See? Isn't Buster Keaton a comic? Get it? LOL

*Perhaps if I call this update ‘Jog’s Evening Special’ it won’t look so morbidly late?

*That Buster Keaton marathon last night on TCM really got me thinking, at least for as long as I toughed it out. I finally gave in a little after 3:00AM right before the Jimmy Durante team-ups came on, so I saw Keaton’s last two silents and two of his sound films, including his first, “Free and Easy”, which really got me going. The two silents are, of course, excellent, “The Cameraman” being among the cream of the Keaton crop. You can sense how much the pre-planned atmosphere of MGM must have chafed on Keaton; many of the best moments in the film have almost nothing to do with the main plot (the trip to Yankee Stadium, the breaking of the dime bank), having likely been dreamed up mid-shoot. But even the more ‘planning-required’ segments are excellently handled, with great nesting of jokes (the recurring broken window, the recurring police officer) and a genuinely semi-plausible romance; unlike many of Keaton’s romantic plots that tend to center entirely around him ‘winning’ a girl’s hand (which admittedly forms the climax here), there’s a real air of uncertainty surrounding Marceline Day’s attitude toward Buster’s aspiring newsman and the nicely characterized villain, who’s not so much malevolent as authentically cocky and insensitive. The film even manages to slip in a few nice digs at media coverage of horrendous events (with Buster increasingly becoming a participant and finally a catalyst of the climactic gang war), some good naughty fun at a huge (California-based) public pool, and a monkey with a knife. I’m totally convinced now that there’s no film that’s so good that it can’t be improved with a blade-wielding chimp. “Spite Marriage” is pretty good too, particularly through an initially excellent performance by Dorothy Sebastian, all sharp movements and high-octane expressions; too bad her part disintegrates to nothing by the end of the film. Lots of nice gags though, even if later scenes become heavily reminiscent of Keaton’s earlier “The Navigator”. The finale also allows Buster to show off his occasionally under-appreciated action hero chops; with his running and swinging and last-minute rowboat saves, Keaton could seriously have given Douglas Fairbanks a run for his money if he hadn’t gone so far into slapstick comedy!

The later of the talkies I saw, “Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath”, isn’t as much as a shocking new MGM misapplication of Keaton’s abilities as a return to the misapplication of “The Saphead”, Keaton’s very first feature role, in which he was essentially plunked into a light melodrama as a bit of a break from the shorts he’d been doing at the time. Keaton proceeded to infuse it with as much of his favored comedic stylings as he could, which is exactly what happens in this later film, a remake of an adaptation of a 1917 stage sex farce. Keaton plays an ultra-inexperienced virgin dullard who falls into a plot by a bunch of wealthy sophisticates to circumvent a certain social requirement, that sisters in a family must marry in order from eldest to youngest, a set-up that was frankly already creaking at the boards before the Jazz Age. It’s the perfect example of the ‘idiot plot’, where the whole affair would fall to bits if any one member of the cast happened to not act like they’re mentally handicapped, but it’s amusing pre-code fluff. I could sit through it. And it’s not like Keaton’s performance is a disaster; he actually aquits himself very nicely in the role of the naïf. No, it’s just that you can’t escape the feeling that the whole thing is far too utterly simple for Buster. It’s like hiring Chris Ware to illustrate “Hi and Lois” and demanding that he stick to newspaper gag formula: I’m sure the strip would look nice, but it could so easily be a lot more. Still, there’s some nice glimpses of Keaton’s then-wife’s palatial estate, which the film was mostly shot on location at.

But it’s Keaton’s sound debut, “Free and Easy” that drove me crazy. Let me start by saying that the film is a total fucking mess of truly magnificent proportions; it’s telling that for all of MGM’s reputation as a pre-planning driven movie factory, this flick is far more haphazard and sloppy than any of Keaton’s independent films. No surprise there; sound was far too new, and MGM was desperately sticking to the musical extravaganza formula that they’d found early success with, and they’d make anything fit into the formula’s contours, no matter how much they had to hammer it, because they weren‘t totally sure what else to do. It’s like the MGM conveyor belt was being converted over to producing a new type of product, but the transition wasn‘t quite finished yet although product still had to go out. So what we have is something like “Free and Easy”, which for the most part is stunningly sloppy, especially after watching a pair of Keaton silents. Perhaps as a sop to technology, Keaton’s antics have become wholly leaden, reduced to a few simple pratfalls, capped by hasty blackouts instead of any sort of follow-up gags. There’s awful light operetta numbers, crashingly gratuitous celebrity cameos intended for maximum distraction, a few moments of Keaton running around, and a whole lot of dire verbal humor (which I’ll admit that I love anyway; nothing can quite beat a really really bad burlesque patter routine for me). Robert Montgomery plays the romantic rival; there’s an uncomfortable near-date rape sequence followed by a great fight scene followed by the only good verbal gags in the film. Then suddenly Keaton‘s character becomes a film sensation, and we get twenty minutes of Buster in a pair of stage-bound vaudevillian song-and-dance routines, including the excellent title tune and a bevy of fantastically-costumed background dancers. And finally, melodrama bursts through the door!


Basically, Keaton’s love interest (with partially Keaton to blame) decides to run away and marry the smarmy near-rapist romantic rival, who has been redeemed through the sterling example of Buster’s upstanding morality. Keaton is left on the set crushed and dejected, with nothing left but to pretend that he‘s having fun for the camera. I suddenly realized that this ending must reflect exactly what Keaton was feeling at this point in his career! I know he didn’t have that much control over his films anymore, but I dearly do like to imagine that Keaton had this finale carefully synched up to deliver a final “Fuck you” to the film world. His character is left broken, unloved, and surrounded by a seemingly delightful job that he suddenly loathes. The final shot is a wonderful unmoving long take of Keaton’s stone face staring off into nothingness, then his eyes slowly close, as if wishing to make the world go away forever. The shot lingers for a while longer, and we fade to black. It a miracle of the accidentally sublime, and a perhaps involuntarily anticipation of the decline of a legendary career.