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.
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.
To my surprise Start the Revolution Without Me begins with none other than Orson Welles introducing the film as well as narrating it; this along with the stylistic opening credits featuring footage of John Barrymore in Don Juan I know I had to be in for a treat. Start the Revolution Without Me is largely unheard of but surely paved the way for other large-scale historical comedies of the 70’s and 80’s from the likes of Monty Python and Mel Brooks; a type of film comedy which is long extinct. The recurring repetition of the date “1789” in the narration has vibes of Monty Python while the film’s ending reminds me of that from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Likewise, the film is probably the closest thing to a spoof of costume dramas; think the costume drama getting the Mel Brooks treatment. The film includes references to works of fiction including A Tale of Two Cities, The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask (portrayed here as a bumbling fool). With the film’s historical references, King Louis XVI is a slow-witted cuckold and Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a nymphomaniac.
The production spared no expense getting the shoot in actual historical locations in France. You would think they would only allow such locations for more dignified films, not a slapstick comedy. The film itself is as lavish as any big-budget costume drama but not in tone of course. Costume pictures are always a genre I’ve struggled with, dare I say I find them dull with characters I can’t identify with or care about; you know, rich people problems. Thus there’s a sense of satisfaction seeing the genre turned into a slapstick farce. Not only do you get an impressive display of madcap physical comedy, but you even get some swashbuckling action with Gene Wilder getting the opportunity to display his abilities as a swordsman.
Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland play two sets of identical twins who are accidentally switched at birth resulting in an aristocrat with a false brother who was supposed to be born into life as a peasant and vice versa. I get the impression Sutherland plays the twins intended to be aristocrats as they seem more comfortable and in tune with the lifestyle than the two twins played by Wilder. Mistaken identity humour is often looked down upon but it makes laugh whenever it is done well. Start the Revolution Without is inspired zaniness if I’ve ever seen it.
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.
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.