Sunday, August 24, 2014

Parlor Bedroom and Bath (1931)

In the spirit of knitting up loose ends, I watched Parlor Bedroom and Bath again. I became aware, upon posting my wrap-up of the MGM work, that I’d forgotten to review this one. I’m really glad that I looked at it again, because, though I’d forgotten it, it turns out it is fairly memorable. Wink. Well... it at least has a number of very memorable elements.

Once of those elements has to be the filming location at Buster’s Beverly Hills mansion, The Italian Villa. The film is made in 1931 and is his third MGM talkie. Clearly Keaton’s career is not heading in the right direction and the savvy fan knows that it will not be long before he really hits the skids both personally and professionally, but at the moment of this film, it is impossible to feel too sorry him -- for anyone who lives in the house on display in this film. It is amazing. Not just because it’s a 10,000 square foot mansion, but because it has such a … oh, where are some good architectural words when you need them?… balanced, charming, open character. It is a lovely place.  Here is an article from Period Homes about the history of the Italian Villa and here some pictures from a recent Hollywood benefit event taking place at the newly restored Villa. This film is worth watching for any Keaton fan just for the opportunity to view this slice of his once opulent lifestyle.
Watching the film, the viewer gets not only to be a bit of a voyeur into Buster's once lofty Hollywood status, but also to marvel at another great Keaton talent: his ability to craft amazing things. I understand that he designed and planned out every detail of this home. Had fate not smiled on him with the performance genes, Keaton could easily have been an engineer or an architect.

But the film's worth goes beyond the cool mansion. It is actually quite an entertaining romp in some ways. It is, however, also distractingly flawed, and I've decided that its biggest problem is a split personality. But more on that in a moment. First, the basics.

There is an amusing though rather odd plot, where a younger sister’s fiancĂ© is desperate to get the older sister (Angelica) married, so that the younger will be willing to marry him. He (Jeffrey, played nicely by Reginald Denny) accidentally hits a man who is working by the road (Reggie) and brings him up to the house to have him nursed back to health. Of course Reggie, the regular guy, is played by Keaton. When Angelica wishes to nurse Reggie, Jeffrey comes up with a great idea of upselling him as a great lover -- to further spark her interest. The ploy works to an extent. Angelica is interested when she believes him to be a cad and a high-society home-wrecker, but loses interest when she begins to realize he's just an innocent nobody. So Jeffrey goes to greater lengths to deceive her and works up a fake seduction plan with a friend (Polly, played brilliantly by Charlotte Greenwood) to serve as as bait with the intent that Angelica will discover the pair and fall head over heels for Reggie. Of course, complications ensure, and Buster ends up pretend-seducing not just Polly, but 3 other women in the hotel room. Fun indeed.

This is all rather amusing. Though, given the time period, the film suffers from the feel of actors still not quite cut out for the requirements of sound film. In particular, I found the over-enunciation and gesticulating coming from Angelica, her sister, and their friend Nita, to be irritating. Keaton himself and Reginald Denny are much more fluid with the sound medium. But perhaps the best character and the best acting of all, comes from Charlotte Greenwood who is incredible fun here. She presents such a relaxed easy presence and great charisma that make it hard to look away from her.  The hotel room scene between Buster and Charlotte is certainly another highlight of the film, but, as good as it is, it is’t enough to really save the movie from itself.

The biggest problem is that Greenwood and Keaton, and maybe the bellhop too, are trying to be in one movie and everyone else is acting in another. The Keaton vision includes a fair amount of slapstick gags, some sweet falls and of course the very physical seduction scene in the hotel, but they just don’t quite get the chance to work here. The overall feel of the film is polished farce, and it doesn't sit side by side with Keaton's downplayed, ironic slapstick style very well. The film ends up feeling schizophrenic. As with almost all of these MGM films, the main complaint I end up having is that they lack a solid overarching purpose.

An example of why this matters can be seen in the train scene that reprises the one in Buster's early film, "One Week." If you haven't seen this bit, you've got to check out that film and watch . . . I mean, the whole thing; and you'll see one of the best gag's ever shot and an exceptional cinematic moment. But first STOP READING NOW, because I don't want to ruin it for you. Go on . . . here's a link to it on youtube.

OK . . . now in Keaton's One Week, we first fall in love with Buster and Sybil Seely (his new bride) as we watch them struggle to build and inhabit a crazy, build-from-a-kit starter home.  They win our hearts and sympathy with their charming relationship and earnestly hilarious antics. The film culminates with them learning they've built their ridiculous house in the wrong place and they set out to move it. But as they are doing so, the house gets stuck on the railroad tracks ... and a train is coming! The couple tries valiantly to push it off, but they finally give up and get themselves clear just as the train comes rushing through. There is a huge relief as we realize that the train went by on the parallel tracks next to the house and missed hitting it altogether. We have just a heartbeat or two to rejoice with our couple when WHAM a train coming from the other direction plows into the frame out of nowhere and destroys the house. The bit isn't just clever as hell, it is incredibly funny, and gives us a shocking, hilarious and emotional response because we have bought into this story heart and soul.

This gag would have been clever no matter where or how it was executed because it's just a darn good idea. But to be fantastic, it needs a story and a purpose. In Parlor Bedroom and Bath, when Buster and Nita - a woman with whom he is fleeing out of mistaken purpose, yet whom the audience has no interest in, get a car caught on the train tracks and the same thing happens, its fun to watch. But its not profound.  The bit is good; but it doesn't feel like remarkable cinema. Just a tag on for kicks.

This scene really illustrates why doing things with purpose leads to fantastic cinema while doing things without, can lead to mediocre.  Keaton, when making his own films, knew naturally how to get an audience hooked, how to build a level of tension and interest with the underlying story and how to layer his gags onto an idea that felt like it mattered.  Parlor Bedroom and Bath does not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

End-Notes on The MGM Era Work

This will come as a big surprise to hear (from a serious fan) -- and is certainly not a concession I thought I'd be making -- but after watching all of them now, I've come to realize that the MGM-era Keaton work is just, truly, not that bad.

Now, before anyone gets worked up and ticked off and tells me I'm an idiot, let me make a few things clear, up front:
• I am perfectly aware that this work is not in the same league as his "own" films. You simply cannot compare "What no Beer?" with "Cops" or "Spite Marriage" with "The General."
• Unlike the beautiful, zen-like, poetic character Buster created for himself at his own studio, his hang-dog, doofus-y Elmer character is NOT the embodiment of what we love about Buster.
• And it is really a no-brainer that Buster Keaton should not have been teamed with Jimmy Durante. It was an insipid choice that didn't work to Buster's credit at all, nor, probably, Durante's.
• What makes most of these films problematic is the lack of creative oversight that they might have had with Keaton at the directorial helm. They mostly lack creative purpose, and are neither tight nor clever. They just feel squandered.

But. . .
With all that said, I have a few summary points to make to try and put their achievement in context.
• First, I think this work seems worse than it is because it came after the highlights of Keaton's career. If you honestly compare this MGM work to Keaton's earliest films, you would have to admit that some is actually better than what he was doing with Fatty Arbuckle (and even some of his weaker efforts for his own studio).
• These films were all made at a very strained and difficult time for American cinema, generally speaking. They are by no means the worst films getting made during the era of transition from silent to sound. In fact, while some truly excellent films were made in Hollywood during the period from 1929 - 1933, the overall feel of the era is one of awkwardness, as Hollywood attempts to grapple with the changing infrastructure and style that sound has brought. Far too many movies got caught in the gap, not quite finding themselves.  These Keaton MGM entries feel more like 'par for the course', than outright bad.
• Most of these films at least have the benefit of MGM's money and therefore high-level production values. They are "well made" in that reasonable amounts of time, money and energy were poured in: e.g. good camera work, nice costumes and sets, and high quality on screen talent.
• I also want to make it clear that when I speak of the MGM think tank work, I am not including "The Cameraman" in that mix. That film is still an unmistakably Keaton effort and is by far the best of his MGM work (and indeed one of his very best films).
• OK, here is another benefit of Keaton's association with MGM that I didn't consider until this moment, as I went to place a nice photo for this post: MGM's publicity machinery did some incredibly sweet, sexy, gorgeous, and yes, campy still photos of Keaton that we all get to enjoy. (Like this amazing one). Many of the best photos of Keaton come from the time he was doing this work.

The films I am including under the "MGM think tank" label are the following eight:
Spite Marriage (1929)
Free and Easy (1930)
Doughboys (1930)
Parlor Bedroom and Bath (1931)
Sidewalks of New York (1931)
The Passionate Plumber (1932)
Speak Easily (1932)
What, No Beer (1933)

I realize upon writing this post, that I managed to miss reviewing "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath" and "Speak Easily." (Oops. I'll add that to the to do list.)  I saw both long enough ago that I now remember little about them. I think that speaks to the main problem with all these films. They are basically forgettable. When I say, "they are not that bad," I don't mean I love them; I mean there are some viewable and interesting parts to them and that they have something to offer the viewer. Overall, they would be rated in the "6" range for me (on a scale from 1 - 10). For the most part, I was not dying to switch them off. I found them basically "watchable" or better.

Of these, I am going to go out on a limb and claim that "Spite Marriage" is actually quite good (I gave it a rating of 7); while, "Doughboys," "The Passionate Plumber," and "Parlor Bedroom and Bath" are all fairly good (earning a rating of 6.5 from me). Truly funny in parts, generally well made, and, if nothing else, at least attractive and polished, although not strong films, these four are not in anyway embarrassing either.

"Speak Easily," "Sidewalks of New York" and "What, No Beer" are in the fair range. I gave them each a "6" -- though they are probably all just barely worthy of that. They include some really nice things and also some horrifying things. Keaton's alcoholism was painful to watch in "What, No Beer," but even that didn't render the whole film unwatchable. "Speak Easily" has a bizarre plot that makes little sense and a Keaton who has to play second fiddle to Jimmy Durante, but despite these setbacks, the film has some first rate Keaton stage performance hijinks I loved. And "Sidewalks of New York" was strained of plot and unpleasant of tone, yet has some excellent chemistry among the performers in certain scenes.  You can check out my full reviews of those to see what else I thought was good enough to establish their value.

The remaining film, "Free and Easy," is one I did find exceptionally hard to watch. It was unpleasant to see Buster reduced to such a role, but even here, he had a few excellent moments of performance and the film itself benefitted from material of interest to early film fans. I also wonder if some of my horror with this film stems from it having been my 'first' of the MGM films I saw. Maybe, the sudden change in Keaton's screen persona took me too much by surprise to easily get past. Once I was more used to it, I might have had an easier time adjusting and maybe gave more lenient ratings.  Regardless, this one cannot get better than a 5.5 from me.

When I looked at all these ratings, I was astonished to see (as I mentioned above) that I'd rated most of them in the same basic range that I'd given Buster's films with Fatty Arbuckle.

The Fatty-era films and the MGM-era are simply flawed in different ways. The big difference is, with the Fatty films, Buster's career was on its way up. What made those films good was the clear fun everyone was having, the incredible acrobatics with Keaton and Al St. John flying across the screen and the engaging silliness. But we should be honest, they weren't excellent. What made them imperfect was their wandering plots, their lack of cohesion or any overarching vision or purpose. When Buster took over his own studio, he retained all of those great elements, but filled in those missing ones.

MGM-think-tank films have a similar problem to the Fatty films in that they are usually flawed in plot and possessing a poor overarching vision or purpose. But they have another, different, problem too. That, while delivering a more polished visual experience and direction, they are overproduced and squander Buster's now considerable talent.  That is particularly painful to the fan because we've seen the best Buster can do, so the MGM films seem so much worse coming after his best.

The thing is, they can't deny that talent altogether. In fact, even at this nadir, Buster is still such a great performer that no matter which of these turkeys he appeared in, he managed to craft some brilliant moments.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

Its true, I've watched a lot of Buster Keaton films before today; but they have all been on my computer or my phone.

For years I've heard folks say that there is nothing like seeing one on the big screen. But, alas, that privilege has never presented itself to me before now.

But a couple of weeks ago, I was beyond excited to learn that the local artsy movie house would be playing Steamboat Bill Jr. in a free presentation geared toward a family audience.  After counting down the days, shifting my calendar around, biting my nails and waiting, the big day was finally here. ...And now I'm here to tell you that ... folks are right!

Keaton on the large screen is 100x better than Keaton on the small. And that is saying something! Half the reason is obviously because visual material is that much more exciting on a large frame. (And of course Keaton that much more beautiful under magnification). But truly that is not the best benefit. It is just so much more palpably 'real' an experience to get a ticket, sit in a theater -- with others around you -- and sink into the dark. I felt transported back 86 years and could feel the energy of what moviegoers in 1928 would have felt. The people around you are laughing out loud, sometimes clapping or gasping or reading out title cards. Its not me staring at my 17" laptop, alone, at home, but a crowd of genial, happy families together sharing a moment and appreciating the skill of this great star.

And what a movie to do that with! Steamboat Bill Jr. is the height, the absolute apex of charm and probably my all time favorite Keaton film (and one of my favorite films ever. Period.) What makes it so good is the completeness of many elements that come together in the tightest, most enjoyable package imaginable.

Keaton is not just an amazing performer but an incredible director. He was so attentive to details of the camera, the pacing and the mood. Here we have an intentionally lazy river-boating tone that rocks you along in the beginning while he unfolds the basic story set up. And the story is a classic: pitting a rough, river-rat dad against his dandy of a son whom he has not seen for years.  Gruff dad, played beautifully by Ernest Torrence, does not do the best job masking his disappointment in how his small and somewhat effeminate son has turned out, but he tries to make the relationship work. That is, if by 'make it work' you mean 'force Bill Jr. into being a
more suitable son.'

Buster was put on this earth to play the role of Bill Canfield Jr.. He is perfection as the foppishly cute, childishly stubborn, but basically moldable son. He follows dutifully as dad pulls him along by the hand. He gamely lets dad call the shots on mustache- and ukulele- removal, as well as clothing and hair readjustment, but when Bill Jr. runs into his college girlfriend (who unfortunately happens to be his dad's arch-rival's daughter), Buster draws the line. He's not giving up King's daughter (played deliciously by Marion Byron) for anything. And who can blame him; She is the cutest, spunkiest, gamest costar for Buster that I've ever seen. Her talents suit his well and their scenes together are a joy.

The father/son pairing is extremely well done and forms the heart of the movie as well as a good deal of lighthearted charming laughs in the middle of the film as they work out how to be together. But (with just an hour to work with) the film swiftly moves away from this upbeat pace and into moments of tension and real conflict stemming from the underlying feud, a misunderstanding between Buster and his girl, and some serious rain.

Keaton the director knows just how to pepper this story with insanely physical stunts, keeping the audience hooked and compelled, while Keaton the stuntman knows how to amaze us. Then there is Keaton the actor knowing just how to win us over heart and soul. Seeing it "live" and "big", you can actually hear and feel the audience falling in love.

As if all of that weren't enough, the last 10 minutes of the film morph into a sequence of the most jaw-dropping barrage of nonstop stunts I've ever seen. No expense could have been spared during scenes of the town's destruction in a fierce tornado-like storm. And the amazing part is that it is all REAL and made in 1928. The insanity culminates in the famous scene where Keaton allows a house front to fall on top of him, just gliding over him by the slimmest of margins before crashing hard into the ground. From all accounts, this was entirely real -- with a several ton house front and a upper story window designed to give just inches of clearance around our main man. Buster could easily have been killed had anything gone awry. (Seeing that on the big screen by the way, literally gave me chills, though I have seen it a million times before on the small).

The funny thing is, no matter what crazy head-spinning, back-bending, house falling shenanigans he gets up to, you feel safe watching Buster Keaton because his clear skill and precision allow you to know that he knew exactly what he was doing. His stunts don't feel scary or reckless, because of his comedic touch and because of the trust the viewer develops for Buster. His physical skill just simply can't be praised enough. The man was a genius.

I have so many favorite parts from this film, its hard not to just gush about them all, but just look at this:

Or this...

At the end of the film Buster gamely steps up and ends up saving everyone in sight from the throes of the storm and we are treated to one last gag and a feel good experience that is sure to last.

What I love about the film, in particular, is not just the great acting and action and charm Keaton always displays, but the overall impression you get here of a man at the height of his career.  Though the heroics may not kick in until the end, Keaton's mastery and control are the constant backdrop. Here he plays a rather silly guy, sure, but one who exudes the most amazing calm centered acceptance of life. Though absurd sometimes, Keaton is never stupid. He can feel both like an everyman whom we sympathize with because we identify with AND a superman who can perform feats that most of us can't fathom while just beautifully, zenfully and calmly living in his moment.  That Keaton walks this line so deftly is always a miracle to me and makes his films profoundly good for the spirit.