The Archaeology of Comedy: Ancient Funnybones Found Intact

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.”

DVD: Lost Keaton: 16 Comedy Shorts 1934-1937

Director: Various

Cast: Buster Keaton

Release date: 2010-07-06

Distributor: Kino

Image: 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.

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

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.

DVD: Chicago: The Original 1927 Film Restored

Film: Chicago

Director: Frank Urson

Cast: Phyllis Haver, Victor Varconi

Distributor:Flicker Alley

Release Date: July 2010-07-06

Image: 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.