Go West (1925)

High Steaks

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Go West could be seen as Buster Keaton’s reaction to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid but with the child in question being replaced by none other than a cow in this contemporary era western. The pathos laden film is Keaton’s most innocent picture and one that really tugs the heartstrings in which Friendless (Keaton), an aimless drifter who doesn’t fit in anywhere finds himself working at a ranch where he befriends Brown Eyes, a dairy cow who is tossed in with the beef herd because of her inability to give milk.

Brown Eyes (played by the cow of the same name) is cinema’s first and last bovine movie star (at least to my knowledge). Keaton shares a natural rapport with the animal and the chemistry between the two does come off on-screen. There is a human female in the story (Kathleen Myers) but Brown Eyes is the only woman who wins Friendless’ heart. I do have to ask though is Friendless an early example of a vegetarian since I do personally hold the standard that I can’t become attached to an animal if I eat others in its species. Then again Friendless takes no issue with the rest of the herd going to the slaughterhouse. The naivety and childlike mentality Friendless holds is best portrayed when he discovers Brown Eyes is to be sent to the slaughterhouse along with the other bovine – like a child who has only just discovered there is no Santa Clause. It’s hard not to get a little teary-eyed when man and his cow are separated.

One of the most memorable gags in Go West is the 3-part running gag involving Friendless sitting down at the dinner table just as the other men get up – one of those gags that’s funny even when you know how it’s going to play out. The gag’s third act ends beautifully when Friendless rushes to the table and manages to finish his meal just as the other men sit down, but just look at the face on Keaton as he leaves the table – so elegant and satisfied. The other alpha males on the ranch barely even notice Friendless as they all tower above him, likewise throughout Go West, Friendless is only able to come into possession of a tiny gun, could there be phallic symbolism with this or am I looking into it too much?

Go West features some gorgeous western scenery and landscapes with that hazy shimmer of heat, along with the early adoption of deep focus cinematography and the use of painted backdrops which impressively blend into the real-world background. The climax of Go West involves Friendless trying to navigate herds of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles to be sold at market. The herded insanity itself is impressive considering the logistics that must have gone into filming such a sequence but also the simple sight involving huge herds of cows walking through an urban metropolis is a funny image in itself. Move over John Wayne in Red River, Buster Keaton shows us how to rustle up some cattle!

College (1927)

School Of Hard Knockers

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Buster Keaton goes to college, it’s almost like the jokes write themselves in the classic conflict of jocks vs. nerds to stand alongside Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman as the other great college comedy of the silent era. At the film’s opening Ronald (Keaton) delivers a speech at his high school graduation on how books are more important than sports in perhaps the only instance in which Keaton plays a rather smug character. However, what really makes the speech memorable is that he delivers it while performing what is now recognized as the Michael Jackson anti-gravity lean. Needless to say, the speech is not well received and is followed by one of the most striking images in the film as Ronald and his mother (played by one of cinema’s earliest stars Florence Turner) walk through the torrential rain as the camera pans backwards.

College feels like a time capsule with its use of vintage college insignia and tropes from men wearing sweaters, varsity jackets, soda jerks, dorm rooms and pennant flags. The Los Angles State Normal School fills in the fictional Clayton University and like any college movie, there is no sign of students actually studying or attending classes. As is the case in Keaton’s other features, his motivating factor is all down to the love of a girl, Mary Haynes (Anne Cornwall) is the most popular girl on campus, yet she still has a liking for the dweeb. Keaton – an inspiration and a beacon of light for unpopular kids everywhere.

Watching Ronald attempt and fail at a variety of sports with his two left feet is such a joy to watch (with the location filming in the LA Coliseum providing a great backdrop), however, it’s made especially impressive considering Keaton’s athleticism and acrobatic abilities, it must have been particularly challenging portraying a character who is so uncoordinated when it comes to sports. The print of College featured on the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray features a great contemporary score by Rodney Saur with some terrific recurring motifs and fantastic comic use of fiddles during the film’s baseball scene, making it all the more funny.

One of College’s most memorable scenes involves Ronald disguising himself as a waiter in blackface in order to get a job in a restaurant only hiring “coloured” waiters. Keaton evens performs this doing minstrel show walk (and even manages to roll over 360 degrees while carrying soup and not spilling it). The fact that such a thing is taboo just makes it all the funnier (of course the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray release has to include a content warning). Likewise, the use of slow motion with the gag featuring the umbrella is surreal and out of place, not to mention it doesn’t quite work since everything with the frame slows down and not just Keaton with the umbrella, none the less it in interesting to such an early use of slow motion. The film’s climax even features a Ferris Buller style running sequence as Keaton runs through various residential streets and gardens, followed by the most bizarre ending to any of Keaton’s features and even a somewhat dark yet endearing final shot of tombstones. What! No Beans?

Spite Marriage (1929)

Buster’s Last Gleaming

1929 would see Buster Keaton’s last silent hurrah in the form of Spite Marriage, bringing to an end a decade of astonishing creativity for the great stone face – creativity that one would never be seen again.

Spite Marriage sees Keaton playing a character who is less naïve and more dumb. While this doesn’t hurt the movie in any way you can see how Keaton’s creative control was being watered down at the hands of MGM. Near the end of the film an insert shot of a newspaper article reveals the full name of Buster’s character in Spite Marriage to be Elmer Gantry – why he shares the same name at the titular character from the famous Sinclair Lewis novel is unclear. The object of affection for Elmer in Spite Marriage is the mean and manipulative Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian,) who has a role which is less passive than Keaton’s other girls as she uses the dim-witted Elmer to her advantage. Keaton and Sebastian were reportedly having an affair at the time thus to question how genuine their on-screen interaction is.

spitemarriage

The playhouse at the centre of the film’s first half is putting on a Civil War lost cause melodrama, humorously complete with courageous, noble Confederate soldiers and overtly evil yanks. According to the DVD commentary, the play presented may be inspired by the 1895 play The Heart of Maryland by David Belasco. This assertion is also backed up by backdrops in the playhouse being printed with the words “Bosco Stock Company”.

Spite Marriage is more Chaplinesque than Keaton during the film’s first half from Elmer’s poor attempt to apply makeup to the mayhem he causes on stage during the stage play. The film’s most celebrated sequence is that of Elmer attempting to put knocked out Trilby to bed (good enough to inspire the film Roman Holiday some 24 years later). The sexy scene takes as much physical work on Dorothy Sebastian as it does Keaton, handling it like a pro as Keaton carries her like a ragdoll – I can only imagine how rehearsals for such a scene must have gone. Likewise, I feel the film’s synchronized sound effects do enhance the comedy from the cartoonish sound of Keaton walking to the squeak when Keaton is about to cut his ear with scissors when attempting to apply the fake facial hair.

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The film’s second half is more familiar Keaton territory in a section which harkens back to The Navigator. Sadly Spite Marriage is disappointingly light on stunt work. It’s clear MGM did not want to take risks on their contract star and the film commits the sin of having a stunt man take the place of Keaton. As a result Spite Marriage misses out on being top tier Keaton but the film is still a very pleasurable slice of comedy to bring film’s silent era to a close.

The Cameraman (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Cameraman is my 2nd favourite Buster Keaton feature after Sherlock Jr. A film which manages to hit every beat and even MGM themselves believed in the film enough that it became their comedy training film for new writers as the example of a perfect comedy; I can’t argue with that. Like the aforementioned Sherlock Jr, The Cameraman reflects a fascination with filmmaking in which Keaton has to act like he doesn’t know anything about the anatomy of a camera.

Once again Keaton (playing a character conveniently called Buster) is competing for dominance and the love of a woman in a world of alpha males. What makes the relationship between Buster and love interest Sally (Marceline Day) work so well? Her sympathy, or the fact that she is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t act like a complete jerk towards Buster, even the bell boy at the fictionalised MGM newsreel department is a jerk to him when Buster simply asks about the woman in his photograph despite him being a super sweet guy. Does MGM want people thinking their newsreel department is full of pricks? Or is it the little things such as her first encounter with Buster when he first bumps into her he smells her hair and goes into a trance without her noticing. You can feel the chemistry between them from their body language and even from close-ups of the two starring at each other. Likewise, there is the relatability of any man who has tried to impress a girl only for his effort to be a failure by the presence of a bigger, stronger man. – Plus there is the adorable factor from seeing the two of them together. When Buster gets a kiss from Sally as he leaves her off at an apartment and then walks away in the rain with a sense of elation has Singin’ In The Rain vibes; was Gene Kelly inspired by this?

The Cameraman is one of those rare films which is comprised of one great moment after another. The scene in Yankee Stadium, for example, has no effect on the rest of the plot but there’s no justification required in order to watch Keaton’s athletic prowess as he pretends to play baseball by himself.  Likewise, the sequence on the stairs is a wonder of Keaton’s ability to use the frame in what looks like to modern eyes as a 2D platforming video game. Another superb use of this comes in the pool sequence in which Sally walking by the poolside in a swimsuit then suddenly all of the men get out of the pool entering from the bottom of the frame out of nowhere. Likewise, keep an eye out for the on-screen nudity.  This sequence also gives arise to possibly the most bizarre moment in The Cameraman in which Keaton after losing his bathing suit in the pool begins eyeing a woman wearing an excessive bathing suit and starts approaching her while Jaws-like music plays (as part of the wonderfully quirky modern score by Arthur Barrow). Off-screen he steals the suit but we never see how; just what exactly did he do to her? It’s both creepy and funny at the same time.

I have to ask if automobiles back then were designed for use in comedy such as an open top double decker bus which creates so many possibilities for physical comedy. However the most oddly designed vehicle present in The Cameraman has to be the 1927 LaSalle Convertible Coupe Fisher with its seat on the back of the car separate from the main seats of the vehicle. The seat is already inherently de-emasculating by itself, even worse when your girl is at the front with another guy and you’re completely cut off from them because the roof is up to protect them against the rain. Oh yeah, that’s another thing, when it rains you have no protection. Again I have to ask, was this vehicle designed for use in comedy?

The Tong War is among one of the greatest of Keaton spectacles with its large-scale carnage and extras galore; plus I do love the fascinating underworld of the tongs and opium dens as a setting. The moment in which Keaton is confronted by gangsters and is cornered is one of those oh so glorious “how is he going to get out of this?!” moments. By the end of the film, Keaton goes through so much misfortune that you badly want to see him succeed in the end. In the end, he gets his sweet, satisfying revenge while the douche who takes credit for rescue Sally from the out of control speedboat gets his comeuppance. The revenge is unintentionally obtained but more than very well deserved.

Our Hospitality (1923)

Deliverance

All of Buster Keaton’s silent films had a beauty and a grace to them, but Our Hospitality exemplifies this best. A mini-epic, full of beautiful, lush scenery and landscape shots; visually speaking, I consider this to be Keaton’s best film. Take the film’s finale as an example, as Keaton walks along the edge of a cliff with huge forest backdrops stretching as far as the eye can see or the equally as impressive sequence in which an entire dam is blown up. But the sequence which best showcases this idealised look at 1830’s America is the supreme majesty of the steam locomotive sequence; a predecessor to what would come in The General. This is one of the greatest sequences Keaton ever captured on film, with the music score on the Thames Silent’s version giving it (as well as the film as a whole), an even greater sense of awe. Filming as well the construction of such large-scale props must have been no easy feat. It’s a sequence which is beautiful, funny and thrilling at the same time, filled with so many inventive sight gags. When Keaton’s top hat doesn’t fit on his head in the locomotive carriage, he puts on his iconic pork pie hat; that’s more like it! It’s a bumpy unstable ride to say the least, and even has a dog chasing it throughout for that extra bit of amusement

The set up of Our Hospitality is the type of melodrama which was rife during the silent period (and what Keaton himself parodied in his short The Frozen North). One family has a feud with another which lasts from one generation to the next, and nobody remembers what caused the feud to begin with (“Men of one family grew up killing men of another for no other reason expect their fathers had done so”). Ah simple but effective naivety; why can’t we all just get along?

Keaton’s birthplace is not stated during the film, but it’s clearly located in Appalachia, prior to his character being sent to New York for a better upbringing; Keaton the sophisticated New Yorker vs. hillbilly red necks. Yep, we have a movie here ripe with hillbilly stereotypes. On top of tapping into the Appalachian cultural stereotype of feuding families, there are plenty of guns stored in the Canfield house, but when they’re not allowed to use them due to their comical dedication to be hospitable, they just ask the townspeople to borrow a gun. Likewise in another scene, Keaton sees a husband abusing his wife, steps in and throws the husband aside, yet the wife starts attacking Keaton himself. Keaton then runs away, followed by the husband ordering the wife back into the house. Ah, the glorious lack of political correctness.

Three Ages (1923)

History of the World, Part I

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Three Ages is one of the earliest spoof movies, a feature-length parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, cutting between three different historical periods in which in men set about obtaining the love of a woman. The Stone Age portions of the film are a fantasy stone age in which people wear fur, carry clubs and man and dinosaur live side by side and there is even a sequence with a stop-motion dinosaur; I wish I could see more of it. Three Ages long precedes The Flintstones with its use of anachronisms; with clever stone age equivalents of modern days things such as the turtle operated ‘wee-gee board’. Likewise just like in a D.W. Griffith film, the Rome featured in Three Ages actually looks vast and expansive while featuring the most amusing chariot race ever complete with sleds and huskies. It’s moments like these which give Three Ages a sense of cuteness and innocence to it.

The role of a caveman is perfect for Wallace Beery, Keaton’s more manly opponent. Many of Keaton’s films show him with a feminine side and this is particularly true with the stone age portions of Three Ages, not just with his rivalry with Wallace Beery but also in a scene in the stone age in which he is overpowered by a woman bigger and stronger than him whom the audience is led to believe is a man to begin with. Yet the prevalence of gender-bending is taken a step further in one of the modern age portions of the film in which the wife of a household whom is dressed like a man has the final say on who marries her daughter. Do girls like bad boys or nice sensitive guys? Buster Keaton films would have you believe the latter. Margaret Leahy is Keaton’s leading lady in Three Ages, an actress came to Hollywood because of a beauty competition and supposedly couldn’t act. The filmmakers appear to work their way around this as her performance largely consists of just mildly reacting to things.

Unlike Keaton’s other silent films, Three Ages has a larger emphasis on non-slapstick gags and not as much stunt work. The film still has one major def defying stunt sequence in which he failed to make a leap between two buildings; however, this happy accident resulted in a pure classic Keaton stunt sequence as he effortlessly descends several stories through a building. Likewise, the finale of stopping a wedding at the last minute is such a cliché but Keaton manages to put an unexpected spin on it. It would be easy for a film like Three Ages to be cynical and pessimistic but like Keaton’s other work it’s optimistic in the end.  The three Keatons go through much hardship and pain but through much perseverance, they get the girl in the end.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It’s a Scene Right Down on Sunset Boulevard

Despite Louis B. Mayer’s comments to Billy Wilder that “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” – I feel Sunset Boulevard enhanced the Hollywood mythos. Who knows what Norma Desmonds may have existed; crazed celebrity lunatics living in their run-down ghostly mansions in the Hollywood area, not just back then but in the decades which have followed. However, the film also makes you feel sentimental for the silent era, that something really was lost when Hollywood made the transition to sound.

Gloria Swanson’s role as Norma Desmond is my favourite female performance of all time. Overblown, over the top, flamboyant, fantastic! A performance which could have been unintentionally comical (ala John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe) but her insanity can be taken completely seriously; same goes for her butler Maxilillian played by Erich von Stroheim. In many ways she is that character, as Gloria Swanson has even said so herself; just looks at her reactions to watching her own pictures. Desmond is a character whose relevance for the modern world has not been lost, in an age when people are obsessed with celebrity, youth, and beauty more than ever. Likewise, Cecil B. deMille’s performance feels entirely genuine, as if two old friends have just met for the first time in years.

I also find the dynamic shared between William Holden and Gloria Swanson to be of fascination; an older woman seducing a much younger man who eventually gives into her when in classic Hollywood films it was often the other way around. It’s clear from their actions as the film progresses the two characters are likely sleeping with each other, such as Joe happily flaunting his shirtless body in front of Norma by the poolside and she even starts drying him with a towel; there is a bit of Mrs. Robinson to her.

Sunset Boulevard is possibly the most quotable film of its genre, although none its lines have become as famous in the pop culture lexicon as a film like say Casablanca, in which everyone knows its famous quotes whether or not they’ve seen the film or are even interested in classic cinema. Yet among circles of classic Hollywood fans, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most widely quoted films in discussions. Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrates the film despite his character being dead but it still works in an otherworldly way, like he’s narrating from the afterlife. Holden holds an ideal narration voice to showcase Billy Wilder’s ability to turn exposition into poetry. Likewise, Buster Keaton’s appearance may be my favourite celebrity film cameo ever; there’s something about his reaction when playing poker (“pass!”).

For as cynical a film as Sunset Boulevard is, ultimately it is a movie for movie lovers. Particularly the scene in which Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis of how there is no shame working behind the camera while walking through the empty back stages of Paramount Studios at night as she tells him about her childhood spending time on studio back lots, is very life-affirming. It’s such a beautiful and romantic scene; it’s easy why these two were paired in several films together. Olson’s character is the opposite of Norma Desmond, humble and down to Earth, not concerned with her looks or fame and fortune; and unlike Norma she can actually write movie scripts.

Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Silent Perfection

I’m not a silent film aficionado, I’m more of a tourist when it comes to this era of filmmaking. Sherlock Jr. is the only silent film I’ve ever awarded a perfect five-star rating and I doubt I will ever come across another silent movie as fun, thrilling, inventive or as mind-blowing as Sherlock Jr.; in my view Buster Keaton’s crowning achievement. Most of Keaton’s silent output is great but even by his impeccable standards, Sherlock Jr. goes beyond the call of duty. It’s more surreal and avant-garde than his other work with Keaton plays a wannabe detective who gets to go into the cinema screen and live out his fantasy as a great detective. Like an audience member watching a movie, Keaton’s character gets to escape the real world and be what you can’t be in real life. Sherlock Jr. captures the magic of cinema like few other films have and at an economic length of only 44 minutes, it’s a film you can pop on any time.

The special effects on display here blow my mind every time. Just how did he do that stuff? Part of me doesn’t want to know in order to keep the mystery alive. Perhaps a special effect isn’t so special if you look at it and can and immediately know who they did it. CGI can take a back seat! These are true special effects. Keaton’s trademark of physical humor and stunt work is on full display here with the film’s climactic chase sequence being nothing short of astounding. It is my second favourite high-speed pursuit in a movie after the final car chase in The Blues Brothers. The gags and stunts in this film never cease to amaze me and always take me by surprise no matter how times I watch the film. I also must give props to the fantastic jazzy, noir-like score of the Thames Silent’s print of the film, and is it just me or is that James Bond music at exactly 39 minutes and 56 seconds in?

You know all the cliché terms people throw around in movie reviews: “timeless”, “classic”, “ahead of its time”. If there was ever a movie which completely deserved them then this is it.

The High Sign (1921)

Keaton Komedy Klassic

The ‘High Sign’ has to be my favourite Buster Keaton short and it just so happens to be the first independent film Keaton produced, giving birth to his iconic unnamed character. However, Keaton himself was disappointed with the film and didn’t release it until the following year instead of making “One Week” his first solo short. I question why though as I feel the premise of The ‘High Sign’ is one of Keaton’s most inspired and possibly even worthy of being used as a set up for a feature. It’s true what they say, the artist is often wrong about their own work.

The opening prologue of The High Sign states “Our hero came from Nowhere- he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere”; and considering his superhuman stunts he’s like an alien who just landed on Earth. This opening prologue reminds me of a statement Roger Ebert made in his review of The General; “[Keaton] seems like a modern visitor to the world of silent clowns”

The ‘High Sign’ packs in so much humor and gags into its 20 minutes such as his set up with the dog, meat and string (it’s hard to explain); it’s like something Mr. Bean would come up with. The short also features the earliest example I’ve seen in film of a recurring gag with the high sign itself, a secret signal between gangsters. Keaton even messes with the audience’s expectation for comic effect by having himself walk past a banana peel on the ground only to not slip on it. Likewise, the short’s finale is a real “How did they do that?” sequence. The house with its traps and secret hatches is an astounding piece of set design and when all the rooms appear on screen at once which Keaton jumping between them, it reminds me of a 2D video game. I was laughing, in awe and even shocked (when the gangster’s neck is closed on the door) all at once. There is even a customer at one point who has quite a resemblance to Charlie Chaplin.

I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again; the genius of Buster Keaton will never cease to amaze me.