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.
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.
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.
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.
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.