Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (1931)

This was Buster Keaton's fourth talking feature and his sixth film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. According to Wikipedia, it was the most popular film of his career, which could only convince M-G-M that they had done something right taking creative control of his work away from Keaton, though you wonder why, on the heels of such success, the studio decided that they needed to hang the albatross Jimmy Durante around Buster's neck for his next (and last) three Metro features. Sidewalks is a rare feature-length effort from director Jules White, and in fact he only co-directed it. White is most identified with the Three Stooges, but that didn't prepare me to see Keaton do the oath-taking courtroom bit ("Take off your hat!...Raise your right hand," etc.) immortalized by Curly Howard five years later in the White-produced Disorder in the Court. The sad part is that Curly did it better, and the bit was more appropriate for him. Keaton was playing the sort of clueless millionaire character he played often in silents (e.g. The Navigator) and while such a character may be unworldly he shouldn't be the sort of moron the swearing-in routine requires. In Sidewalks Keaton's character discovers that he is a slumlord when he investigates his minion's (Cliff Edwards) failure to collect rent. The local urchins have chased Edwards off the block and are in the midst of a baseball riot when Edwards returns with Keaton. Buster meets cute with leading lady Anita Page when she decks him with an authoritative looking haymaker for allegedly roughing up her little brother. Whenever I see The Broadway Melody I think Page looks like a lummox next to petite Bessie Love, even though Page is the glamour-girl of that film's sister act. Alongside Keaton she looks more ladylike yet it still seems plausible that she could beat him up. That Buster has a girlfriend who could fight his battles for him is an idea that has potential, but Page steps back to become a more conventional romantic lead as the plot proper kicks in. As with the Marx Bros. later, the brains at Metro felt that Keaton would be more lovable if he were shown helping other people. His mission here is to reform the neighborhood in general and Page's brother in particular by opening a gym where the boys can learn athletics and stay off the street. The boy has fallen in with gangsters and we must endure scenes starring the kid with Keaton nowhere in sight to keep the plot going. To impress the neighborhood Keaton must prove himself physically, but Page's KO isn't encouraging. Buster proves himself inept at combat sports and is humiliated by a Japanese kid who jiu-jitsus him all over the place. He's always learning, however, and in the climactic melee he uses the same moves on the lead gangster to help save the day. There's plenty of physical comedy for Keaton, but it's mostly pratfalls and brawling instead of the expansive chase scenes he's remembered for. There's also a botched amateur play, since Keaton on stage presumably had worked back in Spite Marriage, his final silent film. It's actually absurd enough to be amusing, particularly when a loaded gun is on stage with a bullet meant for Buster. Playing in drag, and obliged to die in the play, Buster is a fanatic trouper, determined to get in the line of fire no matter what efforts are made to divert the lethal shot. The scene doesn't really make sense -- why not fire the gun into the air and end the suspense? -- but it has a necessary ludicrousness that the rest of the picture lacks painfully. Keaton can't do much to redeem the material. He tries for a while to affect a more refined delivery for his posh character but his coarse speaking voice makes his once-effortless imposture unconvincing. Beyond that, he can do little but go through the limited motions Metro allowed him. The best that can be said about Sidewalks, sadly, is that far worse was yet to come.

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