This is my own contribution to the Second Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. I hope you enjoy!
Buster Keaton fans are well aware of his much-discussed, sometimes-derided 1930s MGM talkies (and more than a little of that derision came from Buster himself). Speak Easily, Doughboys, and Sidewalks of New York are a few of the titles that pop up in conversation after online conversation–features that used the multi-talented director Keaton solely as an actor, and showed it.
But if there’s one Keaton feature that’s rarely discussed, either by fans or historians, it’s Le Roi des Champs-Élysées (1934). This independent French film was made about a year after Keaton was dismissed from MGM Studios. The sad story of that dismissal is all too familiar to fans–a slow downward spiral of unhappiness at work and unhappiness at home, and the bottom of bottle after bottle. But if there was ever a sign of hope in those dark, frightening months of blackouts and sanitariums, it can be found in this overlooked film.
Keaton’s seven MGM talkies have a reputation that’s maybe not quite deserved. The humor could sometimes be more labored than funny (a skilled comedy director like, oh, Keaton himself could’ve made a world of difference) but they were slickly produced and most of them hold up well against your typical Depression era comedy features. He was also able to contribute his own ideas now and then–the train gag from One Week shows up in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, for example.
Still, they were always clearly MGM films, not Buster Keaton films. It would take an offer from France–during a frustrating period of little work and too much alcohol–to return to something a bit closer to form.
Befitting the title of the picture, Le Roi opens with an image that almost veers into fantasy: elegantly dressed “Buster Garnier” in an open car motoring down the real Champs-Élysées, flinging handfuls of money to the eager populace. It’s not real money, of course–only advertisements that Buster’s being paid to distribute. He returns to the company office and is given more fake money to hand out, but he accidentally switches it with wads of the company’s actual cash. This leads to several funny scenes where he obliviously causes near-riots as the Parisians scramble to scoop up all the wealth. He also hands the “ads” to a young lady named Germaine who just happens to be on the verge of getting evicted. She is stunned and grateful, and he obviously finds her captivating (his maturing facial features register as mournfully wistful in this shot, in a way that I’m not sure we’ve seen before).
Obviously the mix-up ends with Buster being fired. He visits his mother, a prompter at a theater, to deliver the bad news. He reveals that when all is said and done, his dream job is to be…an actor! (His dramatic gestures at this moment are delicious.) Beginning to act out a fantasy of being in Hamlet, he accidentally crashes the stage show in progress a la Speak Easily.
Feeling himself a failure, in some scenes of black humor reminiscent of Hard Luck Buster decides to end it all (not without bidding adieu to his many pets first). Interestingly, for the first time we see him remove the black band from his distinctive porkpie hat in order to festoon a portrait of himself with a “funeral ribbon.” Of course his attempt to leave this mortal coil fails. He next tries to drink poison at a little cafe, but forgets his woes when he runs into Germaine again. She seems worth it to hold off on the eternal night a little while longer…!
His supportive mother gets him a tiny part in the play Le Roi des Champs-Élysées, and Germaine excitedly encourages him. In the meantime, a ruthless gangster named Scarface Jim escapes from prison–and he happens to be the spitting image of Buster. Both, of course, are played by Keaton. After Buster bungles his first scene in the play, he goes to a park behind the theater and is mistaken for Scarface Jim. The gangsters take him to their fancy, “high-tech” lair where he’s given a rousing welcome by “his” underlings. (Jim’s girlfriend, a floozy named Simone, just about smothers Buster with her welcome.) Inevitably, the real Scarface appears.
Spoilers! Buster uses his wits to escape the gangsters–if only to get back to the play before his line in the final scene. This ends in a honest-to-gosh car chase with guns firing (yes, our Buster Keaton in a violent car chase!) and a huge fight on the theater’s stage. The audience goes wild, thinking it’s part of the play. Jim and his gang are conquered and the police haul them away. Having both saved the day and the play, Buster reunites with Germaine, who kisses him–and he, shy at first and then elated, smiles. End Spoilers
You may have guessed that a huge reason to watch Le Roi is to see the fascinating, fascinating sight of Keaton in a dual role. Yes, for the first time since 1922’s The Frozen North Keaton plays a villain, and for the first time since The Playhouse and Sherlock Jr. we get to see two Busters on the screen at once–only this time they’re two distinct characters. He really shows his acting chops, being surprisingly effective as the scarred, ruthless Jim–even a little chilling. He clearly put a lot of thought into his performance, carrying himself more steadily than his Buster Garnier character and moving with quicker, panther-like movements. Even the way he walks is different. (Scarface Jim totally confirms my pet “What If?” theory, that Keaton would’ve been splendid as support in some of those American gangster films.) You’re never in doubt as to which character is which, and the split screen shots themselves are handled nicely.
But there are more reasons to watch this film. We often compare the bumbling Elmer characters in the MGMs to the alert, resourceful young man of silent days. The French studio was obviously hearkening back to the popular MGMs, and thus we have replays of the “Buster disrupts the stage performance” trope and plenty of bumbling moments. However, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées takes it a step further–he learns from his bumbling and uses his cleverness and quick thinking to outsmart the bad guys and end up a hero. Buster Garnier is more in tune with the “little fellow” from The Haunted House or The Goat than the MGM Elmers. He also has a refreshingly enthusiastic girlfriend who believes in him completely, and a supportive mother.
Le Roi des Champs-Élysées was evidently a low-budget film, and at times the camera placements and editing are a tad strange–for whatever reason, it really feels like a French production and not something from Hollywood. There’s also an odd moment where Buster apparently says “Oh, G– dammit!” onstage, making me say “Really?” and “But why, exactly?” But all in all it’s a great comedy. The second half of the film has a clever framework, being bookended by the first and last acts of the play. Knowing that Buster’s determined to make his line in the last act adds a little more tension to the story and extra humor to the climactic fight scene. And Buster’s given plenty of time to shine both as a comedian and as an actor. I’ve heard that he was still an alcoholic at this point, but he appears so alert and at his ease that I’m thinking he must’ve sobered up for the film’s production.
There’s also some genuinely touching moments, such as the scene where Buster is standing alone onstage, receiving the audience’s thunderous applause. It has a poignancy for any fan of the great comedian. And then, of course, there’s the film’s most famous moment: the smile.
Why did he decide to do this? It’s interesting to speculate how U.S. audiences would’ve reacted to the famed “Stoneface” smiling onscreen, had the film been given a wide release. Higher ups had been urging him to smile for years, of course. But he had always resisted. “I had other ways of showing I was happy,” he once explained. So the question is–why now?
Perhaps it was an attempt to draw interest to the film and kick his career back into gear. “Buster Smiles!” could’ve been plastered on every U.S. ad in the nation if need be. Or perhaps, being a lower budget feature, Buster figured it wouldn’t matter too much to add a smile at last. And I can’t help speculating that, after having gone through such a tough few years both personally and professionally, and in the public eye to boot, there was meant to be something reassuring about it. He was still working. He was still optimistic.
There were still hard times ahead for Keaton, but Le Roi des Champs-Élysées gave us a little bit of the old Buster back. It was one of his last great starring roles in a feature film. And when you consider how little it was seen, both then and now, and think about what Keaton went through during the early ’30s, and how cathartic it must’ve been for him to act both as a clever hero and an intimidating, powerful villain…all in all, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées might’ve been meant more for him than anyone else.
The film is currently on YouTube if you’re dying to see it (I hope you don’t mind some Spanish subtitles):
- The name of the (short-lived) production company was Nero Films, which seems to have existed only a few more years.
- Aside from France, this film was released in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Japan.
- It finally received a Los Angeles “premiere” in 2005.
- Keaton’s voice was obviously dubbed, since he didn’t speak French. You do hear his real voice at least twice–saying “Go get me a drink,” to Simone, and saying “Ouvrir la porte!” to a fellow gangster.
- Keaton was still married to his second wife, Mae Scriven, at the time.
- Paulette Dubost, who played Germaine, would later appear in The Rules of the Game (1939).
- I love the music in this film, don’t you?