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Buster Keaton

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MichiganJ
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Buster Keaton

Postby MichiganJ » December 13th, 2010, 7:07 pm

I'm slowly and systematically re-watching the films of Buster Keaton. My plan was to watch them in the order they were released, but instead am watching them in the order in which they were produced (which is pretty close to the order of release).

Starting at the beginning with the films Keaton made with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, this is the first time watching them in order of production and they reveal far more than the way I've seen them previously. The two Kino DVD sets featuring many of the films aren't presented in any particular order, a problem rectified in the Image 2-disc Best of Arbuckle-Keaton Collection but which is also missing an important short (The Cook). So I've been watching the films from the amazing box set from Eureka's Masters of Cinema series: Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films 1917-1923. The films are, for the most part, the most complete available (the exception is the Arbuckle/Keaton short Moonshine, which is presented incomplete in the MoC collection as well as the Image set, due to the poor image quality of the only surviving 16mm dupe. However, that dupe, as bad as it is--and it's awful--is used in the Kino collection Vol. 1, which is great, because as awful as the print is, the film is a surreal hysterical treat.)

While re-watching the films of Buster Keaton in the order in which they were produced, it becomes abundantly clear that Roscoe Arbuckle was very influential in regards to Keaton's outlook on filmed comedy, including the surrealism that often differentiates Keaton from other comedians, particularly the other "big two". Keaton's interest in the camera and with the exploits that could be done with film that could not be done on stage also prompted him to encourage Arbuckle to try new things. Of course on his own Keaton pushed that cinematic quality much further (The Playhouse being an obvious example), but in watching the Arbuckle/Keaton shorts in sequence, there is a clear evolution from broad slapstick to more complex and character-driven comedies. Oh, and they are funny. Really funny.

A few things about Arbuckle:
The Butcher Boy, the first Keaton film, is also the first film Arbuckle made after leaving Keystone and working in the Joseph Schenck-produced series of Comique shorts. Like Keaton would have when Arbuckle moved on to make features, Arbuckle had complete control over his films, as well as a bigger budget than he'd gotten at Keystone. There were 22-Comique shorts in all, with Keaton featured in 14 of them. Of those 14, all survive except one, A Country Hero (1917). Most of the remaining Arbuckle-only Comique films (made when Keaton was in the army overseas) are lost as well, which is a real shame, for these films are as important to understanding and appreciating Arbuckle as the Mutuals are to Chaplin. The two solo Arbuckle films that do survive, A Reckless Romeo (1917)--available on the DVD The Cook and Other Treasures, and the brilliant Love (1919), found in The Forgotten Film of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle collection, show that Arbuckle clearly was in his comedic prime and my guess is, if the other Comique films are ever found, Arbuckle may join his rightful place alongside the 'big three' . (Or 'four', if you include Langdon, which I do. Chase, too. And Linder. Let's say top ten, just to be safe.)

While these Comique shorts aren't short on slapstick, they are quite a bit more developed than most Keystone films and many are quite ambitious. Arbuckle as a comedian-director was very generous, often giving Keaton and/or (other Comique regular) Al St. John plenty of solo screen time, allowing their own comedic talents to shine in his film. I can't think of a Chaplin film in which Chaplin himself isn't at least on-screen for the laughs. Nor a Lloyd. Nor a solo Keaton. Yet, in these Arbuckle films, it happens a lot.

Finally, while being a big man, Arbuckle rarely uses his size as the easy joke or almost any joke at all. There are no "can't fit through a door" gags and generally his size is used as a juxtaposition--usually with Keaton (and not unlike how it was used in his wonderful Keystone shorts with the diminutive--and oh-so adorable--Mabel Normand).

As for the films themselves, they all have wonderful moments and many are, what I would consider at least, "classic". As with most two-reelers of the time, many of the films start with a location or subject in which gags can then originate from. Usually after a reel or so (or when the gags have been used up), the "plot" shifts to another locale for more gags, etc. Their first pairing (and Keaton's film debut) The Butcher Boy (1917) is a good example as Keaton--already sporting his soon-to-be trademarked porkpie hat--plays a customer in Arbuckle's grocery, getting a lot of screen time and plenty of laughs, particularly doing his "molasses bit" not to mention the spectacular pratfall he takes. After a reel or so in the shop, the action then moves to a girls' school(!), which, among other things, allows Arbuckle to dress in drag (something he was prone to do in films), complete with a wig of long curls (ala Mary Pickford?), so that the film can conclude with Arbuckle getting the girl. As suggested above, as the series of shorts progress, the plots becomes more important, but not at the expense of the laughs.

I won't bore you with my thoughts on all of the films...just a few of them:

His Wedding Night (1917). Probably the "worst" of the Arbuckle/Keaton shorts is still wildly funny and well worth seeing if only to see Keaton himself in drag and over-emoting all over the place. Smiles, tears, the whole works. Surely the oddest performance by Keaton I've seen and I'm glad that he more-or-less stayed with the 'stone-face' persona. Still, it's pretty great to see him out of character…and boy is he really out of character here.

Moonshine (1918) Quite simply a stunner. Way ahead of its time in just about every way. There are just so many smart gags and comedic risks taken in this film. Inside jokes, asides, the playing of form--this is a film where Roscoe and Buster often break character and discuss the scenes they are playing in, and in one instance, Arbuckle insists they just cut to the climax, which they then do. It's a special film and it's a shame that the print is so abysmal.

Out West (1918) and Backstage (1919) are both great fun and have a lot of dark humor.

The Cook (1918) Easily the funniest short in the collection. Filled with some amazing and hysterical kitchen gags (Arbuckle was great at tossing ingredients and catching them behind his back), but when he and Keaton break into their Egyptian dance (ala Theda Bara's Cleopatra?), well, like I said the funniest short….
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby intothenitrate » December 14th, 2010, 9:16 am

I have a few of those Arbuckle/Keaton shorts in my collection and you're right, Arbuckle is very generous with the allocation of screen time to Buster. My collection is pretty spotty, but it must be very instructive to watch the step-by-step progression in that early "film comedy laboratory." From what little I've seen from that period, I was also surprised and impressed by the tendency towards surrealism that distinguishes the films from the work of the other comedians. I'll be looking forward to future installments of your survey!
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby charliechaplinfan » December 14th, 2010, 5:37 pm

I was replying to this threrad this morning when I got interrupted by a poorly daughter.

I love Buster Keaton and have watched some of the Arbuckle shorts, you're right, Chaplin would never have given someone else so much screen time, it's almost like he's proud of his discovery and rightly so. I was surprised by the Arbuckle persona, it wasn't what I'd expected, the comedy does not centre around his size and I found him far more engaging than anyone else apart from Keaton and Chaplin. To me you see, there is the big two, Keaton and Chaplin, I've never got Lloyd completely although I recognise many love him and his wide popularity but the two stand way out in front for me, after them there's Laurel & Hardy, perhaps it's British taste. I found myself better suited to Arbuckle more than Lloyd.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby MichiganJ » December 16th, 2010, 11:30 am

charliechaplinfan wrote:I've never got Lloyd completely although I recognise many love him

It interests me that you don't like Lloyd very much. To me, his glass character is often pretty close to Chaplin's little fellow, at least in that Lloyd often added elements of pathos to his features. (He seemed to alternate between having features that were strictly gag-related with those that were more character and plot driven.) Keaton, of course, rarely bothered with sentiment, unless he was playing it satirically.
charliechaplinfan wrote:after them there's Laurel & Hardy

My wife doesn't know it yet, but she kindly bought me The Laurel and Hardy Collection DVD set for Christmas ("Thanks, Hon!"), so I'll finally be able to see their silent shorts, of which I've only seen a few, but love.
intothenitrate wrote:From what little I've seen from that period, I was also surprised and impressed by the tendency towards surrealism that distinguishes the films from the work of the other comedians.

Another silent comedian I very much admire is Charley Bowers, who experimented with animation, which he added to his slapstick comedies. Very surreal like Keaton, and his own demeanor is something like Langdon, but really, Bowers is a true original.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby charliechaplinfan » December 16th, 2010, 1:56 pm

I do like some of his gags, my favorite film of his is Girl Shy, he's so sweet. I liked some of Hot Water and like Safety Last, who couldn't appreciate Safety Last? I remember another shorter film also set in a tall building perhaps it's Now or Never. I see Chaplin partly as a fairytale creation whereas Lloyd is more real, which is a silly thing to think because they are both creations. I found two characters that LLoyd plays, the shy boy of Girl Shy and The Kid Brother, that one I like but the over confident, in your face character like The Freshman I can't take to. Why Worry and Doctor Jack didn't do much for me. It's so strange that I don't take to him whereas I love Charlie and Buster, both very different.

Good choice for Christmas, I especially love the silents, the kids love L&H. I've tried my daughter with Chaplin and Keaton, Chaplin she liked but Buster didn't hit the spot.

For me though, it's partly his fascination for stunts and gadgets, the variety with little repetition, the length of the sequences, everything feels fresh. I think Chaplin and Lloyd have better opinions of women, I don't think Keaton holds them in esteem, they are usually the source of his troubles and as a woman I partly want to mother him, he's like an appealing child, not a man even though he lives a man's life, his emotions haven't evolved or are usually evolved for him through the women in his films, Lloyd and Chaplin are men who actively seek the company of women. He's fun but he's not a comedian I'd chose if I wanted an easy watch, I need to pay full attention because there's so much going on.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby MichiganJ » December 16th, 2010, 4:14 pm

charliechaplinfan wrote:I do like some of his gags, my favorite film of his is Girl Shy, he's so sweet.

I was thinking specifically of Girl Shy when writing the above comment and am glad that you do like that film. It's one of my top five, I think. (I have about 50 or so films in my top 5).
charliechaplinfan wrote:I think Chaplin and Lloyd have better opinions of women, I don't think Keaton holds them in esteem

Interesting that you bring this up because I am paying particular attention to the women in Keaton's films this go round, and it has radically altered my previous conceptions.

For instance, actress Alice Lake was in many of the Arbuckle/Keaton films and was often included in the gags and not just "the girl". (Although she was sometimes just that, too.) Probably her best role is in the wildly funny short, Good Night Nurse, which was the 10th Arbuckle/Keaton film, out of 14. I believe this was the first that featured one plot to fill the entire two reels and is a perfect representation in the collaboration between the two as it opens with Arbuckle's penchant for slapstick and builds to a surreal dream. Basically it's about a drunkard (Arbuckle) who is taken to a sanitarium by his wife when she learns that there is a surgery that can cure him. Keaton is the surgeon(!) and Alice Lake is hysterical as an unstable patient. (For anyone counting, yup, Arbuckle dresses in drag in this one, too.)

I'm working my way through Keaton's solo shorts now, and there is more to the women there, too.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby charliechaplinfan » December 16th, 2010, 5:52 pm

I haven't seen all of the shorts, so my judgement is mostly based on his features, the shorts that stick in my mind is his first one with the honeymoon house, The Scarecrow and one about neighbours when he rescues his girl by standing on the shoulders of someone else and she stands on his shoulders. This is how I remember shorts.

I love The Cameraman because Buster moons over the girl and she isn't incompetent, she's worthy of his affection and sees through his shy exterior to see the man beneath plus there's loads of excellent gags.

When I think of Keaton I primarily think of him running, running from 100 brides, running to get to Marceline Day's apartment, running away from cops. No one else runs like him and noone else makes me laugh running like he does and that includes Chaplin.

I've read in many places that the only stunt that Keaton ever used a double for was the pole vaulting sequence in College, he tried but couldn't master it, the one and only time he'd been beaten. I know College was chosen because The Freshman was such a big success, I love College (apart from the blackface) but dislike The Freshman. The difference for me being the characters.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby MichiganJ » December 16th, 2010, 7:00 pm

charliechaplinfan wrote:I've read in many places that the only stunt that Keaton ever used a double for was the pole vaulting sequence in College, he tried but couldn't master it, the one and only time he'd been beaten.

Keaton was amazing in his athleticism. In many shorts he scales buildings and executes the kinds of leaps that won Doug Fairbanks accolades but Keaton only laughs. There's no question that he was at least the equal to Fairbanks in doing stunts, and in my book exceeds him because Keaton also had to do the pratfalls. The proof is in the pudding when you consider that Keaton was often doubling others in his cast that had to do stunts and falls.

(This in no way is to detract from Fairbanks, who is amazing in his own right!)
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby charliechaplinfan » December 17th, 2010, 1:47 pm

There's a scene in Sherlock Jnr were he's on a motorcycle with a cop, the cop is required to take a fall, Buster did the stunt for the actor who was playing the cop.

I think he learned a great deal from Roscoe Arbuckle, I haven't seen many Arbuckle films, did he and Chaplin influence each other both starting at Keystone? My thoughts are perhaps not as Chaplin never took to the haphazard way of shooting at Keystone, when it comes to Keystone most of my knowledge has been got from Chaplin biographies so it might be slighly biased. I'd love to watch the Mabel and Arbuckle comedies.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby MichiganJ » December 17th, 2010, 4:17 pm

The comedians borrowed many gags from each other. Arbuckle does a short "dance with the dinner rolls" in the Arbuckle/Keaton short The Rough House (1917), which, of course Chaplin elaborated and brilliantly featured in The Gold Rush. Also, in his Mutual The Rink, Chaplin has the big Henry Bergman dressed in drag, which I do believe was directly influenced by Arbuckle.

As for Chaplin at Keystone, I think there is some of the Keystonian frantic chaos in Chaplin's Essanay's, but by the time he got to Mutual, Chaplin had pretty effectively broken from that style of comedy.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby charliechaplinfan » December 17th, 2010, 6:14 pm

I remember watching The Rough House and being astonished at the dance of the rolls because it is held up as a moment of perfection in Chaplin comedy, the dance of the rolls isn't a Chaplin momemt that marks him as a great comedian for me, I was shocked to see him being credit for something that was filmed for someone else first.

I confess with the Arbuckle/Keaton shorts part of the reason I love them is because Keatom hasn't quite adopted his stoneface persona. There is a sequence at Coney Island when he laughs, he looks a different man completely. Ultimately his stoneface suited him and his brand of comedy. Keaton for me is one of films good guys, had his films not been rediscovered by James Mason lying in the attic loft, his story would have had an almost tragic tinge to it, the fact he lived to have the accolades heaped on him makes it a happy story. I'm sure there have been plenty scholars who have anaylised Keaton's work in terms of his private life, I can't help but think that the lack on understanding on the part of his wife and subsequent divorce did not help in the terms of his own creativity. It galls me too that MGM take over a successful comic act like Keaton and straight jacket him into their formula but their formula brought in more viewers. Perhaps a vindication of the old studio system, if you have the theatres more exposure for the artist despite the quality.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby movieman1957 » December 21st, 2010, 9:42 pm

I haven't been here for days. I love Keaton. I have what reports to be a complete collection of his solo shorts but nothing with him and Arbuckle.

Michigan J wrote:
My wife doesn't know it yet, but she kindly bought me The Laurel and Hardy Collection DVD set for Christmas ("Thanks, Hon!"), so I'll finally be able to see their silent shorts, of which I've only seen a few, but love.


I love their silents too and wish they would be shown more often. When is the party?

If you don't have many of the sound films on January 11(late) TCM has 24 hours of Stan and Ollie. I'm there.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby MichiganJ » December 22nd, 2010, 4:55 pm

charliechaplinfan wrote:I remember watching The Rough House and being astonished at the dance of the rolls because it is held up as a moment of perfection in Chaplin comedy, the dance of the rolls isn't a Chaplin momemt that marks him as a great comedian for me, I was shocked to see him being credit for something that was filmed for someone else first.


I admit that I'm in the camp that thinks Chaplin's dance of the rolls is one of many classic Chaplin bits. That he didn't do it first doesn't bother me at all. I don't know if Arbuckle did it first or if he borrowed it from someone else, but Arbuckle uses it merely as an aside in The Rough House, whereas Chaplin focuses on it, exploits the humor while also continuing to build his character. But even if Chaplin just borrowed the gag, it's still really funny (and not easy to do…I've tried).
movieman1957 wrote: I have what reports to be a complete collection of his solo shorts but nothing with him and Arbuckle.

I'm curios as to what set you have. Keaton made 19 two-reel shorts after working with Arbuckle, many of them classics and all of them really funny. For me, many if not most of them reach the bench mark for two-reel comedy set by Chaplin's Mutuals.
movieman1957 wrote:I love their silents too and wish they would be shown more often. When is the party?

Sunday too soon?
movieman1957 wrote:If you don't have many of the sound films on January 11(late) TCM has 24 hours of Stan and Ollie. I'm there.

It's my understanding that the 21-disc set includes everything the two did. I've been really, really good about not pouncing on it yet. Three days more…

Thanks for pointing out the TCM schedule. Looks like January will be a pretty great month. I'm on the L & H but also the silent Our Gang shorts. (Is it Hal Roach month?)
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby movieman1957 » December 22nd, 2010, 5:16 pm

It is Hal Roach month. In addition to the two marathons they are also doing the Todd/Pitts/Kelly and whoever else came after. Later in the month a long list of Charley Chase shorts are coming. The Boy Friends are also among the choices.

I was wrong about the Buster collection. It only has 15 shorts. It is just "The Buster Keaton Collection." The Prints aren't very good. In fact my TCM showings of the features are much better. I couldn't agree more about Keaton's athletic ability. Everyone makes a fuss over the building falling in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and rightfully so but it is a great stunt that requires only standing in the right spot. His running and sliding and whatever else he does in "Seven Chances" is a testament to his talent. Even in "Our Hospitality" he is amazing in some of those stunts.

Sunday is great. BTW, where did you get the L&H set? How great your wife thought of it for you.
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Re: Buster Keaton

Postby SSO Admins » December 22nd, 2010, 8:19 pm

charliechaplinfan wrote:I liked some of Hot Water and like Safety Last, who couldn't appreciate Safety Last?


I didn't like it much at all -- in fact, it put me off Lloyd for a long time.

Here's part of a review I wrote on imdb years ago:

Lloyd had an understanding of gags, and the physical prowess to pull them off, but his character, despite his innocent look, was opportunistic and lacking the moral weight of Chaplin or Keaton.

In "Safety Last," Lloyd plays a young man who is leaving for the big city to make it big; his girlfriend, played by his wife Mildred Davis, has told him that she expects him to become successful. Upon arrival, he writes daily letters home telling her of his big business deals. In the meantime, he is ducking the landlady (the scene where he and his roommate hide from her was great) and slaving as a lowly department store clerk. The gags in the store, where he hides his late arrival from his boss and deals with a mob of ladies attempting to buy fabric, are actually the funniest part of the film.

Eventually his girlfriend shows up in town unannounced, and he is forced to play the part of the big shot while hiding his lowly position from her. In an attempt to get the money he needs to buy a house, he ends up climbing a 12 story building, dealing with pigeons, police and gunfire along the way.

There are some very funny moments in the film, but Lloyd's lack of a moral center keep it from achieving true greatness. In one scene, he slips a dollar into a trash can as a bribe to an office boy to play along with his big-shot deception; a second later, he steals it back. It's a funny gag, but compare it to Keaton's "Sherlock Jr.," where he not only returns a lost dollar but ends up giving away his own money to a second woman looking for a lost bill. Keaton manages to be funny and create sympathy for his character simultaneously.

This lack of sympathy works against Lloyd in the film's climax, when he makes his climb up the building. What should be breathtakingly suspenseful, with the gags serving as a tension-breaker, comes off as merely mechanical. Because there has been no connection with the audience, the possibility of him falling almost seems like a just reward for his lying and opportunism. When Keaton finds himself in danger, as in the spectacular waterfall scene in "Our Hospitality," his basic decency adds moral weight to the suspense that's totally lacking from Lloyd's work.

In all, while Lloyd manages to be funny and entertaining, it's impossible to love him. He has a real understanding of pulling off a gag, but almost none of making a movie work.


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