Friday, January 5, 2007

The man who still won’t lie down

A few days ago, I wrote up a little review about the five-DVD release “Ham”: The Lost Magic of Lloyd Hamilton by Looser Than Loose (“Made with pride in New Hampshire, USA”), a company specializing in silent comedy shorts, old-time radio, etc.  When purchasing this set, it was kind of an afterthought because what I really had my eye on was their latest six-DVD collection, Buster Keaton: Educational Two-Reelers.  Now, by “educational” I don’t mean the shorts like the ones found on the Mackinac release Industrial Strength Keaton, but rather the sixteen two-reelers Buster churned for Educational Pictures between 1934 and 1937.

As Leonard Maltin writes in The Great Movie Shorts: “Hollywood has never been a particularly logical place, so it seemed perfectly natural to most people that one of the leading producers of comedy shorts was named Educational Pictures.”  In fact, the studio—founded by Earle W. Hammons in 1919—was originally commissioned to produce shorts for schools, but somehow got sidetracked along the way…so Hammons turned to comedy instead.  In the 1920s, Educational was one of the top mirth makers in the picture business, with product featuring stars like Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane.  By the 1930s, however, the studio lost a bit of its former luster, as Maltin explains:

If one searched for a key word to describe the Educational comedies of the 1930s, the best one might be “cheap.”  Educational films almost always looked cheap, even though they were made in most cases by seasoned veterans.  One problem was the claustrophobia of shooting at the company’s eastern studio in Astoria, Long Island.  In addition, one suspects that the largest chunk of the small budgets went to pay the stars’ salaries, leaving very little for sets, costumes, and technical frills.  Nevertheless, the comedies (which were distributed by 20th Century Fox) always made money, despite the fact that the quality of the material was often downright poor.

“The best of the old comedy favorites…the brightest of the new stars” shouted the ad copy for Educational, and in 1934 new Educational hire Buster Keaton certainly qualified for the former part of that statement.  Keaton’s fortunes had taken a precipitous plunge since his glory days in the silents, and in 1933 was fired by MGM (the studio that seemed heckbent on ruining his career) because of his inability to toe the company line and report for work in the manner dictated by his studio bosses (his pull on the bottle was in full swing by that time, as anyone who’s seen What? No Beer? will testify).  His personal demons made him practically unemployable, but perpetually spiffed or not, Educational proved to be the only studio willing to throw him a lifeline.

“Legend has it that Buster Keaton’s career started sliding downhill in 1930 and never stopped—that his talkie films are unspeakable horrors,” writes Maltin in Movie Shorts.  “To be sure, they are not in the same league as Keaton’s silents, but they show a comic talent very much alive, and, in some cases, they compare favorably to other comedies being made at the same time.”  I’m sure I’ve mentioned in this space that my first exposure to The Great Stone Face was watching his Columbia shorts on television as a little shaver, and though I’m partial to the Columbias I must confess viewing the shorts in this Looser Than Loose collection has made me reconsider my position.  The Educational shorts (many co-directed by Keaton and Charles Lamont) aren’t the slapdash, mechanical efforts supervised by the likes of comedy directors such as Jules White, but are presented at a more leisurely pace that allows Keaton to crib ideas from his past silent shorts.  Having watched all of the Educationals over the past several days, I’m convinced that Buster’s batting average is better than previously noted…though as a devoted fan I’m certainly hip to the fact that I might be a tad prejudiced in this arena.

In the documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, Keaton’s widow Eleanor divulged that the only Educational two-reeler he had any particular fondness for was Grand Slam Opera (1936), and it’s still my personal favorite—a brisk and funny outing that has Buster competing for a girl’s affections at the same time he’s seeking fame and fortune on a radio show patterned after Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour.  By that same token, Leonard Maltin singles out amusing efforts like The Gold Ghost (1934), Allez Oop (1934), and One Run Elmer (1935) for special attention in Movie Shorts.  I particularly enjoyed a pair of shorts that don’t get the equal amount of attention as those I’ve previously mentioned: Tars and Stripes (1935) provides some excellent opportunities for mirth (including a hilarious running gag in which Buster schemes to be the first in line for chow outside the mess hall) playing a would-be sailor who keeps running afoul of petty officer Vernon Dent (longtime nemesis to the Three Stooges) by getting a little too cozy with Dent’s girlfriend (Dorothea Kent).  Mixed Magic (1936) is another neglected gem; in this one Buster becomes assistant to a jealous magician (Eddie Lambert) and proceeds to make a complete shambles out of the man’s act.

That having been said, there are a goodly amount of clinkers in Buster’s Educational output, including Palooka from Paducah (1935), Jail Bait (1937) and Ditto (1937).  A 1935 two-reeler, The Timid Young Man, is of some historical interest because it marks the only time that the “King of Comedy” (Mack Sennett) worked alongside the Great Stone Face…if only the short hadn’t turned out so “aggressively average,” as my friend Nick would say.  Keaton also kept the spirit of nepotism alive by hiring members of his family (father Joe, mother Myra, sister Louise and brother Harry) to populate the supporting casts: Joe, Myra and Louise appear in Paducah while mom, sis and Harry headline Love Nest on Wheels (1937), an amusing short (Buster’s last—and I realize I’m the minority regarding the laugh quotient on this one) that recycles gags from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s The Bell Boy (1918) and even reunites him with Arbuckle nephew Al St. John.  Myra and Louise also appeared in the manic Way Up Thar (1935), the two-reeler that served as Mack Sennett’s directorial swan song but introduced Joan Davis to the silver screen (the Sons of the Pioneers are also in this one, including a young Leonard Slye…better known as Roy Rogers).  This delightful short is featured among the ample bonus extras included in this six-DVD collection.

Other extras in the Keaton Educational collection include a 1957 appearance on Circus Time (I’m pretty sure it’s 1957, since Paul Winchell introduces Buster and notes that The Buster Keaton Story will be appearing in theatres soon) and a 1960’s TV sketch with Buster, Lucille Ball (who met Keaton while she was at MGM and became his devoted protégé) and Harvey Korman (as a cop).  There’s also a 1926 one-reeler (a Kodascope cut down) with Educational Pictures star Johnny Arthur—the poor man’s Charley Chase—and if sounds like I’m being a bit snarky about this, the short, Home Cured, is a blueprint for a later effort Chase made for Columbia in 1937, Calling All Doctors.  (Cured is included here because it was directed by William Goodrich—who was none other than Keaton’s mentor, Roscoe Arbuckle.)

When writing about Looser Than Loose’s Lloyd Hamilton set I neglected to mention that there are a few “Easter eggs” present on the discs; most of these are promotional shorts released by the Jam Handy Company in the 1930s and 1940s, and can easily be located on the Internets.  The Keaton set has an amusing one I hadn’t seen previously, a 1938 one-reeler for Chevrolet called Back of the Mike, in which a young boy listens intently to a radio Western serial, with the action switching back-and-forth from a dramatization of the proceedings (what’s taking place in the boy’s mind) to the same play being performed in a broadcast studio.  It’s fun to watch—and highly recommended to old-time radio fans—though I seriously doubt that a western serial program would require the big honkin’ studio used in this short (not to mention the hefty cast and crew to do voices and sound effects).  If that’s not enough to inspire you to invest in this collection, there’s always a public domain copy of Hollywood Steps Out (1941), a Warner Brothers outing that features a cartoon version of the Three Stooges doing their eye-poking and slapping to a conga beat…and an animated Clark Gable reminding us: “Don’t go away, folks—this oughta be good.”  (I just wanted to see if there were any Night Flight fans in the audience.)

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