Archive for the Buster Keaton Category

Sunday at Film Forum: “Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr”

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on December 30, 2016 by travsd

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This Sunday at 11am, as part of their Film Forum Jr Series, New York’s Film Forum will be showing the Buster Keaton feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), co-directed by Chuck Reisner with live musical accompaniment.

Steamboat Bill Jr. was Keaton’s final independent film, and one of his best. The story: dandified college boy Buster tries to prove himself to his riverboat captain dad, and win the heart of the daughter of his dad’s rival. The Mississippi setting unavoidably evokes Mark Twain.  The climax contains Buster’s most famous film sequence…the brilliantly staged hurricane, culminating in his most well known single shot, with the building facade falling down around him, while the real life Buster stands there frozen praying to God they measured the window right. A movie as beautiful as it is funny. Tickets and info are here. 

For more on 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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Tomorrow on TCM: Buster’s Birthday

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on October 3, 2016 by travsd

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:

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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 amazon.com etc etc etc

 

 

Tonight on TCM: More Silent Slapstick Classics

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in September, Turner Classic Movies will be showing some of the finest silent comedy and slapstick classics (and documentaries thereon). Here’s what’s on the menu tonight:

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8:00pm (EST): The Birth of the Tramp (2014)

A documentary on the evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, released on the 100th anniversary of his debut.

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9:15pm (EST): A Dog’s Life (1918)

A Dog’s Life is a longer, more ambitious film than any he had made previously, in some ways a sort of dry run for his later The Kid. For my money, the six scenes of A Dog’s Life are as funny and clever as any of his earlier shorts stacked together, with the additional bump of an emotional journey.

Chaplin plays his Little Tramp in the film. His co-stars are a pooch named Scraps, and Edna Purviance as a forlorn dance hall girl. All three of them are living “a dog’s life” in that they each are getting the short end of the stick. They meet, pass through several trials together, and in the end find happiness by exchanging their solitude for cooperative domesticity.

But along the way, we get to experience several of Chaplin’s most hilarious routines ever. And they’re all physical bits. In the first, after stealing a hot dog the tramp evades a policeman, over, under and around the wooden fence where he was sleeping. In the second, he applies for a job, but each time he advances toward the clerk’s window, someone else steps up to it just a split second before. In a later scene, Charlie keeps stealing muffins from a food vendor played by his brother Sydney, each time snatching one just as Syd’s back is turned. Try as he may Syd can’t catch him at it. In the end, Charlie has swallowed the whole plate of treats. And then there’s a funny bit with Charlie walking across a dance floor with a dog’s tail sticking out of his pants, and the other one (much imitated) in which Charlie supplies the gesturing hands of the man he has just knocked out so it will seem to the guy’s partner that he is still awake. In the coda, one of Chaplin’s occasional happy endings, man, woman, dog (and puppies) all one one big, happy family.

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10:00pm (EST): The Circus (1928)

Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Chaplin’s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”.  The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna KennedyLita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp  but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.

So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.

And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.

Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”

Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?

The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.

Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!

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11:30pm (EST): One Week (1920)

This film (the first of Buster Keaton‘s solo shorts to get a public release) was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride (Sybil Seeley), his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. (Twisters are a frequent bête noir in Keaton’s Kansas-bred consciousness.)

When Buster learns that he has built his house on the wrong lot, he has to tow it to the correct spot. Unfortunately on the way, his car stalls on some railroad tracks. Seeing an onrushing train, we brace for disaster, then breathe a sigh of relief when it turns out that the locomotive is on an adjoining track. It passes, leaving the couple unharmed. A beat—and then the money shot: a train heading in the other direction comes from out of nowhere and smashes the house to splinters.

What sets Keaton apart is his famously tight story telling and the attention to character. Despite all the craziness, he never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

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12:00am (EST): Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr. was Buster Keaton’s final independent film, and one of his best. The story: dandified college boy Buster tries to prove himself to his riverboat captain dad, and win the heart of the daughter of his dad’s rival. The Mississippi setting unavoidably evokes Mark Twain.  The climax contains Buster’s most famous film sequence…the brilliantly staged hurricane, culminating in his most well known single shot, with the building facade falling down around him, while the real life Buster stands there frozen praying to God they measured the window right. A movie as beautiful as it is funny.

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1:15am (EST): Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962)

Inspired by the success of Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), Harold Lloyd made this compilation film containing clips of his own “greatest hits”. For many of us born far too late to have experienced his films in their own day, this film was our first introduction to the work of silent comedy’s “Third Genius”.

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3:00am (EST) Number Please (1920)

While the climax to this short is one of the film’s best parts, the set-up is convoluted. Harold and a rival (Roy Brooks) vie for the attentions of a girl (Mildred Davis) at an amusement park. When her dog gets lost, she wants to go up in a hot air balloon operated by her uncle. The balloon will only hold two. The girl announces she will go up with whichever beau gets her mother’s permission first. The rival heads for the mother’s house in a car. Harold runs to a telephone so he can call the mother for permission. This would seem easy…but it’s a public phone in a hotel. The hilarious part is the succession of obstacles which prevent him from doing this simple thing. Then he winds up with a lost purse, which he finally gives to a goat to eat so he won’t be arrested for stealing. But it turns out to have been the girl’s purse, complete with the balloon tickets….

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3:30am (EST) Speedy (1928)

Counterintuitively, given that the American film industry was largely based in New York City during its earliest years (roughly 1893-1913), by the twenties most of the business was where it is now, in Hollywood. Location shooting in New York City for major feature films had become something of a novelty. Harold Lloyd’s Speedy redresses that lapse; it’s virtually a love poem to New York. Harold plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold has to rush him to a game); and an actual vehicular accident, which the producers opted to keep in the film because it was so spectacular. And let’s not forget the cool scenes at Coney Island and Times Square! Harold plays a slightly different character in this film: cocky, pushy, fun-loving and a little irresponsible. Just like New York.

Speedy was Lloyd’s last released silent film. His next film Welcome Danger was originally prepared as a silent, but adapted for sound.

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5:05am (EST) Anna Case in La Fiesta (1926)

This couldn’t be farther from a silent slapstick comedy. I can only think they include this short and Roseland (below) as illustrations of what the late silents were up against. This is an early Vitaphone talkie starring opera singer Anna Case, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

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5:15am (EST): Charley My Boy (1926)

An early Leo McCarey effort. The great Charley Chase gets mistaken for a suitor for the affections for heiress Kathryn Grant (he’s just there for a job). The last act has him roaming around the boss’s house, trying to hide booze from prohibition cops.

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4:57am (EST) Roseland (1930)

Ruth Etting et al in a Vitaphone short set in the famed Jazz Age nightclub.

And stay tuned — they’ll be showing more classic comedies later in the day — more on that to come!

For more on silent comedy and slapstick 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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Tonight on TCM: 2 Silent Comedy Classics Featuring Buster Keaton

Posted in Amusement Parks, Buster Keaton, Comedians, Comedy, Coney Island, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by travsd

Tonight (actually tomorrow) at midnight (E.S.T.) on Turner Classic Movies: two silent comedy classics featuring Buster Keaton :

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Go West (1925)

While among Keaton’s more personal films, aspects of Go West feel more like Chaplin or Lloyd. In this western comedy, Buster plays a drifter named “Friendless” who takes a job on a ranch, where he must prove himself amongst a bunch of mean and manly guys. His main attachment is to a cow named “Brown Eyes”. Yet certain aspects of the film are strongly Keatonesque. He takes the period detail very seriously. Unlike many comedy westerns, for example, Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1938) or the Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940), Keaton makes a real effort to make the location look and feel accurate, which gives the film an entirely different sort of feeling. And the climax, a cattle stampede in the middle of downtown Los Angeles is quite typical of the man who had given us a hundred running policemen in Cops (1922) and dozens of brides in Seven Chances (1925).

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Coney Island (1917)

In this classic comedy short, Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, and Al St. John take turns dating the same girl (Alice Mann) at Coney Island (despite the fact that Arbuckle’s character is married). Inevitably Arbuckle winds up going in drag in a woman’s bathing suit. In addition to priceless period footage of Coney’s Luna Park in its heyday, this film offers the sight of Keaton doing an impressive blackflip, and — even more exotic — crying!

Tomorrow on TCM: Classic Comedies About Cameras!

Posted in Bob Hope, Buster Keaton, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Red Skelton, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2016 by travsd

Tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies, they are showing comedy related pictures all the live long day. We wanted to point out three comedies we thought would be of especial interest to our readers:

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6:00am (EST):  Buster Keaton in 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.

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7:30am: Bob Hope in My Favorite Brunette (1947)

Hope’s parody of Sam Spade pictures, following up on the success of My Favorite Blonde. Hope is a baby photographer with an office right across from private eye Alan Ladd. This allows him to get mistaken for a shamus himself by Dorothy Lamour. From here, the story gets played too straight for my tastes. Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr play bad guys.

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10:30am: Red Skelton in Watch the Birdie (1950)

Essentially a remake of Keaton’s The Cameraman, with Red as a professional photographer who tries to dig himself out of debt by becoming one of the paparazzi, and ends up getting involved with a glamorous heiress (Arlene Dahl) and a vivacious starlet (Ann Miller).

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 amazon.com etc etc etc

 

Slapstick Comedies of World War One

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2015 by travsd

Now called Veteran’s Day, November 11 was originally set aside as a day of remembrance for the cessation of hostilities in The Great War, also known as Armistice Day. In honor of the day, we look at several WWI films from the era of classic comedy:

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The Bond (1918)

September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds”. The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.

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As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.

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Huns and Hyphens (1918)

Larry Semon’s war comedy is set on the home front, with Larry as a waiter at a restaurant run by German spies. He is also masquerading as a wealthy suitor to a young lady who has invented a gas mask. The plot is not unlike many Chaplin “masquerade” comedies, with Semon’s patented extravagant gags and hair-raising chase finish. Also in the cast are a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel and his wife Mae, and Frank “Fatty” Alexander. 

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A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)

This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres. The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!

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The Better ‘ole (1926)

This World War One comedy has a long pedigree. First it was a cartoon drawn by English humorist Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1917 it opened as a West End musical comedy running for 811 performances starring Arthur Bouchier as the main character “Old Bill”. The following year a Broadway version opened, starring Charles Coburn. 

With his years of music hall experience, Syd Chaplin was perfect for the comical part of Old Bill, a 30 year regular army vet who knows how to look out for his creature comforts. With his walrus mustache, and omnipresent pipe, the character has the kind of broad visual outline that any self-respecting Chaplin would know just what to do with. Jack Ackroyd plays his sidekick, “Little Alf”.  Edgar Kennedy plays the tough sergeant who constantly bedevils him.

There are some sight gags and funny pantomime business, but the film leans heavily on comical cockney intertitles. Bill is always napping, goofing off, getting into trouble. In one routine worthy of the younger Chaplin brother, Bill is playing with his dog, and accidentally drills an entire company of soldiers who overhear his instructions to the pooch and follow them. He spends a lot of time on trash detail.  The story starts to take off when he is putting on a camp show dressed in a horse costume, then gets stuck behind German lines still wearing the disguise. He steals some German uniforms and winds up having to serve a German general breakfast though he doesn’t understand the language. He knocks out a guard and meets fellow Brit who warns him of an immanent attack. He must warn the English army. He races in stolen car, then crashes it. Then he gets a motorcycle and plunges into a river. He is rescued and brought to a place where a detonation plunger is located. He knocks his captors out and saves and entire town. Then he is caught by Brits who think he is a spy out to sabotage his own army. He is bout to be executed but is saved at the last minute and made sergeant. He uses the opportunity to finally deck his nemesis Edgar Kennedy.

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Soldier Man (1926)

Soldier Man was Harry Langdon‘s last short before leaving Mack Sennett to do features. It’s one of his most creative and elaborate ones, containing enough for two separate shorts (since it has two completely different parts, each with a separate premise.)

In the first half he’s a soldier who doesn’t realize World War One has ended, so he is still roaming around having misadventures in German territory.  He escaped from a prison camp just when the German troops were celebrating the end of the war but he didn’t understand. Now he is wandering around a country at peace in constant fear for his life. Coming upon an area where a farmer is using dynamite to blow up tree stumps, he thinks he’s being shelled. He, winds up accidentally dragging some dynamite with him. Sees it, throws it, tries to shoo a cow out of the way. When the cow does run by Harry has his eyes closed. Dynamite lands in smokehouse, sending pieces of meat flying over to Harry. He thinks it was the cow.

In the second half.  In the little country of Bomania…there is a king who looks exactly like Harry (How many movies have we seen with that premise?). The king is is drunken and dissolute, always insults his wife. The people are on the verge of revolution. A minister spies Harry and hires him to be a double for the king. It winds up with the King’s wife trying to kiss Harry so she can plunge a knife into his back. Harry wakes up in his bed with his wife shaking him. It’s the present day, it was all a dream.

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A Soldier’s Plaything (1930)

Harry Langdon co-stars with Ben Lyon in this World War One service comedy (with serious overtones — and a few songs, although most were cut prior to American release when musicals went out of favor. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Michael Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a rare chance to see Langdon starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.

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Doughboys (1930)

Doughboys, directed by Eddie Sedgwick, is Buster Keaton ’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, Wheeler and Woolsey are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Laurel and Hardy‘s second feature for Hal Roach, is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.

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Blockheads (1938)

Originally intended to be Laurel and Hardy‘s last Hal Roach film (and it was their last Roach film for MGM though they made a couple more with Roach for other distributors) there would have been a nice symmetry to their career at Roach if it had been so, as Blockheads is essentially a remake of their first Roach talkie Unaccustomed as We Are (grafted onto We Faw Down). Like all of their features, it’s essentially the content of a short, stretched to go just over an hour. But this one works for me — it’s densely packed with comic material with little filler to speak of.

The pair are army buddies in WWI. Unfortunately Stan never gets the memo about the Armistice and winds up standing guard in a trench for 20 years. Returned to a convalescent home, he is taken in by Ollie — much to the perturbation of Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). Left to fend for themselves, they find themselves entangled with the hotsy-totsy neighbor lady (Patricia Ellis), which gets them in Dutch with her shotgun wielding husband (Billy Gilbert). But just as life is all about the journey, comedy is all about the gags, and the pleasure of this movie is in just letting them wash over you, one after the other.

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The Great Dictator (1940)

While Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is the World War TWO comedy par excellence , it does begin with an extended World War One section, a sort of prologue in which the Little Barber grapples with a ridiculous cannon named Big Bertha and flies upside down in a bi-plane with Reginald Gardiner. Chaplin’s injured character will spend several years in a sanitarium, emerging to find that his country has gone insane. More about the film here. 

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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Tomorrow on TCM: Buster Keaton in “The General”

Posted in AMERICANA, Buster Keaton, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on October 8, 2015 by travsd

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Tomorrow at 6:00am (EST) on Turner Classic Movies, to kick off their day-long program of train movies, they will be showing Buster Keaton‘s The General (1927). Unthinkable as it may be to us today, this film, now regarded as Keaton’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of all time period, was among Keaton’s least successful films upon its initial release.

Inspired by the photos of Mathew Brady and by Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, this Civil War comedy is set in Georgia in 1861. The title refers not to an army officer but the nickname of a locomotive tended by a crackerjack engineer played by Keaton. The army decides that the young man is more valuable to the Confederacy in his usual job as a train engineer than as a soldier. But his girl thinks he is shirking and shuns him. He proves himself worthy by a daring single-handed rescue of his stolen train deep behind enemy lines.

That sounds like a plenty serious plot — and it is. Some speculate that this is the reason for its relative unpopularity in the 20s. Not only are there fewer gags in the film, but audiences were unamused by the subject matter. It seemed in bad taste to make a comedy against a backdrop of the country’s greatest tragedy. This was a case of Keaton’s emotional detachment blinding him to the nuances of the audience’s emotions. Keaton merely found the subject interesting. Others were not amused. Today, at a further remove, audiences find the film breathtakingly beautiful, and can laugh at its silliness without being too stressed out at the nail-biting climax.

For more on the stage and screen career of comic genius Buster Keaton go here.

For more on silent and slapstick film history 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. For more on show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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