Saturday, February 18, 2012

Buster Keaton in NEIGHBORS (1920)

While Buster Keaton's fifth self-produced and co-directed short subject represents a new high in stuntwork and overall comic timing, it also stands as Keaton's most sustained commentary on race, or at least the nearest he came to a commentary. The main storyline of the 17-minute film is the Romeo-Juliet romance of Buster and Virgina Fox, the children of hostile if not feuding slum families whose yards are divided by a board fence. The young people pass love notes through a knothole when their parents aren't looking. Virginia's dad (Joe Roberts) has sent Buster sailing on a clothesline back into his own yard, where his own dad (Joe Keaton -- his own dad) was beating a carpet before Buster replaced the carpet. Buster does a remarkable vertical spin upon taking the blow, and Dad's efforts to release him end with Buster face down in a rain barrel and head first in the mud beneath it. When Dad finally extricates him, the camera lingers on Buster's muddied face, and you get the uncomfortable feeling that Keaton wants you to laugh because the mud somehow makes Buster look black. But there's a point to this. Moments later, Buster avenges himself by bopping Roberts on the head with a broom -- except that he's mistaken a cop's helmet for Roberts's hat. The angry cop looks over the fence and sees a dark face. Buster retreats to a laundry table and quickly washes his face. The cop enters the yard and passes right by the freshly-scrubbed Buster. Exiting into an alley, the cop finds a genuine black man passing through and promptly nabs him. That's profiling, brother.

Silent comedy was politically correct in many different directions. A comic might assert, for instance, that if anyone was dumber than a colored man, it was a cop. And so the flatfoot pauses in his arrest to shoo off a group of kids shooting craps as another cop saunters into the scene. The first cop then grabs the second by the arm and resumes his march, leaving the innocent to go his way. Meanwhile, Buster's Mom blames a house painter for soiling her towel, and in the exchange a pail of paint comes down on Buster's head. Darkened once more -- was the guy painting the house brown? -- he's recognized by the cop as his original assailant and nabbed. Buster has managed to grab a towel and has wiped his face halfway clean by the time the cop reaches his call box. The black man watches this from safety and blows Buster a mocking kiss. As Buster switches profiles, now dark, now light, the cop grows hopelessly baffled. He turns around once more and Buster has vanished screen right. In the same shot, the cop runs off in search of his dark quarry, and we see that Buster has shimmied up a telephone pole. He jumps down, only to be grabbed by another cop. Dragged past a ballpark, Buster pauses to look through a knothole, telling the lawman that Babe Ruth is at bat. You should know what that means. Right on cue, a ball sails over the fence and beans the cop. But Buster isn't really scot free until he can dive into a wagon of laundry hauled by a black woman -- without a cop noticing, of course. Neighbors's digression on race ends on a sour note when Buster struggles to rise from the laundry pile and is all-too predictably mistaken by the Negress and her family as a ghost. They run away and Buster heads back home.

Speaking of digressions ... It was an old racist commonplace that blacks were more superstitious and susceptible to fright than any other ethnic group. Where the idea came from I can't say, but it had pernicious consequences in cinema when D. W. Griffith made their supposed fear of the archetypal white-sheeted ghost the basis for the Ku Klux Klan. But I wonder sometimes whether the influence flowed the other way, whether the big joke behind blacks' fear of ghosts was that they mistook the ghosts for the Klan. Every silent comic except Chaplin exploited this stereotype, though Harold Lloyd took a redeeming egalitarian approach to it in his short Haunted Spooks, where he's just as scared of ghosts as the black servants and its actually one of the servants, not Harold, who discovers that the ghosts are impostors. Cowardice is a great leveler, and it became practically obligatory (again, not for Chaplin) for comedians to undergo an ordeal by fright -- Keaton's own next short will be The Haunted House. But does Keaton's resort to the stereotype of black fear make him a racist? Only to the extent that he was a man of his time and the times were racist -- but the business leading up to the ghost bit is also a kind of acknowledgment of the unfair treatment blacks were subject to. Comics were as beset by cops on film as anyone was in life, and if black audiences empathized with the comics' plight, here was a momentary hint that the empathy was mutual.

The rest of Neighbors is pure physical comedy, some of it almost pointless -- as when Buster "invents" a levered plank that will slap anyone on the ass who goes through the door between the fences. The film's climax, an elopement following an aborted wedding, is far more inspired. Roberts has broken up the wedding because he despises Buster's five-and-dime ring as an unfit offering to his daughter -- he crushes the thing between thumb and forefinger to make the point. Virginia still loves Buster, however, and with his brothers he contrives an escape for them both. He and she are marooned on the third stories of their respective buildings. Buster's brothers appear through the back door and the second-floor window and carry him across the yards to Virginia's window. They bring a suitcase back to Buster's room and come back for Virginia -- briefly diving through three windows when Roberts appears in the yard. Detected at last, the brothers run for it, with Virigina (a dummy) over Buster's shoulders. The scene to this point has been a marvel of precision timing, but now it becomes miraculous. The brothers run through a three-story scaffold, reunite and keep on running. Then the middle brother gets caught on a clothesline; as he gets shot backward, Buster (with the dummy) lands perfectly on the bottom brother's shoulders without breaking stride. Then Buster has to hit the sidewalk running when the last brother falls through an opening. His descent finally concludes when he and Virginia (now restored to herself) slide into a coal pit where the Justice of the Peace who had tried to marry them earlier is conveniently waiting for them.

While Keaton still hasn't topped his initial release, One Week, Neighbors is his best short since then and his most accomplished work as a director to date. He (and Eddie Cline) show greater mastery of space and a willingness to keep the camera rolling and moving to expand the dimensions of a gag. One strong example of this comes during a mid-film chase when a once-clueless cop notices Keaton's shadow on the ground. He very carefully traces the line of the shadow, and now, when most other directors would have cut to the comic on top of the telephone pole, Keaton pans upward and upward until we finally appreciate how high Buster has climbed.

Moments like the human ladder have the visual inspiration of an early comic strip, but Keaton is one of the few moviemakers in 1920 with the visual skill to top the cartoonists. Many a silent short looks like a comic strip on film, but Keaton's look life comic strips come to life.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Agreed that no Keaton short probably approaches ONE WEEK, but NEIGHBORS is surely one of his best. I guess I was more amused by the physical comedy that you were here, though it's clear enough your overall response to this classic short is as high as any. Also agree that the stereotypes of blacks finds a study in this film, and that as you note, many silent comics did persue this in their work. I'd add THE THREE STOOGES and the OUR GANG comedies to this lineup, with both showing the darker skinned people as more frightened of ghosts than whites. It's true that Keaton rarely broaches this sociological concern, and only flubs it at the very end.

But yes, the stunt work and the timing here is first-rate, and that's the bottom line.