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.