Buster Keaton in “The Sidewalks of New York”
This movie was Keaton’s own least favorite of his MGM features. The plot is very similar to Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake and casts Keaton as a millionaire slumlord who falls for a poor girl (Anita Page). To win her heart he spends his time and resources improving the neighborhood, and trying to straighten out a gang of roughneck boys who brawl and get in trouble all day. This kind of sentimental fare worked for Spencer Tracy, James Cagney or Bing Crosby. Keaton was a fish out of water. His sidekick in the film, as in many of his pre-Durante features, was Cliff Edwards.
There’s nothing wrong per se with this bit with Keaton having a hard time carving a duck, but it does illustrate the clashing styles of director Jules White and Keaton that would emerge in a more sustained way when Keaton spent some time at Columbia in the late 30s and early 40s. The bird carving business would have been a terrific bit for Curly Howard, who would have increasingly gotten more frustrated, made faces, slapped his forehead, whined and grunted as the duck became more and more intractable. Keaton’s thing however is that he is unflappable. Most of the carving business doesn’t really work, no matter how fine a physical comedian Keaton is. It’s just wrong for him. The ultimate solution, when Keaton merely hands the bird over to a visiting policeman, seems much more characteristic.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out 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
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.