Buster Keaton

Back Stage (1919)

Back Stage 1919

Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle both play stagehands at a vaudeville house. Their jobs typically involve things like pasting up new posters, helping with the sets, and assisting the performers as necessary. The performers they encounter can be a very colorful, temperamental bunch of people and when a strongman (Charles A. Post) comes to perform, he’s no exception. The strongman has a very…shall we say demanding personality. His assistant is a lovely woman (Molly Malone) and when the stagehands see him being mean to her, they decide to teach him a lesson by sabotaging his equipment.

Furious, the strongman refuses to go on and so do all of the other performers. With a theater full of people waiting to see a show, the stagehands decide to put on the performers’ costumes and do the show themselves. Of course, the show is a complete disaster, but the stagehands try to carry on the best they can. Things get even worse when the strongman appears in the balcony with a gun and starts firing it. But Buster comes to the rescue and stops the shooting while the other stagehands help put a stop to the madness.

Back Stage is far from being one of the best movies Buster Keaton ever made, but it’s still a lot of fun, good for some laughs, and it’s a good example of what a good team Keaton and Abruckle were. One of the most noteworthy things about it is that is has some jokes that Keaton would go on to re-use to in other films to great success, particularly the very famous joke where the front of a house falls and the person standing in front of it survives because they were standing where the window was. It’s not the kind of movie I’d go out of my way for, but if you’re a big Keaton fan, it’s worth seeing if only for being a movie where you get to see early versions of such famous jokes.

Spite Marriage (1929)

Spite Marriage 1929

Elmer (Buster Keaton) is the biggest fan actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian) could ask for. He never misses one of her stage performances and if he knows where she’ll be throughout the day, he tries to be there so he can see her. His presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by Trillby or her entourage. Whenever they see him, Elmer is always dressed in a very nice looking outfit, so they all assume he’s a very wealthy admirer. In reality, he works in a laundry and borrows the nice clothes.

However, Trillby is in love with fellow actor Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle). One night, an actor in the show is unable to go on at the last minute and since Elmer has seen the show so many times, he fills in. Of course, the show ends up being a complete disaster, but since Elmer was very heavily costumed on stage, he was able to sneak backstage and get back into his nice clothes without anyone being the wiser. As if the show wasn’t disastrous enough, after the performance is over, Trillby finds out Lionel is engaged to another woman. When she runs into Elmer backstage, she decides to marry him purely out of spite.

It isn’t long before Trillby realizes what a terrible idea this all was. Elmer isn’t the wealthy man she thought he was, Lionel is off with another woman, and she’s so unhappy that she spends her entire wedding night completely drunk. The next day, Trillby’s managers come to help her out of the marriage and convince Elmer to go away for a while so she can get a divorce for desertion. He leaves and accidentally ends up working on a boat with some bootleggers. Eventually, he ends up making his way to being a sailor on a private yacht, which just happens to include Trillby and Lionel as passengers. When a fire breaks out on the ship, it surprisingly ends up being the opportunity he needed to prove to Trillby just how much he loves her.

Spite Marriage was the last silent film by the great Buster Keaton and although it isn’t quite the masterpiece that some of his other movies are, it’s still a darn good movie with some really great laughs in it, particularly when Elmer is trying to put Trillby to bed when she was black-out drunk and when Elmer’s filling in for the stage actor and putting on his costume.  Buster’s good in it and the movie also greatly benefits from Dorothy Sebastian’s performance; she does a wonderful job of holding her own alongside Keaton.

The overall execution of the movie just isn’t quite up to par with some of Keaton’s earlier work primarily because Keaton wasn’t allowed as much creative control over the project. Spite Marriage is widely noted for being the turning point in his career when it started going downhill. This was the second project he made while under contract at MGM and was the last project he made there where he’d have any creative control over during his time there. But even with that lack of control, it was still a very enjoyable swan song for a silent film legend.

The Saphead (1920)

The Saphead 1920On the surface, Bertie Van Alstyne (Buster Keaton) might seem like your typical, rich, layabout. He stays out all night cavorting at nightclubs and casinos. His father, Wall Street magnate Nicholas Van Alstyne (William H. Crane) is completely dismayed by his son’s behavior and would much rather see him take his career seriously. What Nicholas doesn’t realize is that Bertie isn’t the kind of person he seems to be. Bertie had read a book that says modern women are attracted to men who behave like that and since he’s trying to get the attention of Agnes (Beulah Booker), decided to take the advice. He actually finds that kind of lifestyle kind of dull.

Instead, Nicholas is much more fond of Mark (Irving Cummings), his daughter Rose’s (Carol Holloway) husband. Mark is a very unsuccessful man who’s been carrying on an affair with a woman named Henrietta. One day, he receives a letter from Henrietta saying she was very ill and broke and needed help.

Fed up with his son’s behavior, Nicholas cuts Bertie off, giving him a million dollar severance check, but gives Bertie and Agnes his blessing to get married. On the day of their wedding, evidence of Mark’s affair with Henrietta comes to light and Nicholas tries to frame Bertie with it. This time, Nicholas is so furious he disowns him. Before long, Mark is in left in charge of handling the family’s finances and has a plan to take all of their money for himself and it’s Bertie who ends up saving the family.

The Saphead was Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature-length film. It’s not the best vehicle for Keaton’s talents; it doesn’t have as many opportunities to showcase what an absolutely brilliant physical comedian he was. There are certainly some good laughs in The Saphead and it’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. I actually did enjoy it, but I can see why a lot of people might not appreciate this one as much as they would The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr.  But if you’re a serious Buster Keaton fan, it’s well worth seeing if only for the chance to see something a little different than you might expect from one of his movies.

TCMFF 2015, Day 2: Early Technicolor, Dustin Hoffman, and BOOM!

Today involved making a lot of my hardest decisions of the entire festival. In a way, it was actually kind of nice to get those done and out of the way, but still, the decisions were tough. When it all came down to it, I ended up spending the majority of my day hanging out at the Egyptian theater, getting out of one movie and getting right back in line for the next one. The line-up there that day was just incredible.

David Pierce Dawn of Technicolor TCMFF 2015

David Pierce at the Dawn of Technicolor presentation. Photo courtesy TCM/Tyler Golden

The day started with a presentation called “The Dawn of Technicolor” given by James Layton and David Pierce, authors of the new book “The Dawn of Technicolor.” Although their book isn’t specifically focused on early musicals, this presentation was mostly focused on early Technicolor musical numbers as well as information about the early Technicolor process and some of the problems that came along with it. Now, I’ve always had an odd fondness for the look of early two-strip Technicolor, so I was relieved to find out that I am not alone in that. The Egyptian seats about 600, making it the third largest venue at the festival (behind the Chinese theater and the El Capitan) and it was a pretty full house. It was pretty exciting to see so many people who were willing to get up early to go see examples of early Technicolor; it made me feel a little less alone in my nerdiness.

Most of the clips featured in the presentation were extremely rare; the only one I had seen before was “The Lockstep” musical number from the scrapped revue The March of Time, which was featured in That’s Entertainment! Part 3. The clips they showed ranged from entertaining to downright baffling. The “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” number from the mostly lost Gold Diggers of Broadway gave us all an idea of why that movie was such a rousing success in 1929. A color version of the “Meet My Sister” number from 1929’s The Show of Shows was really fun to watch and featured appearances from Loretta Young, Dolores Costello, and Ann Sothern in her second film. We were treated to a restored version of 1930’s The Sultan’s Jester, a 10-minute short produced by Warner Brothers which features a lot of bad jokes and some pretty wild acrobatics. If you ever have the chance to see Layton and Pierce give this presentation, I very highly recommend checking it out.

Dustin Hoffman Lenny

One of the hottest events of the entire festival was Friday’s screening of 1974’s Lenny with Dustin Hoffman in attendance. I had been really interested in the Christopher Plummer handprint ceremony at the Chinese theater, which was immediately before Lenny started, but ultimately, I decided to skip it to get in line for Lenny since Dustin Hoffman is one of my all-time favorite actors and the star of some of my favorite movies. This proved to be a good call because I don’t think I would have been able to get in if it weren’t for the fact that I was able to get out of the Technicolor presentation and immediately get in line for Lenny; a lot of people were shut out of this one.

Prior to the festival, I had never seen Lenny and didn’t know anything at all about the real Lenny Bruce, so I can’t talk about how accurate the movie is at depicting Lenny’s life, but Hoffman was amazing. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard this movie discussed more, but it’s definitely time for more people to rediscover it. Hoffman’s performance was a real tour de force and he had a terrific co-star in Valerie Perrine as Honey, the wife of Lenny Bruce.

Following the film, there was a discussion between Dustin Hoffman and Alec Baldwin about what it was like making the film and about his career in general. Hoffman was an absolute delight to listen to; he was funny, honest, candid, even showed a very heartfelt moment of vulnerability when talking about his late friend Robin Williams.  This was an interview I could have listened to all day; I so adore Hoffman as an actor, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to hear him talk about how he researched the role of Lenny Bruce and what it was like to work with Bob Fosse. He and Fosse didn’t always see eye-to-eye on his performance, but Hoffman admitted that ultimately, Fosse was always right and joked that he’ll admit to a lot of things 40 years later. (If you’d like to see a clip of the interview, someone has uploaded a clip onto YouTube, but I will warn you that this clip is the most R-rated bit of the interview. But you do get to see both Hoffman and Baldwin doing their best Buddy Hackett impressions.)

Ann-Margaret at the TCM Film Festival

Ann-Margaret at the TCM Film Festival. Photo courtesy TCM/Tyler Golden

Following the screening of Lenny, I went outside and got right back in line for The Cincinnati Kid, which would be introduced by Ann-Margaret. Gambling movies aren’t always my thing, but with a cast like Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Karl Malden, and of course, Ann-Margaret, it was hard for me to resist. But the movie held my interest the whole time and had lots of suspense. It also gave Joan Blondell a lot of opportunities to be the ultra-sassy type of character I always love watching her play in her early 1930s films. And being able to see Ann-Margaret in person was a treat. She talked about things like making her film debut along with Bette Davis in Pocketful of Miracles and how wonderful Bette was to her, her love of motorcycles, and working with Steve McQueen, who she recalled saying, “Eh, let them worry, it’s their job,” when the studio asked him to stop riding his motorcycle to work.

Steamboat Bill Jr

After The Cincinnati Kid, it was time for me to get in line for Buster Keaton’s classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. with live music conducted by the great Carl Davis. Steamboat Bill, Jr. wasn’t a new movie to me, but it’s always incredible to see one of the great silent film comedies with a big audience, especially when the music is being conducted by one of the top composers of silent film scores. It’s truly an experience unlike anything else.

The Bank Dick WC Fields

I finally got a break from the Egyptian Theater after Steamboat Bill, Jr. when I went over to the TCL multiplex to see 1940’s The Bank Dick, introduced by Allen Fields and Ronald J. Fields, two of W.C. Fields’ grandchildren. Being able to see his grandsons was a real trip because one of them looked and sounded so much like W.C. Fields. In all honesty, my memory is a little hazy of this screening since I dozed off at a couple of points, but what I do remember of the movie, I immensely enjoyed.

Elizabeth Taylor Boom

I was willing to stay up til midnight to find out the context of how and why this hat was worn.

Oddly enough, one of the biggest highlights of the entire festival was the midnight screening of Boom!, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s film adaptation of Tennessee William’s “The Milk Truck Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Boom! is best remembered for being the only movie Taylor and Burton made together that lost money. And the movie does completely miss the mark in every conventional way, but that’s what made it so much fun to see in a theater. Boom! is the kind of movie that is best watched late at night after you’ve had a few drinks. John Waters has called the movie “so bad, it’s the other side of camp,” and everything else he has said about the movie is completely dead on. To give you an idea of what Boom! has to offer, I’ll quote the awesome Anne Marie of The Film Experience:

I know a lot of other people at the festival read John Waters’ comments about the movie and were totally sold on the movie by them. And judging by how many times I heard people around the festival doing their best imitations of Elizabeth Taylor shrieking, “WHAAAAAT!” I think it’s safe to say Boom! was a success. John Waters was right — it’s really best seen with an appreciative audience and this audience was, indeed, appreciative.

On that note, I will leave you with the trailer for Boom!

The Pink Panther, Silent Films, and Me

Pink Panther Title Card

Like so very many people, I spent a good amount of my childhood watching cartoons.  I remember being fond of Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker, but my favorite was definitely the Pink Panther.  Oh, did I ever love the Pink Panther!  In my book, he was the funniest of the cartoon characters I watched and I loved that aura of coolness he had.  And perhaps I’ve always had a soft spot for the stylish animation and Henry Mancini music.

But as I got a bit older and the cartoons were being shown on television less frequently, I ended up taking a break from my old friend the Pink Panther.  I didn’t re-discover the Pink Panther until just a few years ago when I bought a DVD collection of Pink Panther cartoons.  When I started watching them, my first reaction was, “Oh, it’s wonderful to be seeing these again!” My second reaction was, “Wow, no wonder I grew up to be a big silent film fan!”

Even though I’d been a silent film fan for years by that point, it had never occurred to me that all those Pink Panther cartoons I watched as a kid may have helped lay the foundation for me to appreciate silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  But in hindsight, it makes perfect sense.  Although the Pink Panther speaks in a couple of cartoons and some cartoons feature narration, most Pink Panther cartoons are short silent films very similar to the short films Chaplin and Keaton made early in their careers.

Several Pink Panther cartoons like The Pink Phink and Pink Pajamas feature scenarios I can easily imagine Chaplin or Keaton having a lot of fun with.  We Give Pink Stamps in particular is Chaplin-esque to the extent that I would love to know what, if any, thoughts Chaplin had about it.  One setting Chaplin saw a lot of comedy potential in was department stores, which he put to great use in 1916’s The Floorwalker and 1936’s Modern Times.  Not only is We Give Pink Stamps done in the same spirit as those Chaplin films, it also has some jokes that I’m sure Chaplin would have loved to do himself if only they weren’t impossible for a human being to do, even with special effect trickery available at the time.

A popular topic amongst classic movie fans is which movies do you show to somebody to get them interested classic movies.  Silent movies are always tricky because so many people are married to the idea that silent movies are the most dull, creaky, strange, and antiquated movies you can possibly watch.  But if you’re looking to turn someone on to silent films, particularly children, why not start with some Pink Panther cartoons?  Their stylish mid-century look really disguises the fact that they are basically silent films and might be a good way to lead in to some Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd.

Congratulations to True Classics on four years of blogging!

Congratulations to True Classics on four years of blogging!

1928-1929: Oscar’s Most Awkward Year

Mary Pickford Oscar

Mary Pickford with her Oscar.

As popular as the Academy Awards are, they can be a very controversial topic amongst movie lovers.  I think virtually every cinephile has their own list of movies that they think got robbed at the Oscars.  Some may even have their favorite and least favorite Academy Award years.  But one thing I think we can all agree on is that the nominees for the second Academy Award ceremony (covering 1928-1929) definitely weren’t the strongest group of movies ever nominated.

It’s not so much that 1928-1929 was a completely terrible year for movies, but the film industry had been turned completely upside down that year.  During the first Academy Award ceremony, The Jazz Singer was given an honorary award for revolutionizing the film industry.  By the following year, the impact of The Jazz Singer was undeniable.  The movies eligible for the 1928-1929 Oscars were part of the first wave of movies to come out in the wake of The Jazz Singer and the nominees that year are a better reflection of how in flux the industry was at the time than what the best movies really were.

Even though studios were scrambling to hop on the talkie bandwagon, the production of silent films didn’t come to an immediate halt.  Some truly excellent silent films were produced that year, but you’d never know it by looking at the list of nominees.  However, if some of those silent films had been nominated, that year would probably now be looked back upon more favorably.


Movies That Could Have Been: The March of Time (1930)

Recently, I had the pleasure of revisiting the That’s Entertainment! trilogy.  As much as I love the first That’s Entertainment!, I love how much rare footage is featured in part three.  One of the movies discussed in part three is an abandoned project from 1930 called The March of Time.  The March of Time was intended to be a follow-up to The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and was set to be shot in two-color Technicolor and feature stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Ramon Novarro, and Marie Dressler.  Only unlike The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The March of Time seemed to have more of a central concept — the past, present, and future of entertainment.  A number of musical scenes were shot for the film, but then the project was scrapped and never completed.

I’m sure that if The March of Time had been completed, it’d be thought of as a historical curiosity today, but I kind of wish that it had been completed.  As awkward and creaky as they are, I sort of love early musical efforts.  They’re just so earnest that I can’t help but find them endearing.  Especially in cases like this where lots of top stars of the era were put together in one movie just because it’s interesting to see all those stars together.  I’d also be quite interested in seeing what they thought the future of entertainment would be.

Even though The March of Time was abandoned, some of the filmed scenes eventually ended up being included in other things.  You can find some of these scenes on YouTube, but I want to specifically highlight one scene called The Lock Step featuring The Dodge Twins:

What I want to know is if this number was supposed to be representing the present or the future of entertainment.  Because if this was supposed to be the future, then they were surprisingly accurate in predicting Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock number.