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 NewsMoving Picture WorldVarietyBillboardMoving Picture WeeklyPhoto 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!

The Butcher Boy (1917)

[Originally posted to WWBKD on April 23, 2017]

 

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.

Keaton Arbuckle Collaborations

[Originally posted to WWBKD on April 13, 2017]

I am gearing up for an awesome Buster Film Centennial Celebration! As I’ve been highlighting in my last couple of posts, it was 100 years ago *now* that Buster Keaton began his career in film. Oh my gosh, gives me shivers.

As anyone reading this must know — both in terms of how I feel about it, and probably how they themselves feel about it — this was a momentous event for the future of cinema. Specifically, by a lucky twist of fate, Keaton was on the brink of a solo stage career (having grown up working in an act with his parents), when a chance meeting brought him in contact with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was shooting a film for a new motion picture company. Arbuckle invited Keaton to see the set at Comique Film Corp., …then asked him to appear in the film, … then to join the team. Keaton ate up the experience, joined forces with Arbuckle immediately and was able to get a toe in cinema with Arbuckle as his great friend and mentor.  It was Arbuckle’s force, talent and support that put Keaton on solid footing from which he was able to springboard into the world of cinema on his own.

Many are aware that film they were shooting that day, The Butcher Boy, was to be young Keaton’s first screen appearance,; however, it seems to go unsaid — and I didn’t realize this myself — but The Butcher Boy was Comique Film Corp’s first film as well.

Here is what I wanted to say next, something short and sweet, like: “Comique went on to make x films, x of which co-starred Keaton,” but the problem is that the film companies are complicated!

In just reading a Wikipedia article, I realized that the same film enterprise (Comique) that produced Fatty’s films, went on to be associated with Keaton’s short films too, though those films were released through different companies. It gets a bit complicated to work out the details. Suffice it to say that these early Comique films were released for Paramount, and these are the ones I associate with Arbuckle — and that number of films appears to be 21, er 20… and includes films ranging from 1917’s The Butcher Boy through 1920’s The Garage. (Though, really, I just never get a break – the data is still messy because of films like “A Reckless Romeo” which was made by Arbuckle for Keystone, but then released as a Comique pictures film just after The Butcher Boy. argh – this stuff can feel very confusing.

The right thing to do is to trust the Damfinos; BusterKeaton.com has a nice section devoted to Arbuckle, and on it I have what I’m going to call “the official” filmography for Arbuckle. From this, I’m going with the count of 20 “Comique Arbuckle” films, and Buster appeared in 14. Al St. John by the way (pictured above on the right) was in almost all of the films too.

Because this took me a while to organize / compile, I’m going to share my spreadsheet here:

Looking at just a slice of this chart, I want to commemorate the Keaton Film Centennial by writing blog posts on all of Keaton’s 1917 films. And just to be clear — the ones in this chart, the ones he made with Fatty and Comique are the only ones Keaton made at that time! At least something in my world is simple 🙂

Lest anyone be worried about the Herculean task at hand for me this year, I have to admit that the catalog of Keaton’s 1917 releases includes just 6 titles, all of them short films:

The Butcher Boy

The Rough House

His Wedding Night

Oh! Doctor

Coney Island

A Country Hero

Though short, this list packs a wallop, and includes two of the most memorable Comique Comedies as well as the only film in all  Keaton’s catalog that is considered “lost” (seriously feeling lucky about that!)

I am looking forward to this project. And will end this post on the hope and belief that on April 23rd, the Centennial of when the film was released in theaters,  I will upload my post on The Butcher Boy.

Where Buster Met Fatty

[Originally posted to WWBKD on March 8, 2017]

In “When Buster Met Fatty,” my post last week, we learned that Buster Keaton arrived in New York in February of 1917 on his own for the first time. He was 21 years old and looking to up his game. A trained vaudevillian, he’d always performed with his parents; but now he was flying solo.

Monday, February 26th is the date (I have surmised) for when Keaton showed up at the office of his agent Max Hart, located near Times Square. Hart set Keaton up with an excellent gig performing with The Passing Show of 1917, which would soon begin its run at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. It was a sweet position to snag — as it paid $250/week and came with the job security of knowing he would be employed for at least the 6 month New York run and probably for the next year if he chose to travel with the show. Keaton was well pleased with this turn of events.

The next few days must have been a whirlwind. He’d only just relocated in New York, and needed to secure a place to stay and take care of logistics. He needed to write to his mother and let her know the good news and he needed to think about how to adapt his routines for an act of 1 instead of 3. It was a lot for a young man to be getting on with.  The cold, windy weather and the constant news of intensifying international events had to be the counterpoint to what was sure to be an otherwise cheerful outlook on what life was handing him.  I imagine it felt a bit like a crossroads as Keaton hung around New York waiting for rehearsals to begin and thinking about life, his career and the impending war.

One day, not long after the meeting with Hart — on Thursday March 8th* [or, in light of new evidence, Thursday March 15th] (I have deduced in the Holmesian sense) — Keaton was walking down the street thinking about his routine for The Passing Show when he ran smack dab into an old friend, Lou Anger. He’d known Lou from the old vaudeville days and they stopped to chat. Anger was walking (maybe) with another man Keaton knew by reputation only — a movie star. This was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a large presence in every sense of the word in the burgeoning film industry. Arbuckle and Anger chatted with Keaton awhile that day, telling him about how Anger had left the world of performing in order to manage a movie studio for Joseph Schenck and how they’d wooed Arbuckle away from Mack Sennett Comedies in order to be the star and director of short comedies for this new endeavor.  The film studio (Colony Studios, it was called) was an umbrella for several production teams, including the one Fatty headed known by the crazy, unpronounceable French name “Comique.”

Lou is on the far right – opposite side of photo from Buster

They delighted Keaton with their stories and of course the conversation wound back around to Buster. Had he ever been on a movie set? they wondered and, would he like to see theirs?

The answers were “no” and “why not,” and the appointment to go see it was set.

The following day (or possibly on Monday depending on which account you believe), Keaton made his way over to Colony Studios to see what all the fuss was about.  When he got there a lot of things happened. Arbuckle, knowing Keaton was a clutch comedian, asked him to do a small part in the film he was shooting — The Butcher Boy. It went extremely well and, by the end of the day, Buster was dying to get inside the film camera, understand the cutting process, the projection room and all of the mechanics. He almost instantly was struck with the enormous potential of this medium and fascinated by it. Fatty, too, was excited about working with Buster and picked away at his reserve. Do another scene? Finish this film with us? Why don’t you just stay on with us? Keaton didn’t need much arm twisting. He was hooked from the moment he first examined the motion picture camera.

Keaton got that first taste of filmmaking, impressed Arbuckle, gained a friend and mentor (even happened to meet his future wife) and began a path of filmmaking genius the likes of which the world would be lucky to ever see again. Soon,  I will start blogging about the films this collaboration produced in celebration of the Centennial anniversary of the release of each! But first, I am taking the time to reconstruct the details of that first meeting.

I previously reported on my research, analysis, sleuthing (and just plain guess work) that led to the unpicking of the exact dates of these fateful meetings, but now, I want to apply my skills to the question, not of when, but of where Buster Met Fatty.

First, there is one preliminary matter to clear up.

I am working with the assumption that Buster and Fatty met while they were walking in the street. Two descriptions of the event appear when Keaton recalls and recounts the details in various biographies and interviews. One is that Buster ran into Lou Anger in the street and that Lou invited Buster back to the studio where he met Arbuckle. If you are a subscriber to this first path, then the question seems much more straightforward! And the answer is pretty clear – they met at 318 E 48th Street – a big loft / warehouse type building – on the 3rd floor where Fatty Arbuckle ran his film company. If you instead like the second path, the idea that Buster ran into both Lou and Fatty in the streets of New York, the question is much more difficult to solve and is probably never going to be knowable with pinpoint accuracy.

Actually, I don’t have a super strong opinion on which of these paths is the right one. I can visualize them both quite nicely, but I would say that the meeting in the street seems to have the weight of the authority in its favor. It comes from several accounts: the Keaton Autobiography “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” and numerous interviews [Pratt, 1958; Bishop, Thomas, 1958; Feinstein, 1960; Brownlow, 1964] compared to the meeting at the studio account which comes mainly from Rudi Blesh’s biography “Keaton”, a book which may have taken a few liberties with the narration of these facts in order to make for a compact and simple story.

If they did bump into each other on the streets of New York City, just where did Buster and Fatty meet?

There are lots of great signposts on the trail.

Colony Film Studio: 318 48th Street

from Smithsonian article

Arbuckle’s film studio is a natural place to start in our investigation.  It was located on the 3rd floor of a warehouse building at 318 48th Street.

A few details are known about this location, and for that I thank others who have visited and blogged about it. It seems that, as recently as 2012, a portion of the building still existed and housed a parking garage. Unfortunately, fairly recently, the government of Singapore bought the building for $30 million – in order to be near the UN which is just down the street.  This warehouse had become primo real estate. Apparently they really gutted it and nothing original remains.

In any case, even if Keaton and Arbuckle did not meet here, this place is interesting for any Keaton fan because it is the place they got to know each other and where Keaton got his start in films. And, I think we have to assume that if Keaton and Arbuckle met in the street, such a meeting would’ve had to have been nearby! First of all, the Blesh account tells us that when they met in the street the studio was “just a few blocks over on 48th.” (p. 85).  We should also consider that Fatty Arbuckle and Lou Anger both worked at this location. They were out walking together, possibly mid-morning (based on Keaton’s account in the Blesh book that he’d sat down to breakfast then was walking around when he bumped into them. The question is how far would men like Anger and Arbuckle have been away from their studio base?

I don’t know. I can just throw a few more facts out there. Lou Anger died of a heart attack at age 68 in 1946. On the date of bumping into Keaton, he was about 39 years old. From the photo above, he looks like a reasonably strappy guy, but he also looks pretty dapper. Would walking around Manhattan have been his thing? Fatty Arbuckle weighed a purported 260 lbs. Now, I am the first to admit that Fatty was fit. Look at him springing about and dancing in his movies. However, that said, I don’t really see him as a big walker.

Truth is, I see this pair as being tethered to the film studio by a distance of about a mile radius from their studio. Obviously that is just a wild guess. But I really do think we should try and come up with a plan to keep them close by.

Keaton’s digs: 368 W. 50th Street

This is super exciting news to report: I found Buster Keaton’s New York address, as it appeared in the May 1917 New York phone directory! 368 W. 50th. (So excited about this).  I don’t know for sure that Keaton was already in this apartment by the date of the meeting, but I think its a good bet. Buster was new to NY when he went to see Max Hart looking for work. From all accounts he meant to stay in NY. Then he got a great job. There would have been no reason to delay and I imagine he would have put time in to finding regular living arrangement and getting out of his hotel right away.

My analysis has him spending over a week in town before he met Arbuckle on March 8th/15th.  Thus, I think he would have had time to have moved into an apartment by day he met Fatty.  Note that he was living in this same location in the October 1917 phone book, thus, this was obviously a quasi-permanent address for him. Even if he didn’t live there yet, the idea that Keaton would have been staying in a hotel somewhere very close by makes a lot of sense too, especially given that the location is perfect!

I’ll show you in a minute on the map, but just know that this address is within an easy walking distance of his agent Max Hart located at 1564 Broadway, (talk about insanely valuable real estate by the way!),  the Winter Garden Theater where he’d be working, and a hub of stores, food, shows and excitement.

Blesh’s account of Keaton’s day that day

Biographer Rudi Blesh describes the day of the meeting with Keaton waking up, going to breakfast at “Childs” then walking around. Blesh tells us that every day it was Keaton’s habit to walk past the Winter Garden Theater. All these details are helpful and some can be pinpointed on a map.

The Winter Garden Theater is located at 1634 Broadway. That’s easy anyway.

“Childs” is another story. I wasn’t expecting to be able to find “Childs” at all (as I’d never heard of it), and instead found way too many Childs’! I was stunned to learn that there are practically dozens of Childs restaurants in New York City in 1917 according to the phone book. I looked for locations of the chain restaurant that were located in the right part of town and one immediately popped out as interesting. It was just a couple blocks from Keaton’s apartment and across the street from Max Hart’s office and a block down from the Winter Garden. It was located at 1546 Broadway.

Although there are about 4 other Childs restaurants that might be in contention in this approximate area of town, it feels like a pretty good bet that the one at 1546 Broadway would have been one Keaton frequented.

Where Buster said he was going –

Buster said he was: “walking down Broadway, down along 8th or someplace” (Bishop interview) when he ran into Fatty and Lou. The Blesh account has Keaton walking the streets and looking at window displays when he turned a corner and heard his name called. (The Pratt interview account also mentions that Keaton was walking along Broadway when he ran into the two men.)

There are a few things to consider here before we look at a map and put it all together.

First, Buster can’t be taken too strictly/literally with street locations. For instance he has referred to the film studio’s location variously as being between 2nd and 3rd and  being between 1st and 2nd. (In fact the later is true). When he says here that he was walking down Broadway “along 8th or someplace,” it is hard to make sense of that. Not being a New Yorker, I’m not sure I’m thinking about this right, but from what I can see on the map, there is an 8th Street and an 8th Avenue in Manhattan. Broadway runs at a gentle diagonal in this area from Central Park (around 58th St) to about 14th St where it straightens out. Broadway and 8th Street is an intersection in the Greenwich Village area, and would almost certainly not be where Keaton meant.

Broadway near 8th Ave. would almost certainly be what Keaton meant, however, it doesn’t really give us a pinpoint location, since the two streets run quasi-parallel for several blocks.

Here, lets take a look at the map:

The base map comes from a 1916 Atlas available online. Each of the grids was expandable and I pulled them up to inspect before pinpointing my markers on it. I don’t know the exact scale of the map, but can tell you that the distance between Max Hart’s office and Colony Studios is exactly 1 mile.

You can see that any further north along Broadway (toward Central Park) is going to make the walk back to the studio (for Lou and Fatty) longer than a mile. And you can see that the further south you get, the harder it is to say you are “along 8th.”

Unfortunately, we can also see that it’s going to be impossible to both be along Broadway and just a few blocks away from the studio.

I think the best we can do is pinpoint the meeting for somewehre along the section of Broadway that slices through grid 76 and grid 71. This area represents the closest that a spot on Broadway gets to Colony Studio — at about a mile.  And, best, it is smack in the middle of the hub of places we’ve been talking about all along: Times Square, Buster’s apartment, Childs’ restaurant, the Winter Garden Theater.

[New evidence came to light for me after drafting this post, while I was reading the preface to a book called “The Best of Buster” ed. Richard Anobile. Anoble simply states that the meeting was “rumored to have been in the vicinity of 46th St and Broadway.” This is awesome, as it totally confirms the location I was centering in on, in grid 71!]

If it were Buster’s habit to wake up, get breakfast at Childs down the street, then walk up, down, in and around Broadway to take in the view of the Winter Garden, he’d be well-positioned to run into Fatty and Lou right in this area and they, in turn, would be reasonably close enough to their place of business to be expected on foot in that area. I think we have a winner!

What fun it has been to apply sleuthing and the cold hard glance of logic to these hazy details from the past! I’ve always been so interested in when and where Buster met Fatty Arbuckle for the first time and taking the time to do this research has made me feel very close to the events.

It has also made me feel desperately interested in taking a road trip to New York to see all of these sites.

But now its time to let all of this slip back into a soft resting place. I’ll let my mental picture drift happily to the hazy black and white image of a young, confident and street savvy Buster Keaton walking along planning for the future he was on the verge of, then stumbling into a path that changed everything. As a fan I’m so grateful that the story unfolded as it did.

When Buster Met Fatty

[Originally posted to WWBKD on March 4, 2017]

This post is born of procrastination. It went like this: I said to myself, “Wow! You have to get started writing about when Buster met Fatty; it’s already March 1st.” (I knew I wanted to aim for a post date for around the centennial of that profoundly important moment: the day they met).  But, I didn’t feel like writing, so I thought, “hmmm, why don’t I see just how long I actually have? What date was it actually when they met?” I figured I might get lucky and be able to wait a week or two. “I’ll just look it up.” Ha. That’s when the fun began.

Despite valiant efforts (by which I mean 10 minutes on Google), I could not find anyone who could name the anniversary date. Worse! by searching, I found that now, even the month was suspect.  Although I had March in my head, some were saying February.  What gives?!

It turns out that in my desire to buy myself more time, I ended up creating a research project instead. [NOTE: After drafting this post, I became aware of a new piece of information. I will address this at the end of the post.]

I’m sorry to say that even after the best sleuthing I could bring to bear on this question, I still don’t know for sure what date to celebrate as their anniversary! But I do have a lot of really interesting information.

Loathe to blame my beloved. . . I have to admit that the uncertainty does seem traceable to the differing accounts the man himself has given of the meeting. I had ready access to several original sources: the 1966 biography by Rudi Blesh,  the autobiography “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” ghost written by Charles Samuels in 1960, and a couple of 1958 interviews with Buster (one with Christopher Bishop for “Film Quarterly” and another with George Pratt for “Image”).  Each of these gives a slightly different account of the time frame surrounding this fateful meeting. (I’m sure any additional sources you’d find would have its own nuanced account.) Maybe another print biographer has addressed this issue in more detail — anyone may feel free to share what they know in comments here — but for me, these sources are going to have to do.

Pretty much all of the accounts I’ve seen of Buster’s entrance into the movies are similar in the following essentials:

It is 1917. Keaton is now 21 years old. Keaton’s dad’s drinking problem has become untenable. The Three Keaton’s act is broken up and dad is left in California while Keaton and his mom travel to Michigan. A short time later, Keaton boards a train alone to New York — in the early months of the year.  Upon arriving, he immediately meets with an agent named Max Hart who gets him a gig (a very lucrative one) on Broadway in a production entitled “The Passing Show of 1917.”  In the short time between that meeting with Hart and the date at which rehearsals are set to begin on TPS1917, Keaton is walking down the street in New York City when he runs into his friend Lou Anger. Anger introduces Keaton to the movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who, in turn, introduces him to a movie set, where Arbuckle is shooting “The Butcher Boy.”  Keaton agrees to perform a bit role in that production, then falls in love with the process, the camera and the pictures. He joins Fatty’s team, drops out of TPS1917 and makes magical pictures for many years to come.

A lesser fan might just leave it at that. Really, it’s a pretty nice little story.  But, I’ve always been so fascinated with the particulars. Before we fast forward into the movies this partnership produced, lets rewind a bit and explore the meeting. How and when did it happen?

My sleuthing begins with the Blesh biography “Keaton”, which many still consider to be the bible. The book was written in nuanced detail with Keaton’s direct input and describes that trip to New York with many interesting tidbits of info.

As he describes the scene – it is a Monday morning in March (1917) and a dark, windy, cold, rainy day. A boy is hawking papers by shouting about another sunken ship, when Keaton makes his way to Hart’s office near Times Square (Ch. 9, p. 83).

One might think that the mention of the shipwreck would alone do the trick for pinpointing a date for Keaton’s meeting with Hart, but no; not even close. I was stunned to learn that sunk ships were a continual occurrence at this time. Wikipedia has a running list of sunken ships and it contains many, many entries for February and March 1917. If you (as I did) need a reminder, Europe was already at war and America was hardly safe.  (Wilson led America to officially join the action by declaring war on April 2, 1917). The weeks leading up to that were fraught with international incidents. As I perused newspapers for dates around this time, many of them mentioned U.S. boats (military, commercial, passenger) being sunk. In fact, Wilson lobbied congress for, and eventually won, a law requiring the arming of every U.S. vessel in the Atlantic due to this constant pressure. Pretty interesting stuff for a backdrop.

But I digress. It looks like a ship sinking alone wasn’t going to help me pinpoint a date.

Next I found a calendar. Although I grant that some details in the Blesh/Keaton account are certain to be fuzzy after such a long time, I think that the mentioning of it being a Monday is very helpful. In my estimation, days of the week (especially Mondays) tend to be properly remembered. Of course this is conjecture, but I imagine that Keaton remembered this day as a Monday because his train arrived in New York City on a Sunday. It makes sense to me that upon arriving he’d get the jump right away at start of business on Monday and go see his agent.  So I’d like to take him at his word and trust the Monday.  (Plus that gives me somewhere to start). The calendar shows the four Mondays in March 1917 to be the 5th, 12th, 19th and 26th.

Before we explore those, lets chip away at the other end of the range. Every account agrees that Keaton snagged a part in “The Passing Show” before it started rehearsals for its run.  Good news is that this was a pretty big deal. In fact, the production has an entry in the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB). (Did you even know there was such a thing? I did not!)  The lovely, amazing IBDB tells us that TPS1917 ran from April 26th – October 13th that year.  And all sources agree that Keaton met with Hart some time shortly before (between 4 days and 2 weeks before, depending on the source) rehearsals were set to begin.

found on http://mideastcartoonhistory.com/1917to1928.html

But when would we expect rehearsals to begin on a show of this sort??

Seriously, thank god for the internet. I was able to find a couple of anecdotal sources that point to rehearsals beginning “at least” four weeks prior to the show’s opening. (see Wikipedia article; also see article on Al Jolson related to a different iteration of The Passing Show suggesting he began rehearsals on March 15th that year.)

The good news is that placing the beginning of rehearsals in mid to late March probably rules out a first meeting with Max Hart on March 26th, and even makes the 19th much more dubious, pushing us to the early end of the date range.

So. . . within the Blesh world, I think the prime targets for Buster’s meeting with Hart would be Monday March 5th and Monday March 12th.  Problem is… no sinking ships on those days! Let me get back to that in a minute. For now, lets explore whether the 4-day timeframe for events, as spelled out in that bio, seems plausible. Hint: it doesn’t.

Consider the extraordinary pressures this version puts on the timeframe by having Buster arrive in New York (on a Sunday maybe?), meet with Hart on Monday, get immediately signed to TPS1917, meet with Lou Anger on the street on Thursday, then back to Fatty’s studio that day, make a decision to do the movies instead of Broadway, and do it all before rehearsals begin on TPS1917 on Friday.

I’m not saying it isn’t possible, but the timeline as it plays out in the Blesh book is a bit suspect. I am suspicious of because it seems too conveniently assembled to tell a story and streamline the logistics. Because the biographer’s caution with dates is suspect elsewhere, he does not strike me as the most reliable source for this kind of fact. For instance, just a few pages later (p. 95) Blesh remarks that “The Butcher Boy” (the film Fatty was making and on which Buster first appeared) “was completed in May.” But we know this is not the case. The film was released on April 23rd.  That’s a pretty big error.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of Blesh and Keaton; they were telling a story for the purpose of flow and simplicity. It sounds neat, decisive and quick. Such characteristics suit a book with the great 60s-era charm and compactness that this biography features. Things are smart and swift in this world. But I think the world is a bit off.

The timeline in “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” (published in 1960) is similar but has a couple significant changes. First, Keaton says he arrived in New York in February (rather than Blesh’s March). Further, the timeline is definitely more vague, and slightly suggestive of a more leisurely pace (after the meeting with Hart) for when Buster met Anger/Fatty: “a few days later I got the script of the revue. But just a day or two before rehearsals were to start, I ran into Lou Anger…”. Incidentally, the account is also different from Blesh’s in that it has Keaton running into both Anger and Arbuckle on the street. (Blesh has Keaton walking with Anger back to the studio where he met Arbuckle). Also, in MWWS, Arbuckle invites Keaton to come to the studio “tomorrow” — rather than seeing it that day. I think its possible that the autobiography — though certainly subjected to massaging and wordsmithing by Samuels — may give a more direct account from Keaton’s memories than we get from the embellished story-like Blesh book??

In any case, (I mean, its my blog and no one’s paying me to do this, so I guess I’m entitled to pick and choose as I see fit.) I tend to believe some of the nuanced details — like the Monday, the ship sinking, the weather — from the Blesh account (after all Blesh does state that Keaton “still recalls vividly”), but am more inclined to trust the pacing and the timeframe of the autobiography.

To help support that decision, I appeal to the other interview accounts. The Film Quarterly piece agrees with MWWS in having Keaton meet both Anger and Arbuckle together in the street. However, unlike MWWS (in which Keaton is invited to the studio “tomorrow”), Film Quarterly suggests the invitation was for Keaton to come down to the studio “on Monday.”  Importantly, in the FQ account, Keaton replies: “rehearsals [on TPS1917] don’t start for another week or so, so I’ll be down.”  This is significantly different than the Blesh book that has Keaton going to the studio immediately with Anger and the TPS1917 rehearsals set to begin the next day.  The final account I’ll mention (hang in there! we’re almost done!) is from the “Image” interview. It, too, fits better in the MWWS and FQ world than it does in the Blesh universe.  In it, Keaton states that “I had about ten days to wait for rehearsal to start when I met Roscoe Arbuckle on the street on Broadway.”  Keaton goes on to say that Arbuckle was to begin filming “tomorrow” and invited Keaton to join him at the studio.

I’m not sure we’ll really be able to unpick all of this, but I will say I am inclined to believe the more leisurely pace. I think we should push the initial meeting between Buster and Max Hart back as far as possible into early March or late February to make room for a number of days to pass before Buster runs into Anger (and Fatty) in the street, and for that meeting to take place at a time when the rehearsals for TPS1917 are still 10 days to maybe even 2 weeks in the future.

In short, if we can fairly pin the start of those rehearsals to somewhere between about March 22nd and March 29th, then that would give us a date range of maybe March 8th through March 19th for Buster Keaton to have met Fatty Arbuckle for the first time.

Not one to give up with that large date range quite so easily,  I returned to ship sinkings.  (Remember that this may be the key to pinning down a date for that first meeting with Max Hart). And I’m still sticking with Mondays for that one. I mean, it’s all I got.  This Hart meeting has to precede the Anger/Fatty meeting by at least 3 days in the tightest timeframe we have, so lets now look more closely at the most plausible Mondays: February 26th, March 5th, and March 12th. When we do this, something good happens. (Well, obviously, not really ‘good’ in any larger humanitarian sense, but you get the drift). The Laconia sank. (BTW, not the same boat that sank in WWII).

If we give any credence to the tidbit about the paperboy shouting about a ship sinking (and I’d like to), then I’d say for Keaton to remember that, it was probably a significant sinking.  The Laconia would have been such. And it was sunk on Sunday Feb 25th. The Monday morning News in New York City on Feb 26th 1917 would surely have featured it. (In fact, it did feature it. I looked.)  On the 5th of March, conversely, something else of interest was being reported — Wilson’s inauguration. (I had to double check this, figuring that seemed awfully late for inauguration day? But from what I can gather, accurate).  In any case, if Keaton remembered a ship sinking, then February 26th seems to be a better date than March 5th, when the Inauguration was the top news or the 12th when there was no ship sinking. There is another interesting U.S. ship sinking headline around this time, but it’s on Wednesday March 14th and that date doesn’t work well within anyone’s timeframes, whereas Monday February 26th does.

The only thing that remains is to check the weather.

This was not as easy as I thought it would be. Maybe someone else knows a better way, but since all the historical weather databases I could find dated back only to the mid-1940s, I had to look in the New York newspapers for the weather report. The ones I saw were vague and broad by today’s standards. They reported weather for the whole country on a regional scale, rather than local phenomena.  However, I would say that, from what I can gather by reading the New York Tribune for Monday 2/26 and Tuesday 2/27, Monday’s weather may indeed have been extra cold and rainy in the New York City area –though I’d ultimately love to confirm this with more sources and check the other dates around this time.

That said, I am going to go ahead and declare boldly that February 26th 1917 was the Monday when Keaton set foot in Max Hart’s office in New York City and asked for work. (I myself am perfectly convinced. You can obviously decide if you are). I like the way the date fits the events described in Blesh’s book; I like the way the date allows for time prior to rehearsals of The Passing Show for Buster to meet Arbuckle, visit his studio, take home a camera and tear it apart; return to the studio for good and ask Hart to tear up the contract for The Passing Show.

The only thing I don’t like is that it puts me behind the 8 ball, as it is already March 2nd! and I’m still writing this 🙂

But, wait. Stop! This does not solve the original question: WHEN DID BUSTER MEET FATTY, not Max Hart?

There, my friends, is the rub. If we buy Blesh’s timeframe and date the Keaton/Arbuckle encounter to the coming Thursday, a few days later, that would be March 1st. The problem is we are told in this (Blesh) account that rehearsals (on TPS1917) would start the next day. But, Friday March 2nd is getting to be nearly two months before the start of the production and that is probably too far out. If we instead buy into any one of the other accounts, then we have a lot more time to work with before Buster runs into Anger (and Fatty) on Broadway, but few anchors to pin down any particular day for the meeting.

Nonetheless, . . . (here I go again, borrowing from multiple accounts at will) I’m going to stick with the idea of the meeting taking place on a Thursday. I just like that part. It allows for a “tomorrow” date at the studio to make sense. And it allows for a “Monday” date at the studio to make sense.  How about instead of having the Thursday in question fall on that immediate one (the 1st), we consider that the meeting took place the following Thursday, March 8th.* [New info below]

Here’s why this works. It allows Buster to have over a week in New York, getting the script for TPS1917, taking care of logistics, going to shows and settling in, thinking about life (about impending war!), but not yet getting bored, when he runs into Lou Anger on the street. It comports with the calmer pace on display in most of the interview/personal accounts. And it allows Keaton to tell Lou/Fatty that rehearsals on TPS1917 are set to begin in soon and have this feel perfectly appropriate to the time when rehearsals likely started — maybe March 19th-ish — for a show that was set to begin on April 26th.  Keaton can meet Lou and Fatty in the street, get invited back to the studio, lets say, Friday March 9th or Monday March 11th. It gives the team a month to work on The Butcher Boy before it gets wrapped and released by April 23rd. Everything just falls into place.

YES! Eureka! I have found it. I’m sure this is it! (Despite what I said in the beginning about being unable to unpick it all. I think I just did.  March 8th is the day that Buster met Fatty.* [New info below].

And the very best news in all of this is that I get to take a bit more time to polish this post and make it beautiful before releasing it to the ethers ahead of time 🙂

New Info!

While perusing facebook this morning (3/20/17) I came upon something that stopped me in my tracks. Someone posted a photo taken of a Datebook that had belonged to Keaton and, I learned, is housed in the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, along with other Buster Keaton papers.

I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am to learn of this resource. I simply had no idea that this type of archive existed. (I certainly smell a road trip coming on and am very hopeful that as a member of the public I will have access to Keaton’s papers. I will certainly update the blog with anything that I find there).

Bottom line, the image is incredibly interesting and bears directly on the issue of When Buster Met Fatty.

It appears to show Buster going to the film studio (for the first time?) on Monday March 19th. It gives an address for the studio on Tuesday and also mentions “The Butcher Boy” on what appears to be Thursday.

As exciting as this is, it is somewhat ambiguous as well. I am dying to lay eyes / hands on the original to examine it for clues. For instance, what if anything is written on the preceding page, or other pages? Did he use this regularly? Did he keep addresses and other info in it? How did he generally notate things? Did other entries seem to bleed into additional days? Does it appear that he wrote these things contemporaneously or that maybe he jotted things down to remember later?

As I look at this, I think it seems possible that all the writing relates to a single event, rather than three different days. It is interesting that he calls the studio “Paramount” on the first writing, then calls it “Norma Talmadge Studio” below that. I am also interested in the scribbling out that’s been done. If I could only see this in person. I’d love a chance to decipher what was underneath this. I’d also love a chance to see if Keaton has other things (and what kinds of things) written on the surrounding pages. But…. until a trip to LA is in my future, I’ll just have to make do with the plot thickening.

But most of all what I like about this diary is that (at least these cryptic notes) fit well into my overall unpicking and understanding of the beginnings of this New York adventure. I am still sticking with 90% of what I said here about Buster arriving in New York, about his meeting with Max Hart and about when rehearsals were likely to begin on The Passing Show. And I am pleased that I tried to slow down the rushed timeframe. The only thing is: maybe I didn’t slow things down quite enough. It turns out that instead of putting the meeting with Fatty on Thursday March 8th, we now have reason to push it back yet another week, to Thursday March 15th!

I’m really quite fine with the adjustment! As it otherwise works even better with the timeframe and just gives Buster a bit more time on his own in Manhattan before his life changed for good.  So in light of this new evidence, I am going on record now as saying that Buster Met Fatty in the streets of New York on Thursday March 15th, 1917! And, if you want to know more about “where” exactly…. see my post on that, here.

Go West: An Underrated Keaton Masterpiece

[Originally posted to WWBKD on April 3m 2016]

It’s time to write in praise of one of my favorite Keaton films, Go West.  The first time I watched, I found it to be superb and fell in love with this gorgeously filmed ode to the desert.

But after reading other people’s reviews, I began to wonder if maybe I’d gotten it wrong. One rarely sees this title ranked among Keaton’s best; instead, folks give milquetoast or ambivalent reviews, seeing it as an oddity that stands off by itself. Take a look, for instance at what the briefest of Google searches for the title turns up in the page previews:

  • Buster Keaton’s Go West doesn’t quite compare to his best films but is an admirable stab at the funny bone nonetheless…  rottentomatoes.com/m/1089755-go_west/
  • Go West was an unusual film for Buster Keaton. With its portrayal of a down and out wanderer… http://www.silentfilm.org/archive/go-west
  • Some Keaton scholars have suggested that Go West is a subtle satire of Charlie Chaplin’s approach… http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/…/go-west
  • Go West is one of Buster Keaton’s more low key films, but also one of his strangest… seoul-le-cinema.blogspot.com/2012/05/go-west
  • Go West is a unique Keaton film even if it is not his most enjoyable… http://www.threemoviebuffs.com/review/go-west

In short, and as these snippets suggest, not only do people not love this film, but they seem to find it unusual or difficult to classify. Some say it is odd for Keaton to dip into pathos. Others suggest that Keaton is tongue-in-cheek in his poignancy and actually intended his film as a parody. The consensus seems to be that whether intentional or mocking, Go West is unusual: a slower paced film where Keaton tugs at our heartstrings in an attempt to make us sad.

But I can’t agree.

Not because Go West isn’t a slower paced film and not that it isn’t unique, but because all of Keaton’s films are unique. I would not grant that Go West is any less like the others, than those others are similar! (haha. How’s that for a sentence?)  In terms of character, setting, plot structure and theme, Go West fits well in line with Keaton’s other films, and doesn’t seem to me appreciably any sadder than the rest. And in terms of its unique and special attributes. . . well, all of Keaton’s films have their own distinct voices (funny word for silent films, but I’m sticking with it.)

Let me be clear: I don’t mean to argue that Go West isn’t on the slow end, the sweeping end, the calmer end of this array, just that there is no real reason to set it apart from the others and call it “unusual.”  To do so implies that there is a Keaton style or formula that his other films follow and that Go West doesn’t.  Maybe someone could make that argument, but for me, well, I don’t see it.

Character:

For starters, “Friendless,” Keaton’s character in Go West, is right in line with his roles in other films. In character and approach to life, he is definitely Keatonesque: a bit out of touch and in over his head, but able to ultimately rise to the occasion. The young man in Go West is a typical blend of folly, zen-like determination and willingness: energetic, though inept, in his adopted role as a cow poke. Not particularly different from his turn as a willing, energetic and inept detective…(?) or for that matter as a willing, energetic, inept boxer…(?) news photographer…(?) college athlete… (?), scuba diver (?).

Though they tend to be alike in driving force, Keaton’s young men cover a range of social positions, from the very rich (Battling Butler and The Navigator) to the more needs-driven (Three Ages or Go West). Some of his characters are middle class (College, Our Hospitality, or Steamboat Bill Jr.), some distinctly more working class (Sherlock Jr., The Cameraman).  While Friendless’ poverty may place him at the far end of the status and wealth spectrum found in Keaton features, he is certainly not standing alone in left field.  And although he may have an especially solitary-sounding name, Friendless actually has more family connection (with at least a picture of a beloved mother) than some other Keaton characters do.

Plot/Theme:

With respect to plot, too, Go West explores typical Keaton themes of finding one’s place in a complicated world just as Seven Chances, College, Sherlock Jr or Steamboat Bill Jr did. In fact, a couple of these films share very similar development: with a regular young man who has challenges to overcome, setting off on his own to try and find connections that exist only on paper or in possibility (e.g. a father, a family home, a better life). The films begin slowly as the young man encounters small new experiences then moments of growth, and finally, an opportunity to make a big difference in the lives of those around him he has come to care about, climaxing with a big finish that includes impressive stunts and hilarity. This pattern is highly Keatonesque.

Setting:

Finally, when it comes to that very special, big, sweeping, desert setting, I would simply argue that one could hardly declare a ‘norm’ for setting in the 11 great feature pictures Buster made. He set a couple in the Deep South, others in the big city; some take place in “Anytown, USA,” others out camping, at college, on the wide open seas, or in a small river-town. There is no reason to declare the Arizona ranchlands outside this broad scope. Yes, the landscapes are wonderful, large and wide-open, in Go West, but other Keaton features have expansive and impressive natural landscapes too.

. . . and, all of a sudden I find myself in the silly position of starting to feel that this post is arguing that there is nothing remarkable about Go West!  That is the last thing I wish to do. I simply mean to suggest that Go West’s attributes are not strange or weird — not out of scope for him.

I will grant that Go West is unusual in one respect from his other features: It may be the only one in which Buster wears his signature porkpie for most of the film. The fact that he does this is itself telling of what I see as part of the genius of his intent with this film. (Which I hope to do justice to in a moment).

So, having spent all this time arguing that Go West is “normal,” let me now shift gears and try to argue for why I find it special: an underrated masterpiece.

Here’s the thing, though…

–well, let me step out of the narrative for another moment and share something with you that might make me seem a bit of a jerk: writing usually comes very easy to me.  I usually just open the computer and words and ideas come pouring out. I rarely struggle to get in tune with the big connections. But this one has been my hardest ever to write. I have really struggled to decide why, exactly, I love Go West. I’d been fighting this post on and off for over a month when it dawned on me (in the pre-dawn hours today) that the struggle makes perfect sense.  What I love about this film is hard to pinpoint due to the nature of Buster’s great talent.  Silent film being the perfect expression for his ideas, slapping words atop it can just feel strained.

In other words, my struggle to verbalize its merits may be the most appropriate tribute to a fantastic piece of visual artistry.

But . . .

. . . I’m writing a blog here, so that’s pretty much my job.   haha.  I’ll do it, but I’m going to stop worrying about whether I’m making a good case for Go West.  Ultimately it stands on its own and the viewer who can get in touch with its gentle and profound loveliness can enjoy knowing they’ve tapped into something directly. If my thoughts help anyone reframe their expectations and experience as they watch, I’d be very happy about that, but I’m not sure I can sell its merits in a coherent way.

So, in short, Go West is brilliant for subtle reasons that aren’t as tangible as plot or message, but as vague and amorphous as  mood,  heart,  balance,  and  contrast.



Brilliant Juxtaposition of Ideas

To elaborate a bit, One of the things Keaton does stunningly, ironically and humorously is to juxtapose elements that contrast a past/simple/calm world with a modern/complex/out-of-control one.

And this is where I think the pork pie comes in. By wearing his classic short-film prop and playing a character that is much more like those found in his earlier work (his short films), Keaton anchors us to the simpler time in his career – and in Hollywood. He begins the movie by placing us in a context that feels much like The Goat or Cops, with a funny and poor comic hero making desperate choices. But he goes even farther. He scales back our hero’s life still more, stripping away all vestiges of modern comfort, leaving him with just a knapsack, a silly little gun, and a rapidly diminishing bread and sausage, then placing him in the starkest of surroundings.

Stunning composition

In the Arizona desert, everything around him is harsh.  Just look at the gorgeous, sweeping, grand expanses of the landscape. Our hero begins his awakening alone in this enormous dreamy place and soon after, he meets a cow.

Here is where the visual humor really blossoms. I find this shot, for instance, bursting with so much beauty and absurdity I can hardly stand it. This image is classic Keaton comedy. And Go West is full of such framings.

I would bet a lot of money that someone affiliated with making this film loved the desert. And maybe that’s where the film best hits its mark: with desert-lovers.  I know about this breed of person because I am one.  As I write this, I am on a car trip crossing through western Arizona. I see landscapes around me that are almost indistinguishable from the grand vistas that provided the film’s backdrop over 90 years ago. Maybe you have to love the desert to be fully in touch with its calm balance as well as its silliness. I don’t know. But almost anyone should be able to appreciate that even in black and white (maybe especially in black and white) the desert scenery in Go West is very very lovely!

Yet the desert’s role here isn’t to be beautiful, but rather to be a powerful metaphor for simplicity, stability, and for lack of trappings; i.e. for the scaled-back life. I have to believe Keaton used this landscape with intention.

While in the desert, Friendless acts with a lovely zen-like acceptance of his new world. He never looks hot or miserable; he just jumps right in. Keaton’s holistic and natural approach to the landscape and its creatures is a common and very charming theme he explores in many films. Supreme examples here are his patience, absurdly waiting for a cow to give milk or for a chicken to lay an egg. These bits are humorous and are also a study in contrasts/double purpose. Yes, they highlight Friendless’ ineptitude when it comes to doing what the world expects, but they also showcase the enormous sweetness of this man in his approach to the scaled back life. (By the way, for the reader who may be interested, I did a post a while back on Keaton’s relationships with animals in his films. As great as Buster’s symbiotic pairing with Brown Eyes the cow is, she is just one of several amazing animal co-stars for him.)

Notice that Friendless becomes more and more competent as the film wears on and manages to evolve into an extremely useful worker who (in foreshadowing of The General) bravely hops on a train and defends it (and his love, Brown Eyes the cow) against robbers.  But, the contrasts continue, because as Friendless steps up his game, greater levels of chaos take over the film. The biggest contrast of all is in comparing the gentle desert beginning to the great comedic sequence near the end of the film, when Keaton is in the middle of downtown LA with a herd of cattle tearing up the city. What a perfect metaphor for the crazy upheaval of modern life. It (to me) is no coincidence that in this setting we get Buster in a devil costume and Fatty Arbuckle in a cameo. Keaton brings elements into Go West that we may not have seen in a while — like the porkpie hat, the squad of cops on the chase scene (one of the extras even does a Keystone Cops jump while he flees). Keaton subjects these images of Hollywood past to the crazed antics of a herd of cattle.

Even in the mid-1920s, Buster was part of an industry that was rapidly changing. He may have had no inkling of the revolution that was just around the corner with sound, but he could not have been immune to the way Hollywood was getting too self-important for its own good.

At the time of this film, Buster’s great friend Roscoe Arbuckle had already fallen victim to backlash against Hollywood’s excesses. The fact that Buster hired Arbuckle for an extra in this film (present, but hidden) is telling. Arbuckle’s cameo is not as a farmhand in the serene desert, but as a casualty of cattle blasting through downtown LA.  Coincidence, I think not.

If Go West is a study in the contrast of simplicity with excess, it is also a study in contrasts of scale. Buster explores contrasting scale through gags (the tiny purse-gun in the big holster) but also through stunning composition, highlighting the contrast between himself and the ranch owner for instance, or between himself and his cow and the enormity of the desert backdrop.

And finally, when it comes to his main storytelling theme in Go West (one he explores frequently in his films) — of finding a sense of place, this film hits the nail square on the head. Just as with contrast and scale, Keaton develops the idea of “place” multidimensionally. He uses plot and character, to develop Friendless’ story arc as he finds a home and real love; but, more strikingly, Keaton explores the theme of finding place visually.

I didn’t really notice this outright until a recent viewing, but Buster is often framed by windows, gates and doors in this film. These openings are viewfinders allowing us to place him, to frame his experiences on the ranch with respect to what is around him, to what he sees and to how he is seen by others.  Here are just a few of my favorites, but there are others.

These shots are brilliant, and they are subtle. Here is a perfect example of how Keaton could bring an idea to life with such poetry using the medium of film with total attention and artistry, allowing us to experience something without being hit over the head with it.

I would not make the claim that he necessarily or directly intended all the symbolic meaning that can be found in his imagery, but he nonetheless created it.  Keaton certainly approached Go West, as he did his other films, with a supreme attention to detail that simply has to be appreciated, regardless of what level of meaning you find there. I believe that Keaton had very little in the way of artifice or pretension when he worked, so I’m not sure he created his masterpieces with a plan for symbolic thought, but rather through a pipeline to pure natural artistry.

I would argue, though, that Keaton intended at least some of the self-aware commentary that is found in Go West. My proof comes from the celebrated moment I’ll call the “failure to smile” scene.

This is a hilariously on-the-nose moment in which Keaton’s character accuses another cowhand of cheating at cards and the cowhand says to him with a vicious look on his face, “when you say that, smile.”  The camera closes in on Keaton’s beautiful face which betrays perfect consciousness that this is impossible. The scene is clearly playing to his audience’s knowledge of Buster’s screen persona. And Keaton celebrates the moment deliciously by slowly staring at the camera, then taking his fingers and pushing up the corners of his mouth and slowly shaking his head. It’s one of the most brilliant comic ideas Keaton had: witty, ironic, flawlessly filmed and acted. Its a top-notch moment in silent comedy. And it is completely and ironically self-aware.

So, yes, I love Go West. I love it for its beauty. For its cheeky self-awareness. For the simple harsh hot stillness of the desert landscapes and all they stand for. I love it for Buster’s once again showing us that he is in control of the picture and that he has a heart for simple creatures. I love that he used Fatty Arbuckle while tearing up downtown LA. I love his shadow on the cow and his fingers on the corners of his mouth. If you need more than that to love a film, I’d say “look elsewhere;” but if this sounds like enough, I’d suggest another open-hearted viewing for this “typical” Keaton gem 🙂

The Man With the Mostest

[Originally posted to WWBKD on March 5, 2016]

I really love a holistic approach to Keaton’s work. An approach that respects his intelligent crafting of integrated and complete stories. An approach that recognizes that his body of work can’t just be sliced and diced into easy snippets, for the youtube generation, but should be understood in terms of complete artistic endeavors, whole films at a time.

I really do.

but . . .

Sometimes it’s fun to think just about stellar moments, the briefest glimpses of stand-alone greatness. There are so very very many. Because when I think of favorite Buster moments, my mind gets a bit too flooded with images, I think its best to break this down into categories, like the Academy Awards for stellar clips.

So, I present my awards, in no particular order, for 25 of Keaton’s  ________ -iest moments.

… Funniest

To kick off the list with funniest moment, I have to give the nod to One Week‘s house on the tracks. Of the untold thousands of major laughs Keaton has given us, none has surpassed this amazing scene from his first independent release. It is so funny because it is so surprising. And even though I know exactly how it is going to turn out, it still takes my breath away in laughter and surprise each time I watch.

… Bravest

Buster performed countless death defying feats — so many I wouldn’t even presume to rank their relative danger. So rather than make an award for most dangerous, I want to pick a winner for unabashed bravery, and award it to the waterfall rescue from Our Hospitality. This moment rises to the top as the bravest thing I’ve ever seen him do, because, seriously!, this man is jumping off the edge of a cliff, tied in the middle with a just a rope, into a plunging body of falling water, in order to thrust out far enough into the falls to grab hold of the doll that is standing in for a reasonable human that would never be caught dead even near this falls. I simply cannot fathom the level of utter fearlessness that allowed this moment to be filmed:

… Most Charming

Trying on hats in Steamboat Bill Jr. Ah, perhaps my favorite side of Keaton. The idea that the same fearless renegade who could complete the stunt above, knew how to scale it back and go try on hats with his dad charms me at a very deep level.

… Best Running

Through the streets of New York City in 1928 to see his girl in The Cameraman. This moment gets to me every time because who else ever could make the simple act of running (of course in this glorious backdrop) so entertaining? The answer is no one.

… Most Ahead of its Time

Sherlock Jr’s split-self sleep walk. Wow, look at this unbelievably clever idea executed with extraordinary precision and skill. The whole film is a masterpiece of vision, engineering, camera-work and editing. This moment is breathtaking for very many reasons, not least of which is that this was made in 1924 and it is still completely convincing.

… Best Kissing

Le Roi des Champs Elysees has a kiss with a lot going for it. The part everyone talks about comes at the end when Buster gives us a smile, but it’s not the reason I selected this moment. Rather, I like the way the kiss builds in stages and by the end a great look of carnal intent comes into his eyes before he grabs her and can be seen mouthing ‘oh baby’ (though this is not Buster’s voice). A unique and treasurable scene. (Though I apologize for the terrible video quality).

… Best Almost Kissing

Bank scene in The Haunted House with a very pretty and coquettish Virginia Fox,

…  Fiercest

Battling Butler‘s I can’t take it no more moment (which had been prefaced by several additional minutes of Buster first trying to avoid the fight and get away before), ripping loose and raging. I’m not sure there’s anything like this in any other Keaton film and that’s probably fine, because this one is so brilliant. A gorgeous and powerful moment.

… Saddest

Rescuing the girl in The Cameraman. Another somewhat unique moment because Keaton didn’t do a lot of tugging at our heartstrings. But here he shows how incredibly well the man can sell heartbreak. This is a devastating moment in his canon.

… Best Engineering

The house in The Scarecrow. Tell me, how would you like to live here?

… Bestest Fall Ever

Steamboat Bill’s coil of rope. There are no words 🙂

… Sexiest

The Cameraman’s dressing room scene was almost the winner for the “funniest” moment, but I’m logging it here instead. It’s not really actually “sexy” I suppose, in terms of their intent toward each other, but anyone with eyes must appreciate how, in addition to being one of the funniest things ever committed to film, this scene showcases Buster stripping, which has to qualify as sexy. I mean, yeah.

… Most Jaw Dropping.

The house in Steamboat Bill Jr.  I saw this film in a movie theater a while back, after having already been a Keaton fan for years. I had seen the scene dozens, maybe hundreds, of times as a clip and in the full movie. But I still gasped when it happened on the big screen in front of me. My jaw dropped as the house dropped. Beyond stunning.

… Most Romantic

The eyes have it in The Cameraman. Oh my. Incredible and beautiful. Both of them; and the camera work. Devastatingly romantic moment.

… Cleverest

Sherlock Jr’s cut scenes. The intelligence and skill that went into these cut scenes just cannot be praised highly enough. Buster and his crack team demonstrate profound cleverness to have envisioned this sequence and to have given it such a full and perfect realization.

… Most Impossible to Ever Duplicate

Railroad ties in The General. I can hardly believe this didn’t take off his head. Dangerous, yes. Brave, absolutely. Jaw-dropping, most clearly.  But this scene with the railway ties? it chiefly strikes me as something that will never ever, could never ever, ever! be done again.

… Yummiest

Yeah, we’re going with the Hard Luck pool scene.

… Most Unbelievable

Cops’ car ride. Yes, I realize I already have categories for “Impossible to Duplicate” and “Jaw Dropping” and maybe you’re thinking this is getting redundant. But no, this is different. This special moment in time is light, hilarious and quick. In the blink of an eye, Buster vanishes on the back of a car, legs flying out behind him and all you can think is “Did I just see what I thought I saw?” “Did he really just do that?!”

… Most Athletic

Are you kidding me? Up and down how many levels on this boat? In how many seconds? Steamboat Bill Jr.

… Most gorgeous

MGM gives us a beauty shot and I thank them. ❤ Spite Marriage.

… Most mesmerizing

Another great Keaton moment brought to you by The Cameraman, here is an incredible 3 minutes of Keaton pantomiming a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.

… Melancholiest

Rail riding in The General.

… Most self aware, a/k/a Best Failure to Smile

Go West. This has to be one of the cheekiest and ironic moments in his films. I love this scene 6 million loves.

… Best actual smile

A young Keaton enjoys making time with his flirty friend in drag, Fatty Arbuckle, in Goodnight Nurse.

…. Cutest

Kiss and run. I’ll end this list where I began it with a scene from One Week and the cutest 1920s couple in the world Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely.

Disagree with my picks? Or have I failed to include some of your favorite moments? Please describe them here! I’d love anyone to share.

Women Were Not Props

[Originally posted to WWBKD on Feb 14, 2016]

Something I’ve heard time and again by commentators who speak of his work is that the leading actresses in Buster Keaton films were no more than props to this great master.

This idea rankles and has always sat ill with me. I mean to take it on.

The problem with the statement is that it seems to have been publicized most notably by Eleanor Keaton (see, e.g. a 1995 interview with John C. Tibbets) and possibly Buster himself. Obviously formidable opponents. Others have repeated such ideas so often that it has taken hold as a truism: that Keaton’s leading ladies were weak (as comedians), chosen mainly for their proportions, placed in scenes to be handled and molded, or otherwise of limited or diminished value. (See, e.g. LA Times Article quoting film historian David Gill).

But they have it wrong. Certainly there are some Keaton films where the leading female role is not central or essential, but I would never agree that, generally speaking, Keaton’s leading ladies were unimportant or just props.

with Joe Roberts

Lets start with the idea that Keaton selected leading ladies for their proportions. Well, duh.

Keaton was a visual genius who chose many actors in his films at least in part for their physical characteristics. As Keaton learned early on, working with Fatty Arbuckle, the juxtaposition of himself with a tall rotund man is itself visual comedy. When Keaton struck out on his own, he consistently chose to work with Big Joe Roberts at least in part for this reason. And think about the hilarious relative size of 5’5″ Keaton with Ingram B. Pickett, purportedly 6’11”, looking almost like members of different species in The High Sign.  Consider, too, that Keaton knew what he was doing when he worked with Snitz Edwards as a sidekick, who was only 5 foot flat and made Keaton look big.

with Ingram Pickett

With similar attention to visual considerations but probably opposite intent, Keaton surely chose leading actresses whose size complemented his own so as not to introduce and element of comedy in a pairing, when it was meant to be romantic and plausible and there was no wish to draw attention to stature. Obviously, Keaton also knew how to use physical characteristics of women as a source of comedy when he wanted to; this talent is on display in his scenes with a non-petite Kate Price in My Wife’s Relations or with the tall, leggy, Charlotte Greenwood in Parlor Bedroom and Bath). I think an intelligent take on the generally petite size of Keaton’s leading ladies is that this was a smart choice for non-distracting photographic symmetry in romantic pairings.

with Charlotte Greenwood

Though size was a concern in selecting an actress, it can hard follow that this was the only consideration, and I take umbrage with the idea that a leading actress needed only to be thrown about on screen to serve her role.  First of all, if you take a look through his filmography, you might notice that Keaton truly didn’t do that much manhandling of women in his independent silent work; certainly not in his silent shorts. Yes, this style of comedy came up in a couple of his later features, notably The General and The Navigator, but the scenes Keaton commentators (including himself and his wife) might have been thinking most about when they said he treated women as props are from his later MGM talkies, such as Spite Marriage, Parlor Bedroom and Bath, Speak Easily or What No Beer.  These later films are undoubtedly ones over which Keaton had significantly less artistic control than he had in his independent silents, and I am not sure to what extent he had much say in selecting actresses or determining plot details.  If other creative “visionaries” were responsible for the choices related to selecting and creating roles for actresses in Keaton’s talkies, I suggest they be held accountable for their choices with respect to women, not Keaton. 🙂

Now if we look at the body of work that Keaton can fairly be judged on, as chief artistic visionary, then I would claim that many if not most of his ladies are profoundly appealing on their own, as having charisma, charm, comedic chops and worthy screen presence, and/or played roles that were essential to Keaton’s finest work.

Lets prove it. Starting with the numbers, I’m going to hold Keaton accountable for his treatment of women — both in terms of selecting actresses, creating roles that were memorable and relying on more than their being cute sacks of potatoes — in 30 films (20 shorts and 11 features, including The Cameraman). Of those 30, I find the leading lady to be memorable and/or important for her ability to convey attributes that matter to plot or theme, in all but a handful. Maybe 5 or so. And I am prepared to defend this.

I’ll start with Sybil Seely, his costar in 5 independent shorts (among them, One Week, The Scarecrow, and The Boat). Seely’s presence is not uniformly utilized in all five of these movies, but it is undeniably an essential part of the charm of the best of them: One Week. Were Seely just a prop, this movie would have been weaker by far. But she brings a heaping dose of sweetness, as a woman who loves her new husband and works tirelessly to inhabit the home they are making. She herself is a zen kind of presence, plotting her own course in her own home, cooking outside, drawing hearts on the wall, and demonstrating her irritation with this charming but frustrating man.  She is the young wife that wants to impress at a dinner party and stubbornly tries to pull her house off the tracks at the end. She is the reason we so want this house to succeed. It is her expectations, forbearance and frustration as well as her constant sweet love, that form the solid foundation upon which all the comedy lays.  She is certainly no cardboard cutout, she is an essential part of the film. One would not care nearly so much about Keaton’s endeavors to build this house were it not for this excruciatingly real woman who is the everywoman lens we frame the plot through. Seely showed great skill as an important teammate to Buster in the other movies she appeared in as well. In The Boat she adds a similar necessary element of partnership to the plot’s function and interest. And The Scarecrow showcases her innocence, charm and companionship. The best of the films she appeared in are best precisely because her roles were allowed to be more fleshed out.

On to Virgina Fox who costarred in fully 10 of Keaton’s independent short films including some of his very best: Cops, The Goat, and The Playhouse, to name three. Although Fox does not have the same personal charisma and charm of Seely, what she does have is a very strong, cold, aloof, counterpoint to Keaton’s matter of fact directness. While I would argue that One Week is the best of his short films in large measure because Seely and Keaton together are an amazing team that sell the story so completely, I would also argue that Keaton himself displays his best comedic skill when he is solo, flying free. In films where a solo-Keaton is the point, the leading lady does not become inconsequential. Rather, she becomes important for an entirely different reason.  Fox — because she is good at what she does in these exceptional films — represents the conservative world concerned with propriety and appearance. She, like the world around him, is unfeeling and unimpressed. Unattainable. She is the opposite of a prop. In fact, Keaton hardly touches her in these (and other films) she acts with him in. He can’t — though he might wish to — because she is a part of something he can’t quite have. Fox is essential because her personal style and performance choices allow this central theme of Keaton as societal outcast to be so fully realized. Keaton has to have known she was the perfect ‘foil’ in this way, because he used her again and again to fulfill that need. We should all be thankful to Fox for selling this untouchability so well because it forms the backdrop of much of what made Keaton, at his apex, great.

Others who’ve taken up the mantel I’m carrying here (that Keaton was not a sexist), have have often cited actresses like Kate Price and Phyllis Haver as women who broke the typical Keaton mold and exemplify feminine archetypes that are powerful. This is true. Kate Price was nearly 20 years Keaton’s senior and while she may not have been meant to be taken seriously as a love interest for Keaton, how brave and endearing are the choices that let this fine actress share screen time as his wife in My Family’s Relations.  Price’s engaging presence allows her to own her share of the film without question.  Similarly, Phyllis Haver is often held up as an example of an extremely capable female character who inhabits Keaton’s world in The Balloonatic.  Haver plays a strong, outdoors-woman who is not a shrinking violet by any standard, but is hardy and real. These are examples showing that Keaton was not afraid to employ a strong-female lead for the right kind of story. And, although maybe not a strong, central female lead, I think we can also point to Bartine Burkett’s interesting role in The High Sign as one that involved a quirky personality and acting choices that had little to do with what Keaton was up to (I’m thinking of her memorable turn as a ukulele-playing daughter.)

What all of the foregoing really points to is the broad diversity of female character types that were in fact employed by Keaton in the short films over which he exerted great influence and control. His choices were not uniform, but were wise and sharp, attuned to the skills of these women. Whether he even realized he was doing it, Keaton integrated the talents and features of leading ladies that added to any given plot or theme he developed in his films.

Now lets turn our attention to Keaton’s feature length movies and explore some of the leading ladies who shared the screen with him in these 10 independent films.  I’ll start with my favorite: Katherine McGuire, who starred in both Sherlock Jr and The Navigator. Having recently re-watched both of these great films, I simply cannot state strongly enough how much McGuire’s presence enriched both for me, particularly in The Navigator, where she carries half the film as a collaborator on nearly equal footing with Keaton. Just as in One Week, where the presence of a team we care about sets off the gags and gives importance and meaning to what would otherwise just be “funny,” the whole film The Navigator is enriched by a worthy partner. Much is written about Keaton’s great ‘saphead’ character (used here as well as in other films), but it should not be forgotten that McGuire’s own aristocratic ineptitude is necessary for The Navigator to work. She exhibits it in her attempts to make coffee, her setting off roman candles, her running around the decks of the ship in great abandon, and her sealing Keaton up into the scuba suit, to name a few moments. He role isn’t ancillary, but essential to the idea that they are a rather inept team that is up the creek without a paddle. But we nonetheless care about them! Their chemistry is palpable in part because McGuire is a charismatic, funny, and intelligent misfit and her fleshing out this character with real acting chops is necessary to our caring about what happens to the pair of them on this great big boat.

When people argue that Keaton was sexist in his choice of women’s parts and leading ladies, I fume because Keaton in fact often set women off as the more competent counter-point to his own character’s ineptitude and struggles. It should not be forgotten that in Keaton’s best movie ever, Sherlock Jr., McGuire plays the woman who actually solves the crime, with simple, elegant competence, unlike her bumbling boyfriend.  Also think of Anne Cornwall in College or Marceline Day in The Cameraman as examples of competent, modern-women (a college co-ed and a career woman) who are popular, charming and in control of their lives, while also expressing a warmth and caring that captures Keaton’s heart. Strong capable intelligent women are all over the place in Keaton films.

I’ll mention two other stand out performances from Keaton’s independent features and then rest my case.

Marion Mack in The General. We are told at the beginning of the film that Buster has two loves: his girl, Annabelle Lee, and his engine, the General. Keaton’s use of the locomotive is one of unparalleled gall, as he exhibits every bit of acrobatic skill and grace crawling up over and below this prop throughout the film. There is no question that the steam train makes a capable prop, but it is not a co-star.  And I am aware that this film has been oft-cited as an example of the love-interest-as-prop criticism I am taking head-on here.  Yes, we see Keaton work tirelessly in, around, and with Annabelle Lee, as his second treasure, while she sits often bewildered in the center.  But this “woman as prop” take betrays a limited sense of what it means for an actress to make that happen. What I mean is, Mack was a flesh and blood human actress, not a steam train. It is absurd to think that being called upon to serve as love object in The General was an easy feat. If one is to say that an actress is “just” a prop in a movie like this, I would argue that one has never attempted to make just any actress act as a prop. Its like saying Jim Carey’s face is just a face; just an object he uses to perform with. Saying so obscures the skill it takes to make this type of action look good. Marian Mack is a goddess.  She was called upon to inhabit and sell a character while performing physical stunts and having physical stunts performed in and around her. No one who wasn’t a skilled physical comedienne could have pulled it off — could have taken on this role with such believability.  To the extent that The General shows us an example of a movie where Keaton goes crazy with his props, I think this serves to showcase the tremendous skill and talent of the actress who was at the heart of it all, selflessly allowing the action to proceed flawlessly all around her and just dealing with it.

So, yes, being a good prop should actually be viewed as hark work. But that said, I would stop and take on the underlying assumption that Mack was no more than a prop, a backdrop. In addition to being a game physical comedienne, she also played a woman who was a driving force, a locus of calm and determination, the lens of normalcy.  Mack gives us the same sort of willing participant that Kathryn McGuire had been in The Navigator — a role that makes the viewer feel grounded.  It is her steady, up for anything, presence, picking out logs for the boiler, or sitting up all night with Keaton that makes us feel safe and connected to the action. Essential? Yes! There could have been no The General without such a female at the center with Buster.

Finally, we get to my other favorite Keaton film of all time, Steamboat Bill Jr. And what I consider to be one of Keaton’s most appealing screen co-stars, Marion Byron. What a charmer! She is spunky, and cute as a button. She suits Keaton physically so well in this film, I just want to gaze at them together. She’s the Meg Ryan of her time and I want to pick her up and put her in my pocket. Were someone to suggest that Sleepless in Seattle would have been just as good with any other actress, I’d say they were insane. Byron, like Ryan, adds a charm, and fanciful flourish to a part that is needed to offset Keaton’s earnest, but more stoic endeavors. Byron enchants the audience with her charisma and makes us understand why it is so important for Keaton to be with her. As with some of the other Keaton leading ladies, she does actually get manhandled a bit here, and negotiates it extremely well. This is an incredibly appealing film, due in no small part, to the great screen appeal of Byron.

Finally, if you need one last push over the edge, I offer myself — I mean my experience watching Keaton — as testament. When I first started watching his silents, I enjoyed several Keaton films without the ‘benefit’ of any extensive reading or commentary.  I was highly surprised when I learned later that people were saying things like Buster didn’t value his leading actresses or that he used them as props, because my own immediate response upon seeing his films for the first time had been: “wow, how cool that he was so enlightened and non-sexist in his portrayal of women.” My first reaction as a modern intelligent woman, was that his films treated women in a modern, empowered and intelligent way.

I’ll leave you with this: What Keaton did so exceptionally well in his independent work was to understand Story at a deep level. And he was fluid and pragmatic about what was needed to tell a story.  When a story called for teamwork, companionship and collaboration of an onscreen pairing, he utilized actresses that could provide a satisfying partner in the antics (think, McGuire in The Navigator, Seely in One Week, or Haver in The Balloonatic.)  When the story called for Buster to be a misfit loner trying to piece together an existence, free from cops and other entanglements, the leading lady was apt to be standoffish and capable of expressing a cool counterpoint that left Buster alone (think Fox in Cops or The Goat, or Ruth Dwyer in Seven Chances). Where the story was more romantic, and a leading lady was needed to sell an attainable womanly appeal and kindheartedness, the perfect choices were actresses like Byron in Steamboat Bill Jr or Day in The Cameraman.  And when, on occasion, a strong comedienne helped sell a story, Buster knew how to work with actresses like Kate Price or Charlotte Greenwood.

In most cases, these 1920s era silent film actresses shine with star quality, pluck and appeal that stands the test of time.

Speak Easily (1932)

[Originally posted to WWBKD on Sep 8, 2014]

In Speak Easily, we meet Buster Keaton as a precise, bland, and lonely professor, who, tragically, wears a ridiculously ugly pair of spectacles … and seems to need to walk with his head tipped up to keep them on.  Despite these limitations, when he learns he’s inherited a large sum of money, our Prof has enough sense to run off and indulge in all that life has to offer. And, happily, that involves a train. Although the first 10 minutes of this film do drag, and it is hard to figure out where we’re going or whether you should stick with it, if you do (stick with it) long enough, you are rewarded with Keaton on a train, Keaton with a baby, Keaton in an apt with a hot chick and, eventually, Keaton in a stage show.

And yes, it is probably worth it.

Although there are times where Buster’s subtle style gets overwhelmed by the loud antics of co-star Jimmy Durante, the movie is probably one of their better collaborations. I found myself enjoying Durante’s singing and jokes, and the light easy tone of the stage production that forms the central plot.

So, on to that “plot” thing, though I’m not sure it matters so much how we get there, we ultimately end up with a show of dancers in a New York stage production with the Professor as their backer. There is a sweet and lovely dancer called Pansy that Buster meets and follows, as well as a sexpot named Eleanor — a gold digger who throws herself at the Prof when everyone learns he’s loaded (with cash, that is; though, honestly, given that this is 1932, I imagine Keaton is probably loaded with alcohol as well.) And speaking of that kind of loaded, that is what the Professor and Eleanor do next at her apartment. Right here, see, the film starts to get more interesting.

There is some excellent stuff in the apartment, including great falls and a hilarious manhandling of the floppy drunk woman, all of which Keaton does so convincingly, you wonder if he had some life experience to draw upon. . . hmmm, but I digress.

Back to the plot. Unfortunately, it turns out the Prof doesn’t really have an inheritance, and all seems lost, with him unable to back the show. But when an officer shows up on opening night ready to collect cash that is owed, the crew finagles a way and the show goes on.  The real fun comes when the Prof inadvertently turns the show into a comedy — by crashing around the stage and cracking everyone up with his earnest attempts to smooth out production issues.  With Durante’s help, they turn the performance into an uproarious hit and all ends well with the show getting sold for $100,000 and Pansy and the Prof coming to a right understanding.

All in all this film is very typical of the MGM era work in most respects. It is reasonably good, very amusing at times, though not tight, exciting, or especially creative.  And Speak Easily is that much the better for the industry’s having finally figured out this ‘sound’ thing fairly well. In fact, I never noticed anything about the quality or condition of the sound itself during this film. And that is a blessing. The flow of the film was pretty nice and the chemistry all around was good. So, why didn’t I rate it higher? To me it is just a solid “6.0”  I don’t know. The whole thing just felt rather dull. I never became invested in what happened to anyone. I watched it, even enjoyed it, but never felt engaged with it, as had been the case with Parlor Bedroom and Bath when I re-watched it a week ago and gave it a 6.5, despite its flaws, for that reason.

In any case, I am mainly thrilled to report that this entry represents my final review of Keaton’s MGM-era work and I’m DONE with having to think about this somewhat melancholy time for a while. … And, I think that also means its time to turn back the clock and look at some of his “real” work. I can’t wait, because I’m seriously ready to look at some 10s!

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath

[Originally posted to WWBKD on Aug 24, 2014]

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 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 fiancé 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 . . . go find 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.