Reactions to Buster at MGM

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SilentEchoes57
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Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by SilentEchoes57 » Wed Oct 26, 2011 7:56 am

I've been able now to see all of Buster's MGM features, and I find myself a bit surprised at my reactions to them.

1. I've always heard how terrible the MGM films are, but terrible compared to what? As early talking pictures, they are at times rough, or oddly paced, but so were other films at the time. I found myself surprised that I could enjoy them for what they were, primitive talking "comedies," rather than lamenting for what they were not. Just watching Buster on camera doing anything is worthwhile. Buster made me laugh in every film, often for just a simple gag or gesture. He also made me laugh when doing "bits" of comedy that are not "silent" type gags, or classic Keaton-style gags, but just little bits any comedian could do. Even the dreaded farce type gags, or wordplay gags, supposedly beneath his talents, were still funny when Buster did them.

2. I found myself feeling oddly frustrated at Buster (not for Buster) over the way the MGM thing played out. Sure, these films were not classics, but I felt frustrated that Buster squandered what he was given, however imperfect it might have been. He made entertaining films at MGM, that were very popular at the time, and I wonder what would have come if Buster had been able to tough it out. Especially if he could have reached a post-Durante stage of his MGM career.

Buster may have been a misunderstood genius, and denied creative control, but there are worse fates in life to endure then being highly-compensated to continue doing what you love to do (make movies) only under restricted circumstances. Maybe working at MGM was only a half full glass, maybe it was only 25% full, but Keaton's gig working at MGM was not an empty glass. And if you consider what happened to other silent comedians when talkies arrived, MGM may still have been the best he could have reasonably hoped for under the circumstances. Rather than pity Buster over MGM, I feel as if he squandered a chance to have done more while he was there.

3. Buster worked at MGM for a relatively long time, for more than four years, about half the time Buster had his own studio. I wonder how long Buster would have stayed working at MGM as a star if he had behaved himself? Could he have remained a major star there indefinitely? Would that have helped his overall reputation in later years?

It struck me how relatively young and healthy (generally) he appeared in the MGM films, and that if not for the drink he could have kept going a long time. He also seemed more versatile, than say Harold Lloyd, in the film "types" he could play. Buster was still quite handsome and debonair in a tuxedo, but could play other roles, and would likely have matured into more interesting character roles if he had stuck it out. Might he have had a career arc similar to Clark Gable's?

4. Given that Buster grew up in vaudeville, and had entertainment in his DNA, I found it fun, and appropriate, for him to do a little song and dance now and then - he had the chops.

5. When did Buster develop the physical trait of bowing his head down, looking upward, and nodding his head frequently with his mouth agape? He does it all the time during the MGM films, and I don't recall this habit being so prevalent in his silent work. He also frequently clasps his two hands together under his chin, another frequent trait he seemed to have developed at MGM. He kept these mannerisms when doing his talking short films.

6. Whenever Buster's face gets dirty in a film, even at MGM, they always seem to use the same make-up effect. A horizontal dark smudge along his bottom lip, and across the base of his nose. When he dives down a coal chute in Neighbors, or gets train soot on his face during Our Hospitality, or mud during Doughboys, this same effect appears again and again. If I were feeling more obsessive I'd break out the DVDs and catalog them all. But I've seen this many times over. Has anyone noticed this? I wonder if Buster took the idea from his vaudeville days.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by gjohnson » Wed Oct 26, 2011 9:56 am

When people talk dismissive of Keaton's MGM features it is based on comparison of only one thing - his own silent work as an independent.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Mark Pruett » Wed Oct 26, 2011 10:05 am

SilentEchoes57 wrote: When did Buster develop the physical trait of bowing his head down, looking upward, and nodding his head frequently with his mouth agape? He does it all the time during the MGM films, and I don't recall this habit being so prevalent in his silent work. He also frequently clasps his two hands together under his chin, another frequent trait he seemed to have developed at MGM. He kept these mannerisms when doing his talking short films.
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I haven't watched the MGM features, John, but you have definitely nailed the Keaton of the Educational two-reelers. Does "Elmer"--with the hick persona, the hangdog expression, the exaggerated, Goofy-like stride--appear anywhere in Buster's silent shorts? Like the earlier Buster, Elmer is resourceful when he wants to be, but he lacks the silent Buster's stoical approach to besting an adversary or puzzling out an absurd situation. The silent Buster haunts us still; Elmer never could. But this has as much to do with the gulf between silent and talking pictures as with Buster's supposed decline.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by The Blackbird » Sun Oct 30, 2011 5:12 am

Heck, I've always had a sneaking liking for SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK and WHAT! NO BEER? ...

Of the seven MGM Keaton sound features, I've only found much of FREE AND EASY really painful (somehow, somebody on the writing crew thought the mispronounciation of Fred Niblo's name was comic gold); otherwise the films are largely on par with other comedies MGM was making at the time with William Haines, Marie Dressler or Robert Montgomery. The first three suffer mostly from the limits of filmmaking imposed on most of the early talkies. Granted, SPITE MARRIAGE has problems too (starting with the plot more or less completely changing about halfway through), but there is still much to enjoy there. All that said, little of Keaton's MGM work is in the same league as his best independant stuff. On the flip side, even movies like BATTLING BUTLER and COLLEGE look pretty pedestrian now, in my humble opinion.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Rob Farr » Sun Oct 30, 2011 5:44 am

Buster's neck-craining, head-bobbing habit when speaking was a really unfortunate choice because it gives the impression that the mere act of talking requires physical exertion. of course, considering the quality of some of his dialogue, maybe it did.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by gjohnson » Sun Oct 30, 2011 9:45 am

Personally, I have always had a soft soft for FREE AND EASY (30) and the semi-autobiographical DOUGHBOYS (30), not so much for what the films delivered but for what they promised - silent vignettes of Buster racing around a studio back lot and the battlefields of France. The reality is somewhat less than desired, but what these films do show are high production values that allow Keaton room to roam (as opposed to the following films he made that all seem to take place on the same couple of sets) and the added benefit of allowing Buster to display his stage training in a few musical numbers.

The down sides are the pun-laden scripts he was handed to deliver and the leaden pace that these films moved at. Also, someone needed to tone back Ed Brophy's constant shrill barking as the top sergeant in DOUGHBOYS.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Joe Migliore » Sun Oct 30, 2011 11:55 am

gjohnson wrote:
The down sides are the pun-laden scripts he was handed to deliver and the leaden pace that these films moved at. Also, someone needed to tone back Ed Brophy's constant shrill barking as the top sergeant in DOUGHBOYS.
Come on, Brophy is great; he's one of the funniest things in the movie!

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by TheIngenue » Sun Oct 30, 2011 12:52 pm

Of Buster's MGM features, I've only seen parts of Free and Easy and Speak Easily, but I have to say aside from the former (God, that make-up and costume they stuck him in- BLEH! And the music-- sweet God, the music!), Speak Easily really wasn't too bad.

I think the reason people dislike the MGM films so much is because the pictures stripped away what made Buster's film persona unique. They might not be bad films in and of themselves, it's just a shame that MGM didn't give Buster work more tailored for his talents.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Joe Migliore » Sun Oct 30, 2011 1:05 pm

TheIngenue wrote:
Speak Easily really wasn't too bad.
I think SPEAK EASILY was the best of the Keaton & Durante vehicles. If it had been their only pairing, we would be wondering why they didn't make more movies together.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by gjohnson » Sun Oct 30, 2011 5:11 pm

Joe Migliore wrote: Come on, Brophy is great; he's one of the funniest things in the movie!
How about a little nuance in his comic acting? At least L&H's top Sgt would speak in a quietly, menacing tone to The Boys before erupting on them.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Joe Migliore » Sun Oct 30, 2011 5:42 pm

I love the scene where Brophy sizes up Buster as a rich boy, and refers to him as "Elmer J. Stuyvesant esquire the third" (or something like that...I haven't seen it for a couple of years.) It always gets a laugh.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by bobfells » Sun Oct 30, 2011 6:29 pm

I've seen all of Buster's MGM talkies except SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, which I have variously heard described as terrible or pretty good. Keaton himself later said that his MGM talkies "weren't bad" except for SIDEWALKS. FREE AND EASY has some interesting footage inside the studio and the musical finale showed that Buster's comic timing worked musically too. I would have liked to see him do more song and dance numbers. That said, whoever decided to turn him into a Paliacci-type sad clown should be shot. What were they thinking - that it worked for Chaney so it ought to work for Keaton?

One improvement was the type of leading ladies he was given, they are all charming unlike some of his leading ladies during his independent days. Of the group, I've seen THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER several times and enjoy it more each time. It ain't no GENERAL but then nothing else was either. I think Buster's funniest line occurs in the first scene with Durante. After Jimmy has been monopolizing the scene with his non-stop chatter, Buster deadpans, "Did you have a reason for coming here?" Buster suddenly takes charge of the story at the end and bosses around the other characters. He is also well-dressed for a change.

I also like SPEAK EASILY because it has a strong structure with opportunities for the supporting cast, at least more than usual. I need to say a kind word for BEDROOM, PARLOR and BATH. There's a lot of running around near the end that's silly but it seems best when sticking to its stage origins. I could never picture Buster for his offscreen romantic trysts but after seeing him in BEDROOM, I could take him more seriously in that respect. He works surprisingly well with Charlotte Greenwood, and Cliff Edwards is a panic as the hotel bellboy who seems to walk into Buster's room always at the wrong moment and of course assumes the worst. It's a good running gag and the film wisely closes on one of his badly-timed entrances. Reginald Denny is wasted in the film but has one good line early on. He asks Keaton what he does for a living and Buster says he's a "sign tacker." As we have seen, he nails signs to telephone poles. Denny charmingly replies without a hint of condescension, "Oh, you're in advertising." Keaton thinks about that for a second and then nods his head approvingly.

Early scenes of BEDROOM were filmed at Buster's Italian Villa, and it's nice to see with him running about it. Filming there suggests that MGM was trying to work with Keaton. The studio also restaged one of his more expensive gags where his car gets stuck on the tracks with an oncoming train in view. WHAT NO BEER? is pretty good but Buster looks awful and I suspect that some scenes were shifted to Durante because of Buster's "condition." The scene where Durante bosses the making of beer is especially arch an I wonder if it was originally meant for Keaton, who would have played it much differently. The second half of BEER is frantically paced and a number of abbreviated scenes with Buster suggest that he may not have been up to finishing some sequences. He later said that he had hardly any memory of making the film.

Buster looking a bit under the weather with Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Jimmy Durante:
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by boblipton » Sun Oct 30, 2011 8:35 pm

Buster's MGM sound films weren't his silent independent films -- they weren't even THE CAMERAMAN or SPITE MARRIAGE, which were pretty good movies. As mentioned above, this was pretty true of all the early MGM sound films and can probably be laid at the basic problems of MGM and comedy in general: drama can be competently be done by any number of performers, but a good gag requires the unexpected and is inherently idiosyncratic. MGM, with its top-down organization wasn't set up to produce idiosyncratic works. It was fine for, say WIZARD OF OZ who, after dumping Thorpe, had three directors, and one of them was King Vidor, whose work blended very well with Cukor's and Fleming's work. But how do you even get the attention of Thalberg unless you're willing to roast mickeys in his office when he's gone?

When Thalberg produced the Marx Brothers comedies, he did it by sending them on tour to work on the material, cutting them loose. The Red Skelton comedies in the early forties were pretty good, but everyone basically let them alone to work. How MY DEAR MISS ALDRICH turned out so well is a mystery. But given the structure of MGM topped off by the banks, with Keaton in the bag most of the time there was no one to fight for autonomy.

Technical issues were also a problem, but others have already covered that topic. By the time Keaton regained his independence, he was too old and had budgets too tiny to give him a chance to work things out slowly, as he had in the silent era. Time simply caught up with him.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Brooksie » Sun Oct 30, 2011 9:37 pm

Envisioning a hypothetical 1930s in which Buster did not sign up with MGM, would things have really been that different?

If he had made the transition to sound with perfect ease, and produced sound films in just as great a quality and quantity as his silent features, he'd have been virtually alone amongst his colleagues.

Would Buster's first talkie have been a merely OK retread of previous material with some shaky musical numbers? In all likelihood, yes.

Would this hypothetical 1930s have featured alcoholism? I would also suggest yes. It's all too easy to look back on a life (including your own) and play a join-the-dots game of causality, with the suggestion that if one of the dots had been removed, things would have been entirely different.

Buster already had enough domestic problems and other deeper-rooted issues that had nothing to do with sound, MGM, or anything else. The coming of sound and changes to the economy had already made the freewheeling way he preferred to make his films a near-impossibility, and both a creative and physical slowing after over a decade's solid work, and a decline in popularity in favour of younger rivals, would have been inevitable. All factors that would have depressed hell out of a workaholic like Buster. I'm no psychiatrist but again, I think things would not have unfolded much differently to how they did.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by SilentEchoes57 » Mon Oct 31, 2011 2:06 pm

Hi Brooksie

I hadn't given it much thought over the years, but I think you probably are right. Buster's alcoholic demons were not caused by MGM, and they would have remained lurking where ever he might have ended up working in 1930.

And there is no getting around the fact that the economics of movie production had changed drastically with the coming of sound. Buster's method of filming simply wasn't feasible any more. He might have been granted more latitude somewhere else, but still he would have been forced to compromise by any studio.

The remarkable aspect of Buster's career was not the fact that he was reigned in, and forced to compromise, but that he had enjoyed such relative freedom beforehand for as long as he did. Buster's loss when sound arrived was profound, but likely inescapable.

Also - just want to add that I re-watched PARLOR BEDROOM and BATH, and found myself enjoying it a lot. It was a silly farce, and as far-removed from a classic Keaton-style silent film as possible, but the bedroom scene at the end, where Buster attacks woman after woman, and is caught each time by the bell hop Cliff Edwards, was just plain fun.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Hal Erickson » Tue Nov 01, 2011 9:45 am

Here's a blasphemous thought...
Maybe Buster adopted his "new" vacuous character in talkies out of concern that his old smarter-than-he-looks character wouldn't work as well as it did in the silent era.
Remember how anachronistic Harold Lloyd's go-getter became as the talkie era wore on. Remember also that Ronald Colman made a successful transition to talkies by adopting a new urbane characterization as opposed to his John Gilbert-like persona of the silents. (And recall that Gilbert's awkward adjustment to talkies was not due to his perfectly acceptable voice, but because the kinds of films he'd been making in the silent era were temporarily out of fashion).
I base this theory (and that's ALL it is--a theory) on the fact that Buster played comparatively "dumb" even the talkies that he liked.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by TheIngenue » Tue Nov 01, 2011 11:25 am

Hal Erickson wrote:Here's a blasphemous thought...
Maybe Buster adopted his "new" vacuous character in talkies out of concern that his old smarter-than-he-looks character wouldn't work as well as it did in the silent era.
Remember how anachronistic Harold Lloyd's go-getter became as the talkie era wore on. Remember also that Ronald Colman made a successful transition to talkies by adopting a new urbane characterization as opposed to his John Gilbert-like persona of the silents. (And recall that Gilbert's awkward adjustment to talkies was not due to his perfectly acceptable voice, but because the kinds of films he'd been making in the silent era were temporarily out of fashion).
I base this theory (and that's ALL it is--a theory) on the fact that Buster played comparatively "dumb" even the talkies that he liked.
An interesting and possible thought, however, I highly doubt it. Unlike Harold Lloyd, Buster lost creative freedom and was stuck with whatever part MGM landed him with. When he was sacked from MGM, he was quoted as telling the higher-ups they'd ruined his character.

Personally, I think his character might have been less "anachronistic" than Lloyd's had he still been playing that role into the 30s. Not that I think he would have been playing it exactly the same as in his silent films, but if Chaplin could still make money playing the Little Tramp in 1936, I don't see how Keaton's character would not have worked as well.

BTW, I really think this is an interesting discussion. :D So much better than the typic angst-fest people go into when discussing Keaton's MGM years.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by gathering » Tue Nov 01, 2011 2:14 pm

TheIngenue wrote:When he was sacked from MGM, he was quoted as telling the higher-ups they'd ruined his character.
Are you referring to the quote "You studio people warp my character," referencing their disapproval of his party bus on the lot? Maybe you aren't. Still, this is one of those quotes (if it's accurate) that I wish I could get in a time machine and witness him saying.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by TheIngenue » Tue Nov 01, 2011 3:22 pm

gathering wrote:
TheIngenue wrote:When he was sacked from MGM, he was quoted as telling the higher-ups they'd ruined his character.
Are you referring to the quote "You studio people warp my character," referencing their disapproval of his party bus on the lot? Maybe you aren't. Still, this is one of those quotes (if it's accurate) that I wish I could get in a time machine and witness him saying.
Precisely what I was referring to! Yes, I'd love to witness it as well!
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Brooksie » Sat Nov 05, 2011 1:03 am

Here's a second dose of sacreliege: genius though he was, Irving Thalberg never had much of a flair for what did and didn't work in comedy (Lawrence Tibbett film not working for you? Just patch in some Laurel & Hardy sequences!). He might easily have tried to sculpt Buster into something that baffled him a little less. I can imagine Keaton being just insecure enough to accept the judgement.

On the other hand, Thalberg is said to have acknowledged his shortcomings in comedy by choosing quality performers and letting them go off and do their own thing without interference, which would lend credence to Hal's theory.

I wish there were some studio memos or something that related to this period. If they existed, I'm sure another Keaton scholar would have found and published them by now. Otherwise, all we can go on are theories and hunches.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sat Nov 05, 2011 6:49 am

An interesting and possible thought, however, I highly doubt it. Unlike Harold Lloyd, Buster lost creative freedom and was stuck with whatever part MGM landed him with. When he was sacked from MGM, he was quoted as telling the higher-ups they'd ruined his character.
Which wasn't just a matter of his sound films— from the beginning of his MGM career, good as The Cameraman is, they were pushing him to be more of a dope, a moon-eyed simpleton who blunders into a chance to shine. I suspect he was viewed as a hick due to his midwestern bray of a voice and possibly other things (like marginal literacy if that was in fact true), even though he didn't have to play that character in silents (sound was another matter and would have been more difficult for him). It's one reason it took me a long time to warm to any of his sound work— my Buster is smart.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by TheIngenue » Sun Nov 06, 2011 2:28 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:
An interesting and possible thought, however, I highly doubt it. Unlike Harold Lloyd, Buster lost creative freedom and was stuck with whatever part MGM landed him with. When he was sacked from MGM, he was quoted as telling the higher-ups they'd ruined his character.
Which wasn't just a matter of his sound films— from the beginning of his MGM career, good as The Cameraman is, they were pushing him to be more of a dope, a moon-eyed simpleton who blunders into a chance to shine. I suspect he was viewed as a hick due to his midwestern bray of a voice and possibly other things (like marginal literacy if that was in fact true), even though he didn't have to play that character in silents (sound was another matter and would have been more difficult for him). It's one reason it took me a long time to warm to any of his sound work— my Buster is smart.
His voice was probably the culprit for his new character in the sound pictures, but before that, I wonder what made MGM think that a, as you say, "moon-eyed simpleton" was a good role for Keaton? Perhaps his small size? Maybe they thought that comedic characters weren't as funny if they were competent? Or maybe they saw the return on his more recent films like "The General" and "College", and assumed that Buster's character and method of filmmaking just weren't profitable? No matter why they chose to write Buster as an idiot, nevertheless, it's a shame.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Wm. Charles Morrow » Thu Nov 24, 2011 8:14 am

Over the years I’ve seen each of Buster’s MGM talkies, except one. Last night I finally caught up with the hold-out, The Passionate Plumber, and really enjoyed it. (Going in with low expectations definitely helps.) I even enjoyed Jimmy Durante, who is so overbearing in his other appearances with Buster. Athough they have scenes together Keaton and Durante are not really a team in this movie; it’s more of an ensemble effort, and Buster is still very much the lead comic. His naïve talkie persona suits his role in this farce quite well, and he knows how to deliver a punchline. (All those years in vaudeville counted for something.) It helps that “Elmer” isn’t such a hapless klutz this time. There are some of those typical MGM-style moments when he’s clumsy and breaks stuff, but here it’s pretty funny and not too prolonged.

And it also helps that he still looks like the silent era Buster: the dissipation wasn’t obvious yet, as in What! No Beer? As Bob Fells pointed out up-thread, Keaton dresses well in this movie. In evening wear he still looks like a million bucks. In short, The Passionate Plumber is proof that the MGM talkies weren’t all unmitigated disasters, if anyone still believed that. I think it’s the best of the bunch by a mile.
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by bobfells » Thu Nov 24, 2011 8:33 am

I''d love to see an official Keaton dvd set of BEDROOM, PARLOR and BATH, THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER, and SPEAK EASILY. Each film is better than the previous one and the neophyte might well ask, "So what was the problem with Keaton at MGM?"
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Brooksie » Thu Nov 24, 2011 3:57 pm

bobfells wrote:I''d love to see an official Keaton dvd set of BEDROOM, PARLOR and BATH, THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER, and SPEAK EASILY. Each film is better than the previous one and the neophyte might well ask, "So what was the problem with Keaton at MGM?"
You've probably hit the nail on the head on why the Keaton MGM films have a godawful reputation rather than a merely disappointing one: how many people can honestly say they've seen all of them, and in good enough copies to fairly judge them? I agree - particularly given the recent rush of 'lost' Keaton material, a decent release of the MGM features is a glaring omission.

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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by CoffeeDan » Fri Nov 25, 2011 3:30 pm

Brooksie wrote:
bobfells wrote:I''d love to see an official Keaton dvd set of BEDROOM, PARLOR and BATH, THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER, and SPEAK EASILY. Each film is better than the previous one and the neophyte might well ask, "So what was the problem with Keaton at MGM?"
You've probably hit the nail on the head on why the Keaton MGM films have a godawful reputation rather than a merely disappointing one: how many people can honestly say they've seen all of them, and in good enough copies to fairly judge them? I agree - particularly given the recent rush of 'lost' Keaton material, a decent release of the MGM features is a glaring omission.
Warner Archive (via Facebook): "There will be another wave of Keaton at M-G-M coming down the pike."

IA
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by IA » Thu Apr 04, 2019 4:45 pm

I recently finished watching all of Keaton's MGM features. The experience was much less painful than I imagined, though the studio's misuse of its star remains evident.

In Keaton’s silents he played a seemingly hapless character with tunnel vision forced by circumstances to discover or reveal his hidden ingenuity through displays of athletic virtuosity and technical mastery. In the sound era MGM only understood the first part, about haplessness.

Even in The Cameraman and Spite Marriage there are signs of rot. The first film cuts back on Keaton's athleticism and he triumphs through sheer luck. In Spite Marriage he at least gets to fend off pirates, but the scene of him blundering around onstage is a fateful foretaste of Speak Easily.

Both films try for a pathos that curdles into the bathos in Free and Easy, the only truly putrid Keaton sound feature, a boring, degrading, unfunny drag of a movie, only notable for showing Keaton’s dancing and singing skills. The negative tendencies of the previous silents are amplified a thousand-fold: Keaton is now not only hapless but also a stupid, chronically inept, bungling hayseed.

MGM decided Keaton sounded like a hick. To be fair, his deep, creaking-hinge voice fitted Eeyore more than his sprightly silent character. How was it that a youthful man so light on his feet had such an old, heavy voice?
The cringing mannerisms of his sound features—craning his neck to look up like a dog being disciplined, with an open mouth and dazed expression—were an internalization of MGM's characterization. “They want Elmer? I'll give them Elmer!”

Doughboys is a night-and-day improvement on Free and Easy. Keaton and Rudi Blesh liked this film than most of his other talkies, and one can see why: the verbal humor is less forced, the plot is episodic rather than overstuffed, and in fleeting moments Keaton displays the athleticism that made him a legend, as when resisting an army recruiter's command to strip or performing a rubber-limbed Parisian Apache dance in drag.

Doughboys is the only one of Keaton’s sound comedies with a structure and style close to those of his silent films. The plot is simple enough to hang gags on, there’s a good absurd twist ending, and you can imagine Big Joe Roberts as the overbearing drill sergeant. But director Eddie Sedgwick was no Lubitsch--the film is slow and while the foundations of good gags are present, the film doesn’t build them into the towering and ingenious set-pieces of old.

Every discussion of Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath invariably brings up Keaton’s dismissal of farce, but Keaton was wrong. In a good farce characters cannot simply reveal what’s going on because it would be too embarrassing or damaging, so they tell a lie, and another lie to cover up that lie, and eventually are caught up in a snowball of mendacity so immense that even if they told the truth it would be unbelievable. Life is not too serious for farce, because farce’s nightmarish escalating pace and relentless cascade of mischance and Murphy’s Law are a valid conception of life at its most nerve-wracking.

Certainly the farce premise of Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath, flimsy as it might be, is an example of something too embarrassing for Reginald Denny’s character to admit without duress. And PBB also gets points for how its climax using Keaton’s body more extensively than his other talkies, with its catalog of pratfalls, tumbles, and athletic feats such as his kissing “lesson.” There’s also a callback to One Week involving a train (though the gag worked better in the original) and the strongest supporting cast of any Keaton talkie: Reginald Denny, Cliff Edwards, and Charlotte Greenwood.

Denny overshadows Keaton throughout the first third, being far more comfortable with farce and verbal comedy, Simultaneously suave and manic, he’s obviously enjoying himself, unlike Buster. Greenwood is a marvelous foil here, just as she was with Eddie Cantor in Palmy Days. As a sort of eccentric, discombobulated giraffe she complements Keaton, and it's a shame they never appeared together again (she manhandles him beautifully). The film only becomes uncomfortable when Keaton’s character starts kissing every woman he sees against his will. Aside from this, I found it the funniest of Keaton’s MGM talkies, the only one I'd rewatch anytime soon.

Sidewalks of New York isn’t quite the dog its reputation suggests. True, the gangster/streetkids plot is dull (bit nonetheless coherent) and the physical comedy between Keaton and Cliff Edwards is feeble, but the film picks up in the final third, with Keaton again getting a chance to be athletic while fending off gangsters in his cavernous mansion.

The Passionate Plumber is notable for Keaton being allowed to show more intelligence than usual, though not enough to match his silent-era ingenuity. Once again he’s placed in a farce, though less wild than that of PBB, and he’s responsible for resolving the plot (though not in a Keatonian manner). He also acquits himself well in the casino scene, thinking up a bright idea to get in and wreaking havoc inside with some much-appreciated athletic slapstick. The duel scene is a leisurely send-up of every cinema duel past and present. But even the increase in Keaton's onscreen capability jostles against the Elmer character’s stolidity (he's too stupid to realize the consequences of brandishing a gun in public--not once but twice!) and near-autistic rigidity. Jimmy Durante makes the viewer want to strangle him only on a couple of occasions and is otherwise restrained in a servant/sidekick role.

Speak Easily is often acclaimed as the best of the MGM talkies, and Keaton liked it for having the most believable plot. It works as a conventional comedy but isn't the funniest film from this period. Speak Easily also features Keaton’s best acting at MGM—for once he plays a character rather than a generic dimwit. As Professor Potts he shows more comfort with dialogue than in his earlier films, with fewer hayseed mannerisms. This film is also the first Keaton talkie populated by characters rather than archetypes. That said, laughs are don’t really come until the last third of the film, in a reprise of Spite Marriage's onstage blundering; beforehand there’s an aimless sequence on a train and a disappointing drunk scene with Thelma Todd.

What! No Beer? isn’t a terrible film in itself, but as a Keaton film it’s horrific to watch. He threatens to become sidekick in his own movie: Durante has all the initiative and ideas (he’s so hyperactive you want to throw a tarp on him) while Keaton is passive, nursing a hangover, and along for the ride. He plays an idiot bumbler throughout all but the last 15 minutes, when he suddenly grows brain and displays craftiness. Aside from a cute scene at the voting booth and the runaway beer barrels gag, there’s not much effective slapstick or many opportunities for Keaton to cut loose. The first attempt at beer-making is a grindingly unfunny scene. Keaton looks enervated and haggard; his slurred delivery stumbles into a midwestern drawl more becoming of Jimmy Stewart. And I still don’t understand what that shot from The Crowd is doing in the repeal montage.

The Keaton MGM sound features aren’t as bad as their reputation suggests, but approaching them with lowered expectations also makes it easy to overrate them. If none of the post-Free & Easy comedies are truly bad, none are more than good. The best merit 3 out of 5 stars and no more, and would be forgotten if not for their star.

Other studios probably wouldn’t have allowed Buster an independent unit either, but they might have given him greater leeway in choosing plots and devising gags. MGM was a studio devoted to white elephant art, with no insight in comedy. It was insensitive enough to think the success of The Cameraman lay in its constraints on Keaton rather than its distribution. It was too incurious to let Keaton work more in the way he was accustomed to, the way that had made him worth hiring in the first place. His MGM producer, the habitually insensitive Lawrence Weingarten, compares very poorly to William LeBaron, who understood and nurtured eccentric comedians.

I also notice that when we think of early 30s comedy we tend to think of more frenetic works—the Marx Brothers and Wheeler and Woolsey in their prime, the surrealism of the Fleischer brothers and other non-Disney studios, the W.C. Fields of International House and Million Dollar Legs...next to these, even the best of Keaton’s sound comedies look conventional.

I don't think Buster squandered what he was given—he was the victim of MGM’s inadvertent bait and switch. He was allowed a good measure of creative freedom in his first two MGM films, only to have it taken away with the dreadful Free and Easy. Afterward he went into the rut of making films that didn’t suit his talent, for which he no longer had major creative input. Being paid to do degraded work that you know could be better, but which you've been forbidden to fix, is never pleasurable. Being paid well for it is a twist of the knife. As his marriage and family life imploded, Buster could not even take refuge in his work.

The biggest rebuke to the MGM sound features is the Educational comedies. The best of these—The Golden Ghost, Allez Oop, One Run Elmer, Grand Slam Opera, and Jail Bait—do a far better job of adapting Keaton’s style to sound comedy and show what the MGM films could have been like without mothballed plots and excessive dialogue. To watch The Gold Ghost after What! No Beer? is like drinking cool water after being stranded in the desert. Buster is almost back to his old self and walks with a confidence missing from all of his earlier sound films. He no longer looks embarrassed or out of place in his own movies, and his worst sound mannerisms have been put away or toned down. The EC films might not stand anywhere as tall as his sound shorts, but considering their budget and time limitations, they're honorable achievements and feel more like Keaton films than anything he made at MGM after 1929.

wich2
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by wich2 » Fri Apr 05, 2019 12:00 pm

IA wrote:
Thu Apr 04, 2019 4:45 pm
How was it that a youthful man so light on his feet had such an old, heavy voice?
Strong possibility?

Years of cigarettes and alcohol.

- Craig

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Jim Roots
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by Jim Roots » Fri Apr 05, 2019 12:03 pm

wich2 wrote:
Fri Apr 05, 2019 12:00 pm
IA wrote:
Thu Apr 04, 2019 4:45 pm
How was it that a youthful man so light on his feet had such an old, heavy voice?
Strong possibility?

Years of cigarettes and alcohol.

- Craig
Yes, plus years of disuse. I mean, the guy had been in speechless films for a dozen years, right?
:roll:

Jim

IA
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Re: Reactions to Buster at MGM

Unread post by IA » Fri Apr 05, 2019 1:26 pm

wich2 wrote:
Fri Apr 05, 2019 12:00 pm
Strong possibility?
Years of cigarettes and alcohol.
In his later years, sure. But even in his first sound films Buster's voice sounded older and creakier than the rest of him was at the time. It wasn't a bad voice, but its cracker-barrel tone didn't fit his silent image.

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