The Archaeology of Comedy: Ancient Funnybones Found Intact

by Michael Barrett

22 Jul 2010

Buster Keaton 

More valuable fossils have been unearthed from the strata of film history: a bunch of lost Keatons and one lost Roxie. Fortunately, their funny bones are intact.

Leonard Maltin, in his landmark The Great Movie Shorts (1972), begins his section on Buster Keaton thusly: “Legend has it that Buster Keaton’s career started sliding downhill in 1930 and never stopped—that his talkie films are unspeakable horrors. Keaton himself perpetuated this myth, and there are many who believe it. The talking films, however, still exist, and they disprove what has been said for so many years. To be sure, they are not in the same league as Keaton’s silents, but they show a comic talent very much alive, and, in some cases, they compare favorably to other comedies being made at the same time.”

cover art

Lost Keaton: 16 Comedy Shorts 1934-1937

US DVD: 6 Jul 2010

Perhaps the best case for this can be made with some of his early talking features and some of his later Columbia shorts. A lesser though still valuable case can be made with the 16 shorts Keaton made for Educational Pictures from 1934 to 1937, which are gathered for the first time in Kino’s two-disc Lost Keaton. It’s an important volume for fans, but the Keaton neophyte must understand that this isn’t the place to begin.

One should begin with the silent material, either the shorts with Fatty Arbuckle or the items in Kino’s Art of Buster Keaton box. Those items are hilarious and ingenious in ways the Educationals don’t approach. Rather, these talkies are for the Keaton connoisseur, the viewer who just likes to watch a master at work, even when the surrounding material isn’t at his best or of his own devising. The pleasures of these shorts often come in minor details, moments that fill time free of any plot mechanics, and that remind us of his dexterity and his combination of pluck and haplessness.

Educational Pictures cranked out hundreds of two-reel comedies from their New York studios. They used an array of fading and upcoming talent, and the studio’s defining characteristic, as Maltin says, was cheapness. “Grinding out some sixty shorts a year,” he writes, “the Educational team was bound to do something right once in a while, but more often than not the Educational shorts were tired slapdash affairs”.

That’s a bit harsh for the Keaton material. The shorts on the first disc aren’t hilarious, but they get better as they go along, and I don’t think it’s just that one gets used to them. Another point in their favor is something they lack; none of these have any racial stereotypes, an element that turns up often enough in comedies of the era and can be found in some of Keaton’s best films. The plots of these shorts almost invariably involve Buster’s character (usually named Elmer) trying to impress a woman, and although the situations are absurd, they aren’t long on belly laughs. The majority are directed by Charles Lamont, by now a veteran of many shorts since the 1920s and on his way to features with Abbott & Costello and Ma & Pa Kettle.

In The Gold Ghost, Buster appoints himself sheriff of a ghost town just before a gold rush hits. The best scenes are the ones where Buster is by himself, wandering about the town interacting with objects. In Allez Oop, his shallow girlfriend (Dorothy Sebastian, his leading lady in the feature Spite Marriage) is charmed by a trapeze artist, which leads to Buster’s bumbling attempts to practice. The setpiece is a finale in the courtyard of some apartments where Buster suddenly demonstrates his agility during a fire. The man whom Buster annoys at the circus is Harry Myers, a comic veteran best remembered as the drunken millionaire in Charles Chaplin’s City Lights.

Palooka from Paducah is a stand-out because it features members of Keaton’s family, with whom he performed in vaudeville, playing his backwoods family. There’s Ma (Myra Keaton), Pa (Joe Keaton), and Sis (Louise Keaton). Their rustic delivery, straight out of the same well of stereotypes that have served everything from Li’l Abner to The Beverly Hillbillies, is more amusing than the physical gags, and the whole thing culminates in a trip to the city for a wrestling match. The Keaton family (without Joe but with brother Harry) returns in the final film, Love Nest on Wheels, and they’re still funny.

One Run Elmer is in two parts. The first section is about Elmer’s competition running a gas-station only a few yards away from another station in the middle of the desert. This entrepreneurial rivalry naturally becomes a romantic one when a pretty girl (Lona Andre, who appears in several of these) drives through, and the second half is a baseball game with the men on opposite teams. According to the onscreen notes by David Macleod, who frequently tracks the history of particular gags from previous Keaton films, this segment recycles and preserves many devices from Keaton’s charity baseball games.

In Hayseed Romance, Buster answers an ad for a handyman-husband. A hefty widow with a pretty daughter has placed the ad, and the viewer can perceive the misunderstanding easily enough. The real point isn’t the plot but setpieces involving the doomed stack of dishes in the kitchen and the attempt to get a good night’s sleep under a leaky roof. The finale, which involves a double-exposure of Keaton playing his own conscience, uses a gag that must be inspired by Mark Twain’s “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”.

Tars and Stripes is filmed on location at a naval base, and its greatest attraction is the presence of veteran comic Vernon Dent, who can be seen to better advantage in the films of Harry Langdon (also available from Kino) and the Three Stooges. The pretty girl is Dorothea Kent, who shows up in several of these, including The E-Flat Man, which opens with she and Buster eloping while a break-in is happening next door.

The Timid Young Man is the only one of these directed by Mack Sennett, a former giant of the comedy industry. It marks the only time he worked with Keaton. It’s unusual in that Keaton for a change wants to avoid getting married and declares himself a woman-hater when he crosses paths with a woman who’s jilted her betrothed at the altar. Most of the film involves outdoorsy gags about fishing and camping while a bully shows up to cause trouble.

Three on a Limb opens at the kind of drive-in restaurant we’re more familiar with from movies set in the ‘50s, like American Graffiti. These must have been a new feature of the landscape in 1936, and we also hear one waitress refer to some guys as “twerps”. Was this a hip new term? The short already validates itself as a slice of cultural history, but what of its comedy? Buster becomes a rival for a young woman’s affections, while each of her parents want her to marry a different suitor. The result is a wacky attempt to marry her off to anybody while she stands there like a piece of furniture, apparently prepared to accept whatever the gods deliver as the scene turns into a fracas.

Maltin promises us that Grand Slam Opera is outstanding, and he’s right. It’s the only one of these on which Keaton gets a story credit, and it’s conclusive proof that he should have been providing the story more often. It opens in song as Keaton is placed on a train and bid farewell by a necktie party that never wants to see him again. This fresh device leads us to think the whole thing will be in rhyme, like the Three Stooges’ “Woman Haters”, but not so. When Keaton arrives in New York, he makes a nuisance of himself to the pretty young woman who lives below him as he practices various talents in his room. At one point, he reads an article about Fred Astaire (then a new movie star) and begins dancing on the walls and furniture in a manner uncannily foreshadowing Astaire’s ceiling dance in Royal Wedding.

You ain’t seen nothing yet. He goes on a radio show, Colonel Crow’s Amateur Night (a spoof of Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour). While waiting outside, he dances to an international medley. Seeing Keaton dance is a joy. That’s before he even gets on the program, where he causes havoc with his idiotic yet gracefully timed talents. There’s still more in this free-wheeling affair before a beautifully silly ending. Macleod reports that this and One Run Elmer were the only Educationals that Keaton liked.

Two shorts are directed by Raymond Kane. Mixed Magic (one of the shorts in roughest shape) has Buster ruining a magic act, exposing the mechanics on popular tricks used to this day. Blue Blazes concerns Buster’s transfer to a quiet fire station after he proves a bust as a fireman in a busy station. His scene rescuing the chief’s wife is another brief nod to Spite Marriage. This short has a curious thread of gay-baiting humor through visual and verbal double-entendre, as the relaxed fire station is populated by men who tend flowers and wear aprons.

One sight gag shows a lipsticked man sewing a doll, which he then hands to a little girl outside (her name is Nelly). The local chief at first sounds a bit swishy, but then must start shouting in order to talk to Buster. When Buster tells his captain’s wife that he doesn’t really belong to this station, she replies doubtfully that he’s certainly acting very queer, and the final shot has Buster in an awning labeled “Fruits”. This can’t all be coincidence.

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