my keaton retrospective

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Steamboat Bill jr., 1928, was Buster’s last independently produced film.  During filming, he lost control of his company and made the fateful, and ultimately destructive, decision to sign with MGM.  Steamboat Bill jr. is Buster at the top of his game.  This is a funny film, well written, well acted.  I always show this one to newcomers of both Buster and silent film comedies.  

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Buster’s next short at his new studio was Convict 13, 1920.  This film is especially notable for the scene in which Buster swings a ball on the end of a rope to fight off a gang of prisoners.  This was a gag he used on stage, swinging the ball ever closer to his father, who was onstage shaving with a straight razor.  Buster also begins the use of a plot device he will frequently employ, the dream sequence.  

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Sherlock jr., 1924, is an amazing film in so many ways! First, Buster uses camera techniques that were practically unheard of at the time.  He uses the dream sequence to allow for all kinds of unrealistic gags, such as walking straight into a movie, and opening a vault door out into the middle of L.A. traffic.  Buster also shows off his amazing athletic and acrobatic skills.  From riding on the handlebars of a driver-less motorcycle, to doing stunts for other actors! This is a must-see Buster film, and a great film in general for film lovers.

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The Cook, 1918, was the last short Buster made before he was shipped off to fight in WWI.  The footage was lost for years, but thankfully recovered and restored in the last decade.  This is my personal favourite of the Arbuckle-Keaton films.  The back and forth between them as they toss food across the kitchen and eat spaghetti is perfect.  Buster also brakes out his famous dance moves which would so entertain the troops in France.  It was tempting to make all gifs of him dancing, but the film, as it survives, is funny and Buster has firmly taken a credit over Al St. John as Roscoe’s partner.  Luke the dog has some pretty impressive scenes as well, most notably running up a roller coaster.

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Good Night Nurse!, 1918, is a favourite with Buster fans for the scene in which he flirts with Roscoe(who is of course in drag), with much smiling and giggling and general silliness.  There are some funny moments like Roscoe lighting a cigarette in a policeman’s hat, and Buster’s crazed surgeon.  I’m sure Mel Brooks gathered a lot of info from this one, as it has his style.

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Our Hospitality, 1923, is my personal favourite Buster film, and the one I introduce people to Buster with.  It is absolutely hilarious and full of great gags.  You can definitely see the influence he had on Mel Brooks in this film.  Buster’s father, first son, and a pregnant Natalie all appear in this film, along with Joe Roberts who unfortunately suffered a stroke during filming and died soon after wrap. Buster pulls off some amazing stunts like riding a horse with a skirt in his face, swimming through rocky waters after his safety line broke, and hanging upside down off a cliff, under a waterfall.  This is among the top five must see Buster films of all time in my opinion.  

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Seven Chances, 1925, was based off a popular stage play and rather forced upon Buster.  He didn’t want to do it but Schenck insisted, so Buster took something he didn’t like and made it good in a way only Buster can.  The play itself ends with the brides chasing the main character away, but after Buster unintentionally knocked loose some rocks, the audience responded enthusiastically.  Buster decided to go back and shoot a scene in which he outruns a rock slide, and no offense to other comedic artist at the time, but only Buster and his freakish athleticism could have pulled this off.  I think the film is pretty funny, it certainly would not have worked with any other actor in the main role.  We also see popular actor and comedian Snitz Edwards make his first appearance in a Buster film.

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The Cameraman, 1928, was the last film Buster had any control over.  This was the first full length Buster film I ever saw and it’s still one of my favourites.  Though MGM did their best to ruin the film Buster was able to make it into a piece of comic history.  Many of the gags are still popular today, and the film itself was remade with Red Skelton, of whom Buster wrote many gags for.  After The Cameraman, MGM would go on to treat Buster as just a comic prop, and basically ended his illustrious career.  

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The Electric House, 1922, was Buster’s second attempt at this particular short.  The first time he tried it in 1920 his foot got caught in the escalator and broke his ankle.  He destroyed that film and took time off to recover, and get married as well! He came back to the project in 1922 at a time when he was ready to move on to feature films, but had a contract to fulfill.  Many of the mechanisms used in the house, for comedic purposes here, did become standard devices in the years to come.

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The Garage, 1920, was the last short Buster and Roscoe made together.  Buster once recalled this as his favourite short because of how fun it was to shoot.  This film employs the use of a massive turntable as a prop, as well as a plane propeller. Luke makes his appearance as a mad dog, something he was well trained at.  After this, Roscoe would move on to do feature films and Buster would be offered his very own studio, and thank god for that!

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The Hayseed, 1919, is not one of the better known Arbuckle-Keaton films, but it’s pretty cute.  There is no Al St. John in this short, I’m not sure why.  However, Arbuckle and Keaton are a comedy team at this time and their friendship comes across really well on film.  Though Buster has established his character, he still pulls a face or two in this.  After The Hayseed, Roscoe and Buster will only make one more short together, but will remain lifelong friends.

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The Love Nest, 1923, was Buster’s last two-reeler before his big move to feature films.  I like this one a lot, especially the first half of it.  The interaction between Buster and Big Joe is great, and they are on top of it.  Buster also does a lot of great eye rolls and general stoic reactions in this one.  It makes me laugh every time, and you can tell he has perfected his character.  I always show this one to Buster newcomers, or anyone willing to watch silent films with me.  

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Moonshine, 1918, was a silly short that poked fun at how movies are written.  Surviving prints of this film are not top quality, but good enough.  This film also showcases a “Keatonism” by showing about 60 men coming out of a sedan.  A trick of the camera, this was unique at the time.  Buster also does a notable impression of a chimpanzee, which he will, of course, reprise in Playhouse.

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My Wife’s Relations, 1922, was Buster’s way of expressing his frustrations with married life.  He had married Natalie the previous year, but as he put it, he also married her family.  The Talmadges were a close and dominating family, and Buster being the sweet person he was couldn’t fight back against four strong willed women.  He used his art form to express his feelings but also to point out the comedy of becoming part of a large family.  

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The Balloonatic, 1923, was Buster’s poorest effort in my opinion.  He was ready to move on to feature film and you could tell.  It has too much whimsy and outright silliness, and really just doesn’t fit with his regular pattern of clever comedy.  However, the leading lady is Phyllis Haver who was an outstanding actress, and had worked for some time with Mack Sennett.

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myThe Saphead, 1920.  After Roscoe left to do films, Buster was set to begin his own studio.  While Chaplin’s old property was being converted for Buster, he would star in The Saphead, at Douglas Fairbanks insistence.  Based on a play and successive novel, it’s a cute little film with Buster stealing the show.  It made him so popular that he would see immediate success once he began making his short films.