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Tag Archives: Buster Keaton

Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality was Buster Keaton’s third feature film and the second feature film he directed, following his Three AgesOur Hospitality is a remarkably assured film, however, and remarkably inventive. He shows his love of machines, his flair for period authenticity and his capacity to fully integrate his comedy into his story, comedy that unfolds with inexorable logic.

The film opens in 1810 in the South with a mock-serious prologue, recounting the death of the latest victims in a multi-generational family feud between the McKays and Canfields. When her husband is killed, Mrs. McKay takes her son, Willie Mckay, to live in New York.

That in itself is rather funny. It’s not every comedy that begins with murder and Keaton seems to be parodying melodramas or even D.W. Griffith.

By 1830, Willie is now played by Buster Keaton and learns that he has inherited some land from his father and must return to the South to claim it. On the train trip down south, he encounters a charming young lady (Natalie Talmadge), who just happens to be a Canfield. Not knowing each other’s names, she invites him to her father’s house for dinner, only for her father and two brothers to learn that he is a McKay and must be killed. The problem is that their rules of hospitality dictate that they cannot kill him while in their house. When Willie learns of this, he must contrive to stay in the house, while falling in love with the daughter.

The Pea Shooter Pistol

Our Hospitality definitely shows Keaton’s love of machines. The film prominently features an early train that looks more like a string of coaches on rail tracks and pulled by what looks like a toy train engine. As idiosyncratic as the train looks, however, it was based on an actual model of train from the era. The same with the dandy horse Keaton rides, which looks like a bicycle without pedals. Keaton also gets a lot of comedy out of the fact that guns could only fire once and then had to be reloaded with powder and bullets. One brother in particular has an elegant little pea shooter of a pistol that seems to underwhelm in it’s murderous function.

Out of so many excellent Keaton silent films, Our Hospitality struck me as a special delight and I could only marvel at his inventiveness on full display. Not just for machines, but for the logic of his comic gags. He rarely introduces a prop and just discards it after he’s finished with the gag. Even the train has a role to play in the final, thrilling chase with the Canfields trying to shoot Willie.

One great example of the prop that continues to have completely logical significance is the rope that becomes tied around both Willie’s waist and the waist of a Canfield brother. Willie is hanging from a cliff, but the brother can’t get a good shot at him, so lowers a rope so he can swing Willie to safety so he can then shoot him. Of course they both fall into a lake and even when the rope is finally severed between them, the little bit of rope that Willie cannot untie continues to have vital significance, both for good and ill (thought mostly ill). Best of all, the rope plays a role when Willie stages his daring rescue of his beloved, who is about to tumble down a waterfall. It’s a pretty amazing stunt.

But this logic is, I believe, what gives Keaton films a particular delight. They aren’t just funny. They make sense. What WOULD happen if two men, one who was trying to kill the other, were tied together with a rope? I rarely foresee what happens, but it always makes perfect sense once it does occur. The unexpectedness is where the comedy comes in.

He also has a lot of fun with the absurdities of the Southern code of honor (or any such code of honor). What happens when two parts of one’s code come into conflict? A McKay MUST be killed. A guest MUST be respected. What does the existence of such a conflict say about their code? Not to mention the humorous existence of a frame in the Canfield home, enjoining them to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” What are the Canfield’s to do? You have to watch Our Hospitality to find out. It’s a true delight.

Thanks so much to Silent-ology for hosting “The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon” and giving me an excuse to watch a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long time! For more posts about Buster Keaton, follow this link.

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Posted by on February 13, 2018 in Movies

 

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The Joy of Discovering Buster Keaton

busker-keaton-kitten-on-headIt’s been 100 years since Buster Keaton first began making movies. And to think that much of my life I had never even heard of him. I’d heard of Charlie Chaplin, but never Buster Keaton.

I actually first discovered Buster Keaton while reading One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. He wrote about a lot of different things, like Charles Lindbergh and the original murder that inspired James M. Cain to write both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. But what really stood out to me was his description of a movie called Steamboat Bill, Jr. and a house that falls on the actor in such a way that the window goes over him while he stands.

It sounded impressive. No stuntmen, either. I had to see it.

Discovering Buster Keaton was like discovering a composer that one has never heard of before, but turns out to be as brilliant as Mozart.

And one of the wonderful things about discovering Buster Keaton has been sharing that discovery with other people. I began by showing a short video to my preteen cousin about Keaton’s comedy. He thought it was cool and wanted to see more, so we watched “Cops.” He wanted more, so next we watched “The Scarecrow.” Later, we saw The General and The Navigator. Other visitors to the house have seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. and in a class I am teaching on the history of American film, Buster Keaton has been a universal hit among my teenage students. I have not yet come across someone who was not surprised and delighted by Buster Keaton.

What is the appeal? Buster Keaton has by far been the easiest sell in terms of convincing people to watch silent films. He seems to take people by surprise at how fresh his work is.

I wonder if partly – in this age of sophisticated technology, CGI, highly developed stunt work, and a bonanza of action in films, noise, yelling and introspective heroes – if he is not a profound relief to us, as well as a revelation at what can be done simply with imagination and an extraordinary physical ability. And at a time of constant multi-tasking (especially through our cell phones and social media) there is something relaxing about watching someone fully absorbed by one task at a time.

imagesThere is concentration in his stunts – it’s not overwhelming, with a dozen things going on at once. One watches, spellbound, as he sits on the nose of a train and uses a railroad tie to clear another railroad tie from the train track. There is nothing else to distract us. We are focused intently on him, his hand gestures, his stunts, his stoic face, as he is totally focused on the task at hand.

He’s a stoic Sir Galahad in a pork pie hat. Nothing phases him – even the most extraordinary ill-luck. He just keeps working at whatever task he has, trying to rescue the woman he loves or save his father from a hurricane or go under water to fix a broken ship that has run aground near an island filled with cannibals.

And his work evokes awe. I don’t think I laugh as much during his films as I do some others, but I smile all the way through, with a mixture of wonder, respect, and delight…always waiting to see what he will come up with next.

In short, his stoicism (he never stops to feel sorry for himself), he athleticism and complete control over all his movements (on par with the control of a ballet dancer), his dedication in the face of all obstacles, his invention in the face of all obstacles – he is inspiring and refreshing. And funny. Not only was it a joy to discover him, it has been a constant joy to watch others discover him.

I’ve shared this before, but it is such a great video, I wanted to share it again. It is called “Buster Keaton – The Art of the Gag.”

This post was written as part of the “The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon.” Thanks so much to Silent-Ology for hosting!! Be sure to click here for many more posts celebrating Buster Keaton.

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Posted by on February 21, 2017 in Movies

 

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Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies From Nickelodeon’s to Youtube – by Trav S. D.

51NF-vvToPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Trav S. D. is a professional vaudevillian and author who has written a history of vaudeville (No Applause – Just Throw Money, which I am currently reading) and a history of slapstick. Chain of Fools begins by briefly tracing slapstick’s long tradition from the ancient Greeks through commedia dell’ arte to the circus, acrobatics, vaudeville and finally cinema. The bulk of his book is about silent comedy, but he also includes several chapters on the slapstick that followed during the early talkies and TV to manifestations of slapstick today (Sacha Baron Cohen is, according to him, one of the few genuine contemporary “clowns” in the traditional sense). One of his main arguments is that silent film did not just come out of nowhere and disappear with the advent of sound, but is a timeless tradition with deep roots and great influence on later films.

His history is excellent. He discuses and analyzes the slapstick comedians we all know – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Mack Sennett, Fatty Arbuckle – but also highlights comedians most people are not familiar with, like Larry Semon, Raymond Griffith, Lupino Lane (Ida Lupino is his niece). I’m not sure if Charley Chase and Harry Langdon are considered well-known or not. They seem to occupy a middle tier.

Though he focuses on the silent era, he still provides a broad look at the careers of the silent comedians. He talks about how Chaplin’s lengthy popularity was partly owing to how he made himself timeless. By the 1920s, Chaplin could have been considered old-fashioned, a bit melodramatic and somewhat quaint. But his emotional instinct was right on and not being rooted in one time actually made him timeless. Trav S.D. also discusses what makes good comedy. For him, a pet peeve is the purposeless thrashing about or random happenings. Good comedians need motivations for what they do and a reason for us to care. It’s actually much funnier that way.

However, what I found most interesting – though I enjoyed his history and analysis of the different comedians – was his discussion of the cinema as a visual medium versus an aural one. The general narrative is that talkies, or sound, won out over silent movies, but he doesn’t buy that. With the popularity of radio and the novelty of sound, he believes that sound temporarily won out and people’s mode of receiving information temporarily was realigned from the visual to the aural. In particular in the ’30s, dialogue is emphasized, but ultimately movies became more about visuals than dialogue. He believes this began to happen in the 1970s (though he also credits Alfred Hitchcock).

He has a point. Movies that dominate the box office today are primarily visual rather than aurally driven. Perhaps most specifically action/adventure movies. He believes they are the descendants of silent, physical comedy. As he points out, in action movies, dialogue is primarily reduced to comic asides during an action scene. Replace the comic asides with intertitles, he says, and you have a silent comedy (he holds up Douglas Fairbanks as an example, both his action/romantic/comedies and later his action/adventures).

The_Vagabond_still

Edna Purviance and Charlie Chaplin

If you think about it, there were a lot of movies adapted from books, plays and radio dramas in the 1930s and ’40s. Adaptations of plays, in particular, are not something you see now and they tend to be the most talky movies of all. It’s not that movies became all talky. Errol Flynn still swashbuckled and screwball comedy is part slapstick (Cary Grant can do a pratfall with the best of them). Preston Sturges in particular mined slapstick and gags in his films, though he often contrasted them with scenes of extended and funny wordiness.

But I wonder if that is why there were so many actors with distinctive voices during the ’30s and ’40s: Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Claude Rains. They are actors I love to listen to. Though not all actors relied as much on their voice. Gary Cooper was primarily a visual actor; he used body language far more than his voice to communicate emotion.

But as Trav S.D. points out, so many of the great “cinematic” moments during the golden age of Hollywood are actually theatrical moments caught on film. “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Casablanca, he argues, is a case in point. In contrast, the sight of Chaplin walking down the road in the short “The Tramp” with his feeble cane, shaking his leg, is a purely cinematic and visual one. Alfred Hitchcock films are also filled with purely visual moments.

Ultimately, he argues, the addition of sound wasn’t so much an “improvement” as it was an expanding of options.

This is not exactly on topic, but I watched a fascinating video about Jackie Chan, which talks about how to film action comedy, what makes it work and the affinity between comedy and action.

And just because I really enjoy this formulation of what makes Buster Keaton’s gags work so well.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2016 in Books

 

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