Archive for May, 2011

Silent Pages by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 29, 2011 by mchoffman

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Just a quick word of praise for an exceptional book I received in the mail today which I had ordered off Amazon. It’s film historian John Bengtson’s most recent exploration of silent filmmaking production in the 1920s. This is his third in a wonderful trilogy of books that record the various movie locations used by the great silent clowns. The latest is Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd (Santa Monica Press, 2011).

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One of the comments I’ve received from patrons during the Park Ridge Public Library’s Legends of Laughter series concerns the wonderful location work we’ve seen on the screen. Filmmakers like Harold Lloyd recorded a time and place which has been preserved forever on film. Using archival photos, Silent Visions shows us with visual precision where these memorable scenes were shot– both in California and New York. There are also fascinating side-by-side comparisons of how the streets and buildings have changed over the decades.

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Combining history and exemplary film commentary, these detailed and nostalgic volumes are must-own for those of us devoted to silent cinema. Silent Visions features a foreward by historian Kevin Brownlow and an introduction by Harold’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd.

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Also by John Bengtson:

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Nothing But Trouble: Movie Crazy (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 by mchoffman

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NOTE: The Park Ridge Public Library had the largest turnout of the LOL series tonight (5/26/11) with Harold Lloyd’s Movie Crazy. Eighty-six people showed their support, and the reaction was phenomenal. This is further proof that comedies need a group setting in order to be fully appreciated. Moments that might come across as flat with a few jaded viewers come alive with a room full of people who appreciate classic comedy. (The audience’s overwhelming response to the film, in fact, answers the one question I posed to them before the show.) The following is the complete transcript of my talk…

“How long I continue to make pictures will depend on how long I hold my popularity and avoid monotony in my stories. One, even two pictures, are no criterion, but if ever three fail consecutively the handwriting on the wall will need no translating. I can only hope that when the time comes I shall not try to fool either the public or myself, but will bow my way out as gracefully as I can manage and turn to directing, producing or developing a younger actor. I will not have the excuse others have had, if I do not. There are men and women in Hollywood who were so overwhelmed with sudden riches that they spent as they made. When their popularity waned they had no choice but to go on, good or bad.”

Harold Lloyd wrote those words in 1928 in his rather premature autobiography, An American Comedy. Ten years later he would retire as an actor, only to make an ill-fated comeback in 1947 with the Preston Sturges film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Though 1932’s Movie Crazy was a critical success and made a profit, box office returns were diminishing. His next three films, The Cat’s Paw, The Milky Way (directed by Leo McCarey), and Professor Beware were all commercially disappointing. The writing was indeed on the wall. Harold’s go-getting Glass Character had fallen out of fashion during the Depression. To his credit, though, he recognized this and, as he had predicted a decade before, bowed out.

This is one of the many things I admire about Harold Lloyd. He left the stage with a quiet dignity. How many actors today keep on going as though their lives depend on the paycheck? Does the world really need another Robin Williams or Jim Carey or Vince Vaughn movie? But it’s an industry now where even the least talented of the modern, stand-up comics seem to thrive and crank out films like sausages. We wish they would just go away.

Harold getting an autograph from actor “Will U. Scram.”

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It’s a shame the box office receipts forced Harold to retire because except for Professor Beware in 1938, his sound films were actually quite good. A case in point is The Cat’s Paw, which I highly recommend. Since we had a mayoral race in Chicago I wanted to show The Cat’s Paw— an offbeat, rarely seen film in which Harold runs for mayor in a corrupt city and applies his Eastern philosophy to politics and gangsterism. Tonight’s film, though, is the one most Lloyd enthusiasts consider his best film of the 1930s.

My friends who run the Northwest Chicago Film Society at the Portage Theatre on Wednesday nights were kind enough to ask me to write the mini-review of Movie Crazy for their schedule when they showed it a couple months ago. I was fortunate to see a 35mm print of it projected there, and trust me, there is no comparison between seeing something on film and seeing one that is digitally projected, which always looks flat and lifeless. Movie Crazy really did come alive on the screen in a way that no digital technology can reproduce. The close-ups of actress Constance Cummings looked stunning. I know I’m obligated to work with dvds here, but please never settle for less if there is an opportunity to see a film in 35mm or even on 16mm.

My original review for the March 23rd screening at the Portage Theatre:

In Movie Crazy, Harold Hall is a small-town boy with silver-screen fantasies. But it is only by an accident that he makes it to a sound stage at Planet Studios. He meets Mary (Constance Cummings), an enigmatic actress with a strange desire to test Harold’s loyalty. The film successfully weaves the silent comedy technique of visual gags into a sound film. Harold’s screen test, a clever use of verbal humor, turns into a parody of the overly-dramatic stars of early talkies. The film’s climax on a movie set, with an eerie lack of background music, is one of the many highlights. Though Clyde Bruckman is credited, Lloyd directed most of the picture himself. Determined this time to have a strong script, Lloyd secured the services of Broadway playwright Vincent Lawrence to write the screenplay.

Mary Sears (Constance Cummings) and “Trouble” (Harold Lloyd)

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Just a few points I’d like to elaborate on before we show the film… Chaplin’s success with City Lights inspired Harold to take more care with Movie Crazy. It has a funnier script than his previous film, Feet First, and it relies more on the silent film style than Welcome Danger. For instance, the film opens with a wonderful visual gag in which we think Harold is riding in a car. That is a typical Lloyd moment we could easily imagine seeing in one of his silent films. Likewise, there are sequences in Movie Crazy that are inspired by scenes from his best silent comedies. The dinner party with the magician’s coat reminds us of the Fall Frolic in The Freshman, and Harold’s fight on the movie set is reminiscent of his shipboard fight in The Kid Brother. Both films we have shown in this series, which is another reason why I wanted you to see Movie Crazy. Though recalling the past, these comedy sequences stand on their own. They are so perfectly constructed and executed, especially the gag set-up with the magician’s coat at the gala party.

Constance Cummings

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Constance Cummings plays his co-star in this film. She was born Constance Haverstadt in Seattle in 1910. She became a stage actress and made her Hollywood debut in 1931. Besides Movie Crazy, she had appeared in Frank Capra’s American Madness. She starred in James Whale’s Remember Last Night?— an obscure, mystery-comedy I’m very fond of which I had played back when I used to operate the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago near Six Corners. Constance would eventually leave Hollywood and return to the stage. She had resided in England for many years and in the 1970s was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to British entertainment. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.

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When I played Movie Crazy for some friends of mine it didn’t get the reaction I thought the film deserved. One of the criticisms that came up in our post-Movie Night talk was the on again/off again relationship between Mary Sears and Harold. She’s almost schizophrenic in this film since she also plays a Spanish vamp, but I would argue that Mary has a motivation for what she does to Harold. It’s only when he mistakes her for someone else that the charade begins in the first place. She doesn’t initially intend on manipulating him. But I’d like to hear your thoughts about it after you see the film. Does this interplay make you feel uncomfortable? His leading lady is certainly a very independent character, and it’s one of the most complex relationships Harold Lloyd ever had to contend with!

Movie Crazy was directed mostly by Harold. In an interview he said, “I got one of the gag men to direct and he had a little difficulty with the bottle and we practically had to wash him out and I had to carry on… But I still give the credit to this other boy, the gag man, for it…” The other boy with the drinking problem was Clyde Bruckman, and we’ll talk more about him next week when we show Buster Keaton’s The General, a film Bruckman co-directed. (Anyone whose name is associated with perhaps the greatest silent comedy ever made deserves some recognition, no matter how small his contribution may have been as a co-director.)

In an interview with silent film historian Jeffrey Vance, Constance Cummings backed up Harold’s account. “Harold was a very sweet man and was like the character that he played in the film. He was without question the most important person on the set. I believe Harold worked out everything with the director before they would shoot a scene. His directors I think mainly remained in the background and made certain the scene was done the way Harold wanted it. That was the case with Movie Crazy.”

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Movies about movies was a popular subject in the 1930s. Even Buster Keaton had done it in 1930 with Free and Easy, which was set at the MGM studio and which also gives us a look at early talkie-era film production. But the Keaton film, by contrast, was very static and talky. Though far more cinematic, tonight’s film lacks a musical score; the sound of silence is deafening during the climax in which only sound effects are used. We as the audience are so used to film scoring that its absence here strikes an odd chord– or rather, no chord. Despite this, Movie Crazy does succeed in blending the physical comedy of the silent era with dialogue. The past and present Harold Lloyd are successfully fused together for the first time. This was still the silent screen characterization audiences had been familiar with, but now he was able to break the sound barrier with greater confidence.

In Movie Crazy, Harold takes us to a world so many of us are crazy about. Maybe we don’t act out lines of dialogue from movies in our kitchen the way Harold Hall does—at least most of us don’t– but we love movies, and he takes us behind the scenes of the fabled dream factory as it was then. There is a joy and enthusiasm to this film, which makes our one and only excursion into sound that much more rewarding.

“Kiss me, Trouble, and stop thinking. Thinking only brings you confusion.”

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Modern Times by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 by mchoffman

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In discussing The Gold Rush with French artist and director Jean Cocteau, Chaplin complained, “The dance of the bread rolls. That’s what they all congratulate me on. It is a mere cog in the machine. A detail. If that was what they specially noticed, they must have been blind to the rest!” The same could be said of Modern Times. Today, people remember the iconic image of the Little Tramp literally becoming a cog in the machine– like film itself running through a camera– but it is only a detail. New audiences will see all the other great things around that one famous image.

The inspiration for that moment of comic fantasy is rooted in Chaplin’s own childhood. Silent film historian Jeffrey Vance writes, “The image of man eaten by machine was formed in Chaplin’s mind when, as a boy, he worked three weeks at Straker’s, a printing and stationery shop, operating a Wharfdale printing machine. The first day he was a nervous wreck for he felt the enormous machine, over twenty feet long, was going to devour him.”

Modern Times contains some rather heavy subject matter for a comedy. You wouldn’t think there’d be many laughs in a film about nervous breakdowns, strikes, unemployment, and especially hunger. And yet, it is one of the greatest comedies Chaplin ever made. His genius, as seen with films like The Gold Rush, was in his ability to balance these darker aspects of story with his humor and humanity.

It’s a story about trying to maintain one’s humanity in the modern world. Social success must not subjugate individuality, and Charlie keeps his until the very end. (The Tramp would only snap his fingers at the idea of climbing a social ladder.) This is a story about how human relationships are dehumanized under the weight of modern technology. We see how the Big Brother network around Charlie’s little factory worker reduces human interaction. (This is 1984 in 1936.) In the world of Modern Times people– more specifically, the movers and shakers– communicate through large-screen monitors. How different is that from a 2011 society that interacts through cell phones and computers?

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Like his previous films, Charlie is socially alienated by society, and it’s not until he meets the pretty street waif—known as the Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard– that he finally finds someone to connect with on a spiritual– rather than physical– level. She is his partner. With her, he dreams of finding a place, a sense of home, though we doubt there could ever be a home for this eternal wanderer.

Chaplin had always been socially conscious, and the origins of the story can be traced to a 1931 world tour he took after the premiere of City Lights. While on this trip he saw the effects of the Depression around the world. He met with various leaders, from Churchill to Gandhi, who shaped his thoughts. This awareness of what was going on around the globe led Chaplin to make a film that reflected the social and economic conditions of its time. Much has been written about Chaplin’s own politics– and most of it wrong. Chaplin himself had said that he was suspicious of a picture with a message. There’s no political agenda behind this film, and you can’t pigeonhole Chaplin as easily as some sensationalist writers have. The Little Tramp defies all political -isms.

Graham Greene, then a film critic, said that the film had no real point of view in the way of politics: “Mr. Chaplin, whatever his convictions may be, is an artist and not a propagandist. He doesn’t try to explain, but presents with vivid fantasy what seems to him a crazy comic tragic world without a plan… He presents, he doesn’t offer political solutions.”

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I think about the moment in the film when Charlie innocently picks up a red flag that has fallen off the back of a truck and starts waving it—prompting the police to arrest him as an agitator. By the early 1950s,  Charles Chaplin was still waving a flag of humanitarianism. In the political climate of the day, he was labeled something he was not.

Modern Times is a silent film with a silent rhythm– shot mostly at silent speed (18 or 16 frames per second). Only the dialogue scenes had to be shot at 24 frames. To make a silent movie almost ten years after sound’s arrival was a daring move in 1936 even with Chaplin’s tremendous name recognition. By this time, audiences had grown accustomed to sound comedy as exemplified by the Marx Brothers. At one point during production, Chaplin did have some dialogue sequences in mind for his characters…

Girl: What’s your name?

Tramp: Me? Oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X.”

Girl: Begins with an “X”?

Tramp: See if you can guess.

Girl: Not eczema?

Tramp: Oh, worse than that—just call me Charlie.

Girl: Charlie! There’s no “X” in that!

Tramp: No—oh, well, where d’ya live?

Girl: No place—here—there—anywhere.

Tramp: Anywhere? That’s where I live.

But this dialogue was discarded. The Tramp had always been a universal clown, and giving him a voice, a specific language and identity, would’ve detracted from that special quality that made him an international figure. “For years, I have specialized in one type of comedy—strictly pantomime,” Chaplin had said in 1931. “I have measured it, gauged it, studied it. I have been able to establish exact principles to govern its reactions on audiences. It has a certain pace and tempo. Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait on words.”

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But Modern Times is far from silent. It is filled with a dynamic use of sound. Note how the human voices that we hear at the factory are all reproduced through some kind of mechanical device, such as the radio and the closed-circuit television. Sound effects like Chaplin’s gurgling stomach enhance the comedy. Orchestral sounds even substitute for the human voice. And then there’s the brilliant film score that Chaplin created with musical arranger David Raksin, who is most famous for his theme to the film noir Laura in 1944.

Much has been written about the evolution of this great film by authors more astute than me. The best books on Chaplin are the ones written by authors David Robinson and Jeffrey Vance, both have contributed wonderful introductions and visual essays to these films on the recent dvd releases. The special features are amazing and the material is essential viewing for those who want to learn more about Chaplin.

So instead of quoting others here, I’d like to say a few words about why I selected this film. Modern Times may not be the best-constructed film Chaplin has done. Film critic Otis Ferguson said it had the feel of four two-reelers strung together, but the relationship between Charlie and the Gamin is the unifying thread throughout all these episodes. Paulette Goddard may have been his best leading lady because she and Charlie are very much equals in this film. Goddard was a former chorus girl whom Chaplin had put under contract. He would succeed in making her a star. In Modern Times, he photographs her as though she already is one. They had an eight-year personal and professional relationship, during which Paulette was a stabilizing force in his life. She would also appear in Chaplin’s first full-talking film, The Great Dictator, in 1940.

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Modern Times is visually the most polished of his films and benefits from the contribution of set designer Charles Danny Hall. Hall had done the sets for such films as Dracula and Frankenstein, and many others at Universal during the 1930s. There is a gloss to Modern Times, especially in the factory scenes. We have no idea what those machines do exactly besides provide great images of art deco futurism. Indeed, it is a factory of the future as though designed by Metropolis’ Rotwang, the inventor. (Makes you wonder what the Tramp would’ve done had he been turned loose in Metropolis.)

There is more location filming here than in Chaplin’s previous film, City Lights. It’s refreshing to see other scenes out in the country or near the waterfront. More atmosphere is evoked in seeing these places recorded on film. The waterfront shack that Charlie and Paulette call home is actually near a Ford motor plant, which you can see off in the distance. (Chaplin’s tour of the Ford assembly line in the 1920s was one of the memories that had shaped his vision of the film.)

Modern Times is a coda to both Chaplin’s career as the Little Tramp and to silent comedy. It’s a nostalgic summary of what defined him. There are moments throughout the film that recall his earliest days in two-reelers. His roller skating on the department store balcony, for example, reminds us of the physical comedy in his short film The Rink, made 20 years before. Modern Times is also cast with familiar character actors from his formative years, such as Chester Conklin, who plays the senior engineer who gets stuck in the machinery. Though only a couple years older than Chaplin, Conklin was a comic veteran whose career went back to the days of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, which is where the two men had met. He worked with some of the greatest comedy artists, so it’s sad to learn that Conklin wound up as a department store Santa Claus in the mid-1950s.

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This film was made midway in Chaplin’s career, but I feel he never surpassed it. There are so many memorable sequences, such as the feeding machine (which Chaplin operated himself offscreen), and the scene at the café where we finally hear his voice. It’s the moment audiences have been waiting for. However, during this expressive song he uses an Italian-French gibberish. (A sly fellow that Charlot!) Even in the face of sound, the Little Tramp’s universal identity is preserved.

What followed in the second half of his career were films with darker themes that were more heavy-handed. Once Chaplin did finally speak, he couldn’t stop! But he was always at his best as a mime of the silent film language. If Chaplin had only made Modern Times he’d be recognized as a great comedian. As it is, tonight’s film remains a reminder of the golden silence that had come before. It encapsulates all the qualities that made Chaplin a master comedian.

The ending of the film is the perfect swan song not only to this phase of his career, but to the era of silent moviemaking. It’s the definitive road ending because Chaplin is, in essence, taking the tradition of silent film with him. It began with Chaplin, so how fitting is it that it should end with him. This was the last mainstream silent film from Hollywood’s glory days, and it is the final time we shall see The Little Tramp.
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Smile by annette bochenek

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 by mchoffman

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Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking.

These are the opening lines to the song “Smile,” which Charlie Chaplin composed as a soundtrack for his 1936 film, Modern Times. Although we never hear the lyrics in this film since John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons would write them in 1954, its melody illuminates every scene that dares to show glimpses of humanity in an industrial age.

Throughout the film, the Tramp struggles in an impersonal world of technology. The marvels of machinery seem to be taking over everything—dictating the pacing of a task, the assembly of a product, and even how to eat. The world is cold and unfeeling, and he easily becomes alienated and alone.

However, Chaplin would never allow his Tramp to be overpowered by technology. Chaplin once said, “I am for people, I can’t help it.” And people—humanity—are the exact remedy for the ills of industry.

The Tramp meets his counterpart, an orphan girl, played by his then-wife Paulette Goddard. The Tramp and the girl establish individuality through their ability to feel, to hope, to dream, to sing, to dance, and to love. This is what separates them from the machinery of the age. Emotions rescue them from routine. Their humanity brings them hope.

What’s more, Chaplin consoles us as his film reaffirms that individualism is absolutely necessary. The film opens with sheep milling about, and compares them to people on their way to work. Each of them clearly has a destination, but none are truly living life. None even seem to look ahead of themselves—each step in the chaos is predictable and memorized.

Chaplin tells us that it is okay to be the black sheep in this situation. Subtle human gestures are nearly extinct in the industrial world, and to see the Tramp reintroduce them with the girl is almost overwhelming. They strikingly bring emotion back into the humdrum world of industry and gain a renewed sense of purpose through one simple but powerful characteristic: the ability to face each situation with a smile.

This message has held up for 75 years. Technology continues to grow and develop, and we frequently lose ourselves in its materialism. However, what is important cannot be bought or sold. If we do not maintain ourselves and the love and the emotions that make us so very vulnerable and so very human, then we are no more than the machines in the backdrop of the film.

Instead, we should embrace life in its fullest form and simply follow the closing lyric to Chaplin’s “Smile:”

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.

The Mechanics of The Cameraman by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 by mchoffman

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“You must always grind forward… never backward.” ~ Sally to Buster in The Cameraman

In 1917, Buster Keaton was introduced to movie making when he was given a tour  of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s studio, which was operating in New York. “Anything special you want to see first?” Arbuckle asked his guest. “Yes,” Keaton replied. “The camera.” With those words, Buster Keaton began a lifelong fascination with the camera. He was fascinated not just by how it worked, but by what it could do. Buster immediately thought of the medium’s possibilities which could free him from the reality of the theatrical stage. The films, as author Rudi Blesh wrote, “could preserve forever the happy harlequin magic of a clown.”

Our audiences have seen in weeks past the extent of Buster Keaton’s genius in films like Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. He had the mind of an engineer; his films reflect a technical brilliance unseen in other comedies of the time. He embraced the technology whole-heartedly.  Buster knew how to tell stories with a camera. What he told were stories about heroes battling both man and nature.

The onscreen Buster appeared to have a tentative, handshake agreement with the Universe’s natural order; he always seemed to escape unscathed. Like the eye of a hurricane, he was the calm in the storm. Chaos— be it a cyclone or a Chinese Tong War—was always around him. A recurring theme pitted Buster against the mechanical world of man’s creation. Whether it was a steamboat or a locomotive, his characters used machinery to overcome the disorder. In The Cameraman, Buster finally triumphs and brings order when his camera captures the Chinatown footage.

In film after film, set piece after set piece, Keaton’s characters defy the physical laws of the universe. It’s a strange, sometimes surreal relationship. We wonder how any mortal could survive a dynamic where a series of fortunate accidents keeps the race going at silent speed. Buster bent the laws of physics in his favor. The Buster we see onscreen was larger than life– an American myth who embodied a stoic heroism. Behind the camera that shaped this identity was a man who had complete mastery of the form. His command of the camera was simply effortless.

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It is somewhat ironic, then, that in The Cameraman Buster should play a tintype photographer who knows absolutely nothing about motion pictures. In the projection room we witness our hero’s technical incompetency when it becomes evident he has double-exposed the images he so desperately sought to capture as a newsreel photographer. Like Sherlock, Jr., The Cameraman is about film, but in an altogether different way. Tonight’s film does not playfully probe the line between illusion and reality the way the earlier film did. The Cameraman is simply a story about making movies.

After years as an independent filmmaker, Keaton came to a crossroads in his career. He turned to the biggest studio in town where he hoped for larger budgets and better distribution of his films. MGM was the studio that boasted having “more stars than there are in Heaven,” but they did not have a comedy star until Buster arrived at the gates of MGM with his bag of gags. It was a situation he was forced into when his long-time producer, Joe Schenck, decided to close shop. The days of the independents were coming to an end, and Buster did not have the money to produce his own films the way Chaplin and Lloyd did.

The Cameraman was a promising beginning for Keaton at his new home. The end product was so perfect that MGM proudly used it as a comedy training film to show future comedians how a comedy should be made. It would influence films such as The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Of course, the studio saw this film as a model MGM comedy. They didn’t get it. The reality is that its perfection went beyond big-budget gloss. The film is a classic because of Buster Keaton, not because of the studio’s method of creating it.

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It was directed by a former vaudevillian named Edward Sedgwick, who would direct most of Buster’s MGM features, but it was Buster who was the creative force behind it. He was able to assemble some of his old production crew, such as cameraman Elgin Lessley as well as writer Clyde Bruckman, who had been co-director on The General. What they fashioned was a capsule of the Keaton mystique. Again, he is a character who reflects both strength and resilience with that familiar, shy innocence towards women.

This was the first time Keaton worked from a studio-approved script. Though Bruckman is credited as a co-writer of the story, there were many people contributing to it. Much of it Buster had to eliminate as unnecessary, such as subplots involving gangsters. The Cameraman does have about the funniest inter-title in any silent comedy—silent films had their own title writers– and it comes when Keaton runs into the organ grinder on the street and flattens the monkey.

Interfering producers put an over-emphasis on the written scenario. This is an example of the studio system impeding his creative process. Improvisation was frowned upon by the studio as something that was too costly. “Slapstick has a format,” Buster once said, “but it is hard to detect in its early stages unless you are one of those who can create it. The unexpected was our staple product, the unusual our object, and the unique was the ideal we were always hoping to achieve.” Nevertheless, two of the best moments were completely improvised: Buster trying to open his piggybank in his apartment, and his one-man ballgame at an empty Yankee Stadium– a sequence that shows off his great talent as a mime.

The film was only partially shot in New York. Buster Keaton was too recognizable a figure to blend in. Location shooting didn’t go as smoothly for him as it had for Harold Lloyd with Speedy. Only a few street scenes were actually filmed while the rest were recreated back in Culver City. Coney Island, for instance, was actually Venice Beach.

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Marceline Day portrays Sally, and she is actually one of Buster’s strongest heroines. His relationship with her is probably the most romantic in any of his films. The comedy business between them seems to grow naturally from the story. Fans may never see Marceline Day in London After Midnight— the most famous of all lost films which she starred in the year before– but she can be seen in a somewhat revealing bathing suit in The Cameraman– more revealing when it’s wet. She appeared in many of Harry Langdon’s short films as well. She passed away in 2000 at the age of 91.

Harold Goodwin portrays Stagg, the rival. Goodwin was a native of Peoria, Illinois, and appeared in over 200 films including, most notably, All Quiet on the Western Front. An online reference claims he was killed in 1987 for adultery! Keaton enthusiasts will remember him as the rival in College, and he appeared in the Educational Pictures shorts like Grand Slam Opera as the band leader.

Also, viewers should look for Vernon Dent, a familiar face to all fans of the Three Stooges, as well as Edward Brophy, who would go on to have a successful career as a character actor. Brophy appears with Buster in the changing room scene at the pool—a four-minute sequence which was done in a single take. Buster believed that rehearsed scenes looked mechanical.

The Cameraman is Buster’s last great film before he faded into the studio background—lost somewhere along the studio assembly line. In the ensuing years, he would lose more and more creative control; he was not the sort to fight to get it back. As a result, he appeared in films that any other comedian could’ve starred in. MGM didn’t listen to Buster’s ideas or give him his own independednt unit, which is what they should’ve done. Around the time of The Cameraman, Buster had an interesting idea for a Western with Marie Dressler as his costar, but apparently there wasn’t enough plot to satisfy Irving Thalberg.

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MGM never really knew what to do with him, turning him into a sad clown and starring him in stagey quasi-musicals like Free and Easy instead of giving him roles that would offer physical comedy over dull movie talk. Gags defined Buster’s films—not songs or plot twists. Buster was often cast as a dim-witted character named “Elmer” who lacked the ingenuity and resourcefulness of his earlier characters from the silent days. He was eventually mismatched with the overbearing Jimmy Durante for a few films in which they starred as a comedy team. The last of these, What! No Beer? in 1933 was the bottom of the beer barrel for Buster.

The combination of marital strife and creative disintegration led him to the bottle. MGM fired him when he became too unreliable on set. From there, he moved on to Educational and then Columbia Pictures where he also starred in a series of two-reel comedies. Buster would eventually overcome his alcoholism and remarry, but his career never recovered. Perhaps he could’ve had a second life had he teamed up with a director who shared his ideas of using sound in a new way, like Europe’s Rene Clair, for example, but that is only a film historian’s fantasy.

Tonight’s film is a real joy. The Cameraman summarizes what critic James Agee called the Silent Era’s “beauties of comic motion which are hopelessly beyond reach of words.” Watching Buster Keaton run down the street is in itself a thing of beauty. We can never take our eyes off him. That’s how kinetic a physical performer he is, but beyond the physicality, there is an expressiveness belying The Great Stone Face, and it comes in the eyes. This latter facet of Buster is sometimes lost when audiences see the feats of physical comedy, but the stone face could not mask the great actor he was. It’s all there on the screen.

The Cameraman is a film about a photographer trying to get the best shot, but we are the ones who are rewarded. We are witnessing a beautifully-constructed film with all the right shots.

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The Essentials by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 5, 2011 by mchoffman

For those who wish our film series could go another three months, I have listed additional movies you should see. All of the following are available on dvd. Though Legends of Laughter ends on June 2, 2011, I hope you will continue to seek out the work of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. I have also listed my reading sources. These are the best books on the subject.

Charlie Chaplin:

Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies (1916-1917)

The Kid (1921)

The Great Dictator (1940)

Limelight (1952)

The Chaplin Revue (1959)

Harold Lloyd:

Grandma’s Boy (1922)

Why Worry? (1923)

Girl Shy (1924)

For Heaven’s Sake (1926)

The Cat’s Paw (1934)

Buster Keaton:

Buster Keaton’s nineteen independent silent shorts (1920-1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)

Go West (1925)

College (1927)

The Railrodder (1964)

Recommended reading:

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The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr (1975)

Chaplin: His Life and Art, David Robinson (1985)

Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Jeffrey Vance (2003)

The Search For Charlie Chaplin, Kevin Brownlow (2010)

An American Comedy, Harold Lloyd with Wesley W. Stout (1928)

Harold Lloyd: The King of Daredevil Comedy,  Adam Reilly (1977)

Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian, Jeffrey Vance & Suzanne Lloyd (2002)

Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses, Annette D’Agostino Lloyd (2009)

Keaton, Rudi Blesh (1966)

Silent Echoes, John Bengtson (1999)

Buster Keaton Remembered, Eleanor Keaton & Jeffrey Vance (2001)

The Fall of Buster Keaton, James L. Neibaur (2010)

Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture, Peter Kobel (2007)

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Additionally, look for James Agee’s 1949 Life magazine article, “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” This essay is a terrific work of film criticism and should be read by anyone interested in silent comedy.