As we have observed, it is Buster Keaton‘s birthday today. But it’s also the Halloween season, and so (we think) what better way to explore it than by celebrating some of Keaton’s clever spook comedies?
The Haunted House (1921 )
An early Keaton short, co-directed by Eddie Cline. As in many (probably most…maybe ALL?) spook comedies, the house that bank teller Keaton finds himself trapped in is not really haunted…it is a hideout for crooks (counterfeiters). The gang has a ridiculously elaborate plan for scaring off intruders: they frighten them away by making them think the house is haunted. The climax is delightful, with trapdoors, stairs that fold, guys in scary devil and ghost outfits…endlessly ingenious!
The Balloonatic (1923)
…And this is one of Keaton’s last silent shorts, before he moved on to features, also co-directed by Eddie Cline. Here it’s a bit of a fakeroo, and the spook house section only goes on for about a minute at the beginning of the film before the story shifts dramatically. But that’s plenty of time for Keaton to squeeze in an encounter with a skeleton, a dragon, hellfire and a trapdoor!
The Gold Ghost (1934)
Keaton’s first talkie short for Educational. It’s actually in the “ghost town” subgenre, a sort of hybrid of comedy western and spook comedy. Buster is a rich playboy whose father wants him to marry a certain girl. The girl hates him and loves his rival. Buster is depressed and goes for a ride in car. He winds up in the Nevada desert (he had started in Massachusetts). He finds himself in a ghost town called Vulture City, which has a real vulture!. He doesn’t notice it’s empty at first. He tries to check in to an abandoned hotel, and idly puts sheriff badge and gun on. Meanwhile a wanted gangster crashes his airplane nearby. Meanwhile Buster goes into the saloon, where the player piano starts to play. He encounters a ghost dance hall girl and a ghost outlaw. Then, some nearby prospectors strike gold. The town is suddenly over run with living humans and Buster tussles with some crooks who mistake him for an actual sheriff.
The Spook Speaks (1940)
This Keaton short for Columbia shows much more of Jules White’s hand than Buster’s. In this one, Buster and his female partner (Elsie Ames) show up to be caretakers at a magician’s house that has been rigged with crazy gadgets. There is a thunder storm. Lots of Buster’s old gags (e.g. the swinging picture outside a porthole from The Navigator) and Three Stooges gags (a bird with a sheet over its head, etc). are recycled. The film’s most remarkable production value is a penguin on roller skates. But really, isn’t such a spectacle worth the price of admission?