Holyrood or Bust(er) #2: Trains, boats and air balloons

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ll be following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog. This post will remain at the top of the blog until the next Sunday.

This first Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover the initial 14 films being screened on TCM on Sunday 2 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of A Genius on the Move: The General, Cops, Our Hospitality, The Love Nest, The Navigator, The Boat and The Goat, The Play House, The Scarecrow, The Electric House, The Balloonatic, The Paleface, Convict 13 and Speak Easily.

The General (1927)

Across the pond they’ll be settling down to The General on TV on Sunday evening at 8pm. Here in Edinburgh I had to go for an early start thanks to other commitments tonight, and if I did try to match the outpouring on Twitter at 8pm US time it would be around 4am in the morning here. I’m devoted but not that devoted.

I’m using the 2005 Cinema Club edition of The General, a two disc set stuffed with extras and offering two scores for the film, a 1995 Robert Israel version and a more recent Joe Hisaishi track, which I went for (listen to an excerpt here).

Written and directed by Clyde Bruckman, The General takes us back to 1861 and casts Buster as locomotive driver (The General of the title), Johnnie Gray, heading to see his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), in Georgia. Sporting longer hair than we’re used to in his earlier films (it suits him), Buster is soon caught up in the events of the Civil War, as Annabelle’s brother decides to enlist with the Confederate Army and Johnnie is expected to follow suit.

Although he’s not a coward, there’s no real sign that Johnnie wants to fight and potentially die for his country, preferring to spend his time with his beloved Annabelle and his train. Aware that not enlisting won’t be popular with his girl but being too important to the Confederate railway, Johnnie finds himself shunned and left to continue his work minus Annabelle.

It’s here that the plot really kicks in (well, just after a lovely scene of Buster sitting on the side of the train and being taken away down the tracks) as we skip forward 12 months, discover that Union soldiers are planning to play dirty and watch as Johnnie becomes the perfect anti-hero.

For anyone used to seeing Buster in his short films, finding him in a feature film, on location in the woods of Oregon and taking control of a full size locomotive can be a shock to the system. Of course it’s only right that he’s given such a broad canvas to work against, the expanded running time reflecting the actor’s increased status in the silent film arena.

With a hefty budget of $400,000, there was almost nothing Buster’s imagination couldn’t afford and the action sequences prove that he was revelling in the freedom. It seems that audiences and critics of the period weren’t quite as ready as Buster for The General and its poor performance at the box office proved he was ahead of his time once again.

Thankfully Buster and Bruckman left us with a film that is both epic and small-scale. Epic in that the various explosions, action sequences and train wrecks work perfectly on the big screen but small-scale in that close-ups of Buster’s facial expressions (don’t believe the Old Stoneface moniker) and glances (check out the scene beside the cannon near the end when Buster looks around him trying to work out how the soldiers are being shot) keeping the viewer emotionally invested in Johnnie’s plight.

An excellent start to this month’s Buster-fest, the smaller scale Cops from 1922 is up next.

Cops (1922)

TCM has decided to play around with Buster’s timeline a fair bit during this season, starting with 1927’s The General before taking us back to 1922 for Cops, a film with special significance for this silent film fan.

Partly because it’s one of my favourite Buster’s, showing us his flair for acrobatics (watch him as he sits atop the see-saw plank on the fence before he’s hurled through the air) and his skill at toying with the rules of the classic silent chase sequence, as hundreds of policemen pursue him around town.

The other reason is that during my 2011 trip to Los Angeles I managed to secure a tour of some silent film locations by author John Bengtson, whose book, Silent Echoes, allows Buster’s fans to follow in his footsteps. Many of Buster’s films were shot just up the road from his studios and a walk around North Cahuenga Blvd in central Hollywood revealed that scenes from Cops had been filmed there.

Walking around that day I felt just that little bit closer to Buster and his work. Realising that he’d stood where I was standing made that first day in a strange city feel very special and if you have a spare 15 minutes I’d recommend watching the video after you’ve seen Cops:

Comprised of a dozen or so memorable sequences, including the “hitching a lift” scene mentioned in the video above, the trip on the horse and cart and the terrorist bomb, this is the Buster film to show someone new to his world: if this doesn’t get them hooked, nothing will.

Our Hospitality (1923)

Perhaps the Buster Keaton film I’ve seen most, usually on a cinema screen, Our Hospitality is also the one that, without fail, receives the biggest reaction from audiences.

If you’ve watched the film you’ll remember the sequence on the edge of the waterfall as Buster tries to…well, I won’t say any more unless you haven’t seen it, but needless to say it’s impressive even today, causing gasps among viewers of all ages, me included.

Buster heads back in time as William McKay, a young man caught up in an age old family feud between the McKays and the Cantons who falls for the daughter of his rivals. With the story set up in a prologue, a babe-in-arms William taken to New York to avoid trouble, Buster arrives in the 1931 segment as he visits the family home in the South.

It’s on the coach that William meets Virginia (Natalie Talmadge), one of the Canton’s who has no interest in fighting and who soon falls for our Buster. Cleverly building up the back story and the rivalries before letting William try to extricate himself from some awkward situations involving Virginia’s brothers, this is another flawless piece of work from Team Buster that feels like a proper, grown up movie that happens to have some impressive stunts.

As for memorable moments, Buster changing from top hat to flat hat on the coach is a lovely little touch while the dog following him across the country on the rails is another.

I’ve not mentioned the behind-the-scenes players much in this post, though The General’s Clyde Bruckman is on writing duties and Joe Schenck, an important player in Buster’s career, is once again producing.

The Love Nest (1923)

Buster’s final two reeler before he embarked on feature films, The Love Nest finds him heartbroken from the end of his engagement to Virginia Fox and determined to set sail for a new life in his boat, Cupid.

Seemingly at sea for an extended period of time (if the drawn on beard is anything to go by), Buster finally winds up aboard the good shop Love Nest, captained by Joe Roberts, a nasty piece of work who offs his crew at the first sign of incompetence then throws a wreath into the water with them. Buster takes on the role of general handyman, making the captain’s coffee, cleaning up and generally not knowing what he’s doing.

There a vein of dark humour running through The Love Nest, primarily in the captain’s meaningless murders but also in Buster’s treatment of the ship and its crew once he’s decided he needs a lifeboat and there’s only one way to get it.

As well made as it is, I can’t say The Love Nest is one of my favourite of Buster’s films, perhaps because he’s so cooped up for the duration. Away from the city streets and houses he’s usually running amok in, this particular boat doesn’t give him room to breathe.

Luckily I don’t remember feeling the same way about The Navigator, another ship-based Buster film that’s up next on the schedule.

The Electric House (1920)

Happy Birthday Buster! Yes, I’m writing this on the evening of 4 October, the day everyone (well, Twitter at least) has been celebrating the day in 1895 that Joseph Frank Keaton was introduced to this world. I like to think he was wearing that pork pie hat and did a few tumbles on his way out of the womb…

A quick thanks to the wonderful @silent_london on Twitter for the mention of Holyrood or Bust(er) in this news round-up – it’s an honour!

On the day I should have been watching The Navigator I ended up not having the time to both watch and blog about it, so I opted for The Electric House instead, the Buster Keaton/Eddie Cline scripted short that sees Buster take on a worthy foe…a house.

Thanks to a mix up at his university graduation ceremony, which sees Buster’s botanist confused with Steve Murphy’s electrician, the former end up taking on the task of wiring up a millionaire’s mansion, making it the envy  of Grand Designs viewers everywhere.

Buster’s initial plan to show off his work during an elaborate meal, complete with food arriving on a miniature train set, may be a success, but when the genuine electrician arrives and begins tampering with the wires, hell breaks loose.

Of course hell for Buster is heaven for Buster’s fans, making the sight of him attempting to lug a case up the stairs containing a member of the kitchen staff, as those stairs start to move, one of the funniest of all the films I’ve watched so far. The look on Buster’s face as he stops to try and work out why he’s not reached the top is, for want of a better word, perfect.

Taking a simple premise and turning it inside out was one of Buster’s great skills, going beyond what his viewers might expect and adding a few more twists for good measure. Those acrobatic skills are also in evidence as he runs through the dining room and onto the table – the man must have had springs in the soles of his shoes!

Interestingly, a quick look at Wikipedia reveals that this is the second version of The Electric House to be filmed, the first resulting in Buster breaking his leg and the film being remade at a later date.

Earlier on I mentioned that Cops was the perfect short to show someone new to Buster’s work. At the moment I’d add this as a close second.

Tomorrow I’ll try again with The Navigator, otherwise look out for some more reviews of a short or two.

The Navigator (1924)

Thursday 21 January 2010. That was the night I first saw The Navigator, on the big screen at Bristol’s Colston Hall as part of Slapstick 2010. A big screen, a huge audience and some of the loudest laughs I’ve ever heard for a film. And all of this for a silent movie made 85 years ago.

Watching The Navigator again on the small screen tonight, on my own, meant that some of its impact was inevitably lost – in an audience you find that other people see things you’ve perhaps missed and start laughing before you, encouraging you to join in – but I have been struck, even more than the first time, how much I love this slice of Buster.

A set up involving spies and kidnappings is included just so we can be left with the simple enough story of Buster and a girl (Kathryn McGuire) alone on a ship together. Hilarity ensues. And I mean HILARITY with a capital H-I-L-A-R-I-T-Y, for this is a gag packed hour that sees Buster’s first appearance after four minutes when he announces he’s going to get married that day. Only he’s forgotten to tell the girl he’s hoping to wed.

Seeing Buster as a spoiled rich kid may be unusual for those of us more used to him playing the strapped-for-cash man on the street, but this is still our Buster and by the time we’re halfway through this adventure, and safely on the boat, it could be Buster from any era.

When Buster’s off-screen things flag – that the dramatic spy stuff I mentioned earlier – but it’s not for long. From the exploration of the ship’s deck, to the kitchen sequence – boiling an egg has never been so much fun – and on to Buster’s attempt to fire a small cannon that has become attached to his leg by a length of rope, there’s no time to pause.

Let’s just go back to that kitchen sequence for a moment. Taking the simple premise that a ship’s kitchen is designed to feed an entire crew, here we have a guy and a girl trying to make themselves supper with dainty portions of coffee beans, eggs and corned beef. But none of the pots, pans and utensils are designed for two people.

I’m not going to try to dissect the humour here (I’d have as much luck as Buster does dissecting those cans) but it’s the complex nature of the simplicity (or is that the simple nature of the complexity?) that makes it so perfect. In other words, it’s funny. Stupendously so.

I’ve already mentioned a couple of times in this post that a few of these films would be good to show someone not conversant with Keaton, but I’m going to stop that now. Well, after I’ve said it one more time. The Navigator is pure essence of Buster, the film that would have made him a star, had he not been one already, and everyone should be made to watch this at least once in their life.

If you sense that I love The Navigator to little bits then you’d be right. I’ve watched The General and Our Hospitality this week and fallen for them all over again, but The Navigator has, so far, risen to the surface, a bit like that submarine at the end.

A pause now before the next few shorts, which I’ll be watching tomorrow night. In the meantime here’s a video tweeted by TCM yesterday, a DIY guide to making your own Buster Keaton hat…I need one…now…

The Boat (1921)

Tonight, Thursday, found me watching three Buster Keaton shorts in an attempt to power through the list of films chosen by TCM for last Sunday’s barrage of Buster.

First up was The Boat, the simple story of a man, his boat and his family against the odds. Not that there really should be any odds, as the idea of a father taking his family on his new boat should be a pretty straightforward one. Unless your name happens to be Buster.

Demolishing his house as he tries to take the boat, the Damfino, to the harbour, Buster then goes on to lose his car and the boat itself in his mission to sail it. Hardly the best example for his kids, Buster’s determination to have his way means he has to fight gravity and nature, while his wife simply puts up with it all.

Everything about this one is a joy to watch, further evidence that trying to predict what our hero was going to do next was impossible. As is noted in the commentary for the film, The Boat was made not long after the sinking of the Titanic, when audiences had a different perspective on the sight of a man almost drowning his family due to incompetence or stubborness.

The sequence of Buster trying to hang up a picture inside the vessel and the ensuing disaster is a highlight of a film packed with incident and Buster’s willingness to do anything for the sake of a laugh is admirable.

The Goat (1921)

Mistaken for escaped murderer, Dead Shot Dan, Buster is on the run for most of The Goat, something already witnessed in this week’s Cops (although in Buster’s timeline that was filmed the following year).

His face slapped across the front of newspapers, Buster doesn’t have time to breathe here, and neither does the viewer. From trains to open windows, Buster uses them all to aid his escape from the authorities, his acrobatic skill once again coming to the fore here in a way that Chaplin and Lloyd couldn’t hope to emulate.

As an aside, I had the opportunity to stand in the very spot that Buster dives under a car in this film while I made my Hollywood tour video above, and watching that scene again tonight raised the hair on the back of my neck. Knowing that I’ve been so close to Buster, albeit separated by a number of decades, makes the films feel even more alive.

In fact “alive” is what these shorts are, their vitality and energy still wound up tight until the play button is pressed on the DVD remote. We’re often shown clips of old films that are slow and juddery, ghosts of the past caught on film that we can’t quite relate to.

Watching a Buster Keaton film lets us see that there was more to the 1920s than men with hats and ladies with long dresses, that just around the corner from those dusty old films was a man in a porkpie hat jumping off trains, annoying the police or trying to impress a cute girl. Or, more likely, all those things at once.

Convict 13 (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), The Play House (1922), The Balloonatic (1923), The Paleface (1922), Speak Easily (1932)

Oh dear. There are six films listed above, a bit of a change from earlier in the week when I was covering just one or two a day. But this Buster-a-thon isn’t meant to be an endurance test and I doubt Buster would have wanted it that way. His films were made to entertain people who were trying to escape the mundanity of real life and I see the next month of blog posts varying in length and detail, as time allows.

Enough with the excuses. This latest batch of Keaton films saw me travel back to the start of his solo career and follow him through to a bizarre team up with a comedian I only knew of from references in cartoons and TV series over the years.

Back in 1920, Buster was embarking on his own films, away from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The second of his films to reach cinemas, Convict 13 showed audiences just what a “real” Keaton script could offer, dream sequences and mistaken identities a recurring theme and his brand of humour setting him apart from his contemporaries.

Steeped in the vaudeville tradition, Buster managed to combine the physical aspects of his stage persona with that of a skilled filmmaker and actor. All of this is apparent in Convict 13, once where a punch from Joe Roberts sends him tumbling backwards and again when he stands in the prison yard while swinging a rope around his head, a routine he’d worked on with his father in music halls.

With some carefully timed gags – the dog stealing the golfball and the golfball then knocking him out – and a plot which at one point finds Buster with a noose tied around his neck, this is a typically packed short and one which stands out as a classic slice of Buster.

The Scarecrow introduces us to Buster as a farmhand, living with Joe Roberts in a shack which they’ve tooled up to ensure every bit of space doubles up as something else, including Buster’s bed doubling as a piano. Buster had a thing about houses, with The Electric House and One Week just two examples of him taking a sideways look at domesticity.

The Play House is a sign of Buster experimenting even further with his directing, as he takes on the role of everyone in the film thanks to some nifty camerawork. It’s easy to underestimate quite how innovative this was in 1922, with the multiple camera set-ups and editing required wowing not only audiences but also Buster’s contemporaries.

Forget those simple slapstick routines of the early silent era, this was someone actively experimenting with the medium he’d chosen to work in. Buster wasn’t just going through the motions, he was inventing new ones for others to go through.

At the same time Buster is recalling the vaudeville routines of his youth, routines that audiences of the time would have easily recognised. Watching Buster watching himself (albeit as different characters) is a neat idea and The Play House stands out as yet another highlight of this project.

Out of The Balloonatic and The Paleface I’d suggest that the latter is my favourite, Buster’s enrolment into the ranks of some Indians in the Wild West who have had their land stolen from them.

Chased by the Indians and getting into trouble with the white man, Buster gets flack from all sides here and it’s fun to watch him go from clueless intruder to part of the Indians way of life. The final caption is a lovely touch.

The Balloonatic, on the other hand, is fine and shows off Buster’s sense of the odd – wandering up to a hot air balloon that’s about to take off only to find himself sitting atop it, for no other reason than to have him sitting atop it – but it doesn’t have quite the same narrative flow as many of his other shorts.

TCM’s final Buster film last Sunday was 1932’s Speak Easily, a later period title which saw him with his star dimmed as the silents had bowed out and the talkies had been ushered in.

Teamed up with loud-mouthed comedian Jimmy Durante, Buster plays a meek professor who is tired of living a quiet life and who has his eye on adventure when he’s told, erroneously, that he’s inherited a small fortune. At the same time Durante is trying to set up a Broadway musical and needs investment. When Buster and Jimmy’s paths cross, the scene is set for a comedy classic.

Only it isn’t.

Anyone who has spent a week intensively watching Buster take charge of his career in a series of films which have quality stamped across each and every one of them will find Speak Easily a difficult watch.

With Buster sticking to a script, the equivalent of a straitjacket to someone more used to dreaming up mad stunts and situations with a team of gagwriters, he copes well, but there’s never a real feeling that he’s enjoying himself.

By all accounts this was Buster’s favourite of the Durante films, and overall the plot does just about hang together with some nice moments as Buster gets on the wrong train (the sort of thing he’d have done in the good old days) and helps destroy the musical number at the end of the film, but this isn’t the way it should have been.

As a close to the first day of Buster celebrations (make that first week for me), Speak Easily left a bitter taste in the mouth and I’m looking forward to rewinding again for day/week two of this Buster month as TCM takes him back to the days when he had a say over his films, starting with 1924’s Sherlock Jr.

While I prepare for the next blog post, here’s Speak Easily, just in case you want to hear what Buster sounded like…

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One thought on “Holyrood or Bust(er) #2: Trains, boats and air balloons

  1. kittypackard says:

    LOVE THIS. Great recap of one of Keaton’s best–and cinema’s best, period. (AND, I think the bridge bridge explosion in The General is every bit as epic as Bridge Over the River Kwai…) Anyway, muchly looking forward to hearing what you have to say on the other 6 Keaton greats!

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