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 :)