Day Dreams ended Keaton’s 1922 on a high note.
I say that knowing that, here, he probably sang just an octave higher, enough to shatter some wine glasses, beyond what we’re now able to hear. As with Hard Luck and The Electric House, considerable chunks of this two-reeler are lost forever. The bits that are missing, primarily, are the lovely Renée Adorée’s daydreams about what her suitor (Buster Keaton) is up to, as he tries to become successful enough to earn her hand in marriage. Adorée’s dad (Joe Keaton) basically wants her boyfriend to shape up or ship out, asking if he can make something of himself. Buster replies in the only way he knows how.
Her dad says fine, and even offers him his revolver to finish the job. Buster then proceeds to fail spectacularly at each of his ventures, while disguising them as successes to his girlfriend just as adroitly. For instance, he writes to her that he’s now “working in the financial district, and cleaning up in a big way.” She imagines this…
…when it’s actually this:
(These letters home are marvels of misdirection, by the way, concisely and hilariously giving exactly the wrong impression. Buster worked with great writers as well as gag men.)
So, what’s missing from what’s left of Day Dreams are fantasy sequences. In a way, the loss fits the movie, because we’re forced to imagine Buster as, say, a topnotch surgeon even though we’ll discover, after a delicious pause of the title card, that he’s a veterinarian’s assistant, and a terrible one at that.
Through the ravages of time, we’re put in Adorée’s shoes. This is a case of film deterioration actually improving a movie, though that wasn’t the filmmaker’s intent.
As you can surmise, Day Dreams is essentially a series of short vignettes, skits if you will, loosely tied together by a central theme1. It’s bound by some recurring gags—that false-bottom joke above gets recreated in a couple of other sequences; Buster’s letters get increasingly elaborate/evasive/desperate. The better TV sketch-comedy shows—Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mr. Show with Bob & David—would ape this connective-tissue idea decades later but Buster got there first, having learned it on the vaudeville stage.
Each skit makes me laugh. In the sequence in which he’s a “Shakespearean” actor, Buster ends up being followed, and then intently followed, and then chased by a cop—long story—in a minute-long tracking shot that moves through several city blocks. It’s a masterpiece of the slow build, of mounting tension and hilarity that eventually becomes a crowded free-for-all worthy of Cops. During that chase, we get long glimpses of a dense Chinatown neighborhood, rendered with beauty and without condescension. The capping “suicide” may be one of the finest, simplest jokes made, done with a two-word title card. It’s odd, though, how often Buster makes potential suicide into a comedic opportunity. His heroes over-dramatize their successes and (more often) failures, and equate lost love (or, more often, simple missed communication) with total death, and so naturally try to off themselves when things go wrong (and they always do). Given how many terrible marriages, financial disasters, and alcoholic breakdowns Keaton suffered in real life, it’s not hard to see how he might project this melancholic streak into the “Buster” persona. What’s interesting, and funny, is that he lampoons this tendency of his much more than he lets it fester. His heroes tumble along into whatever’s next, whether they mean to or not, moving from heartbreak to the next potential miracle.
So, it makes sense that Buster’s heroines would be scrappers, too, swoon-worthy, sure, but ever-ready for the next pratfall. In Day Dreams, Renée Adorée is the exception. Yes, she shares Buster’s basic physical type—short-haired brunette with curves and a mesmerizing smile. Unlike Sybil Seely or the (okay, I’ll say it) simply breathtaking, always-welcome presence of Virginia Fox, Adorée doesn’t actually do much. She reads. She pines. She mopes. She gazes lovingly into the distance. Adorée is more statuesque and va-va-voom than Keaton’s usual romantic foils, and that makes her the sort of girl than 1920s lads might daydream over for ages. But she’s sort of a bore, too, and I think this is by Keaton’s design. Just as Adorée fixates on Buster’s imagined success instead of the reality of a clutzy ne’er-do-well, Buster keeps trying to “earn” Adorée’s “love”—which is love of a fantasy, not a person—instead of noting that she’s maybe not worth all this effort, and not particularly interesting.
After all, her fantasies probably didn’t entertain half as much as the “reality” displayed here. Daydreams are fragile things, in the movies and elsewhere.
1. Keaton’s debut feature, Three Ages, would be a full-length version of this idea, exploring the same romantic scenario, actors and all, in three different historical periods.↩