Keaton International

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…

Buster Keaton

 

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:

I think most Keaton fans grouse, not specifically about sound pictures ruining Buster’s career, but with saddling him with clunky, horrible dialogue. In the example from PARLOR, BEDROOM, AND BATH and ONE WEEK, that’s a silent gag. It comes off beautifully in a silent picture or a sound picture; it doesn’t matter because there’s no dialogue and doesn’t hinge on a sound effects gag for its humor. I don’t know if your assertion that “Buster Keaton could’ve functioned in the talkie era just fine” is supportable from that example because that’s an inherently silent gag.

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:

“When sound came, we found this out- we found this out from our own pictures- that sound didn’t bother us at all. There was only one thing I wanted at all times, and insisted on: that you go ahead and let me talk in the most natural way, in your situations. Don’t give me puns. Don’t give me jokes. No wisecracks. Give that to Abbott and Costello. Give that to the Marx Brothers. Because as soon as out plot is set and everything is going smooth, I’m going to find places in the story where dialogue is not called for. There can be two or three people working at jobs- well they work at them without talking. That’s the way I want it. So you get those stretches in your picture of six, seven, eight, nine minutes where there isn’t a word of dialogue. In those, we did our old routines.”

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk1CvlwAshI]

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.

Buster Keaton on TV

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IluyAWL25d0]

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.

King of the Champs-Elysees

The other is an aspiring but inept actor–

King of the Champs-Elysees

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rH_pAB7BBaw]

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESytl3zW6EM]

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.

Buster in Italy

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGyU16a0yfA]

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:

The eyes of 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.

2 marines and 1 general

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.

lobby card

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CF23oFJ8YWk]

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpJTBQHutvk]

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhOFirDcIds]

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!

19 Responses Keaton International
Posted By suzidoll : January 29, 2011 2:40 pm

I just recently realized how much TV Keaton did. I have seen the TWILIGHT ZONE episode and a couple of other tv shows. All interesting if not entirely successful. I like the TWILIGHT ZONE ep. a lot.

Just showed COPS at the end of my class for my students. I will see how they liked it this coming week. It usually goes over well.

Posted By suzidoll : January 29, 2011 2:40 pm

I just recently realized how much TV Keaton did. I have seen the TWILIGHT ZONE episode and a couple of other tv shows. All interesting if not entirely successful. I like the TWILIGHT ZONE ep. a lot.

Just showed COPS at the end of my class for my students. I will see how they liked it this coming week. It usually goes over well.

Posted By Tom S : January 29, 2011 3:09 pm

It’s funny that you mentioned Inglourious Basterds a few times, because a lot of this article was making me wish that somewhere in the 40s-60s there was someone as obsessed with pop culture history as Tarantino is, and capable of giving Keaton a role that would use him well yet recontextualize him, the way Tarantino has become known for doing.

Watching these clips, it’s clear that Keaton the physical comedian is greatly diminished- he’s stiff, he’s less inventive, and the Lucy clip in particular seems to have put him in some stuff that was stale even for Vaudeville- but his actual acting, the look of totally bewildered innocence and the sense of his mind working away at the kind of straight line solutions that he always excelled at, those are there in full.

Of course, there was Film (and Sunset Boulevard) but those both seemed to use him as a cruel joke, where his age was the punchline. The Italian movie discussed here, 2 Marines 1 General (what an unfortunate name in the the era of 2Girls1Cup!) certainly seems to have recontextualized and respected Keaton, but it also seems to have been… well, bad.

I feel as though we live in an era of late career renaissances, or at least opportunities for them (Burt Reynolds and Travolta come to mind) and chances for comedic performers to put themselves in an interesting new light- Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love and Michael Palin in Brazil, for example. It seems like Keaton, on the other hand, was mostly used as a cheap way to get a name on a marquee that people might recognize. I’m glad he kept working, but it would have been nice if he had gotten work with people who really understood _and_ admired him.

Posted By Tom S : January 29, 2011 3:09 pm

It’s funny that you mentioned Inglourious Basterds a few times, because a lot of this article was making me wish that somewhere in the 40s-60s there was someone as obsessed with pop culture history as Tarantino is, and capable of giving Keaton a role that would use him well yet recontextualize him, the way Tarantino has become known for doing.

Watching these clips, it’s clear that Keaton the physical comedian is greatly diminished- he’s stiff, he’s less inventive, and the Lucy clip in particular seems to have put him in some stuff that was stale even for Vaudeville- but his actual acting, the look of totally bewildered innocence and the sense of his mind working away at the kind of straight line solutions that he always excelled at, those are there in full.

Of course, there was Film (and Sunset Boulevard) but those both seemed to use him as a cruel joke, where his age was the punchline. The Italian movie discussed here, 2 Marines 1 General (what an unfortunate name in the the era of 2Girls1Cup!) certainly seems to have recontextualized and respected Keaton, but it also seems to have been… well, bad.

I feel as though we live in an era of late career renaissances, or at least opportunities for them (Burt Reynolds and Travolta come to mind) and chances for comedic performers to put themselves in an interesting new light- Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love and Michael Palin in Brazil, for example. It seems like Keaton, on the other hand, was mostly used as a cheap way to get a name on a marquee that people might recognize. I’m glad he kept working, but it would have been nice if he had gotten work with people who really understood _and_ admired him.

Posted By Surveying Late, International Keaton « Movie City News : January 29, 2011 4:44 pm

[...] Surveying Late, International Keaton [...]

Posted By Surveying Late, International Keaton « Movie City News : January 29, 2011 4:44 pm

[...] Surveying Late, International Keaton [...]

Posted By Tweets that mention TCM’s Classic Movie Blog — Topsy.com : January 29, 2011 5:11 pm

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Grindhouse Database, The Daily Notebook. The Daily Notebook said: "Buster Keaton the gangster, Buster Keaton the communist, and Buster Keaton the Nazi." David Kalat, with clips @TCM http://bit.ly/dKCPgw [...]

Posted By Tweets that mention TCM’s Classic Movie Blog — Topsy.com : January 29, 2011 5:11 pm

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Grindhouse Database, The Daily Notebook. The Daily Notebook said: "Buster Keaton the gangster, Buster Keaton the communist, and Buster Keaton the Nazi." David Kalat, with clips @TCM http://bit.ly/dKCPgw [...]

Posted By Medusa : January 30, 2011 4:37 pm

An embarrassment of amazing riches! Wow! On a completely trivial note, I thought I would point out that fans of “Bonanza” would find the music behind the Buster and Lucy skit familiar; it’s definitely one of David Rose’s jauntier themes from that show (and possibly used on “Little House” as well). While trying to find out if there was some official connection, I came across this other Keaton/Bonanza crossover — http://booksteveslibrary.blogspot.com/2011/01/scene-stealers-1965.html (Ed Wynn appeared in an episode of “Bonanza” but Keaton didn’t, too bad.)

Thanks so much for pointing out these terrific gems!

Posted By Medusa : January 30, 2011 4:37 pm

An embarrassment of amazing riches! Wow! On a completely trivial note, I thought I would point out that fans of “Bonanza” would find the music behind the Buster and Lucy skit familiar; it’s definitely one of David Rose’s jauntier themes from that show (and possibly used on “Little House” as well). While trying to find out if there was some official connection, I came across this other Keaton/Bonanza crossover — http://booksteveslibrary.blogspot.com/2011/01/scene-stealers-1965.html (Ed Wynn appeared in an episode of “Bonanza” but Keaton didn’t, too bad.)

Thanks so much for pointing out these terrific gems!

Posted By Paul M. : January 30, 2011 9:09 pm

Nice article, but you strangely omit any mention of Laurel & Hardy who also kept their late silent personas going well into the 1950′s. They too did not alter themselves for the adaption to sound. Their mannerisms often used hand gestures to encourage the other to do something rather that verbally ask. Fortunately Hal Roach knew how to use them in sound films. Even their unfortunate transition over to FOX and later MGM managed to retain their old personality, clothes & style.

They did not welcome television as Buster did, even though there is evidence of a planned TV series.

I like Buster Keaton’s Columbia comedies and wish things had gone better over there for him. I feel we still missed out on many possibilities for him.

Posted By Paul M. : January 30, 2011 9:09 pm

Nice article, but you strangely omit any mention of Laurel & Hardy who also kept their late silent personas going well into the 1950′s. They too did not alter themselves for the adaption to sound. Their mannerisms often used hand gestures to encourage the other to do something rather that verbally ask. Fortunately Hal Roach knew how to use them in sound films. Even their unfortunate transition over to FOX and later MGM managed to retain their old personality, clothes & style.

They did not welcome television as Buster did, even though there is evidence of a planned TV series.

I like Buster Keaton’s Columbia comedies and wish things had gone better over there for him. I feel we still missed out on many possibilities for him.

Posted By Tom S : January 30, 2011 10:04 pm

Paul M- this series of articles actually started with a discussion of an early Laurel and Hardy talkie, and a lot of the nature of crossing over for them was addressed there.

Posted By Tom S : January 30, 2011 10:04 pm

Paul M- this series of articles actually started with a discussion of an early Laurel and Hardy talkie, and a lot of the nature of crossing over for them was addressed there.

Posted By Paul M. : January 31, 2011 6:26 pm

Thanks for the Laurel & Hardy update, I only saw this page in the thread. I have encountered other silent comedy statements that omit Laurel & Hardy and thought that was the case here.

We just did a “Dawn Of Sound at the Roach Studios” program at the Essanay Silent Film Museum’s Edison Theater this month. One of the discussions was about Laurel & Hardy filming their earliest sound films in the evening so that Our Gang could have the sound equipment during the day. The show was well received by old and young. It is wonderful how many children attend our Hal Roach programs. At least some of the new generation will know who the stars of the Hal Roach Studios are. I believe they come for Our Gang (Little Rascals) but they also laugh at Charley Chase, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy.

We also show Buster Keaton on Comedy Night with Charley Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy. The young also show up for these shows.

Posted By Paul M. : January 31, 2011 6:26 pm

Thanks for the Laurel & Hardy update, I only saw this page in the thread. I have encountered other silent comedy statements that omit Laurel & Hardy and thought that was the case here.

We just did a “Dawn Of Sound at the Roach Studios” program at the Essanay Silent Film Museum’s Edison Theater this month. One of the discussions was about Laurel & Hardy filming their earliest sound films in the evening so that Our Gang could have the sound equipment during the day. The show was well received by old and young. It is wonderful how many children attend our Hal Roach programs. At least some of the new generation will know who the stars of the Hal Roach Studios are. I believe they come for Our Gang (Little Rascals) but they also laugh at Charley Chase, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy.

We also show Buster Keaton on Comedy Night with Charley Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy. The young also show up for these shows.

Posted By Patricia Tobias : March 28, 2011 11:08 pm

Very nice piece, David! Sorry I didn’t get a chance to read it before now.

If anyone is interested in learning more about Keaton, we invite you to visit http://www.busterkeaton.com or join us on Facebook, Twitter or at the Yahoo group busterkeatonfans.

Patricia Eliot Tobias
President
The International Buster Keaton Society, Inc.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization

Posted By Patricia Tobias : March 28, 2011 11:08 pm

Very nice piece, David! Sorry I didn’t get a chance to read it before now.

If anyone is interested in learning more about Keaton, we invite you to visit http://www.busterkeaton.com or join us on Facebook, Twitter or at the Yahoo group busterkeatonfans.

Patricia Eliot Tobias
President
The International Buster Keaton Society, Inc.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization

Posted By Danny : July 29, 2013 2:31 am

I’ve just been reading up on Keaton for my site, and I really enjoyed both of your pieces on his talkies. Reading a dozen or so hate pieces on Passionate Plumber kind of brought me down, but I’m glad to see I’m in good company!

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