Buster Keaton #8: The Playhouse (1921)


From a technical standpoint, The Playhouse is Buster Keaton’s most formally inventive film before Sherlock Jr. Six decades before bluescreening or greenscreening, seventy years before we saw three Michael J. Foxes at once onscreen during Back to the Future II, there’s this:

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Gratitude #2

Spent two days rambling around Nashville, ostensibly in town for a (terrific) Phish concert in a new downtown amphitheater overlooking the Korean War Veterans Bridge, which itself loomed over the Cumberland River with its briny, musky scent enveloping the skyscrapers. And, OK, that was great. But that was Tuesday, and I arrived early Monday afternoon with a day to kill. 

So, found my cheap hotel across from Opryland. Wandered around the huge hotel complex, really a series of indoor mini-forests and chi-chi restaurants & boutique shops connected by hotel carpet and the white- noise hum of air conditioning, and thinking, Jesus, how American this all is. A manufactured wilderness–several, actually–nestled next to a fake French Quarter, all of which is plopped inside a biosphere dreamt up equally by Buckminster Fuller and Porter Waggoner, it’s a place where the country has been commodified in more ways than one. Being an American, I sorta loved it, in spite of myself. It was a pleasant place to walk, anyway, a place without sweating and the self-consciousness that brings out in me.

Otherwise, I sweated, and not just outside at the sweltering concerts I saw in Atlanta (twice!), Tuscaloosa, and here. I braved Prince’s Hot Chicken, glorious and delectably juicy and Oh My God Make It Stop Spicy and Lord I’m Gonna Regret This In Four Hours. I had posole and horchata as Mas Tacos Por Favor (cash only,  bring your friends), a window-unit-cooled tiny spot in the hood. I spent too much at Parnassus Books.

I got lost a lot in Nashville. Well, no. I would have, if I didn’t have my new smartphone with the fancy GPS that spoke to me in a smooth, slightly stern female voice–I’ve named her Samantha, after a certain movie. Yes, I’ve entered mid-2009, with my first smartphone. This allowed me to tweet from the concerts, despite the lack of available wi-fi, for the first time. Is that a blessing? It kept me out of trouble, though I’ve already figured out that beer, secondhand weed smoke, and an active mobile phone represents a bad combination for me. But I’m grateful for the lesson.

I’m grateful for lots, which I suppose is why I’m writing this on a lonely post-vacation night. I’m grateful for the mountains around Nashville, for modern cellular technology, for the faux splendor of a city reinventing itself, for a long conversation at Pinewood Social over lox & bagels & Crema coffee with a fellow writer (and a stranger, till he wanted to peek at the book I was reading), for good cheap food, for being able to jog 2.5 miles on the treadmill every day during my hotel-hopping, even for the drunk who kept puking on himself at the Nashville show and then trying to hit on the women friends I was with, for the blonde sizzler with bee-strung lips who danced with a Chinese accordion fan for the whole show; and, most of all, for the four boys from Vermont who, in 1983, decided to form a weird band, and how that band got me to all this in the first place. Bravo and thank you to all of it.

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Buster reading

I’m just returning from vacation, jumping from Phish tour into a load of work left behind at the office and at home. So, this week’s Buster Keaton post will be short, and not on a particular film.

For this edition, I want to focus on the resources I’ve been using to contextualize my watching of Buster Keaton’s cinema of the 1920s. They’ve proven useful to me; maybe they will to you, too.

First, the movies themselves. For viewing, I’m using Kino Lorber’s Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection, 1920-1923. When I (finally) get to the features this fall, I’ll go ahead and plunk down the hard cash for The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection, which will overlap with the shorts I already have but will include all the full movies (pre-1930) in one fell swoop. Kino does God’s work in its archiving and distribution of early cinema, and the company’s collections are the places to start for all things Buster.

As references, and for making GIFs, I turn to the Internet Archive’s Buster Keaton section. The intrepid folks there have collected and uploaded most of the films. They can be streamed or downloaded in lo-res versions. The movies distributed prior to 1923 are in the public domain, while everything else can be seen only in snippets. Well, OK, that’s not true at all—Sherlock Jr. (1927) is there in full, and are other post-1923 classics. I’ve never figured out the Archive’s legal status to my satisfaction, so I hesitate to recommend it, exactly, but it’s a useful starting point. Then again, since Keaton’s two sons are dead, as is his last wife Eleanor, I can’t discern the Keaton Estate’s legal status, either. Hell, almost everything can be found on YouTube as well, so go nuts.

I’ve mentioned the key books in passing but I want to give more attention to them here:

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton, with Charles Samuels: Buster’s memoir-of-sorts. Rollicking, funny, gossipy, and full of technical insights, it’s a great read. As with most memoirs and autobiographies, I have my doubts about the book’s veracity in parts—it’s very much a book that’s about creating and sustaining the myth of Buster Keaton, and sometimes myth outstrips reality. That’s a running theme in Buster’s cinema, so we should hardly be surprised. So, it’s heavily weighted toward the pre-1930 years of vaudeville and his early, best works, when he owned and controlled a studio. The alcoholic years and decades of depression, divorce(s), and the diminishing returns of TV are here, sure, but not in as much detail as an impersonal biographer might give. And that’s okay, ultimately. You can’t expect Buster to rub salt and lemon juice into those wounds, though he owns up to his major mistakes like a champ, in such chapters as “The Chapter I Hate to Write” and “My Worst Mistake.”

Buster Keaton: Interviews, edited by Kevin W. Sweeney: This one collects sixteen interviews and interview-based profiles with the actor/director, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. (Full disclosure: I worked with Sweeney on this book, when I worked for University Press of Mississippi, the book’s publisher.) The timeframe of the interviews reflect how little critical attention was given to silent comedy during the period in which they flourished; interviewers such as Kevin Brownlow, Penelope Gilliatt, Studs Terkel, and Rex Reed were rediscovering him—and other silent stars—during the final decade of Keaton’s life. There’s considerable overlap in the questions asked and anecdotes told, as Keaton was perfecting his late-period interviewee persona by this point, but they are good stories and offer enough sides of him to be interesting. This book’s filmography and biographical chronology have been my grounds zero for basic info on Keaton.

The Parade’s Gone By… by Kevin Brownlow: For years, the definitive tome on early American cinema, and still a go-to book. Brownlow’s 20-page interview-based profile of Buster is one of the earliest, and still one of the best. As a whole, Parade is all over the place. Some chapters are profiles of stars and directors, while others are blow-by-blow accounts of the making of particular films, while still others are essentially critiques of films and/or film artists, and others are more-or-less straight reportage. Brownlow interviewed over 100 folks involved in early movies, in a mad dash to get these folks on tape before they died, and the seams often show. What the book lacks in cohesion is made up for by its breadth—Brownlow really did talk to every big name available, and he asked the best, sharpest, most detail-oriented questions he could.

Two articles have proven invaluable to me in my thinking about the silent era. Matthew Dessem’s long essay, The Gag Man,” was published for The Dissolve (RIP) on 24 April 2014. Ostensibly about Clyde Bruckman, a gag writer on the periphery of every silent comedy you can imagine, it really uses Bruckman as a lens through which we can view and understand early American cinema. It’s one of the best-researched and most vividly written essays on cinema I have read in years, heartbreaking and deeply learned all at once. “The Gag Man” has given me a true understanding of how silent comedy got made, why it’s so hard to attribute proper credit to its most brilliant jokes, and what cinema looked like before it became domesticated.

The second essay, more specifically on Keaton, is Charlie Fox’s Buster Keaton’s Cure,” for Cabinet (Winter 2014-2015). It concerns Keaton’s oeuvre after he gave up Buster Keaton Studios (aka, “My Worst Mistake”), giving the genius’s work in the 1940s and 1950s their due, and placing it in a continuum with the 1920s masterpieces. Fox and Dessem’s essays, collectively, offer a fully formed vision of Keaton’s whole career.

Subjects for further research: In the fall and winter, I plan to read—or at least skim—the following: Marion Meade’s biography, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase; Edward McPherson’s Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat; Lisle Foote’s Buster Keaton’s Crew: The Team Behind His Silent Films; and the encyclopedia A-Z of Silent Comedy. If you’ve got suggestions or, hey, wanna send me free books/resources, let me know.


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Buster Keaton #7: The High Sign (1921) & The Goat (1921)

High Sign (shooting gallery)

Both The High Sign and The Goat feature Buster getting mistaken for a hardened criminal. The first moves like clockwork; the second moves like the clock got busted by a sledgehammer. The High Sign’s narrative is clean and precise, with everything resolving beautifully, down to a final-frame shot that’s the perfect capper. Buster saves the day. In The Goat, nothing gets resolved, Buster’s essentially still on the run by the movie’s end. The central narrative—that there’s a real escaped convict on the loose—gets lost for half the movie and, while Buster gets the girl, the real bad guy doesn’t get caught but instead is more or less forgotten about, and there’s no reason to believe that the town doesn’t still think Buster is a killer at the final fadeout. Hell, I didn’t even figure out the title until after the movie was over.

The High Sign is actually the first short directed by him (with Eddie Cline) but he was dissatisfied with the result and kept it from showing for a year1. As much as I like parts of it, I can see why it might have made Buster unhappy. In the best Keaton two-reelers, the first reel involves Buster either tumbling into town and getting ensnared in a complicated scheme or Buster already trapped in some sort of dead-end job or elaborate structure from which he longs/needs to escape. The second reel—the latter ten minutes—feature him escaping from bondage. Think of The Scarecrow, with its contraption-heavy house that makes even lighting the stove into a tangled ordeal, and then consider its freewheeling chase—with a dog, two men, a motorcycle dash, and a pastor nabbed on the go—as his release. Think of Neighbors, in which his simple love of a girl (Virginia Fox) is initially thwarted by family pressures and tenement housing that’s too close for comfort, and that the couple finds happiness only by fleeing… which the focus of the second reel. In One Week, familial burden—symbolized by an uncle’s “gift” of a DIY house—causes so much stress that it’s almost a relief when that house falls apart in the second half.

Sometimes, Buster inverted the formula—our hero begins the picture rootless and unformed, and finds a purpose in the second half. In The Haunted House, Buster’s dead-end job as a bank teller gets increasingly livened up so that, by the second reel, he’s in a madcap structure (a haunted house) that’s so surreal that he must figure out how to tame it, just to survive. The Goat pulls this off, too—it starts in chaos, and only gradually finds a form.
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Buster Keaton #6: Hard Luck (1921)

Hard Luck (diving board)

Written & directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie F. Cline.
Released 21 March 1921.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox (the girl), Big Joe Roberts (the bandit), and Bull Montana (the girl’s husband)

I pretend that life-changing moments come with razzle-dazzle and fireworks but it’s rarely true.

A sea change in how I thought about cinema happened in Toronto 2007, at the annual film festival, though I didn’t think much of it at the time. Peter Bogdanovich was introducing Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion to the sold-out crowd. This should have been explosive for me—a major American director talking, twenty feet from me, about one of the greatest works of all of cinema, which I was lucky enough to experience as a restored 35-mm print. Mostly, though, I just thought about how much I had to pee, and if there’d be time to sprint to the restroom between the moment Bogdanovich stopped talking and the lights went down, and if I’d lose my seat if I did. (There was, and I didn’t.) Anyway, his talk was mostly not about Grand Illusion but about the process that made our viewing experience possible: film archiving and restoration, and why both are essential.

Here’s the part that wiggled its way into my head forever. I’m paraphrasing but basically he said, “Basically, 85 percent of all cinema created before 1940 is lost forever. We can’t bring it back. So, when we consider what we’re able to see, we have to think of it like the Greek classics lost when the library at Alexandria burned down. What we have may not be the best but merely the best of what’s left, the best of what it’s possible for us to know. And the chasm of what we’ll never know is…” He let the sentence dissolve into the audience.

And then I went to pee. But what he said stuck with me, rearranging some things in me for good. I think of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and Jacques Tati and Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John and all the rest as the best of silent comedy, and there’s a good case to be made that this is true. Certainly, they were written about and talked about at the time as the pinnacles. But it’s also true that they may be considered this way merely because they survived.

In Buster Keaton’s case, not all of it even survived, and some of what was lost is pretty damn great. Hard Luck is a case in point.

In a 1958 interview with Robert and Joan Franklin1, Keaton describes what he considers to be the greatest laugh he ever earned, one that literally had audiences falling out of their seats:

R. Franklin: …I guess before you did The Three Ages, you did one called Hard Luck, which is supposed to be one of the greatest comedies ever made. Will you talk about Hard Luck?

Buster Keaton: There’s only one way you might remember that picture. There was something like four outstanding, what we called “belly laughs.” Now, what we called a belly laugh, today they call just a substantial hearty laugh. They call that a belly laugh; we didn’t—that was just a laugh.

Franklin: What you mean is for someone to fall out of a seat.

Keaton: I mean a rock-the… I mean that the theater didn’t forget for a while. That picture, a two-reeler, had about four of those in it. The last one was one of the most talked-of gags that’s ever been done in the picture business.

I got out by a country club, in an open-air swimming pool, and there was a very high diving platform there for some professionals. So, just to show off in front of the girls lounging around the pool, I climbed up to the top of it, and posed, and did a beautiful swan dive off the top of that thing. And I missed the pool! I made a hole in the ground, disappeared; people came up and looked down in the hole, shrugged their shoulders, and the scene faded out. It faded in to a title that said, “Years Later,” and faded back in: the swimming pool now was empty; it was cracked, nobody around, the place deserted. And I came up out of the hole with a Chinese wife and two kids, and pointed up to the high thing and said, “I dove off there, and that’s what happened.”

Hard Luck (ending)

Fade out. Credits.

That made me laugh just typing it, which is a good thing, because that’s all we’ve got, the still picture above and the prep for the dive on the platform. The last minute of Hard Luck is gone forever, either because nobody thought it important enough to keep, or the negatives were recycled into war materials, or whatever happens to things that we lose and regret losing. In multiple interviews, Keaton mentions this gag, and how much he wishes we could still see it.

What remains, admittedly, is pretty good. The plot’s pretty cockamamie, but when aren’t they? Buster, consumed by heartache over a lost girl (that it turns out he never had in the first place), decides to kill himself—and fails spectacularly. He tries to hang himself but takes down the tree instead. He tries to jump into the path of a speeding car, but…

Hard Luck (motorcycle gag)

He downs a bottle of “poison” that turns out just to be a waiter’s moonshine. Drunk on the liquor, he agrees to 1) become part of a zoological society; and 2) to capture a rare wild animal (an armadillo!) for it. This leads to a tumble that combines freewheeling nuttiness with a certain panache that I find incredibly sexy and appealing in Keaton. Look around screwily he enters the scene—the zoo society’s clubhouse—but how quickly he feels at home:

Hard Luck (tumble gag)

None of this goes as planned, and he ends up rescuing the love of his life—again, she doesn’t know it—from bandits. The gag is that it’s when he’s not trying to commit suicide that he gets into the most danger. (I mean, really, who finds himself in trouble from hunting an armadillo? Well, I guess when you accidentally catch a bear instead…) The trouble culminates in a shootout in which he cannily doesn’t participate, loading a boiler with shotgun shells and then fleeing the premises…

Hard Luck (loading) Hard Luck (shootout)

…and, ultimately, with the diving board gag. (Incidentally, that digging-a-hole-to-China schoolyard gag has always made me ponder a semi-related question, for which, it turns out, there’s an actual answer. But I digress.)

There’s much that is funny about Hard Luck, especially in the morbid first third, with all the suicide attempts. But a lingering sadness hovered over the movie—again, with Buster trying to off himself, sure, but also that I know what’s missing, and how highly Buster thought of it. He was an artist with extraordinarily high standards. Note that he didn’t call that last gag a belly laugh, but “just a laugh.” Note that he apparently thinks more highly of this short than of The High Sign or One Week or The Scarecrow. Okay, I like Hard Luck, but he’s a poor judge of his own work, to my eyes. Still, it’s distressing when a director’s self-claimed masterpiece is missing its key gag, and that the surviving print is in such rough shape. There are splotches, tears, and missing frames throughout Hard Luck. It’s in worse condition than it deserves, even in the restored Blu-Ray version.

But then I think back to Bogdanovich, and to Alexandria, and I’m grateful we have Hard Luck at all.


1. Robert Franklin and Joan Franklin, “Interview with Buster Keaton” (November 1958). Transcribed for the Oral History Research Collection, Columbia University, by Kevin W. Sweeney, 2004. Printed in Buster Keaton: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), ed. By Kevin W. Sweeney.

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Neutered puppies: Some notes on Bored to Death, and “Bored to Death”

I don’t watch much TV these days, so this section of the blog has long been neglected. Ended up renting the first two seasons of Bored to Death from the UGA Library recently, and the experience didn’t leave me wanting to watch season 3. This is weird, because the show’s milieu—citified writers and intellectuals over-thinking themselves about modern love and modern masculinity—is right up my alley. Alas. Well, it made for some fun writing, anyway.


Bored to Death tries too hard, and I’m not even sure what it’s trying for. If it’s satire, it’s hard to tell what it’s satirizing. Brooklyn? White middle-class angst? Contemporary literary culture? American culture’s look-at-me obsession with itself? The conventions of film noir? Certainly, all those issues come into play but mostly that’s all they do—come into play. Nothing’s particularly rigorous here. In the story that forms the foundation of Bored to Death, Jonathan Ames decides to post a Craigslist ad for himself as an unlicensed private detective, as a way of shaking himself out of the torpor of being a rootless, white, educated male in an NPR culture that seems to emasculate him at every turn. Being a private dick starts as a daydream, a way to make himself more “authentic,” in precisely the way that vaguely liberal, hyper-educated white people project authenticity onto hard-boiled narratives of poverty and crime. It’s a good joke, a 20-page prose satire of the delusions of privileged white folks. It turns out that, despite what he thought, he’s not a good P.I. just because he’s read lots of Raymond Chandler. He ends up in real danger, with real guns and thugs, and no way out except for the violence he’s only experienced watching back episodes of The Wire. Things turn hairy. He kills people. And the mystery, that driving engine of Hammett and Chandler and Macdonald, doesn’t get resolved. That ambiguity—How much of this is real? How much is a put-on? What the fuck happens next?—is Ames’s neatest trick in the story. That irresolution troubles the mind, and stuck with me. But in Bored to Death, the HBO show fashioned from the story, there are no real stakes, no real danger or haunting. The plots shamble along from one strand to the next, like a confused but optimistic puppy gamboling through a park. That aimlessness extends to the characterization. Jason Schwartzmann’s version of Jonathan Ames is likable and earnest in the same way as a puppy, and ultimately just as dull. His voice, soft and hesitant, never rises above an almost-shout. His gestures are never broad enough to engage. Even when he’s being chased, and there are lots of chase scenes in Bored to Death, the running seems limp, blocked and shot with a lackadaisical design that mirrors Schwartzman’s movements. He doesn’t believe in this shit, either. I missed the menace and obsessiveness Schwartzmann showed in Rushmore, the sense that this quiet, never-raise-your-voice demeanor hid some darkness. Ames gives himself an actual cameo in the show. The first time we see him, what we see first is his flaccid penis. The show needs more of that sense of self-exposure and risk. Schwartzmann’s supposed to the straight man in a zany funhouse version of Brooklyn but even straight men should be interesting. The Ames of “Bored to Death” is frustrating, anxious, mildly perverse, a little disturbed, and not entirely likable—but he’s not dull. The Ames of Bored to Death is a neutered puppy, and so’s the show. The writing’s vaguely funny, full of lines that made me chuckle occasionally but little that made me laugh out loud. The crime scenarios lack bite and, even when Ames gets kidnapped and held for ransom, there’s nothing that made me want to cover my eyes. The photography lacks both grandiosity or weirdness, instead settling for a point-and-shoot HD gloss that’s functional but little more than that. There’s casual nudity—though not a lot; it’s tame by HBO’s standards—and weird sex that’s casually presented. Now, that is almost an interesting subtext for Bored to Death. In a season 2 episode, Ames goes undercover to an S&M dungeon, where his mistress is (yay!) Kristen Johnston. He’s been hired by a cop to wipe out the dungeon’s hard drive before a police raid, so that the cop won’t be exposed as a member of the clientele.  The way the episode’s shot and edited, the dungeon is no more threatening, weird, icky, or sexy than the coffeehouses Ames spends so much time in. As an accidental P.I., Ames stumbles into intrigues that require voyeurism and sneaking through garbage, that often involve infidelity and “perversity,” but nothing’s shocking anymore. It’s all comic fodder. The dungeon comes across as twee, of all things, which is actually funny. What was dark and hidden in the world of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe is now passé and even bland in the world of Jonathan Ames, which highlights the lack of necessity for Ames’s part-time job. Noir’s conventions crumble because of a hyper-sexualized culture in which every emotion or idea—sexual or not—is exposed. Now that’s worth exploring. But it’s probably only sustainable for a feature-length film, not a continuing series. After all, if Bored to Death wants to highlight the lack of necessity for private eyes in this culture, then how do you, um, justify continuing the show’s premise? Bored to Death never answers that question satisfactorily. But I could tell that it recognized the problem. Whole episodes don’t deal with Jonathan on a “case” at all, instead on his romantic woes. Season 1’s last two episodes focus on a ridiculous boxing match between two rival book editors, and their authors (Jonathan Schwartzmann and John Hodgman) serve as their seconds. There’s no pretense of noir to be found, and it comes as an odd relief. Now, those editors are played by Ted Danson and Oliver Platt, who provide the only resonant, bold, and genuinely funny performances in Bored to Death. In particular, Danson—as Ames’s editor George Christopher—is a hoot. He’s the rampaging, entitled id to Jonathan’s superego. George doesn’t hold back his tongue, his cock, his anger, or his raw cravings. Bored to Death’s Brooklyn is all mutters, stutters, deadpans, and whispered asides, a New York that lacks brashness, vivid colors, or grand gestures. So it’s nice to see one character who’s bratty and visceral, not to mention funny. Danson clearly relishes the role, even if the role’s a little—like the rest of this show—vague and ill-defined. George edits Edition but it’s not clear what Edition is supposed to be. Is it a sendup of the New Yorker (a weekly magazine of high/middle culture mixed with news) or something more rarified, like the Paris Review (a quarterly focusing mostly on literature)? Or is it a competitor to The New Republic (sorta lefty, mostly political commentary with culture in the back end)? Or is it a straight-up newsweek? It’s not clear what Edition is, and the gleam of its offices—and George’s suits—shimmer more than a cultural magazine’s budget would allow. Even his name, a mashup of the Paris Review’s George Plimpton and Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens, gets at the warring and unresolved impulses. Indeed, Bored to Death ultimately doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s unformed, an arrested adolescent that’s rarely as clever as it thinks it is. To the degree that it is formed, it’s because of its older characters, who seem mature and sure of themselves (even when behaving like entitled children) and their places in the world. And maybe that’s the true subject of Bored to Death—the sense that we’re living in a culture of perpetual adolescence, a world always in flux and veering from one extreme to the other, while longing for the certainties and foundation of adulthood. But Bored to Death can’t decide on that point, or any point, or how to make its point (whatever it is) cinematically. Its title is apropos.

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Buster Keaton #5: The Haunted House (1921)


I’m walking a line, visiting houses in motion
I’m walking a line, just barely enough to be living

Talking Heads, “Houses in Motion”

Buster Keaton’s comedies often run on, and in, elaborate houses. Think of the house under construction in One Week, and how many gags come out of that, or the Rube Goldberg home that occupies the first half of The Scarecrow, or the ship in The Navigator, or the modern home in, um, The Electric House. Jokes get built from interactions with the place, which tends to be less stable and motionless than the frantic people inside and around them. Places pulse with energy. I suppose they do in real life, too; we just forget it. Houses creak and shift. Cracks emerge in the walls. Floors warp over time. Water stains seep into the ceiling. Carpets get frayed. Pipes freeze in January. And then there’s all the things we do to places—new paint jobs, re-tiling the bathroom, punching the drywall when we’re mad instead of punching the person we’re mad at, varnishing the hardwood floors, deciding that that living room wallpaper has got to go, goddamnit, right now. We hang pictures of art, pictures of our lives, pictures of places we’ve never been. An inspector looks at the 70-year-old wiring flares up, and says it’s either replace it all or get really acquainted with our local fire department.

Places do funny, unexpected things. Buster just has a habit of making that literal. In The Haunted House, he goes overboard, though it takes half of the short for us to actually get to the house. It’s not actually haunted, of course, as we know within the movie’s first minute. A counterfeiting operation works out of the house, and the ringleader (Big Joe Roberts) makes sure that everyone in town—but especially the cops—thinks that the house is unapproachably spooky. He spreads the gossip about the house, all while pretending to be an upright bank employee. He boobytraps the house in countless ways, and hires underlings to play house ghosts.

It’s working. No one goes near the place, and fake dollars are slipping into the town supply. Only one lowly bank teller stands in his way…

Haunted House (glue money)

…and he doesn’t even know what’s going on for most of the movie. And, yes, this is a man who inexplicably keeps a big vat of glue near the cash register. Of course, he gets glue everywhere, and stuck to everyone. This is a well-oiled Keaton device—the idea that one small object, when used incorrectly, can cause absolute chaos—but the gag takes up a fourth of the movie’s screen time, and that’s too long. Amidst the uproar, the ringleader’s henchmen attempt to rob the bank, and Buster inadvertently stops them while also ends up framed as the robber. So, he flees.

In another part of the town, a vaudeville troupe bombs during its performance of Faust. It’s bad enough that the audience pelts it with rotting vegetables and then chases the actors out of the theater. So, they’re on the run, too. Look, I know performances can go awry but the movie never makes it clear why the paying audience would see this as grounds for a riot but that’s basically what happens. Nor is it made clear why the criminal gang would want to hold up the bank to which it’s funneling its counterfeit cash. (Aren’t they just stealing their own product?) And it’s thoroughly predictable, though again not well-explained, why everyone—chasers and chasees alike—would end up converging on the haunted house.

So, narrative form isn’t this short’s strong suit. But The Haunted House takes off once it gets to, um, the haunted house. As with the first half, there’s an over-used gag involving stairs that, well, just look:

Haunted House (stairs)

That joke’s funny once. Actually, it’s hilarious the first three times, and I admire Keaton’s attempts to find new ways to work that angle. But, by stair joke #8, it’s dull.

Thank goodness nothing else is. “Ghosts” are everywhere, and the henchmen even act as chairs, tables, and statues. There are trap doors. A candle is actually a firecracker, in one of the funniest gags. Much of the action takes place in the dark, with the celluloid tinted blue to indicate night and to lend a mesmerizing feel to the visuals. Nothing makes sense to Buster or to us as viewers, and The Haunted House achieves a genuine surreality that matches Georges Méliès:

Haunted House (fireworks)

Haunted House (reconstructed man)

Eventually, all is revealed and made right again. For ten minutes, though, we’re in a topsy-turvy world where everything’s in flux, and a house seems as animated and limber as Buster Keaton himself.

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