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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The comfort of Buster Keaton's short films

Buster with his classic melancholy face.
It all started with Buster--why my blog exists in the first place, and why I'm a classic movie obsessive and evangelist.  Comedic film master Buster Keaton was my gateway drug to the ever-expanding universe that is classic film.  So when Rick of Classic Film and TV Cafe announced the 'comfort movie' blogathon to celebrate 'National Classic Movie Day' on May 16th, I had a flashback to 2010 and my long, cold winter days of enjoying short film after short film of Buster's, and I knew I had my topic.  Happy Classic Movie Day everyone!

[For more reasons to get hooked on classic movies, go here to explore all the great entries in the blogathon]. 

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was a giant of early cinema comedy, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Like those two, physically Keaton was not a giant, but a small compact athletic man, whose trademarks include a 'pork-pie' hat, a flat facial affect that, while never smiling still conveyed a range of emotion, and jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts.  To watch a Buster Keaton film is to be transported into a surreal setting that looks rather similar to early 20th century America, only, well, surreal. Keaton's career tanked quickly after talking pictures replaced silent film, and his many-faceted later career is certainly not without interest, but his silent films remain his most visible and beloved legacy.

Keaton's film career started with short films in the late 1910s, made with silent star comedian and mentor Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. Keaton starred alongside Arbuckle, but learned film direction as well during this period. Buster then came into his own as an independent filmmaker, and with his New York and Hollywood studios, assembled his stock company of actors and crewmembers and started a prolific period turning out nineteen hit two-reelers from 1920-1923.  The rest of the 1920s he focused on creating silent features, including such classics as Our Hospitality, The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.  Keaton was both a brilliant slapstick comedian and creative pioneer of the visual medium of film.  The features are brilliant, but an entire short only requires 20-25 minutes of your time!

So if your idea of comfort is taking your mind off your troubles, you could do worse than to settle down and treat yourself to a few doses of Keaton short film hilariousness.  You will be enraptured by what you see, just as Buster here:
Gif from
Following are just a few reasons I find these short films to be so addictive, with a specific film to highlight each.

Absurdist humor: I don't typically laugh at traditional slapstick humor, with pratfalls, pie-throwing stunts and the like. What I enjoy most about Buster's form of comedy is how he creates a slightly surreal universe and then puts himself into both large and small situations that are absurd, and then reacts appropriately.  Most of his films have this characteristic, but I'd like to highlight The Balloonatic (1923).  In this, one of his last shorts in this period, Buster's character takes an unplanned ride in a hot-air balloon, maroons himself in a wilderness near a river, and finds a young woman who is enjoying her own private camping expedition. Buster is smitten and wants to prove himself to her, and runs into trouble. In this film the outdoors is the primary setting, which Buster returns to in other films (see Battling Butler for one), but there is an absurd assortment of wildlife just hanging around camp to menace our hero and heroine, including, a steer with horns, and of course a black bear.  Buster also finds himself in possession of a trick canoe that breaks into three parts at the most inopportune times. Look closely at the name printed on the canoe -- 'Minnie Tee Hee' - likely a parody of the common native American name 'Minnehaha'.  
Buster in his boat 'Minnie Tee Hee" plays a joke on the viewer. Gif from
my friend Vânia (
Stunts that only Buster could pull off:  Charlie Chaplin was often called 'balletic' in his movements. Keaton was the Gene Kelly to Chaplin's Fred Astaire -- more overtly athletic but still incredibly graceful. In The Scarecrow (1920), Buster is rooming with romantic rival 'Big Joe' Roberts, in a house that consists of one room, converted for multiple uses thanks to a number of mechanical 'marvels'. In a sequence that is just a warm-up for later, but hilarious in its own right, the two men sit down for dinner and all condiments and utensils hang from the ceiling, and the two men start grabbing them and swinging them back and forth to each other in a synchronized motion that clearly was not choreographed in one sitting.  It's stunning.
Gif from

Keaton's love of dangerous stunts is showcased when he is being chased by a dog ('Luke the Dog', who featured prominently in Keaton's shorts as well as earlier in the films he made with Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle).  The extended chase takes them to the top of a hollowed out brick farmhouse, where they literally run around on a narrow foundation raised on walls well above a safe distance to the ground as only one part of a breathtaking chase sequence.  Buster was known for doing his own stunts, and somehow survived breaking countless bones in his career.
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Don't look away for five seconds:  Buster's films were chock full of gag after gag, but also the physicality and kinetic energy was off the charts.  As Hal Hinson said in a 1994 Washington Post article, "Keaton's films are like elaborate laboratories set up for research into the physics of slapstick." One of the best examples is The Electric House (1922), in which recent college grad Buster is hired to 'electrify' the home of a wealthy family while they're away on vacation. You often see clips of the escalator-driven staircase with poor Buster being thrown around trying to keep his balance as the mechanism goes out of control. I particularly love the billiard scene, in which the billiard balls are cycled from the pool table bowling-ball style, and the ball rack descends from the wall on an extension arm.  All goes well early in the film, but later a series of malfunctions going on in each room simultaneously sends Buster, and the viewer, into a tailspin of hilarity. The billiard balls start jumping around, the mechanical wall arm socks a houseguest in the jaw, and Buster, trying to escape, gets his head caught in a pair of sliding doors. (Apparently, he actually did break a leg doing the stair stunts for this film). 
Buster showing Joe Roberts how to play 'Electric Pool'
in The Electric House
Warmth of character:  Despite Buster's character's 'stone face', there is never any doubt that he's a good and honorable guy who would not hurt anyone or anything. This does not mean that he backs down from a fight, but that through his exceptional pantomime and emotion-filled eyes, can immediately get you, the viewer, on his side. Many of his misadventures come about for the love of a (deserving or not) woman, and this is nowhere more evident than in one of my favorites, One Week (1920)This short, about the trials a newlywed couple has trying to set up their new home, literally, captures all the stunts and absurd humor that he's known for, but features an unusually warm and loving relationship with his new bride, played by Keaton favorite Sybil Seely.  They share a sweet moment when Buster catches Sybil drawing interlocking hearts on the wall of the home they are building from a kit.  
Buster and Sybil Seely as cute newlyweds.
Gif from
They also are partners sharing the chores.
Gif from
Seriously--marriage goals.
So if you decide to approach Buster to cure what ails you, here's my prescription based on your need using the 'Comfort Scale':

Your ‘comfort need’
Minor Annoyance
One short film (I suggest One Week or Cops). Be warned: stopping at one is very, very hard!
I might need a drink
.... at least three shorts: (add The Balloonatic or The Scarecrow)
The world might end!
You require a marathon viewing of at least 10 shorts. (add The Boat, Frozen North, The Electric House, The Playhouse, The Goat, Paleface)

Where to watch:  The short films have been published on DVD and Blu-Ray in a number of editions over the years. Several of them are available now to stream on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

TCM Film Festival 2018 Highlights

Now that I'm effectively back on East Coast time (!), and my memory is returning, it's time to share my personal highlights from this year's Turner Classic Film Festival!  As I've done in past years, I shot a few photos of the screen when the pre-film video montages were running - I am mesmerized by these and I think they capture the dizziness and wonder that is the festival. That, or it represents the imaginings of a brain deprived of sleep.

Pre-Festival Entertainment
Since my friend and I arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and our stomachs were telling us it was dinner time, of course we headed to our favorite restaurant, which is on Hollywood Blvd. right across the street from Larry Edmunds Book Shop (bookstore heaven for the classic film nerd). Why the wonderful restaurant
 ¡Loteria! isn't better known among festival patrons, I can't fathom. They make the best margaritas this side of Mexico, great food and atmosphere as well.  Tuesday evening we took advantage of a presentation by Kimberley Truhler, fashion author, at the Women's Club of Hollywood, on the historic site of the Hollywood School for Girls, which educated budding stars like Jean Harlow in the 1930s.  The talk was fantastic, and attended by many festival-goers. It was fun to see some old friends there!
Ms. Truhler discussing the 'bias cut' dress sported by 1930s
leading lady Kay Francis
1930s Hollywood scale model,
being restored for exhibit.
April Clemmer provides details.
Wednesday we had a tour of historic sites on Hollywood Blvd called 'Old Hollywood Walking Tour' hosted by April Clemmer, film researcher and lover of all things Hollywood. The tour was a lot of fun, as the average tourist would totally bypass the Pacific Theater (formerly Warner's Hollywood movie palace), which is sadly now boarded up. We still got a peek inside, where the famous film that broke the 'sound barrier', The Jazz Singer, had its premiere.  We also saw an original 1930s scale model of Hollywood being refurbished to be exhibited at a local museum. The tour finished up with a coffee inside the Musso & Frank Grill, continuously operating from the 1920s, when Charlie Chaplin worked on scripts there.  The partying started later in the day when we met many members of the TCM Festival Facebook group at a special gathering at the Roosevelt Hotel pool area. We left that a bit early to join our good friends from NYC, Minneapolis, and Toronto, for our annual tradition - dinner at Micelis!
Italian dinner at Miceli's with the gang
Notable films and TV shows
made on Stage 20 at Warners
Small town America, courtsey Warner Bros.
Thursday was notable first for touring Warner Brothers' Studio - the tour specifically focused on the classics, which was well done. I hadn't visited a movie set since I was 14 and my family took a trip to California and we all took the Universal tour. I don't remember much of that! I have to admit that since the Warners tour, every time I watch an old film with a small town setting, I'm reminded of a particularly inviting part of Warner's backlot, and I'm kind of pulled out of the movie. (Hang 'Em High with Clint Eastwood was the most recent example.  I don't think that was filmed at Warners, but I suppose small town settings in studio backlots have a lot in common!).  

The screen poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel
 - wish it were warmer!
After the tour, we quickly headed back to the Roosevelt Hotel for the festival opening party and then our first film. Sadly, I didn't see my first choice, the pre-code Finishing School, as I got wind through social media that the queue was already getting long a full 2 HOURS before the movie started. Not wanting to head over late and risk being shut out (it was in the smallest theater at the festival), I decided to stay put and watch Them! -- the first of the several poolside screenings. This was quite a bit of fun, due to the insect-shaped lights and antennae headgear that we all got for showing up. A bonus was that there was still plenty of food left from the opening party, and servers roaming around with plates of food passed by us on average once every three minutes. We certainly didn't leave hungry! I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Them! - for a 1950s nuclear-age sci-fi flick, the story was well-paced, good acting, and the suspense was just about perfect. 

The rest of this post provides some of my reactions, out of chronological order.
Strange-looking insects grab first row seats for Them

Basil Sydney (left) and Peter Cushing in Hamlet (1948
Unexpected festival pleasures
I missed the Kurosawa version of MacBeth, e
ntitled Throne of Blood, but did make it to Olivier's Hamlet from 1948. I loved it more than I expected I would. It was a semi-theatrical staging, with expressionistic camera work and wonderful black-and-white cinematography. All actors excelled in their roles, but I was especially taken with the subtlety and range of Basil Sydney, a British stage and screen actor previously unknown to me, playing the role of villainous Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and stepfather. I'd definitely like to see more of his work!

It wouldn't be a TCM festival without watching a western.  This year it was Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, a star-studded epic western with the fingerprints of the Italian director in evidence. Henry Fonda was an icy villain, and Charles Bronson and Jason Robards were mysterious rival gunfighters. The love interest was played by Claudia Cardinale, an Italian actress I last saw in I Soliti Ignoti (1958). Considering the film was nearly three hours long, and the first film for a Sunday morning, I stayed awake and enjoyed every mysterious twist and turn.  

An unexpected delight was the short interlude on Saturday, hosted by the folks at the TCM Wine Club. Yes, this is the club that allows you to pair your favorite films with just the right wine! As a club member, I was invited to the reception on the 12th floor roof deck, where the wine was flowing and the views were stunning.  Such a nice afternoon.  
I took advantage of my extra day in LA on the Monday after the festival to make it to ¡Loteria! one final time, meet up with a friend of a friend, and then head over to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for my first ever visit.  This cemetery, near the Paramount Studios, is one of the best-known burial places of stars.  Rudolph Valentino is interred here, and while I didn't see his final resting place, I was impressed by those of the Douglases Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, and Judy Garland. 
Tyrone Power (1914-1958)

Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1909-2000)

Judy Garland (1922-1969)

So I was really excited for the Roaring Twenties Party on Friday night, but didn't meet expectations. First, hanging outside by the pool on an April night in Hollywood, as I discovered during the Them! screening, can get one quite chilly. I left early and ended up missing the film The Roaring Twenties to go watch Leave Her to Heaven at the Egyptian. The other issue refreshments were served at the party...other than a cash bar. I would have thought this detail would have been attended to. Nevertheless, it was still fun, for a while, to hang out and see everyone's twenties outfit. Friends Andrea and Richard styling in '20s attire:

Films on nitrate are a popular attraction at this and other festivals. Nitrate film was discontinued long ago because of flammability dangers, but due to film preservation efforts and theaters like the Egyptian being equipped to screen nitrate film, filmgoers can watch them as originally produced. Nitrate films have the reputation of captivating audiences with beautiful images and deep colors.  Frankly, I'm not able to appreciate the (to me) subtle distinction. I saw three this year on nitrate: Leave Her to Heaven, A Star is Born (1937), and SpellboundOf these three, I really only enjoyed Leave Her to Heaven. 

Expected Pleasures
My schedule for Friday and Saturday consisted of films that were, more than anything, a thrill and joy to see on the big screen.  It was my first time seeing Intruder in the Dust (1949) and Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1943). This drama and comedy were back to back, making a nice contrast.  The 'don't miss' film on Saturday was None Shall Escape (1944), a wartime noir recently restored and presented by the 'Czar of Noir' Eddie Muller, with special guest, star Marsha Hunt, who still is sharp at 100!  Finally, I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I may have seen this many years ago, but it was pretty fresh. For a childs' film, it was very cleverly done, putting the viewer right inside the minds of the kids. One of the child actors in the film, Cora Sue Collins, was on hand to talk about her career. I wish more people had been in the audience to hear her.

All in all, a wonderful time--I couldn't resist sharing more photos.  Can't wait 'til next year!  
Fun to look at, but I resisted the temptation. Festival
attendees are not known for their healthy dietary habits!
Getting in the mood.
Silent film accompanist Ben Model addresses
the TCM Facebook group, with Kelly Wickersham,
group organizer, looking on. Thanks, Ben, for the DVD!