This is my own entry for the Eighth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. I hope you enjoy!
When Buster Keaton went through the transition from silents to talkies, as all fans know it wasn’t smooth–he was talked into giving up his studio and moving to the fancy megastudio MGM, and basically had to adapt to being treated as an actor, not a filmmaker. His personal battles behind the scenes with alcoholism and his failing marriage are also well known to fans, and it’s safe to say that all of the above can…color our opinions of his MGM films (to put it mildly). Of the nine features Buster starred in from 1928-1933, the seven talkies in particular are often dismissed as inept embarrassments for someone who made so many silent classics.
So I guess this is my segue into saying: I’m now going to give mini reviews of all his MGMs!
To be clear, I’m going to examine some of the differences between the MGMs and his independent films but I’m also going to try to review them more objectively. Too often we Buster fans seek out the MGMs just to scrutinize every frame for evidence of inferiority to his silent pictures, gawking at the sad beatdown of our creative genius and basically wallowing in whatever misery we feel we can detect onscreen–not really watching them just as movies. This mindset’s hard to escape, it’s true, but it doesn’t hurt to look at the MGMs for what they were–popular films that were pretty similar to other popular films from the time.
Part of the problem with analyzing the MGMs is that unless you’re a hardcore old movie buff you’ve probably seen only the cream of the early ’30s film crop, classics like It Happened One Night, Duck Soup or Public Enemy. Look, a lot of early ’30s films seem awkward today, mainly because it took awhile to adjust from the fluid perfection of late ’20s silents to sound and normal speeds. And even once they did adjust (relatively quickly), many ’30s films can seem oddly paced. The lack of soundtracks and primitive sound equipment can lead to stretches of silence and startling sound effects–most noticeable in comedies where gags that had beautiful, cartoonish energy in undercranked silents seem noticeably slower. Studios often insisted on awkwardly shoehorning in musical numbers, wanting to give audiences their talkie money’s worth. And the dialogue, which actors tried to deliver loudly and clearly for the microphones, can sound pretty clunky.
Plus, times have changed. Certain film trope trends have long been forgotten, and some stories that seem unique to us today were actually considered dull and overplayed back then. Various “in” jokes that everyone would’ve understood in the early ’30s are now incomprehensible, and other jokes probably sounded dumb even at the time. Look, just try watching one of those standard revues like Paramount on Parade–they can be cute and have fun visuals, but they’re not exactly Shakespeare…! So with all this in mind, let’s a look at those nine fateful films:
The Cameraman (1928)
— A humble tintype photographer becomes smitten with a girl who works at MGM’s newsreel department, so he tries to become a dashing newsreel cameraman in hopes of winning her affections.
My Thoughts: Having thoroughly reviewed this film in the past, there’s not much more praise I can add to this sweet, touching, and very funny masterpiece of the last silent era. Despite being made at MGM it still feels like a true Buster Keaton production, which must’ve been pretty heartening to him at the time. What I can say is, if you haven’t watched it yet, what are you waiting for?
Spite Marriage (1929)
— Elmer the pants presser has a major crush on a theater actress, and is amazed and thrilled when she asks if he wants to marry her. Little does he know, however, that’s she’s only trying to get back at her former lover.
My Thoughts: This is definitely more discernable as “an MGM” than The Cameraman, largely because the girl is a more fleshed out character with a story of her own. (It’s the kind of story you could insert into a dozen other 1930s films, too.) While this shifts the focus back and forth between Elmer and the girl, it also accentuates his “underdog” status. I can see how some people might criticize “Elmer” as overly bumbling, but much of that bumbling does take place in Buster’s element–the theater!–and he’s allowed to prove himself in the end. The sudden switch to being stranded on a ship a la The Navigator might throw you for a loop, but I liked the inadvertent throwback to countless silent two-reelers of yore. And I must say, we’ve seen our gentle Buster rise to the occasion and fight villains before, but the big fight scene is surprisingly violent–I was startled to see he was even given some blood makeup at the end. Blood makeup on a comedian, on our Buster, guys–not the norm back then! It’s also great getting out into the open air and seeing him run all over the ship, although his cameramen from his independent days might’ve come up with more effective ways to frame those scenes.
Generally it’s a good, solid comedy, and also delivers one of the classic funny scenes of Buster’s career–trying to put the drunk bride to bed. Apparently leading lady Dorothy Sebastian had no problem being essentially a “breathing prop”!
Free and Easy (1930)
— After a small town girl wins a beauty contest, her manager Elmer takes her to Hollywood so she can try to become a star. When attempts at getting her a “big break” fail, Elmer sneaks onto a movie set to talk her up but ends up getting a part in a movie himself.
My Thoughts: Buster’s first talkie has a classic case of ETS, or Early Talkie Syndrome: awkward stretches of silence, actors talking over each other, odd obligatory musical numbers, unedited scenes that seem to go on forever, and a thin, routine plot. Of course, Buster’s presence makes us more keenly aware of these things than we are already. But perhaps we’re so keenly aware that we don’t fully appreciate the fun parts of this film–and yes, they’re definitely there. I really liked the scenes of Buster running around MGM, which have plenty of the cute, mostly silent gags that were his element. There’s some cameos by big names like Cecil B. DeMille and plenty of behind-the-scenes action at the big studio. Of course, in 1930 this would’ve done double duty to showcase MGM itself as well as their comedian, but today it’s also interesting for film history fans. We also see Buster driving around the parking lots of Hollywood Boulevard–brief glimpses at the pragmatic part of Hollywood in its heyday.
And goofy as it is I do have a soft spot for the “Free and Easy” musical number, despite Buster being saddled with some really weird pants (why? I can forgive the makeup but why the pants, MGM??). He has a pleasant singing voice and does some excellent dancing, easily leading the large group of chorus girls behind him. And then he’s suddenly transformed into a living marionette–for, uh, 1930s Talkie Reasons–and bounced all over the stage, which is both perfectly inexplicable and really, really easy to view as an allegory of Buster’s time at MGM. (Although I can’t help thinking it must’ve been kind of fun to perform.)
Speaking of inexplicable, Free and Easy has even more of a downer ending than Seven Chances and I’m not sure why. Perhaps the studio had a hard time deciding how to wrap it up? “Well, we got a romantic triangle, a bunch of gags, and the usual singing and dancing out of the way, now what?” Perhaps they were taking a “sad clown” cue from some of Chaplin’s features, while ignoring the kind of thoughtful setup Chaplin usually had? Alrighty then.
— The rich, sheltered Elmer J. Stuyvesant Jr. accidentally signs up for the army during WWI and goes through fumbling attempts at training alongside other misfit recruits. He’s sent to the front lines and discovers his crush from back home is an entertainer for the troops.
My Thoughts: This feature’s looked upon pretty kindly by Buster fans, and I’m one of them. He had a heavier hand in the story idea and construction than in Free and Easy and it shows with its plentiful sight gags and sparing (in Buster’s case) dialogue. Doubtless it was mighty interesting for him to draw on his actual experiences in WW1. His also resurrects the kind of “sheltered rich boy” familiar from The Navigator and Battling Butler. We can imagine that if Buster had remained an independent filmmaker, he probably would’ve been making features somewhat along the lines of Doughboys.
It still has some ETS, and some of the humor probably would’ve played better in a silent comedy (like the “gang of misfit soldiers,” which would come across stronger in a more cartoony world). It also marks the first appearance of Cliff Edwards, an easygoing, quirky performer who would be teamed with Buster a few more times in the future. Edward Brophy’s isn’t bad as the barking sergeant, although he tends to shout everything at the same volume, and scenes like the “Apache Dance” add some memorable slapstick action (although it’s somewhat painful-sounding!). I can’t help cringing a bit at the scenes that follow Buster’s blundering into the wrong house–talk about humiliating!
All in all, it’s a cute film that I’d probably recommend as a “first MGM” to folks unfamiliar with that period of Buster’s career. If anything, you must watch that one scene of Buster and the boys playing music together, where he’s clearly getting into the song and just being himself. A surprising interlude worth the price of admission.
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)
— Jeffrey and Ginny hope to get married, but Ginny won’t commit until her older sister is married, too. Since the older sister is only interested in exciting, “wicked” types, Jeffrey tries to pass naïve little Reggie off as a wild playboy by hiring various women to fuss over him, hoping he’ll attract the sister’s interest.
My Thoughts: So yes, this is a bedroom farce–a bedroom farce–starring our sweet “Little Iron Man” Buster Keaton. Since this was the precode area (basically synonymous with “running around in negligees and underwear”) maybe we should be surprised it took MGM this long to put Buster in one? It was based on a popular stage play and was very much in tune with the screwball comedies that were becoming en vogue. Buster himself didn’t seem to mind it, probably for a couple reasons: he got to do scenes with talented comedienne Charlotte Greenwood (a giraffe of a funny lady) and got to film a number of exterior scenes at his own magnificent mansion, the Italian Villa. How he managed to pull that off I’m not sure, but it’s exciting to get to see his beautiful house, pool, and manicured grounds for yourself. Just imagine all the pool parties and BBQs he had in those very locations!
Seeing Buster’s naive little character transform into an overly-enthusiastic wooer of women is somewhat startling, although his scenes with Greenwood are a hoot. How they got through them without constantly cracking up must’ve been miraculous. (Apparently when they were filming the “kissing lesson” Greenwood’s face bumped against Buster’s teeth and started bleeding–you can see how that would’ve happened!) Other scenes where several women are kissed against their will haven’t aged that well, although they’re softened by a running joke where Cliff Edwards (as a bellhop) keeps opening a door at the most awkward times. I guess not everyone cares for all the running around in the end, but I’ve never minded a good “running in and out of doors” sequence. As a whole it’s definitely not an MGM you’ll soon forget–but it doesn’t spring to my mind when I think “Buster Keaton film.”
The Sidewalks of New York (1931)
— A slumlord tries to reform a group of wayward youth by cleaning up their neighborhood–and tries to get the attention of a pretty young woman of the tenements during the process. At the same time, the young woman’s little brother is getting in deep with real gangsters.
My Thoughts: The Sidewalks of New York is notorious for being the one MGM Buster apparently disliked the most, the one he was positive would be “a real stinker.” Well my friends, we all know artists aren’t always the best judges of their work, and I think Buster’s low opinion of Sidewalks is a good example. I like this film and really like Buster’s performance in it, and I’ll be danged if I don’t rewatch it from time to time.
Not that it’s exactly an overlooked classic. I mean, Buster Keaton plays a slumlord–which is a phrase you’d never come up with on your own–and he tries to reform the young local hoodlums by building them a gymnasium, which is another thing you’ve never, ever imagined Buster doing. But. But! If Buster was unhappy with the production there’s no sign of it onscreen. Indeed, he seems perfectly comfortable and looks quite handsome in general. His scenes with the groups of kids seemed to give him a boost, since they were effectively giving him a live audience, and he managed to work in plenty of moments for physical comedy. (I love the birthday scene where we think he’s going to ruin the cake…!) The subplot with the young brother and the gangsters is shoehorned in and leads to a “funny” onstage scene that’s almost too dark, but it adds some ’30s color–you know, plenty of “Aw go on, ya big lump!” and all that. And I’d like to give a shoutout to Cliff Edwards, who’s a delightful sidekick to Buster this time around. I dunno, Buster, I think Sidewalks was just swell.
The Passionate Plumber (1932)
— Elmer the plumber is trying to finance his new invention. He gets hired by a socialite to pretend to be her lover in order to make her boyfriend jealous.
My Thoughts: This oddly-titled film (based on a play called Her Cardboard Lover, and ya know, I don’t mind the old title) is pretty darn fun and will doubtless please a lot of Buster fans. He has more of a spine in this one, pushing back a bit when people are mean to him and coming up with plans to save the day. His dialogue is a bit more witty as well. The movie has plenty of fun with your continental stereotypes, such as Frenchmen being ready to duel at the slightest besmirching of their honor and a temperamental Spanish beauty going wild with jealousy. There’s also some pretty funny running jokes, like Buster trying to handle arguments with Frenchmen by melodramatically slapping them with a pair of gloves. I aso liked the contrast between dashing Gilbert Roland and diminutive Buster during the duel scenes (in real life Roland was a friend and Norma Talmadge’s lover). Speed up the pace a bit and make the dialogue snappier and this might well be a minor classic.
The Passionate Plumber also marks the first appearance of Jimmy Durante, who Buster would be inexplicably teamed with for two more films. I don’t know what happened to Cliff Edwards, but I wish they’d kept him on. Durante’s a likable guy, if very 1930s in some respects, but both his performance style and his looks make for an odd pairing with the elegant-featured Buster. Perhaps the idea was simply to combine a talkative guy with a quieter guy. Durante’s actually a pretty good addition to this film, being more of an occasional support to Buster and getting to interact with Sennett veteran Polly Moran–I’ll allow it. *Wink*
Speak Easily (1932)
— A sheltered college professor believes he’s come into a fortune and decides to leave campus and see more of the world. He runs into a third-rate theater troupe and falls for their lead actress, and decides to invest money in their show.
My Thoughts: This is my favorite of Buster’s MGM talkies, and it just might be yours, too. His “college professor” role–Professor Timoleon Zanders Post of Potts College, mind you–is unusual for him but he does a charming job, and it’s really fun hearing him spout all those “erudite” lines. He does a lot of bumbling but is also liked and respected by the theater troupe, which is a nice balance. He also works in a fairly dangerous stunt where he’s dragged along by a train, apparently before the studio could find out. The plot is also pretty clear-cut and gets livened up by the presence of Thelma Todd halfway through the film (man, she got to work with so many incredible comedians…!). Her “drunk” scene with Professor Post is one of the high points, although I don’t know how many guys would buy that the Professor could be that naive. Jimmy Durante is back and his stage comedian character actually fits his loud persona very well, I’d say.
And I have to mention here–if you’re at all a fan of The Big Bang Theory, doesn’t Buster remind you of Sheldon in this film?! Lots of people have pointed out the similarities between Jim Parsons and Buster Keaton (his profile is even very similar to Buster’s) and all I can say is–Professor Timoleon Zanders Post is so Sheldon Cooper. (Or rather, the other way around!)
What!–No Beer? (1933)
— Excited by the upcoming end of Prohibition, Jimmy talks his taxidermist friend Elmer into buying an old brewery, hoping to meet the coming demand for beer. But when they ineptly start selling their product too early they’re raided by the police. However, Jimmy tries to get Elmer’s money back by bootlegging, and their cheap beer catches the eye of local gangsters.
My Thoughts: We’ve made it, the final MGM, and to many the nadir of Buster’s MGM career. More than one fan has claimed they only got halfway through it. Having watched the whole thing only recently, I can understand that now, but will add: keep watching.
From our first glimpse of Buster, it’s not hard to see why What! No Beer? can seem like a bleak affair (I could be wrong but I think the weird title was based on a song). Buster’s slide into full-blown alcoholism is clear as day onscreen, his face puffy and all of MGM’s fine lighting and makeup unable to mask the circles under his eyes. He even appears years older than in Speak Easily. And having the film revolve entirely around beer is extra wince-inducing–apparently MGM was aiming at having a topical comedy ready for the coming end of Prohibtion to the point of tunnel vision. The jokes in the first half are pretty weak, and I say that as someone who laughs at everything, and the scene where Buster and Jimmy start brewing beer is supposed to be zany but just seems clumsy and dumb. Part of the problem is Jimmy yelling at everyone for several minutes straight, maybe due to the director needing to fill in for the dialogue Buster wasn’t in shape to deliver. So far, I thought, Beer was living up to its reputation.
But then it actually got a bit better. The pacing grew brisker, the story kept me interested, Buster had a Seven Chances throwback scene with a bunch of beer barrels, and he and Jimmy find a solution to their problem that owes a lot to the game spirit of the 1930s. It turned out to be fairly pleasant, guys, and please believe me when I say this: I’m one of the most sensitive Buster fans in the entire world, and if I can finish What! No Beer?, you can finish What! No Beer? I promise.
So there you have it, mini reviews of all the Buster MGMs! Some are stronger than others, but in general they’re decent early ’30s films, and even the weaker ones offer priceless Buster moments. Whenever I’ve watched them I’ve felt there are seeds of funny bits and running jokes that more capable comedy directors could’ve turned into something much stronger–think what the Hal Roach studio could’ve done with them or, of course, Buster himself. But in general I can’t help enjoying what we’ve been given.
And yes, I will be rewatching The Sidewalks of New York, Buster, thank yew very much!