Archive for buster keaton

The Pink Angora Series Presents: The Buster Keaton Story (1957)

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2009 by mjprigge

Here it is, the first installment of “Pink Angora” here at l’eclisse.  By popular demand, Matt has chosen The Buster Keaton Story (1957) as his topic.  Read on!

They say that Buster Keaton could do more with his eyes between blinkbkss than most Hollywood screenwriters could with pages of dialogue. If Keaton was the master of the subtle glance, his on-screen doppelganger in 1957’s “The Buster Keaton Story” is a cross-eyed spastic. There is nothing about The Buster Keaton Story, clever title aside, that makes it the Buster Keaton story. The film’s gross inaccuracies are infamous; Buster’s three wives are portrayed as one (Ann Blyth), his early films are shown as studio pictures when there were indeed independent productions, even the titles of his films are changed, presenting him in such works as “The Criminal” and “The Gambler.” Of course, artistic liberties must be taken with any historical film, but TBKS approaches Oliver Stone territory in its appraisal of Buster’s life and work. Yes, there was an actor named Buster Keaton, who did in fact wear a flat hat and own a big house, reality pretty much ends there. Oh yeah, and the booze. The real Buster liked booze too.

The movie opens with the Three Keatons on tour. The poster outside a ratty old vaudeville house advertises their “Pantomime” routine, although the only time we see them on stage, Mr. Keaton (Dave Willock) is singing opera. Perhaps they did a kind of dada-esque pantomime in which you could talk. Anyway, some time passes and we see a newspaper headline, “Movies kill Vaudeville.” My theory is that they hired the cartoons to drop an anvil on Vaudeville’s head. Theatre, being the older brother of Vaudeville, would forever hold a grunge over the killing and seek revenge on numerous occasions.

With vaudeville as dead as, well, vaudeville, Buster (Donald O’Connor) is forced into the moving pictures business. The year is 1920 (in reality, Buster had been making short films with Fatty Arbuckle since 1917 and was an established actor), and Buster is turned away at the studio gate. “Famous Studios” reads the sign on the gate, and like foods that use “Delicious” in the brand name, you are forced to take them at their word. Buster ends up sneaking past the guards by balancing a wooden plank on his head and following some workmen into the lot. This is actually surprisingly honest, playing on the little-known fact that security guards are unable to see anyone with a wooden plank balanced on their head (for more on this phenomenon, check out the 1930’s bank robber Billy “Plank Head” White). Once inside, he manages to impress the studio brass with own kind of “Folsom Prison Blues” moment, and is signed to a contract.

After filming his first movie, Buster becomes a man-about-town, dating blonde bombshells and ordering his beers two at a time. In a bit of dialogue that could have come from an upcoming American Pie sequel, the bombshell asks Buster about his desire to direct his own pictures. “Do you like to do EVERYTHING yourself?” Buster: “Well, not everything…” Heh, heh, heh.

That is the real Buster Keaton on the LEFT. Just to clear it up...

That is the real Buster Keaton on the LEFT. Just to clear it up...

Like any good (or awful) biopic, TBKS has a musical montage. Newspaper clippings show Buster’s star on the rise, with films both real and imagined. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they used some real titles (The Frozen North, The Ballonatic, The General), and some of the previously mentioned fakes. In any case, the real ones do not occur in their actual order, and the re-created routines often borrow from several sources and add heavy doses of dumpy ad-libbing on the part of O’Connor. In TBKS O’Connor looks more like hippie-kissing, presidential also-ran Dennis Kucinich than the title character. He wears Keaton’s famous outfit (often anachronistically), but brings nothing in the way of the physicality or voice of the man. I can hardly fault O’Connor (a very talented actor in his own right) for not being able to match Keaton in his pratfalls and comic grace. No one can be expected to do that. However, O’Connor lacks the basic fearlessness Keaton took into his work. In Marion Meade’s biography of Keaton, she writes that during rehearsals with Keaton, O’Connor flat-out refused to do many of the stunts the sixty-one year old was showing him. O’Connor called them “scary.”

So after a quick and steady rise, everyone knows what comes next in a biopic… rock bottom! Buster hits his with the help of the bottle, his condition being aggravated by the smashing success of the Jazz Singer. His latest silent is a flop, while the line snakes around the block for the new talkie. Distraught, Keaton meets up with his old pal Don Lockwood, and they get drunk on rye and speed down Alameda Boulevard, smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat (although I might have just dreamed that last part).

On a particularly wicked bender, Keaton marries his old casting director Gloria (Ann Blyth). She marries him to try to clean him up, I guess, but it doesn’t work so well. Buster tries talkies, but that doesn’t work so well, either. He is brow-beaten by director Peter Lorre, who plays a kind of bored, Nazi version of Ed Wood. Unable to nail his lines (not even after take four!!!), Buster kicks over a table, shouting “Rehabilitated! Rehabilitated!” the word he kept tripping over. I am told that in an early version of the “Dog Day Afternoon” script, Al Pacino was to chant “Rehabilitated!” instead of “Attica!”*

Out of chances with the movies and Gloria, she leaves him all alone in his “Italian Villa.” Genuine exterior shots of the famous residence are used in the movie (and were also used in the famous horse head scene in The Godfather). However, indoors, the massive house seems to only have two rooms (a foyer and library). They are the only two rooms in which any of the characters spend any time, and combined with the office of the studio head, about half of the film’s action takes place there. No one in the entire film seems to move very much at all. They are always in the same rooms, always dress the same, no one ever ages or cuts their hair. Time passes only in the newspapers and hammy dialogue. By the end, Buster quits drinking (he pours a brandy which he does not drink to illustrate this point) and goes back into vaudeville, reuniting with his wife and once again wowing audiences. Meanwhile, Don Lockwood isn’t returning his calls.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about The Buster Keaton Story in that, in its time, it was a rather successful film. Audiences enjoyed it and it had a rather long run years later as on television. Keaton himself hated the movie. He was shut out of the production process and claims to have never even read the script. After TBKS’s release, Buster was embarrassed by its portrayal of him as a dopey drunk, especially considering he was simultaneously appearing in TV and print ads for liquor and beer. Keaton’s second wife even went so far as to file suit against the filmmakers, claiming defamation over the wife character. She was forced to drop the suit, probably stemming from the fact the character was so far from the truth, it couldn’t be considered to be representative of any actual person. Buster received $50,000 for the rights to his name for the picture, and used the money to buy the ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley in which he lived out the rest of his days. So some good came from it. And yes, movie fans, this picture was actually not as bad as it could have been… also in consideration for the role of Buster were Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope. The horror…

Today, TBKS is a rather obscure film, never released on video or DVD (although bootlegs can be found) and off of TV for many years. The movie is worth seeing once as a curiosity for the true Keaton fan, but once is really enough. A drinking game could be made from the movie if you can get enough Busterheads together to watch it… every time something inaccurate happens in the film, someone shouts it out and everyone else takes a drink. If the inaccuracy is refuted by someone else in the room, the person who made the false claim takes three drinks… and, as always, double for flinching.

*I was not actually told this.

The Pink Angora Series

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , on June 30, 2009 by mjprigge
I can't possible elaborate upon this image...

I cannot possible elaborate upon this image.

Enjoy this latest addition from my favorite guest blogger, Matt.  Stay tuned for more to come from The Pink Angora Series here at l’eclisse.

I remember once at a party, I put a hipster in his place. He was p-shawing a friend of mine for their adoration of sappy, early nineties cinema. I remarked pithily that any dope could enjoy a good movie, but it takes a real connoisseur of film to appreciate a terrible one. I might have been a bit aggressive in my delivery, but I think the idea holds merit. I’ve heard before that the best art happens when you don’t expect it, a lucky aberration that yields something beautiful. This would suggest that mediocrity is the norm, what happens when fate and genius do not intervene. But if mediocrity happens by default, then it would reason to stand that those lucky breaks of genius can break bad too. This blog is dedicated to exceptional films and I would not dream of changing that, but just as great movies are the exception, so are the downright terrible pictures. In short, Citizen Kane  is nearer to Plan 9 from Outer Space than it is whatever tepid picture is showing at your local mall this weekend

Ed Wood, schlock king, drag queen.

Ed Wood, schlock king, drag queen.

So in that spirit, I would like to announce a new series here at l’eclisse… The Pink Angora Series. Honoring the Orson Welles of the other side, Ed Wood (who had a knack for terrible movies and a soft spot for angora and heels), Pink Angora will take a look at what happens when everything goes wrong. Since I can’t rightly decide which steaming loaf to dig into first, I will throw the nomination to the floor.

SO! Here are the candidates…

The Buster Keaton Story (1957) – Biopic of my very favorite actor of all-time, starring two of other favorites, Donald O’Conner and Peter Lorre. It tells the story of Buster’s life about as well as Napoleon Dynamite tells the life story of Bonapaurte… and the story of TNT.

Wicked Stepmother (1989) – Best known as being the forgettable final film in Bette Davis’ legendary career. Known less

The sad end for Miss Bette Davis

The sad end for Miss Bette Davis

 for being the only time that bald guy from “Night Court” shared scenes with Howard Cunningham.

Blank Check (1994) – Disney kiddie film that speculates what might happen if an annoying prepubescent boy with thrifty parent suddenly came into a million dollars cash. SPOILER ALERT… he orders Chips-Ahoy factory-direct.

So there you have it. Cast your vote in the comments!

Safety Last! (1923)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , , on June 14, 2009 by leclisse

TCM had a line-up of Harold Lloyd films fairly recently, and I caught about 30 minutes of Girl Shy (1924) before having to head off to work that morning.  I had never seen a Harold Lloyd film before, but immediately I was intrigued.  Harold Lloyd was the most famous male comedian during the silent era, selling far more tickets than either Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton had managed to do.  Yet today it is Keaton and Chaplin who are remembered and revered, not Lloyd.  Part of this neglect no doubt has to do with the fact that Lloyd held on to copyright control of his films after retirement.  He refused to rerelease them to theaters because he did not want them to be accompanied by a pianist; theaters were just not equipped with organists anymore.  In addition to this preference, Lloyd charged $300,000 for a double showing of one of his films on television, which inevitably closed the door on his films for a large segment of the public.  Good thing most of his films are now remastered and available on DVD.

Davis and Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)Safety Last! concerns a young man, Harold (Harold Lloyd), who goes to the big city in order to make enough money to marry his sweetheart, Mildred (Mildred Davis, Lloyd’s future wife).  Harold is unable to make a big break, however, and gives his all to a job as a floor clerk in a department store.  He faithfully writes to dear Mildred back home, but takes pains to create the impression that he is far more successful that his circumstances actually merit.  This charade is easy enough to maintain through the mail, but things get a bit more difficult when Mildred decides to take a trip to the city and visit Harold at work.  Harold is just barely able to keep his head above water when he pretends to order around his coworkers and occupy the boss’s office just long enough to satisfy Mildred’s curiosity.

Just as Harold begins to despair over the lack of money that Mildred will most certainly realize, he overhears the store manager trying to think up a gimick to get more customers in the store.  “I’ll give someone $1,000 to think of a way…” he remarks, which grabs Harold by the shirt collar.  He runs to hash out a plan with his roommate, who just happens to scale tall buildings for fun.  Harold offers to split the money if his roommate (Bill Strother) will agree to climb up the side of the department store to the roof.  He enthusiastically agrees, but the day of the stunt finds the two in some hot water.  It seems that Bill has gotten on the wrong side of the police officer who is heading crowd control at the site of the stunt.  He tells Harold that he’ll have to climb up a few floors himself, until he can lose the furious cop. 

Theatrical poster for Safety Last! (1923)What follows is one of the most famous sequences in silent film.  The clocktower sequence had me so nervous that my palms were actually sweating.  Apparently, the wall that Harold is climbing was actually built on the roof of a skyscraper, and then photographed so as to maintain the illusion of perilous height.  Whatever the authenticity of Lloyd’s stuntwork, each floor is a grueling ordeal.  He must deal with a flock of pigeons, a snarling dog, his own vertigo, and slippery step after slippery step.  The physicality of Lloyd’s comedy lends itself spectacularly to this scene, and his athleticism is astonishing.  I’m not much for slapstick, but Loyd is able to transcend the crudeness of completely physical comedy and meld it into a more subtle product, much as Buster Keaton does so splendidly in his own films.  The final result will keep me coming back for more.

Limelight (1952)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , on May 12, 2009 by leclisse

Limelight (1952)I recently caught the middle 30 minutes or so of Limelight (1952) on TCM and was intrigued enough to track down a copy at the local library.

Limelight is one of those films that I can say I genuinely liked, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it great.  It seemed to me that Chaplin tends to become excessively verbose on more than one occasion, and tends to direct his speeches toward a melodramatic flourish, especially in the scenes where he is trying to lift the depondent Terry (Claire Bloom) out of her suicidal rut.  Despite this tendency, I thought that a good deal of the dialogue was some of the most beautiful that I have heard in any film.

The mood of Limelight unapologetically melancholic, but that’s the point of the story.  Chaplin’s Calvero, the once great comedian of the English stage, has become in life what he was in pantomime: a tramp, and a drunk one at that.  I don’t know much about Chaplin’s private life, but it’s my understanding that his career had never recovered since the switch from silent to sound cinema.  Indeed, Chaplin refused to incorporate sound into his films until 1936’s Modern Times, and then it was only the machine in the film which had a voice.  Calvero echoes this refusal to change with the times in his comedy routines.  The charm of his comedy act never leaves the late 1890’s and early 1900’s when it was in its prime, even though the audience has (literally) walked out on that sort of slapstick vaudeville.  By 1952, the age of silent film had been dead for some time (but would soon have a “resurrection”), but Chaplin still holds on through his frequent use of broad gestures, pantomime, and choreographed movements.

The highlight of the film comes in the final scene when Calvero teams up with Buster Keaton (who is, however, without a name and relegated to the role of Calvero’s partner).  I’m not usually a fan of slapstick comedy, but this scene really works.  The contrast between Keaton’s frazzled seriousness and Chaplin’s impish clumsiness plays out marvelously, and one can easily speculate how incredible a collaboration would have been during their heyday in the 1920’s.

Claire Bloom and Charles ChaplinClaire Bloom fell a little flat for me.  I know Limelight was one of her first major acting roles, but she lacks the charming immaturity of, say, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.  These are two very different roles, of course, but I couldn’t quite see any depth to her artistry.  She often struck me as a little whiny.  She certainly didn’t come across as a “true artist,” as Calvero claims she is with his dying breath.  What I felt for her character was very similar to how I reacted to Katharine Houghton’s Joey in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  For the life of me, I could not see what Sidney Poitier, a brilliant doctor,  saw in her vapid girlishness.