Buster Keaton: An Oral History Part III

On October 4, 1895, Joseph Francis  “Buster” Keaton was born.  In the one hundred and twenty years since his birth, Buster Keaton has become an iconic clown and one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.  To commemorate this landmark anniversary, I have compiled a three part oral history of Keaton’s life and career, allowing us to read, in his own words, how he made the silent films that have become classics of comedy and world cinema.  [NOTE: This oral history has been compiled from a number of readily available interview sources and biographies.  I and all Keaton fans around the world are heavily indebted to the interviewers and historians who have conducted those interviews.  It is not the intention of this editor or Zimbo Films to take credit for this interview material or to profit from it.  For a full list of citations, please see below.]

The General (1927)

The General - Buster Keaton

BUSTER KEATON:  Clyde Bruckman run into this book called The Great Locomotive Chase, a situation that happened in the Civil War, and it was a pip.  Says, “Well, it’s awful heavy for us to attempt, because when we got that much plot and story to tell, it means we’re goin’ to have a lot of film with no laughs in it.  But we won’t worry too much about if it we can get the plot all told in the first reel, and our characters…all planted, and then go ahead and let it roll.”  Well, that was the finished picture, and – it held an audience.  They were interested in it – from start to finish – and there was enough laughter to satisfy.1   

That was…well, I was more proud of that picture, I suppose, than any other picture I ever made because I took an actual happening out of the Civil War, out of the history book. And I told it in detail, too.  I told the story of the Northerners coming into the South as civilians and stealing that engine with the intent of burning bridges behind them to cripple Confederate supply trains moving north to the Southern armies.  And then the chase was on.2  And I staged the chase exactly the way it happened.  Then I rounded out the story of stealing my engine back…the original chase ended when I found myself in Northern territory and had to desert.  From then on it was my invention, in order to get a complete plot.  It had nothing to do with the Civil War.3

…I went to the original location, from Atlanta, Georgia, up to Chattanooga, and the scenery didn’t look very good.  It looked terrible…so I went to Oregon.  And in Oregon…the whole state is honeycombed with narrow-gauge railroads for all the lumber mills, ’cause they handle all their trees and things like that with narrow-gauge railroads.  Well, so I found trains going through valleys, mountains, by little lakes or mountain streams – anything I wanted.  So we got rolling equipment – wheels and trucks and stuff like that.  We built our freight train and our passenger train, and remodeled three locomotives….the engines working in these lumber camps were all so doggone old, it was an easy job.  They were all wood burners, all of them.  And at that period they didn’t pay much attention to numbers on engines – they named them all.  That’s what accounts for the General – and the one I chased it with was the Texas.  It’s the Texas I threw through the burning bridge.  Well, we built that bridge.  We also dammed up water underneath it so that there would be more water, so that the stream would look better.4

MARION MACK, actress, The General: We were six months on it.  They used what I think today would be called just an outline…they told you what the scene was, but you were expected to make up your own bits of business, and if anybody had an idea they would try it and see how it played.  [We improvised] all the time.  You know the scene on the engine where I’m supposed to feed the fire, I’m supposed to be a little dumb about it.  So somebody said I should get hold of a log with a knothole in it, and throw it away.  I did that, but I didn’t think the audience would understand it, and then I saw a very small piece of wood, and I picked it up and threw it in.  Buster liked it, so right away he built it up; I mean he picked up an even smaller piece, just a splinter really, to see if I would be dumb enough to use that, too.  And of course I did, and so he jumped on me as if he was going to choke me, but at the last moment he really gave me a little peck on the cheek.  I think I got that kiss more for thinking of the gag than for anything else.  And none of this was in written form at all.5

BUSTER KEATON:  We found [the mounted cannon].  It’s an actual gun from the Civil War.  The first railroad gun.  And we duplicated that cannon.  It almost looks like a prop we invented.  That’s the only thing that kind of scared us.  When it comes to using it.  They said, “Everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh, they invented the prop just to get that gag.’”  But it’s an actual reproduction of a railroad gun built in the Civil War….We found it in more than one book.

…when it come to do the battle scenes, I hired the National Guard of Oregon.  Got five hundred men there.  And we managed to locate about 125 horses.  Then in getting the equipment up from Los Angeles, we had to have a lot of it made.  We had to have artillery pieces and army saddles and stuff like that and uniforms both gray and blue.  And  put [the men] in blue uniforms and bring ’em goin’ from right to left, and take ’em out, put ’em in gray uniforms, bring ’em from the right (laughs).  And fought the war.6

MARION MACK:  You know, I was told at the beginning that there would be a double to do all the stunts, and a girl was actually hired and was standing by, so I was satisfied.  But then, as Buster got to know me better I guess he decided I was a good sport, and would you believe it, they never used that girl once as far as I know.  Like in the scene where I’m in the sack and Buster is supposed to step all over me.  He told me to get in the sack, and then they would cut and let the other girl replace me for the rough stuff.  But next thing I knew, he was stepping all over me, and the cameras were grinding.  But I didn’t get mad at him that time, I must say he knew just how to do it so it wouldn’t hurt me.  I guess it was his vaudeville training.7

BUSTER KEATON:  Oh God, that girl in The General had more fun with that picture than any film she’d made in her life (smiles).  I guess it’s because so many leading ladies in those days looked as though they had just walked out of a beauty parlor.  They always kept them looking that way – even in covered wagons, they kept their leading ladies looking beautiful at all times.  We said thunder with that, we’ll dirty our up a bit and let them have some rough treatment.8

MARION MACK:  Most [scenes] Buster okayed after one or two takes.  The only ones that had to be timed to precision were the gags, and they sometimes took five or six tries.  But they also shot quite a few whole scenes which were never used in the finished picture, because Buster was a perfectionist, and he only used the best scenes.  That’s why the whole film is so tightly edited, he took out all the scenes which would have dragged it out.9

GEORGE MILLER, filmmaker:  When I saw [The General], I thought, “[Buster Keaton] is someone who’s incredibly careful with the camera and choreographs quite complex events inside the cuts.”  The thing about sound is it allows you to cheat; put in little bridges. But in silent films the editing has to be solid. And I asked [my editor] Margaret Sixel to cut [Mad Max] Fury Road  (2015) as a silent movie.10

ORSON WELLES, actor/filmmaker: I think The General is almost the greatest movie ever made.  The most poetic movie I’ve ever seen.  Some of the things Keaton thought up to do are incredible.11

DAVID ROBINSON, film historian:  The General is unique and perhaps perfect.  In form and method it is like no other comedy, not even another Keaton picture.  Here, uniquely, the dramatic action and the comic business are one and interdependent.  Every shot has the authenticity and the unassumingly correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph.12

RUDI BLESH, Keaton biographer:  [The General‘s] rich diversity of incident – sad, bumptious, heroic – makes up a cinema masterpiece.  Buster Keaton would likely not relish being called a poet.  But poetry is where you find it, and it is in The General.13

College (1927)

BUSTER KEATON: I liked College.  I tried to be an athlete when I was an honor student in high school and of course I flunked everything then.  Until I got into a jam.  They made me coxswain of the boat in order to make an athlete out of me.  Oh – one of my best gags in it was I was at the Coliseum doing a warm-up with all the other athletes, see.  No people in the grandstand…14

[For the pole vault] I went and got Lee Barnes from USC – he was the Olympic champion.  When it comes to pole vaulting into a window – I mean, you’ve got to get somebody who knows what they’re doing.15

LUIS BUNUEL, surrealist filmmaker:  [College] was as beautiful as a bathroom, with a Hispano’s vitality.  We never stop smiling for an instant, not at [Buster Keaton], but at ourselves, with the smile of well-being and Olympian strength.16

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)


BUSTER KEATON: The original story I had was about the Mississippi, but we actually used the Sacramento River in California, some six hundred miles north of Los Angeles.  We went up there and built that street front, three blocks of it, and built the piers and so on.  We found the river boats right there in Sacramento: one was brand new, and we were able to age the other one up to make it look as though it was ready to fall apart.  My original situation in that film was a flood.  Well, the publicity man on Steamboat Bill goes to [Joseph] Schenck and he says: “He can’t do a flood sequence because we have floods every year and too many people are lost.  It’s too painful to get laughs with.”  So Schenck told me, “you can’t do a flood.”  I said, “That’s funny, since it seems to me that Chaplin during World War I made a picture called Shoulder Arms, which was the biggest money-maker he’s made at that time.  You can’t get a bigger disaster than that, and yet he made his biggest laughing picture out of it.”  He said, “Oh, that’s different.”  I don’t know what it was different.  I asked if it was all right to make a cyclone, and he agreed that was better.  Now he didn’t know it, but there are four times more people killed in the United States by hurricanes and cyclones than by floods.  But it was all right as long as he didn’t find that out, and so I went ahead with my technical man and did the cyclone.17

There’s a pretty good beating in Steamboat Bill – working in front of those wind machines is tough.  We had six of those machines and they were those big Liberty motor babies.  One of them – in the course of a shot of running a truck full of paper boxes – about the size of shoe boxes – between me and the camera, that wind just emptied all the shoe boxes off onto me – just for one shot.  We took a truck past there once and that one machine blew it off the bank, and it rolled into the Sacramento River.  That’s how powerful those wind machines are.18

[For the falling house front] I had them build the framework of this building and make sure that the hinges were all firm and solid.  It was a building with a tall V-shaped roof, so that we could make this window up in the roof exceptionally high.  An average second story window would be about twelve feet, but we’re up about eighteen feet.  Then you lay this framework down on the ground, and build the window around me.  We built the window so that I had a clearance of two inches on each shoulder, and the top missed my head by two inches and the bottom my heels by two inches.  We mark that ground out and drive big nails where my two heels are going to be.  Then you put that house back up in position while they finish building it.  They put the front on, painted it, and made the jagged edge where it tore away from the main building; and then we went in and fixed the interiors so that you’re looking at a house that the front has blown off.  Then we put up our wind machines with the big Liberty motors.  Now we had to make sure that we were getting our foreground and background wind effect, but that no current ever hit the front of that building when it started to fall, because if the wind warps her she’s not going to fall where we want her, and I’m standing right out front.  But it’s a one-take scene and we got it that way.  You don’t do those things twice.19



BUSTER KEATON:  The biggest mistake I made in my career was leaving my own studio and going to MGM.  Chaplin warned me, so did Lloyd – but Joe Schenck talked me into it.20  So many times I’ve thought it all over.  I thought of this:  Joe Schenck was still an independent.  I don’t know if it was human nature, greed, or power, but the big companies were out to kill the independents.  Motion pictures were becoming the finest trust you ever saw.  So I thought, Perhaps they’re after Schenck.  He was too big to knock down, but maybe his brother Nick at MGM said, “Look Joe, it’s hurting business.”  Could be.  In fact, within two more years Joe…quit independent production entirely.  Joe went on and became head of Twentieth Century-Fox.  But if that was his real reason, why didn’t he tell me?  We were friends.21

LOUISE BROOKS, actress:  I think Joe Schenck was the first old turtle Darwin saw when the Beagle anchored off the Galapagos – certainly not a cuddly “father figure” for Keaton.  Anyhow, Buster, like Peter Pan, didn’t want a father.  He had his magic world of film production and his house rigged like a Douglas Fairbanks set – or Peter Pan’s ship.22

JAMES KAREN, actor:  He would never say a rotten word about Schenck.  Once I blew up and said what was on my mind: “Look, he made a fortune off you and then he destroyed you!”  Buster got up and walked away from me.23

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN, Keaton’s MGM Producer:  When he came to us he had been working for Joseph M. Schenck in the early days of The General and The Navigator, and then his popularity started to wane, and Mr. Schenck was trying to find some way to get rid…of some of the contract…So we took the contract.  He could have gone on his own, nobody asked him to sign the contract at Metro…24

The Cameraman (1928)

BUSTER KEATON: The Cameraman is one of my pet pictures.  It’s the simplest story that you can find, which was always a great thing for us if we could find it.  I was a tintype cameraman down at Battery Park, New York.  Ten cents a picture.

I saw the Hearst Weekly [newsreel] man and a script girl with him that I got one look at and fell hook, line, and sinker.  Well, immediately, I went down and sold my tintype thing to a second-hand dealer and bought a second-hand motion-picture camera.  And of course I got one of the oldest models there was – a Pathe.  And I went to the Hearst offices…and they got one look at me and my equipment and says, “no”. [Laughs]  The girl saw me make the attempt and she says, “There’s only one way you can do anything.  You gotta go out and photograph somethin’ of interest.  And if they see it and they can use the film you shoot, they’ll but it from you.” Well, I set out to be a newsreel cameraman.  And of course I had my problems.25  Marceline Day was the leading girl in it.  [In the film] I finally got a date with her, and it was raining in New York cats and dogs.  I managed to get her to her house, and she kissed me on the cheek, good-night.  Well, I just went right off on Cloud One.  I just started down the street, and it was raining.  I was drowned, and “Eddie” [Harry] Gribbon was a cop, and he had on his raincoat…he just walked along with me for half a block looking at me while I just stared into space, peaceful.  He finally sat me down, and he examined my eyes, tried my reflexes…26

…[Later] I got mixed up in that Tong War down there and because they saw me photographin’ they came at me.  I didn’t seem to have any choice but to just leave my camera and dive out the window into a fire escape and get away from ’em.  And then go ahead and round out the story.  We previewed it and we thought the last reel was a good reel…and the last reel just died the death of a dog.  It dawned on us what it was.  I deserted the camera.  So I had to go back and remake that – even with the trouble of tryin’ to get away from…the Tong War.  I still kept my camera.  Then it was all right.  (Laughs)  It was O.K.27

HAROLD GOODWIN, actor, The Cameraman:  We had no sooner started [filming] The Cameraman than trouble started.  [Director Edward] Sedgwick, whom I had made many pictures with, called me aside one day and confided, unbeknownst to B.K., that the front office had called him in.  They wanted to know why we weren’t following the script.  Ed explained that often a situation arises that has comedy potential and B.K. Liked to milk it for all it is worth.  The brass wanted to know how they could budget a show if we didn’t follow the script.  Some thinking!28

FRANK DUGAS, assistant cameraman:  [Keaton and the crew] sat talking like they were around a campfire.  “Will this be funny?””Let’s try this out.”  Buster knew film from A to Z.  He dug in like a flea on a dog, until he reached down to the skin, until he knew he had something terrific.29

BUSTER KEATON:  Irving Thalberg was in charge of production and he wanted – oh – I wasn’t in trouble enough trying to manipulate a camera as a cameraman, trying to photograph current events as a news weekly cameraman.  In The Cameraman, Thalberg wanted me involved with gangsters, and then get in trouble with this one and that one, and that was my fight – to eliminate those extra things.30

Talking Pictures


BUSTER KEATON:  … in ’29 I made Spite Marriage.  That was the last of the silents.  In the start of the season of 1930 was our first sound picture.  Then I made six more for MGM in the next three years.  But in every picture it got tougher…too many cooks.  Everybody at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in my gag department, including Irving Thalberg.  They were joke happy.  They didn’t look for action; they were looking for funny things to say.  You just keep fighting that, see.

Then, of course, when you give me…Jimmy Durante [as a costar] – they just brought him in there to play a part in a picture with me.  Well, Durante just can’t keep quiet.  He’s going to talk no matter what-in-the-thunder happens.  You can’t direct him any other way.31

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN:  Keaton was doing a certain amount of business.  And we thought that Durante..in this particular role, would be fine, that’s all.  We weren’t thinking of bolstering him.  There were a number of pictures made, we tried out best.  If it wasn’t good enough, that’s another thing.  But we didn’t set out to destroy Buster…If anything we kept him alive longer…Some of [the MGM] pictures did much more than his original silent pictures, but he was the victim of change.  Sound comedy is a different thing entirely.  Sound comedy is about what people say, not what they do.  We tried to combine both.32

BUSTER KEATON:  But I know for a finish, they were picking stories and material without consulting me, and I couldn’t argue them out of it.  They’d say, “This is funny,” and I’d say, “I don’t think so.”  They’d say, “This’ll be good.”  I’d say, “It stinks.”  It didn’t make any difference; we did it anyhow.  I’d only argue so far, and then let it go.  And I knew better.  I got to the stage where I didn’t give a darn whether school kept or not, and then I started drinking too much.33

MARION MACK:  … his [first] marriage went on the rocks, and they wouldn’t let him make films the way he wanted to make them, and I felt really sorry for him.  That’s what I think drove him to drink.34

J.J. COHN, MGM General Manager:  I wasn’t aware of his drinking problems.  Occasionally [Louis B.] Mayer would give parties and I’d see Keaton there, but he was always fine.  He wasn’t difficult, a nice man who had a lot to say about his work.35

HAROLD GOODWIN:  He had cocktails.  He started drinking later when he was running into so much trouble with Larry Weingarten.36

LAWRENCE WEINGARTEN:  Buster, in those days, was an alcoholic and he was in a place called The Keeley Cure, down on Wilshire Boulevard, that dried out drunks.  That was the only problem I ever had with Buster Keaton.  I didn’t know it was a problem…37

BUSTER COLLIER, actor:  Buster Keaton needed excitement.  But deeper than that, he loved to make everybody happy, liked his gang around.  So it became two drinks in the evening, then four, and then the sky’s the limit.

He was well informed and intelligent.  But he was sensitive, almost abnormally so… Buster didn’t have that hard shell of ego.  As a rule, you came out of vaudeville tough as nails.

I saw it begin to happen.  I loved and admired the guy too much to stick around and watch it.  We drifted apart.  I tried to talk to him, but his gang had made a wall around him; he didn’t feel like facing anything unpleasant.  When he started to go, he really went.  What do you say about Buster Keaton?  He was just too nice a guy.38

BUSTER KEATON:  It only takes about two bad pictures in a row to put the skids under you.  [After leaving MGM] I tried making a picture in Mexico, found that was impossible.  I tried making one… in England.  I did one in France.  Oh, it was a bad picture.  It was impossible to make those types of pictures there.  I couldn’t do it in Mexico, although I had a funny story for Mexico.  But getting them done right…

I was called [back to MGM] to “play [script] doctor” to three [Red] Skelton pictures…Skelton remade three of my pictures that MGM gave him to do…in those three remakes, the second picture didn’t compare to the original for laughs or entertainment.  Now, all for one reason: the writers…and the producers insisted on improving the originals. So, all three pictures died of improvement.  39

Skelton’s first love was radio, and yet nobody could do a better scene on the screen that Skelton without opening his trap, but he’d do it anyhow – ad lib…[and] he’d go to his dressing room on the stage between scenes and he wasn’t worrying about what he was going to do in the next scene.  He’d go in there and write gags…for his radio script. Well, that used to get my goat because, my God, when we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamed them!40

LEWIS JACOBS, producer:  It seemed to me that [MGM was] buying off their own conscience [by re-hiring Keaton as a gag writer] – at a hundred bucks a week.  He was one of the skeletons in the MGM closet.  The older writers said that Buster Keaton saved Metro in the critical days.  Made millions for them.  Buster Keaton is a genius – and MGM can’t use him!  The older and sadder he got, the more touching and compelling became the clown.41


JIMMY TALMADGE, Keaton’s son:  [My wife and I had] the first TV set on our block, a ten-inch GE that weighed a ton.  My dad came over the first weekend we had it.  All afternoon he sat mesmerized in front of this thing.  Maybe it wasn’t the first time he’d see TV, but it was the first time he’d sat down and actually watched it.  At dinner, I remember him saying, “This is the coming thing in entertainment.”  Now this was at the time when…many others were saying TV was a fad that would soon disappear.42

BUSTER KEATON:  I love television.  It gives you new life, but I only like television to work to an audience live.43  When I first tried a television show, when it was a young business, we were working to an audience.  Then later on they talked me into doing ’em just to a silent motion picture camera.  Well, it didn’t work, because no matter what you did, it looked like something that had been shot thirty years ago.  It just looked old-fashioned, but the same material done in front of a live audience [didn’t].  People sitting in their living room where there are only three or four people…don’t laugh out loud to start the others laughing.  It is not like being in a motion picture theater where you got a couple thousand people there to help you laugh.  And the canned laughs are absolutely no good at all.  They don’t ring true at all.44

I think in making a program picture today you’re just asking for trouble.  You can’t get your money back…you’ve got to get into one of those big things in order to get your money back.  I’m anxious to see the day when television and the motion picture industry marry and set out a system, because it can’t continue the way it is.  I see only one solution to it.  There should be paid television, and they could keep the costs so low that the poorest man in the world could have a television; they can keep the entertainment low priced.  And in that way you’d make pictures exactly the way you used to make them before television – I mean, you’d think nothing of spending a million and a half for a program picture.45

Fade Out


RAYMOND ROHAUER, film archivist:  [Keaton] wasn’t particularly interested in saving [his films].  He didn’t care.  But it didn’t make any difference what he said.  I had to [save them].  It’s a compulsion.46

STAN BRAKHAGE, experimental filmmaker:  [Rohauer] was a strange man with very kinky habits, one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met.  You have to give the devil his due.  With his wild and sometimes vicious love of film, Rohauer did more to preserve meaningful work than any museum in the world.  It was his one good deed…47

ELEANOR KEATON, Buster Keaton’s third wife:  He got crazy on the subject of Buster.  Raymond was a fighter, but he was greedy and grabbed every still and poster he could find.  Some of it was trash.  But he didn’t want anyone else to have it.48

JOEL GROSS, screenwriter:  Raymond’s reputation didn’t bother me.  Because despite all the talk, he was the guy who had worked with Buster to save the films and win his rights back.  Others profited but didn’t do a thing for Buster.49

WALTER KERR, theatre critic:  Buster Keaton’s films were sorely neglected for twenty-five years.  In the recent excitement that has come of their rediscovery…he has been hailed, here and there, not only as Chaplin’s equal, but as Chaplin’s superior.  Let Chaplin be king, and Keaton court jester.  The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.50

ORSON WELLES:  Keaton was beyond all praise…a very great artist, and one of the most beautiful men I ever saw on the screen.  He was also a superb director.  In the last analysis, nobody came near him.  Now, finally, Keaton’s been “discovered”.  Too late to do him any good of course – he lived all those long years in eclipse, and then, just as the sun was coming out again, he died.  I wish I’d known him better than I did.  A tremendously nice person, you know, but also a man of secrets.  I can’t even imagine what they were.51

MARION MACK:  Buster was really a shy person.  Some people said he was aloof, but his aloofness was mostly just shyness, I think.  He wasn’t easy to know very closely.   At first I felt a little bit, I’d say, ignored or slighted, but then he got a bit more friendly as he lost some of his shyness, and he turned out to be a very nice and warm person.  And a very humble one, too, that’s the surprising part.

That was the real Buster: funny as hell on the screen and a true friend off the screen.  They just don’t make them like that anymore.  He was the best of them all.52

BUSTER KEATON:  …I’m not sentimental by nature.  Sure I miss the Keystone Cops and Mack Sennett and Stan [Laurel] and Oliver [Hardy] and the rest, but I don’t moon over the past.  I don’t have time.  I work more than Doris Day.

I drive by [the Motion Picture Relief Home] sometimes and talk to some of the old-timers, but it makes me so sad I don’t do it often.  They live in the past, I don’t.  One Easter Sunday I went to a party at Mary Pickford’s house.  Everybody from silent films was there.  I tried to have fun, but I discovered we had nothing to talk about.  Some of them had never heard a Beatles record.  They haven’t kept up with the times.  I had four friends who retired at the age of sixty-five and they were all dead within a year.  They simply had nothing to do, nothing to occupy their minds.  I have so many projects coming up I don’t have time to think about kicking the bucket.  People are always telling me I’m immortal.  I just might prove them right.  Hell, the way I feel, I just might live forever.53

Edited by Hank Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2015, Winter 2012

The Singing Ringing Tree

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Cinema Homosexualis by Thomas Lampion.  Part Hollywood Babylon, part Movie Journal, Lampion’s anthology of well researched essays offer a unique glimpse at some of the cinema’s most obscure and misunderstood films.  What unifies these essays as well as these films is their adherence to fantasy; the fantastic.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) is one of the most important fairy tale films, second only to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as one of the crown jewels of Europe’s legacy to Fairy Tale Cinema. It is a film that rivals, or perhaps matches the psychological pathos of even The Wizard of Oz. What makes The Singing Ringing Tree so original in comparison to its more famous cousins are its very conflicted but intriguing roots. The Singing Ringing Tree is from the world of the Brothers Grimm, the decadent, technicolor product of a rigid Communist Film Industry, the ghosts of German Expressionism and the most primitive but enchanting theatricality.

The Singing Ringing Tree

Walt Disney’s contribution to the genre of fantasy was all prevalent after the silent era had closed, practically inventing the world of fairy tales in a cinematic environment that was inevitably leaning to the guiles of technological advancement in color and sound. After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, a question was aroused, could a fantasy be fully evoked and depicted in live action, incorporating color and sound to the fullest possible extent? Could it be just as endearing and engaging as Disney’s cartoons which seemed to have been made from the most potent of magic? Whatever attempt to gage Fairyland were done in response or retaliation to the set norms that Disney had invented and perfected. The Wizard of Oz in 1939 is certainly the first challenge to rise to the occasion, but outside of the Hollywood Studio System, the question still pertained, particularly in the East.

How the communists loathed Walt Disney, with his decadence, his instilling of American Morals in the most European of Folklore. The cinematic factories of the Soviet Union and Communist East Germany could only retaliate by controlling film distribution, only the most advanced in the cogs of Soviet Russia could win a chance at seeing Disney’s films, the Soviets had their own factories rival Disney’s output. With a bevy of their own intrinsic folklore, they were able to churn out hundreds of both animated and live action fairy tale films that seeped into the communist sub-conscious. Some imitated Disney’s inclinations, but the films that survived and endured evolved from a nationalist identity and a left field originality. East Germans perhaps had an easier time travelling beyond the wall to see Disney, but the problems were still the same. The East Germans had inherited the land of the Brothers Grimm, a world filled with its own morals and symbolism, ones that even the most left leaning could hardly gage or agree with, making The Singing Ringing Tree’s existence even more astonishing.

The Singing Ringing Tree steps beyond being merely a product of its time, like so many German films of the 1950’s. According to Quinna Shen’s fantastic book The Politics of Magic, The Singing Ringing Tree was a deeply troubled production. The East German Film Industry had since its invention after the war, relied considerably on West German artists input, however, this notion became hotly contested among the powers that be at DEFA Studios once Francesco Stefani had been hired as a guest director. While the West Germans aesthetic tendencies meant appeal beyond the walls and into the international scene, by 1957, a real concern over the West German input’s lack of political ideology and what they perceived to be capitalist influence was beginning to bristle hairs. The production crew refused to accept any credit or responsibility for the finished product by the time it was released. Many on the film board were less than thrilled with the concept of a Princess as a protagonist, its old fashioned morals of kindness and inner beauty not meeting the changing standards of the studio’s political system.

Many East German Fairy Tale films were done in a droll, literal style, especially if closely supervised by the higher political powers. One aspect that likely crossed hairs was the films very real camp aesthetic, not from the influence of cartoons, but of two centuries of traditional children’s book illustration. While many Fairy tale films of the era evoked a pragmatic naturalism, The Singing Ringing Tree insists on a fantastic world contained in sets, matte paintings and miniatures. This world makes no apologies or concessions’, it is implemented with its own symbolism, setting the stage for emotions of love, jealousy, anger and deception, amplifying it to delirious heights, rivaling even the most American of fantasies. Visually, the film takes almost no real nods to Disney, but in fact, seems to invent its own alarming visual language. No Fairies or mushrooms, no wicked witches or evil step-parents. Maybe what is so alarming about The Singing Ringing Tree is how structurally unorthodox its characters are in comparison to other fairy tale films. One is often taught to believe that to keep a fairy tale film on the right path one must have relatable, endearing characters to engage an audience. This film does the very opposite. Nearly every character until the end is remarkably unlikeable, even despicable. The plot centers round the behavior of a wicked, selfish Princess and an initially fool-hardy Prince Charming. The Princess refuses to marry him, only under the condition that he brings back the Singing Ringing Tree. The tree not surprisingly, is in custody of a wicked dwarf, who turns the Prince into a bear, and the Princess into a hideous hag. We are endeared to these characters over-time, not by song and dance or by cuddly cartoon creatures, but by the very real, and often negative emotions we all feel as children and adults.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The film was a success on both sides of the wall and even around the world. Perhaps the film’s most notorious reputation was in Great Britain. Tired of American Programming involving Bugs Bunny and Westerns, the BBC’s Children’s Programming Division decided to buy the rights to a handful of East German Fairy Tale films as a sort of antidote in the late 50’s and 60’s. The films were so cheaply presented, that they were in fact not even dubbed or subtitled, but merely laid with a voice-over track, narrating the original audio, as if wicked dwarves and paper mache goldfish weren’t quite creepy enough, its well feared, and loved by a generation of British Baby-boomers much in the way The Wizard of Oz was in America.

-Thomas Lampion

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Kubrick’s Phobias

My last boyfriend watched Barry Lyndon over ten times while we lived together. I have not had the heart to re-watch it since we parted over three years ago. Kubrick’s films are not conducive to emotional attachments, even his harshest critics, seldom they are nowadays will tell you that much. It’s odd that what has been perceived as maybe his coldest, detached film is one that lifts the lid to a well of bottomless emotion for me. When I think of Barry Lyndon I think particularly of two scenes, one being Barry’s encounter with his future wife at the gambling table. Lady Lyndon is awash in candle light, we know then that our hero will stop at nothing to have her as his own. Later, he follows her to the balcony, planting his firm a kiss on her lips. The lady does not protest; she clearly enjoys being hunted, perhaps she fears she’ll never be pursued with such vigor ever again. The second scene finds Barry Lyndon after he has deserted the British Army, where he encounters two admirals bathing nude in a pond. The two are two fey stereotypes, professing their undying love for one another as Barry sniggers behind the bushes. There, he takes one of the men’s uniforms left behind, acquiring a disguise so he may go over the German Border without being caught.

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon

I wondered often about my ex’s obsession with Barry Lyndon, one has to clearly be looking for something if you watch the same film so many times, especially one that is known to not be easy viewing. My ex was a man’s man, who felt joyous glee in being able to pass for straight, shocking people he’d just met with a casual mention of gay sex, or something his boyfriend did, waiting for their cue to mention that they had no idea he was even gay. Often, he’d take girls phone numbers, texting and flirting with them for weeks until that moment of disappointment would gradually come when they realized he was far from interested. His gendered confidence lent him to getting whatever he wanted, even if that meant another person with a will of their own, that didn’t matter to him, not really. I’d like to think we watch films to validate our own character, our own story. Maybe my ex related deeply with the story of a scoundrel, whose own inherent masculinity lends itself to cleverness and determination, yet because he is so unwilling to play the rules of the game that it leads to his own destruction. We all love a rebel, and it doesn’t hurt if he can win fist-fights and women by the pound. Often, I felt like the unfortunate Lady Lyndon whose love for Barry has been won on his accord, a love that knows no bounds and yet she has no words or actions that can change his ways. On worse days, I felt like one of the effeminate men in the pond Barry leers at as he takes advantage of him, taking away his clothes and horse unnoticed.

Three years ago, notorious author Bret Easton Ellis set off a series of tweets supposedly outing the acclaimed director, Stanley Kubrick. “Has anyone heard that Stanley Kubrick was gay? Info from two very good sources that despite wife and kids he had a long-term male partner”, “Kubrick’s gayness: insider proof. It’s all there. ‘Ghosts’ in The Shining giving blow jobs. Cruise being attacked as gay in Eyes Wide Shut…’ Whether the orientation of an artist truly pertains to their work as a whole is a question that will endlessly be debated, Kubrick’s films lend themselves very little to any real autobiography, let alone emotion, you take what you perceive. People return to Kubrick’s films time and time again for their open-endings, the lee-way it gives any viewer to make their own interpretations and theories, even ones of conspiracy as the wildly popular documentary Room 237 tells us, where several theorists rap about the endless complications and mysteries in his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. If Bret Easton Ellis believes that Kubrick was indeed gay, he certainly couldn’t have been as self-loathing of his gayness as Ellis.

What Bret Eason Ellis forgets, or perhaps doesn’t know was Stanley Kubrick’s well documented anxiety about depicting any sort of sexuality on film throughout his entire career. Starting with his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1962, Kubrick regretted the compromises he had to make with the strict Censorship code in Hollywood at the time. In this story of a pedophile falling in love with a 13 year old girl, the most scintillating scene is a peevish James Mason delicately painting the toe nails of his nymphet, Lolita and a screenplay with an exhausting glossary of sexual innuendos. After this film, sexuality develops in Kubrick’s films in an almost autistic absence of any true understanding or empathy concerning sex. When sex appears in A Clockwork Orange, it is seen only through the eyes of a depraved teenager, the camera fails to blink as a woman is savagely raped in her own home, and Alex has a threeway with two girls he picks up at a record shop, Kubrick can hardly be bothered to address even that scene, he fast tracks the footage and plays Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in cartoonish fashion. In the 1970’s, author Terry Southern proposed a high budget pornographic film entitled Blue Movie. While interested, Kubrick feared the difficulties the project would ensue and the potential ruin of his own career. Eyes Wide Shut was to be the film that cemented Kubrick’s interpretations of human sexuality. While the film has slowly gained acclaim from critics and fans, unlike its icy reception on its initial release, the film fails miserably in providing anything illuminating about how sexuality pervades and exists in our daily lives. You know things are one sided when Nicole Kidman can show her breasts at a moment’s notice and fantasize about being fucked by a sailor, but Tom Cruise can hardly be bothered to take off his own underwear or have sex with a prostitute though he already paid her. Kubrick’s real failing as a director is his real ignorance of sexuality. But one wonders if this bias comes from Kubrick’s real ignorance seeping through his films, or are these the compromises Kubrick was forced to make from working with major Hollywood studios?

Little Alex's threesome

Little Alex’s threesome

It is undeniable that there are gay images throughout Kubrick’s oeuvre but what is peculiar is how even the most passionate Kubrick fan will forget quickly that they are even there. Homophobic images throughout media are so deeply imbedded in our collective consciousness that we often have to look twice to even comprehend them for what they are. While Ellis may call these images “Fascinating and illuminating”, it is doubtful it illuminates anything about Kubrick’s own sexual identity than a deeply entrenched homophobia and an almost puritanical view of human sexuality in general. Practically all of Kubrick’s filmic narratives center around the viewpoints of hyper-masculine, heterosexual men, and their very narrow but normative views of the world around them. The morally ambiguous teen rebel Alex who rapes and murders with unthinking glee in A Clockwork Orange, the alcoholic abusive father Jack Torrance in The Shining and the neurotic Dr. Bill Hartford in Eyes Wide Shut are the uncontested narrative place holders of each narrative. Whenever Kubrick’s main characters witness or perceive homosexuality, it is depicted as only freakish or humorous. Ellis’ ‘Ghosts giving blowjobs’ in The Shining perhaps cements Kubrick’s homophobia the best, at the height of the final act of the film, Jack Torrance’s wife Wendy runs through the haunted Overlook Hotel looking for a way out. In one hallway we are shown the terrifying image of a man in a dog suit giving fellatio to a man on a bed. The dog suited man looks up to Wendy, who gasps in terror and continues to flee. Interestingly, in Stephen King’s novel The Shining, the man in the dog suit is in fact the gay lover of one of the previous owners of the Overlook Hotel who ‘follows him around like a dog.’ The Overlook Hotel itself is an endless labyrinth far from the straight and narrow path. The two lovers are proof of that, as Wendy continues to run in horror, struggling to find a way back to a world of normalcy. The same moral dilemma as professed in images occurs again in Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut when Dr. Bill Hartford becomes determined to have an extra marital affair and winds up in the trappings of an elaborate sex cult. Sneaking his way into a mansion safe guarded by passwords and endless conspiracies, we find two men dancing in the ballroom among others, the men can only show affection because like everyone else there, they wear masks and elaborate clothes to hide their identities. The two male lovers can dance, but they may only do so in a den of vice and depravity. Later, Dr. Bill Hartford tries to investigate exactly what happened the night he visited the orgy and encounters an effeminate bell hop who merely tries to make a pass at him. With the bell hops demeanor and two dimensional flirtations, he may as well swam out of the pond in Barry Lyndon, replacing his stolen clothes and horse with a hotel uniform and a service bell. Are we seeing the world through each characters eyes, or Stanley Kubrick’s? One is forced to ask once one looks hard enough. But one thing is inevitable, while Kubrick is acclaimed for his vast, almost endless film landscapes whether it be 18th Century Britain or outer space, his depictions of human dynamics and interpersonal relationships are as small as a matchbox.

the hyper-masculine orgy in Eyes Wide Shut

the hyper-masculine orgy in Eyes Wide Shut

Are my theories on Kubrick’s sexual phobias meant to take away from his work? Frankly, not at all, in an odd way it makes me love his filmography even more. If anything I hope my theories will help trigger a deeper, more emotional response to his films that are typically not to be found on standard viewing. Kubrick’s films are what you make of them, and that is where their genius lies. One can find hundreds of clues and answers, but mostly more questions in each of his films. But if one wishes to find a clue to Kubrick’s own presumed homosexuality, I wish them all the luck in the world. Kubrick merely reflected the homophobia and sexual paranoia of his own time, nothing personal. If one wishes to find the answers to that, they’re bound to be lost in a labyrinth more complicated than the hedge maze of the Overlook Hotel.

-Thomas Lampion

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On October 4, 1895, Joseph Francis  “Buster” Keaton was born.  In the one hundred and twenty years since his birth, Buster Keaton has become an iconic clown and one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.  To commemorate this landmark anniversary, I have compiled a three part oral history of Keaton’s life and career, allowing us to read, in his own words, how he made the silent films that have become classics of comedy and world cinema.  [NOTE: This oral history has been compiled from a number of readily available interview sources and biographies.  I and all Keaton fans around the world are heavily indebted to the interviewers and historians who have conducted those interviews.  It is not the intention of this editor or Zimbo Films to take credit for this interview material or to profit from it.  For a full list of citations, please see below.]

Buster Keaton's Hat

Three Ages (1923)

BUSTER KEATON:  [Producer Joseph] Schenck said [moving to features] was the only way to get big rentals.  The exhibitor, anyway, was often featuring our two-reelers over his main film.  So why not make him pay for it?  It would more than double the rentals – would mean twenty-five hundred dollars and more a week from each theatre.  As for me personally feature stories meant something else again…I had begun to want longer stories.  A challenge, yes, but also room to develop the thing.  To really say it.1

…what I did [with Three Ages] was just tell a single story of two fellows calling on a girl…And in fighting over the girl and different situations we could get into, and finally winning her.  But I told the same story in three ages.  I told it in the Stone Age, Roman Age, and Modern.2 I was thinking of Intolerance (1916) when I made it.  I told the three separate stories same as Griffith did; and of course in that film I did take liberties, because it was more of a travesty than a burlesque.  That’s why I used a wristwatch that was a sundial, and why I used my helmet the way I did.  Fords at that time had a safety device to stop people from stealing the cars…which looked just like my Roman helmet.  So I unlocked my Roman helmet off me and locked it on the wheel of my chariot.  At that time the audience all compared it with the safety gadget for a Ford.3

CLYDE BRUCKMAN, co-director, The General:  Bus wanted one of the cavemen to heave a big rock at him; he would take a batter’s stance, swing his war club, bat the rock back, and it would bean the other guy.  Now, you do this easy by the cutting technique.  One shot of the guy throwing.  Next shot, someone out of camera range lobs it up to Buster and he bats it.  Final shot, close-up of the rock beaning the guy.  Put it all together.  Easy as duck soup…the studios do it every day.  It rolls across the screen with a whoosh – but you never saw the thing really happen; it’s a patchwork of half-truths.

Now, Buster accepted the fact that this rock must be papier-mache.  But he wouldn’t accept action trickery.  It had to be continuous action, from the moment the caveman picked it up and heaved it straight through to the moment it homed back and coldcocked him.  “We get it in one shot,” he said, “or we throw out the gag.”

We set up the cameras for a long profile shot – this rock was going to sail for thirty feet – and we worked for hours.  Seventy-six takes, all for one little gag.

“Okay,” said Buster, “now they’ll know it was for real.”4

BUSTER KEATON: [For the film] I went to jump across an alleyway on top of a tall building.  We built the sets over the Third Street tunnel – or the Broadway tunnel – looking right down over Los Angeles.  Now, by getting your cameras up on a high parallel and shooting past our set in the foreground with the street below, it looked like we were up in the air about twelve, fourteen stories high.  And we actually had a net stretched from one wall to the other underneath the camera line so in case you missed any trick that you were doing…you had a net to fall into, although it was about a thirty-five foot drop.  So, my scene was with the cops chasing me, that I came to this thing and I took advantage of the lid of a skylight and laid it over the edge of the roof to use as a springboard.  I backed up, hit it, and tried to make it to the other side which was probably about eighteen feet, something like that.  Well, I misjudged the spring of that board and I didn’t make it.  I hit flat up against that other set and fell to the net, but I hit hard enough that it jammed my knees a little bit, and hips and elbows, ’cause I hit flush, flat – and I had to go home and stay in bed for about three days.

And of course, at the same time, me and the scenario department were a little sick because we can’t make that leap.  That throws the whole chase sequence…right out the window.  So the boys the next day went into the projecting room and saw the scene anyhow, ’cause they had it printed to look at it.  Well, they got a thrill out of it, so they came back and told me about it.  Says, “Well, if it looks that good let’s see if we can pick it up this way.  The best thing to do is put an awning on a window, just a little small awning, just enough to break my fall.”   ‘Cause on the screen, you could see that I fell about, oh I guess about sixteen feet, something like that. So, now you go in and drop into something just to slow me up, to break my fall, and I can swing from that onto a rainspout and when I get ahold of it, it breaks and lets me sway, sways me out away from the building hanging onto it.  And for a finish, it collapses enough that it hinges and throws me down through a window a couple of floors below.

Well, when we got back and checked up on that this chase was about – the chase was this: I was getting away from policemen, and used the old Hollywood Station on Hollywood, which was right next door to the fire department.  Well, when this pipe broke and threw me through the window, we went in there and built the sleeping quarters of the fire department with a sliding pole in the background.  So I came through their window on my back, slid across the floor, and I lit up against the sliding pole and dropped to the bottom on the slide.  I bounced from that to set on the rear of one of the trucks and as I hit the rear the truck pulled out, so I had to grab on for dear life, but I’m on my way to a fire – but the fire was in the police department.  So we went back and shot the scene where I accidentally, not knowing it, had set fire to the police department before the cops started to chase me.  Well, it ended up…it was the biggest laughing sequence in the picture.5

Our Hospitality (1923)

DAVID ROBINSON, film historian/Chaplin biographer:  The leap from The Three Ages to the masterpiece Our Hospitality is one of the most startling revolutions in Keaton’s career.  Our Hospitality shows Keaton in full possession of his mature gifts: as a filmmaker he is as assured as a [Henry] King or a [King] Vidor; and certainly the superior of Chaplin, who at the time that Keaton was making Our Hospitality was preparing The Gold Rush (1925) – a beautiful film, but technically archaic and visually feeble when seen alongside the Keaton film.6

BUSTER KEATON:  On Our Hospitality we had this one idea of an old-fashioned Southern feud…our best period for that was to go back something like eighty years.  “All right,” we say.  “We go back that far.  And now when I go South, am I traveling in a covered wagon, or what?  Let’s look up the records and see when the first railroad train was invented.”  Well, we find out: we’ve got the Stephenson Rocket for England and the DeWitt Clinton for the United States.  And we chose the Rocket engine because it’s funnier looking.  So we build that entire train and that set our period for us: 1825 was the actual year of the invention of the railroad.7…and they weren’t so fussy about laying railroad track [then] – it if was a little unlevel, they just ignored it.  They laid it over fallen trees, over rocks (laughs).  So I got quite a few laughs ridin’ that railroad.

[In the film] when I got down South to claim my father’s estate, I ran into the family who had run us out of the state in the first place.  And the old man of the outfit wouldn’t let his sons or anybody shoot me while I was a guest in the house ’cause the girl had invited me for dinner.  Well, I’d overheard it and found out.  As long as I stayed in the house, I was safe.  But I had a good story to tell and it rounded out swell and it was a big seller for me.8

For that scene in the rapids…we picked the best rapids from a pictorial point of view, a two-hundred-yard stretch where the water moves fast and white.  I’m supposed to grab onto a sixteen-foot log and float out into the bad water.

“Can you hold on to the log?” [Technical Director Fred] Gabouri asked me.  I said, “Yes.”  So he put a holdback wire around the log, ran the wire out about sixty feet, and then anchored it tightly around a baseball bat.  There were three men holding that bat.

The idea was to shoot this close up to establish the action while they keep me from getting swept away.  Then we’d go into a more distant profile for long stretches of milder water, where they can control the log and me.

Fine, we’re shooting, then the wire goes pop, real soft, and – bang! – the log and I are in the rapids, and off to hell we go.  I hear the guys yell and start into the rocks and underbrush along the river.  But I’m thinking about myself – think fast or forget it.  I sure as shooting have to shed that log or it will beat me to death against the boulders.  So I kick loose and spring ahead. The main thing is to keep from whirling.  I’m fighting for breath and trying to remember how long the rapids are and how much of them are left.

It starts to quiet down, and I think, I’ve made it! Then suddenly I’m in foam a foot deep.  You don’t breathe very well in foam, and you sure as hell can’t swim on top of it.  It was a bend in the river that saved me.  I grabbed some overhanging branches, pulled myself out, feet still in the water and just lay on my face fighting for air.

All of that took maybe a minute and a half, two minutes.  It took [the crew] nearly ten minutes to fight through the underbrush.  I don’t suppose they knew what they would find.9

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

BUSTER KEATON:  I liked Sherlock.  It was a good picture for me.  It was the trickiest of all the pictures I ever made because there were so many camera tricks and illusions.  We spent an awful lot of time getting those scenes.10 That was the reason for making the whole picture.  Just that one situation: that a motion picture projectionist in a theatre goes to sleep and visualizes himself getting mixed up with the characters on the screen.  All right, then my job was to transform those characters on the screen into my (the projectionist’s) characters at home, and then I’ve got my plot.  Now to make it work was another thing: and after that picture was made every cameraman in Hollywood spent more than one night watching it and trying to figure out just how we got some of those scenes.11  I think the reason we started off on that story is because I had one of the best cameramen in the business, Elgin Lessley.  We laid out a few of these tricks; some of these tricks I knew from the stage.  I seldom did camera tricks.  I tried to do the real illusion.  I have done an awful lot of camera tricks too, as far as that goes.  But I laid out some of those gags.  And the technical man that builds the sets, I showed him how I have to get them built for the things I had to do.  When I got that batch of stuff together, he said “You can’t do it and tell a legitimate story, because there are illusions, and some of them are clowns gags, some Houdini…It’s got to come in a dream.”  And all I had to round out was that I was in trouble at the start of the picture with my girl’s father.  He thought I stole his watch.  Well, on the screen I became the world’s greatest detective, to solve this mystery.  Of course, while I’m asleep the girl finds out that I didn’t steal it, and she’s the one who woke me up at the finish.  But on the screen I was a son-of-a-gun, the world’s great detective.  No matter how they tried to surround me and kill me or get me, I got out of it.12

Oh, there were some great shots in that baby!…I got up on the screen and they threw me off back into the audience.  I finally get back up there again and the scenes changed on me.13  [For that] we built what looked like a motion picture screen and actually built a stage into that frame but lit it in such a way that it looked like a motion picture being projected on a screen.  But it was real actors and the lighting effect gave us the illusion, so I could go out of semi-darkness into that well-lit screen right from the front room of the theater right into the picture.  Then when it came to the scene changing on me when I got up there, that was a case of timing and on every one of those things we would measure the distance to the fraction of an inch from the camera to where I was standing, also with a surveying outfit to get the exact height and angle so that there wouldn’t be a fraction of an inch missing on me, and then we changed the setting to what we wanted it to be and I got back into that same spot and it overlapped the action to get the effect of the scene changing.14

…I didn’t use stunt men for me, but I doubled them.  There’s a scene in Sherlock Jr. when I call a motorcycle cop, and I say, “Follow that car.”  And I jump on his handlebars, we hit a bump in the street, and I lose the cop.  Well, the cop that fell off was me.  Because what I did was take Ernie Orsatti, an assistant props man with me, who was my size.  Put my clothes on him.  I put the cop’s clothes on, drove the motorcycle, hit the bump and fell of the motorcycle.15  [For that] I’d just go out and learn to handle a motorcycle on the handlebars16… hell of a job.  Number one.  The control of the gas is here [on the handlebars] for speed, but I’ve got no brakes.  You’ve got to have a strong arm to get your feet back down there, ’cause it was footbrakes, see.  Well, I got some beautiful spills before I could get back.  Some beauties.  I parked right up on top of an automobile once.  I hit it head on, and I ended up with my fanny up against the windshield, my feet straight in the air.  [Laughter]  Parked car!17

They found a fracture – years later – I didn’t even know it.  I was doing a scene in Sherlock.  I was running along the top of a freight train, and I grabbed the rope of a water tower to get on the other train, and of course all my full weight pulls on the rope and of course I pull the spout down and it drenches me with water.  Well, when you’re on top of a freight car you’re up there twelve feet high and that water spout is a ten inch pipe.  I didn’t know how strong that water pressure was.  Well, it just tore my grip loose as if I had no grip at all and dropped me the minute it hit me.  And I lit on my back, with  my head right across the rail – the rail right on my neck.  It was a pretty hard fall, and that water pushed me down.18  I said, “I want a drink.”  So, that numbed me enough that I woke up the following morning, my head was clear, and I never stopped working.  But fourteen years later, I’m in the Soldier’s Home down here in Sawtelle.  The doctor calls me in and says, “When did you break your neck?”  I said I never broke my neck.  He said, “Look at this X-ray.  This callus has grown over the crack, it’s next to the top vertebra.”  I didn’t know it.  I said, “How long ago was this?”  “That looks like it could be somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago.” I started thinking back.  “I know when it happened.  It’s that goddamn fall on the track.  It cracked this vertebra.”  I never stopped working, never knew it.  Well, that’s luck.  No nerve pinched or anything in the healing – and I never knew it.19

CLYDE BRUCKMAN: We had a pool-table shot where he had to pocket a number of balls in one stroke of the cue.  The camera at high level had to show it all happen.  Set up the balls, Whang away and miss.  We worked an hour.

“You know, Buster,” we said, “this thing can’t be done.”

This made him mad.  “It can be done.  Give me fifteen minutes with those stupid goddamn balls.”  He coated each ball with white chalk, then shot it separately into the proper pocket.  Each ball left the line of its path on the green felt.  Then Buster placed each ball exactly where the line indicated, called, “Camera!” and took one shot and pocketed them all.20

The Navigator

The Navigator (1924)

WOODY ALLEN, comedian/filmmaker:  City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925) and The Navigator and The General (1927) are the four great comedies, aren’t they?21

BUSTER KEATON:  We were workin’ on a story, the scenario department, and we didn’t have a good idea yet …And I had just lent my technical man to Metro, to Frank Lloyd.  He wanted to do The Sea Hawk and that called for about five fourteenth-century sailing vessels.  So he was up and down the Pacific Coast lookin’ for those hulls that they could build up into those pirate ships…But he had just gotten back in town, and he says, “While I was in ‘Frisco, I ran into an ocean liner – five hundred feet long – a passenger ship.  And they’re just about to sell it for junk.”  Says, “You can have it for$25,000 and do anything you want with it.”

Well, we went to work right then and there and says, “Now, what could we do with an ocean liner?”  Says, “Well, we can make a dead ship out of it.  No lights aboard.  No water running.  Just afloat.”  How could we get it afloat?  Well, we set out to figure out how to do that and to write a story around it.  Only to get a boy and a girl alone, and adrift in the Pacific Ocean.  And we plant the characters so that the audience knows that she never saw a kitchen in her life, doesn’t know how to boil a cup of tea.  I am the son of a very wealthy man in San Francisco, so I’ve been waited on all my life with valets, chauffeurs, and private tutors and everything else.  So I don’t know what I’m doin’.  And set those two characters adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a dead ship.  Well, that’s The Navigator.  And it worked out beautifully.

…The opening gag in that picture with me is one of the most stolen gags that was ever done on the screen.  I think I knew at one time of twenty-seven times it had been done by other companies.  With us, the gag was more to establish the fact that I was so helpless, that I went to call on the girl, and I came down and got in my car with a chauffeur and a footman.  The footman wrapped a blanket around my knees … and drove [me] across the street.  That’s all.  I got out to call on the girl.,  I asked the girl if she’d marry me and she said, “No,” and I come back down.  The guy opened the door in the car for me, and I said, “No, I think the walk will do me good.”  So I walked across the street with the car followin’ me, makin’ a U-turn.22

…when we first laid out the story of The Navigator ahead, a few dramatic scenes at the start of it were legitimate and not done in a comedy way…you get a good dramatic director to take care of those sequences in the picture. The only one mistake we made there, and that was Donald Crisp – he was strictly from the D.W. Griffith school, a topnotch dramatic man…But when he joined us, he turned into a gag man.  He wasn’t interested in the dramatic scenes, he was only interested in the comedy scenes with me.  Well, that we didn’t want.23  He was actually annoying as a gag man, see.  Actually, after I let him go, I went back and shot a couple of the dramatic scenes again.24

I’ll show you how seriously they used to take our stories.  In The Navigator…we run aground stern first off a cannibal island, and through the binoculars I can see that they are wild type of cannibals, they are headhunters.  Well, it was just a matter of time that they are going to come out there and get onto this ship.  And we spring a leak in the stuffing box, which means we can see this water pouring in around the driving shaft.  It can’t be plugged from the inside; it’s got to be done from outside.  Well, automatically there’s deep-sea diving equipment right there in the set with us.  So, the girl helps me put it on, and she’s up there to pump air to me.

Well, we laid out this gag in advance and had it built by the Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles.  We got about twelve hundred solid rubber fish about a foot long and hung ’em on cat gut, violin strings that are transparent under water.  And then hung ’em from this rigging so that a school of fish…we could make a school of fish go past, circle around back of the camera and continue, and with one spot to break it when we wanted to.  So my gag was, while I’m down there trying to fix that stuffing box, that a big fish came up and tried to go through the school and couldn’t make it. And I see a starfish clinging to a rock, so I got the starfish off of the rock and let it grab my breastplate.  I stepped into the middle of the school of fish and brought it to a stop, and then turned and brought the big fish through, and then turned – I directed traffic – and then went back to my job.

Well, the gag photographed beautifully.  We preview the picture, and it lays a beautiful egg, not a giggle from the audience.  We can’t figure it out. Well, says, we’ll try it at the next preview and see.  Next preview, the same thing.  It finally dawned on us what it was.  I went down there to stuff that stuffing box to keep the girl and me from falling into the hands of these cannibals, and I had no license in the world to stop to go help a fish go through the traffic.  Simple as that.  Now to prove it, we take it out of the picture and of course our picture travels the way it is supposed to and finished great.  And I took that sequence and put it in with what they call the trailers.  And this scene was in it, and it got an out-and-out belly laugh.25

[We had] terrible problems [with the underwater sequences]… I was one month up [at Lake Tahoe] shooting that sequence.  One of the worst problems in Tahoe was the water so clear you could really see, but so cold that I could only stay down about thirty minutes at a time.26

…we built this camera box for two cameras…with a big iron passage up to the top with a ladder on the inside. That box, of course, was built of planks and sealed good so that there’s no leakage.  But it’s wood and there has to be added weight added to it.  Well, I added about a thousand pounds of weight to it.  Now we find out the inside’s got to be kept at the same temperature as the water outside.  So we hang a thermometer out there so the cameraman can look through the glass and read it – and one on the inside.  And we got cakes of ice out there…to make sure to keep the temperature of the camera box the same as the water on the outside, so it won’t fog up the glass.  Either one side or the other will fog up on you, see.  The difference was that when the two bodies are in there, the body heat…that means add more ice immediately.  So, as you put the cameramen in, you also put more ice in.  [Laughter]  Dressed them warm enough to take it.  So, there’s the whole outfit and me with that deep-sea diving outfit going down there, and the cameraman says, “I’m too close.  I want to be back further.”  I moved that camera box under water – I moved it!  That’s how much you can lift when you’re down around fifteen or twenty feet deep. The box must have weight about fourteen hundred pounds or something like that.  Two cameramen and two cameras and about two to three hundred pounds of ice, another thousand pounds of weight on it, and I picked it up and moved it.27

[The Navigator is] an out-and-out novelty – such a screwy story, starting with using an ocean liner, for the love of Mike.  It lent itself to gags that you’d never think of.28

Seven Chances

Seven Chances (1925)

BUSTER KEATON:  A certain local screwball…sold [Joseph Schenck] a story – a Belasco show called Seven Chances – twenty-five thousand dollars.  The money wasn’t much, but the show!  I had seen it in New York – 1916 for heaven’s sakes – and it was a flop then.  Closed in a week, if I recall.  The type of unbelievable farce I don’t like.  We made it anyway and got a fair picture.29

[For the climax of the film] I am running away from a batch of women who are chasing me.  A friend has put it in the paper that I’ll marry anybody so long as I can be married by five o’clock – it has to do with inheriting an estate or whatever.  So all the women in the world show up to get married.  They chase me out of the church, and so on.  I went down to the dunes just off the Pacific Ocean out at Los Angeles, and I accidentally dislodged a boulder in coming down.  All I had set up for the scene was a camera panning with me as I came over the skyline and was chased down into the valley.  But I dislodged this rock, and it in turn dislodged two others, and they chased me down this hill.

That’s all there was: just three rocks.  But the audience at the preview sat up in their seats and expected more.  So we went right back and ordered fifteen hundred rocks built, from bowling alley size up to boulders eight feet in diameter.  Then we went out to the Ridge Route, which is in the High Sierras, to a burnt mountain steeper than a forty-five degree angle.  A couple of truckloads of men took those rocks up and planted them, and then I went up to the top and came down with the rocks.  That gag gave me the whole final chase, and it was an accident in the first place.30

[There’s a scene where] I had an automobile, like a Stutz-Bearcat roadster.  I was in front of an office building.  Now it’s a full-figure shot of that automobile and me.  I come down, got into the car – there’s a lot of people walking up and down the sidewalks, office building in the background – I release the emergency brake after starting it, sit back to drive – and I didn’t move.  The scene changed, and I was in front of a little cottage out in the country.  I reach forward, pull on the emergency brake, shut my motor off, and went on into the cottage.  I come back and after I visit her, get into the automobile, turn it on, sit back there – and I and the automobile never moved – and the scene changed back to the office building in New York, in the city.  Now that automobile’s got to be exactly the same distance, the same height and everything, to make that work, because the scene overlaps but I don’t…for that baby, we used surveying instruments, so that the front part of the car would be the same distance from [the camera], the whole shooting match.31

PIERRE ETAIX, filmmaker/clown: Buster Keaton, in anything he did – for example, the whole stunt sequence at the end of Seven Chances where he tumbles down a hillside, somersaulting and flipping, with the rocks at his heels, and the women pursuing him – what a magnificent scene!  What a performance!  He wasn’t acting there.  His movements are true acrobatics.  It’s marvelous.  That’s a legacy from the circus and variety shows.33

Go West (1925)

BUSTER KEATON: [We shot that] about sixty miles out of Kingman, Arizona.  We were really out in open country34…I ran into one disappointment on that film.  One of the most famous Western shows ever seen in the United States was called The Heart of Maryland, in which these two guys are playing cards, and one guy calls the other a name, and he takes out his six-shooter and lays it down on the table, pointing right at this fellow’s middle, and says, “When you call me that, smile…”  Well, because I’m known as frozen face, blank pan, we thought that if you did that to me an audience would say, “Oh my God, he can’t smile: he’s gone; he’s dead.”  But it didn’t strike an audience as funny at all: they just felt sorry for me.35

I had [another] bad disappointment in that thing.  I thought I had a funny sequence when I had my cattle…and I actually turned ’em loose in Los Angeles in the Santa Fe depot in the freight yards, and brought ’em up Seventh Street to Broadway (no – up to Spring Street).  And we put cowboys off on every side street to stop people in automobiles from comin’ into it.  And then put our own cars with people in there.  And I brought three hundred head of steers up that street.  I’d hate to ask permission to do that today.  But then I thought that by goin’ in a store, and I saw a costume place, and I saw a devil’s suit… well, bulls and steers don’t like red, they’ll chase it.  ‘Course I was tryin’ to lead ’em towards the slaughter house.  I put that suit on and I thought I’d get a funny chase sequence, and have the cows get a little too close to me, and get scared.  Then really put on the speed tryin’ go get away from ’em.  But I couldn’t do it with steers – steers wouldn’t chase me.  I actually ran and had cowboys pushin’ ’em as fast as they could go, and I fell down in front of ’em and let ’em get within about ten feet of me before I got to my feet.  But as I moved, they stopped, too.  They piled up on each other.  But they wouldn’t come near me.  Well, that kind of hurt when you think that’s going to be your big finish chase sequence.  We had to trick it from all angles…Some parts I like, but as a picture, in general, I didn’t care for it.36

Battling Butler (1926)

BUSTER KEATON: Battling Butler I liked.  It was a good picture.  I told the original story that was taken from the stage show except that I had to add my own finish.  I couldn’t have done the finish that was in the show…[where] he just finds out in the dressing room up at Madison Square Garden that he don’t have to fight the champion and he promises the girl he’ll never fight again.  And of course the girl don’t know but what he did fight.

But we knew better than to do that to a motion-picture audience.  We couldn’t promise ’em for seven reels that I was goin’ to fight in the ring and then not fight.  We knew that we had to fight.  So we staged a fight in the dressing room with the guy who just won the title in the ring – by having bad blood between the fighter and myself.  And it worked out swell.37

CLYDE BRUCKMAN: My God, it was a really dramatic fight, not a comedy fight.  Yet it stood up in a comic picture – one of the best closings of any Keaton film.  You’re all in there rooting for this little guy against the world’s champion.38

edited by Hank Curry

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Christian Wolff & The German Cinema

The influence of Protestantism and the Aufklärung cannot, as so often is the case, be neglected in the analysis of German, Hungarian, Austrian, Dutch, Latvian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Swedish cinemas.  Philosophical concepts took root under the Prussian and German Empires of the 19th century, derived from Protestant theologians, that would have ramifications running through to the 21st century.  Despite inevitable changes in government over the course of two centuries, the popular ideas of the 18th century have become so rooted in the psychology of these masses that they have evolved.  Germany, whose history is perhaps the most well-known of these European nations, gives evidence that the ideas that first took root in the late 1700s continued to dictate practice and the motive for these practices through the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, to its contemporary federal parliamentary republic.  The “ideas” at work here are those of Christian Wolff and his predecessor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz.


In these Germanic nations Pietism and the Aufklärung (or Enlightenment) captured the zeitgeist simultaneously and would continue in their development on a parallel course.  However, by the 19th century, philosopher Christian Wolff’s notions of “pure logic”, born out of this congruent development, had become widely accepted.  Wolff, building upon the earlier work of Leibnitz, proposed that the world at large operated as a machine, and that human beings, endowed with a soul, seek to understand themselves, their surroundings, and ultimately gain control of these things through that understanding.  That is to say that the more completely one understands a thing, the more complete one’s pleasure becomes, and vice versa.  This emphasis on “pleasure” stems from the influence of Pietism, whose symbiotic relationship with the Enlightenment is entirely unique to these regions of Europe.

By the early 1800s Wolff’s emphasis of knowledge (“understanding’), and the cold analytical means by which he believed that knowledge could be achieved, had become part of the bureaucratic machinery propelling not only the Prussian and German Empires, but also the Austrian-Hungarian Empires.  In the latter works of Theodor Fontane, particularly Effi Briest (published in 1894) and the characterization of Innstetten, one can find these principles of Wolff’s logic as elements of characters existing in autocratic positions of authority in which such elements of character are derided for the benefit of comic relief and social satirizing.

It is from this point that I wish to leap into a cinematic comparison between the character of Innstetten (Wolfgang Schenk) in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 cinematic adaptation of Fontane’s novel with that of Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in Fritz Lang’s M-Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörder (1931).  Both characters, despite some unique neurosises, represent characterizations of the infamous “cold German logic”, a character trope popular with audiences internationally, born out of Wolff.  It speaks volumes that in 1931 elements of Wolff was still so much a part of the German political machine that it should surface in Wernicke’s Lohmann (just as it would again in 1933 in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse).  Fassbinder’s treatment of Innstetten, though not as campy as Lang’s treatment of Lohmann, also functions upon similar assumptions and takes into account the same truths.  However, Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) has stylistic concerns with emotional realism worlds apart from Fontane’s emphasis on the psychological in his novel.  Despite this aesthetical difference, elements of the broader depiction of Wolff’s impact evident in Lohmann still manage to surface in Schenk’s Innstetten.

Logically such characterizations have found their most popular outlet in depictions of Nazi and Soviet officials.  These depictions exude Wolff’s principles to cartoonish proportions, distorting much of their relevancy to the psychology of these nations today.  There are still examples of characters in authoritative positions that conform to Wolff’s principles to be found, for sure, however they tend to be marginalized when compared to the Nazi/Soviet stereotype.  One such exception exists in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London (2007).  The character of Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt), despite being British, conforms to the mold of Fritz Lang’s Lohmann.  This reveals Tarr’s Hungarian background as well as to reenforce the notion of this archetype’s (which is surely what it has become) contemporary relevancy since Morrison is neither an overt figure of fun nor a parody.

Yet, what is perhaps most compelling, is the influence of Wolff upon the construction of montage and image composition.  Despite the fact that rapid montage and the “city film” are distinct products of the Soviet Cinema, both found a sort of purity in the hands of the Germans.  Consider first Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis (1927), a film whose montage is a rapid fire depiction of images even more succinct in their content than Vertov’s film.  This approach to dynamic compositions to capture quick and telling moments became a staple in the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl.  By the 1970s, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg had adopted the style of Ruttmann and Riefenstahl for his own post-modern spectacle Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977) to dispel the very web they spun with the same cinematic tactics.  Likewise, this same approach first found a foothold in narrative realism in Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s People On Sunday (1930) that would evolve into the pulpy film noirs of German Expatriates during the decline of the Hollywood studio system.

The Man From London

What unifies all of these films is their priority on narrative progression.  Where Jean-Luc Godard may use a cutaway to infer a political motif these films would advance toward one ultimate goal devoid of subtext.  Parallels between these German films and the films of Czech and Polish animators are perhaps the most obvious.  Though one may also propose that Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2001) represents the same basic technique but with a far less rate of montage.

The underlying factor that separates the Wolff influenced alignment of images, including the rate of montage, is that none of these films has any allegiance toward social realism.  On the contrary they are stylistically concerned with the fantastique, even when they assume to be non-fiction films.  In no other region is this style of film apparent than in these areas of Europe to whom the Enlightenment came late in the 18th century.  For these reasons there has been an evolution within the culture of Wolff’s philosophical teachings that have become inexplicably bound with national identity.

-Robert Curry

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Five Dream Projects

In late 2009, just before winter break during my junior year of college, a professor asked my class to, while during break, compile a list of fifty ideas that would make good films.  Now, last week my brother and I began editing his film Hassle Magnet and I happened to stumble upon my list while making space on one of my hard drives.  This new list, of only five, represents the best of those ideas from 2009.  These are the projects I would still love to make.

Nixon and Elvis

1-In 1973, Richard Nixon recruited Elvis Presley [Nicolas Cage] to become the first TIME COP. In 1977, Elvis fakes his death, and [after 4 years of training] sets off on his first mission to stop Walt Disney of 2432 (now thawed out and cured) from killing history’s most important Jews. To do this, Elvis recruits Bruce Lee and Fatty Arbuckle to help him.

2-On a rainy night, Dirk and Paolo [Crispin Glover & Cillian Murphy] are called to a homicide. There they take prints and make the strange decision to take the woman’s dead body with them in their car. They take turns driving and having intercourse with the corpse, but their pleasure cruise is halted when the homicidal maniac [Nicolas Cage] goes looking for the body himself. While the three engage in a sadistic slapstick cat and mouse, FBI agent Dick Moses [Danny Glover] is on the verge of catching all three necrophiliacs and charging them as a gang.

3-Eric [Rip Torn] has built 30 two-inch tall women out of scrap metal. He keeps these women under his hat and has them steal from cash registers for him. Another cunning inventor [Ray Liotta] hopes to steal his secret. After several break-ins, the Inventor abducts Eric, and threatens his life for the secret of the little women. Eric refuses and is murdered. But that night, the little robot women creep into the inventor’s mouth and tear him apart from the inside out.

4-In Northern Ireland, circa 1948, Farmer Eric [Pierce Brosnan] has a cow that talks and tells the future. Soon, fame women and too much publicity are all theirs. In the mayhem, Eric’s cow falls in love with him. As the two embark on a strange romance, they usher in a perverse trend of bestiality not based on love at all but lust.

5-A romantic comedy about Phil [Alan Arkin] who runs a homeless persons shelter with his daughter [Winona Ryder]. One day, Phil falls in love with a woman in his soup kitchen line [Elaine May], only to discover another man is competing for her affections, a man only pretending to be homeless because he is cheap [Charles Grodin]. So Phil begins plotting with his friend Abel [Woody Allen], as to how to win the heart of the woman he loves.

-Robert Curry

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A Record Review

This April passed Dagored, a record label based out of Florence Italy, re-issued in limited edition the soundtracks of two Paul Morrissey features, Blood For Dracula (1974) and Flesh For Frankenstein (1973).  Dagored has specialized in such releases for some time now, re-issuing a number of soundtracks for cult and exploitation films on prestige vinyl pressings.  Dagored’s treatment of Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein is consistent with the high mark of quality they have set.  Blood For Dracula comes in a limited edition of red transparent vinyl while Flesh For Frankenstein comes in a limited edition of red and white colored vinyl with the colors swirled in the pressing.  The jackets for these two releases present some wonderfully restored promotional art that validates, once again, the visual strength of Morrissey’s films.

Flesh For Frankenstein

Despite all of these fancy trappings what is truly deserving of any attention is the music on these two albums.  Composer Claudio Gizzi’s scores for these two films is lush, romantic, and highly expressive.  When taken on their own apart from Morrissey’s images, one begins to appreciate how much Gizzi’s compositions underscore the emotional vitality of these films, punctuating the humanity at play in Morrissey’s two features that provides the necessary contrast to the superficial “camp-comedy”.

Gizzi has tapped into an aspect of Morrissey’s aesthetic that even some of his biggest fans appear to be ignorant of; the potent emotional reality or truth of Morrissey’s films.  Typically Morrissey’s films are categorized and labeled as “camp” or as comedies, yet there is more to it than that.  The best examples of Morrissey’s more personal statements on the emotional world of humanity are Heat (1972), Mixed Blood (1984), and Beethoven’s Nephew (1985).  Why this component is so buried in the readings of these films can be summed up rather easily, the Andy Warhol brand.  It’s been this brand that sustained Morrissey early in his film career but ultimately damned it to obscurity in the eighties.

Ironically, Gizzi’s work with Paul Morrissey is a singular phenomenon in Claudio Gizzi’s career.  Gizzi’s reputation and renown is due to his work as an arranger for European pop starts Loretta Goggi, Loy & Altomare, Andrea Antonelli, and Alvaro Guglielmi.  Claudio Gizzi’s work with such artists on their seven inch recordings in the sixties and seventies seems to have prepared Gizzi for the more involved task of scoring two feature films, but may also explain, by way of the very nature of “pop”, his ability as a composed to play to the emotional subtexts in Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula.

Blood For Dracula

All of that said I will admit that these limited pressings are very much suited for collectors, in price and presentation.  But in reviewing this product I hope to have, once again, drawn attention to the work of Paul Morrissey and encouraged a more intelligent conversation about his contribution to the cinema.

-Robert Curry

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