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Le Brasier Ardent

When the world gets to a point where it no longer expects to be hit into excitement or tickled into guffaws by every film, when speed isn’t the test of a film – and that time isn’t so far distant – the French film will come into its own in the world’s eyes and the eyes of France.  – Harry Alan Potamkin, The French Film, 1930

When Harry Alan Potamkin wrote his article The French Film for the publication Cinema in 1930, I am sure he had no idea how far away we’d still be in 2017 from a time when “speed isn’t the test of a film”. I can say that, from my own experience as a teacher, that it is speed, the speed of cinema today versus the speed of the cinema ten or twenty years ago, that is the primary prohibitive factor that keeps today’s youth from discovering the cinema’s history. But why distinguish narrative cinema by a binary complex of “art” and “entertainment” at all?

 

Le Brasier Ardent

I believe there is something to be said for films whose system of aesthetic values defy categorization as either “entertainment” or as “art”. There exists between the two, the “speedy” and the “slow”, a happy medium where, on rare occasions, a different kind of cinema occurs. In this medium zone one would probably find such classics as Roy Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), Sara Driver’s When Pigs Fly (1993), and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012); each film a brilliant, genre defying accumulation of incongruous cinematic expressions whose singular totality yields new and sometimes profound insights as to how we perceive and interpret films.

One of the truly anomalous works of cinematic art I have encountered, as strange and threatening as Tough Guys Don’t Dance but as chaotic as The Paperboy, is Le Brasier Ardent (1923). Le Brasier Ardent brings together such conflicting elements that its relatively fluid narrative trajectory should, under no circumstances, function cohesively; and yet it does. The film opens with what appears to be a D.W. Griffith inspired piece of metaphorical moralization which transitions into a slapstick styled satire (featuring a gadget infused bed and a speaking dog) that transitions once more into a different style altogether that combines Louis Feuillade’s sense of pulp with Fritz Lang’s sense of design to comic effect. The hero of Le Brasier Ardent, Detective Z., is equally absurd. He first appears as a Dr. Mabuse style vilain in a dream, then reappears in “reality” sporting a bizarre disguise only to metamorphose into a series of other personalities, in rather quick succession, including a dapper private eye, a grandma’s boy, a bumbling clown, a sadistic pianist, and finally, a giddy man-child.

The reason why all of this nonsense seems to work is because of Le Brasier Ardent’s star/director/writer Ivan Mosjoukine. Mosjoukine, a prominent member of Films Albatross, was a highly regarded actor in his day who only directed two films (of which Le Brasier Ardent is the second and last). The lack of a formal regard for the cinematographic, coupled with Mosjoukine’s sincere interest in exploring notions of fantasy, combined to create one of the most highly original and entertaining films France produced in the early twenties. According to the excellent Flicker Alley DVD liner notes to Le Brasier Ardent, this was the film that inspired Jean Renoir to first pursue a career in the cinema.

In many ways the genius moments of stylistic juxtaposition in Le Brasier Ardent are the byproduct of an amateurism; much in the same way that the beauty of Flaming Creatures (1963) was the byproduct of Jack Smith’s relative amateurism. The disregard for formal convention is one thing that, in most cases, cannot actually sustain a film on its own. Luckily, Mosjoukine’s own aesthetic convictions, as well as his charisma on screen, sustain Le Brasier Ardent where it may otherwise fail visually. Even more important though to the complex of Le Brasier Ardent’s various stylistic parts is Mosjoukine’s speed. We move at a rapid pace from scene to scene, plot point to plot point, style to style, at such a clip that it has to be Mosjoukine’s constant presence that sustains us as his image unifies the sum of the film’s parts.

Ivan Mosjoukine’s direction, his absolute authorship of the film Le Brasier Ardent, stands as a sort of latent self-portraiture. Ivan Mosjoukine began his film career in tsarist Russia, relocating to Paris during the revolution of 1918. At Films Albatross, Mosjoukine, along with other Russian émigrés Victor Tourjansky and Alexandre Volkoff, began to explore with tremendous enthusiasm the French cinema. The “discoveries” Mosjoukine made in the French cinema are felt throughout Le Brasier Ardent as if the film were a kind of index on the very potential of cinematic narrative forms. On another level, Le Brasier Ardent is not just a catalogue of aesthetics and techniques, it is a record of Mosjoukine’s various incarnations and meanings in the role of a matinee idol as Detective Z continues to shift and change with the narrative.

 

Le Brasier Ardent

Consider J. Lee Thompson’s What A Way To Go! (1964) in comparison with Le Brasier Ardent. Both films examine different styles of narrative film using one star (Ivan Mosjoukine and Shirley MacLaine) as the anchor point with which to provide narrative continuity in an otherwise discontinuous film. Each of these two films proposes questions about the interplay between the cinema and our own private fantasies. What A Way To Go! approaches this textual collage, as it were, in an episodic form, prioritizing accessibility for an audience with affiliations for the classic Hollywood form by locking its different styles alone in various isolated dream sequences. Mosjoukine’s film is more bold than that, maybe even careless. Le Brasier Ardent doesn’t treat each new style within a narrative vacuum. Mosjoukine grounds his investigations into differing forms within a straight fluid narrative that imbues the film with a spontaneity and intensity verboten in What A Way To Go!.

Le Brasier Ardent is one of those explosive little films that conveys a true and highly contagious passion for the cinema. However, if one were to consider seeking this film out, there is something to keep in mind; the plot-line is patriarchal and chauvinist (though no more so than the majority of silent films). Le Brasier Ardent is a film of value because of its technique, its uniqueness in this respect, not its political or social message.

-Robert Curry

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Why Evgeni Bauer?

At the same time that D.W. Griffith was making The Escape (1914) and Home, Sweet Home (1914) in America and Louis Feuillade was making Les Vampires (1915-16) in France, Evgeni Bauer was crafting short, poetic, and elegant features on the nature of human frailty in Russia. Bauer’s output was tremendous in the years 1913 to 1917, with 76 films to his name, making him the most important Russian filmmaker of the Tsarist period. Bauer’s surviving films, 26 in total, have subsequently been restored and three of them have been released through the BFI.

the party sequence

Aesthetically, Bauer’s importance to the development of the cinema is equal to that of D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade. But where Griffith and Feuillade represent developments in montage and visual effects, Bauer’s contribution was far more subtle and nuanced. Bauer took as his narrative subjects stories concerned with memory, loss and mortality. These philosophically minded tropes would be ill suited to the morality narratives and adventure narratives of Griffith and Feuillade. Bauer’s film After Death (1915), based on a novel by Ivan Turgenev, epitomizes the filmmaker’s aesthetic approach to cinema as well as his recurring narrative concerns.

After Death tells the story of Andrei (Vitold Polonsky), a reclusive young man mourning the death of his mother, and a singer/actress named Zoya (Vera Karalli). They meet at a party where each becomes entranced by the other. After recognizing Andrei in attendance at one of her recitals, Zoya arranges a rendezvous with Andrei. Here Andrei rejects her love. Three months later, Zoya has committed suicide, having suffered a broken heart. At this point, Andrei becomes obsessed with Zoya, collecting her possessions and having visions of her.

This rather melodramatic “ghost story” attains its urgency and potency from Bauer’s handling of the story visually. One of the most striking, if not remarkable, sequences in After Death comes at the party where Andrei meets Zoya. This three minute tracking shot follows Andrei as he is introduced to the other guests of the party. Bauer’s camera hovering around Andrei, slowly capturing the details of the party in a sustained wide shot. There isn’t a cut till Andrei has seated himself near Zoya. Here, Bauer cuts to a close-up of Andrei, then of Zoya. Before the moment that Andrei and Zoya lock eyes, Bauer’s long tracking shot establishes Andrei’s isolation, his unease, and his apprehension. With the cut to the close-up, Bauer interrupts these tense emotions with a sudden shift toward romantic and sexual longing.

vision in the wheat field

A second sequence that is remarkable in After Death comes later, once Zoya has died. Bauer constructs a dream sequence on a small soundstage where Andrei and Zoya meet in a field of wheat. The theatricality of the set and the mechanical nature of the blocking give this recurring dream sequence a sense of frightening other-worldliness. The style in this sequence is so at odds with the rest of After Death that it manages to imbue the emotional content of the scenes where Zoya appears to Andrei in his sick bed, which bookend this sequence, with a sense of the threatening nature of death.  Bauer goes further in demonstrating a contrast between the dream world of the dead and that of the living with his choices of tinting the film; color coding it based upon its narrative sections.

Bauer’s cinematic explorations of Russian Romantic Idealism yielded some of the great innovations of the early cinema. The two sequences from his film After Death discussed above offer only a small sampling. The fact that Bauer’s films have an intrinsically ethereal quality to them is what I believe has largely sustained them; allowing an audience 100 years later to access them on their own aesthetic terms.

-Robert Curry

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Runnin’ Wild: A Book Review

Roughly a month ago it was my good fortune to inherit a collection of about 120 books on the subject of Hollywood during its heyday between 1915 and 1960. Many of these books were from the seventies and have long been out of print, so the information and details which they contain have brought me no end of delight (Brendan Gill’s Tallulah is particularly enjoyable). Though, I must admit, I have been rather slow in digesting them all I have already found one biography which I would like to single out.

Clara Bow publicity photograph

There is no doubt David Stenn is a name well-known to enthusiasts of classic Hollywood films. His financing for restorations of the films of Clara Bow, including Mantrap (dir. Victor Fleming, 1926), coupled with his own project/film Girl 27 (2007) has made him indispensable. But Stenn remains best known for his meticulously researched and definitive biographies of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow.

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (first published in 1988) is one of those rare biographies that is overwhelming with information but whose literary style gives it a sense of urgency and modernity. Stenn’s meticulous research gives the reader a tremendous insight into the business affairs of B.P. Schulberg and Paramount, reprinting numerous cables, memos and letters between studio executives, personnel, artists, and Clara Bow herself. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, like the best Hollywood biographies, succeeds in presenting a star in such detail and with such life that it invariably enhances one’s viewing experience of their films. It is also of note that Clara Bow’s acting style (discussed at great critical length by Stenn), like that of Louise Brooks’, was considerably modern for its period. However, Stenn’s real achievement with this book, and my primary reason for recommending it, is how it rewrites Hollywood history; dispelling long accepted rumors and assumptions.

Stenn goes to great lengths defending Clara Bow from the gossip that arose after 1932; mainly in the form of Kenneth Anger’s notorious Hollywood Babylon (1965) which alleges Clara Bow’s multiple “gang-bangs” with different sports teams. The widely held assumption that Clara Bow was, as a woman waiting for the trolley with me one day put it, a floozy is investigated at length and countered with evidence that paints a portrait of Clara Bow as something more akin to Protofeminist. Sources ranging from telegrams to eye-witness accounts verify that Clara Bow was not a dim-witted nymphomaniac but rather a slightly naive, generous, openly sexual person who always spoke her mind come hell or high water. This also helps illustrate the degree to which Hollywood sought to control their star and also how American culture in the twenties vilified promiscuity, female strength, and sexuality. Stenn’s biography concludes that Clara Bow, given all of the well researched evidence, is a woman who would not change herself to conform to society’s idea of who she should be.

There is also plenty of material in Stenn’s book that undermines the romanticized concept of the flapper of the roaring twenties. Stenn takes his time showing his reader that Elinor Glyn manufactured this romantic notion of the flapper or “It” girl (as Clara Bow was to become known) for the sake of her own financial gain. Stenn makes the case quite effectively that Glyn’s interest in female sexual liberation was self-serving, and Clara Bow’s association with Glyn only helped to typecast and stigmatize her. In this respect Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild serves many of the same motives as Louise Brooks’ remarkable memoir Lulu In Hollywood (1982). Both Stenn and Brooks are fascinated with the hypocrisy of the major studios whose pictures promote the flapper but whose policies and press attack those same ideologies when exhibited by their stars. This more inquisitive line of investigation plants figures such as Louise Brooks and Clara Bow squarely within the camp of early feminists (a trend in biographies of actresses which seems to have begun in the late 1960s).

Call Her Savage (1932)

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild is also a terrific amount of fun. This fun comes from Stenn’s ability to not only endear Clara Bow to his reader, but also in inviting the reader into Clara’s personal life. Often Clara Bow’s life is tragic or harrowing, but it can also be a bit silly. Two of my favorite moments are when Clara Bow out hula dances an intoxicated John Wayne and the fact that one of Clara Bow’s favorite past-times in Hollywood was to roller skate up and down her driveway. After all, it is in the little details that one truly comes to know a person and Stenn keeps them in abundance.

Robert Curry

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The Stillness Of The Moving Image

“I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, The Wall & The Books

La Jetée (1962)

One can find no better example of cinema’s most cherished illusion than in Chris Marker’s landmark work La Jetée (1962).  Marker’s filmography obsesses over humanity’s relationship with time and how that relationship can be articulated within film; La Jetée is no exception.  La Jetée is most commonly analyzed and interpreted within this auteurist context, as a piece of the larger puzzle that is comprised of Marker’s works, indicative of singular interests, concerns and general preoccupations that are often compared with the writings of Henri Bergson and Jorge Luis Borges.  However the technique that first rendered La Jetée as an avant-garde masterpiece has had ramifications that have only begun to be understood and appreciated.

The technique Marker employed in La Jetée that was so controversial was to strip down the illusion of motion in film to its absolute minimum, debunking an illusion that still is essential to the cinema even today.  Marker’s approach, derived equally from the works of Dziga Vertov and Edweard Muybridge, was to tell a non-linear narrative in still images that, when juxtaposed with the preceding and proceeding images, created a suggestion of motion.  Typically this is exactly what film is, 24 frames flying past in a second, each, individually, appearing to be still.  Yet, in a sequence (and to the human eye), appearing to be in motion.  By allowing the images in La Jetée to represent a disjointed sequence Marker was able to get down to the very mechanics of how the mind of the spectator interprets both a sequence and the individual images that make up a sequence’s composition.  In undoing this illusion, Marker has inadvertently opened the doors to a new kind of film scholarship.

One must first consider the history of film, the march of time, that has left so many films of the silent era either in serious stages of deterioration or alternatively in total decomposition.  Then one must consider the history of various assemblages of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).  The controversy of the Francis Ford Coppola re-release of Napoleon versus Kevin Brownlow’s in the late seventies and how the publicity of the Coppola/Brownlow conflict sparked a renewed interest in silent film.  Finally, one must consider the most radical effect that home video has had on spectatorship in terms of taking the responsibility of film programming out of the hands of distributors (for the most part) and putting it in the hands of the consumer public.

All three of the aforementioned factors have provided a motivation for silent film reconstruction.  Film historians, scholars and academics who once feared for the cinema’s silent heritage suddenly found that “big money” was interested in silent film restoration and reconstruction for monetary gain in both the theatrical and home video markets.

With regards to the nature of film reconstruction, La Jetée merely proved that the aesthetics necessitated by the process of reconstruction would be enough to create an approximation of a fully realized film from its few surviving parts.  For instance, around the time La Jetée was garnering praise, Pera Attasheva began collaborating with Sergei Yutkevich, Naum Kleiman and composer Sergei Prokofiev on a reconstruction of her late husband’s film Bezhin Meadow (1937).  The techniques that made La Jetée groundbreaking were now being used to bring Sergei Eisenstein’s most infamous work to audiences for the very first time.

Bezhin Meadow set a trend in terms of how reconstruction would be approached from a marketing standpoint.  Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) would also find new life in the form of reconstruction (in 1999 and in 2002 respectively).  Though the choice of films to undergo this treatment is predominantly dictated by the fact that audiences desire to see these films and will therefore pay money to do so.  In this way the trap of film production is sprung again during reconstruction.  

Bezhin Meadow (1937)

What’s more troubling than this trend is the rare occasion when a reconstruction is attempted without the proper scholarly research.  The reconstructions of Greed and London After Midnight were undertaken and overseen by a reputable film scholar, Rick Schmidlin, so despite their shortcomings they remain the closest approximations of either film possible right now.  On the other hand, Jess Franco’s reconstruction of Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote that was completed in 1992 is best known amongst scholars for having neglected much of Welles’ original intent.  Franco’s version of Orson Welles’ Don Quixote becomes doubly troubling since Franco not only knew and worked with Welles but because he also had access to so much of Welles’ materials in addition to hours upon hours of footage from Welles’ unfinished personal masterpiece.  Since Don Quixote, Greed, and London After Midnight are all marketed in the same manner, it becomes problematic for audiences to discriminate between the useful and the useless reconstructions.

At best a useful reconstruction such as Greed, London After Midnight and Bezhin Meadow gives the spectator a sense of the atmosphere of the narrative world as well as a sense of the filmmakers’ style and technique.  These approximations, no matter the effort nor the skill that is invested in them, can never convey the rhythm of montage, the nuance of performance, nor any subtleties that are typically afforded by either contribution.  These are half films, or ghost films in an almost literal sense.  The eerie quality of most reconstructed films is born out of the lack of their traditional filmic motion (a byproduct anticipated and used to great effect in Marker’s La Jetée).  One can, however, never detract from these reconstructions their usefulness from an anthropological standpoint nor from the perspective of auteurism.

-Robert Curry

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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)

steamboatbilljr

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

MGM

BusterKeaton40s

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

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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

Television

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

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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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