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On the Late Films of Buster Keaton

In May of 1928, Buster Keaton released Steamboat Bill, Jr, one of his greatest films, with perhaps his most elaborate and memorable stunt work, featuring the facade of a house falling on top of him in the midst of a hurricane, a small window clearing his body with inches to spare, the difference between comedy and death.  It received mediocre reviews and failed to do much at the box office.  For almost a decade, Keaton had functioned autonomously in Hollywood, with complete creative control of his films, first producing a remarkable string of 19 short films, then a series of 10 wildly innovative features, work that by itself has earned him the status of one of the single greatest filmmakers in history.  But after Steamboat Bill, Keaton signed with MGM, the biggest, most powerful studio in town.  In September of 1928, he released The Cameraman, made at the studio, but under his own system.  Within a year, the studio would take over supervision of his features, leading to a series of popular, but highly mediocre films that, combined with a couple disastrous marriages and a bout of alcoholism nearly meant the end of one of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever known.  Keaton survived, eventually kicking alcohol and finding a stable apparently healthy marital relationship, and his career continued in bit parts and TV and writing gigs until his death in the late 1960s.  In the end, he left us with 19 feature films, half of which are the highest example of what a true artist can do with the medium, and half of which are a textbook example of the money-making blandness corporate bureaucracy would prefer the medium to produce.

(That it all happened within 15 years (about the length of Wes Anderson’s career) surely says something about art and bureaucracy as well.  The great artistic peaks of the 20th Century all occurred in a remarkably compressed amount of time.  The Beatles and Bob Dylan from 1962-70, Jean-Luc Godard from 1960-67, DW Griffith from 1909-19 and so on.  Keaton’s run from 1920-1928 ranks with any of them.)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve managed to catch all the Buster Keaton sound films thanks to TCM.  Knowing the backstory made me apprehensive, and for the most part my fears were confirmed.  These are simply not very good films.  But I like to think that there are good things to find in just about any movie, and when a filmmaker and performer is as brilliant and gifted as Buster Keaton is it is almost impossible for them to do nothing interesting over the course of a feature film.  So in watching these movies, with low expectations and the understanding that not a single one of them can be considered anything like a masterpiece, the viewing experience changes, or rather, it shifts into what it probably should be all the time, but usually isn’t.  Instead of being carried away by the film, either by the artistry of its visual style or the cleverness of its screenplay and story construction, or the emotional implications and philosophical or political ideas it is trying to convey, I find myself instead waiting for the moments of inspiration, the small gestures or expressions or moments of balletic grace that transcend the surrounding mediocrity and where we can catch a glimpse of the buried genius within.  Watching the late Keaton films is not to be swept away by the fulfillment of a cinematic vision, but instead to be reminded that artistry can be found in the most unlikely places; that though it can be incredibly fragile, it is more indestructible than we think.

The Cameraman – The last true Buster Keaton feature has a bit of an out-sized reputation.  It is not at the level of his greatest films, Sherlock Jr or The General or Steamboat Bill, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.  He plays a photographer who tries to become an MGM newsreel photographer to impress a girl.  There are some very good bits: a recurring gag with Keaton breaking an office window is a bit obvious, but nicely built, a pool changing room sequence that, like many of Keaton’s best and worst routines, feels more like a record of a historic vaudeville performance than a comic innovation, a rousing climactic gang war in Chinatown, with Keaton (and a monkey!) finding himself perilously close to the action as he attempts to film it.  Most magical of all is a sequence where Keaton finds himself alone on a diamond and he plays an imaginary game of baseball.

Spite Marriage – This was Keaton’s last silent film, and it’s more or less a whimper.  He plays a sap who idolizes a stage actress who ends up marrying Keaton to spite (get it?) an actor who rejected her.  There’s a great scene of Keaton trying to put his passed-out-drunk wife to bed on their wedding night, and the first of what would become a recurring trope in Keaton’s MGM films: the destruction of a serious theatrical production by Keaton’s cluelessly chaotic behavior.

Free and Easy – Taking that last idea and running with it through early sound era Hollywood makes this my favorite of the Keaton talking pictures.  He plays a slow-witted but well-meaning small town type who accompanies a young lady and her mother to Hollywood, where the girl will attempt to become a star.  She ends up dating Robert Montgomery, and Keaton destroys a number of film projects, most memorably when he’s cast in a small part in a Fred Niblo costume picture (his repeated inability to enter a scene without destroying the entire set is a masterpiece of slow-burning slapstick).  Somehow, Keaton and the mother end up with major parts in Montgomery’s film, which is apparently a musical, while the girl (played by Anita Page, who was excellent the year before in the Oscar-winning The Broadway Melody, and who would also star with Keaton in Sidewalks of New York) decides she’d rather be a housewife than an actress.  There are a couple of fine comic musical numbers: the first a duet with Keaton and the mother that harkens back to vaudeville, the second a big group production number featuring a slick little dance by Keaton to the film’s catchy title song.

Doughboys – Basically a comic version of King Vidor’s The Big Parade, except not as funny as the original (which isn’t particularly funny).  Keaton plays a rich guy who accidentally joins the army, goes through basic training and gets shipped off to World War I.  During all this, he falls in love with a girl who is not Clara Bow, as impossible as that may sound.  It’s about as funny as your average Beetle Bailey strip.  Someone had to invent all the comic tropes we know and hate about army life (the mean sergeant, peeling potatoes, guard duty in the rain), I really doubt this is that ur-Army film, though it does provide a thorough survey of everything you’ve seen before.  There is a really cool musical sequence with Keaton, Cliff Edwards and a ukelele.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath – This is a prime example of one of the worst trends in the MGM films, which is the stupidification of the Keaton character.  In his own films, Keaton always played a reasonably intelligent ordinary little guy, generally unlucky with love and machinery, often a fish out of water.  By the end of the film, though, he would have learned to master his environment (a ship or a train or a house, etc) and would win the girl through acts of bravery and physical competence.  In the MGM films, however, Keaton increasingly plays a character (seemingly always named “Elmer” for some reason) for whom a developmental disability is a very real possibility.  It’s not that he’s an ordinary guy who finds himself out of his comfort zone: he’s an incompetent with no discernible skills who manages to survive to the end of the film not through learning to master his surroundings, but through sheer dumb luck.  For example, in this film, Keaton plays a guy who gets hired by rich people to pretend to be a womanizer in order to attract the attention of the older sister of the girl Reginald Denny wants to marry (it’s a Taming of the Shrew type scenario).  The twist is that Keaton knows absolutely nothing about women, apparently only discovering their existence some 15 minutes into the film.  This remarkable ignorance leads Denny to hire a giantess to teach Keaton the ways of romance, leading to some occasionally inspired chaos (despite the complete lack of believability of anything any of the characters do) during a series of unmaskings and a wild chase at the film’s climax that is the only sequence in the film where Keaton’s genius peeks through, despite the horrific material he’s given to work with.

Sidewalks of New York – Just like the film above, but instead of rich swells, Keaton stars with a bunch of proto-Dead End kids.  He’s a rich guy who tries to start a community center for the inner city youth in order to impress a girl.  But the kids would rather join gangs instead and keep beating Keaton up.  One of the kids gets mixed up with a grown up gangster and there’s some cross dressing and eventually a chase in a mansion that’s so uninspired you can hardly believe it stars the same man as The High Sign.  The only high point is a boxing match with Keaton and a goon he’s hired to throw the fight that double crosses him, but even that looks lame in comparison to Charlie Chaplin’s boxing match in the same year’s City Lights.  In fact, that should give a good idea of where Keaton and Chaplin were at this point in their careers:  Chaplin making arguably his best film, Keaton his worst.

The Passionate Plumber – With this we have the unlikely pairing of Keaton with comic Jimmy Durante.  The two make an amiable, if totally mismatched duo, but they probably had a lot of fun during the shoots.  Unfortunately, on-screen, they’re a mess. As with Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, MGM cast Keaton in a remake of a play that had already been adapted for film, and again the material is completely wrong for him.  He plays a plumber/inventor who gets mixed up in the tedious love lives of the rich, and fights a duel with someone for some reason (he invented a kind of gun or something).  I was wrong before: this has got to be the low point of Keaton’s career.  Or maybe not, I’m having trouble remembering anything else about it.

Speak Easily – A slight improvement is this return to the magic of Free and Easy, with Keaton joining a terrible traveling acting troupe (led by Durante) and bankrolling their production on Broadway (to impress a girl, naturally) while under the mistaken impression that he (an oblivious college professor) has inherited a fortune.  The film is pretty lackluster (though Durante gives a much more interesting performance here, he got lost in the European setting of The Passionate Plumber, but we get the full Schnozzola here, and there’s a fun sequence of Keaton getting drunk with a scheming actress played by Thelma Todd), at least until the end, where Keaton again works his chaos magic on a stage performance, his unintentional nuttiness driving the audience wild and saving the day.  Again, this is in distinction to the arc of his silent features, when the Keaton character would save the day not by accident, but because he had learned to master the machines and environments that he’d found himself so comically mismatched with at the beginning of the film.  In the silents, he overcomes obstacles through his bravery and ingenuity.  In the MGM films, a bunch of random stuff happens and sometimes it’s funny.

What!  No Beer? – Surely one of the all-time greatest film titles deserves a better movie than this.  Under the mistaken impression that Prohibition has been lifted, Keaton and Durante go into the beer-brewing business, inadvertently underselling the local bootleggers and inspiring a gang war.  Again, the Keaton character is pretty dumb, his interactions with the women in the film are ridiculously juvenile (Keaton was 38 years old at this point, did the studio really expect us to take him as so seriously, ignorantly virginal?).  The best visual sequence in the film is an homage to/rip-off of the famous boulder chase scene in Seven Chances, this time with Keaton fleeing a bunch of beer barrels.  A comparison of the two would show the obvious superiority of the silent version, as it not only exists on a bigger scale (dozens and dozens of boulders on a massive hillside vs. a handful of barrels quickly rolling down a couple city blocks) but lasts longer and is filmed so as to maximize the visceral impact of the chase (whereas the beer barrel sequence is filmed mostly in long shot, keeping us at a respectable distance from the danger).  Still, at least Keaton gets a suitable finale in this film, as he manages to come up with a brilliant plan to save his crew from a police raid on their brewery by getting the entire town drunk on free beer.  Despite its shortcomings, this does manage to be the second-best talking film of Keaton’s MGM career.