The Archaeology of Comedy

Ancient Funnybones Found Intact

by Michael Barrett

22 July 2010

Buster Keaton 

It's All In the Details

The only short directed by Al Christie (another former giant and Sennett’s rival), The Chemist is especially eccentric. It uses science fiction in a plot about Buster as a chemist who develops various miracle solutions. One is to make things grow, although this backfires in a couple of ways. His invention of an explosive makes him the target of bank robbers who want him to blast open a safe.

The three 1937 shorts have wacky, detailed plots by Paul Gerard Smith, who worked on Keaton’s silent feature Go West. Jail Bait has Buster confessing to murder as part of another elaborate stunt to impress a girl (who barely appears in the picture and has no lines, so functional and abstract is she). The prison scenes have some well-portrayed gags, including one that uses shadows effectively. During a riot, Buster uses a double-uniform trick to seem alternately a prisoner and a guard, and Macleod points out that Buster recycled this idea more effectively as a gag writer for Red Skelton in the feature A Southern Yankee.

The pleasures of these shorts often come in minor details, moments that fill time free of any plot mechanics, and that remind us of the master’s dexterity and his combination of pluck and haplessness.

In Ditto and Love Nest on Wheels, any romantic plans are foiled by the fact that the women are already married. In the first, Buster romances identical twins without realizing it. The ending has another touch of science fiction, being set 15 years in the future, when people have their own airplanes with trailers attached. The final gag, set in Canada, is a reference to the Dionne quintuplets, born in 1934. Maltin says the scene involves seven women, but he and Macleod seemd to have missed the gag. Maltin complains that the production is too cheap to use multiple exposures in showing us the identical girls from the front. That’s true enough. We see the ladies from the back, and their names are written on their chairs.

The 1937 viewers were supposed to recognize the topical reference and laugh at their own cleverness in putting the joke together indirectly. That worked well enough in its own context, but any gag that needs such a laborious explanation decades later isn’t so hot.

The last film returns us to the backwoods Keaton family, now running a hotel in the middle of nowhere. This relies heavily on knockabout slapstick in crowded compositions and it’s funny, especially as the Keatons remain unflappable. Macleod observes that some of the gags come straight out of the Arbuckle-Keaton short, The Bell Boy (1918).

We return to Maltin’s summation: “The films do not deserve to be dismissed; the best of them show a true professional, still creating great comedy. Even in the weakest films, one can always spot the special something that made Keaton the comic artist he was.” In other words, this collection will disappoint those looking for gold on the level of his silent shorts, but will reward those of modified expectations. We hope it won’t be the last in Kino’s ongoing resurrection of Keaton’s legacy.

Phyllis Haver

Phyllis Haver

Speaking of resurrected legacies: Most people know Chicago in its most recent incarnation as an Oscar-winning musical, but it has a long history going back to a smash Broadway comedy of 1926 inspired by real-life cases of sensational Chicago trials covered by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. Its first film version was this 1927 gem produced by Cecil B. DeMille, directed by Frank Urson, and written by Lenore J. Coffee. Being closer to the original source and era, this film is more cynical than both later film versions.

Though Roxie Hart (1942) with Ginger Rogers is also a delightful movie, highlighted by Rogers dancing the black bottom in prison, it was made after the Production Code had cracked down more definitely on things like getting away with murder. Therefore, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson came up with a spin that managed to be cynical and clean at the same time: Roxie confesses to a murder in order to cash in on the publicity, when in fact she’s innocent. The latest film, based on the 1975 stage musical version, actually moves the focus away from Roxie, who is depicted as savvy and likeable.

cover art

Chicago: The Original 1927 Film Restored

Director: Frank Urson
Cast: Phyllis Haver, Victor Varconi


Phyllis Haver’s performance as Roxie in 1927 pulls no punches in leaving her as much a figure of satire as the justice system. It begins by depicting her impulsive murder of her lover (Eugene Pallette), and this is brilliantly staged in a manner that will still startle anyone. (How important it is that this print is sparklingly clear, as if shot last week.) Roxie is in every way a shallow dimwit who only imagines that she knows the score. Her only sympathy lies in her self-unaware cluelessness as she goes from self-pity to childish delight and greed at her sudden fame. She is ultimately used as mercilessly as she uses others, and the film conveys a world of mutual exploitation and amorality that must be counted as much a precursor of the noir sensibilitiy as such late silents as Underworld and The Racket, which are far more serious as gangster films.

The lone good man in the picture is her husband (Victor Varconi), and even he must be recognized as a fooled husband who is willing to steal for love. We’ll call it love, but the way he plays with Roxie’s garters in the opening scene (as they wake in separate beds) tells us plenty. Still, it’s his function to stand around as the only beacon of morality, compromised as he is, and his final rejection of Roxie seems intended as a sop to the censors to demostrate that crime doesn’t pay—much. Despite this coda, there’s no forgetting the bite of the final courtroom scenes.

The sequence inside the prison has remained in some ways intact in all versions, with its variety of hard-bitten women, and here it’s a mosaic of tones and comic details. Every scene is beautifully observed, with many characters at odds but all conniving to construct a sense of false narrative in which they all participate. An example is the scene of Roxie’s arrest, which includes input from the police, the ambitious district attorney and the pushy reporters, who all turn Roxie into a willing participant in her own lampoonery. The appeals to the jury are all about constructing a story and casting Roxie as some kind of player in it, until the idea of a “real” Roxie or “true” story becomes obscure and irrelevant. No wonder this tale continues to seem relevant through times that perhaps don’t change as much as we think.

Flicker Alley has packaged this lost classic with unnecessary but pleasant extras. There are two documentary films about the 1920s, one using newsreel footage and one interviewing former flappers, and a short piece on the real case that inspired Roxie Hart.

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