The Cameraman (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Cameraman is my 2nd favourite Buster Keaton feature after Sherlock Jr. A film which manages to hit every beat and even MGM themselves believed in the film enough that it became their comedy training film for new writers as the example of a perfect comedy; I can’t argue with that. Like the aforementioned Sherlock Jr, The Cameraman reflects a fascination with filmmaking in which Keaton has to act like he doesn’t know anything about the anatomy of a camera.

Once again Keaton (playing a character conveniently called Buster) is competing for dominance and the love of a woman in a world of alpha males. What makes the relationship between Buster and love interest Sally (Marceline Day) work so well? Her sympathy, or the fact that she is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t act like a complete jerk towards Buster, even the bell boy at the fictionalised MGM newsreel department is a jerk to him when Buster simply asks about the woman in his photograph despite him being a super sweet guy. Does MGM want people thinking their newsreel department is full of pricks? Or is it the little things such as her first encounter with Buster when he first bumps into her he smells her hair and goes into a trance without her noticing. You can feel the chemistry between them from their body language and even from close-ups of the two starring at each other. Likewise there is the relatability of any man who has tried to impress a girl only for his effort to be a failure by the presence of a bigger, stronger man. – Plus there is the adorable factor from seeing the two of them together. When Buster gets a kiss from Sally as he leaves her off at an apartment and then walks away in the rain with a sense of elation has Singin’ In The Rain vibes; was Gene Kelly inspired by this?

The Cameraman is one of those rare films which is comprised of one great moment after another. The scene in Yankee Stadium for example has no effect on the rest of the plot but there’s no justification required in order to watch Keaton’s athletic prowess as he pretends to play baseball by himself.  Likewise the sequence on the stairs is a wonder of Keaton’s ability to use the frame in what looks like to modern eyes as a 2D platforming video game. Another superb use of this comes in the pool sequence in which Sally walking by the poolside in a swimsuit then suddenly all of the men get out of the pool entering from the bottom of the frame out of nowhere. Likewise keep an eye out for the on screen nudity.  This sequence also gives arise to possibly the most bizarre moment in The Cameraman in which Keaton after losing his bathing suit in the pool begins eyeing a woman wearing an excessive bathing suit and starts approaching her while Jaws-like music plays (as part of the wonderfully quirky modern score by Arthur Barrow). Off-screen he steals the suit but we never see how; just what exactly did he do to her? It’s both creepy and funny at the same time.

I have to ask if automobiles back then were designed for use in comedy such as an open top double decker bus which creates so many possibilities for physical comedy. However the most oddly designed vehicle present in The Cameraman has to be the 1927 LaSalle Convertible Coupe Fisher with its seat on the back of the car separate from the main seats of the vehicle. The seat is already inherently de-emasculating by itself, even worse when your girl is at the front with another guy and you’re completely cut off from them because the roof is up to protect them against the rain. Oh yeah, that’s another thing, when it rains you have no protection. Again I have to ask, was this vehicle designed for use in comedy?

The Tong War is among one of the greatest of Keaton spectacles with its large-scale carnage and extras galore; plus I do love the fascinating underworld of the tongs and opium dens as a setting. The moment in which Keaton is confronted by gangsters and is cornered is one of those oh so glorious “how is he going to get out of this?!” moments. By the end of the film Keaton goes through so much misfortune that you badly want to see him succeed in the end. At the end he gets his sweet, satisfying revenge while the douche who takes credit for rescue Sally from the out of control speedboat gets his comeuppance. The revenge is unintentionally obtained but more than very well deserved.

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Invitation to the Dance (1956)

Gotta Dance!

Invitation to the Dance is often dismissed as a failed experiment; I must disagree. In my eyes Invitation to the Dance is a masterful achievement. I find many anthology films tend to be hit and miss with their segments but all three segments presented here are gems. A pure representation of Gene Kelly’s artistry as seen in ballet sequences in previous Kelly musicals. Invitation to the Dance was made in 1953, when Kelly was at the height of his powers, however due to the film’s lack of commercial prospects. It wasn’t released until 1956 when the movie musical had dropped in popularity due to their lack of commercial viability from the rise of television.

The film’s title says it all; this is a film which tried to make dance more accessible to all and not just some Gene Kelly vanity project. A film to show that dancing isn’t for “sissies”; it can be masculine and bad ass. Originally Kelly was only going to appear in one segment with the rest starring the greatest dancers in Europe; however the studio wouldn’t allow this and demanded he appear in all the segments. Regardless I still feel the film succeeds in feeling like an inclusive experience with its array of dancers including a young child whom appear alongside Kelly and are all given their moment in the sun.

The first segment “Circus” offers a slice of early 20th century European culture with beautiful array of sets full of eye pleasing colours which still manage to feel authentic; somewhere that’s been used and lived in. All three segments in Invitation to the Dance are devoid of dialogue but Circus really does call back to silent cinema with its melodramatic love triangle premise. In his role as a mime, Kelly gets to express the full range of his physical talents and uses his face to convey all his emotion. Circus is a fine piece of tragic, visual melodrama with an emotionally gutting finale.

The second sequence “Ring Around the Rosy” is the section of the film most reminiscent of the MGM musical in the 1950’s with its use of impressionistic backgrounds as seen in the ballet sequences of Kelly’s musicals. I never do tire of these backgrounds as they’re always a pleasure to behold; an aesthetic and atmosphere which really characterised musicals of the era. I do love the humour present in the segment such as the femme fatale with the exaggerated Veronica Lake hairstyle which constantly had to be pulled back in order for her to even see, to the singer whose voice is the sound of a trumpet which causes the dames to swoon and faint.

The finale segment “Sinbad the Sailor” is the most impressive on a technical level in which Kelly dances alongside animated characters in a dazzling piece of Arabian Nights inspired fantasy. Famously Kelly had previously danced alongside Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945 ) however Sinbad the Sailor takes this to a new level in which Kelly occupies a fully animated environment. The integration and interactions with the animated world and its characters is largely seamless and more than impressive for the time, with the dance steps of the animated characters being on synch with Kelly’s steps. Likewise he is also joined by a live action child and only Kelly himself could dance that well with a child. During this segment Kelly also finds a love interest with an animated Middle Eastern girl and the two even engage in a kiss: An early example of an inter-racial kiss in cinema, even if it is between a live action man and an animated woman.

Our Hospitality (1923)

Deliverance

All of Buster Keaton’s silent films had a beauty and a grace to them, but Our Hospitality exemplifies this best. A mini epic, full of beautiful, lush scenery and landscape shots; visually speaking, I consider this to be Keaton’s best film. Take the film’s finale as an example, as Keaton walks along the edge of a cliff with huge forest backdrops stretching as far as the eye can see or the equally as impressive sequence in which an entire dam is blown up. But the sequence which best showcases this idealised look at 1830’s America is the supreme majesty of the steam locomotive sequence; a predecessor to what would come in The General. This is one of the greatest sequences Keaton ever captured on film, with the music score on the Thames Silent’s version giving it (as well as the film as a whole), an even greater sense of awe. Filming as well the construction of such large scale props must have been no easy feat. It’s a sequence which is beautiful, funny and thrilling at the same time, filled with so many inventive sight gags. When Keaton’s top hat doesn’t fit on his head in the locomotive carriage, he puts on his iconic pork pie hat; that’s more like it! It’s a bumpy unstable ride to say the least, and even has a dog chasing it throughout for that extra bit of amusement

The set up of Our Hospitality is the type of melodrama which was rife during the silent period (and what Keaton himself parodied in his short The Frozen North). One family has a feud with another which lasts from one generation to the next, and nobody remembers what caused the feud to begin with (“Men of one family grew up killing men of another for no other reason expect their fathers had done so”). Ah simple but effective naivety; why can’t we all just get along?

Keaton’s birth place is not stated during the film, but it’s clearly located in Appalachia, prior to his character being sent to New York for a better upbringing; Keaton the sophisticated New Yorker vs. hillbilly red necks. Yep, we have a movie here ripe with hillbilly stereotypes. On top of tapping into the Appalachian cultural stereotype of feuding families, there are plenty of guns stored in the Canfield house, but when they’re not allowed to use them due to their comical dedication to be hospitable, they just ask the townspeople to borrow a gun. Likewise in another scene Keaton sees a husband abusing his wife, steps in and throws the husband aside, yet the wife starts attacking Keaton himself. Keaton then runs away, followed by the husband ordering the wife back into the house. Ah the glorious lack of political correctness.

Three Ages (1923)

History of the World, Part I

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Three Ages is one of the earliest spoof movies, a feature length parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, cutting between three different historical periods in which in men set about obtaining the love of a woman. The Stone Age portions of the film are a fantasy stone age in which people wear fur, carry clubs and man and dinosaur live side by side and there is even a sequence with a stop motion dinosaur; I wish I could see more of it. Three Ages long precedes The Flintstones with its use of anachronisms; with clever stone age equivalents of modern days things such as the turtle operated ‘wee-gee board’. Likewise just like in a D.W. Griffith film, the Rome featured in Three Ages actually looks vast and expansive while featuring the most amusing chariot race ever complete with sleds and huskies. It’s moments like these which give Three Ages a sense of cuteness and innocence to it.

The role of a caveman is perfect for Wallace Beery, Keaton’s more manly opponent. Many of Keaton’s films show him with a feminine side and this is particular true with the stone age portions of Three Ages, not just with his rivalry with Wallace Beery but also in a scene in the stone age in which he is overpowered by a woman bigger and stronger than him whom the audience is led to believe is a man to begin with. Yet the prevalence of gender bending is taken a step further in one of the modern age portions of the film in which the wife of a household whom is dressed like a man has the final say on who marries her daughter. Do girls like bad boys or nice sensitive guys? Buster Keaton films would have you believe the latter. Margaret Leahy is Keaton’s leading lady in Three Ages, an actress came to Hollywood because of a beauty competition and supposedly couldn’t act. The filmmakers appear to work their way around this as her performance largely consists of just mildly reacting to things.

Unlike Keaton’s other silent films, Three Ages has a larger emphasis on non slapstick gags and not as much stunt work. The film still has one major def defying stunt sequence in which he failed to make a leap between two buildings; however this happy accident resulted in a pure classic Keaton stunt sequence as he effortlessly descends several stories through a building. Likewise the finale of stopping a wedding at the last minute is such a cliché but Keaton manages to put an unexpected spin on it. It would be easy for a film like Three Ages to be cynical and pessimistic but like Keaton’s other work it’s optimistic in the end.  The three Keatons go through much hardship and pain but through much perseverance they get the girl in the end.

Woman In the Moon [Frau im Mond] (1929)

Destination Moon

I first heard of Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) as a child reading about it in the Newsround Book of Space. In a section of the book about science fiction movies the film was mentioned accompanied by a photograph of the film. This picture always intrigued and stuck with me – three people and their rocket on the moon; very retro futuristic looking. I finally saw it many years later and was not disappointed.

Woman In the Moon really does deserve the title of a unique film, the movies feels like 50’s science fiction movie, yet was released in 1929. The design of the rocket has that retro futuristic, egg shaped 1950’s look while the painted moon backdrops look as if they could be in a 50’s space fantasy film. Likewise actress Gerda Maurus has a very futuristic, metallic looking hairstyle. Science Fiction wouldn’t become a staple genre in cinema for another 21 years and Fritz Lang himself was to create a sci-fi movie in the 1950’s, which unfortunately never came to be. The movie also mixes together other time periods. Portions of the movie feel reminiscent of a Jules Verne story with that 19th century sci-fi aesthetic such as the apartment of Professor Mannfeldt with its vintage 19th century furniture, chairs and telescope.

Woman In the moon combines genres with a mix of espionage, melodrama, comic book sci-fi and even a helping of comedy thrown into the mix. Other moments feel like a documentary with scenes of scientists and diagrams explaining things; I love that stuff. Woman in the Moon was the first time ever (film or otherwise) in which space travel was depicted through the use of a multistage liquid fuel rocket; 40 years before man first landed on the moon. Considering this it’s a shock that this movie isn’t more widely known, especially in compassion to Lang’s previous sci-fi epic Metropolis. Even later Nazi rocket science (and eventual American rocket scientist) Wernher Von Braun acted as an advisor for the film.

The film has its Cartoony moments such as the ever cliché image of close minded bearded scientists laughing and the insane or seemingly insane person is the one who is right but the message is clear, as Professor Mannfeldt angrily puts it “The progress of the world will not fail due to learned ignoramuses lacking in fantasy whose brains work in inverse proportion to their calcification”. The movie’s villain on the other hand is obviously modelled after everyone’s least favourite evil dictator Adolf Hitler; he doesn’t have a moustache but has the same parted hairstyle. Lang hated the Nazis before it was cool or before they even came to power.

The only major downside of Woman In the Moon is the run time at 2 hours and 50 minutes which I felt could have been be cut down. At the 26 minutes in until 50 minute mark was a section of the film which really tried my patience with its painfully slow setting up in real time but it’s largely smooth sailing after that.

The rocket launch is something to behold with the impressive miniatures and the very gradual build up. The rocket interior is in tune with a space fantasy even with its design taking the absence of gravity in space and G-force taken into account. The actors do an effective job of conveying G-force and not coming off as laughable. When on the moon the astronauts do not wear space suits, are able to breathe on the moon and did I mention there is also gold on the moon. I assume the filmmakers intentionally created a film which combined scientific accuracy and fantasy to create a film which has a great sense of adventure. The child stowaway on the rocket represents the schoolboy adventurer in us. The moon as seen here is a fantasy land full of mountains and caverns. Plus I love and I do mean LOVE the film’s ending. Such an uplifting moment after we’re led to believe the opposite but doesn’t come off as contrived.

There are some subtitle issues on the Masters on Cinema Blu-ray release with white English text overlaying white German text.

“For the human mind, there is no never – only a not yet.”

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Silent Perfection

I’m not a silent film aficionado, I’m more of a tourist when it comes to this era of filmmaking. Sherlock Jr. is the only silent film I’ve ever awarded a perfect five star rating and I doubt I will ever come across another silent movie as fun, thrilling, inventive or as mind blowing as Sherlock Jr.; in my view Buster Keaton’s crowning achievement. Most of Keaton’s silent output is great but even by his impeccable standards Sherlock Jr. goes beyond the call of duty. It’s more surreal and avant-garde than his other work with Keaton plays a wannabe detective who gets to go into the cinema screen and live out his fantasy as a great detective. Like an audience member watching a movie, Keaton’s character gets to escape the real world and be what you can’t be in real life. Sherlock Jr. captures the magic of cinema like few other films have and at an economic length of only 44 minutes it’s a film you can pop on any time.

The special effects on display here blow my mind every time. Just how did he do that stuff? Part of me doesn’t want to know in order to keep the mystery alive. Perhaps a special effect isn’t so special if you look at it and can and immediately know who they did it. CGI can take a backseat! These are true special effects. Keaton’s trademark of physical humor and stunt work is on full display here with the film’s climatic case sequence being nothing short of astounding. It is my second favourite high speed pursuit in a movie after the final car chase in The Blues Brothers. The gags and stunts in this film never cease to amaze me and always take me by surprise no matter how times I watch the film. I also must give props to the fantastic jazzy, noir like score of the Thames Silent’s print of the film, and is it just me or is that James Bond music at exactly 39 minutes and 56 seconds in?

You know all the cliché terms people throw around in movie reviews: “timeless”, “classic”, “ahead of its time”. If there was ever a movie which completely deserved them then this is it.

The High Sign (1921)

Keaton Komedy Klassic

The ‘High Sign’ has to be my favourite Buster Keaton short and it just so happens to be the first independent film Keaton produced, giving birth to his iconic unnamed character. However Keaton himself was disappointed with the film and didn’t release it until the following year instead making “One Week” his first solo short. I question why though as I feel the premise of The ‘High Sign’ is one of Keaton’s most inspired and possibly even worthy of being used as a set up for a feature. It’s true what they say, the artist is often wrong about their own work.

The opening prologue of The High Sign states “Our hero came from Nowhere- he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere”; and considering his superhuman stunts he’s like an alien who just landed on Earth. This opening prologue reminds me of a statement Roger Ebert made in his review of The General; “[Keaton] seems like a modern visitor to the world of silent clowns”

The ‘High Sign’ packs in so much humor and gags into its 20 minutes such as his set up with the dog, meat and string (it’s hard to explain); it’s like something Mr Bean would come up with. The short also features the earliest example I’ve seen in film of a recurring gag with the high sign itself, a secret signal between gangsters. Keaton even messes with the audience’s expectation for comic effect by having himself walk past a banana peel on the ground only to not slip on it. Likewise the short’s finale is a real “How did they do that?” sequence. The house with its traps and secret hatches is an astounding piece of set design and when all the rooms appear on screen at once which Keaton jumping between them, it reminds me of a 2D video game. I was laughing, in awe and even shocked (when the gangster’s neck is closed on the door) all at once. There is even a customer at one point who has quite a resemblance to Charlie Chaplin.

I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again; the genius of Buster Keaton will never cease to amaze me.