Convict 13

The young lady is a whiz on the golf course, Keaton knocks himself out (after losing his ball to a fish that disgorges it when caught), an escaped convict changes clothes with him and makes off.

The young lady is the warden’s daughter, Keaton’s due to hang. Later on this is Cops, she helps him with an elastic rope, he puts on a guard’s uniform, stops a riot, and wakes up on the course as she ministers to him.

A very profound two reels of crackerjack comedy.


The Haunted House

Wall Street, where it’s “mostly the Bull”.

The main elements are a bank and a pot of glue, the Daredevil Opera Company “executing Faust”, and a counterfeiters’ hideout.

The central image is a staircase you walk up and slide down.

A terse expression leads to Keaton rejected at St. Peter’s Gate, the Devil adjusts hell’s Bulletin to “Keaton: In”.

A highly-compressed two-reeler.


The Playhouse

The Playhouse moves with astounding rapidity, and typically with Keaton this has not met with critical favor, even accounting for errors in the 20-minute print (missing scenes, incorrect speed). Jokes are fast and unprepared, shots are brief with simultaneous action. Keaton is not wrong, the film repays many viewings.

Vincente Minnelli, whose understanding of silent film comedy is unsurpassed, re-created the famous opening as a simple tribute, whose wittiness may have been sharpened by Keaton himself, magnified by Technicolor, in the Oscar Levant daydream sequence of An American in Paris (a film with many citations of Chaplin as well).

The gag which follows this tour de force is even better. Keaton’s Opera House was only a dream, he’s awakened in his room by an eviction notice (cf. Go West), his washstand is carried out, his bed and the walls are swiftly removed to reveal the backstage area at the Opera House where he works as a stagehand, it’s one o’clock (PUNCH THE CLOCK says the sign, so he does).

A twin sister act quadrupled by mirrors almost makes him take the pledge. He’s ordered to “dress the monkey”, a baby orangutan that walks out of its cage and leaves the theater when Keaton opens its door and signals it to follow.

Keaton’s impression of a monkey in evening dress is lifelike and amusing as he substitutes onstage for the absconded player. Next the Zouave Guards walk out, and he has to replace them. An idling foreman gives his assent to hiring away his ditch-diggers for the nonce, and they drill onstage in uniform, but the painted wall they pile up to climb over falls on them, propelling Keaton as their commander up the aisle and out the main entrance, where he dazedly buys a ticket at the box office and goes back inside.

One of the sisters is now his sweetheart, but he is bearded by the other one embarrassingly. A stout actor puts on a false beard and sits down in a dressing room to have a smoke, which ignites his beard and sends him shouting for help. Keaton breaks out a fire axe, knocks the actor unconscious with the flat end and quickly shaves away the fuming beard, but the actor pursues him ungratefully throughout the second reel.

In a scene remembered by George Marshall in Houdini, the sister act known as The Mermaids is introduced. One of them climbs into a glass tank full of water and reclines easily on the bottom, a feat of endurance. She becomes caught, Keaton bails out the water with a teacup, then breaks the glass, releasing a mighty stream of water which fills the pit (where he played all the instruments during the overture). He dives in from the side to rescue the girl, who is lifted out and walked into the wings, but the actor jumps in after him. Keaton eludes him in a bass drum paddled with a fiddle, and makes his escape (cf. Chaplin’s Limelight).

Off to the justice of the peace with the girl, but which one? Keaton takes a sign-painter’s brush to mark her nape with an X.

This memory of minstrels and the Opera House as cavalcade certainly figures in Sherlock, Jr., and is generally a satire of show business crammed into two reels of genius.


The Paleface

The title is a little joke on the auguste with the porkpie hat, who in the astonishing simplicity of the main formal structure, which turns on a mere exchange of clothing, and the nudity of the mise en scène with the barest of sets in the hills around Los Angeles, contrives to make a masterpiece of the sharpest wit and the most bravura of gags.

The difficulties of critical perception stem from the fact that this is a full-length feature in two reels, the first containing the Paleface’s initiation into the tribe, and the second his defense of it against an oil company.

The main gag has the oil company president force Little Chief Paleface to change clothes with him, and inside his new coat the Paleface finds the deed to the tribe’s land, which he returns to the big Chief.

All of the gagwork is impressive and very, very funny. A typical Keaton statement and counterstatement begins with his first entrance as a butterfly collector pursuing a highly realistic specimen that lands on the back of his hat, and later is replaced by an actual live one of another species in his net after a second chase. The entire sequence, with the swindled Indians ready to pounce on him as the first white man they’ve seen after their emissary was waylaid outside the Land Office, and him occupied with catching his butterflies round the campfire, is a tour de force.

The stake gag, where he’s saved by ad hoc asbestos underwear, is justly famous, and so is the legendary plummet down a nearly vertical cliff, which he does mostly at a run. But, as in Go West, the structure of the finale was too much for some observers, mirroring as it does the give-and-take of the identity switch.

The Paleface, in the garb of the oil company president, is now caught between two hostile tribes, his own and their loinclothed enemies. He escapes the latter on a bridge made of two cords over a gulch with a few loose slats across them, which one by one he advances ahead of him, only to find his tribe waiting on the other side. He plunges into a stream, climbs onto a rock ledge and sees a hostile brave on the opposite bank who jumps into the water after him. The Paleface jumps in, too, and both are again facing each other across the stream. This is all amplification of the crux, but was altogether too fast and brilliant for Variety and the New York Times, at the time.



Chaplin is the English specimen, an artiste of unsuspected gifts. Lloyd is his American cousin, the model for Clark Kent as Superman. Keaton is sometimes thought of as a circus act, hence the disappointment felt by some when he appears outside the Big Top, as you might say.

Cops is a satire of the “big business man” and how he got that way, until the end reveals it’s not mistitled, because ultimately it’s about a cop and how he got that way.

He’s spurned by a rich girl, finds a wallet and returns it to a churl who treats him roughly, so he keeps the money. By a sequence of gags that must have inspired Bresson’s L’Argent many years later, he innocently drives a wagonload of someone else’s belongings in a police parade, is tossed an anarchist bomb, flees the police and winds up in the pokey, from which he emerges in uniform, is spurned again, and goes back inside, this time for good.

The subtlety of this composition has him earlier trying to sleep at the reins, then have the peaked horse treated with “goat glands”. At the height of the mêlée, he’s pivoting on a ladder over a fence with cops on either end, then catapulted through the air and out of sight.

Even in a print blindly struck off a smeary dupe, which can’t make up its mind whether to slow down the action or speed it up, and which I hesitate to ascribe to the Library of Congress, the beautiful photography that is so distinctive in Keaton’s work carries the day.


The Electric House

College grad with wrong degree gets job to “electrify my house”.

It doesn’t work, but electric trains serve dinner, a hectic escalator replaces the stairs to propel risers out the window into the pool, the whole thing is too much, and our man is flushed out with the automatic pool drainage.

He kills himself in the pool, upon first tying the rope around his neck like a proper tie, the other end weighted with a rock, but the nabob’s daughter switches on the electric drain and out he’s in, after a back-and-forth with Pater over the switch.

College is but the trimmings of a man at People’s University (P.U.).


The Balloonatic

Keaton at his fastest and freest, though not without the slow build-up. He dams a stream and leisurely collects the stranded fish until the rising tide sweeps him away.

The girl of his dreams stands on a ledge overlooking the river, takes a big deep breath and dives onto him emerging from the current.

On the hunt, a bear follows him lumberingly, he spies a squirrel, then another bear. Smiting it with the butt-end, the gun goes off and hits the one behind him.

Canoeing down the stream with his girl, they pass over a waterfall and keep right on going, hooked to the balloon he was inspecting at the fair when it took off, leaving him to do his laundry in the gondola, hang out duck decoys, and aim his shotgun a little too high, bringing down the balloon beside her campsite (and this after she’d given him a black eye in the Tunnel of Love).

It opens in darkness, he strikes a match, the room is lit, doors to right and left lead to death and hell, the door behind reveals a monstrous dragon, the floor opens and he drops in front of the barker’s stand and a sign reading Get into Trouble.



Our Hospitality

The aspect ratio is a compositional surface under any and all conditions, with a Stieglitz angle on occasionally rectilinear framing. The focal range is held to be limitless, with immediate foregrounds available to complement deep focus. Every part of the visible image is accounted for as a picture, then made usable for independent gags.

The acting comes to a point at every moment as expressive in a single gag or reflective in transitions. These two aspects of technique, photographic and dramatic, put the town walk (Keaton and an unknown archenemy) in a fresh perspective imitated by Welles, Sturges, and Siegel (The Shootist). The art direction is renowned for its exquisite accuracy, but its realism is allowed to show wear and tear, and this is typically counterstated as a joke (the film is set in 1830, the clapboard town at the end of the line has a large building made of logs called Ye Old Time Inn). This sort of calculation in set design figures consciously as an element of Shane and High Plains Drifter, and for the same reason. Another gag sign, this time at the depot in New Jersey, advertises Good Fat Hams. Keaton holds the waterfall gag long enough to show you that he catches a dummy, and then, in another counterstatement, he contrives a subsequent angle with a woman to cap the bravura.

The more or less conventional view is conditioned by the prologue, which presents the situation that eventually figures as the dramatic crux, but Our Hospitality is not so much a satire of feudin’ and fightin’ as it is the essential Keaton plight, deep in hostile territory.


Sherlock, Jr.

Keaton establishes the continuity of film, this is decidedly to the advantage of critics who have never understood it.

It really is as simple as can be, the projectionist’s girl just asks the pawnbroker for a description of the man who brought in the stolen gold watch, the very man passes by the shop at that moment.

The crime-crushing criminologist is alive to every trap and ruse, finds the pearls and gets the girl, in the end.

Hearts and Pearls, a Veronal Film (or, “The Lounge-Lizard’s Lost Love”), is the film projected, its various scenes and locales are, as in any film, pearls on a string. The entire strand must be considered as all of a piece, the critics can’t pick and choose.

And, as Keaton points out, you can learn a lot from the cinema.


The Navigator

Everything about this was congenial to Hitchcock, who incorporated it lock, stock and barrel into Rich and Strange. The final gag resonates throughout the Bond films, with at least one explicit re-creation.


Seven Chances

The film takes place on a fateful day in the life of a young man whose business partnership is in imminent danger of failing. In fact, there’s a man at the door with legal papers, who follows the partners to their country club, where he succeeds at last in making known to them it’s a will, bestowing a fortune on the young man provided only that he is married by 7 PM on his birthday, which is today.

A prologue shows the cycle of seasons through which he has passed an undeclared courtship with his girl, standing at her gate. At the end, he carries this gate with him to the door, stuck on his coat, like the lover in Un Chien Andalou.

His partner outlines seven likely prospects at the club, after his girl learns the reason for his proposal and turns him down. All seven turn him down as well, even the hat check girl, so his partner puts a column in the paper and sets a meeting at the church, where the young man enters all alone and finds all the pews empty. He falls asleep in a front pew to one side and evidently dreams of advances and refusals while the church slowly fills with women in bridal gowns, like a scene from The Birds.

He’s pursued through the town by a horde of brides, but in the hills he starts a rockslide that dispels them (this is often anthologized, per the reviewer for The Chicago Reader). Now, no obstacle can keep him from his girl, who has learned of his true feelings for her and sent a family retainer on a horse as slow as Belacqua’s purgation.

The parson is waiting, but after dislodging the gate, the young man arrives behind time. The steeple clock says otherwise, however, and he’s married to the pealing of bells.

A very funny joke prepares this. A watchmaker’s shop window has clocks of every variety, all set differently, so the young man goes inside to ask. The watchmaker pulls out his watch and looks at it, shakes it, holds it up to his ear and calmly settles down to fix it.


Go West

The entire basis of Go West is Shaw’s play, Androcles and the Lion, to which the interested parties in this particular masterpiece are directed for enlightenment in the face of criticism that it is enjoyable, but lesser Keaton. The problem is most acute in the finale, where the silent film abstractions become most far-reaching, expertly handled as they are.

Keaton is The Great Stone Face, according to studio publicity, though in fact his acting is sensitive and varied in the utmost. In the boxcar where he is following Horace Greeley’s advice, full barrels descend upon him en masse, he struggles to remain afloat, as it were, and this is not met impassively. He departs from the train in the Christian metaphor of rebirth by way of an empty barrel he crawls into for safety, which rolls out the door and onto the desert, breaking apart.

It’s a flat, wide expanse of low scrub and the odd cactus, with distant mountains on the horizon. This gives a pure field for the cinematography, which has been overlooked because the scene is not crowded. Long shots of cowboys riding hard amongst the cattle of the actual working ranch or re-creation where later scenes were filmed compare, for example, with long shots of a cow rejoining the herd after being fitted with antlers to protect herself, the bulls look at her and the camera records this.

The cow is Brown Eyes, who befriends Friendless after he removes a stone from her hoof and buries it in the sand while she watches him. She saves his life twice, on the desert and in the city of Los Angeles, where the film ends after a stampede.

As Friendless stands facing the desert for the first time, the camera, with the ideal cinematographic awareness which is Keaton’s, pans from him in the middle of nowhere to a horse also standing in the foreground, unsaddled and not to be ridden by him, anyway. He walks into the void, steps onto a cactus and, recoiling, starts several jackrabbits from a small shrub.

The ass who stops the train in Our Hospitality with its contemptuous disregard prepares the acting in Go West, from the dog who will not suffer the pat of Friendless to the rumbustious bulls who would like to gore him, the more than patient horse he saddles too far back then too far forward, and of course Brown Eyes, who follows him into the bunkhouse and is scatted away by the other cowboys.

The railroad first figures as a string of boxcars with place names on them. Friendless passes by Canadian Pacific and settles on New York Central, which deposits him in that jostling city, where another one marked Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe takes him out West. When he rides the cattle cars into Los Angeles with Brown Eyes, the camera is fixed on top of a car at the rear of the train as it curves toward Union Station and he strides over the cars toward the engine, a shot rather anticipating Sunrise.

The last scene is so complicated in its imagery that its working out is a great feat of composition, and characteristically Keaton acknowledges this with the superb timing of its succinct punchline (empty stockyard, rancher ruined, cattle pursuing Friendless in a red devil suit borrowed to lure them on, rescued by Brown Eyes, stockyard suddenly full, rancher overjoyed).


Battling Butler

Battling Butler is a complicated explanation of boxing that has stumped the critics, as far as one can see. It may be the greatest film on the Fancy made up to the time of whichever film is your favorite, it’s certainly the subtlest.

The analogy is to Cops, which begins as one thing and ends as another. In the last scene of Battling Butler, the hero strides along a city street with his girl after knocking out the lightweight champion, passersby stare because he’s wearing a boulevardier’s top hat and his boxing trunks, with a walking stick and nothing else, carelessly.

To begin with, he’s a pampered rich man whose valet taps his ashes out for him. Mummy and Daddy, principally Daddy, recommend a hunting and fishing expedition. “Arrange it,” he says to his valet.

The woods are full of game he doesn’t see, and he ends up in the water among the fish, but he makes the acquaintance of a mountain girl and wishes to marry her. “Arrange it,” he says to his valet. Her father and brother are towering figures, they’ve met the master and sniffed at his puniness. The even punier valet (Snitz Edwards, who looks like everybody’s idea of a Hollywood agent) identifies him as his namesake, the contender Alfred “Battling” Butler, and they are pleased.

Alfred Butler has his valet arrange lodgings near the training camp, so that he can write to his girl, who is under no circumstances to follow him there. “Battling” Butler arrives with his wife, who vexes him, then leaves her outside while he trains. Alfred Butler meets Mrs. Butler, “Battling” Butler is jealous, the girl is there, the valet explains to the boxer, who takes his wife and laughingly withdraws from the sport, leaving Alfred to prove himself by actually training for the championship fight.

The key point in this, on which the whole film pivots, is the astounding coincidence not of names (that’s very common) but of the distance between the men and women at this juncture, played as a necessity of the sport.

Alfred Butler, whose name was recalled by the creator of Batman, is taught the rudiments, after entangling his head in the ropes. On fight night, “Battling” Butler steps into the ring, afterward explaining it was all a joke, his retirement. “Thanks for saving me,” says Alfred. “I’ve been saving you for weeks,” says the new lightweight champion, and starts to pummel him. At the height of this beating, the girl appears at the dressing room door, Alfred sees her, and in a few seconds passes the stages from dummy to Dempsey, quelling the champ. Alfred and his girl step out into the evening air, as described.

The epical hunting trip, which, under the general sense of bachelor life given by Richard Quine’s How to Murder Your Wife, anticipates the safari regimen of Matthew Merriwether (in Call Me Bwana), is a replete study in itself, and only an inability to follow the machinations of the boxing plot can have prevented reviewers from appreciating this incomparable film (which nevertheless found its way for example into the “utz” and the finale of Somebody Up There Likes Me).



The General

Godard has pointed out how geometry is necessary to comedy, and this is the supreme example. The settings are precise reconstructions, the gags are ballistic.