Boy, how I used to hate Ted Turner. Yes, hate. It wasn’t too strong of a word. When Turner Classic Movies first began broadcasting, they were intent on colorizing everything. Don’t remember colorization? Good! A handful of executives felt that for a classic black and white film to find an audience in the MTV age everything had to be colored in with day glow artificial colors, giving a number of films the look of a bad water color, everyone had the same skin color, making them unwatchable. At one point, Turner even wanted to colorize the early black and white episodes of “Gilligan’s Island”. I’m not sure (nor do I care) if that ever happened.
Now, Turner Classic Movies is an invaluable resource for anyone who loves or studies films. Using the MGM vault as their toy chest, and later adding libraries of other studios, they show a remarkable number of hard to find films that are not available on DVD or even video. In the last few years, MGM and Warner Bros. have begun releasing a large number of these films on DVD, using pristine prints, restoring films and creating a host of attractive extras. What a difference a decade makes.
Turner Classic Movies has released “The Buster Keaton Collection”, a two disc set including “The Cameraman” (1928), “Spite Marriage” (1929) and “Free and Easy” (1930), Buster’s first talkie. There is also a short documentary called “Buster Keaton: So Funny It Hurt” about his brief tenure at MGM. The documentary premiered on Turner Classic Movies.
Buster Keaton is one of my favorite film comedians, creating some of the funniest films I have ever seen. During much of his career, Keaton was his own boss. He produced the films he wanted to create and worked on them until he was happy with their content and then released them through distribution deals his partner, Joe Schenck, put together. Sound familiar? This is essentially what Chaplin and Harold Lloyd did as well. But Chaplin was savvier when it came to business. He extracted larger contracts, made more money and retained ownership of all of his films.
Because he was his own boss, Keaton had free reign while he worked helping him create such classics as “The General”. Widely acknowledged as Keaton’s masterpiece, the film follows the exploits of a lone Southern engineer as he tries to thwart the plans of the Northern soldiers he comes across. If you have never seen “The General”, you should. It is a great film and contains many classic comedy moments including an amazing sequence set on two trains speeding down the tracks.
“The General” is not my favorite Keaton film. That would have to be “Sherlock Jr.” Keaton plays a young man who imagines he is in a film. Amazingly, all of the special effects were created in the camera. When you watch, you will understand what I mean and why it is so amazing.
In “Seven Chances”, Keaton’s character has just one day to find a bride and get married to inherit a fortune. Botching the proposal to his girlfriend, his best buddy helps him find a mate and they ask several women, all of whom refuse. Rejected by everyone, Buster goes to the church and falls asleep, waiting for his buddy and lawyer to bring someone to the church. While he is asleep, a newspaper story reveals Keaton is looking for a bride and will inherit a large sum of money upon marriage. When he wakes up, the church is filled with women of all sizes, ages, races and appearances. When they realize Buster is sitting in front of them, they stampede, leading to one of the funniest sequences ever filmed. This films was, unfortunately, remade a few years ago starring Chris O’Donnell and Renee Zellweger.
Or “The Navigator”, or “Steamboat Bill, Jr”, or “Go West”. There are many more classics, too many to list and discuss.
What does any of this have to do with “The Buster Keaton Collection”? It is important to have a brief history to understand why this new DVD set is so important.
Even though “The General” is acknowledged as Keaton’s classic film, this is a development that happened many, many years after the film’s release. The film was a major financial disappointment for Keaton. His next film “College” earned more money, but the financial pressures experienced after “The General” led Schenck to look for a more powerful partner to produce and distribute Keaton’s films.
Watching “The Buster Keaton Collection” is a necessary evil for anyone who is interested in film or silent film history. Containing three films, it represents a good, a bad and one of the lowest points in Keaton’s career.
Keaton signed with MGM in 1928. As I watched “The Cameraman”, the first film produced at MGM, I listened to the commentary provided by Glenn Mitchell, author of “A – Z of Silent Film Comedy” and I learned a very telling fact. Both Chaplin and Lloyd advised Keaton against signing with MGM. As mentioned, Keaton had a tremendous amount of creative freedom when he worked for himself. At MGM, he became part of a factory and the fit wasn’t a good one and would ultimately lead to the end of his career as a filmmaker. MGM insisted that he work from tightly plotted screenplays and he was no longer allowed to work out gags on the set, with the camera rolling. Despite all of these problems, “The Cameraman” is quite good. It was also very successful and, according to Mitchell, used as a template for all of the studio’s future comedies, including many of the Marx Brothers films.
Keaton plays Luke, a tintype operator in New York City. During a large parade, he bumps into Sally (Marceline Day), the receptionist at MGM Newsreels. Pitying him, she agrees to let him take her picture. At the time, tintypes were already ancient. He follows her to the office to return the picture. In an attempt to impress her, he buys an old camera and waits for an assignment. In an effort to encourage him, and thwart the pushy office bully, she sends him on an assignment, which he botches. Later, he goes to cover a parade in Chinatown. At the parade, rival Tong gangs decide to start a war, and Keaton finds he is in the middle of the action.
“The Cameraman” is recognized as Keaton’s last great film and it is very good; there is a lot of “funny business”. Keaton’s efforts to photograph the Tong War are especially funny and inventive. Constantly racing around, he has to fend of the warring gang members as he tries to get as close to the action as possible. At one point, a gun shot hits one of the legs of his tripod making it useless. He then decides to put the other two legs in harms way and sure enough, they are soon the same size. Standing on a platform, with a great view of the action, he doesn’t realize that the scaffolding is about to give way and the platform swings gracefully to the ground, giving him a great shot.
The story is a little awkward and the third act seems sloppy. It was necessary to reestablish Sally’s feelings for Keaton and take the bully out of the picture. To do this, an elaborate set piece was created. But if you look at the story, the connection between the main plot and this bit was tenuous at best and detracts from the film.
“The Cameraman” was very successful and only served to re-affirm MGM’s belief that Keaton’s films should be more tightly scripted. Because the film made money, they felt they were right and Keaton was wrong. 1929’s “Spite Marriage” is one of those ‘hybrid’ films from the late twenties. Created after the invention of sound, it isn’t a ‘talkie’. MGM wasn’t ready to put Keaton in a talkie. Instead, the film contains synced sound effects and music. Much like a laugh track on a television comedy, these sound effects were intended to cue the viewers’ feelings and emotions. Watching a silent film with synced sound effects is like watching a foreign film with dubbed voices. It detracts from the film, taking you out of the story.
Keaton plays Elmer, a dry cleaner, infatuated with stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). He attends every performance of her play wearing a different suit borrowed from his customers. He also waits outside the stage door every night, for some indication that she is aware of his existence. One night, after fighting with her leading man, Trilby talks to Elmer, trying to make the leading man jealous. Elmer knows nothing of this spat and soon agrees to marry her. As the sham marriage progresses, he realizes that she doesn’t love him, but will always continue to love her.
“Spite Marriage” contains three memorable sequences. Early in the film, Elmer winds up backstage playing an extra in Trilby’s play. The extra has a significant scene in which he holds Trilby after her character has fainted. Naturally, he is so nervous the play becomes a disaster. After they are married, Trilby insists that they go to the same nightclub frequented by her leading man and his new girlfriend. Trilby proceeds to get stinking drunk. Returning to their hotel room, she passes out. Elmer attempts to move her unwieldy body and put her to bed, but she doesn’t cooperate and he struggles, in truly comedic fashion, to get her into the bed. The finale, set aboard a steamship involves a band of rumrunners who try to take over the nearly deserted ship. Elmer saves the day. My problem with this sequence is that it seems a retread of a superior sequence in “The Navigator”, one of Keaton’s earlier films. It is different, but doesn’t seem to stretch the envelope enough.
The less said about “Free and Easy” the better. Keaton’s first talkie, he essentially becomes a supporting character to Elvira (Anita Page) and Larry (Robert Montgomery), two budding lovers. Elvira wins a small town beauty contest and earns a trip to Hollywood, her mother and Elmer (Keaton) in tow. On the train, they meet Larry, a famous actor. The mother is overbearing. The jokes are completely wrong for Keaton. It is a mess.
MGM proceeded to cast Keaton in a series of talkies reliant on jokes and verbal puns, not physical humor, Keaton’s trademark. Unable to use his creative skills, Keaton’s personal life soon deteriorated and his drinking became excessive. MGM soon paired Keaton with an up and coming comedian, Jimmy Durante. Durante quickly became the headliner and Keaton’s contract was not renewed. He managed to eke out a living writing gags for people like the Marx Brothers, acting in two-reelers and industrial training films and appearing on television. A few years later, he began appearing in films like “In the Good Old Summertime”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Limelight” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.
“Buster Keaton: So Funny It Hurt” is a short documentary, produced by Kevin Brownlow for Turner Classic Movies. Hosted by actor James Karen, the film follows Keaton’s short-lived career at MGM and, essentially, the end of his career. Why Karen? He met Keaton at MGM and they became friends. The documentary is interesting, but far too short to go into any interesting depth. Karen does discuss how Keaton met Eleanor, a young showgirl at MGM. They fell in love and married, the longest of Keaton’s marriages, lasting until he died. Eleanor was instrumental in reestablishing interest in her husband’s work, getting it shown at museums and repertory houses, leading to people writing about it, which lead to more people watching the films for the first time, which would ultimately lead to people remembering Keaton’s place in film history. If you consider how many silent film actors have been virtually wiped off the face of the Earth because their films have all but disappeared, we should all be grateful that Keaton’s memory and films live on.
Far more interesting is “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow”, also produced by Kevin Brownlow and his then partner David Gill. A multi-part documentary produced in the 80s for PBS, it follows Keaton throughout his life. His loves, life and work are all discussed in great detail. Try to catch this on VHS or TV, because it is not yet available on DVD.
“The Buster Keaton Collection” is an essential addition to the library of any film scholar and any fan of the great comedians.