studio system. I mean, talk about a rare opportunity.

To backtrack a bit then, the movie's simple plot has Keaton playing Elmer Butts, a doofus of a talent agent from Kansas who's been assigned to escort Miss Kansas-something or other to LA for meetings and screen-test opportunities. He has to deal with her mother (played very much like Wilma Flintstone's) and their clash forms a big chunk of the plot tension. On the train out west, the ingenue and her mom meet a cool movie star, and the girl, obviously very sweet and beautiful, engages his attentions. Ultimately she ends up with him.... the movie star I mean, much to Elmer's dismay. (This may be one of the first Keaton films where he doesn't "get the girl" -- even counting Fatty Arbuckle's movies in which he was still often the romantic hero.)

And speaking of the sufferings of the Keaton fan..., a profoundly sad example comes on this very train ride when Buster's Elmer is being told off by the conductor who says he can't go through the train to where the girl and her mom are waiting. Just two years prior, Buster would certainly have climbed atop it and run to the proper car, probably jumping through a window without pause to get to where he wanted to be..., while here sits Elmer chatting with the conductor on the back end of the train while the girl's mom soundly abuses his stupidity. Heartbreaking.

But I digress. The additional layers of plot in Free and Easy aren't really worth describing. It seems to me that someone involved with the film had a core of a good idea, but that teams of people with an eye toward making this a "talkie" got involved to improve it with witty dialog as well as sparkling song and dance numbers. (Is the sarcasm coming through?)

There are plenty of kernels of ideas that just don't get handled well, and it is therefore not very watchable for the most part. At two different times I nearly turned it off -- but was glad I didn't, because there were other parts that were very cool.

I actually liked Buster's interaction with his rival at the apartment when they both discover they're from Kansas and find a connection -- getting excited about husking corn. There is some chemistry and interest, and there is Buster with his naturally engaging comic presence. And, later, when Buster is singing and dancing, he just can't help but exude talent. The musical number "King and Queen" was fascinating. As was Buster's performance in "Free and Easy." But neither these moments, nor the corn husking scene, really helped the underlying plot in any way. Its not that they couldn't have in the hands of a better production, but they were just odd little snippets that made little sense. And sadly, the odd snippets were worth more than the underlying story.

All that said, the best part of the movie is the inside glimpse into MGM studios. You can see the stage sets, the cameras, the directors, the entry gate and other behind the scenes workers - security guards, etc. - doing their thing. More amazing are the numerous cameos done by actual MGM directors and actors in this film, playing themselves in order to be part of the authentic backdrop of our characters' experiences on set. (These include: Cecil B. DeMille, Jackie Coogan, Fred Niblo, William Haines, William Collier Jr., David Burton, Arthur Lange, Billy May, and probably others.) There is a movie premiere event within the film, which was actually filmed at Graumann's Chinese Theater, complete with red carpet moment, that allows you feel the era in an astonishing way. These things are done as a basic, accurate, backdrop and are probably oozing with authenticity. They represent a very "real" moment in cinematic history that are worth seeing. And it is probably worth putting up with a fairly so-so movie in order to see them.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Just up the road from the echoes: Chasing the feel of 1920s Hollywood

Its true what they say, there is no going back. Driving in LA in search of Buster Keaton's Hollywood, I realize that while you may be able to see the exact locations where his films were made -- thanks to the extraordinary research of John Bengtson -- it is impossible to really go there. Time drives relentlessly away from the quaint silent past, and in LA, more than anywhere else, the present is extremely loud and insistent. It just doesn't permit quiet reflection on bygone eras.

Even before going into this trip I knew, for instance, that Venice Beach would be unlikely to yield its silent echoes easily, but just how true that was would take me by surprise. Armed with a couple simple addresses from Bengtson's Book, designed to help me experience the place where Buster had filmed parts of The High Sign and The Cameraman, I thought I might grab a moment - just a second, even - of reflection on the changing landscape. To be charitable, maybe this would have been possible at say, 6 in the morning, but I can assure you that at 2 in the afternoon, it is not. It was all I could do to keep from losing my child, my backpack, and my mind while walking along what was once Ocean Front Walk and is now truly hell -- a funny sort of hell where strangers seem absolutely bent on getting you to take a flyer about their medical marijuana. (One of the odder things about this Venice Beach too was that it was sunny green blue and bright. So impossibly bright that it just felt wrong. It seemed to us that it should look black & white the way the world is supposed to -- but maybe that's another post.)

No, you can't find historic reflections in Venice and you certainly can't find them along Hollywood Boulevard. I didn't even try. Though I had a list of films that were made in and around Cahuenga and Hollywood Blvd and had originally thought we might linger at the intersection in an attempt to spot film locations, the desire to linger anywhere along Hollywood Blvd evaporated as soon as we got there.

You may wonder why I kept at it! . . . but, because I was so interested to see the Balboa Island area where Keaton had filmed many of his water scenes (in College, Sherlock Jr., The Cameraman, and The Boat) we went next to check out the (hopefully) idyllic tiny island just off the mainland at Newport Beach. Unfortunately, Balboa Island has to be one of the least peaceful places I've ever been. Every square inch of the 1/4 square mile island is covered with concrete or a house. I literally could not see the ocean for the houses and spent our whole visit simply trying not to hit anything with the car.

What I learned through all of this is that "finding" the past through actual film locations is extremely elusive. Luckily, what we found instead was so much better. Just up the road from the actual locations are real sites that are still evocative of Hollywood past. Locations that still seem imbued with a bit of what the 1920s had to offer and that present excellent alternatives to an actual film location tour. I call my tour "Up the Road from the Echoes" and it takes you to the places in LA where you can still pretend it is 1920.

Lets start with old Hollywood ambiance. Say you, like many others, want to find Old Hollywood on Hollywood Blvd, the place where dreams were made and maybe you've heard of the Hollywood Museum, billed as the place for early movie fans. Well, if you go, you might be impressed with the huge exhibit on Marilyn Monroe and the weird focus on movie makeup, but, if you are like me, and I hazard a guess you might be, you'll find the depiction of Hollywood in that museum distasteful and jarring. Glitzy, kitschy and seedy scenes meet your eyes under glaring lighting.  BUT, just up the street. . .

Try the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Here, located on a quiet strip of green grass next to a park and set inside an old wooden barn, you'll find a small slice of history. You'll learn about how the first movie crew began shooting the first movie in L.A. on Dec 29, 1913. You can see their photo. You can see two large film projectors that Buster Keaton once owned. You can see the silent equipment of Charlie Chaplin and a technicolor camera used in Gone With the Wind. Most importantly when you poke around in this museum you won't lose your soul. The place is relatively inexpensive, stocked with excellent books and a variety of old movie titles, smells pleasantly of earth and wood, and time. And while you're in the museum you can revel in your love of old movies and manage to feel intelligent all at the same time.

And because you're up and out of Hollywood Blvd you're away from the crowd. The best thing to do is keep going -- maybe keep going into a place called Hollywoodland. There you can visit what was still feels like a sleepy bedroom community. Hollywoodland was the original "Hollywood" of its day. The community that installed the famous sign in 1923 to attract attention and still has a small corner market and a little antique shop with early movie memorabilia. The famous sign is perched in the hills just behind the houses and, though the houses are gorgeous mansions, you won't see throngs of tourists waiting to feel the space, nor hordes of drivers clogging the streets. You can feel a slightly quieter hillside development than what you'd get down the road in Beverly Hills and you get to retain your dignity while looking.

And speaking of retaining your dignity, a perfect place for that can be found just north a couple of blocks from the absolute anarchy practiced at Venice Beach. Though it may have been a great place for filmmaking in 1922, there is almost evocative of 1922 along Ocean Front Walk now and certainly no reason to go there in search of past reflections.

BUT, just up the street . . .
Go a mile and a half north from the heart of Venice Beach. . . maybe to Wadsworth Ave or Hollister or the surrounding couple of blocks. What you'll find might surprise you: rows of lovely, preserved, 1920's era cottages, any of which it is easy to picture Buster Keaton running past fleeing the cops. You'll find a small local park sitting along the beach and your mind can supply the carousel from which he swiped a newspaper from a man. Several park benches line up just paces away and you can see him opening that newspaper to impossible dimensions. Its all just a short distance from where he actually did those things.

When you've tired of 1920s era Venice, and want a long car ride down the coast to places where you can find beach memories of the past, just keep right on going past Balboa Island.  . . . It's not far.

Maybe 5 miles south of where Buster used to shoot water scenes in his movies, you can dive right back in time to Crystal Cove. Here you'll find rows of cottages dating from the 1920s, some occupied by renters at this public beach and some existing in a more natural, time-eroded, state. The beach looks as if it were straight out of a movie. In fact movies were shot here -- if you walk into the little visitor center they'll show you a list. You can quite easily "see" the 20s at this unique and special little beach and when you hike out, notice that the hills on the other side of the highway even have the old-fashioned, brown, undeveloped look that you can picture Buster riding right through on the handlebars of a motorcycle.

The old style Hollywood may not be easy to find, but it is there in and around LA, you just have to look a little harder to find it than simply going to the locations where Keaton shot his movies.

However one place still does exist where the silent echoes are both real and tangible - it is the little area just south of the main drag in Hollywood where Keaton Studios was located.

Of course his square block studio was long ago demolished, and of course the surrounding buildings are all gone too, but the area retains an interesting light industrial feel. You're off the main drag; you can park your car and stroll around. It feels safe and pretty quiet. Although you'll see workers, no tourists are milling about. You can hear yourself think. I could totally feel the vibe of Buster running in and around, up and down these streets filming. In fact you can peer in to the lot where his stages would have been. Small-box buildings and out-buildings and light-machinery all sit on site. I found the place entrancing and am thrilled to see that much of the business taking place in the immediate vicinity of Buster's old studio is now movie-related again (prop houses, small studios, other supporting services). There must be a wonderful aura of genius still flooding the area after all these years -- the streets imbued with it.

A search for the past can take many forms. Many of us do it right from our living rooms by transporting ourselves into the past through movie magic. Others go in search of remnant buildings, street corners, spots where history occurred. I've found that when the present is too crowded to permit reflections on the past, going just Up the Road From the Echoes you can get a fuller flavor of what time was like "back then." It took a while and an excellent tour guide (thank you to my sister in law for her thorough understanding of the LA area), but I think I found the piece of the past that I was seeking. I'm now ready to go home.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Animal Magnitism

It is proverbially known that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat animals. The lines of thinking are several: that it's a gauge of kindness and care; that it demonstrates selflessness to care for those who can do nothing for you; or that there's a slippery slope (if you could hurt an animal, its a short path to mistreating humans). These are probably all excellent reasons for paying attention to how people treat animals.

But for me there's a better approach to understanding character -- you can actually best tell about someone by how animals treat them.

Animals should be the litmus test because animals have very little self-interest. They are ready to give love wherever it can be bestowed worthily. They don't care about money, status, career or your friends. And they don't care if the picture is a flop. Animal love isn't readily faked. If an animal likes you, you are likable.

It should come as no surprise that animals loved Buster. Examples abound in his movies, but these are some of the best.

From his earliest days on screen, (The Butcher Boy, The Cook and The Garage) Buster began to forge a special relationship with Luke the dog based on chemistry and affection. But in Keaton's movie The Scarecrow, there is more -- a sense of mutual respect among performers. Luke was a smart dog with lots of film experience - and here is Buster shaking his hand in The Scarecrow to signal a truce in their shenanigans. Its a sweet and funny moment and it matters to the movie because Luke's respect probably actually mattered to Keaton.

The Blacksmith features a delightful scene where Buster treats a beautiful white horse to something of a spa day when a customer comes in wanting her shod. He shows the horse some shoes that aren't to her liking, then he selects some great strappy sandals and the horse is charmed. She even gets her nose powdered while the two seem to share a meeting of the minds. Buster and his equine friend hold court charmingly together for several memorable minutes.

In Go West, we get to see Buster's soul through the eyes of an adoring cow. "Brown Eyes" is beautiful and her clear desire to be near Buster is evident. You have to trust the cow, given that she cannot have cared about the movie biz. You might argue that she only responds to him in such a special way because he reportedly spent many days taking the cow everywhere he went, building her trust. Hanging out with a cow, huh? That seems to speak volumes itself -He not only cared enough to take the time to win the cow's love, but he was smart enough to know that it mattered.

You'd be hard pressed to find a cooler simian/human relationship than the one we get to enjoy in The Cameraman. Co-protectors, friends, and helpmates they are the most touching team. And play off each other with a beautifully seamless and natural style. The way that little monkey just clings to Keaton from the moment they meet leaves me speechless. And that's saying a lot.

Here is a man beloved not just by the masses, but by creatures great and small.