Saturday, July 24, 2010

Buster Keaton's 'Lost' Educational Films (1934-7)

From the epic spectacle of The General and the storm scenes of Steamboat Bill Jr. it was a long way down for Buster Keaton until he ended up at Educational Pictures, a longtime purveyor of comedy shorts ("The Spice of the Program") distributed by Fox. Mishandling by M-G-M producers, alcoholism and the collapse of his marriage, along with a sense of obsolescence that clung to nearly all the silent comedy stars, left the man once and later considered Charlie Chaplin's greatest rival near the bottom of the movie ladder. For more than 70 years after he made them, the sixteen Educational shorts have been more talked about, or simply dismissed, than seen. Just this year, Kino International finally gave them an official DVD release as the Lost Keaton collection. Are they as bad as legend alleged, or are they neglected gems? The final scorecard, predictably enough, is mixed.

A characteristic Keaton pose from Mixed Magic (1936)

The Educationals were films made in a hurry, and sometimes leave the impression that Keaton, his usual director Charles Lamont, and their writers didn't have enough time to think through the comic prospects of their stories. The most glaring such case is the third short in the series, Palooka From Paducah. A bearded Buster plays alongside his father, mother and sister as a family of hillbillies who decide to make money by putting Buster's big brother to work as a professional wrestler. The first half of the film has some good physical humor as Buster attempts to train his far stronger brother. You figure you see what's coming: Buster will somehow have to do the rasslin' instead. You'd be wrong, though; someone thought it'd be funnier if Buster played the referee. That someone, too, was wrong. It can't help but look anticlimactic, and since the big brother is given Buster's generic character name, "Elmer," while Buster himself plays "Jim," I wonder whether there was a last-minute role switch for some reason.

There's an even bigger disparity between set-up and final execution in the next short, One Run Elmer. This is considered one of Keaton's best Educationals, and it was one of his own favorites of the group. Their feelings are justified by the first half, which establishes the rivalry of two gas station owners on either side of a road through the desert. The desolate location and Buster's flimsy shack of a station simply feel right; this is where he should be in the sound era. He has a spectacular fall while trying to yank his gas pump a foot too far, but there are also stronger, less violent gags. Buster and his rival get into a price war, constantly erasing and rewriting their rates on chalkboard signs until Buster elegantly transforms his "31" into an "18." He learns that he's gone too far when potential customers presume that his cheap gas is no good. Later, Buster and his rival, both ballplayers, "warm up" by giving each other batting practice across that road, the rivals solid hits and wild pitches practically destroying Buster's station. After that build-up, the climax disappoints by relying too much on the gimmicks Buster used for live comedy baseball games. Worse, plot threads are lost. Much is made of the fact that the umpire is the man whose car window Buster broke earlier, but nothing's really made of it and the ump calls the game more or less straight.

David McLeod's liner notes often indict the Educationals for failing to follow through on or live up to potentially strong comic ideas. In one case, time seems to have left him out of the joke. Keaton's penultimate short, Ditto, is apparently considered one of the worst of the group, but it proves to be a fairly amusing little film with a satirical bent bordering on the surreal. Buster is an iceman with time on his hands and romantic dreams -- he's just started Gone With the Wind -- who gets himself farcically entangled with identical twins without realizing the duplication. Finally learning that both women are already married, he denounces them for making a plaything of him and renounces civilization. Fifteen years later (1952), he's a bearded hermit living in an isolated pocket of wilderness while civilization advances above him, family airplanes pulling trailers en route to vacations abroad.

Hermit Buster eventually encounters a woman who reminds him of his lost love(s?), and he promptly renounces his hermitage. Shaven and groomed, he reverts to the Buster of yore for his tryst. The final gag is deemed disappointing because Educational couldn't spring for a process shot turning the two girls into five. Instead, we see five girls from behind, each sitting in a director's chair, as Buster faces them (and us) staring in bewilderment. But the gag is set us exactly as the filmmakers wanted. They want you to notice the names on the chairs, because they tell you that Buster has encountered the Dionne Quintuplets, who would be 18 in 1952, and whom many Americans knew on a first-name basis as early mass-media celebrities. Ditto should probably get a demerit for dated humor, but sometimes it requires a sense of history to understand how the original audience would have seen (and gotten) the gag.

It's in films like Ditto where we're most likely to salvage something of the authentic Keaton sensibility in the necessary absence of Buster's signature large-scale stunts. His classic silents aren't mere stunt-fests, but often have a strong absurd or satiric sensibility, as in his brutal genre parody The Frozen North or the aging-and-death denouement of his feature College. Keaton distinguishes himself from Chaplin, for instance, in rarely taking seriously the dramatic situations that frame his comedy. For Chaplin, romance is all too real; for Keaton, it's often simply ridiculous. His parodic instinct comes through most strongly during the Educational period in the one short for which he claimed a story credit, and the one long assumed to be the best of the series, Grand Slam Opera. It's also the most cinematically imaginative film in the group, a fact for which Keaton most likely deserves the credit.

Buster proposes to juggle an empty whiskey bottle on the radio. "Is it empty?" the bandleader asks. "Yeah," Keaton mutters, "I made sure of that." Arguably uncomfortable alcoholic humor in Grand Slam Opera.

Grand Slam Opera is a send-up of the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and other talent shows that predated The Gong Show or American Idol. It also gives Keaton a chance to parody Fred Astaire by wrecking a hotel room while attempting to dance on the furniture and mantelpiece. Buster hopes to win a prize by juggling on the radio, only to get into a fight with the studio bandleader. As a whole, the short is a mockery of rags-to-riches, star-is-born type success stories. Buster gets a musical sendoff from his local supporters and the usual montage of train wheels and so forth takes him to New York. After his defeat, there's another montage of futile motion, culminating with Buster trying to hitch a ride from an Indian woman carrying her baby papoose-style. He tries to ride the bumper of a stationary car, and that gives him a chance to learn from the radio that he'd won the radio contest and has a prize waiting for him in New York. There follows one more dazzling montage of wheels, propellers, stop and go signs, all superimposed over Buster running at breakneck speed, as if it only took him exactly that long to get back east. It leaves you with the stunned feeling that THIS is what Keaton should have been doing all along once sound arrived.

None of the Educationals are without features of interest, except arguably for a lame service comedy, Tars and Stripes, that seems to exist only because Keaton and Lamont got permission to film at a naval base. Many of them have a historical interest, Palooka From Paducah and Love Nest on Wheels showing both the Keaton family and pop culture's growing fascination with hillbillies at the time the Li'l Abner comic strip was breaking big across the country. It's interesting seeing Keaton's team assimilating recent phenomena like the success of It Happened One Night. In The E-Flat Man Buster encourages his reticent girl to emulate the famous hitchhiking scene; "I saw this once, and it worked!" he says. The setup has a nice payoff when the car that pulls over proves to be a police car.

Mack Sennett feels the same influence in the short he directed for Keaton, The Timid Young Man. That one finishes with a runaway bride hitchhiking in her swimsuit. Naturally several cars pull over at once, with Buster (as a runaway groom) in the rear. In classic Sennett style, yet with Keaton elegance, Buster's car slowly pushes all the other cars forward until he can pick up the girl. Other shorts work more timelessly: the battle royale before a justice of the peace in Three On A Limb; Buster beaten down in succession by prison guards and escapees despite changes in uniform in Jail Bait; the sci-fi buncombe of The Chemist that leaves mortarboard-wearing gangsters terrified of rain. And every Educational short has at least one thing going for it: it's not a Columbia Keaton short (though I intend to do justice to those at another time).

Despite many inspired moments, there's no denying a diminishment of Keaton's powers in these shorts, especially when you compare them to Laurel & Hardy's work in this period, or even the earliest Three Stooges shorts for Columbia. I don't think I could honestly call any of the Educationals a classic, but as a set I found them fascinating, if also sometimes sad. I wouldn't recommend Lost Keaton to anyone simply looking for laughs, but for fans of Keaton and the slapstick tradition, the set is definitely worth seeing if not worth having.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thorough review. I love Buster Keaton, but I think I will have to skip these, at least for now. I have trouble watching good comedians have to try and be funny. If you've ever seen Harold Lloyd in "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" you'll know what I mean. I don't think I want to be reminded of how far down he fell after great work in features like "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and "The Navigator," or shorts like "Neighbors." Even his mediocre pictures like "Seven Chances" and "College" had inspired moments. Maybe I need to get over it and just watch them. You're review doesn't really inspire me to want to see them. It seems to confirm my fears. I'll leave the memories of the silent Keaton alone ... for now at least. said...

Your sentiments seem to be the consensus. Personally, my copies of the DVDs just arrived...even though they were pre-ordered ages ago. I'm looking forward to watching them for myself.

I personally always thought Keaton's brillance was better suited for short-form. So even though these films are far past his prime, I imagine it will be refreshing to see him doing what he does, in films I am not so familiar with.

His career and life seem to be such a huge unfortunate enigma. How could genius fall so low and so could such fire be snuffed out so quickly. It really is sad.

Thanks to Kino International the brilliance of Keaton has been preserved and made available, but to be honest, dispite all the accolades I still kinda feel that he doesn't get his full due.

He was a genius when it came to cinema as a visual medium and he did things that Chaplin and Lloyd only could've dreamt about. Don't get me wrong, they were all great and they all had their strengths, but if you watch a film like Sherlock start to realize that he was thinking about the actual art of cinema in a completely different and more advanced way compared to his contemporaries.

Anyway, I enjoyed the article. Thanks

billydaking said...

One quick note on the caption about Buster's "uncomfortable joke"....Keaton had actually gone on the wagon halfway through the Educational shorts after nearly drinking himself to death, and he didn't take another drink for several years after that. Grand Slam Opera was the second short he did after that experience, and the in-joke was his own commentary on what he just went through.

For some people, comedy is supposed to be uncomfortable. :-)

@Jason--If you love Keaton, I would recommend at least renting these. I saw two of the shorts (Allez Oop and Jail Bait) on Kino's Keaton Plus DVD, and they're actually not too bad. They're interesting because unlike most of his other sound work, Keaton actually had creative control over these shorts, and it's probably the closest we're going to get to his vision of sound film. Keaton himself is immensely watchable, and the shorts' biggest weakness are their rushed production values.

Sam Juliano said...

I have a fondness for GRAND SLAM OPERA and a few others, but there's no denying your summary judgement that this collection sadly shows a dimishment of the icon's powers. By this time, (as you note in your lead-in) Keaton had fallen into personal and professional oblivion, and this represented the death rattle of a fallen giant. Yeah LIMELIGHT with Chaplin may have been the fitting epitagh, but in terms of creativity these shorts were the final real attempts at ressurecting the glories of the past. As always (your love and understanding of the silent clowns is well-known in the blogosphere) you do a great job framing the lot, and your tone is one of lamentation, precisely where I stand.

Still, it's true that a Keaton completist must absolutely own the set. Moving from Curly to Shemp wasn't pretty, but the carry overs did have their moments.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for all the comments. I knew the Educationals' reputation, but I grabbed this set as soon as I saw it, in part because I'd been tantalized, like billydaking, by the two included on Keaton Plus, and also because Keaton's career arc fascinates me. In my review, I tried to stress that the main selling point of Lost Keaton wouldn't be conventional entertainment value. The real audience for this collection is the Keaton fandom who want to follow him up from the bottom. The fact that some of these are quite entertaining, depending on your tastes, is a bonus. The Educationals have more entertainment value than the Columbia Keatons, at least, and at least Lamont et al knew better than to have Keaton crying "Help!" a lot.

billydaking: I'm willing to believe that Keaton actually ad-libbed that line on the spot. He delivers it more off-handedly than a lot of his dialogue in these pictures.

Sam J: I don't know if these can be called Keaton's death rattle, since the Columbias were yet to come. Maybe those should be seen as a purgatory before his resurrection.