Colonel Keaton’s Amateur Effort: How Buster Keaton Brought Sound to Silent Comedy

As the 1920s came to a close, filmgoers everywhere waited with baited breath to see how the great silent clowns would survive in a world of sound.  Buster Keaton was optimistic.  As he explained to Irving Thalberg, he had some very specific ideas.

“I visualize sound effects.  When you fall down and go boom, you really go boom.  But leave the wisecracks and bad puns and the dirty jokes to burlesque comedians.  No one wants Chaplin or me to do much talking.  Better we keep our mouths shut.  Let the man say, ‘Now you go and do this,’ and then we go about our silent business with sound all around us” (Blesh 310).

Keaton’s confidence would prove misplaced.  Within a few short years Keaton was persona non grata, having gone from major Hollywood star to the lead in a series of low budget two-reelers for Educational Pictures.  Driven to drink by a disastrous marriage and the loss of creative control at MGM, Buster Keaton had sobered up and was determined to show the industry that he was fit for work again.  In time he would, although he would never regain the kind of stardom he once enjoyed, but in 1936 he was still at Educational, and the always creative Keaton was eager to succeed where even Chaplin and Lloyd had failed:  creating silent comedy with sound.

Grand Slam Opera was the only one of Keaton’s sixteen two-reel comedies for Educational that he liked enough to accept a writing credit for, although by all accounts he had a hefty creative part in all of them.  Shot on a low budget over two or three days, it’s something of a miracle that any of the shorts are good, and Grand Slam Opera stands shoulder to shoulder with Keaton’s silent shorts, and functions as a kind of manifesto on the relationship between sound and image in creating film comedy.

Keaton pointedly opens the film with a gag impossible for the silent cinema: a song parody.  The old standard “So Long Mary” is reworked as “So Long Elmer”, a decidedly unsentimental farewell to Keaton’s character as he departs for the big city.  Elmer, we discover, is off to perform on Colonel Crow’s Amateur Night, a radio talent show.  Elmer doesn’t make the cut the first round, but resolves to return the following day.  On the way back to his hotel room, he sees a girl flipping pancakes through a show window.  His longing gaze is with a pancake thrown squarely at his face, sticking to the window.  By the time Elmer looks around the obstruction, the pretty girl has been replaced by a more comely coworker.  Elmer eventually catches up to the object of his affections and asks “How about a little dinner and a show?”  It’s the first thing he’s said since the opening song, and his first spoken words in the entire film, a good four minutes in, almost a quarter of the entire running time.  At this stage, Keaton has proven that he can hold a captive audience weaned on sound purely through pantomime.  But he’s just getting warmed up.

At the hotel, Elmer practices an elaborate dance parodying Fred Astaire and an unfortunate balancing act involving a bowling ball.  The noisy rehearsals are disturbing the sleeper in the room below who, in the tradition of two-reeler narrative convenience, is the same girl who flipped a pancake Elmer’s way.  By this point Keaton has displayed the theory he put forth to Thalberg, marrying sound effects to slapstick in a way that not only is realistic but actually advances the plot and enhances the gag.  A joke about loud noises disturbing someone’s sleep could have been done in silent film, but is all the funnier and more effective for having sound accompany it.

In the next scene, Keaton pushes the idea, making sound not merely an asset, but an essential part of the comedy.  Waiting to go on the radio broadcast in the adjoining green room, Elmer hears a band start to play, and decides to dance along to pass the time.  What he doesn’t realize is that it’s an international medley, and he finds himself forced to keep changing his dance moves to match the shifting melody.  Keaton has returned to music for comedy, setting the stage for the film’s climax.

Once Elmer finally gets his chance at the mic, we discover that his act will be juggling, specifically, catching an empty whiskey bottle on one finger (in a self-deprecating jab at his own battles with alcohol, Buster-as-Elmer notes that he made very sure that the bottle was empty). “You mean to stand there and tell me that you’ve come to a broadcasting station to juggle?” the host asks indignantly.  Elmer assures him he’s got it all figured out, he’ll describe his completely visual act for the listeners at home.  Keaton has now confronted the issue of sound’s role in visual comedy directly by taking it to its extreme: radio, a non-visual, all audio medium on which Keaton’s skills would be seemingly useless.  That Elmer has no place here is surely analogous to Keaton’s own problems fitting into the world of early sound cinema, which emphasized talking for its own sake at the expense of action and visual language.  Elmer’s juggling act is a success (surprising even him) but when the band leader starts to play him off Elmer doesn’t get the hint.  He flips the bottle again, but this time it lands in the orchestra.  “I missed” he informs the radio audience with perfect deadpan.  The conductor smacks Elmer with his baton, and Elmer retaliates with a broom.  The two continue hitting each other, keeping in time with “The Chorus of the Anvils”.  Here, Keaton synchronizes sound and image to maximum comic effect.  The relationship becomes symbiotic, with neither being funny without the other.  Ironically, Keaton pulls his solution from the past.  The gag was a standard part of his vaudeville act with his father.

While Elmer would end up winning the talent show and getting the girl, it would take many years for the real life Keaton to pull things together.  Buster would live to see and enjoy a renewed appreciation of his silent work and would become in high demand as a supporting player in major films, a guest star on television, a spokesman for commercials, and a lead in industrial films.  But while Keaton the actor still had a long career ahead of him, Grand Slam Opera would be his swan song as a filmmaker, offering only a brief glimpse at what might have been.

Works Cited

Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. Macmillan, New York, 1966.

-Hank Curry

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