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Tag Archives: Buster Keaton

Flick Clique: July 1-7

The Big House (1930). Early talkie from MGM is famous for being the first “prison flick” with all the clichés that go with it (the naive newcomer con, the grizzled vet con, the suave player con). It actually holds up very well with fluid direction very unusual for an early sound film and good performances from the three leads, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery and an unforgettable Wallace Beery. Frances Marion’s script details Morris and Beery’s attempts to break out of the prison life, and the weak-willed Montgomery’s trying to fit in. It’s gritty, bracing stuff – a lot of the material set up here was also explored in films like Brute Force (since we recently saw this, it was an interesting compare-and-contrast). I wonder if films like this and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang were responsible for prison reform in the U.S.? This Warner Archive DVD was available for check-out at my local library; I will definitely get more W.A. discs from them just to give them my support.
The Makioka Sisters (1983). Idyllic, involving chronicle of four Japanese sisters in the ’30s who find themselves in a family crisis after their widower father dies. The man’s dying wish was for his second youngest daughter to have a husband so that she could acquire the dowry he set up. The sister in question, a sweet yet passive type, allows for her older, comfortably married sisters to find her a suitable mate – not easy, since there aren’t too many eligible bachelors of good social and financial standing available. Meanwhile, the more modern youngest sister sets her sights on starting a doll-making business while getting involved with the ne’er-do-well son of a department store magnate. Once I got past the initial confusion (at first I thought the two oldest sisters were the mother and aunt of the younger sisters), this was a fascinating drama that somewhat reminded me of the upper-class tribulations in Downton Abbey with the family fussing over the daughters’ marriageability while the coming world war will soon render those concerns quaint and obsolete. Both projects also have the more enlightened younger sibling who is sorta the rebel of the family. Although The Makioka Sisters is statically filmed and ponderous at times, it’s beautifully crafted and contains several notable performances (apparently all four of the actresses who play the sisters are legendary in Japan).
The Saphead (1920). This early Buster Keaton film (his first feature film role, as a matter of fact) has recently gotten a good re-release by Kino. I’m reviewing the DVD edition for DVD Talk. This one isn’t quite the same as other Keaton vehicles, since it was a stage success first – a florid family melodrama, no less – and Keaton was suggested for the film by Douglas Fairbanks, who originated Buster’s part of sad-sack rich boy Bertie on stage. The story revolves around Keaton’s character trying to prove himself with his uncle (William H. Crane), a successful industrialist, so that he can marry Agnes (Beulah Booker), the orphan girl whom the uncle raised from childhood. But wait! The man’s no-good son-in-law (Irving Cummings) receives news from his illegitimate daughter that his former flame, now dying, is threatening to expose their affair. Will he pin it on poor Bertie? Like many earlier silents, the film is pretty stagy and inert, and Keaton doesn’t have much opportunity to do the highly physical comedy he’s known for. Basically, it’s worth a peek for fans but not an especially noteworthy film for anyone else. I will have my full write-up posted this next week, hopefully in time for the DVD’s release this Tuesday.

Flick Clique: March 11-17

Dick Tracy, Detective (1945) and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). We didn’t really have anything to watch last Monday night, so we made a double feature out of these two b-movies RKO did in the ’40s starring Chester Gould’s hook-nosed police detective. Although they don’t get anywhere near capturing the jazzy/ghoulish flavor of the comic, both Detective and Meets Gruesome are workmanlike, occasionally fun b-mysteries. Detective, with Tracy tracking down the common thread amongst several murders of people from varying backgrounds, has the more intriguing story and better pacing of the two. Morgan Conway is bland beyond belief as Tracy, but I enjoyed the salty Tess Trueheart played by Anne Jeffreys. Meets Gruesome‘s more cartoonish plot concerns a smoke which rendered anyone who smells it immobile, which a gang of criminals form into a bomb to help them rob a bank. The investigation by intrepid Tracy, now embodied by the more capable Ralph Byrd (who originated the role in the 1930s serial edition Tracy – are you taking notes?), leads him to Boris Karloff’s menacing ex-con Gruesome. Karloff is a hoot, but the film suffers from glacial pacing and I couldn’t get past all the goofy character names (I.M. Learned – really?). Both of these public domain goodies were on the Mystery Classics 50 Movie DVD set.
Keaton Plus (2004 DVD). This was a DVD that I came across at the local library – it consists of odds and ends involving Buster Keaton that Kino didn’t put on the other discs containing the silent legend’s films and shorts. Exactly the kind of stuff we dig! Overall, the disc is inconsistent but fascinating. The best parts are the films and fragments from his peak, including the short Ten Girls Ago. There are also two shorts he did in the mid-’30s, which are fun but not nearly as inventive, a fragment of an unreleased 1962 comedy, vintage commercials, tributes, photos and more. Probably the most absorbing part has Keaton historian John Bengston outlining various Los Angeles and San Francisco locales Keaton used in his shorts, with now-and-then photos. Tributes from Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish offer a neat glimpse into how silent films were repackaged for TV in the ’60s and ’70s. Not everything on this disc is great, but we had a ball combing through it.
Stagecoach (1939). The other disc that I picked up at the library (we recently dumped Netflix streaming, so I’m looking for alternatives). As I previously noted, the local library has a few dozen Criterion DVDs (with booklets and everything) in their stacks. Stagecoach is one of those classic classics that I’ve mysteriously never gotten around to seeing before. Though I’m not normally a fan of Westerns or John Wayne, I found myself swept into this one. John Ford really had a gift for doing engaging characters who interact in a realistic way. Loved Thomas Mitchell and Donald Meek, but probably my fave was Claire Trevor as hooker-with-a-hear-o-gold Dallas. As an IMDb user aptly stated: “She was a very real, honest actress. I never get a sense of phoniness when Claire Trevor is on the screen. She gives a remarkable performance in Stagecoach.” The film seems to be anticlimactic after the expertly staged Apache ambush scene, and the score is overbearing and badly dated, but otherwise it was a terrific ensemble piece. I can’t get enough of John Wayne’s iconic first appearance, in which the camera zooms in, goes out of focus momentarly, then settles on Wayne blinking just after the focus comes back. That’s star quality! The Criterion DVD of Stagecoach also included a quaint but interesting early John Ford silent, Bucking Broadway from 1917.