(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
The Cameraman: In a film so admired the studio used it as a training film for its comedy filmmakers, Keaton plays a tintype street photographer who tries his hand as a freelance newsreel cameraman in order to win the affection of a girl who works at a newsreel company.
Spite Marriage: A jilted actress pops the question to hapless admirer Keaton. The result is a marriage made in comedy heaven, filled with pursuits, rescues and slapstick. The landmark routine of putting the inebriated bride to bed became a staple of Keaton’s 1950s live shows.
Free and Easy: Keaton departs Kansas with the newly crowned Miss Gopher City (Anita Page) and heads for Hollywood determined to turn her into a star. Robert Montgomery, Lionel Barrymore and several unbilled luminaries join the Great Stone Face in his first talkie.
– From DVD Production Notes
Out of all of the films I’ve reviewed, no actor has been featured more than Buster Keaton. This collection of the first films he made for MGM is the last of his work I’ll be reviewing, even though I own a collection of his early shorts and his collaborations with Roscoe Arbuckle (alas, short films would just give me way much more to review). Watching these films has been an interesting journey because they highlight some of the strongest moments in his career, as well as the difficulties that would end his time as a movie star.
Out of the three The Cameraman is the most indelible. It’s my favorite Keaton feature and one of his as well. It’s also his most accessible and one of the best ways to introduce someone to his work. The story is simple. Boy meets girl. Boy wants to impress girl and be closer to her. In this case the girl is Sally Richards (Marceline Day), the sweetest and most intriguing Keaton co-star since Go West‘s Bright Eyes. When he first runs into her he does a subtle double take and is instantly smitten.
Naturally what is a hapless go-getter to do? He abandons his job as a tintype photographer and signs up to be a newsreel cameraman at the office where she works. He literally shows up and casually asks if he can have a shot.
The problem is he has no idea what he’s doing, let alone operated a film camera before. With this set-up Keaton comes up with some amazing gags in every department. You’re reminded of why he was revered by the surrealists and the avant-garde when his character turns in rolls of film that are double-exposed, wound backwards and employing a bunch of dream-like tricks (reminding me of his fantasy sequence in Sherlock Jr.). Keaton is using unintentional experimentation for comedy, and as his new co-workers laugh and dismiss him it’s not only keeping with the scene, but kind of prophetic. (Note: it’s also worth noting that this scene was shot at least a year before the experimental classic Man With A Movie Camera, which used many of the same effects.)
Keaton’s experimental nature is what got him into trouble, not only concerning his vision but how he constructed his stories. He often improvised scenes without a script or outline, which clashed with how MGM approved projects. In spite of this, Keaton managed to make what the studio considered “the perfect comedy,” and at the center of it is a love story that’s sweet without sap or overwhelming pathos. Day has the distinction of playing one of the only love interests of Keaton’s that is supportive and roots for him while others don’t. The idea of them ending up together makes sense and has potential because they are committed to each other.
The Cameraman also has the most hilarious date sequence I have ever seen on film, featuring disastrous scenes on a bus, in a dressing room, a public pool and an ensuing rainstorm before the two of them part ways. Almost everything has been a complete disaster, but a soaked Keaton tells Sally, “It was worth it… to be near you.”
However, the love story isn’t even the half of it. The Cameraman is an action packed 67 minutes, and Keaton utilized whatever was thrown at him with aplomb, even if it was something entirely new. This includes sharing screen time with a scene-stealing monkey and a suspicious cop character who keeps crossing his path and engaging him in dialogue-based comedy (Keaton didn’t care for it). There is also a boating accident and a gang war utilizing a ton of extras trying to kill each other… in short, there’s plenty here, and the only way you’ll benefit is from seeing it yourself. You can watch a print of it here for free.
Spite Marriage is Keaton’s second foray at MGM and was the last of his silent films (he originally wanted to do it as a talkie, but the idea was nixed because of an equipment shortage). It’s also the last of his feature films that I believe had the Keaton “touch,” full of physical gags and echoes of his previous films.
This time the boy-meets-girl part of the story remains true to his earlier works. Elmer (Keaton) is a besotted fan of stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian), who is starring in a Civil War era play he has seen dozens of times. Of course she doesn’t even know he’s alive and is irritated when she does. Her heart belongs to her egotistical co-star Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle), so she hardly has time to notice his hapless devotion.
When Trilby’s heart is broken she hastily marries Elmer and proves to be a handful he can hardly keep together. Their first night together involves separate bedrooms and the bride getting publicly trashed at an expensive nightclub. This sets up one of Keaton’s most notorious set pieces, in which he tries to put his inebriated wife to bed and fails in just about every way.
In spite of this he doesn’t give up on her, even when her entourage steps in- and eventually Lionel himself- telling him the marriage is a sham and will get annulled. The two of them are separated then reunited under rather unbelievable circumstances, but the film is so much fun it hardly matters. Sebastian is one of Keaton’s best scene partners because she is spirited and funny on her own, with the perfect chops as an actress and comedian to nail her part. She goes from a woman who doesn’t have the time of day for our hero to someone endeavoring to deserve him.
Like The Cameraman, Spite Marriage has more pathos than the pictures Keaton produced before MGM, but neither of them compare to Free and Easy, his first foray into sound. The film mirrors reality as it follows Keaton heading for the bright lights of Hollywood only to realize that what he expected couldn’t be further from the truth. The same thing was happening to Keaton in reality, with Easy signifying the loss of his creative control and the studio’s dominance.
In Easy Keaton plays another Elmer, the manager and chaperone of beauty queen Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page). He travels by train with her and her overbearing mother, Ma Plunkett (the incomparable Trixie Friganza), to MGM for the promise of a screen test. Elmer harbors feelings for the shy and unassuming Elvira, but it isn’t long before he’s upstaged by a rival, a successful studio actor named Larry Mitchell (Robert Montgomery). Shenanigans ensue (of course), like Elmer disguising himself as a driver and trying to sabotage their first date.
Unfortunately the more the film goes on the more disjointed it becomes, proving to be more of a commercial for MGM Studios and featuring cameos from several contracted directors and players while Elmer bumbles through their sets and ruins their shoots. In spite of this he gets hired as comedian and placed in a picture, giving him more opportunities to unintentionally ruin scenes. One sequence involves dialogue-based humor that drags beyond believability. It was this kind of thing that Keaton disagreed with but couldn’t fight the studio on. They were so excited by the advent of sound that they believed punchlines were more important than furthering the story.
It’s only when Keaton shares scenes with Friganza that the film becomes interesting again, with the two of them playing a bickering king and queen who solve their marital problems through the inexplicable power of DANCE. It hardly makes sense, but at least it’s entertaining.
Just as inexplicable are the song and dance numbers that follow, but these moments of humor and physicality still highlight Keaton’s talent. He can sing, dance and perform well, even though the film definitely isn’t his. By the end he is made up to look like a tragic clown, attached to wires and flopping like a puppet on a sound stage. The symbolism is a bit much, considering how little control he had and creatively frustrated he was behind the camera.
Sadly Free and Easy ends on a sour note that foreshadows Keaton’s future. His dream girl ultimately chooses Larry Mitchell and he has to let her go. The last shot is him breaking character as the two of them embrace during the final number, a look of heartbreak on his face.
Within three years of releasing Free and Easy MGM was finished with Keaton. It would be decades before there was a renewed critical interest in his work, and thank God– without the attentiveness of cinephiles he might have been doomed to obscurity.
It wasn’t until 2002 that I was exposed to Keaton, discovering that his creativity was as enchanting as it was timeless. Since then he has become one of my favorite performers. When someone asked me why I remembered replying, “Because he makes things dreams are made of.”
That remains true, and hopefully those dreams will last another century or more.