Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Buster Keaton: Parkour and Pathos

If you know me, you know that Buster Keaton is my favorite of the silent film comedians. He’s the Star of the Month on TCM (!) and I’ve been giddy as a fifth-grader at a Justin Bieber concert, pushing my poor rickety old VCR to grab up all the shorts and films I haven’t seen yet.

“But Jen,” you might be saying, “why such a soft spot for Buster instead of, say, Charlie Chaplin?”

Damfino, dear reader!

(But seriously, folks…)

I have great respect and appreciation for Chaplin as an artist, and I find Lloyd’s films very funny and extremely entertaining (he’s my second favorite), but my heart belongs to Keaton, and it all started with The Cameraman (1928).

I’d never seen a Keaton picture before, and had only passing acquaintance with a short or two, when the local art-house theatre advertised a screening complete with accompaniment by the wonderful Ben Model. Ooh, I couldn’t pass that up! I’d already seen Safety Last! that way and it was fantastic.

The lights dimmed, the piano thrummed an intro, and suddenly we were transported through the time machine of a little fellow with large, limpid eyes and a stoic expression. (And a surprisingly athletic body under all that baggy clothing!)

For those who haven’t seen it, The Cameraman is about a photographer who – after falling in love with Sally, a girl working for the newsreels (Marceline Day) —decides to ditch the tintypes, get himself a movie camera, and impress her. Sounds simple enough – until he gets embroiled in enough trouble for ten newsreels! It’s a lot of fun, especially the scenes where Buster and Sally spend a day at the swimming pool. But...there’s more to it than that.

A way I’ve taken to describing Keaton lately is parkour and pathos: he does his breakneck stunts—how that man lived to be as old as he was, I’ll never know—but there is also genuine love and heartbreak. Without spoiling it for newcomers, there’s a scene on the beach where you positively ache for him, the disillusionment and bitterness seeping out of his frame and keenly making its mark on the audience. It’s a powerful shot because we can all relate to what he’s going through at that very moment. (Though most of us don’t have a monkey filming it!)

This looked like a promising first picture under his new contract with MGM, but history sadly proved that not to be the case. Yet, even knowing it was the harbinger of a difficult period in Buster’s life, I still love this movie and consider it to be one of his best.

Simply put: Buster wasn’t just a comedic genius, he was an excellent actor. By the time the lights went up, I was hooked.

Since that day back in 2007 I’ve read and watched a great deal of Keaton and I have yet to be disappointed. Some of it might be hysterical (Steamboat Bill Jr, amongst many others) and some might be horrendous (Free and Easy), but it’s always worth the time. I can’t ever imagine becoming tired of him.

This year we celebrate his 116th birthday. Why not get one of his films or shorts and let him enchant you? I could make a starting suggestion… ;)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Thanhouser Twins

Madeline traced the raindrops on the window,
watching them branch into
separate little rivers
then run back into each other's arms.

The train lurched
and Marion grabbed her hand.
"We're almost there," she said,
"and it's your turn to quiz me."

Quelle est la couleur est le ciel? said Madeline.
Le ciel est bleu, said Marion,
their smiles spotless mirrors
as they pulled into the New Rochelle station.

The Fairbanks Twins: Marion and Madeline

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


In my reviews I often talk about the perfect “pre-Code ending”. What the heck does that mean?

In pictures made after the code, especially those in the Forties and Fifties, whenever someone was “bad” – most of the time a woman who enjoyed being sexually active – he or she was punished by the end of the film for his/her behaviour. Did she lure someone else’s husband into her bed? BAM! Hit by a train in the last reel. If there wasn’t a punishment, then there was a reforming – perhaps she renounced her promiscuity and left town, to start a new squeaky-clean life. Lesson learned.

Pre-Codes have none of this. Think of Red-Headed Woman: Lil acts like a whore, and yet she gets exactly what she wants by the end of the picture. She doesn’t become a nun or get hit by lightning. Things happen the way they happen in real life: sometimes, people act terribly, and yet nothing bad happens, or they’re even rewarded. Best example I’ve seen recently was the end of Employee’s Entrance, where Warren William just continues with his behaviour, not changing an iota of it even after it causes pain and shame to quite a few people. To quote an oft-used phrase: “it is what it is”.

I know someone’s going to bring up Female, with its cheesy and disappointing ending. Yes, it’s true that it doesn’t quite follow the pattern. All I can say is, watch the first half of the film; I think perhaps such a strong woman was a little too threatening for Hollywood, and they needed to tone her down somehow. Such a case is the exception, though, rather than the rule.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.Seneca

Friday, October 7, 2011

Street Scene (1931)

Let's play "guess which tenant they don't like"!

It’s summer, and the occupants of a tenement spill out onto the sidewalk in order to escape the heat. Conversation waxes and wanes, and everyone has their troubles…until one tenant’s problems envelop them all in a world of intrigue and, ultimately, violence.

I think the first thing that struck me about this picture was how modern it was, while simultaneously being a perfect snapshot of early 30s working-class New York. Every immigrant group was represented: Irish, Jewish, Italian, Swedish, each with their own quirks and stereotypes. The film is adapted from a play by Elmer Rice, and even though it retains some stageyness, it never feels static, thanks to the wonderful direction of King Vidor, In many ways, this film reminded me of a grittier, more jaded version of The Crowd, which he also directed.

Sylvia Sidney plays Rose, the oldest daughter of a couple on the rocks; Mom (Estelle Taylor) cheats with the milk money collector and Dad (David Landau) drinks too much. William Collier Jr plays Sam, the son of the Jewish family, raised by a long-winded Socialist father and a sister who tries to break him of his lifelong love for Rose. Both children are desperate to get out of the tenement but aren’t quite sure how…then Fate intervenes, and we aren’t quite sure for the better.

Beulah Bondi owns this picture with her portrayal of Emma Jones, the “mayor” of the apartment building and an informal narrator of sorts; it’s through her gossip that we learn the background of the folks living in the building, their heartaches and foibles.

This film was restored by the Library of Congress – the print can be a little scratchy at times but believe me, you will not even notice it. A gripping story with fine performances by all, and a slice-of-life ending that will keep you guessing.

(Something interesting I found out while Googling for pictures: Rice's play was also adapted into an opera/musical in 1946, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes.  Catherine Zeta-Jones performed in a 1989 production.)
I give this one:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

OT Post -- but please read!

(Because I know quite a few of you are in school or have your own blogs...)

Do you need to write an essay, blog entry, or important email, but are having trouble wording it just the right way?

Help is here!

or comment here with your email for further details.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Happy Birthday Buster!

Happy 116th Birthday to one of the most talented men to ever grace the screen (and my silent film boyfriend -- shh, don't tell Eleanor!).  I watched "The Boat" and "The Love Nest" last night and have more goodies waiting for me when I get home!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

This does not end well.

For lovers of pre-Code, this is somewhat of a Holy Grail. Not on DVD and shown infrequently on cable, I was thrilled to finally watch it – and boy, does it earn its reputation. Promiscuity, rape, violence, murder, intoxication, bootlegging: you name it, Temple Drake has it…including a very pre-Code ending.

The beautiful and sadly forgotten actress Miriam Hopkins plays Temple Drake, a party girl who one day runs away with one of her many, many boyfriends. An accident steers them off the road and into some really big trouble, from which Temple might never recover. How does she handle the changes in her life? How will she tell her family what’s happened? Will the man who loves her make her come clean about everything before an entire courtroom?

Hopkins is fantastic in the lead role, infusing it with enough fire and passion for two films, yet somehow never overplaying or inching towards melodrama. William Gargan is excellent as Steve, the man who loves her but loves justice more, and has to find a way to choose one over the other. But the man who steals the show is Jack La Rue. He oozes onto the screen as Trigger, the gangster who changes Temple’s life, and there’s never a moment where he isn’t genuinely menacing, the ever-present phallic cigarette dangling from his lips.

I think my favorite part is when Temple and Toddy, her flavor of the month, are forced to hole up inside a bootlegger’s shack. It is truly a house of horrors, and I will not spoil it for those who haven’t seen it; but trust me, it’ll give you the shivers. Florence Eldridge as the bootlegger’s common-law wife is chilling.

I really, really liked this – if you ever get the chance to see it, walk, don’t run.

I give this one: