Holyrood or Bust(er) #3: Detectives, Cameramen and Charlie Chaplin

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jnr

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jnr

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 second Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover many of the films being screened on TCM on Sunday 9 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of An Artist at Work: Sherlock, Jr, Good Night Nurse, Steamboat Bill, Jr, The Cameraman, Coney Island, Back Stage, Limelight, The Bell Boy, She Went to the Races, The Haunted House and Hard Luck.

Sherlock, Jr (1924), Good Night Nurse (1918) and Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928)

Week two of this Buster-a-thon has started slightly later than planned but Sherlock, Jr isn’t a bad place to do so.

A recurring idea in Buster’s films is the dream sequence, something which allowed him to come up with even more outlandish ideas than his films set in “reality” would allow.

Here, Buster is a cinema projectionist who wants to be a great detective, but who is destined to pine after Kathryn McGuire while Ward Crane’s nasty piece of work con man tries to get her first. The opening minutes, as Buster goes about his duties at the cinema, may be more leisurely compared to what comes later, but anyone who manages to get that much humour out of sweeping some trash clearly knows what he’s doing.

The major dream sequence of the film, which sees Buster enter the cinema screen to interact with the locations being screened, is one of the most impressive moments in any of his films, and with Buster Keaton that’s saying something.

As ever, he’s not content to go for the simple gag, instead lining up each scene change seamlessly so that the joke is flawless. We’re an audience who are watching an audience watch Buster and it’s hard to imagine quite how audiences in 1924 would have reacted to something so unique.

But that’s Buster all over, always trying something new and experimenting with the medium he’s working in, while other performers were happy to work within the constraints.

That’s certainly the case with 1918’s Good Night Nurse, a Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle picture featuring Buster in a supporting role.

The pair were good friends and it shows here, Buster seemingly having a good time – he even smiles a few times! – and going with the flow as Fatty indulges in the bizarre routines that made him so popular. Fatty’s tendency towards cross-dressing mixed with a man-child type persona make him an acquired taste today, though Good Night Nurse is by no means a bad film. It just isn’t a proper Keaton film, which is the real problem.

We’re back on track for 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, a wonderful slice of Buster which casts him as the estranged son of an old sailor who comes to work with his dad, only for the latter to worry that his boy is too soft to do anything much.

I love watching this film, particularly the sequence in the jailhouse, when Buster arrives with a loaf of bread that has clearly fallen into the tool chest…ahem. The entire 10 minutes is a joy and it could have been a film in itself, Buster’s expressions and hand movements as he tries to convince his father to take the bread. Bliss.

The infamous stunt involving a house falling on Buster can be found here (he’d done it before, but never on this scale), and it still shocks 80 years on. Considered to be one of Buster’s last great films, it’s a joy from start to finish (a phrase I may have used before in these blog posts, but there are only so many ways to describe the man’s work).

The Cameraman (1928)

Buster had moved his productions to MGM by the time of The Cameraman, a decision he quickly came to regret when the creative freedom he had with Joseph Schenck vanished and he found himself having to stick to the script.

The Cameraman did have a script, allegedly written by 22 scriptwriters, but he managed to deviate from it to produce the classic we know and love.

The last time I saw the film was in April in LA at the Egyptian Theatre, with a crowd of Keaton devotees and a live orchestra who had flown in from New York. Noticing things I hadn’t pick up on before, the screening was worth the trip to America in itself (no, really) and watching it on my telly this week didn’t have quite the same impact, but it certainly doesn’t diminish it.

Buster works on the street taking tintype photos of passers-by. When Buster meets a pretty young thing (another one, there’s a bit of a theme in silent comedies) he finds out that she works for MGM and he endeavours to get himself a job there as a news cameraman.

With no sign of Joe Roberts, Buster finds himself a new buddy in the shape of a monkey who causes him problems (after making a miraculous recovery from an accident that audiences always react to) and a series of mishaps take him to Chinatown and on to a finale on a beach.

On a par with Buster’s other feature-length films, The Cameraman has an added bonus of his tricks with the camera he’s shooting on within the film. Footage that he doesn’t know exists helps him a couple of times and it’s a clever addition to the storytelling that wasn’t seen in any other silent films of the time (unless someone knows better?). It’s yet more evidence of his love of the camera and willingness to experiment.

Coney Island (1917), Back Stage (1919), The Haunted House (1921), Hard Luck (1921), The Bell Boy (1918), Limelight (1952)

Fatty Arbuckle is back in Coney Island and Back Stage, Buster one again playing second fiddle to his mentor.

Once again we have Fatty being unfaithful to his wife and finding himself dressed as a woman, a favourite past time for his characters. Here he takes Buster’s girl away from him while the two men tangle with Al St. John for her affections. Much like the rides at Coney Island itself, this is a rollercoaster of slapstick routines and comic violence that leaves the viewer dizzy from the pace.

Back Stage finds Fatty, Buster and Al working back stage (the clue is in the title) at a theatre, three of the worst employees you could hope for, though Buster must have felt right at home here. There are some neat visual gags in the opening moments of Back Stage – the boy being pasted to the wall, Buster using the ‘stairs’, Buster moving the star from door to door – that immediately let the viewer know they’re watching something special.

There’s a feel of The Muppet Show in this short, the crazy shenanigans behind-the-scenes more entertaining than the on-stage goings on, although when Fatty dresses up (again) it actually works well. Buster comes into his own towards the end of the film and he certainly looks like he was enjoying the experience of making this one which must rank as one of the best Fatty-Buster collaborations.

Eddie Cline and Buster’s script for The Haunted House may not be their most complex, and bar a few memorable moments it does shuffle down the list of Buster’s great films, but even a medium-level Buster is worth a watch.

The set-up in the bank, with Buster as a teller whose problems with glue get him into a sticky situation (sorry) is merely an excuse to have him go on the run from the police at the same time as the cast of a production of Faust. There’s a terrific moment during the chase that sees Buster run up and past the camera, staring into it for a moment or two. It doesn’t quite break the fourth wall but it is a nice admission that he knows we’re there.

With everyone ending up in a supposedly haunted house, in reality a hideout prepared by Joe Roberts to fool anyone who comes near, Buster is fooled into believing that supernatural elements are at play. There are some clever scenes of skeletons rebuilding a man and Buster being engulfed by a chair that’s alive, but the stairs that turn into a slide are a simple yet smart recurring gag.

Watch out for the sequence near the end with Buster entering heaven and hell, yet another chance for him to enter a dreamlike state.

Next up is Hard Luck, in which Buster is down on his luck and decides to commit suicide. Hardly the cheeriest topic for a comedy short, Buster’s fans won’t be surprised that he’s happy to take a dark subject and add a fresh spin to it.

Thankfully for us, Buster is hopeless at killing himself and we’re treated to a variety of attempts, from being squashed by a falling piano to hanging. It’s a well executed (pun not intended) that perhaps only Buster could carry off.

As usual, the opening is an excuse to get Buster somewhere quite different in the narrative by the second reel and he’s chasing/protecting a married woman and getting into trouble with Joe Roberts. The closing gag here, only recently rediscovered, is genius.

The Bell Boy takes us back to 1918 and is another Buster/Fatty partnership, this time set in a small hotel where the pair play, you guessed it, bell boys. Both performers receive almost equal screen time and each get hearty laughs, with Buster’s lift and seesaw routines a highlight. It’s also nice seeing Buster laugh again, however briefly.

Finally we have Limelight, the first appearance of Charlie Chaplin in this Buster marathon, a nice touch by TCM. Chaplin is Calvero, a down-at-heel stage performer in 1914 London whose best days are far behind him. Drink has been his best friend for many years but he still dreams of those days in front of an appreciative crowd.

When Calvero stumbles upon the attempted suicide of the beautiful Thereza (Claire Bloom), he takes her under his wing and slowly nurses her back to health, the pair becoming moral support for each other. While there’s much to be written about Chaplin’s commentary on the changing face of the entertainment business and what it is to be old, for us the most important element is the appearance of an ageing Buster towards the end of the picture.

The picture is studded with references to Chaplin’s past and it’s a neat touch to have one of his main rivals from his silent days team up with him in his final US talky. One wonders what a more substantial pairing of the men might have given fans, but thankfully we have a short stage routine to savour as Buster holds his own in Chaplin’s film.

Buster would go on to receive his own comeback of sort a few years after Limelight, as a new generation discovered his talents, an area I suspect I’ll touch upon more in future posts this month.

Anyone referring back to TCM’s list of Buster Keaton film’s being shown this month will notice I haven’t covered 1945’s She Went to the Races, with a script worked on by Buster. The reason for this is that I don’t own a copy and didn’t have time to track one down – if you know the film then please let me know what I missed in the comments section below.

Now I’d better get ready for week three of my Holyrood or Bus(er) month, as TCM are kicking off with a new batch of films this evening.

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