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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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Made For Each Other (1939)

downloadI can now be counted as an unabashed fan of Carole Lombard. The first movie I ever saw her in was My Man Godfrey and she was a bit much for me and I stayed away from her films for years. It was my loss, though. The more I see her films, the more brilliant she seems. She combines luminous beauty and depth of feeling with brilliant comic timing and energy.

Made For Each Other is an imperfect movie about the travails of a recently married couple, but allows Carole Lombard to showcase the range of her acting. She plays Jane Mason, the wife of John Mason (James Stewart), who is a lawyer and lives with his mother. The film begins with them just married, crazy in love, and planning to go on their honeymoon to Europe.

But life does not proceed exactly as planned. It’s the depression (the boss wants everyone to take a cut in salary), they live in a small apartment with his querulous and critical mother (Lucile Watson) and John is passed over as a partner by his boss, Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn). Things become even more strained when they have a child.

Part of the trouble is that John is somewhat meek and disinclined to assert himself, something that Jane takes him to task on (she is definitely the bolder one). She wants him to appreciate his own worth. In some ways, the beginning of the film reminds me of Vivacious Lady, which James Stewart made the previous year with Ginger Rogers and Charles Coburn. In that film, James Stewart is a professor who meets, falls in love with, and marries Rogers all within the space of several hours (just like Made For Each Other), but is too timid to tell his father (Charles Coburn) and generally needs to have his spine stiffened. But Vivacious Lady is purely a comedy. Made For Each Other begins much like a comedy, but veers into melodrama territory by the end. The ending, in particular, is improbable.

But Carole Lombard is a delight as Jane. She absolutely adores John and a large part of the charm of the film is how invested Stewart and Lombard makes the audience in their story, despite its improbabilities. Lombard also demonstrates her excellent comic timing, especially in her interactions with her step-mother, who is never quite satisfied with anything Jane does. Her patience, but also her frustrations, all seemed very believable and it is an interesting look at people trying to get along in a small space. I would have enjoyed more of that and less of the ending race to fly some serum to New York to save their baby from pneumonia.

imagesOkay, apart from the ending, there is one thing I thought was distinctly odd. What is with the string of maids? How are they affording a string of maids (who all give notice for various reasons)? John laments at one point how their marriage is a mistake and how he’s turned Jane into a household drudge because she’s now having to take care of the apartment. My grandmother was married, had five children, took care of the house and frequently worked (at night, so she could be home with the kids). No maid. She never thought of herself as a drudge. She told me people simply did whatever they needed to do. And this was the ’50s, when there was no depression. Hollywood’s idea of how working people lived is certainly curious (my grandmother always gets a laugh whenever she sees a Hollywood “middle-class” family with a housekeeper).

I did find the relationship between Jane and Lily interesting (Lily is their last maid, played by Louise Beavers). In nearly all ways, it is a stereotypical role for Beavers. However, the dynamics stuck out to me. Jane has been looking for work and she and Lily sit down together on the bench and talk. Lily is given dialogue that is stereotyped in the extreme (using watermelons as a metaphor), but the body language and mutual friendship tells a different story. In many films, there can be a tone of condescension used when addressing a black character, but Lombard speaks to Lily just as she would a friend. Even the hug they share when Lily stops by their apartment on New Year’s Eve seems genuine and unforced, like they are really happy to see each other. Oddly enough, Jane’s struggles with poverty has give her common ground with Lily and made them equals in a certain way.

It’s something you see occasionally in depression era films (and WWII films). The sense that the national tragedy or struggle has equalized people to a certain extent. Everyone is fighting the same battle. True unity, the suggestion is, often comes from tragedy and shared struggle. Even the overwrought ending reinforces this. The struggle to save the baby at the end resolves all tensions and troubles, leading to reconciliation and prosperity.

This post is part of “Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon.” Reportedly, Stewart and Lombard got on extremely well and Stewart said that Carole Lombard was the only person he knew who could make swearing ladylike. Thanks to In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting!

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Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

6a00d8341c2b7953ef013485c24605970cKind Hearts and Coronets is a completely droll and delightful comedy of murders, which happens to feature Alec Guinness eight times over. He also dies eight times over. He is blown up (twice), shot, drowned (twice), poisoned, and has his hot air balloon punctured by an arrow. He also manages to die of a perfectly ordinary heart attack. By the end, there isn’t an Alec Guinness left standing.

The story follows the quest of a draper’s assistant, Louis Mazzini, (Dennis Price) to murder his way to the D’Ascoyne Dukedom. There are seven D’Ascoyne’s standing in his way (all played by Guinness), not to mention the duke himself (also played by Guinness).

Louis is himself the son of a D’Ascoyne, but she romantically ran off with an Italian tenor and was cut off by the family. But that doesn’t prevent her from raising her son with the utmost conviction of his family worth and the grievous offense done to his mother by the family. He decides on revenge after she dies and gets to work, starting things off with an improvised double drowning.

The film makes ruthless fun of the aristocrats and one is almost on Louis’ side for how they all refuse to acknowledge his existence, except that Louis is just as much of a snob as they are.

The two women in Louis life are Sibella (Joan Greenwood), his childhood sweetheart, and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the teetotaler wife of young Henry D’Ascoyne. After Henry is blown up (in his dark room – he’s a photography enthusiast), Edith becomes a widow and Louis determines to marry her. He believes she would make an ideal, dignified and gracious Duchess.

In the meantime, he carries on an affair with Sibella, who he does not think would make a very good Duchess, though she is the only person to see through him. Louis thinks that he has the upper hand and can discard her at will, but she turns out to be every bit as good at scheming as he is, if not a bit better. In hindsight, he really should have just married her – they would have been unstoppable.

Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness

Dennis Price is superb as the man who would be a duke, narrating his story on the night before he is to be hanged (by an executioner thrilled to his core that he is to meet – and hang – a Duke…with a silk noose, no less). It is primarily his story. However, the film is most famous for allowing Alec Guinness the chance to play eight different members of the same family, roles which he approaches with a hilarious kind of tongue-in-cheek deadpan expression. Suppressed glee, perhaps. All one has to do practically is look at Alec Guinness in one of his roles and break out laughing.

He plays the duke, a young photography enthusiast oppressed by his wife’s extreme goodness (and insistence that he abstain from alcohol), a stubborn admiral, a general, a doddering old clergyman, a radical suffragette (my favorite of his roles), an old banker, and a roue, who is also the son of the banker.

Apparently, Alec Guinness was offered four roles, but when he read the script he thought it was so marvelous he suggested that he play eight, instead.

What is interesting is how understated it is all done, though. There is only one shot where we have all eight Guinness’ D’Ascoyne’s together and in every other case they are in separate scenes of their own. None of it is in the least showy. The one scene where he does appear in full force (at church) was evidently very difficult to do, however, and it took several days. They would expose different portions of the film, each with a different Alec Guinness.

This is brilliant British comedy, about as funny as anything I’ve ever seen, in truth. I think, in time, this could become a real favorite.

This is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon. The rest of the posts can be found in recaps for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Posted by on October 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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