Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Country Hero (1917)

I'm excited to finish up the Buster Keaton Centennial Extravaganza in the same way that I started it back in March : with a big ol' research project!

Today I come to the last entry in my series of posts about Buster's start in cinema, with my thoughts on the release of A Country Hero! Here is a film that drops us on the doorstep of a major career and life transition for Keaton. And in true Keaton style, we are treated to a bit of a tease then get the rug pulled out from under us.

Motion Picture News v. 16, #23, 12/8/1917
We know the team had just left New York and headed West. But we don't get to see the first film they shot in California. We don't get to see this, the first film that Keaton's father appeared in (or that Keaton's soon to be wife appeared in). And we don't get to see Keaton's first film to feature a train! Instead what we get is Keaton's only lost film -- one with an intriguing and strange history that includes its denial by his early biographers.

In fact, why don't we just start there. One thing that makes A Country Hero odd is how much we seem to "know" about it, given that no one has seen it. Much has actually been written about this film, and much of what's been written has been based on inference and conjecture -- and much of that has been wrong!

I want to focus my thoughts on A Country Hero with the study of what we really know and why. Toward that end, I am going to uncharacteristically cite the heck out of things here. My personal Keaton library is unfortunately quite slim, but I've been able to supplement with books from the University Library near me and amazing internet archives that give me access to industry publications and old newspapers that have been invaluable.

So let's begin with Rudi Blesh's seminal if flawed 1966 biography of Keaton.  At the time of his writing, many Keaton/Arbuckle films were still considered lost, and it must have been a significant challenge to piece together facts about them while relying on memory and other tidbits available in the early 1960s. The Blesh biography does offer anecdotes on the filming -- including details on Joe Keaton's appearance in it. Blesh gives an involved discussion of how the elder Keaton plied his craft --- the skillful high kick -- which lands the other actors in a water trough and makes Alice Lake cry for real. The book includes a still photo from the film, seen below, showing Keaton, Fatty and Lake dunked in the trough. (Though his citation is unfortunately off by about two years).

Blesh erroneously classes this film as one of the last, if not the last, film Keaton made with Arbuckle before hanging out his own shingle and making releases for Buster Keaton Studios.

Because he was mistaken on the release date of A Country Hero, thinking it came much later, I guess its not surprising that Blesh didn't suspect the large photo adorning pages 106-107 of his book, which is labeled "Arbuckle's Comique company on location," to actually be an assemblage from the film A Country Hero.

Though Blesh doesn't cite it as such, I can tell that it is, not only by the background, but by Alice Lake's dress and other details. Tell me if you agree, but I even think that the woman in black who stands between Fatty Arbuckle and Alice Lake (wearing a pretty plaid dress with a sash) looks a good deal like Natalie Talmadge (who did appear in the film as well.)

Some of the early confusion with respect to A Country Hero can be traced to an odd occurrence with the date the film was copyrighted. It appears that that might not have happened until 1920. Blesh probably took the copyright date as some evidence of its release.

David Robinson's 1969 biography "Buster Keaton" repeats the error with respect to release date (suggesting 12/13/1920), and ponders whether A Country Hero was being confused and conflated with a different title (The Hayseed). Robinson speculates in this same manner with regard to other pairs of films (Oh Doctor and Goodnight Nurse as well as Out West and A Desert Hero). This is interesting, and not unlike something I might have been inclined to do myself given a diminished film catalog to work with. However, he is wrong on all counts about these films being confused. In particular, A Country Hero is its own film. And it was definitely the first made when the team got to California. And it was definitely released in December of 1917.  More about this in a moment.

By their 1977 book, "The Film Career of Buster Keaton," George Wead and George Lellis date the film correctly as the first made in California after the troop left New York and correctly state that it was made in Long Beach. The only hint of a reason for the earlier biographers' mistake about release date (of 1920) comes in their filmography where they note that A Country Hero was released on December 10 ['of 1917' is implied by the category heading] and was copyrighted on December 13 [year not given, though 1917 would also be implied by the heading of the entry].  So Wead and Lellis' error is in moving the copyright date forward to 'match' the timing of the release. But at least here we have an idea that the release date and copyright dates may have been different.

Tom Dardis in 1979's "Buster Keaton, the Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down" is more precise. He cites articles from Moving Picture World dated November 24, 1917, December 1, 1917 and December 8, 1917 and declares A Country Hero to have been released on Dec. 10 1917.  Best of all, he clearly states that the film was copyrighted on December 13, 1920. (Though as far as I can tell, he does not establish how he knows that.) Dardis goes on to tell us that the Comique crew began working out of the "Horkheimer brothers' new studios in Long Beach" located at 6th and Alamitos streets. p. 46

After painstakingly figuring this all out for myself, I got a hold of "Buster Keaton : A Bio - Bibliography" by Joanna E. Rapf and Gary L Green and in reviewing their notes, see that their account is pretty much exactly like mine. haha. (Books. They're our friend. Wish I had more of them.)

In fact, the one I really wish I had is by James Neibaur, entitled "Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations." According to the Damnfinos, this book is the definitive guide to these films, and according to my research, it contains a chapter on A Country Hero.  Thus, I am dying to know whether there is any more helpful material in the Neibaur volume such as additional interviews or contemporary notices. Until I can get my hands on that volume, I can't help but feel that this post is a work in progress.

But, as today is the day, and I need to post something, I will press on with what I (think I) know.

Motion Picture News Sep 1920
I keep asking myself 'why this film?' why is it lost? why did the others get found and not this? It seems that this film has its own special track. It is interesting that it was copyrighted two years after its release, for instance. But I got a hint as to why from an ad that ran in the trade journals in the fall of 1920. Apparently Fatty's films were being collectively re-issued at that time. Maybe the re-release allowed the company to learn that this one had missed being copyrighted. Because this was the first one produced upon getting to California, it would stand to figure that this detail could have fallen through the cracks. Maybe there was someone who handled that for the troupe back in NY but that the move to California shook things up? But, of course, this is all speculation. The film clearly still existed in 1920. When and how its path diverted is a story for the ages that may never be resolved.

What we can do is chip away at the details of the plot, characters, and gags the film contained using a variety of sources.

Unfortunately, there is not much about the filming found in direct interview accounts. We have, of course, the story about Joe Keaton's high kick that works its way through Buster into the Rudi Blesh biography. We also know that two Ford Automobiles were destroyed by a train while shooting this  film and that the stunt cost $20,000. We get this account directly from Fatty through a piece he authored in "Motion Picture Magazine," entitled Cost of a Laugh from March of 1918. This is presumably where David Yallop sourced the account in his 1976 biography of Arbuckle "The Day the Laughter Stopped."

Besides these two accounts, I am not aware of other direct descriptions of the filming from those present. Photographs from the film provide an additional valid source of first hand information. These corroborate certain elements (e.g. the train, the trough, the town name) and actors, and can also help us assess which roles the actors played.

The richest sources of material probably come from the trade and fan magazines of the day, as well as local reviews. I have used these to flesh out my understanding, as others before me have done. I'd like to acknowledge an excellent blog post by Silentology which goes into great depth imagining the plot of this film!

My source for the trade and fan mags was the excellent Media History Digital Library.  I scoured any publication with references to "Country Hero". It turned up a number of things in "Motion Picture  News" (which I will call MPN), "Variety", "Motography,"  "Moving Picture Wold" (which I will call MPW).

I cataloged every major reference in any magazine I could find and many of these are cited below. The most extensive with respect to describing the plot and other events are these. All from Moving Picture World :
December 1, 1917 . Arbuckle in 'A Country Hero:
"Four cameramen and two grafted machines were on the scene when a fiver, used by the weighty hero in pursuing the villain and the heroine, blew up unexpectedly in the main street of Jazzville." (The imaginary rural village). The piece states that Jazzville's blacksmith shop is in that main street and seen in the picture as are the Jazz Hotel, post office and other landmarks.  The plot is described as telling "of the rivalry between Fatty and Cy Klone, the garage owner, over the affections of a pretty school-teacher." (Alice Lake is named)  When a stranger (a city chap) comes to town and tries to "steal" the teacher, the two rivals unite against him. He takes her "to the city", followed by Fatty and Cy who "rescue her from the unscrupulous villain."

December 8, 1917 "Roscoe's Breakaway Didn't Break"
While filming a scene for The Country Hero "at the Balboa Studio in Long Beach," Fatty had two chairs and an upright piano broken over him during a stage fight with 5 men. The "breakaway" furniture "failed to break properly and Arbuckle was nearly knocked out."  This piece describes Arbuckle as the director (and "instigator") of the film and its gags, and since no one suspected any harm, the camera kept grinding. Later, he went to the studio's hospital with a hens-egg sized contusion on his head.

And in that same issue, a fairly detailed review of film: Fatty is in the role of the blacksmith whose "sweetheart is weaned away from him by a city dude." The film is "extremely funny and remarkable as it may seem ... has actually discovered one or two new [tricks]." The review cites the example of Keaton's snake charmer bit as follows: "a scene at the annual village ball in which amateur talent is doing its best in a series of vaudeville studies, Fatima, wriggling through a series of snake-like movements, mysteriously opens a cigar box and quiveringly pulls forth a bit of feminine hosiery which is expected to impersonate a venomous serpent." The review says that the bulk of the picture is slapstick but not tiresome. Citing "a water trough at the door of the blacksmith shop" which serves as a source for a dip at various critical points in the comedy. In one of the closing scenes in a restaurant (where pie-smashing has been tabooed), Fatty smashes furniture using an upright piano as a giant club. The girl is thrown (by city dude?) across the room into the arms of (his?) accomplice. Our hero is victorious and rides home with the girl and a ??package of money?? "Which has also mysteriously disappeared.”

This is a lot to process, but from these, and other accounts, we can glean or confirm.
A Country Hero is Arbuckle's first film in California. MPN v 16, no 22 Dec 1, 1917.
• It is a two reeler. MPW, Nov 24, 1917
• The name of the town it is set in is Jazzville. MPW Dec 1, 1917
• Arbuckle scouted for a great location to create the fictional town of "Jazzville", by driving around, but had no luck, so instead constructed the set at his Long Beach studio. MPN v 16, no 20 Nov 17, 1917, also MPW Nov 24, 1917.
• Natalie Talmadge appears in the film (Variety, November 1917). However, the extent the source is trustworthy might be questioned by the fact that this same short blurb declares that Lou Anger is directing the film ? Whereas MPW states that Arbuckle was the director. Dec 8, 1917
• Joe Keaton appears in the film according to several sources, notably Variety, Dec 1917
• There are some gags where people end up in a water trough that is in front of the blacksmith shop. MPW Dec 8. Probably via Joe Keaton's foot. Blesh book.
• The film involves a train. MPN v 16, no 23 and 24 Dec 8 and Dec 24 1917
• Two Ford automobiles were destroyed by a train during the production. The Day the Laughter Stopped, David Yallop, p. 75; this is also described in a feature in Motion Picture Magazine, "Cost of a laugh", Mar 1918
• there is a scene with "a cafe raid, in which Fatty hurls a player piano at a guest" MPN v 16, no 24 Dec 15, 1917 - &/OR - in which Fatty has a player piano broken over him. MPW Dec 1 - &/OR - in which Fatty uses the piano as a club to bash things. MPW Dec 8.
• Fatty plays the blacksmith. MPW Dec 8, 1917; also photos show him in a blacksmith apron
• Alice Lake plays the school teacher. MPW Dec 1 1917
• Joe Keaton plays a "storekeeper". Variety, Dec 1917
• a character called Cy Klone is the garage owner. MPW Dec 1, 1917
• a character named Fatima does a snake charmer bit. MPW 12/8/17. The character is played by Keaton. (Various sources and general Keaton knowledge :) as well as photos that this was his bit.
• a character variously called the chap / city stranger / city dude comes to town and attempts to steal away the teacher

With all this information, I was hoping to glean a definitive sense of who played Cy Klone the local rival and who played the city dude (true bad guy). But it really isn't clear.

I turned to the Library of Congress' Chronicling America newspaper database to see what kinds of local film reviews this might turn up. I actually found several hundred results that mentioned the film and did not wade through them all, but skimmed for occurrences that appeared to be inside the margins of regular newspaper print and not part of an ad for the film. Most of these blurbs were very brief (and tended to suggest that the film was excellent, or his best ever). I found just two that gave additional details or plot summaries and were more than a line or two that appeared to be written by a local person. 

The "Bemidji Daily Pioneer," Saturday Dec 15, 1917 has a piece entitled "Elko Tonight" with the following: "Fatty Arbuckle in 'A Country Hero'. In the first place there is Fatty's encounter with a refractory automobile which exhibits all the obstinate tendencies of a balky mule as specified by the scenario. It runs up to 'Fatty's Garage", known as "The Spark Plug Garage." Finally, for some unexplained reason of its own, the machine starts with an explosion that could be heard from Long Beach to Los Angeles."

This piece confounds things in a few ways, suggesting that Fatty is the garage owner and tentatively calling the garage "Fatty's Garage" before allowing it to be "The Spark Plug". Though it confirms the explosion that is described in Moving Picture World, Dec 1.

The "Rock Island Argus" (Rock Island, IL), dated Dec 21, 1917, from a piece entitled "At Spencer Square" provided probably the best summary I have seen of the film anywhere. It states: "they are in a village of about five hundred inhabitants. There is the Jazzville hotel, the Jazzville dancing club and the Jazzville jazz band. There is the town pest, taken by Buster Keeton, he of the limber frame, while Fatty is the village blacksmith and Al St John is the town garage owner and dude all rolled in one. Miss Lake is the village belle and there is a fierce competition for her hand which is nearly broken up when the handsome city stranger puts in an appearance with his polished manners. He gets the girl away from the dance, throws her into an automobile and they race to the city, where chase is given by Fatty and Al. How the two clean out the guilded cafe and rescue the girl all forms part of one of the funniest films ever made."
Rock Island Argus 12/21/1917

This review is quite clear in naming Al St John as the garage owner. Of course it is possible to have mixed him up with Joe Keaton, though that doesn't seem very likely.

It is not clear who plays the romantic rival (Cy Klone). The conventional wisdom seems to be that Joe Keaton plays the local rival (see IMDB, Wikipedia).  However, the movie review from Rock Island Illinois states that Al St John played Cy Klone. Further, Joe Keaton's own account -- as filtered through his son and then Rudi Blesh -- is that Joe played the school teacher's father, not a would be suitor. (This later take would seem more believable given the elder Keaton's other turns as a dad to either Buster or a love interest in later films.

I am personally inclined to believe Joe Keaton would have played a small and random part in this, his first film. As a minor storekeeper, who could easily also be Alice Lake's father, he would have incentive to kick the others all into the trough.  And St John as the romantic local rival does make sense, given that this would be a typical role for him.

So who played the city dude?? Maybe St John doubled in that role? (There are photos from the film that have Al looking fairly dapper). Maybe Keaton doubled in that role? (Some of the film stills also have Keaton looking rather dapper).

One final little mystery I will leave you with involves the title of the flick. Modern sources are pretty consistent in calling this film A Country Hero. However, I turned up many many ads as well as industry material from the time referring to the film as The Country Hero. I'd like to believe that someone has checked the copyright and maybe that that would govern? But honestly, I don't know.

One thing does seem certain: this film sounds fantastic! It got strong reviews. While I was perusing all the hundreds of local paper ads and notices, they were almost all very positive. Of course it was their job to drum up business, but there were strikingly good things that kept coming out. Keaton's snake charmer bit seems to have been very well regarded and the other effects (the train crash, the explosion, the big fight) all seemed powerful and interesting. It seems clear that the California big sky was working its magic and Comique was now doing BIG things. They have come along way since March.

I'm optimistic enough to believe that someday this film might turn up. Maybe someone will find a cache of film in an attic and return this work to the adoring masses, while completing the Keaton collection!

Until then, I will chip away at these mysteries any chance I get and share with the blog whatever I learn.

It has been a fun -- if crazy -- year for me to have this self-imposed urgency to research, write, watch and think about Keaton. If nothing else, I've exposed big gaps in my understanding and blocked out research projects to keep me busy for years to come! Although, I won't continue to celebrate each release on its centenial, I will continue to update the blog with other material. So for now, I wish Keaton followers a Happy Centennial Year! and Happy Viewing!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

So... WWBKD? Would he be on Social Media?

Taking a break from the soothing world of silent comedy and the simpler and infinitely more desirable life principles it supports, I'll write about the crazy world of social media circa 2017. I don't know if this post is really about what Buster would do... but I know its about what I would (or wouldn't).  I learned this week why I am definitively a consumer of great content (books, podcasts, dvd commentary, other blogs, etc) and a sometime purveyor of mediocre content (blushes). . . but almost never a networker in the world of The Fandom.

First, some backstory.

I discovered Buster Keaton in the summer of 2012. It didn't take long for him to take over my brain. An almost immediate byproduct of that takeover was this blog.

I found it easy and fun to slip into this forum for publishing my own musings on this great man. Though with a healthy enough ego to believe that others might be interested, I admit I wrote with the main intent of pleasing myself.

Lurking somewhere in the back of my thoughts might be a shadowy pipe dream of someday becoming a "real" Keaton scholar ... maybe even writing a book...with a larger purpose of promoting Keaton's legacy. 

That said, basically just know that you've stumbled upon the blog of a dilettante, content to live in her own little world but offer a gracious welcome to anyone who shows up here.

By that I mean you. If you are reading this you're welcome, because, really, isn't that just how it should work? And if you do cool things related to Buster, you are also very welcome to chat about them to me. Because... really, isn't that how it should work? And ... by the way...  if I fail to respond in a timely way, I hope you'll forgive that as I'm often pulled in other directions by day jobs that force Buster-love to the back burner. And, honestly. Isn't that how all of this should work too?

And if all this sounds like its leading to something, it is.

The other day, while waiting to head out to dinner, I relaxed by paging through my facebook feed, then stopped with a jolt when I saw my own blog post staring back at me from the pages of a Buster Keaton fan site that I followed!  I was flattered and pleased. This doesn't happen to me every day. The post was asking "does anyone know whose blog this is?"

I thought about it for a bit. I like my privacy and anonymity. But the writer seemed genuinely interested and kind... so I made the decision to out myself and claim it to this welcoming community. I believe by doing so I made two new Keaton-fan-friends (whose readerships I appreciate!)

It was all very nice, warmed my heart and made me feel connected and special.

How very short lived.

When I logged back into facebook the next day, I discovered with confusion that the post had been removed.

I can't imagine why. I know I've seen countless links on that public group to other people's websites, films, and projects. And I don't think there was anything objectionable in the friendly comments that were exchanged about my blog. I also have a hard time believing that my blog itself -- which consists in gushing about the same person the facebook fan group gushes about -- could possibly offend.  So I'm left startled in wonderment, feeling like a new kid at school who was tentatively approached by a friendly soul only to have the class bully lumber up and say: "we don't play with her."

When I think about Keaton, I can't fathom his being able to put up with such silly stuff either. I mean... he made movies. He was glad when they played them. If a group of colleagues displayed his posters one day only to have the group leader remove them the next without explanation, I bet he'd have found that strange.  I bet his attitude would have been: "Love me, hate me, or leave me alone. Just don't be petty and weird around me."

But maybe I'm wrong.

I know I can't speak for Keaton, but I'll speak for myself. I love blogging about Keaton. But I don't like the playground territoriality and social machinery that seem to come with organized fandom. It's what holds me back from joining groups like the Damnfinos. Its what keeps me from commenting on other people's blogs. I find the rules of social media to be strange and unfriendly and I often have no idea when they have been crossed.

If you read my blog (thank you), find it enjoyable (thank you still more!), and wonder why I don't get out more... its because of things like this recent facebook interaction. I don't know who got offended with that exchange nor why it was removed and I really don't want to have to care. It will take a LOT more readers before I can quit the day jobs and spend my time making social media my concern.

In the meantime, I will be over here writing about Buster every chance I get.

Please know, gracious reader, know that if anyone wants to share what I'm doing -- the old-fashioned way through word of actual mouth, or in any new-fangled way, through word of pixel, digit or electron -- they are both welcomed and encouraged to do so. Also, I promise that as long as your comments are civil and relevant, I am THRILLED to have them and publish them. I wish you well and think that anything that leads to more public knowledge of Buster Keaton can only be a good thing for his legacy.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Coney Island (1917)

Coney Island is a movies of firsts and lasts.

It's a "first" (for me) because it comes in at the top. It's my favorite of the Keaton-Arbuckle collaborations.

But I realized upon watching it today -- for the dozenth time or so -- that there's quite a few other firsts and lasts in the film. I thought about this as I watched Buster Keaton appear in the opening scene. I admit he did that last film too (Oh Doctor), but Coney Island gives us a special new first in that not only does Keaton show up in the first scene, but he is the first of the Comique troop to appear. In other words, for the first time ever, he is onscreen even before Fatty Arbuckle.

Coney Island is a "last," because its the last film the company made in New York, before moving to the west coast to shoot pictures.

The film gives us another first in that it's the first Comique film where Buster "gets the girl" at the end. Not Fatty. (I mean, Keaton, not Fatty, is the one who gets the girl, not that Keaton gets the girl, but doesn't get Fatty. Of course we know that Keaton has Fatty already - wrapped up in his heart, just as Fatty has him. There is clearly a great bromance established between the two by this point. Awww.)

And another sweet first, is that this may be Keaton's first screen kiss. I'd have to look back at the other releases to confirm it, but I feel pretty sure. (I know there was a bit of flirting with the housemaid in The Cook; but I don't think there was any kissin'). Way to go Buster. He's growing up fast, haha. Remember that the last film release had Buster playing a child!

I'm not sure I can call this next observation a certain "last," but I do think we're near the end of the line for movies where Keaton does a lot of smiling. And crying. And bigger, broader emoting. Here, in Coney Island, for the bulk of the picture, Keaton has settled in around the stone face style that will be his signature moving forward. But he does have a few scenes where we get to enjoy that gorgeous mug, well, mugging it up.

And there's more...

This film also has an interesting end-of-an-era feel with respect to the "Keystone Cops." In Coney Island, they are present throughout -- bumbling and jumping and running. According to my research (i.e. the quick check on Wikipedia that I just did), the Keystone Cops were a thing between 1912 and 1917 - placing this 1917 film at the end of their prominence in cinema.

And, on a bittersweet note, it is also the last film I'll be watching in my Buster Keaton Centennial Celebration of 1917 film releases. Yes, there is one last film released in 1917 which will need to be discussed (December 10th's A Country Hero), but it is considered a lost film.  SO ... I'll review it :) but I won't be able to watch it, haha.

Beyond the firsts and lasts that are stacking up rapidly, what this film also has going for it is that -- for the first time -- it feels as though the action of a Comique film really fits its artistic vision as a package. What's interesting is that Coney Island does this despite being in most respects much like Arbuckle's prior films: it is uncomplicated, lighthearted, chaotic fun. But while the prior films felt rather senseless, Coney Island feels integrated. Its a better version of the genre. The chaotic fun seems to mean something. It fits. And there's a reason for that: they're at a theme park. And the theme park is a world of chaotic fun. This is well suited thematically and as a result, just, somehow works.

In fact, the appearance of the theme park in this film is simply astonishing!

Being able to see so many scenes filmed 100 years ago at the real Coney Island park is incredible. I love it as much as I love anything else this movie. Even though I've never been to Coney Island, nor do I have any particular love for the park or the region, it can hardly be denied that Coney Island is itself a star of this film. And it was probably an important part of the appeal for contemporary audiences; but it has to be so much more special today for the slice of history the modern viewer is able to enjoy.

Watching it now... looking at the kinds of rides, foods, attractions, and activities our ancestors enjoyed, it strikes me how very similar these people were to us. And yet, how very different the standards of safety were. Imagine the craziness of "The Witching Waves," which seems a horrendous pinching and snagging hazard, not to mention seeing folks fly down a water ride incline in an open boat without being secured (and of course tumbling out!) And what about the incredible investment in power it must have taken a century ago to light up that park the way we see it in the opening shot...? Just wow. The opening shots of Luna Park are so beautiful and so evocative. There is a feeling of telling a visually beautiful story that goes beyond the typical Arbuckle fare.

And that brings me to another thing that is special and a "first" for me in a Comique film. This is the first time where setting, place, cinematography felt important and lovely.

I'm not going to recount the plot of this film in depth, because I'm not sure it's necessary. As I said, unlike the last release -- Oh Doctor -- Coney Island has definitely gone back to being a rather simple, silly picture unencumbered by many story elements.

So here it is, in brief: ... Ketaon and his girlfriend are watching a parade, but when they want to go into Coney Island, they can't because Buster has no money. Al St John walks by and escorts the young lady into the park leaving Keaton to sneak in in a barrel. Once inside they encounter Fatty Arbuckle who is there with (and trying to escape from) his wife. Machinations happen and next thing you know Fatty walks off with the lovely lady while St John is arrested. Each of the three main stars go around doing silly things - hitting each other with mallets and doing backflips and Keystone kicks and being tossed from amusement rides and changing in dressing rooms -- Fatty using this as a nice excuse to  get in drag again. Ultimately Fatty's wife runs into St John and the players all converge again for a big reveal - Fatty is not a woman! And, as mentioned, buster ends up with the girl.

As far as the action goes, it seems par for the course, and all blurs a bit together. And even blurs outside its own lines a bit. For instance,  though I've seen the film many times, I found myself waiting for the scene where Keaton goes through the Tunnel of Love, before realizing that that scene is in a different film! (The Balloonatic). Similarly, I found myself confounding certain bathhouse scenes from The Cameraman involving a rotund woman's bathing suit with those in this picture; and I had a flash-forward moment recalling how Keaton quite similarly emerges in a swimsuit in short film Hard Luck.

So though, at the edges, the film may not be perfectly compact, nor does it enjoy a total sense of clarity, its chain of gags, vignettes, and silliness really works for a variety of reasons. First up: because they are particularly good gags and vignettes! There is a nice amount of balance, with lots of characters (including the Cops and the Park) getting to shine a little bit.  Plus, we get to see BK in a bathing suit -- and come to think of its that's probably another first.  ... a very good one.

Another reason it all works, as I mentioned above, is that the backdrop of the chaotic theme park gives the right setting and context to make the mindless fun seem like exactly what we want.

Finally, I was thinking today about why I am forgiving with Coney's Island's lack of plot, whereas in other Comique films, I felt the absence of plot and structure as a bit of an issue. I realize that it doesn't matter here because here there is very little attempt to give the film any plot at all! This film is just really about a day at Coney Island.

Its kind of like a Seinfeld episode. Its doesn't matter what the point of the episode it; the fun is in simply being there with them. Whereas in the other films, there is ostensibly a plot, some attempt to move a story along - a love triangle, some intrigue, or complication, and some attempt at resolution made.  Here, there is a feeling of pointlessness. Like the scene at the end when Fatty and Al come out of jail declaring all their troubles to be due to women and vowing to avoid them... until a couple of cuties walk by and the boys are off. There's no moral, plot, theme, happy ending or anything to take away. Just a day of fun at the beach.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Oh Doctor! (1917)

Oh Doctor! is the next entry in the Keaton Centennial Blog Extravaganza. Ha, I just made that up now. I probably should have come up with a catchy title for what I'm doing a while ago. I guess I didn't properly plan it out. ... But unlike me, Oh Doctor! does have the feel of something that has been planned out.  I mean, shockingly well-planned ... for a Fatty Arbuckle film that is.

This film is remarkable in that . . . wait for it: it has an actual plot. A pretty decent one too. Another thing it has is intrigue and even a bit of complexity.

Unfortunately what it lacks is a good role for Buster Keaton.

Though in many ways it is clear that Keaton's influence has continued to grow at Comique and he is now a fully-integrated player taking on more and more. For instance, Keaton receives first billing after Arbuckle, and, for the first time ever, even enters the film in its first scene. Keaton's influence can be felt in a couple other ways that I'll get to.

I have no way of knowing whether we have Keaton or someone else to thank for the more developed story here, but there is no doubt that this film feels different from Comique films that have preceded it.

Maybe a change in location got the creative juices flowing in a different direction. After all, this was the first film the team made after departing the Colony Studio building on 48th Street in Manhattan, for new digs out in the Bronx.

The three prior films, which were made in Manhattan, followed a formula that went pretty much like this: Fatty is introduced as a proprietor of some type of business and given an opportunity to showcase some dexterous comedy skills; Fatty's love interest is then spotlighted; a love triangle is set up - with Al St John in the role as rival; a character played by Buster Keaton and ancillary to the action is given an opportunity to be a breath of fresh air; then chaos ensues, and finally Fatty ends up with the girl. It was a good enough formula and seemed to be working for the team.

But this movie doesn't follow it.

In Oh Doctor! Arbuckle is introduced to the viewer as both a family man and a doctor.  He seems to be reasonably wealthy and lives in a well-appointed house.  The action begins as he and his family go to the races, where a world of intrigue and ensnarement await them. As if that weren't different enough, the regular roles of the supporting players have morphed too. Instead of a rival in love, Al St John plays more of a rival in economics and the big kicker is that Buster plays Fatty Arbuckle's son.

I have to admit that this relationship did not work for me. It took quite a while for me to realize that Keaton was playing a young child (how young he's supposed to be I have no idea). Truth is, I found this role a bit irritating and it wasn't until I watched a second time -- and just kind of relaxed and went with it -- that I was able to get a bit more joy out of the performance. The first time around I found the broad gesticulation, the mouth open crying and other highly expressive actions distracting. Once I understood that Keaton was meant to be a CHILD, these choices were not only easier to forgive, but actually to find impressive. (Like his performance as a monkey in a film many years hence, we do get a feel for Keaton's great skills in mimicry).

Anyway. . . why don't I first just give this a bit of a recap. I am not ashamed to admit that I really did have to watch twice to understand what was going on. I'll see if I can spare anyone the trouble:

So, as I say, Fatty is a reasonably rich doctor in town. He, his wife and son go to the horse races one day. Fatty sees a very attractive vamp-type woman (Alice Mann) and intentionally makes his child cry so that his wife will attend to the boy and Fatty can sit near the vamp. The femme fatale and her boyfriend-gambler (Al St John), are in cahoots -- with Fatty as their mark. A bookie friend gives Al a tip on a horse called Lightening. Fatty listens in, thinks he can't lose, and bets all his money -- $1,000 -- on this horse.

[And here's where I really need to just pause and say: "$1,000!" Holy crud. That's a serious load of cash. Lets not forget this was a century ago. Yeah, I'd say Fatty is playing a different class of fellow here.]

The horse, of course, not only loses, but is so very inept he runs the wrong way -- a source of great joy for child-Keaton. The family goes home, completely broke, and the scene cuts to St John and the  vamp back at their apartment. Actually I'm not sure whether they were playing Fatty before, as they may have lost money on the horse too... I can't quite tell, but in any case, they're going to play him now. She calls him up with a fake ailment. En route to see her, Fatty tries to drum up some business for himself, as he is now desperate,  by allowing his car to roll into a crowd gathered to hear a health-tonic huckster. I guess that's one way to do it! He continues on to the home of the vamp and knocks -- on the door, then, when it opens, on the chest of the maid (played by Alice Lake).

[And I guess this is a good place to digress and talk about the bawdy nature of this pre-code film.  In addition to the maid's chest-knocking, there's also a bit at the races where Fatty grabs the legs of both the women next to him in a rhythmic way. It'a an Arbuckle film]

So no one can be surprised that at the apartment, Fatty makes the moves on the vamp - including entertainingly mixing drinks out of his medical bag - while St John steals away over to the Doctor's home... to steal the fancy necklace Fatty's wife was wearing. As Al flees with the necklace, Boy-Buster comes in, becomes suspicious and follows him.

Back at the Vamp's, she gets a call to have Fatty? put money down on a horse with 500 to 1 odds, because  they've made a deal with the jockey. (I'm still a little confused on this.) But it's clear that there is now a team of con artists in on the sting and the team actually stages, for Fatty's benefit, a fake book-making operation. In fact, I exclaimed in delight when I realized that the scene here is just like one in the great film from the 1970s The Sting! If I remember to do it, it would be fun to look into any influence early films like this may have had on that period masterpiece.

But again, I digress. The point is that the fake bookmakers take Fatty's money, when this horse is bound to lose.

Cutting back to Buster, everything now comes to a head. The boy has tracked Al back home where his mother's stolen necklace is being presented to the vamp. Buster calls his mom and all hell breaks loose. (So.. I guess it's a bit like the old formula after all).  Everyone is at cross purposes - the wife to get her necklace back, Al to hide from Fatty, Fatty to hide from his wife (since he's romancing the vamp). The women tussle, knocking out Al in the process; Fatty, while hiding in the kitchen, grabs the police jacket of the maid's rotund boyfriend, and chases after Al (not quite sure why), wife makes a grab for her necklace but ends up locked in a closet!

Then everything resolves. (I said it had a plot. Not that it had a perfectly coherent plot!) For some reason, "Romeo," the 500 to 1 odds horse, wins! Fatty's rich. Except, the whole thing was faked. But Fatty doesn't know this, so he shows up to get his winnings (still in the cop suit) and the guys, thinking its a bust, all scram. Fatty enters, sees no one to pay him out but tons of money lying everywhere, and helps himself.

Even with so much money -- enough to toss some on the ground because it smells bad -- he still has a mixed bag of an ending, walking off and getting kicked by his still-angry wife.

There are many charming parts of this film, some of which are quite unexpected. Others that feel more typical. One in the unexpected camp is a cool title card.  I don't usually watch silent comedies to enjoy the words, but there's a wonderfully clever one at the beginning of this: 
Unquestionably the horse is superior to man. One hundred thousand men will go see a horse race but I bet not a single horse would go see one hundred thousand men run.
Whoever selected or wrote that one is a genius.  

The typical, would be the confusing chaos that we come to expect somewhere in an Arbuckle endeavor. It had to have suited audiences at the time and no doubt Fatty knew his market!

I mentioned early on that other parts of this film seem to show Keaton's influence. I'm always ready to attribute good ideas to my man, but I think it's only fair to attribute bad as well. Here, the choice to have Keaton play a child strikes me as probably Keaton's. It seems like his brainchild in that it bears such similarity to the type of knockabout act the Three Keatons were known to have done on Vaudeville. Here Buster calls Fatty "Pop" and Fatty manhandles the boy just like Joe Keaton must have done on stage. The thing is... the style of acting that probably worked great on stage doesn't work here. Its overdone. There I said it.

Further, while Keaton does evince great talent in terms of mimicking the spirit of a child, I have to say that his role is uneven and confusing. It's hard to know how old he's supposed to be 7? 10? 14? -- there is so much variability, from the crying jags, to the fairly grown up tracking of a bad guy and composed phone call. I expect Keaton to be attentive to details, precisely because he is always so attentive to details, that his performance in this film strikes me as really 'off' and is not going to go down as a favored Keaton performance for me. 

Although Buster, as child, plays a role that is mercifully fairly limited, I do think I see his presence in a number of falls and stunts for other players in the film. Particularly,  is that him in the background taking a fall underneath the runaway car? and I wonder if a moment later, in the scene where Fatty hops into said car, this is actually Keaton in a fat suit. Not that Arbuckle isn't physically talented and capable of the jump, but the camera is avoiding his face and the jump looks like Keaton. Also.. there's a bit near the end where the mom takes a fall that I am sure looks like Buster doing the stunt. My hunch is Keaton is taking a bigger and bigger role in planning the stunts, offering direction for the action and maybe even helping with story direction and plot??

I know what's coming next... and I know it a film that seems to build on some of these same elements, and one that bears even more of the distinctive Keaton stamp. In fact, it's my favorite of the Arbuckle collaborations. It's Coney Island. Can't wait to re-view it at the century mark and see how it feels in progression.  Coney Island is the last of the New York productions for these guys. The troupe is about to move to California.

In fact, I came across a number of notices in the trade journals from this time that suggest the team was leaving for California right now. I mean, right as this film (Oh Doctor!) was released. Obviously they must be in post-production for Coney Island already.

One last thing to note, from having perused the magazines, is that contemporary reviews did not seem too stellar for Oh Doctor! Oddly, it is the departure from formula that got cited as not feeling like an Arbuckle comedy. We'll see how, and to what extent, Coney Island keeps some of these newer elements and perhaps returns in other ways to the old Arbuckle style.  Looking forward to it already!

Until then, happy viewing ~

Sunday, August 20, 2017

His Wedding Night (1917)

The Centennial Trip down memory lane continues with our next installment from the gang!

It was 100 years ago TODAY (please appreciate the heroic efforts I'm going through to actually stay on the schedule I set for myself, lol) that the film was released in theaters, treating the world to the antics of a great team of silent comics including Al St John, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle.

The "his" in the title of the film is of course Fatty, a clerk at a drugstore. The lucky lady who will soon be his bride is Alice Mann. The misnomer is that any part of the film involves a wedding night! It, does at the very end, get to the wedding. And that's where much of the fun is.

I was going to say that overall the film feels a bit weak or uneven, but the truth is it feels pretty par for the course for the Keaton Arbuckle collaborations. There are some truly glorious moments that feature Buster as well as some embarrassing moments that are harder to watch; there is the chaos and rough and tumble slapstick that we expect and deserve in a film like this and all in all I'd call it very watchable and fun.

That said . . . enjoying a film (almost any film) from 100 years ago requires a healthy dose of indulgence. We have to allow for the time period and try not to judge too harshly relative to our own lens some more troublesome things we see. For me in fact, the whole point of watching and reviewing these now, this year, is to look back and learn, to experience that bit of the past -- learn more about Keaton and his beginnings, note the working relationship with Arbuckle and other players and see the evolution unfold.

But I own that it is hard to find certain parts of this film funny. For instance, Al St John's repeatedly strangling Alice when she declines his proposal (or for that matter his seeking "revenge" for her interest in Fatty). Worse, Arbuckle's intentionally? setting out chloroform to ensnare a (different) young woman who falls unconscious . . . then to kiss her, repeatedly (after chloroforming the older man who's witnessing it). This bit is played as cute and sheepish and doesn't come off as horrifying, but it really kind of is. . . . Of course, we're used to such things as thugs kidnapping a 'woman', as they do here, but at least that is not meant to be OK. One of the worst, is a troubling scene where a black woman leans against a freshly painted sign and then walks off with "$4.00 an ounce" imprinted on her behind! Its not great when the slavery-related implications of that start washing over you. Still . . . the low humor, the bawdiness and shock value should be measured by its time and for its purpose and because all is intended as silly fun, some indulgence seems fair. (Not to be an apologist, but this was pre-censorship and things were wicked and wild in the film industry back then. I was just thinking that these antics would even be the kind of thing that might come up today on, say, SNL or a Key and Peele bit. Probably intended to be startling/shocking.)

Anyway! big digression, but back to the film....

We're here for Buster . . . and he once again proves that he can deliver the goods. I mean that literally too, as he enters the film as a delivery boy bringing Alice's wedding dress (at around the 8 minute mark). The production team has clearly found a formula that works and they are sticking with it. All three Comique films have unfolded in much the same way: with Fatty -- as some sort of proprietor of a business -- being introduced first, then some plot-less opportunities to showcase his great deftness and skill as a physical comedian, then the introduction of a love interest/love triangle with Al St John in a romantic rival position. And then, about a third of the way through, we get Buster blazing in as a breath of fresh air to do something really clever or introduce a new element or twist.

In this case, Buster on a bicycle crashes into the entrance of the store and gets something in his eye which he tries to get out by blinking. This is interpreted as a sign - a symbolic wink - by Fatty who compliantly serves him up a bottle of beer (and of course helps himself to some). By the way, this is pre-prohbition, so the secrecy Fatty portrays must be related to the fact that this is a drugstore not a bar. -though Fatty makes some attempts to tavern-ify the place for Buster.

What happens next is something we see still images from all the time because of how visually delightful it is.  When Alice sees Buster with the dress box she whisks him away upstairs to see "what the dress looks like" and then, crazily, has Buster model it for her!

This is hilarious for (1) how willingly the delivery boy starts to disrobe and put on a dress, (maybe that's the point of the beer scene!), (2) for the display of some fierce striped boxer shorts, (3) for how charming Alice Mann is as the excited bride to be having this boy put on her dress, (4) for how similar they are in size to each other, making this an actually sensible scheme, and (5) for how fantastic Buster looks in this lovely stylish, lacy, tiered wedding dress!

While Alice and Buster are cavorting upstairs (shouldn't Fatty see him as a more significant rival here!?), Fatty is getting frustrated downstairs by how many people are availing themselves of the free perfume samples. He takes action, replacing it with chloroform. Next comes the bit I mentioned above where a young woman who is shopping is led over to the chloroform, sprays it on herself, passes out in a chair where Fatty eyes her up and then goes in for some kisses. I have to say, it doesn't work well for me, even beyond the issue of the personal violation. The logic isn't clear. Fatty seems surprised that the woman has keeled over, though he's the one who swapped out the perfume; its hard to know whether to view this as planned or opportunistic.

In any case, the chemical serves its higher narrative purpose by knocking out everyone in the store so that Al St John and his thugs can rush upstairs and capture Buster -- who is now wearing a veil and doing his nails -- believing him to be Alice.

"She" is sped off in a stolen car to the justice of the peace who is forced at gunpoint to perform a wedding between Buster and Al. Just in the knick of time, our gang back at the drugstore works out what's happened and puts a stop to the wedding, only to reveal that the almost-bride was Buster (still winking) and not Alice. But no worries, she works it all out and shows up too. Fatty and Alice get married instead, and the chloroform serves one last function -- to incapacitate the preacher who is charging too much for his services!

The best parts of the film are the seamless flips and falls on display from Keaton and St John, the fluid sweetness and dexterity from Arbuckle, the charm of Mann and of course the wonderful images of Keaton winking and modeling in a wedding gown. But what I find important about the film is not its great value as great cinema (which is isn't), but rather how it shows the firming up of this team into a well-oiled machine with clear parts.

Its the last of the first phase of Keaton's film career in another way. According to Rudi Blesh, in the biography "Keaton", the team that worked on the film in July of 1917 was a "compact, congenial crew," but they must have been irritating to neighboring tenants! At this point, complaints about their noise forced them to leave the studio on 42nd Street and relocate uptown to the Bronx.

This is one of the early films that set us up for Keaton's growth as a filmmaker. And, as before, we can already see his influence in some of the more clever visual elements - like the way the dressing screen drops away to frame Keaton as if a model on a stage. There is another shot right before St. John's kidnapping of Keaton, where we see the thugs outside and can view Keaton in the wedding gown upstairs through a window. Its a lovely composition! It strikes me as Keatonesque, and maybe was a composition suggested by him? Or, it could also be an example of Arbuckle's style that influenced Keaton later.  We'll never know. Unless, continual reading of biographies turns up a detail on this production. As of now, I haven't seen much written about the making of this film.

I'm glad to have this additional entry to share in the sequence! And am looking forward to the next one already. Watch this space :)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rough House (1917)

Wow, what an interesting experience is was to watch The Rough House again this week, knowing that it was 100 years ago exactly that it was released. Watching with awareness that this was Keaton's second motion picture (ever) and the second endeavor from Fatty Arbuckle's Comique film enterprise colors the whole experience.

As much fun as it is to watch any movie in the right context, it couldn't save The Rough House from being a bit of an odd film. It is odd because in some ways (plot, theme, cohesion) it is somewhat poorer an entry in the Keaton / Arbuckle cannon, while in others (cinematography, clarity and cleverness of gags) it may be somewhat better. Ultimately I think the film is important not so much for its independent value as a piece of artistry. . . but rather for all the things it speaks to without intention.

For starters, the Buster Keaton we see in TRH appears to be a much bigger screen persona than he was just a couple short months ago. Unlike the blurry, haphazardly-filmed young vaudeville act on display in the Butcher Boy, this Keaton is now photographed head-on, zoomed in, with shots that announce his presence.

Just as in The Butcher Boy, Keaton enters the film for the first time a quarter of the way through with a solo stunt - probably of his own design. But unlike in TBB, here in TRH, the bit feels like a celebration of talent: an entrance. (Or is it just me that sees this?) Shortly after his entrance, we are treated to Keaton facing the camera in a 3/4 shot, rocking side to side and smiling and flirting with a delighted maid, played by Josephine Stevens. It is a sweet moment that both reminds us of how far he's come already, and how early in his career he still is -- having not yet made the concerted choice to use only his famous deadpan on screen.

So, the story in June 1917 -- I mean the larger Keaton story, not the film plot -- continues with his clear inculcation into cinema. With The Rough House, Keaton has arrived.  But, though the picture gives the impression of an important slot for Keaton on Arbuckle's team, Arbuckle is just as clearly still the main man.

* *
Having admitted as much elsewhere on the blog, I have no hesitation in saying that I am not a film scholar, but a dilettante. I have often felt at a loss that I don't have access to an academic library, research sources, or great professional connections to assist me and am often flying by the seat of my pants when I blog; however, sometimes those pants stumble upon the extraordinary.  I recently found an incredible resource called the Media History Digital Library, which contains an extensive, digitized, searchable bank of publications from throughout cinematic history. To call it a treasure trove is an understatement. It is the coolest thing I've ever seen.

I looked through a number of publications on the site, such as Motion Picture News, Moving Picture World, Variety, Billboard, Moving Picture Weekly, Photo Play Journal -- some leaning more toward industry data and others more toward fan mags. What I found was that when searching industry publications from April - June of 1917 for the name "Arbuckle" you get a lot of hits. When searching for "Keaton," the pickings are much slimmer -- maybe one "Keaton" for every dozen or more "Arbuckles." There's little doubt that Fatty was a well-known persona, and if not quite a "movie star," certainly a major figure in the industry. Notes and tidbits on more than just his films appear in these publications - his wife, his pastimes, his whereabouts are discussed. Keaton, when mentioned at all, is noted as a player in the Arbuckle film at issue. (I didn't search on Al St. John; which I probably should have. It might have been interesting to compare Keaton's press with St. John's as the latter had been in pictures a lot longer. Maybe I'll remember to do that next time.) . In any case, although Fatty seems to be a generous performer / director, sharing the screen readily, we can hardly escape the feel that we are still in an Arbuckle Film.

And TRH seems typical of Arbuckle -- in good ways and bad. The film enjoys Fatty's boyish energy, charisma, great creativity and juvenile spirit. It is also marked by a minimal attention to story.  I'm not sure whether it is my fault, as a modern viewer, that I desire a story to make sense? But another thing this film seems to speak to unintentionally is the different entertainment standards separating a 1917 audience from a viewer in 2017.  I think I have a fairly reasonable tolerance for chaotic pointless fun (at least when that involves Al, Buster and Fatty) -- but I truly found this film's lack of coherence to be problematic.

Contrarily, the buzz about the picture from contemporary (1917) sources seemed quite positive.

Here's one from the Motion Picture News reviewer, George N. Shorey who not only loved it but apparently had no trouble picking through and finding a plot that satisfied, which is summarized as such: "tells of Fatty's adventures at the seashore. Mother in law butts in. Fatty starts things off by setting fire to his bed with a cigarette; later he takes command of the commissary. More excitement starts when the 'house is pinched' and the cops arrive on the job. The climax is Fatty's decision that two is company and three a crowd. Suiting the deed to the thought, mother-in-law takes an involuntary ocean plunge."

Unfortunately, the reviewer refers to Buster as "Bud", repeatedly! I guess we can forgive him if for no other reason than it underscores that Keaton is still very much a newcomer to the industry.

More than just enjoying it, though, Shorey pays the complement of comparing it ("a well directed production getting real humor that intelligent audiences can appreciate") to your run of the mill slapstick. He thinks of it as an "innovation" and in a "class by itself". This is not just a compliment to the enjoyment value of The Rough House, but to its cinematic contributions as well. Odd.

I thoroughly agree with Shorey that Fatty's slicing the potatoes on the electric fan has to be among the highlights (I also like when Fatty, dropping sugar cubes into his coffee, rolls a couple onto the table like dice, and his iconic performance of making the bread rolls dance that predates Charlie Chaplin's use of the gag in The Gold Rush by about 8 years). Yes, there is plenty of humor here for the intelligent fan, but I also see something that Shorey could not: the influence of young "Bud" Keaton ;)

Several bits in the film that feel particularly intelligent bear Keaton's stamp. This includes the camera trick / edit Shorey was impressed with where the boys as cops show up magically when summoned. I also see Keaton's style in the scene where the cops emerge on a subway portal and then scramble down the embankment (anticipating the famous sequence in Seven Chances). The subway bit was visually funny to me; when they emerge at 242nd street, it felt absurd and I laughed. But then I thought about it. Why is this funny? I truly have no idea.

I had to see if I could find out what the joke was. A bit of searching on the internet for the meaning of this bit turned up no real answers, but I did learn that this was/is a real subway platform. (Of course, at this time, Arbuckle's studio was located in Manhattan). The 242nd Street station, it seems, was the northern terminus for a route connecting lower manhattan with The Bronx. (Here's a nice article about the West Side Line - IRT). The station where the cops emerge would have been the end of the line and viewers at the time probably were in on more of that humor than a modern one would be.  There is something silly about the action suddenly migrating from a remote vacation lakeside spot to having three bumbling cops surface in the Bronx.

Yes, it's funny. But its a Keaton kind of funny. Others have suggested that Keaton in fact did co-direct this picture (uncredited). Though I can't add any validity to that, I can certainly speak to a perceptible jump in Keaton's apparent involvement on display in The Rough House, compared with what could be perceived from The Butcher Boy, his first.

Keaton's now been on the scene in New York as a film actor for two months and is beginning to feel like a pro.

I can't wait till I get to research and review the next picture for the blog, which I'll be doing in about 2 months (His Wedding Night). In the meantime, happy viewing!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Possibly Migrating Blog Over to Word Press Blog

Hello Reader!

Just a quick note, if you have found yourself here, you might be interested:

In the next couple of months I may be migrating my blog over to a WordPress blog.  I haven't actually decided, but in preparation, I am reposting a duplicate of everything I've written over there to see how I like working with that system. I'll post an address and a link if I do migrate but just wanted to put out the 'heads up' to any reader who sees these same posts in two places!

Thanks for your interest in my blog, but mostly in Keaton, who, deserves it!

best -

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Butcher Boy (1917)

Audience matters so much, doesn't it?

I mean, this is true for filmmakers; this is true for bloggers.

As I set fingertips to keyboard and begin to think about my post on Buster Keaton's first screen appearance, the main thing on my mind is "who is going to read this?"  The easy answer is, "so few people, that it probably really doesn't matter."  haha. I'm not going to fight with the positive truth of that. . . however. . .

Generally speaking I still write to an imagined reader anyway. I know that the folks who do find their way here will mostly be those with a driving interest in the thing I am writing about. But I am also aware that another potential reader may stumble upon my blog: the person who is just starting an interest in Buster Keaton, maybe who has heard about him from a friend of a friend, or maybe saw an image I'm sharing and clicked on it and found themselves here. I keep that second category of potential reader in my mind, as much as I do the first. If I can help kindle a fledgling interest in this really cool guy from the early days of cinema past, I really want to do it.

Audience matters because I might be writing to someone who is a bigger aficionado of silent film than I am (in fact, probably so). But I might also be writing to someone who has never "endured" a silent film in their life. (And that would be their word, not mine.) Imagine the 21st Century kid who hears about Keaton and wants to see what the fuss is about then cues up The Butcher Boy on Youtube. What would they think? - this modern person with little background in classic cinema - this person for whom "classic" might evoke thoughts of Back to the Future (1985), 1977's Star Wars or maybe even that great original from 1968: Planet of the Apes.

It's not our fault that we are the product of our times. People nowadays are used to being entertained through onslaught of sophisticated lights, sounds, and actions; we as a people like being hit over the head - but only figuratively. (We are not well-versed in the literal slapstick comedy of people being 'hit over the head'; but I'm getting ahead of myself.) What I mean to say is that to reach back deep into the past and find joy in the contemporary entertainments of 1917 is not likely to be easy or immediate for most modern people.

While I admit that I've often expressed the opinion that Buster Keaton's work is timeless, I am not so naive to think that that is actually and directly true for most people. There is a learning curve for watching 100-year-old cinema. Those who do cross the divide and discover the roots of cinema to which Keaton belonged have managed something incredible.

And I have to say that I think the easier path to that place of fun is probably through another vehicle, maybe Cops or Steamboat Bill, Jr rather than through Fatty Arbuckle's brainchild The Butcher Boy. The style Keaton developed for these and other (later) films over which he had creative control is uniquely light, clever, ironic and athletic. And these are qualities that have held up extremely well and to which modern audiences would be more naturally drawn. Keaton also had a masterful eye for technology and cinematography.  As a result, his films often feel beautiful still, and present a visual treat. . . . Which is important when the visual experience is pretty much the whole experience.

But an Arbuckle comedy is different.

Well for starters, watching an Arbuckle movie from 1917 feels like entering a historic world. (Which of course it is.) Women in this world have their hair in buns and wear long dresses with corsets and bustles; men are toothless, have long beards or maybe smoke corn cob pipes; people buy foodstuffs in bulk and may even still ride horses for transportation. But that's not the half of it. Comedy in Arbuckle's world is . . . well distinctly different from what we are used to. It is juvenile, unsophisticated. Fatty's work is silly and a bit chaotic. It involves lots of jumping, throwing and not a whole lot of larger purpose. Think 'grade school kids creating and writing their own play', and you'll get the right sense for pacing, dialog, stage setting and props -- not to mention the plots that make some sense but not total sense. On the surface Arbuckle films are marked by these basic features, but on closer inspection, a modern audience should still be able to discern the great comedic talent at play throughout the performances. So, while it takes some getting used to the silly, slapstick, driftless fun, it is worth it, because the reward is seeing comedic talent that is profoundly good -- in a style we are just not used to.

Lets cue up The Butcher Boy and let me show you.

As "TBB" opens, we are treated to a wide (square) shot of a dry goods store. That alone might feel bizarre to a modern viewer unless she is rooted in history. The store is actually a pretty cool place, double level, with a great hanging ladder around the perimeter, an open center, a cashier's counter on the far side, and a variety of barrels and packages adorning the walls. Men are hanging around playing checkers. It's hard to say what the modern equivalent to such a place would be that sells food and life basics but also serves as the people's gathering ground. I'm not sure we really have one. The opening shot might feel momentarily jarring, for while we are still getting used to the rather grainy and fuzzy picture, a woman walks up and starts shoving her husband around, kicking him for no apparent reason. We quickly get the sense that the humor here is going to be broad and bawdy.  We start meeting the cast of characters, one by one.

In quick succession we get St. John's impressive physicality, Fatty Arbuckle's knife skills and boyish charm, Luke the Dog running on a treadmill to grind pepper and a general feeling of light chaotic fun.  Yes, it might seem strange to modern eyes that all the customers seem slightly ticked off and that so many people are beating - poking kicking pulling etc - each other for no particular reason. "Why?" you might ask. "Because its funny!" is the only answer you're going to get. As that is the rule of the day, its best to relax and just go with it.

But hush . . . here comes the reason we are watching.  About a quarter of the way in to this 24 minute film, a young man walks into the shop wearing overalls. We see only his back. He is slim and graceful. He stops, picks up a broom from a barrel and inspects it. He pulls out a few bristles and tosses it on the ground then grabs another. After playing with the second broom for a moment, he shows us that he's one to watch when he lightly lets that broom just sail gently back into the barrel. Its hard to describe why this is so cool. But the modern viewer will do well to remember that there is no cgi, no special effects happening. Whether it is Fatty tossing a knife elegantly over his shoulder so that it comes to rest in the counter, St. John spinning on his bottom on a counter or this new young man somehow getting that broom to sail into the barrel effortlessly in real time, these are just comedians with incredible skills honed from years and years of practice. There is no modern equivalent to this type of work. (Yes, I know, Jackie Chan. I won't take anything away from Jackie, who is incredible physically talented and a great comedian; but, his style is very different.) No one is doing this so elegantly in the middle of a light silly passel of pointless shenanigans).

But back to the film . . . seconds later our young man does something far more impressive. By simply prodding the broom on the ground with his foot, he invites it into his hand where he then casually tosses it into the barrel, as lightly and effortlessly as you can imagine. From his first few seconds on screen, Buster Keaton has broadcast his talent. He is as good as anything we've just seen and he commands our interest and eye as if he weren't even trying. One can see why Arbuckle signed him on immediately.

For the next several minutes on film, Keaton shines as the focal point of the story. The classic 'molasses skit' unfolds with Keaton and Arbuckle showing a natural chemistry that makes it seem as if they already knew each other well -- Arbuckle manhandling Keaton and Keaton making that look easy -- though they'd just met when this scene filmed. Everything here is childish and fast-paced with physical comedy bits that aren't meant to leave a lasting impression - but simply to appeal to our inner 12 year old. (A task which Arbuckle intentionally courted).

Its good to pause here and think about how these very old silent film comedies came together. I don't actually know. . . . I am prepared to speculate though.

Keaton's role in this section of the film is interesting. The history/narratives tell us that Fatty had started filming TBB, when a chance meeting brought him in contact with Keaton. (For more on this, see my posts here, and here.) Keaton was invited to watch the filming but was promptly solicited to join in with it.  Think about that happening today and your mind will boggle. Especially given that Keaton owns about 4 minutes of screen time (roughly 1/6th of the total run time) with the scenes I described briefly above. I mean, Arbuckle is actively shooting this film, when a brand new acquaintance walks in, and his stylings are instantly included as a major player in the film. Mind blown.

I think this tells us more about the infancy of comedy films then it does about Arbuckle or Keaton. It seems as if such films were more akin to what the loose structure of a music CD, with its agglomerations of songs that may be connected through theme and flow, rather than story continuity -- than to a modern, plot-driven film. An Arbuckle comedy, as I've already said, is not likely to have a highly developed plot structure, so it feels almost normal that this entirely new act -- probably developed on the spot -- is simply dropped square into the center of the work.  I've often wondered whether Fatty knew his film was running short and needed another bit when Keaton popped into his life? Or whether Fatty had a place in the film for such a character to enter and just hadn't decided who would do that section.  I tend to think the former? Fatty probably had a rough feel for what they were doing in the butcher shop but needed more customer interaction scenes (just like a group putting together a CD and realizing they could use another song or two, when a talented friend with fresh material shows up). So when Buster, a seasoned performer with a great creative mind, walked on set, I'm sure it was obvious and natural for something to develop organically right there.  In any case, knowing the bits we do about how this film came together allows it to serve as a great case study in early filmmaking.

But back to our viewing!

At the 10 minute mark, almost halfway into the film, we move past the opening fun and into the actual story a bit more. Fatty and the owner's daughter, Amanda, it seems, want to be together, but a rival ("Slim") is in the picture. The rivalry blossoms and that's when sacks of flour and pies start flying, with random customers (like Keaton) getting pulled into the middle of the confrontation. Soon, there is a free for all and we're back to a wide shot of the store in full chaos. The result, as the camera closes on the end of this "act" is that Amanda goes off to boarding school and Fatty wistfully watches.

The rest of the film is centered around the girls' school. This is where it really helps to place oneself in the shoes of the viewer in 1917.  The scene, as it opens on the boarding house, might not strike us now as particularly 'sexy', but had to have been so for the contemporary audience. A passel of young women gather on an upstairs landing around their stern headmistress; the girls are dressed in a modern style with shorter skirts showing quite a bit of ankle and some with bobbed hair. They flit about seeming girlish and energetic and plop down on their beds to read their mail; we learn that Amanda is under absurd strictures like no letters from anyone but her parents! and no men on the premises! Yikes! What fresh horrors do we have to endure?

Enter Fatty in drag. He's going to spring her from this jail.

Arbuckle is wonderful and really very pretty as a girl. You know he relishes this stuff, for as "Candy" he channels the spirit and energy of a schoolgirl perfectly -- skipping, curtseying, flirting, dancing and showing his petticoat. Whenever possible he steals a kiss from his love. Its bawdy and maybe a bit shocking? This is the kind of stuff that makes watching pre-code movies fun - and full of unexpected delights.

St. John as Slim, next stages his own break-in, in drag, and for a reason that's never been clear to me, Keaton's character is now one of Slim's henchmen/cohort. Slim makes a much uglier and more aggressive looking woman. (And, with glasses on, somehow manages to remind me in these scenes, of Harold Lloyd.)

The rest of the film is centered on playing up for laughs the absurdity of two guys in drag in a girl's dorm. There is pulling, slapping, tongue sticking, and spanking. (Juvenile slapstick). Then our guys call in for reinforcements, so Keaton and Luke the dog get to enter the fray.  Just as with the end of the first half of this film, things break into great chaos at the end. By the way, speaking of great performance talent, take a look at the superb fall from Keaton at around the 22 minute mark. And, because there's just not quite enough chaos, we throw in a pillow fight and the headmistress with a gun. As she calls the cops on Al and the gang -- and while Luke stands guard -- Fatty and Amanda slip off to get married.

This, my friends, is comedy circa 1917.

Despite some of its flaws, The Butcher Boy is truly one of the best Keaton/Arbuckle films, and is also one of my favorites.  It is neither seamless nor timeless - but it is fun and energetic and full of great moments that showcase the talents of an extraordinary team.

Those who are already fans of Keaton and have enjoyed his work but may not have dipped back this far into the catalog, should have a nice treat in store. Those who've never seen silent comedies may have a harder hurdle to scale to appreciate and value this one. But I'd still recommend it. I mean, it is just a 24 minute investment. Watch it right the right mindset and you will be impressed.

I look forward to the next release of a Keaton film, in approximately two months. Until then, I wish you happy viewing.