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.

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