I’d wager that anyone who was asked to name the most-popular silent-screen comic of all time would answer “Chaplin.” But I’d also bet that a second answer would be “Buster Keaton.” The fact is, Keaton always seemed just that much behind Chaplin, even in the teens and twenties when they were both competing for the public’s love and attention. Keaton, known as the “Great Stone Face” because of his naturally dour but generally expressionless countenance, could never quite seem to equal for most people the warmth and charm of Chaplin’s sentimental Little Tramp. Yet it was Keaton who consistently came up with some of the funnier and more imaginative sight gags in movies like “Sherlock, Jr.,” “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” and “The General.” In the end it’s probably a toss-up, and a moot one at that since most of both of the men’s best pictures are now available on DVD.
In the present collection, Warner Bros. have gathered together three of Keaton’s transitional films. “The Cameraman” from 1928 and “Spite Marriage” from 1929 were the comic actor’s last silent movies (although “Spite Marriage” had a synchronized sound-effects track), and “Free and Easy” from 1930 was his first starring “talkie.” The films also mark Keaton’s move from doing independent productions to working for a big studio, MGM, where he was promised bigger budgets, wider distribution, and better publicity. But he was also given far less control over his movies, and it was by his own admission the beginning of his downfall as a preeminent attraction. His films declined in quality in the talking era, until by the mid-to-late 1930s he was unhappy, divorced, alcoholic, and reduced to playing supporting roles and writing gags for other MGM performers. A brief glow of stardom came again in the early 1950s with a pair of short-lived TV programs, and then it was on to more bit parts and cameos until his death in 1966. He did go out in style, however, co-starring in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” the year he died.
This was Keaton’s first film for MGM and the first film over which he had little personal control. He did keep his old director, Edward Sedgwick, but he, too, had to toe the MGM line. Unlike the work in his earlier movies, Keaton’s performances for MGM were to strictly follow the script; he was allowed almost no room for improvisation on the set. Nevertheless, the old Keaton magic could not be entirely dampened by the studio’s dictums, and “The Cameraman” includes a number of very funny bits.
In “The Cameraman,” Keaton plays a sidewalk photographer, a tintype picture-taker, who longs to be a big-time newsreel cameraman working for a major movie studio in order to impress the girl he’s just fallen in love with. His character’s name is given in the credits as, not surprisingly, “Buster.” The girl he’s smitten with is Sally (Marceline Day), a secretary at a movie studio, not unexpectedly, MGM. She tells him that to break into the business he should go out and shoot something, “anything that’s interesting.” The plot, what little there is, involves Buster’s attempts to take some newsreel footage and romance the lady at the same time.
A sequence in Yankee Stadium is a standout for its allowing Keaton a moment to actually extemporize. It’s a clever few minutes of the actor playing a baseball game with himself. Another amusing scene has Buster trying desperately to open a dime bank. It’s a small gimmick, but it shows how well Keaton could manage to make even little things work over a reasonably lengthy scene. A brief example of Keaton’s more subtle humor involves the cameraman jumping aboard a fire truck in an attempt to get to the scene of a blaze and film it, only to discover that the truck is on its way back to the fire department!
Keaton was used to doing his own stunts, but once he arrived at MGM the studio insisted for insurance purposes that a stunt double do all the tough stuff. They weren’t about to jeopardize one of their biggest investments. Keaton complied in most cases (as people like Jackie Chan do today), but there is a particularly chancy (and funny) stunt on a moving bus that Keaton did himself, as well as a number of shots in a swimming pool and later at the beach that must have involved a certain degree of risk. The movie ends with a Tong war during a Chinese New Year’s celebration that contains stereotypes that would be discouraged today, but it demonstrates the attitudes of a bygone age. Finally, it should be pointed out that a monkey upstages everybody in the film.
This was Keaton’s last silent movie, and as such it marked the end of an era for one of the silent-screen’s most notable stars. In “Spite Marriage” Keaton plays a fellow named Elmer, the luckless owner of a dry-cleaning shop, a “pants presser” as he is later described, who is hopelessly in love with a famous stage star, Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). In order to impress her, Elmer dresses up each night in a customer’s tuxedo and attends one of her performances, pretending to be a millionaire.
“There are only two cures for love…marriage and suicide” announces an interscene card, and true enough, once they’re introduced the lady consents to marry Elmer out of spite (to get back at a boyfriend who has just jilted her). Unfortunately for Elmer, once the marriage takes place, Ms. Drew regrets it and will have nothing to do with the hapless pants presser. Somehow, by the end of the movie they all manage to come together on a yacht, where a seemingly hopeless situation turns fruitful and Elmer’s unintentional heroism saves the day and the girl.
Although MGM insisted that Keaton again follow the script to the letter, there are some wonderful visual gags, pratfalls, slapstick, and double takes that continue to amuse, almost as many as in “The Cameraman.” Some backstage folly at Trilby’s theater is delightful and reminds one of the backstage antics in the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera” a few years afterward, to which Keaton was an uncredited contributor. The most famous scene in “Spite Marriage,” though, is undoubtedly the one where Elmer must put an inebriated Trilby to bed, a series of sidesplitting actions he would repeat many times over in subsequent films and on TV, a wonderfully choreographed piece of business.
“Free and Easy”:
It’s in “Free and Easy” that Keaton got his first starring role in a talkie, a role that he would soon regret. Keaton was a visual comedian, his work abounding in terrific sight gags perfected over his years as a vaudeville stage performer as well as a silent-movie actor. But now the studio wanted him to say funny things rather than do funny things, and they were eager to show off their new sound equipment with numerous song-and-dance routines as well. For Keaton, it didn’t work.
It wasn’t that his voice wasn’t up to the job; indeed, his gravelly voice closely matched his hangdog appearance. But as he later explained, the studio just wanted him to utter funny lines of dialogue, and they didn’t care for his physical abilities. This would be like trying to force Jackie Chan into being a stand-up comedian; it denied the talent involved.
Interestingly, Keaton’s silent-screen rival, Charlie Chaplin, was no more fond of the talking era than Keaton was, but Chaplin owned his own movie studio and wrote and produced his own films. Thus, when the talkies came along, Chaplin could afford to ease into them smoothly and gently with movies (“City Lights,” “Modern Times”) that were virtually silent well into the talking age. Keaton did not enjoy such a luxury, and it shows to his disadvantage.
In “Free and Easy” Keaton again plays an “Elmer,” this time Elmer Butz, the contest manager for a girl, Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page), who has just won a beauty pageant as Miss Gopher City, Kansas. Their prize is a trip to Hollywood, where Elmer insists he is going to make her a movie star. It is no surprise that he’s in love with her.
But once in Hollywood, he finds he has a rival, a handsome young actor named Larry Mitchell (Robert Montgomery), who falls for Elvira the first time he meets her. The problem with this situation is that we can see in a flash that Larry is a really nice guy and that he and Elvira hit it off famously. So where, we have to wonder, will this leave Elmer?
“Free and Easy” moves along more slowly than Keaton’s previous two pictures, and it contains far too much talk and far too few visual gags. It relies on Hollywood cameos (Jackie Coogan, John Barrymore), romance, and musical numbers to carry it along, diluting Keaton’s natural gifts in much the same way that MGM would dilute the Marx Brothers’ zaniness in their later movies.
Keaton often seems adrift in the story. He is as much as anything the poor soul, the fool, the sap in this film, falling down more than usual for him and being absent from more footage. What few scenes Keaton is allowed to handle on his own are inspired, to be sure, especially a sequence on the MGM lot where Elmer tries first to get in and is then chased from pillar to post.
But the film’s “Pagliacci” ending is a complete downer, and Keaton’s agreeing to do it must have been one of the actor’s most ill-advised moves. We leave the movie feeling cheated and manipulated. “Free and Easy” would be the beginning of the end for Keaton the star.
Of the three movies, “The Cameraman” and “Free and Easy” show the most faults in their picture quality. The image is often marred by minor age marks–lines, scratches, and smudges–and “Free and Easy” is further marred by a few somewhat blurry reels. The imperfections are not excessive, however, and the movies are still quite watchable. In fact, they are probably the best video transfers of these films ever made. Definition ranges from so-so to excellent, depending on a given sequence, as do the B&W contrasts, which can sometimes be strong and other times slightly faded. “Spite Marriage” is the best of the three prints, quite good for its age. It shows better B&W contrast and sharper delineation than the other two, plus it shows fewer signs of age.
None of the prints used for the Warner Bros. Keaton transfers were digitally restored, and none of them compare to the quality of the Chaplin prints used in WB’s Chaplin box sets, prints which were mostly found preserved in the Chaplin family vault in near-perfect condition and restored from there. Still, no one should find the Keaton prints at all objectionable, and they are undoubtedly better looking than anything previously available to the public.
“The Cameraman” on the first disc and the documentary on the second disc are in two-channel Dolby stereo, mainly because “The Cameraman” is accompanied by a new musical soundtrack and the documentary is also newly made. Otherwise, the sound of the original synchronized sound-effects track on “Spite Marriage” and the early talking sound on “Free and Easy” are in single-channel Dolby Digital mono, the latter somewhat dull and pinched, but still listenable. No matter; the sound works efficiently in each case. There is little that we today would associate with high-end audio, it’s true, yet there is nothing to distract us, either, like excessive background noise.
The two discs in the package are crammed full of good material that will make any Keaton fan jump for joy. Disc one contains the feature films “The Cameraman” and “Spite Marriage,” with introductions by “Turner Classic Movies” host Robert Osborne. On “The Cameraman” there’s an audio commentary by film historian Glenn Mitchell, and on “Spite Marriage” there’s a commentary by silent-era film historians John Bengston and Jeffrey Vance. All of the commentaries are straightforward and informative, much more substantial than many of the commentary tracks on other discs that provide little detail you’d care to remember for more than the moment. The first Keaton disc also includes photo montages from “The Cameraman” and “Spite Marriage,” plus seventeen and fifteen scene selections respectively.
Disc two contains the feature film “Free and Easy,” which is divided into seventeen scene selections, along with a thirty-eight minute documentary, “So Funny It Hurt.” Narrated by James Karen, an actor and a friend of Keaton, it details Keaton’s unfortunate years with MGM. According to the documentary, MGM only wanted the performer, not the essence of the performer’s talent. They wanted Keaton to toe the line, follow the script, never improvise, and never give them any trouble. It was his downfall. In those days MGM was a factory that had little regard for personal initiative, and because Keaton could not conform to their tightly regimented system of filmmaking, he was fired within a few years.
The two discs are housed in a foldout, plastic-and-cardboard case housed in a cardboard slipcover. English is the only spoken language provided throughout the set; but English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available for those who need them.
Interestingly, both “Spite Marriage” and “The Cameraman” were later remade as vehicles for another MGM star, Red Skelton, “I Dood It” in 1943 and “Watch the Birdie” in 1950, with Keaton acting as an uncredited consultant and gag writer. It’s indicative of the once great comedian’s decline, yet Keaton himself is said to have never aspired to greatness and seemed, at times at least, resigned to his fate.
Anyway, the three films in WB/TCM’s Buster Keaton Collection complement each other nicely and offer a good overview of this sometimes neglected comic actor and writer. Together with the informative commentaries, the excellent documentary, and the best video transfers of the films yet, the set finally does some small justice to the work of the Great Stone Face. Overall, I’d rate the Film Value for “The Cameraman” an 8/10, “Spite Marriage” a 7/10, and “Free and Easy” a 5/10. The composite score indicated below seems to me a fair assessment of the three films as a whole.