Finally got my hands on a rarity last weekend. Long about 1935, when the smoke cleared from Buster Keaton’s final blow-up with MGM and no other studios were stepping in to sign him up, Keaton resorted to starring in a foreign feature. Le Roi des Champs-Élysées was made in Paris and directed by one Max Nosseck. Keaton was reportedly paid far below his accustomed salary on the picture and he didn’t regard it very highly, but predictably, it is VASTLY better than anything he ever did at MGM. This despite all sorts of crudities in shot composition and editing, and the fact that a French actor dubs Keaton’s voice. The plot, and Keaton’s performance in it are just characteristically Keatonesque in a way that NONE of his MGM features are (with the possible exception of Doughboys).
Most delicious of all, we get to see Keaton in the requisite “doubling” plot! This is the old Comedy of Errors, two-people-look-alike-and-comedy-ensues plot, which nearly all of Keaton’s competitors had done: Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Larry Semon, etc, etc. But Keaton had never done one. And here it is! One persona is a ne’er do well flyer distributor who gets fired when he accidentally hands out five million francs worth of bank notes. The schlub then gets a small part in the theatre where his mother works, and we get much business reminiscent of Spite Marriage. Meanwhile, his absolute look-alike, a rough-tough gangster, breaks out of prison. (The gangster is quite unlike Buster’s usual screen persona). And lots of quite hysterical physical business is the result. (I can’t tell if the film REALLY evocative of Rene Clair or if it is just because it was made around the same time, in the same place as early Clair pictures like Le Million. But yeah, prisoners, mansions, Paris in the 30s, it feels a little like Le Million). And, in what ought to have been a memorable classic moment of cinema (and would have been , if anybody have seen it) Buster ends the picture with a great big grin on his face.
At any rate, this movie, along with Keaton’s shorts for Educational Pictures provides a clear picture of what Keaton’s true potential in the sound universe was, a potential that went sadly untapped. Most Americans have never seen Le Roi des Champs-Élysées. Even fewer have seen it I imagine due to its scary-sounding foreign title. If I were distributing it, I’d fix that tout de suite — I mean, PDQ. This was not, however, as some claim, Keaton’s last starring feature. He did a film called The Invader in London the following year. That, too must be looked into.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc