Home Video Hovel- Lost Keaton
The release of “Lost Keaton” couldn’t come at a better time. The two disc Blu-ray set from Kino Classics comes a month after the Academy Award triumph of The Artist the film which famously told the fictional story of a silent star who struggles to adapt to the sound era. Much like George Valentin, Buster Keaton too struggled with the sound era.
During the early days of sound, MGM terminated their contract with Buster Keaton following a very public divorce and reported heavy drinking. Following two disastrous projects abroad, Keaton went to work for the low-rent operation of Educational Film Corp. of America in 1934, with a 6-picture deal at a meager $5000 a film.
Billing themselves as “The Spice of the Program,” Educational Pictures’ name was somewhat deceptive. While it was originally conceived in 1919 by Earle Hammonds to produce educational material, Hammonds later discovered more money was to be made in traditional narrative shorts. By the time Keaton arrived in 1934 EFCA’s reputation as a producer of educational films, let alone quality films, had diminished. With almost Corman-esque budget restrictions, EFCA’s shorts were often made in less than a week with near 24-hour work days.
“Lost Keaton” chronicles Buster Keaton’s 3-year, 16-film relationship with Educational Pictures, starting with 1934’s The Gold Ghost, and ending with 1937’s Love Nest On Wheels. While none of these films would be considered masterpiece—they often have deeply shoddy production value, and the use of sound is uniformly unimpressive—they act as a fascinating study in adaptation, perseverance, and arguable futility as Keaton evolves from a reluctant silent star forced into talkies to a reliable if not bankable sound comedian.
While these films are by no means the first time audiences heard Keaton talk on film, the shock of the first time we hear him talk in The Gold Ghost is still palpable, if only because of the unexpectedly sweet colloquial voice coming from such a vital athletic leading man (imagine Wallace Shawn’s voice coming out of Tom Cruise). Perhaps for this reason, Keaton speaks sparsely in both The Gold Ghost and Allez Oop.
Allez Oop is clearly the better of the two, and it’s arguably the best of Keaton’s efforts for the company. Keaton reprises his classic character of Elmer as he tries to perform various feats to win the heart of a young woman, played by Dorothy Sebastian. The occasional off- screen couple of Sebastian and Keaton have natural chemistry that makes up for the lack of believable dialogue.
What makes Allez Oop work is what made the best of Keaton’s silent shorts work. The Elmer character is at once pathetic, charismatic, and utterly lovable. He is an underdog who can be completely hapless one second then athletic and heroic the next. We see this repeated over and over again in the Educational Pictures shorts including One Run Elmer, Tars and Stripes, and The Timid Young Man.
Allez Oop also has two great set pieces, a feat that would remain rare for the cash-strapped Educational Pictures productions. While shot mostly in medium shots, a scene at the circus with Keaton and Sebastian takes advantage of Keaton’s still formidable physical comedy talent while the classic burning building climax remains as exhilarating (this would be repeated in 1936’s Blue Blazes).
Perhaps the short of the group that makes the best use of sound is 1935’s Tars and Stripes. Here we see Elmer as a bumbling naval officer in training butting heads with a formidable drill sergeant played by Vernon Dent. Dent’s cadence and tirade make the perfect foil for Keaton’s spastic Elmer. A high quality of sound recording is noticeable on this short which was decidedly missing from much of the rest of Keaton’s Educational Pictures efforts.
While the sheer speed and volume of the Educational Pictures process often shows its chintziness (numerous continuity errors and jump cuts remain obvious in the films), they also seemed to foster a forced creativity in how many comic situations they can insert Keaton’s hapless Elmer into. Over the course of three years we see Keaton as a cowboy, wrestler, gas station attendant, farmhand, navy officer, baseball player, fugitive, firefighter, mad scientist, magician’s assistant, and prison inmate. While in each of these the basic premise mostly stays the same (spastic klutz inadvertently wins the girl), the variations in scenario and the occasionally brilliant sight gags are clever enough to keep the viewers attention.
The other key virtue of these shorts is the fact that Keaton does noticeably improve in his ability to deliver dialogue. In the 1934 shorts The Gold Ghost and Allez Oop, Keaton almost never speaks, and when he does its almost monosyllabic. By the time we get to The Timid Young Man and Grand Slam Opera Keaton shows himself to be a formidable if not brilliant verbal comedian. Particularly in The Timid Young Man, which relies on the It Happened One Night template of romantic comedy, Keaton shows himself particularly adept at exchanging barbs with Lona Andre and Tiny Sandford. It isn’t Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubich-quality writing, but it clearly shows a comedian willing to adapt to the times.
Even with the many bright spots there are some inevitable bitter spices in the program. In both Palooka From Paducah and Love Nest on Wheels, Keaton insists on casting his entire immediate family as slack-jawed yokels. Critics have tended to praise the performances of Buster’s mother, Myra Keaton, in Love Nest on Wheels for her distinctive regional dialect.
However, modern audiences will have a hard time not cringing at her characterizations. In particular, Palooka From Paducah seems to rely entirely on coarse stereotypes of the Appalachian hillbilly that seem offensive even by 1930s standards. It is worth noting that none of the Keaton family were from the Appalachian region that they were parroting in this film. (Buster was born in Piqua, Kansas; Myra “Ma” Keaton was from Modale, Iowa; Louise was born in Maine; and brother Harry was born in New York City.) In another weak moment, Ditto undercuts its one recycled comic gag by performing entirely with its back to the audience.
It is important to realize the sixteen shorts for Educational Pictures were not as much an end to Keaton’s career as a transition. Buster would remain a fixture in film as a bit player in the 1940s and then find regular work as a guest star during television’s golden age. Its easy for us to imagine that Richard Lester picked Keaton out of obscurity for his role as Erronius in 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but in reality he’d been appearing on everything from The Donna Reed Show to Beach Blanket Bingo.
Still in light of the recent resurgence of interest in the end of the silent era, these shorts remain vital and stand as an enduring document to one star’s refusal to go silently into the night.