Tomorrow on TCM: Buster’s Birthday

Tomorrow, in celebration of Buster Keaton’s birthday, starting in the early morning TCM will be showing a selection of films by the comedy master. It is an interesting selection, comprising his latest silents and some of his earliest talkies, all from his MGM period:


7:30am(EST): The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman was Keaton’s first film as an MGM contract player. The change would rapidly prove to have been a bad career decision, but nevertheless The Camerman is one of Keaton’s best films. Like Sherlock Jr, it is a film about film. Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to be a movie cameraman for newsreels. He’s terrible to begin with – his first attempts are a chopped-salad of double exposures, backwards footage and erratic film speeds, a kind of marriage of One Week’s cockamamie house and the cinematic tricks in Sherlock Jr. By the movie’s end he will not only perform a daring rescue, but get footage of it, securing the girl and the coveted job all in one fell swoop. This is awfully close to Lloyd territory, but Keaton manages to own it with many deft touches. Some of his most famous moments are in the film. Eager to get footage of a disaster in progress, he leaps onto a passing fire truck…only to have it pull immediately into the fire station. And there is another scene where he goes to Yankee Stadium to cover a game…but it turns out to be an “away” day. Undaunted, he mimes an entire baseball game by himself, an homage to the famous circus clown Slivers Oakley.


9:00am (EST):  Spite Marriage (1929)

Spite Marriage, directed by Edward Sedgwick, is considered Keaton’s last silent film, although it does feature an audio track with sound effects. This is one of his least memorable features. It concerns a famous actress (Dorothy Sebastian) who marries a lowly pants presser (Buster) in order to get back at a paramour who has jilted her. The fake marriage breaks up almost immediately, but Buster later has an opportunity to prove himself worthy and rescues her from a gang of crooks far out at sea. The film’s most famous sequence has Buster struggling with his wife’s drunken inert body, trying to put her to bed. He would resurrect this bit many times over the years.


 10:30am (EST): Free and Easy (1930)

Free and Easy, also directed by Sedgwick, is an out-and-out big-budget musical which thrusts Keaton amongst Anita Page, Robert Montgomery, Fred Niblo and Trixie Friganza. Keaton plays a small town garage mechanic who tags along with his sweetheart on her big trip out to Hollywood to become an actress. Unaccountably he winds up in the pictures himself. There is opportunity for the great Stoneface not only to talk but sing and dance, and even indulge in occasional slapstick. The film is less funny than irritating as sad sack Keaton is perpetually harassed, belittled and browbeaten by just about everyone he meets. It’s really only a film for sadists, but it’s must-see viewing for anyone interested in Keaton’s evolution after the coming of sound.


12:15pm (EST): Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)

This film, also directed by Sedgwick, was adapted from a sophisticated Broadway farce that had earlier been made as a silent with Eugene Pallette. This one puts Keaton alongside Cliff Edwards, Reginald Denny, and Charlotte Greenwood, with a lot of claptrap about Keaton’s bumbling character masquerading as the world’s greatest lover. As  John Lennon said about The Beatles movie Help!, “It’s like having clams in a movie about frogs.” We regret to say that it belongs in the “deservedly forgotten” pile; its interest is more historical than pleasurable. Also: it was filmed at Buster’s house!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



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