I’ve been away from my blog for a couple of days now but the plus side of being laden with a cold and bound up in a duvet in front of the telly is all that extra time for classic movie viewing. So here’s a Buster Keaton triple bill to make up for my time away. You can watch all the films on YouTube – they last about 20 minutes each. If you only have time for one, my top recommendation is Cops so I’ll talk about that one first.
Cops is one of Buster Keaton’s funniest and most impressive two-reel shorts. Keaton’s character is rejected by the woman of his dreams. She challenges him to become a successful businessman – only then may he have her heart. Of course his efforts to make it the world of business lead him from one disaster to another. Getting caught up in a crime, Keaton’s character is ultimately hunted down by hoards of police amid some magnificent stunts and hysterically funny gags.
The laughs come hard and fast in Cops and there’s some great physical comedy that shows off Keaton’s incredible stunts-man skills as he grabs on to moving cars and balances a horizontal ladder with numerous extras dangling from either end. But Cops also has some more powerful messages. Film historian Joseph McBride describes Cops as Keaton’s ‘most socially conscious’ film. Keaton’s character is barred from the love of his life not by gaol as is suggested in the film’s first gag, but by social class.
During the 1920s there was also huge public concern about the threat of radicals and anarchists following the Haymarket Square bombings at a labour demonstration in Chicago during the 1880s. Keaton plays on this by introducing a bomb to the police parade his character is caught up in. Keaton avoids killing anyone, staying well within the realms of comedy, instead having the police stagger around in confusion. The resulting chaos is very funny and helps to build a sense of danger and drama.
Perhaps most importantly, Cops is also a neat commentary on the American judicial system at the time. When Keaton wrote Cops, his good friend Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was undergoing his third trial for the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe, a young actress found seriously ill after a party with Arbuckle. Arbuckle’s first two trials resulted in re-trials and the third would end in an acquittal with very little evidence against Arbuckle. Nonetheless Arbuckle’s career in front of the camera was finished and Keaton helped him to rebuild a new career in directing. McBride describes how this treatment or Arbuckle accounts for a critical view of the authorities in Keaton’s Cops and the film’s stark, tragic ending.
Keaton creates a real sense of crowds and scale in Cops. Using the same actors over and over again (by directing them to run behind the camera and appear somewhere else) Keaton gives the impression that there are hundreds of policemen on his tail. His stunts are beautifully timed to fit in with these extras in long takes that are both impressive and funny.
Cops is a must see Buster Keaton film that is rich in comedy and social commentary. Sheer five star brilliance.
The Playhouse (1921)
The Playhouse is an unusual two-reel film from Keaton. The first part of the film is a stage show, but the twist is that Keaton plays all the parts, from the orchestra to the actors and even the audience. It’s an incredible feat of multiple exposures that must have surprised and stunned cinema-goers in the 1920s. Even today, the way Keaton manages to time and co-ordinate his moves – dancing in time with himself – is impressive. All of his movements along with the cranking of the camera are perfectly synchronised.
The Playhouse is a homage to vaudeville where Keaton started out with his parents as The Three Keatons. Their act was very physical, often involving his father tossing him across the stage, and even at the time it created a stir amongst authorities concerned about child abuse. Even Keaton’s name, ‘Buster’, comes from the slang for a fall.
Keaton’s The Playhouse showcases the different types of vaudeville acts as the film moves from one random stage act to another with little coherent plot – there’s a monkey act, a Zouave act and even an underwater act, all with their own calamitous results. The film puts the viewer in the position of a vaudeville audience, where no-one knows what is coming next. McBride describes the film as ‘surrealistic’ as if the result of Keaton’s ‘psyche jumbled together’. The stunts and production ‘are a blend of stage and cinema techniques’ suggests McBride, showing Keaton’s range as a performer.
Despite the physical comedy and neat observations (in one nice gag, Keaton puts out a fire that is consuming a man’s beard by using an axe found in a box marked ‘for fire use only’), much of The Playhouse touches on dark themes.
McBride relates elements of the film back to Keaton’s own struggles in show-business. There’s an emphasis upon drinking which McBride links to Keaton’s own struggle with alcoholism – when Keaton’s character sees twin sisters looking in mirrors he thinks he is seeing double and vows never to drink again. McBride also likens Keaton’s monkey impression (a clear and impressive comic highlight of the short film) to the liberated, animal-like nature of alcohol and Keaton’s own childhood experiences in vaudeville.
The Playhouse is not one of Keaton’s most hilarious two-reelers but it is a feat of incredible cinematic skill and an interesting exploration of the impact of show-business. The Playhouse is imaginative, original and confident, groundbreaking cinema.
The High Sign (1920)
The High Sign was Keaton’s first film made under Buster Keaton Studios. Unhappy with the finished picture, Keaton failed to release it until a broken ankle halted the production of The Electric House in 1921. The High Sign was then released as Keaton’s seventh film to fill a gap in the schedule.
McBride speculates about the reasons behind Keaton’s disappointment suggesting the unsympathetic nature of his character. Although Keaton’s character is naive, he is also a thief – stealing a gun in an early scene and replacing it with a banana in a policeman’s holster. Keaton’s character goes on to get himself a job as a trick shot in a shooting gallery despite the fact he can’t shoot. In turn this leads to him getting a job as a bodyguard for and assassin of the same man. It’s a story that takes a while to set up, another possible reason for Keaton’s dislike of the final film argues McBride.
Despite Keaton’s disappointment, The High Sign is a solid silent comedy with some impressive mechanical gags. Keaton’s love of mechanical contraptions is evident in The High Sign’s trick house, full of trap doors and swinging walls. Keaton films the house in a long shot, encompassing the complete frame and we see him in a cat and mouse pursuit through a cross section of the house. As he falls through floors, jumps through trick mirrors and scales walls, Keaton’s incredible talent is showcased and the long takes demonstrate his superb acrobatic ability.
The High Sign hangs together well as a short film and has plenty of gags, but it doesn’t build and build in the same way as some of Keaton’s later films (such as Cops). Nevertheless it’s interesting to see how Keaton started out and to compare this film, that he was ultimately disappointed with, to those he produced later in his career.
Parts two to four of The High Sign are also available on YouTube via my YouTube channel. The Joseph McBride commentaries are available on the DVD The Complete Buster Keaton Short Films.