Vault of Secrets: Buster Keaton vs. The World

The Great Stoneface takes on kids, crime and Krauts!

Screen icon Buster Keaton not only triumphed as one of the greatest film comedians of all time, but he was a tremendously integral part of defining what movie comedy was and still is to this day. His daredevil fearlessness and relentless innovation have inarguably rendered him one of the few true gods of Hollywood’s silent era.

Like Chaplin, his career also expanded into several lesser-seen talkies. Keaton moved to MGM and was reportedly uneasy with his new studio overlords, who generally hampered his endless ideas and placed him in more pedestrian comic scenarios than in his classics like Steamboat Bill Jr and The General. But the good news is that many of these later titles nonetheless pack a hysterical wallop. Warner Archive has recently released several of these on DVD-on-Demand, including:

DOUGHBOYS
Dir. Edward Sedgwick / 1930

Here, Keaton bumbles into the not-so-zany territory of World War I, playing pampered socialite Elmer Stuyvesant. Heartsick over a disinterested young lady, Elmer wanders into an army recruiting office and accidentally ends up serving our country in The Great War. It’s all good-natured fun n’ games in boot camp, falling out of windows and infuriating the pugnacious sergeant (gruff character actor Edward Brophy). But after these dame-chasing, potato-peeling hijinks switch to the mud-choked terrain of the French battlefield, Elmer finds himself faced with the horrors of actual war, kinda. He also ends up in a dress, a wig, and – ultimately – in love.

This was only Keaton’s second sound film and it seems like the gang are still finding their footing on both sides of the camera. To complicate things further, MGM had the entire cast re-shoot each scene in other languages so the film could be sold in foreign territories. Luckily, good-natured yukster Cliff Edwards is on hand to brighten the picture with his round-faced nuttiness and squeaky-voiced zingers. Edwards was an irrepressibly likable comic musician who’d go on to a long career in film, recording and television. Today, he’s best remembered as the voice of Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, and when Edwards died penniless, Walt Disney personally shelled out for the funeral expenses.

Note: The dog in the accompanying promotional still was one of the featured players in the incredible Dogville shorts (1930-’31), which featured countless dogs running around in clothes and having unbelievable comic adventures. If you don’t already own Warner Archive’s 2-disc collection of these, fix that RIGHT NOW.

SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK
Dir. Zion Myers & Jules White / 1931

In the best of his MGM pictures (and his most financially successful film ever), Keaton again plays a wealth-addled boob gone moon-eyed over an unattainable dame. This time, he’s the lady’s unwitting slumlord Harmon, and when he realizes “how the other half lives,” he immediately sets forth to make things right. The apple of his eye is Margie (Anita Page), the big sister of Clipper (local Juvenile Delinquent #1), and Harmon naturally decides that the kid and his reprobate pals would best benefit from having a boys’ fitness club on the block.

The suddenly philanthropic millionaire pours every ounce of sweat he has into transforming an old warehouse into the ultimate youth facility. Though the street urchins are initially skeptical, they eventually pop in for an exhibition bout between Harmon and a neighborhood boxing legend who mops the floor with our hero in grand Keaton style. And this isn’t the only scene in which he gets himself beaten silly; a muscled-up adolescent named Baloney (!!!) ends up swinging our man across the room in a wild display of pre-teen power.

The 74 minute feature is unexpectedly complex, as lil’ Clipper eventually ends up pulled into the dark web of organized crime via a bizarre youth transvestism plot. Margie, Harmon and all the kids from the stoops join forces to keep the mob’s hooks out, leading up to an explosively slapstick finale. Pitching in on the chaos is Keaton’s Doughboys co-star Cliff Edwards, who holds his own in the funnybone zone, masterfully delivering the film’s single funniest line: “…And they were alllll cream puffs!”

Like most of Keaton’s post-United Artists work, Sidewalks gets tough knocks from both critics and fans. Sure, compared to his best work, it’s pretty lightweight stuff. But it’s also supremely entertaining when assessed on its own merits; a loud, rampaging combination of the master’s many talents coupled with the sugar-fueled madcappery of the very best Little Rascals shorts, all with a sprinkle of villainous, pre-film noir garnish.

WHAT! NO BEER?
Dir. Edward Sedgwick / 1933

In this prohibition-themed knee-slapper, Keaton breaks from the formula…almost. This time, he’s NOT a coddled upper-cruster among the unwashed masses, but he IS still cupid-struck by a lady who couldn’t give half a hoot. The unladylike lady is Hortense (Phyllis Barry), the heartthrob of diminutive mob kingpin Butch.

Keaton’s taxidermist character Elmer Butts is too love-dumb to properly fear for his life, but his opportunistic pal Jimmy – played by the great schnozzola Jimmy Durante with his trademark overbearing zeal – sees all the angles and plays them to the hilt. On the eve of prohibition repeal, Jimmy convinces Elmer that he can win the girl’s heart if he’ll fund a beer-making enterprise. The duo purchase a cobwebbed brewery and get to work, aided by a trio of hobos that includes stuttering Roscoe Ates who’d co-starred in Tod Browning’s masterpiece Freaks just one year earlier. Naturally, the mob AND the cops come down hard, and our ever-suffering protagonists end up chin-deep in sudsy trouble by the film’s climactic, memorable beer barrel attack.

While it may be graced with one of the best titles around, What! No Beer? is a step down from Sidewalks of New York. However, it’s a rollicking, well-intentioned ride with plenty of sterling moments. Durante’s spastic, unblinking delivery seems to actually flummox Keaton in several scenes even though they’d already worked together on a handful of films, and besides the aforementioned barrel scene, Keaton’s famed dangerous physical stunts had diminished by this point in his career. In fact, the movie’s commercial success wasn’t enough to save him from being axed by MGM following its release. In a semi-public statement, they described the great star as “depleted” and stated they’d no longer be working with him in the future. As insulting as that sounds, Keaton must have been overjoyed after years of struggle with the studio, and he was free to explore greener pastures.

******

…That’s it for this round, but Warner Bros has just unleashed even more Keaton classics among their most recent crop of releases, plus a metric megaton of other wrongly disregarded titles. Visit WarnerArchive.com for the lowdown, and check back here in a couple weeks for another selection of freshly revealed vault treasures newly dispatched on DVD, when we’ll be covering scifi oddities from MGM, Warner and beyond. So turn off whatever new release the RedBox just shat out, put down that razorblade, and have some genuine movie fun for a change.

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