Keaton at Educational

The sixteen two-reelers that Buster Keaton made for Educational Pictures between 1934 and 1937 represent a tremendous comedown from his creative peak in the 1920s, but approached with a spirit of low expectations, they can yield some remarkable moments. The most personal of the lot — the one film that seems to consistently reflect Keaton’s bleak existentialism and minimalist mise-en-scene — is probably the 1935 “One Run Elmer,” but there are fleeting glimpses of his brilliance in “The Gold Ghost,” “The E-Flat Man” and “Ditto.” And “The Palooka from Paducah” and “Love Nest on Wheels” both offer fascinating perspectives on Buster en famille, with appearances by his father, mother and sister in supporting roles.

These films have been knocking around the collectors market for years, but now Kino has gathered all sixteen shorts, taken from prints (of variable quality) in the Rohauer Collection, for a definitive two-disc DVD edition. The company has also issued a recently discovered, alternative version of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” Keaton’s final independent feature (1928), that uses takes sometimes strikingly different (as in the famous trying-on-hats scene) from the standard print. It’s also of much higher image quality — good enough, apparently, to support a Blu-ray release, though I didn’t receive a copy in time for this week’s column.

My New York Times review of the standard definition disc, as well as the Education collection (titled, with forgivable exaggeration, “Lost Keaton”) is here.

87 comments to Keaton at Educational

  • When people ask me for favourite directors, I usually mention Keaton, among a handful of other names, and people are generally surprised by this, because they don’t see him as a director, “only” as a comedian. But I’m sometimes more impressed by the visuals, including sight gags, than the humour. It reminds me of Hergé’s drawings for Tintin. The “ligne claire”

    Ah, the perennial question of what constitutes Scandinavia. It’s traditionally Norway, Denmark and Sweden. If you then through in Finland and Iceland, you’ve got the five Nordic countries, which are very tight. For one thing, Iceland and Finland have completely different languages, whereas Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are closely connected.

    Speaking of languages, I must get to work on re-learning French. There’s so much brilliant stuff I miss out on since my French is so poor.

    Have a lovely time in London Barry!

  • Alex Hicks

    TCM Alert:

    One of this cinephiles’ 1956 favorites, Carol Reed’s “Trapeze,” is on TCM tonight.

    Not quite up to that year fifth grade favorites –“The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “War and Peace”- which I saw repeatedly (nor up to the more classical exotica of Reed’s “Outcast of the Island,” already on Dumont or WOR in the NYC area), but still recalled right up there with the likes of Around the World in 80 Days, The Court Jester, Forbidden Planet, Moby Dick. The Red Balloon , Richard III (screeened on TV “Omnibus”as I recall) and The Ten Commandments as part that year’s ggd fare. (Little did I know of “The Searchers” as other than one of the years horde of Westerns or of “Bigger than Life” or “Written on the Wind” as other than dull, probably kissy, stuff; but word of “And God Created Women” had reached the school yard.)

    We once made movies here that reached the main distribution circuits.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Fredrik, Hergé was a huge fan of silent comedy. His first comic strip, Totor, relied mostly on frenetic gags very much like Keaton’s, and was published under the header: “United Rovers presents: an extrasuperfilm” by “Hergé, director”.

    You’ll find an unmistakable homage to Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR in the diving sequence in the Tintin album “Red Rackham’s Treasure” (“Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge”).

    By the way, your comments on Hasek’s “The good soldier Svejk” is slowly getting my rusty memory back on track (I read the book in the 80s) – Svejk certainly merrily followed any order, no matter how absurd.

  • Brad Stevens

    I just watched Tsai Ming-Liang’s wonderful VISAGE, and thought that the early scene in which Lee Kang-Sheng attempts to cope with the water erupting from his sink had a Keatonesque quality. Keaton is actually name-checked (admittedly along with a lot of other directors) by Jean-Pierre Leaud later in the film.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, the Norman Taurog musical (WE”RE NOT DRESSING) I saw was lousy all the way through, including the musical numbers. One of his Lloyd Hamilton shorts, though (MOVE ALONG, 1926) is Hamilton’s masterpiece, so I shouldn’t be too hard on him.

    Jean-Pierre, your two-volume “American Directors” has a prominent place on my bookshelf. I’ve just reread Henry Jenkins’ essay in the Horton anthology (“’This Fellow Keaton Seems to Be the Whole Show’: Buster Keaton, Interrupted Performance, and the Vaudeville Aesthetic”) and I’ve not misread or misremembered him. He does compare the Three Keatons vaudeville act, BACK STAGE (Arbuckle-Keaton), THE PLAY HOUSE (solo Keaton short), SHERLOCK JR (solo Keaton feature), and SPEAK EASILY (sound Keaton) side by side. He is scornful of critics who “view the Keaton features in isolation from his larger career trajectory – or more accurately, they see the other Keaton films, the ‘nonessential’ ones, as ‘stepping stones’ toward his ‘great achievements’ or as marking his ‘swift and tragic decline.’” (30-31) The scare quotes around phrases like “great achievements” are his, as he doesn’t cite any particular critic, rather distinguishing no less than two schools of Keaton study before his advent, a classical school who prefer THE GENERAL, and a modernist school who prefer SHERLOCK JR, both of whom fall short of what he offers: the emphasis on the “vaudeville aesthetic” which Jenkins had previously defined and elaborated on in his book “What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic” (1992). He endeavors to situate Keaton in an ongoing vaudeville tradition of comedy: “What will emerge is not so much Keaton the classicist or Keaton the modernist as Keaton the vaudevillian.” (33) To which in a previous reading I had scribbled in the margin, “What about Keaton the filmmaker?”, something that doesn’t particularly interest him. Again, he dismisses critics who engage in “faculty lunchroom debates” (or I guess blogs like this): “Neither his early shorts with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle nor his sound features with Jimmy Durante warrant much more than a sneer [from them], since these films do not exhibit his control over the production process.” (31) I would say it was precisely his control over the production process that made the silent shorts and features so outstanding and worthy of study.

    Jenkins’ approach is stimulating and I learned a lot from both his book and this essay. He both is and is not the “smart-aleck [who will] some day insist that WHAT! NO BEER? is just as good as THE GENERAL” as to him an evaluative question like that is irrelevant (as with the “faculty lunchroom debate” between his Professors Oldman and Youngman, his straw-classicist and straw-modernist). FYI, I too like THE CAMERAMAN and SPITE MARRIAGE, and was depressed by my first viewings of the MGM sound features. But there are brilliant patches in DOUGHBOYS, PARLOR BEDROOM AND BATH and some of the other talkies, scenes that I regard as less examples of Keaton the vaudevillian than of Keaton the personal artist, triumphing over circumstances.

    Keaton might have made a good Svejk. There was some talk of him as Otto Soglow’s mute comic strip character “The Little King” in the early 1930s, which might have worked. I’m not familiar with Hergé’s unsmiling Tintin character but perhaps there’s an influence there. Or I guess I could just wait for the Spielberg-Jackson version to find out! [insert appropriate emoticon]

  • Terrific piece on the new Keaton releases, Dave. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the Educational set, especially in comparison to the Keaton Columbias released a few years ago.

    Just wanted to politely intrude on a fascinating conversation and to add a small footnote to Gregg’s musings on Keaton as “The Good Soldier Švejk”. Frank Capra had, incidentally, cited Švejk as a partial influence on a Keaton contemporary discussed earlier in this thread: Harry Langdon. I believe Capra’s remarks are in Brownlow’s superb “Hollywood” series, if not also elsewhere.

    Of course, all of Capra’s comments on Langdon should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, his claim that he single-handedly created Langdon’s style and persona has been debunked ad nauseum in recent years, with the LANGDON LOST AND FOUND dvd collection supplying the final nail for that particular coffin. The Švejk analogy — what Capra described as (I’m paraphrasing) the poor fool continually aided by God — became a significant piece of Capra’s account, and thus a part of the Langdon legend.

    Moving back from this slight tangent to the topic at hand, STEAMBOAT BILL JR’s cyclone climax recalls the finale of Langdon’s TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP from a couple of years earlier (though the cyclone is on a much larger scale in the Keaton film.)

    I for one am glad that Keaton scholarship has come to embrace his post 1928 work (or at least some of it) – the Keaton touch can be readily seen in a good deal of it, albeit some times more clearly than others. Certainly Keaton’s lesser work warrants greater study. Walter Kerr had observed that Keaton was the most silent of the silent clowns. The fact that his loss of creative control occurred during the changeover to sound adds a second variable to his supposed ‘decline’ that is often overlooked. And perhaps therein lies a partial explanation for Keaton’s previously noted transformation from silent-era problem solver to the bumbler of the talkie period. Without the assistance of the fantasy granted by the silent medium – its absence of a soundtrack’s realism, its use of precise undercranking, etc. – reality itself could no longer be easily manipulated.

  • J.R. Jones

    If you want to see Keaton’s style of comedy alive and well in a more-or-less current release, forget about Jim Carrey and Tsai Ming-Liang and check out a French movie by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon called RUMBA.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Gregg, I have to read this fellow Jenkins,his approach is indeed stimulating although what it stimulates, from what you quoted, is mostly my ire. So many questionable, even absurd statements! I could go on forever! Who are the critics who distinguish so-called “non-essential” Keaton films as “stepping stones to his great achievements”? I don’t know a single critic or cinephile who doesn’t admire the silent shorts, including the Arbuckles. Kral has even argued that the silent shorts are greater than the silent features. But to pretend that the sound features are just as interesting as the silent stuff is just living in blithe denial of the glaring truth that those MGM talkies are atrocious, unbearably vulgar, uninspired, unfunny comedies that are as unkeatonian as can be, even if a very occasional good gag emerges from the trash.

    And what about Jenkins’ absurd division into two schools, classical and modernist, the former prefering THE GENERAL, the latter SHERLOCK JR.? As far as I know there isn’t and has never been such an arbitrary thing (of course I haven’t participated in “faculty lunchroom debates” in a long time). And who ever claimed that there is a “classical Keaton” and a “modernist Keaton”? If “modernist” means anything, then Keaton is profoundly and permanently a modernist. Yes, the vaudevillian Keaton is important, but why attempt to make it what Keaton’s cinema is all about and sweep everything else under the rug?

    Gregg, I agree with your marginal scribble: “What about Keaton the filmmaker?” Jenkins doesn’t seem to have much interest in that.

  • Jim Carrey Having now re-watched and chuckled throughout most of Ace Ventura Pet Detective I can confirm that in this first of two Ace Ventura films Carrey’s character is not presented as a buffoon (as he is in the second). Goofy, yes, but highly competent. He has a Sherlock Holmes eye for scientific detail, is wittier than his opponents, solves all his cases (except one, as part of a running gag), and is tireless in the sack. Mutatis mutandis, this puts Carrey roughly in the Keaton-LLoyd–problem-solver category rather than the sad sack-idiot-Stooges tradition. Ventura behaves like a nut, true, but his manner places the character in the modern Bill Murray-Animal House influenced stream of rebellious anti-establishment figures who mock, expose, and undermine the straight-laced society around them – maybe this thread goes back to the Marx Brothers, too, or earlier. Disclaimers: I make no claim for Carrey as the equal of Keaton; I make no claim for Ace Ventura Pet Detective as artistic – the film is workmanlike in photography and editing. I don’t even recommend the film, except to certain types of pet lovers and those who have a specific appetite for nutty characters.

  • Jonah

    Jean-Pierre: is the coffee-table Keaton book you refer to this one?: http://www.amazon.fr/gp/product/273120558X/?tag=wp-amazon-associate08-21

    If so, there are at least some used copies floating around. I’ll pick one up for myself.

    BTW Henry Jenkins has moved on from his writing on Keaton and vaudeville to become a maven of “new media” scholarship, and describes himself as an “aca-fan” (a really, really stupid-sounding hyphenate).

    He published an excellent article on Eddie Cantor, and how his films and persona were both retooled so this very Jewish comic could better appeal to middle America:

    “‘Shall We Make It for New York or for Distribution?': Eddie Cantor, Whoopee and Regional Resistance to the Talkies,” Cinema Journal, 29, 2 (Spring 1990): 32-52.

  • david hare

    Dave, I’ve not receievd the new Kino yet but just got wind from a Criterionforum discussion (about image quality and “problems” with over brightness) that the Killiam version is the one that was apparently used on both the Kino and MK2 SD discs of a few years ago.
    I only have the MK2 for now so I can’t compare them. Have you had a chance? A number of people seem to prefer the Killiam to the Keaton Estate print but they haven’t said why.

  • I’ll take up Barry’s cause and say Jackie Chan is at least an honorable descendant, if not equal to Keaton, especially when working with someone like Liu Chia Liang–simple setups, precise editing, longish takes, he’s like Hong Kong’s Charles Walters, a choreographer who knew how to shoot a dance sequence (in Liu’s case his action was pretty much dance choreography–it had the grace).

    And Liu had a genuine sensibility–he was always about the authenticity of the movement, not just in terms of martial arts tradition or what school he was showcasing, but how it expressed the character’s thoughts and feelings. You pretty much saw it in how Jackie’s fighting style evolved in Drunken Master.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Jean-Pierre, I found Jenkins stimulating (in a good way) as his emphasis on Keaton’s vaudeville background called attention to something that shouldn’t be overlooked… on the other hand, I can’t think of any Keaton critic who’s ignored that, be they Professor Oldman, Professor Youngman, or Professor Timoleon Zanders Post (Buster’s character in SPEAK EASILY). I dare say references to the Three Keatons may be found in your book. Jenkins is I guess at the vanguard of contemporary cultural studies of media, and as the question of what are cultural studies came up a thread or two ago readers may be profitably directed to Jenkins’ website (http://henryjenkins.org/index.html). My passing acquaintance with Jenkins’ writing include his book on early sound comedy (very interesting; he’s the only theorist ever to use Wheeler & Woolsey films as primary texts), the increasingly problematic essay on Keaton under discussion, some material he wrote circa 1990 on Star Trek fans, a piece defaming Lupe Velez I criticized here on a previous thread (the “Three by Ishiro Honda” thread for August 15 of last year), and various pieces on his current blog, which largely seems to be about video games. Indeed, he has a very interesting post up comparing Buster to Mario the Plumber (http://henryjenkins.org/2009/08/on_games_and_gags_between_sile.html). I may be misreading him, but his evident disinterest in “great achievements” that he signals by tossing scare quotes around the term, as well as his polite yawn over an artist’s “control over the production process” tallies with a good poststructuralist’s concern with multiple authorship of texts, as with his early interest with the way Star Trek fandom reworked Paramount television’s various Trek offerings in their own image. Or with his easy acceptance of raw gossip in his essay on Lupe Velez. Or with his current work with “transmedia,” programs of which he is masterminding at both MIT and USC, a mash-up of the semi-separate but creatively equal “media platforms” video games, video art, cinema, television, the internet, et al. Authorship is “decentralized,” as both the tv director of an episode, the blogger who posts speculations about where a plot is going, the fan who posts a video remix of scenes with her favorite character, are all part of the loop.

    I wish that Robin Wood and Andrew Britton were alive, as I would love to hear their comments on this program, which to me (based on my reading around in his blog, and in a L.A. Times interview at http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/22/entertainment/la-ca-henry-jenkins22-2009nov22) sounds insufficiently critical of the various media corporations as they burn their brands into our collective soul. Indeed, my gut is his USC program advances new and better ways to advance the colonization of our unconscious across new and different media platforms across all time and space.

    Yair, thanks for your comment. If I’m not mistaken, only you and James Neibaur venture onto this site from the comedy boards. Noel, thanks for the tip about Liu Chia Liang as a possible auteur of the Chan series (or even a fine metteur en scene!).

  • David H., I haven’t seen the “Steamboat Bill” Blu-ray yet, but on the SD release, the Keaton Estate version clearly appears much closer to a negative source than the familiar Killiam print (which is the one that has been in distribution for as long as I can remember). It isn’t immediately obvious which version was meant for domestic and which for foreign release (the standard reason for making two negatives). There are significant differences between the two, a few of which are outlined in an accompanying doc: subtle differences in camera position for the most part, occasionally entirely different takes (as in the hat store sequence, and the shot of buster clutching the flying tree trunk during the hurricane). I’m much less knowledgeable (and hence, less picky) about technical matters than the boys at Criterion Forum, but I’d say the only reason to prefer the Killiam version (which is noticeably darker and softer than the Estate print) is that it contains the more familiar cut of the film. Whether this was Keaton’s preferred version is hard to say from the available evidence; I’d certainly be interested in hearing the thoughts of Yair and James N. on this question.

    Noel, I love the work of Liu Chia Liang (who is probably better know in the west under his other Chinese name, Lau Kar-leung), but I think Jackie Chan’s best director was Jackie himself — his work is quite precise and very sensitive to issues of staging action in depth, particularly in the great run of films that begins with the self-consciously Keatonesque “Project A” in 1983. His manager told me some years ago that he’d still be directing today if it weren’t for his compulsive (and expensive) perfectionism — as a producer, he found he could no longer afford his own services!

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Jonah, thanks for the link; that’s indeed my book, 1986 version. Too bad they don’t have a picture of the cover, it’s really nice. But I don’t see any rush to buy the book!

    Gregg, all that is very interesting but I’ve never been able to work up the slightest interest in video games. They bore me as much as watching paint dry, to refurbish an old cliche. As a consequence, I don’t know who Mario the plumber is…

    The critical (if that’s the word)direction Jenkins and others like him have opted for veers as far from even mild auteurism as can be. No surprise that he doesn’t give a damn about “great achievements” or an artist’s control over the production process.” The effacement of the author is their credo and ultimate purpose. Authorship is so old-fashioned, so early twentieth century!

    Gregg, I love “the colonization of our unconscious”!A really felicitous expression.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Jean-Pierre, well if you click on the appropriate link, you will see just how Buster in SEVEN CHANCES is doing exactly the same thing Mario the Plumber does in one of his video games, advancing from one platform to another by climbing and performing various other tasks. All past is prologue; all art from centuries I through XX are fodder for the amusements and diversions of the future.

    It’s interesting how non or anti-auteurist critics pay attention to how artists of the past (including film directors) “brand” themselves using various media strategies. I’ve read pieces in film journals unveiling the media strategies (across the various “platforms” of the day) of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Preston Sturges to create public personae for themselves. These scholars tend to ignore WHY Hitchcock et al sought to become public figures; it was a means to the end of securing artistic freedom for themselves. As his biographers have mentioned, Buster Keaton was terrible at creating a likable public persona for himself in the 1920s, which was one of his commercial handicaps. He just did his work (making a funny comedy) in his modest way, only incidently an “artist” (an aspiration he mocks in films like DAY DREAMS, THE GOAT and THE PLAY HOUSE). His artisanal approach is one reason we like him, and why his films are so good, but flies in the face of the contemporary demands of celebrity.

    Jonah, the Cantor essay you mention is a chapter in his “Pistachio Nuts” book, and shows Jenkins’ early interest in, yes, branding.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Gregg, I watched both Keaton and Mario doing their respective things, which are supposed to be the same, and I’m still scratching my head. What does the juxtaposition prove, aside from the fact that the human version is infinitely funnier and more beautiful than the videogame version? Or that a chase is a chase is a chase? Or that, as you put it, “the past is prologue”?

    Isn’t the attention payed to the “branding” of filmmakers who create a public persona a sly way of underrating, neglecting or simply ignoring the actual work of those
    creators?

    Keaton didn’t bother to create a “likable public persona” but he still was enormously popular throughout the twenties, and he continued to be for a while at MGM, where some of his sound talkies were hits, making more money than his silent features. As a comic he did “brand” himself as much as Chaplin or Lloyd did: “The Great Stone Face,” “L’Homme qui ne rit jamais” were his distinguishing marks. As far as I can tell, none of the great silent comedians attempted to create a likable public persona, contenting themselves to present their on-screen persona (which makes them quite different from the above-mentioned film directors.

  • Peter Henne

    “you will see just how Buster in SEVEN CHANCES is doing exactly the same thing Mario the Plumber does in one of his video games, advancing from one platform to another by climbing and performing various other tasks. All past is prologue; all art from centuries I through XX are fodder for the amusements and diversions of the future.”

    I couldn’t speak any better than Jean-Pierre did in his 7-9, 5:56pm post, but I too have been wondering how one can claim “exactly the same thing” is happening. It is the style that makes all the difference, as it does just about every time. Likewise, I’m wary of how the guest article at the henryjenkins.org website fails to fully separate visual style from action depicted; it seems to make the distinction in a halfway, messy way. Furthermore, quotations, parodies, travesties etc. of past art are nothing new; both humorous and laudatory referencing of antiquity were pursued vigorously in the Renaissance. A reference source is “Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art” by Paul Barolsky.

  • Rick K.

    Whenever I ruminate about Keaton, or almost any of the other great silent comics (especially some of the oft-forgotten “secondary” figures like Billy Bevan, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard and the like), my thoughts go back to when I was first introduced to their immortal images via compilation films, in particular those of Robert Youngson, whose DAYS OF THRILLS & LAUGHTER (1961) was rather inconspicuously released on DVD by VCI last week, not getting much market promotion amid the more notable Keatons from Kino (not to mention some of those new Chaplin blu-rays which are popping up in Region 2). But I believe it was Youngson, whose love for these films must have been all-consuming, who can be credited for actually initiating a more widespread resurgence of interest in silent comedy, starting with his GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY in 1958, which became something of a sleeper in theaters that year. This coming at a very crucial time, when many of these films, which obviously only existed in nitrate form, were literally crumbling away in storage … it was Youngson who reminded the masses of their timeless appeal, and gave the industry a REASON to invest in the survival of those films.

    I’m not sure exactly when Raymond Rohauer made his infamous pact with Keaton, in which he gained control of the bulk of Keaton’s library, but his distribution of this material was almost always rather “exclusive”, and indeed in those pre-video days, Keaton retrospectives (which REQUIRED the cooperation of Rohauer, in one form or another) were far more difficult to come by than any of the Youngson compilations, which were fairly bursting with choice material and a particular exuberance in their presentation. My sense was that Rohauer was more interested in protecting his own interests than in actually sharing the legacies of “his collection” (which included much of Fairbanks and Langdon, I believe), whereas Youngson simply had great joy in reacquainting the public with the artistic wealth and “fun” of those pioneering film comedians which he had obviously known and loved in his youth. Seeing the Youngson compilations again, one can wince a little at some of the superficial narration (he never included the title cards from the clips he used, but often felt it necessary to describe much of the action in a “cute” manner for the audience), or his “to the bone” editing, but there’s no denying the infectious pleasure, nor the heartfelt dedication imbued in these projects designed to reacquaint the public with great cinematic moments which COULD have been lost forever (eg. Laurel & Hardy’s BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, etc).

    To his credit, Rohauer apparently involved Keaton personally in the revival of his films, having him on hand for important retrospectives, so that the rediscovery of his genius also brought Keaton personal recognition and ovation during the latter years of his lifetime. But I believe he must have also assertively restricted the use of his films, for Keaton is among the least represented in the Youngson compilations, neither appearing in GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY or DAYS OF THRILLS & LAUGHTER … yet by virtue of their public domain status, Youngson’s inclusion of COPS and BALLOONATIC become highlights of WHEN COMEDY WAS KING (1960) and 30 YEARS OF FUN (1963), the latter perhaps my favorite of the Youngsons, fairly bursting with brilliant/rare clips (both comic and newsreel) creating an exuberant filmic portrait of an era. The latter is only available on a poor DVD from “Televista”, while GOLDEN AGE and KING are paired in a super-bargain, high quality DVD called THE FIRST KINGS OF COMEDY COLLECTION. From an academic/cultural standpoint, there’s no comparison to the Brownlow documentaries of 20+ years later, but the Youngson compilations may have been even more important in reawakening the public consciousness to the value of these films. If I’m not mistaken, the first classic comedy revival was not the counterculture Marx Bros. or W.C. Fields (occurring in the 60’s), but Laurel & Hardy, via their early television exposure AND as centerpieces in the Youngson films.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Youngson was an important figure in the revival of silent comedy in the public consciousness in the dozen or so years after 1958. There’s a chapter on him in Scott MacGillivray’s fascinating book “Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward” (1998; reissued last year with new material). I strongly recall his use of a Chopin piece to glaze everything on screen with nostalgia for a lost era – his audiences in 1958 would have been full of adults who’d seen silent comedy in their childhood, and his films were directed to them as much as to their boomer kids. His last compilation, 4 CLOWNS (1970), had the great chase sequence in it from SEVEN CHANCES, and was my first exposure to that film as I recall.

    The Dickensian figure of Raymond Rohauer remains a lightning rod of controversy to every silent film collector and archivist down to this day. (Try searching his name on a site like Nitrateville or Silent Comedy Mafia and you’ll see what I mean.) There are those who say someone else (such as Youngson) would have stepped up and saved Keaton’s films if Rohauer hadn’t done so, but I will gladly take the “what is” over the “what may have been.”

    I hope everyone, most especially including Jean-Pierre and Peter, understand that I was being ironic in my comments directing readers to Jenkins’ cross-comparison of SEVEN CHANCES and Mario the Plumber. At some point I must reread and rethink Jenkins’ comments on what he’s up to with this, as (like Youngson’s compilations), episodes like Jenkins’ blog are episodes in the ongoing reception, contextualization, and contemplation of these 80 year old masterpieces.

    Jean-Pierre, I am engaged in an ongoing project on the reception of Keaton’s films (and other silent comedies) in the 1920s and since. In my casual and unfootnoted opinion (based on the viewing of dozens of ads in “Moving Picture World,” “Exhibitors Trade Review” and the like), Chaplin and Lloyd (and/or their various distributors) both purchased a lot of “branding” ads for these two stars as personalities in the trade papers of the twenties; i.e., full page ads at Christmas wishing exhibitors a merry holiday, and the like. Ads for forthcoming Chaplin films (extant for THE CIRCUS as early as 1926, two years before the film’s release) emphasized the star’s lovability as much as his popularity. Lloyd ads emphasized his peppy personality, and were often built around his glasses trademark. Keaton ads, by contrast, put forward his films as a) funny, b) something exhibitors could make money on (obvious selling points in Chaplin and Lloyd ads as well), but off hand I don’t recall anything else in them that plays up that distinctive Keaton persona.

  • Dave, I can’t really say which version of STEAMBOAT BILL JR. Keaton preferred, not only because I’ve never come across any comment by him on the topic but also, since differing release prints of films during the silent era was common practice (particularly foreign vs. domestic prints), I tend to believe that comic filmmakers of the era like Keaton didn’t think in terms of preferred, or definitive, prints. If STEAMBOAT BILL was released in different prints in the U.S. and abroad, I doubt Keaton would allow a substandard or lesser print for, say, the foreign market; there might be slight discrepancies, but both would have to work – two master prints with (relatively) minor differences. This may not necessarily mesh with our presumptions about a definitive final cut, but it does make the works of silent cinema that much more interesting for researchers and historians.

    In contrast to the ‘other’ STEAMBOAT BILL, a couple of years ago a different print of Keaton’s OUR HOSPITALITY was unearthed (titled HOSPITALITY, which is how Keaton always referred to the film in interviews), and it’s now clear that it was a working print that Keaton used while still cutting the final film – never publicly released and far from being a second master print of a feature like the alternate STEAMBOAT BILL, though no less fascinating.

  • Michael Kastner

    Glad Jackie Chan has been brought up. He is (for me) the most Keatonesque presence of the day. However, watching films like Robin B Hood & The Myth are as sad for me as watching Speak Easily or What No Beer.I keep hoping Chan has a late career masterpiece in him reflecting his age & persona but I’m really wondering now that he’s in Pat Morita roles. I do believe a return to the directors chair would help greatly. The joys of Project A, Police Story & Wheels on Meals remain intact today & his presence always brings a smile, it’s just that the films are so bland.

  • nicolas saaada

    The Honk-Kong directors are and actors of the seventies and eighties owe a lot to silent cinema. It should be added that most of their films were shot without any sound team. I had the privilege to visit the set of A CHINESE GHOST STORY 2 in 89, and I never heard so much noise in a set in my whole life. Workers were building a set while ching siu tung was directing by giving directions to the actors during the takes. I had the impression that I was visiting a set in the late 10’s or early 20’s.
    My love for Keaton will never fade, but the recent rediscovery of Chaplin’s shorts was a momentum. SEVEN CHANCES is one of my favorite Keaton films, but I understand that some consider it rather “minor”. It has nevertheless some of the most incredible visual ideas. Cinémathéque française recently dedicated a whole series to Jim Carrey: only in France, some will say.

  • Dave, you do have a point. My favorite Chan film is Drunken Master 2, and while it has its memorable setpieces (the fight under the train, the massive brawl at the inn), the high point was the climactic duel, directed by Chan himself.

    That wasn’t a toss-off effort, or a series of fight sequences strung together with indifferently directed material in between. Anita Mui’s slapstick with Chan was every bit as inventive as the action.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I couldn’t agree more with Rick K. Re: the importance of Youngson’s compilations, especially 1958’s THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY which was a much-discussed hit in France, with the added prestige of an introduction and commentary by Rene Clair. It gave me the opportunity to write a long article about silent comedy (it appeared in the November issue of CINEMA 59)from the point of view of a young fan celebrating a largely forgotten (and mostly unavailable at the time) form of cinematic art.

  • Thanks for your information, Yair. My experience with foreign vs. domestic negatives has generally been that the domestic version (of Murnau’s “Last Laugh” for example, or Ford’s “Iron Horse”) contains the best takes or the most expressive camera angles, but in this case it’s very difficult to make a choice between the two.

    Fascinating news about “Hospitality.” I hope the work print makes its way to the museum circuit, at least. Sounds like a unique opportunity to gain some insight into Keaton’s creative process.

  • Dave, I agree that there are cases where it is more apparent which version is preferable, but it’s less clear with STEAMBOAT BILL JR, in which the prints may be best described as that with which we are more/less familiar. As far as I know, the work print of HOSPITALITY was only publicly screened once, at a Keaton festival in Muskegon, Michigan a couple of years ago. Kino has announced that their next Keaton release will be OUR HOSPITALITY/SHERLOCK JR, though no word as to whether the HOSPITALITY work print will be included as an extra.

  • Bruce Reid

    Having just finished this set I found it more enjoyable than not, if certainly several steps down from Keaton’s triumphs. THE GOLD GHOST (Keaton’s marvelous macho strut when donning the gun and badge is almost–almost–enough to make this one of his great salutes to the imagination), ONE RUN ELMER, JAIL BAIT, and, yes, DITTO, all deserve higher reps than they have. As does the crisp, geometric joke in THE E FLAT MAN of Keaton climbing up to one window while his girlfriend peers out another.

    One later example of Keaton asserting his secret mastery over the environment pops up in the mostly dull BLUE BLAZES, where his fireman, alone at the station, gathers items to go combat the flames solo. Including a lawnmower, which first seems a silly, panicked goof on his part, but is delightfully revealed to be the wheels strapped to the ladder he drags along by the neck. That (and the subsequent way the ladder rolls away from the wall as Keaton climbs up) is so much more ingenious than the gags that surround it I’d guess it’s recycled. Can anyone point me to the source?

  • Gregg Rickman

    Yair, I don’t know if you have seen the workprint of HOSPITALITY, but as I understand it it’s the narrative skeleton of the film, minus most of the gags and with one other significant change: the dramatic prologue that now opens the film is presented as a flashback. It would of course be fascinating to see. Keaton and co-director Jack Blystone evidently prepared it as part of the production process, at some point after the company’s return from the Sierras, where much of the film was shot. (The waterfall sequence was however filmed under controlled conditions at Keaton’s studio, as is shown in Brownlow’s A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW.)

    Has anyone seen other films by Blystone? He had a long career, and Keaton said in one of his interviews that he “learned a lot from him.”

  • Music for Madame (John G. Blystone, 1937) is a comedy-with-music and great fun. But it seems un-Keatonesque, and hard to relate to Our Hospitality. Would very much like to see more of Blystone’s work. It shows up occasionally on TCM.

    Music for Madame is mainly a vehicle for the great operatic tenor Nino Martini, and is one of many studio-era Hollywood attempts to promote classical music and Culture to the Masses. Martini really can sing – a wonderful voice. I miss this enthusiasm for the intellectual life.

  • Gregg, yes, HOSPITALITY is basically an abridged version of OUR HOSPITALITY with many of the gags scooped out and, as you’ve noted, a change to the prologue that opens the film. Would still be interesting to see as it provides a look into Keaton’s working methods – but this may be only of interest to historians, so I have some doubts that it would make it onto the OUR HOSPITALITY/SHERLOCK JR disc Kino is currently preparing.

    Aside from OUR HOSPITALITY, John G. Blystone’s most famous films are his final two – SWISS MISS and BLOCK-HEADS, both released in 1938 and both starring Laurel & Hardy. The former is arguably their worst Roach-era feature, while the latter is one of their very best – probably has nothing to do with Blystone since Stan Laurel regularly called the shots on his sets. Neither is particularly Keatonesque (and I personally find SWISS MISS hardly suited to Laurel & Hardy’s personae and talents!)

  • Gregg Rickman

    Hi – thanks for the comments, Mike and Yair. Blystone was an action specialist at the time Keaton hired him to co-direct HOSPITALITY, which explains why he was wanted.

    Jean-Pierre, is the 1927 essay you mentioned way up thread (“Judith Erebe’s famous (in France) 1927 Crapouillot” essay) available anywhere? I checked on-line and couldn’t locate it.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Gregg, Erebe’s 1927 article was reprinted in the january 1963 issue of LE CRAPOUILLOT, which I once had but have lost or misplaced. I don’t know if there have been any other reprints. The essay’s original title was: “Sur le film comique et singulierement sur Buster Keaton.”

  • david hare

    Dave, thanks so much for your observations about the Keaton Kino.

    Ive just watched it too, but in BluRay, and what strikes me ( and may simply be baffling, like a Keatonesque dilemnma)is the extremely sharp contrast and beauty of the Keaton Estate (supposedly unseen)compared to the now familiar Killiam, which appears to have deeper blacks but doesn’t in fact. But that print is relatively “soft”.

    At the very best, all I can observe is that both versions look slightly “alternate camera” adjusted, much like the Czech version print of Sunrise on the staggering MoC of that title. And the Fox Murzage Boxset. I think I might have spotted two slightly different shots, But I also think I’m kidding myself.
    Look, either way, I think they are both incredibly beautiful. But I still wonder about the absence of real blacks, in the Kino BD.

  • Barry Putterman

    Just been catching up with all of the pratfalls and pie fights which have taken place since I last checked it. I must say that I am SHOCKED to discover that there was “branding” taking place in 1920s trade ads! Had these people no shame? If an exhibitor cannot bring himself to book a film strictly on its artistic merit than he shouldn’t have been allowed to play the film at all. If Buster Keaton didn’t have the gumption to take that stand back in the day, then thank goodness for people like Henry Jenkins exposing the whole rotten system today.

    Also edifying to discover that there was a classical Keaton and a modernist Keaton. A mighty distiction to be sure. Still, they’re cousins. Identical cousins and you’ll find….

    J.R. Jones, I share your enthusiasm for Ernie Kovacs. And I’m now certainly motivated to track down RUMBA. However, and this is just a suggestion mind you, I’d forget about the “forget abouts” while touting them. There’s room for everybody. Even those who aren’t quite up to the Kovacs level.

  • J.R. Jones

    Noted–I was brought up better than that.