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Lost Keaton

Posted: Mon Aug 23, 2010 1:09 pm
by Gary Johnson
This is the title of Kino’s newest DVD release of Buster Keaton’s 16 comedy shorts made for Educational Pictures in the mid-Thirties and it is probably my only complaint about the entire set. These shorts were not so much lost as rarely seen except in spliced-up, third generation dupes. They were constantly maligned by their creator himself, who was busy fighting his own demons at the time so I guess this was a better title than “Shorts I Made Just for the Money While I Battled the Bottle.”

Keaton called them “cheaters”. It had to of been the low budgets that depressed him – after all, this is the guy who used to purchase ocean liners and sink locomotives. (It sounds like it should be the other way around…). But what these low budget cheaters did was allow Keaton’s creative independence to re-emerge after MGM had placed it in a strait-jacket for four years and which he would once again relinquish when he signs with Columbia for more money at the end of the Thirties. Basically Educational left Keaton alone to his own devices as long as he stayed within the parameters of the budget. So of all his work he did during the first decade of sound these Educational shorts are our best examples of ‘pure Keaton’ – albeit with the limitations imposed.

The first impression one gets while delving into this 2-disc set is what a breath of fresh air they are compared to his stifling MGM features. The Keaton mindset is back. Who else would set up a premise of owning a small gas station in the middle of nowhere only to get competition from a newly built rival station directly across the road from him? Little throw away gags abound in these shorts. During a saloon brawl Buster hurls a deck of card towards his protagonists only to watch them scatter with the wind; an inept sailor who is unable to complete an ‘about face’ without tripping over himself is able to perform an intricate rifle drill while all alone; a passing squaw carrying a papoose on her back elicits a hitchhiking motion from a road weary Buster. But best of all his pratfalls are back. His vaudeville flops, spins, somersaults and body slams are on full display in these shorts – almost as in defiance towards everything that MGM took away from him. (They were afraid he would get hurt.) To see Buster running in full flight is a thing of cinematic beauty but to watch him perform a front somersault flip, spin on his neck and chin and then body slam himself pancake-style flat on the floor is a comic vision of awe-inspiring beauty.

There is a lot of harkening back to Keaton’s earlier greater work in these shorts but it doesn’t feel like he is stealing from himself as much as re-working old ideas into the talkie era – pretty much what Laurel & Hardy did with the vast majority of their sound shorts. The best of these shorts have a freewheeling quality about them with few plot restrictions allowing room for Keaton to develop his sequences with minimal dialogue. These were theories he first broached to Thalberg way back when on how to incorporate sound into his comedies and it’s nice to know he finally got a chance to act on those ideas. (Not that MGM was paying attention. They were too busy trying to figure out how to dilute the Marx Brothers’ appeal.) Because Keaton is back in his familiar pork pie hat ensemble many critics contend that these Educational shorts were trying to ape his starring silent short comedies he made for Schenck and thus they pale in comparison. For me these comedies hark back further to his time co-starring in Arbuckle’s Comique comedies. There is a ragtag casualness to these shorts that makes them quite agreeable. Keaton and his frequent director, Charles Lamont, seem content to squeeze as many gags as possible out of a given situation, throw in some acrobatic falls and then move on to the next set. Over all I found that these shorts hit their marks more often than not


Keaton hits the ground running with his first Educational short The Gold Ghost – (1934). Escaping his rich lifestyle and the girl who has rejected him Buster drives to a deserted ghost town and spends a delightful first reel exploring the dilapidated burg as chairs, tables, floorboards and bar rails all disintegrate at his touch. Eventually character actor Warren Hymer appears and he and Buster break out the cards and spend a hilarious 30 seconds playing slap jacks in a cloud of dust. Allez Oop – (1934) continues the leisurely pace as Keaton explores one of his typical themes – love at first sight - even if his first sight of Dorothy looks distorted through his loupe. After losing her to a circus acrobat Buster sits down on a chariot only to be driven away but his ingenuity shows through when he rigs up his own high wire set in his backyard to practice on. (He shows similar cleverness when he creates a makeshift fire engine in Blue Blazes – (1936)) Many pratfalls follow.

A major change of pace occurs with his third release, the delightful Palooka From Paducah – (1935) is a hillbilly comedy (which were in vogue in the Thirties) but Keaton gives the storyline a twist by casting his entire Keaton clan in it (All except brother Harry – he didn’t like to work, did he?). The men folk all sport long beards while Myra is allowed her trademark pipe, which she smoked in real life. Joe sounds rather shaky trying to deliver his dialogue but the Keaton’s act was never about talk. Pratfalls ensue as the family tries their hand at the wrestling game to earn some income and when a stick of dynamite is set off Louise bowls over Buster and is just as deadpan as her brother. In both here and their reprise in Love Nest On Wheels – (1937) Buster takes his mother’s hand and walks her off-screen near the end….a sweet and simplistic gesture in the Keaton tradition. He follows that short with a minimalists gem One Run Elmer – (1935) – a man, a rival, a rickety shack. This 2 reeler most recalls his silent shorts as even the ballgame is under cranked with calls from the umpire dubbed in. Visual gags abound as Buster’s lack of business out in the desert is emphasized by the deep hole his rocking chair sits in. A chalkboard is used when a price war breaks out with his rival until Buster inexplicitly raises the number and then flips it upside down to reveal an even lower price. The baseball game itself is a series of black out gags involving exploding bats and balls that Tex Avery could have conceived except that newsreels of the day show that these are the exact gags that Keaton performed yearly for the annual Hollywood charity baseball games. For me his next short, Hayseed Romance – (1935), is an undiscovered minor classic. It plays like a prime Laurel & Hardy short with three strong sequences that naturally flow into each other. Buster answers an ad to work a farm as a potential husband. When he meets the comely blonde miss of the house his interest peaks but of course, she didn’t place the ad – that would be her behemoth of an aunt. After breaking more dishes than he washed Buster settles in for a quiet evening’s peace and contemplation only to be shattered by the Aunt’s thunderous recital on the organ that shakes the house like the San Andreas quaking. This is followed by a splendid slapstick episode as Buster attempts to sleep in the attic with a leaky roof on a rainy night. Needless to say both he and the aunt take a few headers through a two story hole and out into a mud hole. This short was a revelation for me as I was unaware of it previously and it showed that even with the time and money restrictions Keaton was able to turn out quality work that stood out with the best that was being done in the shorts comedy field at that time. It just drives home all the more how MGM squandered his talent.

Keaton’s winning streak continues with the service comedy Tars and Stripes – (1935). Filmed on location at the U.S. Naval Training Base in San Diego it plays as a breezy alternative to the service features being turned out by Warners at the time featuring Cagney and Powell. The storyline is a series of overlapping running gags as Buster bedevils his commanding officer played by Vernon Dent. The best gags are the variations of Buster constantly last in line for mess call. E-Flat Man – (1935) is episodic in nature, which Keaton used to good advantage for most of his silent shorts, and it works here as Buster and his girl elope only to believe they are wanted by the police. Keaton creates his own version of It Happened One Night – (1935) by sleeping in haystacks and munching on carrots. He even references the film while hitchhiking by saying “I saw a movie…” and then demonstrates to his girl by demurely raising the hem of her skirt about a fraction of an inch. Keaton’s leading ladies changed frequently in this series but the young actress in this film - a fetching lass by the name of Dorothea Kent - had appeared in the two previous shorts and showed good chemistry with Keaton. Here she gets treated as a typical Keaton leading lady by being buried alive in a haystack and falling onto the tracks while trying to ride a boxcar. For some inexplicable reason Keaton’s good rapport with director Lamont was disrupted by bringing in Mack Sennett to helm The Timid Young Man – (1935). It’s a pleasant enough film but with over plotting that leaves Keaton little room to improvise – although he does get to fish using Mexican jumping beans and cavort in a lake with Tiny Sandford playing an atypical overly lecherous lout.


The interesting thing about these Educational shorts is how they play with different forms of comedy. Three On A Limb – (1936) falls into farce territory. Buster plays a scout leader, although we never see his troop. It’s mostly an excuse so everyone can make comments on his shorts. After falling for a carhop at a drive-in he tries to impress her folks with his abilities to start a fire with two sticks by setting fire to their rug. (HEY!! They asked to see it. What did they think was going to happen? ) These parents are real venal types who have each picked out their own prospective son-in-law without consulting their daughter. Eventually there is a minister with three suitors and a jilted girlfriend all fighting over the heroine and a good level of chaos is built up for the ending. The jewel of the series is the one short that Keaton took a writing credit on, Grand Slam Opera – (1936). From it’s opening satirical musical send-off (note the cowboy carrying a noose as he sees Buster off) to the linking film montages and the absurd ending Keaton is back playing with the conventions of film. His love of parody is evident in his send-up of Top Hat – (1935) and his own vaudeville talents are showcased with his dancing and juggling bits – not to mention carting out his broom swatting routine from his headlining days. All in all it’s one of the finest shorts made in the Thirties and this is the nicest print that I have ever seen it in. For many Blue Bazes – (1936) may seem like a letdown but while it’s no classic it is very funny with Keaton humor and sight gags galore; Buster opens a window letting in the deafening noise of the city but a running water faucet keeps him awake, he mistakes a radiator pipe for the fire pole and then hops aboard a departing fire truck to find himself standing alone on a bench. To top it off there is the running gag of Buster always disappearing while being reprimanded by his Captain by dropping through holes and falling out of windows. And for once there is no love interest. There is a love interest in The Chemist – (1936) as he plays a college professor who likes to invent things – such as a love powder, which doesn’t seem necessary since the girl he likes is already interested in him. He places the potion in chocolates and there are some priceless looks from Buster when a cleaning lady helps herself to the chocolates. Donald McBride appears as the leader of a gang of crooks who wants the professor’s noiseless explosive (“We can wage war quietly”) and it ends with a rare chase, although of the 3 Stooges variety where everyone runs up and down the same hallway.

The next three shorts are all rather run-of-the-mill but not terrible by any stretch of the imagination. Buster plays a magician’s assistant in Mixed Magic – (1936) and I don’t want to ruin anything but he ends up disrupting the act. Buster, of course, only signs on to be close to the girl in the act, which gives him ample excuses for not paying attention to the magician. Keaton must have sat through a lot of magic acts in his youth because he loves exposing their tricks in his films. The best trick is the beginning when he pulls some sleight of hand at a cafeteria and ends up with more of a meal than his ten cents can cover. Jail Bait – (1937) takes so long to set up its premise that there is little time for Keaton’s comedy to take flight but once he tries to get arrested and ends up in prison there is at least one reel worth of fun. Keaton’s view of prison life hasn’t changed much since Convict 13 – (1920). It’s still all hacksaws and files. There is fun during the prison escape as Buster dons a prison guard’s outfit only to be clubbed by passing cons so he changes back to his prison stripes just as the guards rush by and give him another beating. The next time we see him he is standing out in the open wearing both outfits on his front and back side and turning appropriately depending on who passes by. The wrap up is a model of efficiency as the gangster Buster has been tracking escapes the cops during a gun battle. Buster, unnoticed, follows him down his escape hole. The next shot is the gangster speeding away in his car along with Buster sitting casually on the back bumper. He rummages through the trunk and finds a wrench, then a larger wrench, and finally a humongous wrench. Fade to the police station where they’ve discovered the name of the fugitive and wonder aloud where he could be. Enter Buster dragging the unconscious crook saying “Right here.” Fade out. Don’t tell me Keaton wasn’t calling the shots on these films. Ditto – (1937) is situation comedy with a simple premise (as opposed to Jail Bait). Buster is an iceman who falls for the housewife he delivers to. She has a twin sister living next door. And they are both married…. What is interesting with this basic comic set up is that none of this is spelled out to us at the beginning. Buster meets the first girl (and delivers ice to her stove instead of the icebox) and then leaves. It is only then that the twin sisters meet. Buster returns and begins mistaking one for the other but then men begin appearing in each home and it takes a while for us to surmise they are the husbands while Buster keeps looking more bewildered.

Keaton goes out on a high note with his final Educational Love Nest On Wheels – (1937). Once again it’s a family affair as the Keaton clan descends onscreen in their hillbilly guise (minus the beards this time, and minus Joe although Harry is there to replace him. Maybe those two didn’t like working with each other?) To bring home the old times theme this is a remake of his buddy Arbuckle’s The Bellboy – (1918) and the material adapts well to sound. To round out the family reunion Keaton’s former co-star Al St. John returns and spends the entire time trying to pull a cow out of a trailer. The cast all moves as slow as molasses which makes the slapstick scenes all the funnier when they are propelled into action. There is a delicious moment during Buster’s mop fight with Bud Jamison when Bud draws Louise and then Harry into the fight and suddenly we have three Keatons all sprawled on the floor with their dead pans. To the casual viewer this may seem to be a low rent comedy but since Keaton always added biographical elements to his films I look upon this short with affection and find it a fitting swan song to his Educational series.

In my many years of movie watching I had only ended up seeing a little over half of the Keaton Educationals (…and I viewed most of them during my senior year when my high school played 35mm sound shorts during the noontime. I brought a lot of bag lunches back then.) so for me this set was a joy to discover Hayseed Romance, Blue Blazes and Palooka From Paducah among others. What I love about them is Keaton’s attempt at keeping alive visual humor in the sound era. It’s the reason Laurel & Hardy are so beloved by all. From here Keaton would move to the Columbia shorts dept. and after making the classic short The Pest from the West – (1939) he would begin to be doubled for his falls and subjected to the sledgehammer humor of Jules White. There would be moments of glory sprinkled throughout the next nine shorts but should we be satisfied with ‘moments’ from an artist of Keaton’s statue? I’m not. That’s why I will treasure this set and use it as an alternative to Keaton’s classic work from the silent years.

Gary J.

Re: Lost Keaton

Posted: Mon Sep 13, 2010 12:02 pm
by Gary Johnson
I've just posted a new video compilation which is a sort of follow-up to the above essay.
I was originally going to make it about Keaton's pratfalls but as you will see I expanded
on that theme just slightly. ... YN1-_6zqSs

Gary J.

Re: Lost Keaton

Posted: Mon Sep 13, 2010 12:54 pm
by Robert Moulton
I think I noticed one blooper on the set:

In the stills section there is a photo of Myra Keaton that is identified as coming from Palooka from Paducah. I think the still is actually from Myra's appearance in Way up Thar. It might actually be the same dress in the closing scenes from both films but I think the hair, etc is a better match from Way up Thar. Of course if the original photo had a dated stamp on the back identifying it as being from Palooka then I couldn't argue with that.

Checking out the above I ran the final shot from Palooka over and over and noticed two things:

- Myra is one underweight lady!
- is that actually Joe Keaton or some one doubling for him?

Re: Lost Keaton

Posted: Tue Sep 14, 2010 1:56 am
by Richard Finegan
Robert Moulton wrote:I think I noticed one blooper on the set:

In the stills section there is a photo of Myra Keaton that is identified as coming from Palooka from Paducah. I think the still is actually from Myra's appearance in Way up Thar. It might actually be the same dress in the closing scenes from both films but I think the hair, etc is a better match from Way up Thar. Of course if the original photo had a dated stamp on the back identifying it as being from Palooka then I couldn't argue with that.

One way to be sure is to check the still numbers (if they've not been cropped off).
Palooka from Paducah is #5107.
Way Up Thar is # 6301.