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.