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.


  1. Nice post, nice blog. I find your opinions of Buster's sound work to be along the same lines as mine. I just had the chance to see The Passionate Plumber and nearly bust a gut laughing during the breakfast service scene. Please finish reviewing the sound films and then start on the silents....

    1. Thank you! You are kind and I'm glad to have a kindred spirit. I plan to do exactly that! It's been a while since I watched most of the good ones, so I'll look forward to watching again and then writing about them. Fun!