Wednesday, June 27, 2012

No dialog necessary here. Best Keaton's films are a treasure for modern audiences.

You must forgive my gushing about Buster Keaton. I do understand that this is not (technically) related to British television. But as I've said, the beauty of having your own blog is getting to write about whatever you want. ... And what I want right now is Buster Keaton. If you don't like that, I suggest you get your own blog  ; - )

My discovering Keaton is like discovering Cary Grant. I did the latter in my teens. How on earth did I get this far in life without knowing the incredible talents of the former!? His work is profoundly good and I feel compelled to spread the word. Any fan of quality film and tv, which you obviously are, should make a point of seeing his work. (Go on; go do that now. Try Youtube. I'll wait. On second thought, you'd best read the post first.)

To those who might not realize this, Keaton was not just a slapstick comedian of the silent age. He was a talented director who conceived and filmed original ideas in movies that are tight, well acted, beautifully photographed, subtle, and touching. Oh, yeah, they were funny too. They present such well-made stories, that even modern audiences raised on a barrage of color, sound, and special-effects will be won over. My younger son asked me a couple of days after watching The General, "mom, did that movie have sound; I can't remember?" A telling complement. The General is so exciting and so very watchable you don't even notice that it lacks dialog. Keaton's films are like that. Treasures for all time.

The four feature films that follow are my personal favorites and those I consider his best work.  They are quite distinct in their characters, plots, pacing and style. Yet they all bear the unmistakable stamp of Keaton. That "stamp," as I see it, is to make reality feel good. His films are rooted in real truths about the simplicity of plugging away through life, meeting challenges that arise, fighting, moving along. And accepting it all with eyes wide open and lots of humor. His world is not perfect by a long shot, but its never depressing -- because, he (through his wonderful characters) lives life so well. He is beautiful in the fullest sense of the world. And he makes me want to live my own life with more precision and grace - he makes me want to jump on things, bend backward, go do something! Buster inspires me and somehow makes me feel as if I could.

The General. 

Few will argue with this selection. It's the equivalent of saying that Imagine is John Lennon's best song. The General places on countless lists of 'the best movies of all time' and was one of the first films to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Sadly, it did not garner such praise when released in 1926. Buster may have simply been ahead of his time, his adoring public appreciating him more in flat-out comedic roles, simpler of plot and less developed in theme. This movie is so much more than that.

Heralded as the next best depiction of the Civil War ever recorded second only to Matthew Brady's photographs, The General watches like a documentary, a comedy and an action adventure film rolled together. Layered over exciting scenes of Buster chasing down enemy soldiers who have stolen his engine (the 'General'), are a sweet story of love (for his girl and for the train) and a simple story of a man who rises to the occasion that duty calls for him.

Because the film was made so very long ago -- blurring our own sense of proper timeframe -- it is easy for the modern viewer to feel as if watching something authentic to its setting. That's remarkable. Especially given that it was not even done in the South, but in Oregon, which, by the way, provides stunning scenery even in black and white.

Against this gorgeous backdrop, Keaton spends most of the movie running... around, in, under and atop two civil war era steam trains. The trains are so enlivened by his clear love and attention that they become movie characters themselves. But the best character is of course Keaton's -- Johnny Grey, who spends the movie alternating between doing things that show incredible strength and skill, with things that feel pitiful. He walks a balance figuratively and literally that is astonishing. In one striking example, the renegades have thrown a long heavy wooden railroad tie onto the track to derail their pursuer. Keaton runs ahead of his train in an attempt to dislodge the tie. He manages to do so at the last moment, tugging it free and falling into the cow sweep.  With barely a moment to rest, he then sees another tie lodged halfway across the track just ahead. With precision that astounds, he heaves the first down onto the other hitting it like a see saw whereupon the whole thing springs to life and off the tracks -- not without nearly smacking him dead in the face first. The modern viewer has to know that shots such as this cannot have been 'faked' the way we are used to. Real logs. Real movie star. Real train. Moving. Real precision. Yet our hero conveys as much awkwardness as skill in having done it! takes it in stride and climbs back into the engine to stoke the fire before the next disaster. You can't help but love this man.

The stunts come fast and furious (including one so stunning it still shocks: the sight of the steam train "Texas" collapsing a burning bridge and plunging into the river below). Underlying the whole is a movie with so much heart that it makes yours ache. In one such scene, our hero has rescued his girl from the bandits and they are hiding out in the woods in the rain. Buster is kneeling on the wet ground next to her when she lays her head upon his chest and tells him he's brave. He puffs with pride and he cradles her to his breast with the look of utmost pleasure. You can feel his heart swell. Light fades and when morning dawns, it dawns on him sitting just there, having held that position all night - clearly unwilling to lose the moment. Only the subtlest attention is drawn to this, by him stretching out those bent legs in the morning.

Buster Keaton's uncanny way of underplaying a moment is his greatest charm. Like his choice to follow that tender declaration with a scene where he stuffs his love into a gunny sack to smuggle her out of enemy camp, and then steps on the sack several times before freeing her. Marion Mack, the actress who plays his love gives a great comic performance. She is game for this treatment and more and really gets to shine in the last half of the movie as she helps foil the bad guys, behave heroically and take her own pratfalls such as getting hilariously doused at a water spout.

The film hits it on all fours - everything a movie should be is wrapped up in one very beautiful package. It should be on any movie lovers 'must see' list.

Sherlock Jr.

The General may be the critical consensus for best, but my favorite Keaton movie is Sherlock Jr. (1924). Profoundly interesting and well made, Sherlock Jr. is simply unique. When you have a lot of experience watching movies (!) and are plumbing the depths of 90 year-old work, you just don't really expect that many surprises. But Sherlock Jr. surprises. It actually astounds.

Our hero is known simply as 'the Boy.' He's unskilled but confident. He works as a projectionist but dreams of being a detective. Keaton gives a great nuanced performance -- imbuing the Boy with dreams and longing, shyness, the desire to step up and be a man, and an overarching fear of failure. He's so timid with his girl that he can't look at her when he gives her a ring. But, he fearlessly tracks his suspect all around town when framed by his rival for the theft of a watch. In this production Keaton wears many hats very well (figuratively in this case.) In addition to the great acting he brings, Keaton the comedian is there, hilariously walking in lockstep with the suspect and performing clever vaudeville stunts. Keaton the director brings pacing, location, style and visual appeal. There are wonderful sweet details to the movie like having "the girl", played by Kathryn McGuire, actually solve the crime herself in a matter of minutes while Buster is out bumbling around. (I'm not going to climb too far out on a limb and claim him as an early feminist, but I do notice that in many of his films, the leading ladies are doing resourceful, intelligent and active things rather than sitting around waiting to be rescued. This makes me love him more.)

All these details come together to cause the film to feel complete and engaging, but the real punch is packed by its technological wonders. When the Boy gets back to his projector and starts the afternoon's show, he dozes off. Several amazing things start to happen. A hazy second-self wakes up, fractions off from the Boy, and walks away. He steps through the audience and orchestra and into the playing movie, with in-camera effects that are so well done that they look beautiful, convincing and evocative even in 2012.

What makes these scenes remarkable is not that Buster Keaton was able to achieve them, technically speaking, but that he was able to weave them, artfully, into a story where they actually matter. Sherlock Jr. is the antithesis of the early sound movies that used sound just to show that they could. These effects are central to the themes of reality, fantasy, dream and hero. When the Boy enters the picture and attempts to interact, he is expelled from the action. Another astonishing editing sequence shows Buster as the Boy in (quasi-)stationary position as the scenery in the movie continues to shift around him -- the background becoming a garden, a rocky outcrop, a jungle, a desert and a snow bank, etc. The effort involved in piecing together this nearly seamless sequence was massive. And it's beautiful work. But what makes it mind-blowing is that it is used to further the story. The viewer learns that the Boy doesn't belong in the movie, which moves mercilessly around him; he's not part of it. Not until he finds a role he can dream himself into, can Buster enter the movie. So when the bad guys on screen concoct their nefarious plot, Buster's sleeping Boy enters the action as the "crime crushing criminologist Sherlock Jr."  . . . As smooth, suave, Sherlock Jr., classy, well dressed, and smart, Buster gets to play an extremely attractive leading man. Its a delight to see.

At this point in the movie the technological thrills give way to ones that come from Buster's physical brilliance, starting with Sherlock shooting a deadly game of pool with stunning accuracy and managing to miss the ball that's been rigged with explosives. Or, my favorite, Buster riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle after the driver has been kicked off. Cars, puddles and men with shovels can't unseat him as he speeds along through the streets of LA and deftly past the still undeveloped hills of Southern California. While on the handlebars, he crosses a gaping bridge by riding across the tops of two trucks moving in opposite directions -- meeting up with them at the very moment that they align creating an insanely dangerous and transient bridge. Its impossible to overstate how well-orchestrated that stunt had to have been! [See my note in the comments below on this stunt]. I've noted before that these scenes play like James Bond (40 years ahead of schedule), so I was thrilled to hear, on the dvd version of the film I recently watched, that Bondesque music was playing in the background. Apparently I'm not the only one making that association.

The movie, at just 44 minutes, is a fast and furious ride. A great comic ending follows the joy ride when our hero reintegrates himself, reencounters his real-life lovely, and re-proposes -- taking his cues from the lead actor in the movie that is still chugging along on screen. Its a wonderful way to wrap the experience.

Steamboat Bill Jr.

This movie is the height, the absolute apex of charm. Pitting rough, river-rat dad and his dandy of a son whom he has not seen for years, Keaton has chosen a theme that has been subsequently and continually worked for laughs by many over the decades. Buster's endeavor in 1928 may not have been the first to attempt it, I don't know, but it certainly has to be one of the best.

Gruff dad, played beautifully by Ernest Torrence, does not do the best job masking his disappointment in how his son has turned out, but he tries to make the relationship work. That is, if by 'make it work' you mean 'force Bill Jr. into being a more suitable son.' Buster was put on this earth to play the role of Bill Canfield Jr.. He is perfection as the foppishly cute, childishly stubborn, but basically moldable son. He follows dutifully as dad pulls him along by the hand. He gamely lets dad call the shots on mustache- and ukulele- removal, as well as clothing and hair readjustment, but when he runs into his college girl friend (who unfortunately happens to be his dad's arch-rival's daughter), he draws the line. Buster's not giving up King's daughter (played deliciously by Marion Byron) and who can blame him; She is the cutest, spunkiest, gamest costar for Buster that I've ever seen. Her talents suit his extremely well and their scenes together are a joy.

The father/son pairing is extremely well done and forms the heart of the movie. The scene that has stolen my heart and that I cannot seem to watch enough times on Youtube, is one where dad takes Buster to get a new hat.  Buster immediately finds one he likes and tries it on for dad's approval. I love the way he thrusts his foot out and stands like a model displaying it. Dad casts it away instantly. Watch how Buster sneaks the hat back on for a try two more times (with no luck). Also watch how he secrets away his own hat into a back pocket when no one's looking. Buster's expressions while dad and the store clerk plunk a wide array of hats upon his head are priceless, but best of all is when the clerk tries a hat of Buster's Keaton's signature "porkpie" look and produces a priceless look of horror. Delightful and utterly self-aware. I love Buster Keaton.

Complications due to dad's underlying feud, disappointment with his son, and eventual jailing keep the plot humming along until the final 10 minute sequence which includes the most jaw-dropping barrage of nonstop stunts I've ever seen. No expense could have been spared during scenes of the town's destruction in a fierce tornado-like storm. The insanity culminates in the stunning scene where Keaton allows a house front to fall on top of him, just gliding over him by the slimmest of margins before crashing hard into the ground. From all accounts, this was entirely real -- with a several ton house front and a upper story window designed to give just inches of clearance around our main man. Buster could easily have been killed had anything gone awry.

Yet. . .  you feel safe watching Buster Keaton because his clear skill and precision allow you to know that he knew exactly what he was doing. Though he does death-defying stunts all the time, they don't feel scary or reckless because of his comedic touch and because of the trust the viewer develops for Buster. His physical skill just simply can't be praised enough. The man was a genius. The movie is a smile-fest throughout. Funny, sweet, physical and charming. Another perfect endeavor.

Go West

A love story about a man and a cow. That alone makes it one of the coolest movies ever.
Go West is not routinely included as one of his best, but it is. Here he matches the slower pace and tone of the movie to the work of a ranch and the heat of the desert.  The scenery and buildings are beautiful and we get to soak it all up at an appropriate pace. I don't want to overstate the point that maybe you have to love the desert to love this picture, but I think it helps. You gotta be able to see the beauty of the wood in the fence boards, the dusty wind, and the windows framing the shots of the hot grey mountains. Leave it to Buster to find both beauty and humor in this landscape.

Buster's character, "Friendless," is brave in unexpected ways. First, he installs himself on the ranch as a hand with no skills to recommend him and no real contributions to make. But he shows up for supper (though it isn't until his third attempt that he gets any food) and goes through the motions. He confronts a man who is cheating at poker and doesn't back down. He is plucky and willing and has the silliest little hand gun that belongs properly in a woman's purse. Getting tired of fishing it out of the depths of his holster when he needs it, he gets smart and attaches it to a watch chain.

I always have thought that you can tell a lot about a person by the way animals and children respond to them. Here we get to see Buster's soul through the eyes of an adoring cow. "Brown Eyes" is beautiful and her clear desire to be near Buster is evident. You have to trust the cow, given that she cannot have cared about the movie biz. ;)  (Another movie demonstrating Buster's winning ways with animals is The Camerman where the most amazing relationship develops between him and a little monkey. You can't fake that.)

Anyhow, there's a scene in Go West where Keaton is hiding behind a building watching the rancher approach his cow. As Buster crouches there, a slight wind picks up and kicks his hat off. He reaches out a hand and grabs it as it starts to blow away. He pops it back on his head almost without seeming to notice it has been blown. That in a nutshell is what's beautiful about Buster Keaton. The scene is small and serves almost no purpose. But these are the kinds of details you get with a Keaton movie. There are literally dozens of small perfect details packed into every  film. This one is special to me not just because its a small detail that shows his care and attention to the way his films came together, but because it symbolizes him in a nutshell. Its shows physical brilliance (lightning quick reflexes) and total unflappability. Life is going on in front of you and around you. Odd things happen. You just keep going. Don't worry about why. Though Buster is uber-present in the world, no one - least of all himself - sees his strength, balance, reflexes, and agility. His enormous eyes are always looking at the world with detached wonderment and interest. And together those eyes and his physical engagement make his trajectory through life fascinating, humorous and ultimately successful (in the broadest, non-sentimental way of living a well-lived life as being the only reason to wake up). But its only the audience who really sees.

His real genius seems to have escaped his contemporary audience. They loved his humor and made him a star, but his very best and most profound work was panned upon release. Buster was making his movies toward a deeper standard -- his own. I am incredibly grateful that he got to do it as long as he could and that I managed to stumble upon it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

You wonder how Buster Keaton did all the things that he did? He was a friggin' stud, that's how.


So. I really feel the need to preface this post with a disclaimer. I am not interested in Buster Keaton for his body.  I mean, that would be weird, right? -- to think about a man who's been dead for 45 years in that way.

Truly, the guy is a more appropriate crush for my grandmothers than for me.

Besides, even if he were a bit more contemporary to my age, really, I'm not that shallow.  His true charm is his talent.

Still, that said, you do just have to admire a man like Buster Keaton for so many reasons. . .

These very impressive photos come from a scene in The Camerman (1928), a movie which I have not seen.  Although, I think its a pretty safe bet that I will soon.

In the movie, Buster has gone to a public pool and is about to change into his swimsuit in the tiny dressing room when a burly guy comes in to change and refuses to leave.

Hilarity ensues, as they say. But more importantly, Buster shows the world for all time what he -- (and what we had probably already guessed that he must) -- looks like in his skivvies.

Still, its nice to have proof. Very nice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The first great 'talkie,' It Happened One Night is a gem.

Its funny how when you begin to write reviews, you get plagued by cliche. Overused sayings just pop into your head of their own accord and you find yourself saying things like "this was a gem of a movie" or it was like "a breath of fresh air" before you know what you're doing. So, in that vein, last night's entry in the film fest, "It Happened One Night," was a little burst of fresh gemmy air - if you'll forgive the expression.

I always knew it was a good idea to work forward in time through classic movies, but now, excuse my vanity, I really see the genius behind the plan. Watching "It Happened One Night" after several weeks of experience with earlier films just blew us away . . . the way it should have. I can fully appreciate why this movie swept the Academy Awards and has gone down in history as the classic romantic comedy of all time, the first screwball comedy, a Frank Capra masterpiece and yet -- simultaneously had been the film NO ONE expected to succeed.

Most involved in the project seemed to think it was a crummy waste of time (Claudette Colbert, at the end of filming, famously told a friend: "I just finished the worst picture of my life;" Clark Gable was given the assignment as punishment). To explain the paradox, you have to set yourself in 1934 when movies just weren't like this. People couldn't easily see the value of doing something like watching two people travel along the countryside taking little quips at each other and falling in love. It must have been hard to picture, until it all came together.

Of course I realize that I'm not in a position to declare outright that 'nothing like this had ever been done before,' but I'll do it anyway. Feeling like an expert with over 20 titles prior to 1934's IHON under my belt, I can attest to this being a major leap forward in cinematic style. At this time in history the talkies were really just beginning to seize control of themselves. Prior to this, they were still heady with flagrantly flaunting the fact that they had sound, and hadn't quite figured out how to make the most of it. Many still moved and seemed like silent pictures - often bad ones - done out loud. It took a bit more evolution before movie makers could just work with sound, instead of struggle to make it work.

I'm certain to mess up the details here, so take this with a grain of salt, but early cinematic sound movies (starting with The Jazz Singer and others that came out in the next couple of years) used a phonograph process to separately capture the audio and a standard film camera to capture the video. The two were then linked together so they would play back in sync (a huge breakthrough for commercial viability). There were still many problems including the very loud motion picture cameras that had to be closed off in a soundproof box so that the sound recording wouldn't be fouled, to the fact that many theaters weren't "wired for sound," to the problems of skipping and syncing during playback, to wiring actors or locating them near large microphones that restricted their freedom of movement. And the problems led to reduced film picture quality. All adding up to these movies just not being up to snuff - artistically. It wasn't until the sound-on-film technology (in which the sound and pictures were simultaneously recorded, together -- and yes I realize that's redundant) that the art form could take off. Advances in all aspects of sound recording seemed to reinvent the medium and free up filmakers to think about making movies again and not just think about working with the new technology.

Back to IHON - here is a film that is perfectly positioned to swoop in with total understanding of the beauties of dialog, but not forgetting motion either. It is extremely effective at telling a story fully. Its silly, smart, well-acted, and seamlessly audible. It takes advantage of the full range of cinematic storytelling and probably had a huge effect on everything that came after. It "feels" noticeably more modern in its pace and themes than other movies we've watched. It had to have struck a perfect chord with audiences and critics.

Gable, in an atypical role, and Colbert have wonderful chemistry. Their chemistry and dialog carry the film. The cinematography is wonderful too -- lovingly portraying mostly exterior location shots (in great measure as a means of saving money on sets). The only time the movie slows down is near the end when a misunderstanding separates our leads and we lose their combined charm. Although the film is regarded as the genesis of the "screwball" style of comedy, other films that came later are more screwbally and probably better examples; this one may be better heralded as the birth of romantic comedy. One reviewer on IMDB made a point of noting that this is romantic comedy well before the genre became synonymous with "chick flick". Definitely not a chick flick, IHON relies on the talents of Gable --who is unquestionably a guy's guy -- to keep the film rougher and and just a bit gritty, very appealing to men. I can attest that all of the men at my house loved this film.

Now that we've entered the golden age of Hollywood cinema, I can't wait to see what the next one brings. Keep watching this space :)

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Ten Best Things about Buster Keaton

The Top Ten Best Things About Buster Keaton

10.  His eyes. It may be a cheap call, but, really it's a no-brainer. They're not just astonishingly huge, taking up about half his face, but they are kind, sweet, and intelligent - expressive of his art and brilliance. Maybe these should go higher on the list. . . .

9.   His face. I don't care for the moniker 'the great stone face.' Its misleading and reduces what may be the most watchable, beautiful and subtle face in all of movies to a simple lump of rock. His face is a great empty canvas - but tremendously emotive and very watchable.

8.   His leading ladies. Classy guys can often be identified by the type of women they chose to promote and identify with. I enjoy the performances of the lead actresses in his films almost as much as I enjoy him.

7.   The number and length of the movies he made. So many! and so many shorts! And so many that he directed! Makes it so easy to watch a lot of Keaton!

6.   His intelligence and his clear assumptions about the audience's intelligence. Keaton's humor is not just funny - it's smart. He seems to expect a bit more from his audience. He knows they are seeing the subtle and ironic twists he layers in everywhere. And, even if they dont . . .

5.   At the most basic level he is simply just very very funny.

4.   He is strong and gentle. In equal measure.

3.   His stunning physical grace. Its hard to put words to this one. You either know exactly what I'm talking about or my writing about it isn't going to make you understand.

2.   His ability to walk through the world making objects move with a grace that matches his own.

1.   His tight artistic vision. This is perhaps the most surprising aspect to Buster Keaton. A reviewer of his compilation dvd on Amazon put it well: "In your shelves, Keaton shouldn't share his place with the Marx Brothers, but with Orson Wells." He made superb movies that tell real, poignant stories, that are visually evokative, delightfully entertaining and also full of wonder. The level of excellence is astounding.

And, to tie it all up in a nice bow, despite all of these things and by all accounts, Buster Keaton was in fact also a really nice guy.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Notes from Buster Keaton's Newest Fan

I have been a die-hard Buster Keaton fan for almost a week.

My love of him first started at approximately 7:05 pm on June 1st. My knowledge of him began about 5 minutes earlier -- when I cued up "Sherlock Jr." on Netflix.  Prior to that time, I knew the name and had a notion of him being a film star of the silent era. Beyond that I knew nothing. Thank heavens that while doing research for our family's classic film project, I thought to include something he'd done to our list.
One brief exposure and I was hooked. Keaton grew on me quickly, and now I can't remember film without him. What strikes me most about the man, beyond his achingly interesting looks, is his extraordinary screen presence. Commentators use words like elegance and grace when describing his physicality. It isn't enough. He is almost supernormal in his ability to project a total ease and gentleness upon the things around him. He moves through space with a sweetness and light that I've simply never seen before.

This natural talent for poetry in motion is typified by Keaton's very first appearance onscreen in a movie called "The Butcher Boy." In his biography of Keaton, ("Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat"), Edward McPherson shares the story. Keaton was taken to a Fatty Arbuckle movie set by a mutual friend one day, just to check it all out. The movie was filming and Fatty apparently asked Buster (who had tons of vaudeville and stage comedy experience but no prior experience with movies) if he'd like to appear on screen as an extra. Buster declined. Fatty stopped production for a bit in order to show his friend's buddy around the set and the ins and outs of what was going on; by the end of the tour, Buster had changed his mind and Fatty wrote him in to the production. (Gotta love how the movie biz worked back then.)

The film is cute enough and generally enjoyable, but Keaton steals the show - 6 minutes in with the simple act of tossing a broom. Buster walks in to the butcher shop, inexplicably picks up and inspects a broom from a barrel then tosses it to the ground; he picks up another, inspects it, then tosses this one back into the barrel. Only, those words can hardly describe the act -- how he seems to just invite that broom to sail sweetly back into the barrel on its own. Buster then walks over to the one on the floor and prods it with his foot, at which point the broom joins him in hand, then in barrel - without effort. The motion of those silly brooms and the simple but mesmerizing effect is bizarre. How can something like this be so riveting? I've watched the clip a half dozen times and I'm not sure. But it is apparent to any viewer that it is not all just a fluke because the next moment the broom routine is followed by the tasting of molasses. Which is even better. Yes that's it. Molasses. On shoe, finger, in mouth. Pure entertainment. Whatever star power is, this kid has it in droves.

If you're interested in Buster Keaton, check out the new blog What Would Buster Keaton Do. It features information and writing on his life and films.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The best Sherlock of all may just be Sherlock Jr.

My blog should be temporarily renamed "Swimming in Silents". I have yet another silent film to rave about. (Though I suppose I should underscore why. It has to do with a family movie festival we've embarked on for the summer. We are working our way through classics -- best films, actors, directors, and genres -- enjoying as many great films as I can get my hands on starting 110 years ago with 1902's "A Trip to the Moon" and working our way forward in time.)

Last night's entry: Buster Keaton in "Sherlock Jr." from 1924. I do get tired trying to come up with new ways to say "this was shockingly great entertainment," because it's the sentiment I keep needing to express. "Sherlock Jr." is seriously, just really, really good. I can't wait to watch it again. The plot is sweet and clever and the artistic vision expressed is tight. A phenomenally well-made film for any era.

Although we didn't find it side-splittingly hilarious, like Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last!", this one was probably the better film for having an extremely well-developed idea which travelled with the film from start to finish, as well as enduring themes that are both charming and true. And it was funny. A delightfully complete film.

The story begins with our hapless hero, who works as a projectionist at the theater, daydreaming of being a great detective. He shows his mettle early on, when he finds a dollar in the pile of trash he's sweeping up. He gives the dollar to the lovely woman who comes looking for it (after asking her to "describe it"), then gives his own dollar to another person who has lost one, and finally digs energetically through the pile as a third man who comes looking finds a whole wallet in the trash.

At his girlfriend's house later, to which he has gone with chocolates and proposal, he is framed for the theft of her dad's watch and kicked out of the house. Returning to his job, he dozes off at the projection booth and dreams himself into the movie where he assumes the character of Sherlock Jr., the amazing detective brought in to solve a very similar crime of the stolen pearls. The scenes where his ghostlike sleepwalking self goes into the picture are phenomenal. Even by modern standards, they are evocative and clever; the camera tricks that allowed this and the subsequent scenes where the background keeps changing on him are fun to speculate about. These scenes are integral to showing us he doesn't really belong in that movie; he's an outsider living a fantasy. This movie within a movie allows us to explore themes of fantasy and the role of cinema magic that was taking such an important hold of people at this time and which clearly persist to this day.

With Keaton playing the regular downtrodden guy in one and the fabulously crafty detective in the other, he really gets an opportunity to show his charm and strengths as a performer. While Sherlock Jr. plows through the hills and streets in and around LA (on the handlebars of a driverless motorbike for a while), and while he plays pool skillfully avoiding the ball that has been rigged with explosives, the film moves a bit like James Bond; he has all the tricks and skills and saves the lady and finds the thieves. Though a lot funnier and more bumbling than Bond, Keaton here is truly as attractive and appealing a hero. The scenery is amazing. I wish I knew where this was filmed. (I smell an internet research project coming on).

The movie's spark comes from the very intelligent themes underlying it - I love the ending scenes where "the Boy" is taking his romantic cues from our leading man on screen and has a priceless look of confusion when the screen characters sit holding twins.

I couldn't possibly recommend this film more highly. Even to those, like me!, who do not consider themselves silent film fans, it is very watchable and entertaining. And moves as such a crisp perfect pace (at only 3/4 of an hour long) that it is hard to think of a reason not to.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Brilliant Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last!"

Roger Ebert says he is not 'brilliant' like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Calls him an everyman who was successful through perseverance, not stunning talent. But I think someone who can still connect with viewers 89 years later has something pretty powerful going for him.

"Safety Last!", Harold Lloyd's masterpiece form 1923, has been my family's runaway favorite silent film so far in our series. From the opening scenes we were hooked, and continued to laugh aloud throughout.

Lloyd has a surprisingly modern quality to him. (Maybe this is underscored by the exceptionally well-preserved film. I understand that Harold Lloyd, unlike many other silent era producers, was meticulous about keeping his original prints stowed away safely). His face looks like one you would see today. Fresh, open, humorous, direct, ... not to mention good teeth.  He has a very charming, nerdish, appeal and a fantastic ability to express emotion with his face. (Hmmm... an olden days Jim Carey?)

He had our family in stitches with silly gags like avoiding his landlady who wanted rent, by, along with his roommate, stuffing their arms in their coat sleeves, hopping onto coat hooks and pulling their legs up and under.

The film is famous for Lloyd's stunning feat hanging from a clock on the side of a building. Someone, I forget who -- maybe it was that same Roger Ebert review (too lazy to check) -- said that this is a still-shot that everyone has seen, though almost no one has seen the movie from whence it came. More people should. It is great entertainment and a wonderful choice for dipping your first toe into silent film if that hasn't been your thing.

Although the film's value goes far beyond this iconic shot, the whole climbing up the building scene is simply fascinating. On many levels.

First, most basically, this is exceptionally entertaining comedy. Lloyd's character - through a series of silly setup moments - needs to do a stunt climb up the side of this skyscraper. I think they mention that it is 16 stories high. On the way up, he encounters children who accidentally drop popcorn on him, birds that torment him in order to get said popcorn, painters stuffing a plank out the window as he goes by, a mouse that climbs up his pant leg and a weathervane that has it in for him, not to mention the famous clock scene. (And, yes, from what I read online, this scene did inspire the clock tower dangling in "Back to the Future" and the new movie "Hugo" contains an homage as well).

Beyond the thrills of the plot, these climbing scenes -- give a perspective of historic downtown Los Angeles that is powerful. I am not steeped in that city's history, nor do I know these buildings and locations, but to anyone who is, this would be an enormous treat. An account of the filming, posted by the LA Conservancy, gives exact street locations and is worth sharing here.

Adding even more layers of interest, is the question any grown up watching is sure to ask them-self: "how did they do that!?" Apparently, there had been many decades of secrecy around the filming of these climbing scenes and that -- unlike in today's era where 'the making of' is actively plumbed for additional dramatic value and dvd special content -- it really was not well-known or discussed publicly. At least until many years later, and then there aere slightly conflicting accounts.  One thing that seems sure is that they were filming high in the air and that they were on location downtown in L.A. They apparently built a tower for the camera and a facade/set for the building being climbed. According to Lloyd himself, they built platforms below him and put mattresses on them! Lloyd never fell during this filming, though he states he almost did once. Although Lloyd did most of the climbing and tricks himself, a long-shot of the character seen at distance climbing a real building, was done by a guy they are calling "the Human Fly", Bill Strother, who plays Lloyd's funny roommate. Strother and his ability to scale buildings was apparently Lloyd's inspiration for making this film.

Maybe the most fascinating question and the final layer of interest is the "why" of it all. It is inconceivable to our modern minds for a major Hollywood picture to film anything that would put anyone - let alone our star! in such actual physical peril. The idea that the scenes unfolding in front of you are not, cannot have been computer enhanced in anyway, and although subject to 'tricks' of perspective and basic editing assistance, are an accurate depiction of people performing is heady. This lends an undeniable thrill to the experience. But what caused people to film actually dangerous things for our entertainment value? I guess, just simply, that they could. Still in in infancy as a medium, film makers were still working out what cinema was going to be, how it would be used to tell a story and what, if anything, was off-limits.

What I don't know about early Hollywood cinematic history could fill a blog, but I feel safe in saying that at this time in history there were at best minimal safety codes, controls on film content, and regulations on working conditions in place. What got made seems to be a function of what someone could dream up. The sky's the limit. Quite literally.

Maybe the reason that Harold Lloyd feels surprisingly fresh and relevant today is that he -- his style, his comedy -- was created for film. He was a product of the film industry, not a performer who imported his trade over to that medium from prior work on stage. He was inventing what worked on screen and his instincts were undeniably good.