Posted by David Kalat on January 29, 2011
In this week’s post we will meet Buster Keaton the gangster, Buster Keaton the communist, and Buster Keaton the Nazi. I’ve got a treasure trove of rare clips you won’t see anywhere else—all you have to do is click that “more” button to expand this. C’mon, you know you want to. It’ll make your day…
A couple of weeks ago I put forth a defense of Buster Keaton’s THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER, and it sparked a number of excellent, insightful comments. I’d like to respond to some of those remarks and see where it takes us.
Firstly, “Sales on Film” makes this terrific point:
You’re absolutely right, that example I presented was a bit of a cheat, and I don’t think I expressed myself clearly. What I meant to say was that there were two things Buster Keaton could have done in the talkie era that would have been successful in terms of screen comedy. One was to transition away from the kind of physical comedy for which he was known and become a more generic dialog-based comedian. This is what MGM expected of him, and by and large this was successful. His MGM talkies were profitable and popular.
And what I wanted to get across in my earlier piece is that I think films like SPEAK EASILY and PARLOR BEDROOM AND BATH are excellent on their own terms. They are not what we’ve come to expect from Keaton, or what most fans want from Keaton, but he’s really funny in movies that function exceptionally well—they just aren’t Keaton-ish slapstick films. And because he wasn’t happy with this approach, it wasn’t one destined for longterm success. But before I continue I wanted to clarify that I don’t want to throw PARLOR BEDROOM AND BATH out with the bathwater.
The alternative to being a dialog comedian in the MGM mode, approach #2, was something Keaton came to realize later, and in another of the comments Tom S. quoted Keaton on this point from the booklet included in the Masters of Cinema import set:
This idea was illustrated by that clip mentioned above, recreating a bit from ONE WEEK in PARLOR BEDROOM AND BATH. And, for that matter, in Buster’s use of the Carry-An-Unconscious-Lady gag later in the same film (and yes, Sales on Film, THE NAVIGATOR is the earlier version of the bit—good catch). Buster did not get much opportunity to develop this alternate approach during his time at MGM, but it flowered more fully in the years to come.
In some ways, Buster’s flameout at MGM was the best thing that could have happened to him. For one thing, it forced him to sober up. Other slapstick comedians of his generation with similar substance abuse problems died young (I’m looking at you, Charley Chase!)—Buster hit rock bottom, rehabilitated, and got back to work. Secondly, because he didn’t have a nest egg of riches to retire on, he had to keep working—which, combined with a powerful Midwestern work ethic, meant he continued to make movies—features, shorts, industrial films, commercials, live TV appearances, television serials… he enlivened everything from THE TWILIGHT ZONE to THE DONNA REED SHOW to CANDID CAMERA.
Other silent comedy stars, if they continued to the sound era at all, eventually gave up on their old personas. Charlie Chaplin took the Tramp into MODERN TIMES in 1935 but went no further. When he lampooned Hitler in 1940’s THE GREAT DICTATOR, he couldn’t help but acknowledge that his own longstanding appearance happened to share a moustache with the world’s most hated villain, but beyond that it is hard to see THE GREAT DICTATOR as a true “Tramp” comedy. Still, let’s grant that it is—and say that Chaplin took his silent era persona all the way to 1940, and then stopped.
Harold Lloyd made it farther—reviving his “glasses” character in 1947’s THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK with screwball maestro Preston Sturges. Yet this was a diminution of both men—lesser Lloyd and lesser Sturges, a whole less than the sum of its parts.
Chaplin and Lloyd, being brilliant businessmen who controlled their own creations, knew when to call it quits, and let themselves fade gracefully into retirement. Buster Keaton did not. He already had WHAT NO BEER? on his resume, which meant he pretty much had no dignity left to maintain.
And as Keaton kept working, he took that philosophy quoted above very much to heart.
Two things about Keaton in this post-silent world:
#1. He kept wearing his old costume. There was no attempt to moderate it for the modern world, or even to acknowledge that there were once the clothes of a much younger man. Keaton remained Keaton, a stubborn and welcome intrusion of the past into the present.
#2. He shut up.
He didn’t just decide to hand over the puns and dialog gags to costars while he found moments of silent action to do his thing—he just stopped talking altogether. There was little effort expended to make his silence plausible or coherent—like his clothes, it meant he was a living relic of a bygone age still adhering to rules of a game no one else was playing.
Here’s Buster, speechless, in an episode of ROUTE 66:
Singlehandedly, Buster Keaton continued to fly the flag of a silent era comedy aesthetic long after his peers had retired and/or died, on deep into the swinging sixties.
Because he took work wherever he found it, he ended up appearing in a number of foreign-made films. And because these are foreign films that had virtually no distribution in the US, they are almost never discussed.
The first came in 1934, following Buster’s ouster from MGM. LE ROI DU CHAMPS-ELYSEES (“The King of the Champs-Elysees”) was made in France for producer Seymour Nebenzal, the man who produced Fritz Lang’s M and THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. In fact, weirdly, some footage from TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE was reused in LE ROI. (It’s as close as I’ll ever get to having Buster Keaton vs. Dr. Mabuse)
Buster plays two roles in this film. One is a dangerous gangster, recently escaped from prison and ready to retake his criminal empire.
The other is an aspiring but inept actor–
This second role leads to some “disrupt the performance” gags that Keaton seemed drawn to (see also SPEAK EASILY, BACKSTAGE, THE PLAYHOUSE, SHERLOCK JR., LIMELIGHT, THE SILENT PARTNER…) For example, here’s Buster (trapped in a knight’s helmet and suspended above the stage) triggering chaos on stage:
In this clip, Actor-Buster has been mistaken for Gangster-Buster and taken back to the gang’s HQ, where legions of armed thugs surround him–some of them hoping to kill and usurp him. Naturally, Actor-Buster wants to sneak out of the place before his true identity is discovered, but that’s harder than it sounds:
This was still early in the talkie era, and Keaton is still trying to find his voice—pun intended. He is dubbed for the most part throughout this picture (as you saw above), which gives him more dialog than he was comfortable with. As the years wore on, he gravitated away from dialog and into the weirdly mute mode described above.
For example, consider his appearance in the Italian film L’INCANTEVOLE NEMICA (“The Charming Enemy”). This 1953 farce was directed by Claudio Gora, a man better known as an actor, and whose acting credits tend towards the bloody end of the cult movie spectrum: MAD DOG KILLER, SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS, THE DEATH RAY OF DR. MABUSE… This was one of his rare outings as a director, and the film is intended as a social satire. According to the plot synopsis on IMDB, the story involves “a cheese factory owner [who] fears communists and mistakes a meek youth who works for him for one of them. He invites the young man to his house where the youth falls in love with the factory owner’s daughter.” I don’t understand Italian, so after watching the film I can’t dispute that description, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes because Buster Keaton only appears in one scene and he has literally nothing to do with the rest of the story.
OK, maybe not nothing. He does a stage act, derived from old silent comedy routines, that seems to comment on the workplace-related stuff of the story—union organizers, communists, and capitalist barons provide a satirical backdrop for this scene of a worker struggling with the means of production. But, really, you could snip this out of context and watch it all alone and it would make as much sense as it does in the movie—so, here it is, snipped out of context and ready to watch on its own:
By the way, the actor who plays the pseudo-commie youth in L’INCANTEVOLE NEMICA is Robert Lamoureux, a French actor who played the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin in a brace of 1950s thrillers—there’s a curious thread of pulp mystery connections running through these late period Keaton movies.
I didn’t give you the entire Keaton clip—it continues briefly with him and the other stage performers accepting accolades and flowers from the crowd. Buster has some funny business with the female lead, Pina Renzi, and we get a glimpse of his luscious soulful eyes. Yes, everyone, I’ll admit it—I’m gay for Buster Keaton:
Buster’s last feature film ever was the 1966 Italian comedy DUE MARINES E UNE GENERALE (“2 Marines and 1 General,” also known as WAR ITALIAN STYLE). Shot before A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM but released after, 2 MARINES AND 1 GENERAL was the last feature film to include Keaton—and he looks ghastly pale in it.
I can’t be sure if this is a sign of his failing health or a poor attempt to evoke his old silent-era whiteface makeup that misfired terribly. So many things misfire in this movie I wouldn’t put it past them. Like my discussion of Robert Altman’s POPEYE a while back, I think this is one of those cases where so much went so wrong that it ended up making something genuinely interesting. Maybe not entertaining—I wouldn’t go that far—but definitely interesting.
Unlike Keaton’s cameo in L’INCANTEVOLE NEMICA, Buster has a prominent co-starring role here—which I’ll get to in a moment—alongside the top-billed comedy team of “Franco & Ciccio.” Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrasia had teamed up as a stage comedy duo and become so popular in that mode they ported their act over to movies, where they cranked out some 114 films together. They’re like an Italian hybrid of Abbott and Costello mixed with Martin and Lewis, but the worst parts of each. Ciccio Ingrasia, the one who looks like Kramer from SEINFELD, was the Bud Abbott-styled straight man. Franco Franchi was the pair’s Jerry Lewis imitator, always mugging and contorting for the most grotesque of gags. Franchi, however, idolized Buster Keaton. He considered it one of the highlights of their 114-film career to have made one with Buster Keaton.
Franco & Ciccio play a pair of American GIs (!) whose incompetence so enrages their superior officers that rather than punishing the pair they are ordered onto a suicide mission deep in Nazi Germany. It’s a premise that has cropped up in a handful of strange little war movies, like Enzo Castellari’s original version of INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. In this case, the two bumblers have to get far enough behind enemy lines that they can capture high-ranking Nazi strategist General von Kassler—guess who.
Yup. Somehow it’s come to this. Buster Keaton, in his final feature film, plays a Nazi General. That’s the world we live in.
But the film doesn’t paint Von Kessler as a villain. He’s somewhere between too-incompetent-to-be-dangerous and secretly-sympathizing-with-the-good-guys (in other words, he’s Buster Keaton!). So, along the way, he and the Americans forge a wary alliance—but not before the movie has suffered whiplash-inducing tonal shifts, irrational plotting, sloppy filmmaking, bad acting, and increasingly bizarre black humor.
The AIP release of WAR ITALIAN STYLE was recut to remove some of Franco & Ciccio’s material, and also rescored with possibly the worst soundtrack ever heard in any movie ever made. So as not to assault your senses unduly, I chose this clip from the Italian version. At the very beginning, when Franco & Ciccio flee Buster’s presence (they are still ostensible enemies at this point in the story) you’ll hear a brief exclamation in Italian, but the rest is wordless and plays better with the original music. This is a good example of Buster’s notion of digressing into wordless asides of purely physical comedy:
Getting weirded out by the sight of Buster wearing a swastika and doing the “Heil Hitler” salute? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This next scene comes from much later in the film (Buster’s now more clearly in cahoots with the Americans) and requires the dialog track to get its point across, so this clip is taken from the AIP version. The blend of DR. STRANGELOVE-esque gallows humor with Franco Franchi’s most unhinged Jerry Lewis impression will probably burn its way into your brain forever:
Sorry if this is considered a spoiler, but they escape. And this leads to our final clip this week–one I can’t wait to share.
First, notice how Buster’s speechlessness becomes foregrounded, to set up the final punchline (and, yeah, I know it’s a little ruined here in the WAR ITALIAN STYLE cut). Second–this is one strange movie. This is all about forgiving and freeing a Nazi General–compare it to the finale of Quentin Tarantino’s version of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS which is basically a reverse image of this idea. But for as strange, and incoherent, and annoying as this movie is, I dare you–I literally dare you–to watch this clip and not smile.
That’s where our story ends. Buster did survive in the sound era—he wormed his way into a strange little niche that no one else was even trying, and for about 40 years after silent movies ended, he maintained his screen persona, his comedy aesthetic, and his flat hat all the way to the end.
Next week–all you Spaghetti Western haters, start sharpening your knives!
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