On The Buster Keaton Story

There is almost nothing in this biopic that has any basis in fact, historical or otherwise.  A couple of the film titles are correct (The Balloonatic, The General, College and The Boat are referenced) others are completely made-up.  The longest bit of Keaton recreation comes in a fake film called The Criminal that has elements of Cops, The Goat and Sherlock Jr.  Donald O’Connor, playing Keaton, does OK with the physical comedy, though he overplays everything (despite the fact that the “Keaton” character is remarked to have a “dead pan”, O’Connor mugs as usual for him).  When it comes to the facts of Keaton’s life, the film gets two things right: he did grow up in vaudeville and he did have a drinking problem.  Everything else appears to be a product of writer-director Sidney Sheldon’s imagination (including the timing of and causes for Keaton’s alcoholism).

The most egregious of the film’s many transgressions is the way it paints Keaton’s relations with his studios.  In the film, Keaton shows up at a studio and talks his way into a contract in which he will star and direct his own films after appearing in a small role in one film (and despite the best efforts of an obstinate director played by Peter Lorre, of all people).  He then happily works at that studio (“Famous Studio”, seriously it is called that) for years, making hit after hit with his silent films, only to be unable to transition to sound (because of an inability to say his lines properly) which exacerbates his drinking problem to the point that he’s no longer able to function.  Through all this, his wife (played by Ann Blyth) loyally and understandingly stands by him, until she doesn’t.  In the end, Keaton triumphantly returns to vaudeville where he finds happiness reenacting his old routines and making people laugh.

In reality, Keaton worked for quite awhile before getting a starring role, most prominently as a sidekick for Fatty Arbuckle, one of the biggest stars of the era.  It was only after the scandal that killed Arbuckle’s career that Keaton became a star in his own right, and even then he only occasionally was his own director, more often working in collaboration with Edward Cline or someone else.  During the silent era, he didn’t work for a studio, rather he worked with independent producer Joseph Schenk.  It was at the end of this era, when sound came in, that Keaton signed with MGM (after the financial disaster of The General), where he made his last silents and several talkies.  Far from being unable to transition, Keaton’s talkies were immensely successful commercially, though fairly weak artistically, mostly because the studio system limited his creative input as much as possible and refused to let him even co-direct.  (I reviewed all the late Keaton films here).

Keaton was an alcoholic, and his problem became increasingly worse during the MGM years.  But all accounts I’ve seen place the blame for that on his awful marriage (his second) to Mae Scriven (1933-36).  Both of these marriages are unmentioned in the film, though the marriage that is in the film seems roughly comparable to his third and final one (to Eleanor Norris) from 1940 until his death in 1966, that he credited with helping him kick alcohol and restart his career.  A career which far from being confined to the vaudeville stage, had him steadily working in film and television for 25 years.

But does any of this matter?  Does a film, even a biographical picture, have to be bound by the basic facts of history?  Shouldn’t it be allowed to tell its own story in its own way, as long as that story is itself, entertainingly told?  I do think there’s a limit beyond which the truth can be stretched too far in the name of art.  Despite our best efforts to ignore, obfuscate, reframe, mythologize and narrativize them, things actually did happen in the past just as they continue to happen in the present and will keep on happening in the future.  There really was a Buster Keaton.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #7: Love ‘Em and Weep

Once again in the same film but not yet as an official comedy team and hardly in any scenes together at all, this film does feature both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.   It’s part of a series Hal Roach was trying in 1927, the All-Star Comedy series, in which various contract players were mixed and matched with varyingly prominent parts, from leads to bit players.  Mae Busch gets top billing here, though Laurel probably has the most screen time and James Finlayson plays the ostensible lead character.  Hardy has only a very minor role (he nonetheless makes the most of it).  Finlayson plays a rich, married businessman, Laurel his employee (a title card claims Laurel has a “commanding power over women”).  Finlayson’s old flame Busch appears brandishing a photo of the two of them in swimming attire and threatening blackmail unless he pays her off at 7 o’clock.  Finlayson, however, is with his wife hosting Hardy and his wife at that time, so he gets Laurel to try and keep Busch away.  This fails, of course, and when Laurel and Busch arrive at the dinner party, mildly amusing antics and violence ensue.

Finlayson doesn’t work very well as a lead.  Short, slight and bald with a broad fake mustache, his go-to comic move is to look at the audience, bug out his eyes and wiggle his whiskers.  It’s cute in its own way, but he uses it way too much.  Laurel, by comparison, uses his own trademark mug (facing the camera and making an exaggerated “weeping” face) only once in the film, where we get Finlayson’s fourth wall shattering twitch a half dozen times in the film’s first reel.  Finlayson would go on to play supporting roles in many Laurel & Hardy films, for which I’m sure he’ll prove to be much more suited, lasting in Hollywood until Royal Wedding in 1951.

Mae Busch, on the other hand, is pretty funny.  In the opening sequence, she gets to hide from Finlayson’s wife behind a paper towel dispenser, which is as silly looking as it sounds.  In the middle section of the film, where she fights with Laurel in a restaurant, she doesn’t really do much other than hit Stan and yell (Laurel steals this with some wonderfully non-sequiter stunts: falling down the stairs followed by being sniffed by the maitre’d for alcohol, opening a door into his face (a move I practiced often in high school and that I still think is hilarious) followed by the flying hat trick (when you put the hat on your head, only to have it pop off onto the floor) and backing his car into a much odler old car that immediately collapses in a heap of junk) but once they get to the dinner party and Busch faints (there’s an errant bit of gunfire), she shines.  Laurel and Finlayson have to figure out how to get her unconscious body out of the house, and she plays the role of a limp body perfectly (imagine Weekend at Bernie’s type antics).    Busch, too, would go on to appear in many Laurel & Hardy films, often playing Hardy’s wife.  She started in Hollywood in 1912, had what appears to have been a big role in Ertich von Stroheim’s 1922 blockbuster Foolish Wives and worked continuously until her death in 1946.

This Week in Rankings

A few weeks ago, I talked with Edwin of The Isolated Moviegoer about John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King.  You can read our conversation over at his website.

Here are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last week or so and where they each land on The Big List.

Waterloo Bridge – 12, 1931
The Strange Love of Molly Louvain – 24, 1932

Springfield Rifle – 21, 1952

Project A – 10, 1983
The Armor of God – 16, 1986
Project A 2 – 11, 1987
Night and Day – 5, 2008

On The Miracle Worker

Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke both won Academy Awards in 1962 for reprising their roles as Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller.  They had played the parts together on Broadway, for which Bancroft also won a Tony.  The play itself was written by William Gibson, based on his own script for the TV drama series Playhouse 90.  That pretty much should indicate most of the strengths and weaknesses of the film.  The actresses playing the two leads are really, really good but the script at times veers into the kind of playwriting you expect to see on television: everything is always stated a little too clearly, a little too often.  If you’re not sure why Sullivan is using a particular tactic in trying to teach Keller, don’t worry, she’ll explain it to you at least three times.

Fortunately, also reprising his role from the Broadway show was director Arthur Penn, making his second feature film after the very solid revisionist Billy the Kid Western The Left-Handed Gun, starring Paul Newman.  Penn, of course, is most famous today for directing Bonnie & Clyde and helping to make mainstream the influence of the French New Wave in Hollywood.  Already with The Miracle Worker, though, Penn is starting to break down the classical style into something rawer and more immediate.  While several scenes in the film textually involve nothing more interesting than Bancroft reciting the script’s Big Themes, Penn frames them expressionistically, with deep shadows, odd angles, close foregrounds, etc, which helps prevent the film from descending into the “filmed theatre” trap that ensnared many theatrical/television adaptations in the late 1950s and early 60s (Marty and The Big Knife, I’m looking at you).

The best thing about the film is the centerpiece sequence where Bancroft, as Sullivan, the partially blind teacher is attempting to get Keller, the blind, deaf and mute 7 year old to eat breakfast properly at table.  Because of her disability, Keller’s family has been allowing her to do whatever she wants: wander around the table, grabbing food from people’s plates at will, eating with her hands, and generally making an unholy mess.  For the first time in her life, Keller is told “no” when Sullivan tries to get her to sit still and eat with a spoon.  She reacts with an outrageous tantrum and the two of them brutally fight, destroying the dining room in the process.  Penn films it in a dynamic, unmoored style, putting us in the midst of the action, and extends the scene for a remarkable nine minutes.  The fierceness and reckless abandon with which the actresses throw themselves into the fight is breathtaking: I’d say they earned their Oscars just for this sequence alone.  I can’t think of a better fight sequence in any American film of the 1960s.  Maybe the opening shots of Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss have the same kind of visceral impact.  For a fight scene between two women, it might be unmatched by any film I’ve seen up until Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

This is one of my favorite things about film.  You can take a heartwarming, inspirational, start-writing-your-Oscar-acceptance-speech-now piece of filmed theatre and in the right hands and the right time, it can manage to become something entirely different, something totally new.  The fight sequence captures the essence of the film better than any of its speeches, and of its grand actorly moments.  If the film consisted of nothing more than it and a few surrounding contextualizing minutes (say from when the family first sets down to eat to when Sullivan emerges triumphant only to be told that it’s now time for dinner) it would express exactly the same themes, have exactly the same meaning.  Instead of Sullivan’s determination and unwillingness to accept Keller as a lesser human being, one unworthy of being treated like anyone else (the soft bigotry of low expectations?) being explained in painstaking detail like it is in the rest of the film, we see it in action and understand it better than we ever would otherwise.  It’s a little bit of cinema at the heart of a TV play.

This Week in Rankings

The Poor Little Rich Girl – 2, 1917
Island of Lost Souls – 8, 1932
Bombshell – 23, 1933
Girl Missing – 27, 1933
Havana Widows – 34, 1933
The Merry Wives of Reno – 21, 1934

Stella Dallas – 8, 1937
Etoile sans lumière – 20, 1946
Cheyenne – 12, 1947

War and Peace – 22, 1956
Around the World in 80 Days – 24, 1956
The Miracle Worker – 20, 1962
Inside Daisy Clover – 18, 1965
The Man Who Would Be King – 7, 1975

50/50 – 15, 2011

On The Poor Little Rich Girl

Mary Pickford is possibly the biggest star with whose work I’m the least familiar.  Certainly among the four founders of United Artists (Pickford, DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks) she’s the one I know the least about, she’s also the one least well known in general today, so I don’t think I’m all that alone in my ignorance.  But that doesn’t make it right.  This 1917 film is the first feature I’ve seen her in, and it comes from an odd time in her career.  She was already established as a huge star (reportedly second only to Chaplin in 1916) but was in the midst of a cycle of films in which she played pre-teen children, despite the fact that she was 25 years old, had been married for six years (to her first husband, actor Owen Moore) and had been playing adults for much of her career.  It’s about as weird as if in addition to starring in Black Swan in 2010, when she was 28 years old, Natalie Portman had also made Leon that same year, playing the same 13 year old girl role she had actually played in 1994.

The Poor Little Rich Girl, at least in its first half, can’t help but be dominated by this weird disconnect: a fully grown woman playing an eleven year old girl, and the tremendous popularity of Pickford in this role (she played “The Little Girl” also in films like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Pollyanna and Daddy-Long-Legs) must say something interesting about the way women were seen and understood by popular culture in the 1910s.  Or rather, the popularity of the films can be seen as a backlash against the progressive social changes women were pushing for in the era, culminating in finally getting the vote and banning alcohol.  I don’t really know how to process all that right now.  Regardless, on the most basic level of film viewership, the experience is bizarre.  I kept wondering if Pickford was really short, or they just surrounded her with really tall actors and slightly oversized sets, like those old Lily Tomlin ‘Edith Ann’ sketches.  It’s distracting to say the least.

Fortunately, the film manages to be pretty great despite the (unintentional) weirdness at its core.  Pickford plays Gwendolyn, the rich girl victim of parental neglect and mean servants, trapped in her fancy house and not allowed to play with other (poorer) children or go outside or have any fun at all.  The first half of the film details a few episodes where Gwen breaks down the strict social order that’s been imposed upon her, and Pickford here is a wonderful physical comedienne playing that slapstick standard agent of chaos: getting in a mudfight with neighborhood boys who’ve snuck into her garden, getting back at a mean rich girl by tricking her into sitting on a sandwich and most glorious of all, utterly destroying her bathroom, dancing like a madwoman and dousing her maid with malfunctioning plumbing.

The second half of the film takes a Wizard of Oz turn as Gwen’s servants accidentally give her twice the tranquilizer they intend to (they need her to go to sleep so they can go out to the theatre), sending Gwen into a feverish coma.  There she reimagines her life as a quest narrative, interpolating the people she knows with fanciful creatures and objects.  A running trope in the first half of the film had Gwen not quite understanding the metaphors grown-ups use in everyday conversation (one person is “a snake in the grass”, her financier father has to “fight the bears” on Wall Street, etc) which is a funny enough joke on its own.  But in the dream sequence, those metaphors take on the literality a child would see them with, such that the governess becomes an actual snake in the grass, the butler a silly jackass, the two-faced maid horrifyingly has two faces and Gwen must fight to save her father from the bears.  It’s clever, totally charming and the dramatic resolution with the father re-establishing his role as father first, moneymaker second (shades of Mary Poppins) is genuinely moving.

The film was directed by Maurice Tourneur, another major figure with whom I’m lacking sufficient familiarity.  He was, of course, the father of Jacques Tourneur, one of the greatest and most underrated directors of the 1940s and 50s (few directors have three films as good, and as diverse, as Jacques’s Cat People, Out of the Past and Stars in My Crown).  Tourneur and Pickford reportedly didn’t get along and this was the last of two films they made together, both in 1917.  Later that year, she made two films with Cecil B. DeMille and after that almost never worked with a major director again.  After several years working with Griffith, Edwin S. Porter and Thomas Ince, by the time she was a star she was clearly the auteur of her own films, producing them as well as starring in them beginning in 1916 and running her own studio starting in 1920.  (From Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By: “Although Mary Pickford says she seldom exercised control over her directors, her cameraman, Charles Rosher, declares that she did a lot of her own directing. “The director would often just direct the crowd. She knew everything there was to know about motion pictures.””)  Which again raises the question of why she kept playing these Little Girl parts.  What does it mean that an intelligent, powerful, liberated woman who had almost total control of her career chose so often, and was so popular in, roles that forced her to play as a child?  To the point that she actually retired when playing those parts became seriously untenable (Pickford: “I left the screen because I didn’t want what happened to Chaplin to happen to me … The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me. I’d already been pigeonholed. I know I’m an artist, and that’s not being arrogant, because talent comes from God … My career was planned, there was never anything accidental about it. It was planned, it was painful, it was purposeful. I’m not exactly satisfied, but I’m grateful.”)  Clearly this is a subject for further research.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #6: Jewish Prudence

The next film in the set is the first (only?) to star neither Stan Laurel nor Oliver Hardy.  Instead, it was written by Laurel and directed by Leo McCarey, the third most important member of the team.  The film stars comedian Max Davidson, who started in features in 1915 (he had a small role in DW Griffith’s Intolerance) and lasted until 1945 (the Clark Gable film Adventure was his last appearance).  At the Hal Roach Studios, Davidson specialized in a comic Jewish character, hence the title of this short, which for some reason is changed to simply Prudence on the title card of what I assume is a rereleased print.  Removing the pun makes the name of the film pretty nonsensical, since the movie’s about a court case, not moderation.  Maybe they changed it for anti-semitic reasons to make the film palatable to a non-Jewish audience, I don’t know.  Davidson’s character is a bit of a caricature, but a sympathetic one, certainly not any more offensive than any random five minutes of Jon Stewart or Larry David.

That last comparison is particularly apt here, because the film is a perfectly structured twenty minute comedy, the kind David, the best comedy writer of the last 25 years, has mastered.   Thus this film highlights Laurel’s ability not just as a performer but as a writer.  It was Laurel who was the driving creative force behind the team, Hardy was much more laid back (and/or lazy), contrary to their on-screen personae, and I expect to see that their later films will show the kind of carefully designed structure that this film displays.  Like a good episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s built around multiple plot threads that seem disconnected until they neatly unify at the end.  Also like those TV shows, the main character is a scoundrel, willing to lie and cheat to get ahead, while drawing the line at actually hurting any people (insurance fraud, though, is OK).

Davidson is a middle class father with two sons and a daughter.  The daughter wants to marry a lawyer, but Davidson withholds his permission until the young man can win his first case.  He wants the lazy and goofy sons to get rich, so he buys one of them a truck.  But the kid doesn’t know how to drive and manages to destroy an entire set (memorably taking out half a building) before crashing the truck into another car.  At the scene of the accident, Davidson gets his other son to fake an injury, hoping to make some money on insurance and sue the other driver.

Later, Davidson and his son attempt to convince some insurance men (one of whom is played by the great character actor of the 30s and 40s, Eugene Pallette, most recognizable as Friar Tuck from the Errol Flynn Robin Hood) that the son is paralyzed by lying him on a couch and hiding his good leg in a hollow cushion and replacing it with a wooden one, which they then stick with needles and such.  This, of course, goes comically wrong, for a while the son has three legs, another time he’s almost caught dancing (his dream is to be a professional Charleston dancer).  Eventually, Davidson and the son end up in court (suing that driver), where the daughter’s boyfriend wins the case for the defense (exposing Davidson as a liar and fraud) and gets the girl.  Davidson drives away in disgust, only to have his car hit by the truck driven by his other son.

The film is pretty funny throughout, the two major set pieces, the truck destruction and the wooden leg, are slapstick gems, but what elevates the film and makes it the best of the shorts I’ve seen thus far, is that escalating series of callbacks that brings everything to such a nifty conclusion.  At the end it all seems so obvious and inevitable, but that’s the genius of it.