What is the most iconic image of Buster Keaton’s filmography? It would have to be that from Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which the front facade of a house falls on top of Keaton, only for him to be standing in the right spot so the space for the attic window spares him from serious injury or possibly even death. This stunt had also been performed in the earlier short films Back Stage and One Week but on a smaller and less death-defying scale. It certainly would have taken a mathematical mind to locate the precise spot for Keaton to stand in order to avoid possible death. This is the one image of Keaton’s catalogue that is recognizable to those who have never seen a Keaton picture, and possibly second only to the sight of Harold Lloyd hanging off the clock hands in Safety Last! as the most iconic image of the silent era. Set in the fictional River Junction, Mississippi (although filmed in Sacramento, California), Steamboat Bill, Jr. can be considered the final entry in a trilogy of Keaton films set in the American south alongside Our Hospitality and The General. However, even with the opening shot of cotton fields and the central prominence of a Mississippi paddle steamer named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is lighter on the use of southern iconography but still showcases Keaton’s fascination with this corner of The United States.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. has some of the strongest characterizations and relationships in a Keaton picture, with the father-son relationship between William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr. (Ernest Torrence) and his estranged son William Canfield, Jr. (Keaton) being at the heart of the film. Bill, Jr. is a bohemian, city slicker, hipster at odds with his gruff, salt of the earth, working-class father and captain of the Stonewall Jackson. What makes the relationship endearing comes from their awkward interactions with each other and the manner in which Bill, Sr. treats his son like a little boy and not a grown man – holding and dragging him by the hand, taking him to the barber and slapping Bill, Jr’s hand away while browsing for hats in a clothing store. Sr. has the potential to come off as an unlikeable character and an antagonist but the film does an effective job of creating sympathy for the father by presenting him as an honest, hard-working businessman who has landed on tough times and has a genuine delight that comes from the prospect of seeing his son for the first time since he was a baby. Even after Sr’s unjust arrest, Jr. still chooses to rescue his father despite having previously lost his temper with him and then forcing his son back to Boston – family comes first.
While physical and visual comedy is normally the main showcase in a Keaton picture (this is the silent era after all), Steamboat Bill, Jr. does have two great examples of verbal, pantomime exchanges. Firstly is Sr’s endearingly comic outburst over continually stepping on peanuts shells which his son has split over the floor by referring to him as “cocoanut shells”, and more significantly is the scene in the jailhouse in which Jr. attempts to smuggle in a loaf of bread with escape tools hidden inside. This leads to a very playful verbal exchange between father and son regarding the bread only for the tools to eventfully fall out before it could have been given to his father (“That must have happened when the dough fell in the tool chest”). It’s also worth noting that in the film’s contemporary score by Carl Davis, this scene features the use of electric guitars in the score, which it’s unique hearing a contemporary instrument, one which hadn’t even been invented at the time of the film’s release.
The love interest in Steamboat Bill, Jr. comes in the form of the very energetic Marion Bryon as Kitty King, whom is by far the most developed Keaton girl and the one instance in which the girl goes after him rather than the other way around. The film’s romance is in the vein of Romeo & Juliet, with Kitty’s father and rival to Bill, Sr., John James King (Tom McGuire), the owner of the “floating palace” of a steamboat known simply as the King in this classic story of big business vs the little guy. King even has the influence to get the Stonewall Jackson shut down by the authorities however come the end David beats Goliath, as humble Stonewall Jackson is the only steamboat to have survived the ensuing hurricane.
Yes, the hurricane, the highly ambitious 14-minute finale of Steamboat Bill, Jr. The sequence feels like a predecessor to the disaster movie genre with the sheer levels of onscreen destruction as entire buildings fall apart (including the aforementioned falling house facade) and in some cases are even raised into the sky as this southern town is gone with the wind (ba-dum-tiss!). Yet while the sequence is thrilling to watch, there is a real beauty to it and has the elegance of a ballet (I can easily forgive the effect of the uprooted tree blowing in the wind not being entirely successful with its portrayal of gravity). During this storm (and despite it) Keaton is even given the opportunity to pay tribute to his own vaudeville past when he enters what remains of a theatre, as he plays around with the various theatre props. I do have to ask just how many wind and rain machines had to be employed to create such a sequence. There are no elaborate post-production techniques (bar an animated electric effect when Bill Jr. touches a live wire), everything you see on screen is real. Nearly 100 years later and Hollywood is making entire movies within green screen rooms. Oh, how the mighty have fallen from grace.
It’s a curious contradiction that it takes a man as athletic as Buster Keaton to convincingly play a man so unathletic and clumsy in the prizefighting romp Battling Butler. Keaton, whose training came from vaudeville and later slapstick comedy shorts, had a knack for playing pampered, effete young millionaires. If anything, Keaton never looked more dapper than he does in Battling Butler, in particular during the first half of the picture in which he exhibits an array of exquisitely groomed, 1920’s gentlemen’s attire for hunting and fishing. This was from a time when boxing was a gentleman’s sport before becoming the realm of the working-class underdog.
Of all Keaton’s silent features, Battling Butler is held in the least regard and is arguably the least viewed in contemporary times. Even back in the day was unable to get my hands on the film until I finally found a copy on a lesser-known video-sharing site. I agree Battling Butler is one of Keaton’s weaker works; however, lesser Keaton is still great Keaton in my book. That said, the film does have a slightly more anodyne feel to it. The premise is quite contrived and upon watching the film again after many years, I did get frustrated at times with its contrivance although I was able to become more accepting of it on further viewings. The basic gist: Albert Butler (Keaton) assumes the identity of a prizefighter who shares his same name (Francis MacDonald), in order to prove to his mountain girl (Sally O’Neil) and her family that is a real man (I will refer to MacDonald’s character as the “Other Butler” for the rest of the review to avoid confusion). One contrivance for example which is never addressed is how the crowd at the train station mistakes the Butler for the Other Butler. One could assume this was a ploy organized by Albert and his valet since the crowd makes their way to a house where Albert and his mountain girl are wed, but the movie never makes this clear. The plot of Battling Butler falls into the category of those which could not happen in a world of the internet, mass media, bureaucracy and surveillance. For example, the mountain girl and her family can only follow his supposed fight over the radio. With television only a few decades later, the whole premise falls flat.
That said, if you suspend your disbelief, Battling Butler still delivers the usual Keaton goods, such as the comic use of mise-en-scene with the placement of props during the camping trip from the film’s first act, including a polar bear rug and a bedroom panel inside Albert’s tent – you know, the usual camping essentials. Furthermore, the skit of Albert trying to shoot a submerging duck only a few feet away while standing up in a tiny kayak is reminiscent of an Elmer Fudd scenario in a Looney Tunes short, with the obviously fake duck prop making the moment even more comical. I also appreciate the use of The Funeral March of The Marionette (aka the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents) in the film’s contemporary score by Robert Israel, when Albert is shown an ambulance and stretcher before the picture’s climactic fight. However, once Keaton dawns the boxing gloves, the best of the film’s comedy shines through. Buster Keaton training to become a prizefighter is a natural haven of comic possibilities as the weakling Albert knows jack about hand-to-hand combat and exhibits basic failures of hand-to-eye coordination. The recurring pratfall of Albert getting tangled and trapped in the boxing ring ropes like a ragdoll is one of the film’s physical comedy highlights and like the greatest Keaton stunts it has you asking “how does he manage to do that?” (one thing I do wish is that the movie had shown more of was that ridiculous-looking punch bag, mannequin with the flailing arms). However, when Keaton actually appears in boxing shorts, his surprisingly muscular physique is apparent, rather than the skin and bones we would expect from a character like Alfred Butler – I guess Keaton wasn’t prepared to go all Christian Bale in The Machinist for the role. As for the Other Butler, any sympathy that is created for the character from having both another man profit from impersonating him and having an unfaithful wife (who tries to have an affair with Alfred Butler), becomes undone through some unseen domestic violence in which his wife is shown to have received a black eye in by far the film’s darkest joke.
The boxing arena featured in Battling Butler is the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles (which still stands today as a place of worship for the Glory Church of Jesus Christ). The cinematography employed for the scenes inside the auditorium are particularly impressive with the use of deep focus and a single heavenly spotlight from above (alongside the golden glow of the film’s sepia tone tinting). The Olympic Auditorium has its own extensive history with motion pictures, being used as a shooting location for both Rocky and Raging Bull. Speaking of the later film, Battling Butler and its final fight does have one huge admirer, none other than Martin Scorsese himself. Scorsese points to the fight as one of the biggest inspirations to getting the “feel” of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull just right according to the book Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, with Scorsese quoting that Keaton is “the only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies“. The fight in question is not the fight the film tricks the audience into thinking it is building momentum towards, in which Albert must face off against the intimidating figure of The Alabama Murderer, of which it initially feels disappointing that we are never actually treated to. Rather the climatic fight is a backroom brawl between the two Butlers. It is uncharacteristic for Keaton to triumph using brute force rather than through ingenuity but this break from Keaton tradition does work in a number of ways. For starters, the fight itself does look authentic and the punches look real while the footage does not appear to have been sped up (you can see why Scorsese would have been attracted to it). Secondly, it is a huge turning point in Alfred’s character, when he has been pushed beyond his limits to his breaking point after the Other Bulter taunts him (think of how George McFly knocks out Biff Tannen in Back To The Future after George has been pushed to his breaking point). In a convincing show of strength, Alfred knocks out the Other Butler, and thus Alfred’s journey is now complete. He is now a man and worthy of his woman.
What struck me most on my first viewing of House (or Hausu)was that alongside the film’s sheer over-the-top, phantasmagoric madness, I found the whole thing to be weirdly endearing. Initially, I was concerned I was getting into something awfully pretentious but I was able to surrender myself to the fact that I was watching a film which employees a different filmmaking technique in just about every scene. House has one of themost cliché of horror movie premises, yet it gives way to one of the most unique and weirdest viewing experiences with descriptions ranging from “Evil Dead on steroids” to “a Scooby-Doo episode directed by Mario Bava” – perhaps no other film holds a better claim to the title of being “one wild and crazy ride”.
Japan’s reputation for “WTFness” could make House a film easy to dismiss, however, there is a method to the madness. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was a director of commercials before taking on the mantle of House, and the artifice of commercials is all over the film alongside (pre-MTV) music video style editing, of which I’m sure it’s no coincidence that House was shot using the 4:3 aspect ratio – the aesthetics of House are all about the embrace of artifice. A film of contradictions, House is an art-house film (or art-hausu film one could say, ba-tum-tiss!) and one which was reportedly a huge success with the youth demographic in Japan upon its release (with the film’s extraction of sex appeal from its young female stars as well as nudity in several scenes may have got many young men into the theatres). In this regard it’s also worth mentioning House stands out as it is uncommon for Japanese films to have an English language title. Yet at the same time House symbolizes a return to tradition, a rejection of realism in 1970’s cinema. Right from the opening prologue, the movie proclaims in the vintage Broadway font what you are about to see is “A Movie Presentation”. This is part of the reason why beyond its scenes with killer futons, man-eating pianos and decapitated heads biting girls on the derrière, House is as I previously mentioned, weirdly endearing – the director’s love for cinema comes through and feels like a celebration of the medium. If I were to compare House to another film it would have to be Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Both films celebrate the art form with their use of special effects which blur the line between reality and fantasy with both also featuring a movie within a movie. House has a Technicolor-look reminiscent of the work of Jack Cardiff with its use of deep, saturated colour with the film’s colour scheme remains largely consistent throughout with its use of oranges, reds and blues and being a horror picture, it does have that autumnal/Halloween vibe (even though it is set during the summer). Speaking of, as a horror film is House actually scary? Well, this measure is subjective of course but I did personally jump at the reveal of severed head of the character Mac as well as Gorgeous’ giant profile suddenly entering to the screen from the right.
House is like a feature-length dream with its mad array of images. The images from the film were conjured from the mind of a child, Obayashi’s pre-teen daughter Chigumi Obayashi (who does receive a conceptual credit and even has a cameo in the film as a shoemaker). I am dubious of having a child being a film’s creative consultant since the last movie I saw to do so was those dreadful Robert Rodriguez Spy Kids films but in House, this influence works and another aspect which makes the film endearing. To anyone who has never seen House, it’s difficult to put into words just how insane a film this is without sounding melodramatic. This encyclopedia of movie storytelling and its array of practical special effects wizardry is a joy to behold from primitive blue screen to the use of stop motion – there are a few films in which an obscene amount of effort is put into every shot. On the other hand, there are sections of House which do have a chilled-out nature to them and the cheesy vibes of Beach Party film. Just a warning that several sequences in the film do contain strobe lighting effects (as if the Japanese weren’t content enough with giving people seizures through Pokémon episodes). Upon my third viewing of House, I did find myself becoming more desensitized to its bizarre nature and more understanding the filmmakers’ mindset on how they could have created something like this. That said, where Mr. Togo’s transformation into a pile of bananas and the bear wearing the chef outfit fit into the grander scheme of things I can’t explain. I guess you got to have some randomness for randomness’ sake.
House follows seven girls each named after a single personality trait- Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, Sweet and Melody. At the beginning of their summer break, they decide to spend some time at the country house of Gorgeous’ aunt, where all is not what it seems. The story does play as an inverse of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, seven girls each defined by a single personality trait, show up at a house in the middle of nowhere which is in need of cleaning, owned by an old woman who lives alone. Of the ensemble, Gorgeous is the closet to the film having a protagonist as she has a clearly defined arc, beginning with a subplot involving her father attempting to bring a stepmother into the family and freeing his daughter from domestic chores such as ironing his shirts in a story right out of a Yasujirō Ozu film. Even in the film’s opening scene, a teacher mentions how she is having an arranged marriage during the summer, a topic often explored in Ozu’s work. The only girl in the group named after a purely negative trait (and of course, she dies first) is the gluttonous Mac (derived from the English word “stomach”), although fantasy itself holds its negative aspects, My favourite of the group however has to be alpha in the form of Kung Fu, whose speciality skill leads to several very humorous (whether intentional or not) fight scenes against an array of moving objects.
Acting as a mascot for House with its prominence in promotional material is the white ragdoll cat that joins the girls on their adventure (good kitty!). Cats hold a supernatural significance in Japan and it’s evident the cat in House is doing the bidding of a witch, even preventing Mr. Togo from joining the girls at the house to potentially rescue them. This witch in question is the aunt (Yōko Minamida) herself who proves to be an interesting figure. She has an ominous ghostly look to her and is portrayed in the mould of the classic Yurei, a ghost from Japanese folklore that cannot pass onto the afterlife. She is also vampiric in nature, wearing tinted glasses when going outside, and feeling unwell after being in the sun not to mention the interior of her house is very dark. Oddest of all, she feels revitalized by the presence of the girls which allows herself to not require the use of her wheelchair. The aunt is a Willy Wonka-like figure and the house is her factory as the girls are taken out one by one by the house itself, much of this done through the watchful eye of Gorgeous assuming the mantle of her aunt, becoming possessed by her in act of metamorphosis. Like the kids in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, it’s not made clear if the girls are actually killed literally or just in a metaphorical sense. Usually, in slasher films, the young people are killed as a comeuppance for their promiscuous actions, but do the girls in House deserve what they receive? One of the film’s themes and one which is confirmed by the director is how the trauma of World War II still affects the aunt whose finance never returned from the war and correspondingly how the seven girls take their peacetime living for granted. To quote Obayashi; “These girls born after the war and therefore unaware of how precious peace is, come to the house on summer vacation. The old woman’s bitterness about the war turns into an evil spirit and devours the girls”. This taking of peace for granted is showcased during the movie within a movie, in which a flash from a camera cuts to an atomic cloud, to which one of the girls makes the trite comment, “That looks like cotton candy”. This is at least the case with the subtitles on the US Criterion Collection release. On the UK Masters Of Cinema release, there are no subtitles on this shot even though giddy chatter from the girls can be heard. Speaking of subtitle differences between these two aforementioned releases, in the scene introducing Gorgeous’ father, a film composer who has just returned from Italy after working with Sergio Leone, his line of dialogue in the Criterion release states the rather unbelievable comment “Leone said my music was better than Morricone’s”. However, in the Masters Of Cinema release, the line is the less dramatic “Both Leone and Morricone liked it very much”. Is someone taking liberties in the translation process?
Of the various interpretations of House, that which strikes me the most is the film being a coming-of-age tale of Gorgeous’ urge to stay a young woman and refusal to enter womanhood. As the house eats the young girls, blood erupts from it, the blood of menstruation – a symbol of womanhood triumphing over youth. It’s also worth noting the blood in question comes from the cat, an alternative name for a cat is a…, ok you know what I mean. Likewise, when people are young they will have certain friends and as they become older they may move on from these friends as a result of maturity. Gorgeous’ dying friends can be seen to represent this while her stepmother going up in flames in the film’s final scene could be viewed as her lack of need for a mother figure in adulthood. I have read theories bringing this theory to greater extremes of analyses, in particular, an extensive write-up on the now defunct (but thankfully archived) IMDB boards in which a user by the name of nemuro8 proposes the seven girls all represent aspects of puberty (I’m not sure if I buy into it but it’s food for thought); “Fantasy represents naivety and the fear of the change. Mac represents hormonal changes with her increased appetite. Sweet represents the desire to fill expectations and the role of domestic life. Melody represents creativity and the desire to have fun. Kung-Fu represents courage and brashness. Prof represents logic and leadership. Gorgeous represents vanity and beauty.”
The soundtrack to House (which was released before the film had even entered production) deserves a review in its own regard as it works as a cohesive album rather than just a collection of songs (with most but not all of the tracks you wouldn’t guess are from a horror film). The jovial main theme of the film has a section with a superb synthesized rendition of the melody, which is only heard briefly in the film itself. Hungry House Blues on the other hand is a delta blues style track that only appears very briefly in the picture, however, this version on the soundtrack is a whooping 6 minutes long complete with plenty of slide guitar action and even has vocals in the style of a 1930’s Mississippian black man (who provided these vocals?). Buggy Boogie is a piece of early ’60s, rockabilly cheese while The Beach Boys style Cherries Were Made For Eating is a real uplifting, banger of a choon, provided by the band Godiego (whom makes a cameo in the film as the song is being played). Eat is in a way the defacto theme of Kung Fu, as the piece is played every time she gets involved in her trademark skill – a good piece if you need a quick dose of adrenaline and the one track which has an undeniably funky, 70’s sound. In The Evening Midst is the most profound track and the real centrepiece of both the film and album, an instrumental played by Melody several times throughout the film which acts as a relief to the horror surrounding it. The track feels similar to the piano melodies from David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and ends on a beautiful crescendo (it’s also worth noting, this piano melody does bear a striking resemblance to the piano riff on the song Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance). The final track of both the album and film is titled House Love Theme, this Beatles-like calm after the storm which feels reminiscent of Abbey Road side B. This is the only song in House which actually features Japanese lyrics of which I am unable to find a translation of thus I can’t comment if the lyrics actually hold any thematic relevance to the film.
House is the kind of film to be watched on the big screen at a midnight showing alongside the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It does feel like was designed and destined to become one of the ultimate cult films. I do find myself fascinated by films such as this which remained unknown in the west for decades before obtaining a mass following. Of the film’s 149 reviews on IMDB, only 14 were written prior to the film’s first North American release in 2009. It makes you wonder what’s still out there…
By all indications, Gigi should be a musical masterpiece, the last hurrah of Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Freed Unit and yet, it took me several viewing attempts to actually sit through Gigi in its entirety, extracting as much appreciation as I can from what the film has to offer. While there are aspects of this musical vacation I enjoy, there is a synergy derived from one of the film’s songs which sums up this disappointing production, the ironically titled It’s A Bore.
So how did a major Hollywood movie about a girl being trained to become a prostitute get made in 1958? The film is full of gags about the French stereotype of impropriety however the film doesn’t outright state that Gilberte “Gigi” (Leslie Caron) is being trained to become a courtesan and a less in-tune viewer looking at the film from an anglo-centric perspective as opposed to a continental one may just think she is receiving lessons in etiquette. One of the film’s more successful elements is its (often dark) Ernst Lubitsch-style comedy from casual conversation on Laine d’Exelman’s (Eva Gabor) failed suicide attempts to Gigi’s mentally ill, off-screen mother’s out-of-tune singing. The other aspect of the film tying it to Lubitsch is the casting of the ever charming epitome of Frenchness, Lubitsch pre-code regular Maurice Chevalier. However, when it comes to the film’s two leads, Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan as Gigi’s eventual love interest Gaston Lachaille, I’m not seeing many sparks. They make for a decent pairing but I’m never left thinking these two were made for each other nor am I dying to see them end up together. This romance fails to create any real conflict in the story nor does Gaston’s boredom with everyday life or Gigi’s disdain for her training and the Parisian obsession with love. Gigi’s age is never stated however Caron was 26 at the time of filming yet she looks like a girl in her teens and like Ginger Rogers in The Major and The Minor, it is an impressive transition (in earlier films she looked older).
Ah Paris, the preferred setting of every romantic comedy made in the ’50s and ’60s. Gigi does deliver the goods with a slice of turn-of-the-century nostalgia (if only the characters knew they would have two world wars ahead of them, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys). However, this world is captured using Metrocolor which was never as visually eye-popping as Technicolor (nor was any colour process post-Technicolor). Compare Gigi with earlier Vincente Minnelli-directed musicals such as Meet Me In St Louis or An American In Paris and there is a clear downgrade in aesthetic beauty. Despite this (as well as some less than stellar rear projection during It’s a Bore number) Minnelli was one of the best directors when it came to the ability to compose shots (or mise-en-scène to use a pretentious French term) that look like paintings. Gigi does contain some stunning frames from Gaston’s silhouette at the fountain to any of the shots within the Grandmother’s apartment in which the bright red background beautifully contrasts Gigi’s blue dress. The real-world locations also give the picture a big boast from the Ice Palace skating rink (the former Palais des Glaces) to the interior of Gaston’s home which was filmed inside an actual museum (Musée Jacquemart-Andre).
The lush orchestrations of the MGM Studio Orchestra do deliver the goods however none of the songs has me rushing out to listen to the film’s soundtrack (while Thank Heaven For Little Girls doesn’t help matters with its unintentionally creepy lyrics). Gigi is an all singing but no dancing affair; there is no hoofer action and the cast sings while walking, riding or just sitting down (The Night They Invented Champagne being the only number with a brief stint of dancing). On top of that, Gigi also lacks any grand finale like the ballet in An American In Paris. Come the conclusion I was left with the reaction of “that’s it?”. What a legacy the MGM musicals left behind, it’s just a shame they went out not with a bang but with a whimper.
Much of the beauty of Buster Keaton’s films comes from their simplicity. Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) learns he will inherit 7 million dollars (105 million in 2019) providing he is married by the evening of his 27th birthday. Jimmie is not yet married and it just so turns out, his 27th birthday is today (the only question I would pose about the premise is how they define “by the evening” as being 7 o’clock but I digress). Seven Chances is split into two distinct sections, the preamble and then the action-orientated second half. The picture is only 56 minutes long and the pacing is just about perfect in this Metro-Goldwyn Production (just before the Mayer was thrown in). Seven Chances is one of three Keaton features which sees him play a rich nitwit, similar to the characters he would play in The Navigator and Battling Butler. With the film’s theme of Money vs. Love, the picture goes to the effort of getting the audience’s sympathy and making the protagonist less of a heal. The endearing opening prologue establishes that Jimmie loves his girlfriend Mary (Ruth Dwyer) but is too tongue-tied and shy to confess his feelings towards her. After Jimmie bungles a proposal to Mary with a tactless remark, he refuses to marry anyone else and has to be persuaded by his business partner to marry another woman. At one point, he even refuses to marry his gal because he wants to spare her from what he believes is the failure and disgrace that awaits him. Likewise, the film also establishes that Jimmie’s brokerage firm is in trouble after being tricked into a shady deal and thus himself and his partner face ruin and possibly prison, justifying his need for the money. If the main character’s motivation was that of pure greed then the film simply wouldn’t work.
The first half of Seven Chances involves Keaton making many socially awkward marriage proposals, first with a failed attempt to Mary and then to a series of women at a country club (his seven chances). Possibly due to its origins as a stage play, Seven Chances has a higher ratio of jokes which have a greater degree of input from other cast members or don’t involve Keaton at all, with T. Roy Barnes and Snitz Edwards receiving many comic highlights. However, the film’s best, unsung cast member would have to be the Anna May Wong lookalike of the hat check girl who displays great underplayed comic timing with Keaton (according to the article Married In Haste by Imogen Sara Smith, the uncredited actress is named Rosalind Byrne). Seven Chances also includes an early screen appearance from future screwball dame Jean Arthur as the secretary Miss Smith (or so her name tag suggests as she later shows Jimmie her wedding ring). It may be a silent film but she still conveys that wisecracking attitude and laidback persona with her body language and that expressive face (often seen reading a book while she is on the job).
As Jimmie becomes increasingly desperate to find a bride he runs up towards a woman only to see that she is black. Now keep in mind that miscegenation was illegal in California until 1948. Is Jimmie showing repulsion over her race or disappointment that he legally cannot marry her? The gag could be interpreted as a jab at such laws however at least one black woman does come to the church later on to marry him. Subsequently, Jimmie approaches another woman only to stop pursuing her upon discovering she is Jewish after she holds up a newspaper in Yiddish. Many reviewers mistake the newspaper to be printed in Hebrew which was not a widely spoken language among Jews at the time whereas Yiddish was (several newspapers in this language did exist in the US at the time and I’m curious as to what the text on the paper translates to). It’s not clear if the girl even speaks English as when Jimmie speaks to her she looks confused and just shrugs her shoulders. Does Jimmie avoid marrying her due to language barriers, the issues derived from marrying a Jewish woman or just anti-Semitism on his part (to derive some humour from shock value)? Likewise, another woman Jimmie encounters gives him a quick rejection to which he informs his partners immediately afterwards, “Wrong party” – make of that what you will. The only joke in the film in which context is required for a modern viewer is that in which Jimmie walks into a theatre featuring what appears to be a female performer, only for him to walk out seconds later in a ruffled-up state upon discovering the performer in question is Julian Eltinge, a cross-dressing performer of the time. I will say it is the weakest gag in the film as it’s not particularly clever.
The two-strip Technicolor footage from the film’s opening prologue hasn’t survived well and has a very washed-out look however the remainder of the film from the 4K restoration comes in a lovely sepia-tone print. As far as Keaton’s technical wizardry, the automobile transitions are a unique experiment as Jimmie hops into a car and the shot fades to a different location with the car and Keaton remaining in the same screen position. What’s particularly impressive about these transitions are the spokes on the wheels which remain in the exact same position in both shots – blink and you miss it attention to detail. Seven Chances also includes many shots of Keaton’s early pioneering of deep focus cinematography such as the interior shots of the church with a sleeping Jimmie on the front bench as scores of perspective brides make their way in via the background and all in clear focus. Speaking off…
The second half of Seven Chances is comprised of the set-up and execution of a colossal chase sequence. After failing to find a bride, Jimmie and co print an advertisement in the evening newspaper informing whatever lucky woman shows up at the Broad Street Church at 5 pm will become the bride-to-be for the forthcoming millionaire. Come 5 pm and the church has been beset with hundreds of prospective brides to which the church’s clergyman appears and announces he believes the whole thing to be a practical joke. Infuriated, the brides chase after Jimmie who subsequently discovers Mary wants to marry him after all. This chase involves the most extras employed in a Keaton film, outdoing his 1922 shorts Cops which acts as a precursor to Seven Chances. The women in their makeshift bridal outfits destroy everything in their path like a stampeding herd of elephants in their pursuit of Jimmie. Keaton shot many of his films using locales in Los Angeles and Seven Chances is another great example of how he was able to use the city as his playground. From the trolleys, automobiles, open fields and orchards; it’s a wonderful showcase of vintage west-coast Americana. The sequence keeps upping the ante with every new obstacle from football players, beehives and duck hunters with much of the carnage reminiscent of what Peter Bogdanovich would execute in his screwball comedy homage What’s Up Doc?. The manner in which Keaton moves his legs as he’s running as fast as he can is like a character in a Hanna-Barbara animation and his stunt work really makes you say “is he really doing that?”. At one point he even runs into a barbed wire fence which he subsequently tries to untangle himself from – it looks painful. The film does feature some same shot edits on several of the stunts but it doesn’t ruin one’s state of disbelief. The chase culminates in one of the most surreal of Keaton moments as he gets Indiana Jones’d by hoards of falling boulders. In reality, the rocks were made out of papier-mâché however I do find the physics of the boulders believable, you can feel the weight of them as they roll and bounce around. It appears that Keaton does engage in The Prometheus School Of Running Away From Things as at several moments he could have just run to the left or right to avoid the boulders, but the scene is so entertaining I can suspend my disbelief. Buster Keaton was truly beyond us mere mortals.
Unpopular opinion time, The General is a good film but is not Buster Keaton’s best – I’ll start with the film’s merits. The General is one of several Keaton films set in a historical period and the film’s budget certainly pays off when it comes to recreating Marietta, Georgia circa 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War. There are great amounts of historical detail within every frame from the buildings to the costumes and the grand locomotive, The General itself. On a purely visual level, The General may be Keaton’s most visually stunning film, full of lush shots of Oregon landscape (although the film itself is set in Georgia) which would make even John Ford jealous. The destruction of the locomotive on the burning bridge is one the most ambitious shots of Keaton’s filmography. However, my favourite shot in all of The General occurs during the climax in which Johnnie Gray (Keaton) holds the Confederate flag amidst battle – the type of cinematic shot that is forever imprinted in your mind. The scores by Carl Davies are the most ideal accompaniment for Keaton’s films and The General is no exception from quirky moments to more epic and militaristic arrangements, as well as rousing standards such as I Wish I Was In Dixie.
I’ll always say that the train is the ultimate cinematic device and as skillfully (and dangerously) executed the stunt work is in The General with all its comic touches, the action doesn’t quite have the high stakes or heart-pounding intensity as action sequences in other Keaton pictures, leading to a film that does test my patience at times. Why is this? Why am I more on the edge of my seat watching Keaton run away from falling boulders in Seven Chances or battling hurricane winds in Steamboat Bill Jr? If Johnnie had been an actual coward and avoided enlistment rather than his love interest being lied to that Johnnie didn’t even get in line to enlist (which in itself is quite contrived), I believe the stakes in the film would be so much higher, thus making the pursuit of The General from the hands of Yankee spies more intense and suspenseful with Johnnie overcoming of his cowardice being the character’s redemption. With The General presented as it is, Johnnie has to prove himself by overcoming lies told by others rather than his own character flaws, which I believe weakens the film’s narrative.
There is the pink elephant in the room that The General is a film in which the hero of the story is a loyal son of the Confederacy. According to the Thames documentary on Keaton A Hard Act To Follow, it is stated that Keaton choose to tell the story from the southern perspective as in 1926, veterans of the civil war as well people whose fathers and grandfathers had fought were still alive, thus Keaton didn’t want to rile up half of his potential audience by appearing to make fun the side that lost. This does raise the question as to how The General was received in the Northern states? The General was released 61 years following the end of the civil war, which to put in context, would be the equivalent of releasing a movie about World War II in 2006. The General only contains one moment which could be seen as a jab at the Confederacy in which Johnnie states in a moment of foreshadowing dialogue “If you lose this war, don’t blame me”. Aside from that, The General remains an apolitical film in which the civil war setting is almost immaterial to the story. The film makes no mention of slavery, secession nor is either side portrayed as right or wrong. Nor are there any of the usual negative stereotypes associated with the American south (although humorously the film does contain the Colonel Sanders lookalike general who always seems to permeate any fiction about the old south). I have heard it argued that such depoliticized treatments of the civil war in themselves aid the lost cause narrative, yet Keaton himself was not from the south, being a mid-western man born in Kansas. The viewer can draw their own conclusions on what Keaton’s authorial intent was.
To compare The General to Keaton’s earlier work Our Hospitality (1923), a film which holds a number of similarities to The General with its use of a locomotive, the southern setting and the grand scenery, I’d argue is a much more engaging and creative film. While there is much I admire in The General, of all Keaton’s silent features, it’s the one I’m least keen to revisit.
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!
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?
Contraband holds a number of similarities to All Through The Night (released by Warner Bros the following year). Both films are Hitchcockian thrillers and (as the title of the latter suggests) take place all through a single night in which a romantic hero inadvertently infiltrates a Nazi spy ring (even though the word “Nazi” is never used in ether film). On top of that, Conrad Veidt appears in both films, although he is cast as a villain in All Through The Night. I love films that effectively play out within a condensed time frame and Contraband is simply enormous fun to watch – one of those films which I felt like I had to tell someone about it afterwards I was left that thrilled. Contraband would be renamed Blackout for the US release, but I think Contraband is the cooler title.
Contraband would offer Conrad Veidt the rare role of a hero as Danish seaman, Captain Anderson. Veidt doesn’t have the looks matinee idol but he is very suave and pulls of the romantic hero with ease (sadly this great actor would pass away only three years following the release of Contraband from a heart attack aged 50). The bane to Captain Anderson, Mrs Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) is introduced defying the captain’s orders and not wearing a life jacket despite what the chattering gossips around her say. This defiance and Hepburn-esque, free-spirit attitude establishes Mrs Sorensen as a real badass.
The chemistry between Veidt and Hobson has shades of William Powell & Myrna Loy, with the two sharing moments reminiscent of screwball comedies. For example, the scene in which Sorensen calls for a taxi in a feminine voice after multiple taxis ignore Anderson is similar to the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night. Contraband makes reference to bondage on a number of occasions from Anderson’s early foreshadowing asking Sorensen “Have you ever been put in irons?” to the rather erotic, James Bond-style scene in which they attempt to break free after being tied up by their Nazi captors. All this sexual tension culminates by the film’s final scene in which Anderson directs Sorensen to drop her life jacket as it hits the floor and they go into a clinch, followed by phallic symbolism of a dripping wet anchor in the final shot – as steamy as a film from the 1940s can get.
Contraband is set in November 1939, the phoney stage of World War II. Like Powell & Pressburger would do in their subsequent film 49th Parallel, Contraband is clearly a rally call to other nations against neutrality in the war. Although a British film, Contrband is one which should ignite the patriotism in any Dane as Captain Anderson and his fellow Danish patriots from the Three Vikings restaurant in London work together to infiltrate the London based Nazis. Contraband offers an insight into life in London during the blackout as people try to go about their lives as normal, using torches to navigate their way in the street (they must be pointed down or else the blackout warden will call you out) and closing their eyes for ten seconds before going back outside. In one scene two wardens approach a man lighting up a cigarette in the street to which the man angrily responds “Why don’t you do something to earn your 3 quid a week and leave taxpayers alone”. With this portrayal of the restriction of liberties as well as the aforementioned refusal of Mrs Sorensen to be compelled to wear a life jacket, I can’t help for Contraband to directly remind me of recent world events as of writing this review. Due to the blackout setting, much of Contraband is visually dark and makes great use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressionist visuals – appropriate considering that the film stars the most notable cast member from the granddaddy of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Unfortunately Contraband has yet to receive the special edition, 4K re-master treatment, with the film only being available in a scratchy print on an old Region 1, Kino DVD.
I do have to question if escapade off Captain Anderson’s ship and into London by Mrs Sorensen and her accomplice Mr Pidgeon (Esmond Knight) was part of a mission or a spur of the moment decision since we are lead to believe the British interception of the ship was unplanned. It’s never made clear who or what Sorensen or Pidgeon are working for however it is reveled their aim is to find out under what neutral names, German vessels sail across the Atlantic, so in all likelihood, they’re probably British spies. Thus I do theorise that Sorensen and Pidgeon had a part to play on the British authorities stopping the ship and forcing it to dock overnight. This theory is backed up by the film’s ending in which one of the British authorities gives Anderson what he is told is a box containing painkillers to help him with his illness. Afterwards Mrs Sorensen tells him to look in the box only to find it contains the pocket watch which he lost in London, proving more or less she is working for the British authorities.
Adjoining the Nazi’s London layer is a warehouse full of busts of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by a company known as “Patriotic Plaster Products”. Why does a Nazi spy ring have a warehouse full of busts of Neville Chamberlain? Likewise, I can’t tell whether or not the film is trying to denigrate Chamberlain. After Anderson knocks out one of the Nazi ring leaders using one of the busts which simultaneously smashes it to pieces, Anderson responds “They always said he was tough”. Chamberlain left office on May 10th, 1940 and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister –Contraband was released in UK theatres the following day.
Never again will the screen see such grace as Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn is hot, but Audrey is beautiful. However its Audrey being the goddess that she is which brings about the major flaw in Sabrina – you cannot make Audrey Hepburn look like a scrawny chauffeurs’ daughter. It doesn’t matter what she wears, Audrey can make any piece of dowdy clothing look glamorous (later in the film she even makes a lumberjack shirt look feminine). After all, in the original stage play, Sabrina Fairchild was played by the down to Earth Margaret Sullivan. Despite this, the sheer enchanting screen presence of Audrey Hepburn, as well as her childlike innocence does help to some degree, overcome this suspension of disbelief. The opening of Sabrina couldn’t be more impossibly romantic – a clear sky with a full moon, Isn’t It Romantic playing the background and a forbidden love imposed by class differences. Well that is until things take a dark U-turn and Sabrina attempts to commit suicide by locking herself in a garage with multiple car exhaust pipes emitting carbon monoxide. Even in a moment as disturbing as this, a joke is still thrown in with that one popping exhaust pipe (likewise did Sabrina’s father ever discovering that suicide note?).
Humphrey Bogart in the role of business mogul Linus Larrabee gets an opportunity to show his flair for light comedy. Bogart is such a pleasure to watch in the many witty lines he delivers, in particular the inter-office memo he sends to his brother David via a car phone. Linus Larrabee is a benevolent capitalist and not the stereotypical archetype of the evil business owner, as he brilliantly sums up in an exchange he shares with David:
“A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbour is dug up and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who’ve never seen a dime before suddenly have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed.”
Linus evens has connections to a military general who can get him a bazooka to test against his revolutionary plastic, showing he has some Elon Musk in him. Likewise unlike as seen in many screwball comedies of the 1930’s, the servants of the Fairchild family have a perfectly amicable and respectable relationship with their masters.
David Larabee (William Holden) is the polar opposite of his brother – a 1950’s Billy Madison who lives for hedonism. Holden looks rather ghastly with his bleached hair and the ugly dressing gowns which he wears throughout the film. Sabrina has been head over heels for David since childhood but her love of the man was always forbidden due to class, well until her transformation after spending two years in Paris. David does not appear to be much longer than Linus, which is odd as it’s mentioned at one point in the film that David had kissed Sabrina when she was nine during a time they were roller skating. I never quite get what Sabrina sees in the immature David – this goes for both the original and the remake (more on that later).
At its heart, Sabrina is a story about true love vs. romantic love. Sabrina may be romantically infatuated with David, but ultimately it’s Linus of whom she is destined to be with. The age difference between Audrey and her leading men in multiple films is often a topic of conversation with the casting of a 54-year-old Bogart as a romantic love interest to a 25-year-old Hepburn not being the most obvious choice. Changing social norms since the 1950s and the feminist movement have made it anathema for a woman to rely on a man for money or status, making older man/younger woman relationships age gaps more taboo in modern times. Personally, I’ve seen enough old films with relationship age gaps that I’m more used to it plus the argument can be made that many women simply prefer an older man. At the very least the movie does acknowledge this age difference (“Here I am going off on a sailboat to make an ass out of myself with a girl of 22”). Age aside, with Bogart’s arrogance and overly masculine voice, Audrey isn’t the most obvious choice to play off him – she’s not like Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn. The argument can be made that the original casting choice of Cary Grant would have been more suitable for the part. Regardless these performers are two of my favourite movie stars of all time and they are a joy to watch together so I personally can’t complain at the end of the day.
That Billy Wilder wit is as strong as ever in Sabrina (“That good, that’s bad” – I can see where a certain Simpsons joke came from), with the film also including one of the most clever and witty methods in which a film got around the censorship of the day (“What rhymes with glass?”). On a technical level, it’s also notable that Sabrina was filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, despite being released in late 1954, making it one of the last Hollywood productions to do so as almost all movies at this point where being shot in various widescreen formats. Coming off the heels from Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole and Stalag 17, I get the impression Billy Wilder wanted to do something more pleasant and straightforward with Sabrina. I don’t consider Sabrina to be one of Wilder’s best films but I do enjoy it despite its flaws and the relationship dynamics requiring much suspension of disbelief. When a rom-com sparks an interesting debate on whom the female lead should have ended up with, to an extent it has done its job. However, unpopular opinion time, I will argue that the 1995 remake of Sabrina directed by Sydney Pollack is a superior film.
The remake of Sabrina carries the same themes and follows the same basic plot of the original but with some notable adjustments, the most prescient of these being Sabrina’s (Julia Ormond) transformation in Paris being far more significant. At the film’s beginning, Sabrina really is a scrawny, nerdy girl with a dreadful fashion sense and very long, unkempt hair. Her time in Paris takes up a significant portion of the film (this time working as a photographer for Vogue rather than going to a cooking school) in which she gets mentored by others and comes out of her shell. Symbolically her hair gradually gets shorter over the two year period and returns to the US unrecognizable (I’m just slightly disappointed the remake doesn’t include the attempted suicide scene). Unlike the original, the Paris scenes are filmed on location and are the most distinctly 90’s portion of the film with the fashions and music (nice cover of Love’s In Need Of Love Today). So who is the better Sabrina? I know its sacrilege to outrank Audrey Hepburn, but going from the standpoint on both superior writing and more appropriate casting, Ormond’s rendition of Sabrina does have greater depth, is more believable and is portrayed with a greater sense of vulnerability.
Who was the better Linus? You’re asking me to pit two of my favourite actors of all time against each other. Harrison Ford plays the part beautifully with his trademark comic grumpiness and a real sense of loneliness, and even with the 90’s setting, Ford’s Linus remains a conservatively dressed man with his glasses, dotted bowtie and Homburg hat. The remake also features a much more resentful relationship between David and Linus. In the original, Linus is not impressed with David but doesn’t harbour much resentment, whereas in the remake the relationship is far more antagonistic (“My life makes your life possible – I resent that – So do I!”). I do wish however they could have retained the benevolent capitalist aspect of his character as Bogart portrayed. I feel like going for a tie but I know that’s a cop-out so ultimately I will have to choose Ford once again due to the superior writing and more appropriate casting – Ormond and Ford are simply a more believable romantic pair.
Lastly who was the better David? Greg Kinnear does a good job at portraying the hedonistic sleaze of David, while his turnaround towards actually doing work at the end is a very nice comic touch. Yet even the additional aspect of the antagonistic relationship, I would choose Holden on the account of simply being a more charismatic and likeable screen presence. Likewise, I do particularly enjoy John Wood as Sabrina’s father, a real charmer of an English gentleman, while Paul Giamatti gets one of his earliest screen roles but it’s just a shame he’s given nothing to do. I’d even go as far as saying that Sabrina ’95 provides a greater feast for the senses. The location filming of the North-Eastern United States (notably including Martha’s Vineyard) with the gorgeous architecture alongside the breezy John Williams score, makes the film a very relaxing watch (I also have to ask, was the film’s poster inspired by that of Billy Wilder’s Fedora?). While I hate having to outrank these classic Hollywood legends, Sabrina ‘95 is a rare remake which remains a classy affair and outperforms the original.