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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Buster Keaton #4: The Scarecrow (1920)

Scarecrow (man & wife)

Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline.
Released 22 December 1920.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Big Joe Roberts (his roommate/frenemy) Sybil Seely (The Girl), Joe Keaton (the Girl’s father), and Luke the Dog as himself.

For many of the Keaton/Cline shorts, I can maintain some level of critical distance. But, as with Sherlock Jr., there’s just no way here. I actually think The Scarecrow is the closest thing to perfection that comedy shorts can achieve, and I’ve delayed writing this piece because my critique basically consists of making GIFs of its sequences and saying, “Good God, watch this!” Like the best Chuck Jones cartoons and Tex Avery romps, the film runs headlong through its plot, which is considerable and convoluted. We witness: the domestic routine of two roommates, a rivalry for a woman’s affection, a “mad” dog chasing Buster, Buster getting chased on foot by two men, an accidental wedding proposal, a car chase, a wedding ceremony done while the participants careen through town on a motorbike, and finally a wedding/holy-roller baptism. All this incident, which would fill a melodramatic feature film, occurs in nineteen minutes, and makes more sense. By speeding up the melodrama, The Scarecrow lampoons the genre’s conventions. “Screw this sentimentality,” it seems to say, “and let’s cut to the chase(s).” But it’s still a romantic, lovely film with a soft, fluttering heart.
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Peaches / Strawberries

When it’s June and I’m hot, and I sweat as soon as I leave the house, and I sigh during my evening jog because all my overweight parts are jiggling in the wet humidity, and I curse the fact that the low temperature for the day will be 82 degrees (sometime around 2am), and I wonder why I even bother to live in the South, I remember peaches and strawberries. Strawberries get ripe here in mid-Spring—I picked some in April last year—but the juiciest, most fragrant Georgia peaches only arrive in June. The happy convergence occurred today, after a mostly sleepless night of lonely worry and self-pity. I cut up a peach and three strawberries, scraped them into an elegant bowl, plopped vanilla Greek yogurt on it all, and, over some velvety French-pressed coffee, I allowed myself to breathe in the world without fear and to remind myself that life is worth savoring. The cat sat by my side, sun-warmed and purring. Eating and sipping, I remembered to try to attain her level of grace and ease in the world, at least for a moment. And, for that if nothing else, I’m grateful for June.

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Buster Keaton #3: Neighbors (1920)

Neighbors (black & white)

Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline.
Released 22 December 1920.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox (his fiance), Big Joe Roberts (her father), Joe Keaton (Buster’s father), Eddie Cline (the cop), and Jack Duffy (the judge).

I need to start this by self-plagiarizing a long-ago comment I made about the most important element of cinema:

Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?

I think it all comes down to choreography, which, while related to the theater, isn’t quite the same thing. Here’s what I mean: Everything you see onscreen is the result of negotiations in space between stationary figures (objects), moving bodies (humans, animals, trees, appliances), fluctuating light that draws attention to both, and the camera—sometimes stationary, sometimes still—that tracks it all. The principles of blocking, the use of gaffers, and an understanding of basic camera movement (tracking shots, zooms, handheld photography, etc.) are critical to even the most haphazard movie production. It’s all bodies in space, and how light and camera are timed to capture it. A great movie is always a well-choreographed movie, in terms of both the cast and the crew, no matter how improvised it looks.

Choreography was even more critical in Buster Keaton’s heyday than in the talkies that would come later. He couldn’t depend on dialogue to iron out narrative problems; everything is conveyed through movement, even when the camera is still. And in early cinema, the camera usually was still. Because they were so heavy and the technology so new and cumbersome, cameras tended to stay put, preferably at a distance far enough from the action that everything could be captured, like an audience member looking at the stage from the back row. Indeed, “stagey” is the appropriate word here, and one of the reasons that I think so many people resist silent comedy.

The staginess extends beyond the camera. Keaton came out of vaudeville and minstrel shows, meaning that his artistic orientation drew from the stage. So, he knew how to block a scene, how to fake a depth of field with props and paintings, how to convey subtleties—ironically—with broad gestures, and how to keep lots of people moving around on a single stage without crashing into each other or looking incoherent.

To illustrate how that works in Keaton’s cinema, let’s look at a sequence from Neighbors (1920).
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