50 Movie Comedy Classics, Disc 2

Buster Keaton Festival, all silent (with unrelated music), all b&w, all starring (and written and directed by) Buster Keaton. The Blacksmith, 1922, 0:21 [0:19]; The Boat, 1921, 0:20 [0:22]; The Paleface, 1922, 0:20; Daydreams, 1922, 0:18.

Maybe it’s because Keaton doesn’t deliberately act the clown. Maybe it’s because his pictures were really his pictures. Whatever the case, these work pretty well.

I’d seen The Blacksmith and The Paleface on earlier packs (where they counted as full movies). The Paleface is pretty clever, The Blacksmith is good physical comedy; I’d give each of them $0.35 to $0.50. The Boat tells a sad story of boat-building incompetence, very well done for maximum laughs (if you ignore the peril); another $0.50. Daydreams feels like a later picture than either The Blacksmith or The Boat—better photography, more plot, generally very good. I’d give it another $0.50. These aren’t slapstick, by and large; they’re something subtler.

That comes out to $1.70 to $2.00—let’s call it $1.75. That’s on the high side, but this is an enjoyable 80 minutes (or so) of silent comedy as done by one of the masters.

Buster Keaton Classics, all silent (with unrelated music), all b&w, all starring Buster Keaton. The Playhouse, 1921, 0:22 [0:20]; The Balloonatic, 1923, 0:22; My Wife’s Relations, 1922, 0:30 [0:23]; The Electric House, 1922, 0:22 [0:20].

The Playhouse (or Play House) begins with an astonishing five-minute sequence in which Keaton plays all the roles—the conductor, members of the orchestra, a comedy troupe, and even the audience (men, women and children alike)—and the playbill also shows him in all the roles and stage crew. (Given that this had to be done by in-camera multiple exposures, it’s nothing short of astonishing: At one point, there are nine Keatons on stage.) After that dream sequence, it’s another knockabout comedy set on stage, albeit with a cute side plot in which Keaton’s girlfriend is one of identical twins—and he can’t tell them apart. Two problems: The comedy troupe includes blackface, maybe “typical for its time” but still unfortunate—and the print’s bad enough that it blooms to white in the middle at some points. On balance, $0.35.

The Balloonatic starts at a funhouse and involves balloons and the wilderness—and it’s all gags (and, of course, Keaton’s indomitable incompetence) with a plot that barely holds together. Maybe I’ve seen the “holder with no bottom” three or four times too often in Keaton’s shorts. This felt forced. $0.20.

My Wife’s Relations is based on Keaton unwittingly marrying a big woman with four big, mean brothers (it has to do with Polish judges), being generally beleaguered—Keaton always seems to be a hapless creature—and other nonsense. Decent plot, almost entirely slapstick. Maybe the half-hour version makes more sense. $0.30.

The Electric House offers a Keaton newly graduated from college—but handed the wrong degree, certifying him as an Electrical Engineer when he should have been a Doctor of Botany. The bigwig handing out the degrees wants his new house electrified and offers Keaton the job, while he goes on vacation. Fortunately, the bigwig’s daughter tosses Keaton a book, Electricity Made Easy or something of the sort. The family returns to a remarkably “electrified” house—with stairs that become escalators, a dining room with self-seating chairs and a model train to serve dishes from the kitchen, an electrified pool table and more. Of course things go wrong in a variety of ways. This one’s worth $0.50.

Add them up and I get $1.35, which sounds about right: Watchable but somewhat disappointing, except for the first five minutes and the last short.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., 1928, Charles Reisner (dir.), Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, Tom Lewis. 1:11 [1:09]

Not quite a feature-length film (or maybe it was for the time), this silent has a real plot, loads of physical comedy in Keaton’s best form, and a romance—and this time, Keaton wins out in the end. He’s the son of a steamboat operator, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, with a rundown sternwheeler, just in town (River Junction) from college in Boston—and his girl back in Boston is also in town. She’s the daughter of the bigshot, John James King, who’s introducing a spiffy new steamboat that will put Steamboat Bill’s clunker out of business—especially when King has it condemned. Naturally, King forbids his daughter from seeing Bill Jr. and Bill forbids his son from seeing the girl, in both cases saying “I’ll choose the right mate for you,” so there’s a little Montague-Capulet plot here as well. Father tries to turn son into a proper steamboater (part of which includes a hat-choice sequence that’s remarkably good fun), and there’s lots more.

Add a lengthy, involved storm sequence (with some astonishing and presumably dangerous stunts and special effects) and Bill Jr.’s unexpected bravery and competence, and you have quite a picture. (You may have heard of the classic and potentially deadly shot where the front of a house falls on Keaton, standing in the street—and happening to be just where an open window frame is. No stunt double, and supposedly some of the crew couldn’t stand to watch the filming.) And, for a change, the music is actually related to the film—a theater organ track that’s apparently composed for the picture, as it includes appropriate sound effects. Good print. Sigh. This is one I’ll probably watch again and it’s clearly a classic, but I’m hard-pressed to give more than $1.25 to a one-hour flick. Oh well, it’s 1:11 (or 1:09): $2.00.

As You Like It, 1936, b&w. Paul Czinner (dir.), Henry Einley, Elisabeth Bergner, Felix Aylmer, Laurence Olivier. 1:36 [1:27].

From Buster Keaton to William Shakespeare—well, why not? This is not a filmed play; they expand the scope to natural settings but retain the dialogue. Unfortunately, the first part of the film has a noisy soundtrack, which doesn’t help matters on something as dialogue-heavy as a Shakespeare comedy.

I won’t trouble you with the plot. It’s all Shakespeare, almost all in the forest of Arden; the film omits some of the play but apparently adds no new dialogue.

Laurence Olivier—not Sir at that point—stars. It’s a generally lively, solid performance. You need serious suspension of disbelief for the key conceit in the film: That Orlando (Olivier), deeply in love with Rosalind, cannot recognize her as either Rosalind or as a woman because she is wearing tights and a frilly shirt/blouse rather than a dress, even though she makes no attempt to disguise her hairdo or, really, her voice. But hey, it’s a comedy, and there are some fine monologues along the way (including “All the world’s a stage”). Because of the soundtrack and missing nine minutes, I can’t give it more than $1.25.

Bonus for those who’ve made it this far:

Tomorrow I switch back to the other 50-pack (Hollywood Legends)–but to the final disc. That should take two to three weeks.

After that, I’ll go to Disc 3 of Comedy Classics. The question is:

What set should I alternate with Comedy Classics?

While there are actually several choices, it boils down to two possibilities:

  • Start in on the Mystery Collection, 60 discs with 250 movies.
  • Start in on Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins, one of the smaller packs Mill Creek sent me when they replaced a defective disc in the Hollywood Legends set. It includes two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 18 of Hitchcock’s early films (from 1926 through 1939, all B&W, several silent), and 55 minutes of trailers for later Hitchcock movies. That’s four long discs. (It sells for about $8 at Amazon, but has sold as low as $5.)

I’m going to let you decide. I’ll choose whichever set gets the most comments by the time I finish the Hollywood Legends set.

One Response to “50 Movie Comedy Classics, Disc 2”

  1. John Dupuis says:

    Go for the Hitchcock. I have a similar pack and the ones I’ve watched are pretty good. My wife and I are also making our way through a set of old noir films and those are mostly quite good.