This is my own entry for the Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Hope you enjoy!
Ah, Buster’s talkies–few topics cause greater discussion among Keaton fans. We all agree that his own silent films are veritable masterpieces, but the talkies he was starred in? Let’s just say that opinions vary.
But while Buster’s MGM talkies are widely analyzed, his 1930s comedy shorts get less attention. Or, more likely, they’re written off as merely “inferior” to his solo work and that’s about it. While I can’t really disagree, I do think there’s some gems among the Educationals. And you really can’t put a price on getting several extra hours’ worth of Keaton performances–and in sound!
A little background: when Buster was moved over to MGM in the late 1920s to star in comedy features, thus going from being a fairly independent filmmaker to a contracted star, he didn’t quite thrive. The arrangement worked well at first–the brilliant The Cameraman and pleasing Spite Marriage have many fans today, and his seven early ’30s talkie features, while not particularly Keaton-ish, were very popular in their day. However, he wasn’t comfortable with the MGM films, feeling they “warped his character.” This combined with personal problems and alcoholism lead to his being let go from the studio.
After further struggles with alcoholism, he managed to achieve sobriety and tried to head back to work. This turned out to be easier said than done, but finally Educational Pictures took him on. Educational had been a thriving studio during the 1920s but by the ’30s was considerably more low budget. While it was a bit of a step down, it did give Buster steady work and opportunities to use his creativity. He would also draw on his old films for inspiration–you never know when a Comique era gag will pop up, or a little throwaway bit from his early ’20s shorts.
So now that we have some context, I’m going to give my own mini-reviews of each of Buster’s Educational shorts. Now, keep in mind that I’m going to be judging these shorts on their own merits, not comparing them to Buster’s own shorts from the 1920s, since it’s unfair to compare TV dinners with entrees from Michelin-starred restaurants. So let’s get to it!
The Gold Ghost (1934) — After his girl rejects him, Buster consoles himself by going for a drive and ends up in a Western ghost town. He finds ways to entertain himself while dreaming of winning back the girl’s affections.
My Grade: A-
Buster’s series was off to a strong start with this one! The opening scenes move along at a snappy pace, setting up the characters and situations and then moving on to the real meat of the piece: Buster’s lengthy solo scenes. Obviously, having an entire 1890s ghost town at his disposal gave him tons of opportunities for his clever, precise gags (I loved the one involving cobwebs on his hands–the subtlety!). And there’s something delightfully boyish about seeing him imagining himself as a tough sheriff. You’ll notice, too, how the majority of the film is practically silent, with just a few sound effects adding to the gags now and then. Fun and quite Keaton-ish all around.
Allez Oop! (1934) — A clock repairman falls for a pretty customer. She agrees to go on a date with him to the circus, but unfortunately she becomes smitten with a dashing trapeze artist.
My Grade: B+
I really enjoyed this one too, and noticed a lot of similarities with The Cameraman. In both films Buster’s shy character awkwardly courts a pretty girl, goes on a date with her, but eventually gets overshadowed by a rival. In the end, the rival turns out to be a selfish jerk who abandons the girl in a dangerous situation, leaving Buster to save the day (there’s similarities with College, too). Some of the slapstick during Buster’s attempts at acrobatics were a little cringey to me, maybe because some undercranking was involved (it’s not the same in sound!). The girl, by the way, is played by Dorothy Sebastian, Buster’s girlfriend for a time–they seem to be having fun working together.
Palooka from Paducah (1935) — When they find out Prohibition has long been over, a hillbilly family decides to get out of the moonshine business and into prizefighting.
My Grade: B
This is a pretty slight short, largely revolving around hillbilly stereotypes that were popular in the early 20th century. The big prizefight doesn’t have the level of laughs as, say, Stan Laurel’s in Any Old Port! (1932). What made me bump this short up a grade is the presence of Buster’s family–mother Myra, father Joe and sister Louise (his brother Harry’s not there, maybe because the gags required a physically larger actor). It’s fascinating to see this former vaudeville family performing together, and you wish it could’ve gone on longer. I liked seeing Myra smile up at Joe: “Hello, Pa!”
One Run Elmer (1935) — Elmer owns a tiny gas station out in the middle of nowhere, and has to contend with a rival building another gas station right across from him.
My Grade: C+
Speaking of College, Harold Goodwin has a prominent role in this short as the rival gas station owner (he would appear in several more of the Educationals too). Like in The Gold Ghost, there are long stretches of silence where Buster performs various gags, although the gags this time around aren’t as laugh-out-loud funny to me. Much of the short is taken up by a baseball game, which was apparently pretty similar to the charity games Keaton used to organize. Not a bad short, but not my favorite.
Hayseed Romance (1935) — Answering an ad from a woman seeking a husband, Elmer thinks he’s going to end up with a beautiful young woman. However, it turns out that the ad writer was her matronly aunt. He starts working as a hired hand on their farm.
My Grade: B-
Parts of this bucolic short seem inspired by Laurel and Hardy films (the leaky roof sequence and surreal closing gag, anyone?). Some gags are a little too silly (like the booming organ scene), but this short does pack a few surprises. Toward the end Buster’s conscience takes the form of a ghostly Buster double with a curiously reverberating voice–now that’s a creative surprise. The scene where the girl and her aunt start chatting about chores while Buster keeps dolefully interjecting, “You didn’t put this in the paper?” really cracked me up.
Tars and Stripes (1935) Clumsy sailor-in-training Elmer keeps running afoul of his commanding officer as he attempts to learn the ins and outs of life in the Navy.
My Grade: B-
I probably like this short a little more than most people. As a Keaton vehicle, the premise and gags are a little weak (somehow it’s never fun to see characters talking about how “dumb” Elmer’s supposed to be), but I liked the recurring gags of Elmer ending up in the brig or trying to get into the mess hall–it gave the film some structure. And I can’t say no to Vernon Dent as a blustery antagonist.
The E-Flat Man (1935) — Elmer and his girl elope, accidentally driving off in a police car in the process. Realizing they’re now on the run from the law, the two try to hole up at a farm.
My Grade: C- This is certainly the weakest of the series so far, with the characters ending up in various settings only to abandon them almost immediately. E.g., there’s a lot of buildup around a refrigerated train car, leading us to think there’ll be a “Lucy Ricardo Stuck in the Walk-in Freezer” kind of payoff–only we’re given a gag that’s barely a gag at all. I did like how Elmer ends up in baggy clothes and a vest towards the end, looking the closest to his early ’20s costume that we’ve seen in a long time. (He even carries himself a little like the old Buster in those scenes.) And there’s also a trendy nod to It Happened One Night. (By the way, what’s up with that cow? That is not a normal cow.)
The Timid Young Man (1935) — Milton, who’s sworn off women, meets a girl who’s sworn off men. The two decide to head to the mountains and get away from it all, Milton getting an aggressive romantic rival in the process.
My Grade: C+
A lot of this short is kind of dopey–from the villain happily eating a salad he doesn’t know is doused in gasoline, to Milton hiding his face in a messy watermelon and…eating the whole thing, I guess, although this isn’t much of a payoff. There’s some cute fishing gags involving a little dog, and Lona Andre works pretty well with Buster. The main reason to watch this short is because it was directed by Mack Sennett himself, his only project with Buster. That’s got some significance, folks!
Three on a Limb (1936) — Scoutmaster Elmer wants to marry an attractive young woman, but a tall, strong traffic cop is equally bent on marrying her. On top of that, the girl’s parents can’t stand Elmer.
My Grade: D+
Yikes, I dunno about this one–the screwball scenes at the end were fun and the return of Harold Goodwin and Lona Andre was welcome, but there’s way too much emphasis on Elmer acting stupid. There’s only so much bumbling we can accept without starting to wince. And there wasn’t a clear sense of Buster proving himself like in Allez Oop! He does get to work in a couple fine pratfalls, and there’s a large-scale gag that’s a relief after so much emphasis on romantic entanglements. Not my go-to Educational, let’s just say that.
Grand Slam Opera (1936) — Elmer’s thrown out of town, and he journeys to the big city to try his luck on a radio show’s talent contest.
My Grade: A
After limping through the last few shorts, here at last is something more special! A lot of Buster fans enjoy this short, and I’m one of them. Not only is it more Bustercentric–no romantic rivals this time–but it’s more lighthearted than some of the others and much more creative, with fancier camerawork (we get some montages!). Buster really gets to move, showing off various dancing and juggling skills (in a bumbling way, of course). One of the glories of this short is the “Anvil Chorus” gag, lifted directly from the Three Keatons’ old vaudeville act, and the parody of the song “So Long Mary.” And the “international dances” scene is a favorite with many fans. The whole short is a real mood-lifter, that’s for sure.
Blue Blazes (1936) — Inept fireman Elmer gets sent to a small town fire department. Soon he gets the chance to prove himself a hero.
My Grade: B-
We’re back to a more dimwitted Elmer, but this time he finally gets to show everyone what he’s made of. Allez Oop! is probably more satisfying in that regard, but it’s always welcome to see, being such a big part of the Buster persona and all. He works in a couple dangerous stunts involving a fire engine, too.
The Chemist (1936) — An eccentric university chemist creates a noiseless firecracker powder, which catches the attention of some gangsters.
My Grade: B+
A “nutty professor” type of film–“surrealist” fits the bill too. I thought this was one of Buster’s stronger Educationals, and it was nice to see him playing a character who was clearly brilliant. Plus, he has a strong upper hand at the end, which was satisfying to see–he even gets to be a little sarcastic. If you watch just a few Educationals, add this one to the mix! (By the way, Al Christie directed this short, which is another win.)
Mixed Magic (1936) — Elmer gets a job as a stage magician’s assistant, hoping to get closer to the magician’s pretty female assistant. Unfortunately, his bumbling threatens to destroy the show.
My Grade: C
I don’t think I knew this short existed until I watched it–I’m not even familiar with any stills, weirdly enough. It’s definitely not the most memorable short, almost entirely revolving around Buster (given the Harpo-like nickname of “Happy”) ruining a stage show. But I always like seeing Buster performing in a theater setting, and seeing his lifetime of vaudeville training kicks in. There’s something special about that, my friends.
Jail Bait (1937) — Elmer’s journalist friend comes up with a scheme to collect reward money by having Elmer confess to committing a murder, throwing police off the trail so the friend can turn in the real murderer. Elmer agrees since he’s determined to afford an engagement ring.
My Grade: A
Another classic! The premise is a stretch, but eh, it’s a 1930s comedy. Some of Buster’s funniest Educational gags are in this short (my favorite’s when he disguises himself as a police officer and a prisoner!). I feel like the “Elmer” persona is handled well here, too. Rather than just being “dumb,” Elmer’s extremely focused on a goal (buying the engagement ring) and that combined with naivete overrides his common sense. It’s very much in the spirit of his own silent comedies. Not a bad place to start for Educational newbies!
Ditto (1937) — Elmer the ice man delivers ice to a young woman and becomes smitten with her. He doesn’t realize, though, that she has an identical twin sister.
My Grade: C-
Wait, what? The first half of this short, dealing with Elmer’s romantic entanglements, isn’t much to write home about, but then there’s a surreal turn when Elmer decides to swear off women and live in the Canadian wilderness for 15 years. Flash forward to 15 years later, and we see a hirsute Elmer apparently living as a mountain man. The future, by the way, is technologically advanced (love the cute special effects there, cheap as they might’ve been). Here the pacing gets out of whack, and the ending makes absolutely no sense if you haven’t heard of the Dionne quintuplets, who were all over the news when they were born in 1934. Well, now that I’ve told you about them, maybe you’ll find Ditto a tad less bizarre! (Just a tad.)
Love Nest on Wheels (1937) — A family of country bumpkins run a ramshackle hotel that’s threatened with foreclosure. Son Elmer tries to convince a young couple to buy their trailer so they can use the money to save the hotel.
My Grade: A
Buster’s Educational series started off strong and happily it ended strong, too. In what’s essentially a remake of the Comique classic The Bell Boy (1918), Buster’s family appears again in hillbilly glory, although instead of Joe we have Buster’s brother Harry (no offense to Harry, but even when he’s prominently featured onscreen we forget he’s there. I can see why Buster ended up being the star of the family!). As a most delightful bonus, Al St. John, his old comic foil from the Comiques, makes an appearance–which is enough to bring a tear to my eye. A wonderfully nostalgic sendoff to Buster’s time with Educational.
So those were Buster’s Educationals! They have their ups and downs, but they’re still essential viewing for Keaton completists. Some of the criticism probably has more to do with the comedies being in sound. Silents, with their greater suspension of disbelief and the bit of undercranking adding energy, could get away with similar gags much more effectively. And I sometimes wish that Buster had gone with a steadier, more quick-witted persona than a bumbly Harry Langdon-esque type. This would’ve made his ’30s image more timeless and a lot easier to appreciate today.
At any rate, if you love Buster but somehow haven’t seen much of his 1930s work, you’re guaranteed to find it fascinating. Plan a marathon, and enjoy! We’re lucky to have so many hours of BK goodness.