Saturday, February 23, 2019

Stubs - The High Sign


The High Sign (1921) Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John. Directed by Eddie F. Cline, Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Eddie F. Cline, Buster Keaton. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck Runtime 19 minutes USA Black and White, Silent, Comedy

Just because you are a comedic genius doesn’t mean you’re a good judge of your own work. Case in point, The High Sign. When his co-star for 14 films, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle left to accept Paramount’s $3 million offer to make 18 films in three years, Buster was given Arbuckle’s controlling interest in Comique, Arbuckle’s partnership with Joseph Schenck. The new company was called Buster Keaton Productions.

The first film that company made was The High Sign, in January and February 1920, shot on location in Long Beach, where Keaton made several of his movies with Arbuckle, as well as in Venice. But in the end, Keaton was disappointed with the effort. According to Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, when Keaton screened The High Sign for Arbuckle, he took Arbuckle's enthusiasm as a sign that it was too gag-oriented and lacked a strong enough story.

Keaton would later explain his disappointment, recalling that the preview audience didn't respond well to him setting up and then subverting a gag based on a man dropping a banana peel on the street. "When the audience saw me approaching they expected me to slip on it. I tried to get a laugh by using the Mafia's secret sign, thumbs held crossed under the nose with the hands spread out on both sides of the face. [...] In the end, I decided that I had made the mistake of outsmarting the audience a little too much. But instead of cutting this scene out I added a shot. In this, after passing the camera and giving the sign, I slipped on a second banana peel somebody had dropped. That worked fine."

Instead of releasing or trying to fix it, Keaton convinced Schenck to let him make another film, One Week (1920). While The High Sign would eventually get released it was nearly a year later on April 18, 1921.

Our Hero (Buster Keaton) reaches into a spinning carousel and pulls out a newspaper.

Our introduction to Our Hero (Keaton) is him being thrown from a passing train. He quickly gets to his feet and then goes walking around. At a carousel, he reaches in an pulls out a newspaper. He walks away and starts to unfold and unfold the paper until it is the size of a bed sheet. He finds a help wanted ad for an expert shot at a shooting gallery.

What starts out as a regular newspaper ends up being the size of a bed sheet.

When the man he stole it from gets off the carousel, he goes looking for another one. He takes the one from Keaton and pays him for it. Keaton knows he needs to practice for his new job and takes a distracted cop's gun, replacing it with a banana. He then heads to the beach for some target practice.

Buster "borrows" a distracted cop's gun, replacing it with a banana.

There he encounters Al St. John, who assists him. No matter how carefully Our Hero aims the gun, he hits something else. Trying to hit the middle of three bottles, he hits everything but, even shooting St. John in the rear. St. John hurries away ending up a Dr. Pullem’s Dentist’s office.

Al St. John gets caught up in Buster's target practice at the beach.

Keaton’s last shot lands a duck, who falls from the sky, dropping on Keaton’s head. Dropping the gun in the sand, he hurries off to his job interview. Tiny Tim (Ingram B. Pickett), the extremely tall proprietor of the shooting range, engages him and tells him to practice, for when he comes back, he wants to hear the bell ring every time.

Buster is left alone to practice but to no avail.

Tim leaves Keaton to practice and goes downstairs to join his gang, the Blinking Buzzards, which are described on the interstitial card as "a bold bad bunch of bloodthirsty bandits." To gain admission, he gives them the high sign: thumbs on nose, with wiggling fingers spread wing-like.

The Buzzards have been trying to extort $10,000 from a skinflint aptly named August Nicklenurser, who has refused to pay the protection money. The film describes Nicklenurser as “tight as a fourteen collar on a sixteen neck”. Since he’s refused to pay, the gang decides to kill him.

Buster rigs a system to get the bell to ring with every shot.

Meanwhile, Keaton has rigged the gallery bell (using string, a dog, and a bone) to ring whenever he presses a lever. A crowd gathers and when Tim returns, he passes his employment test.

Meanwhile, August has received a final warning from the Blinking Buzzards. It says that if he doesn’t pay them 10,000 dollars by the first of September, it will be the end of August. His daughter (Bartine Burkett) convinces him that he needs a bodyguard. They go down to the shooting range and are impressed with Keaton's abilities. August asks him to be his bodyguard. Keaton, impressed with Nicklenurser's daughter, accepts.

Buster accepts the job when the daughter (Bartine Burkett) asks him to help.

But he is not the only one impressed by Our Hero’s abilities with a gun. Tim takes him to the Buzzard’s hideout, where he is made a member of the gang. They tell him they want him to kill someone, which turns out to be the same man he’s supposed to protect. They tell him to kill Nicklenurser and send him on his way.

Tiny Tim (Ingram B. Pickett) takes Buster to the Blinking Buzzards' hideout.

Back at the shooting range, Keaton deals with three increasingly aggressive customers. One, a drunk, shoots the place up, while the last man, a hunter, sneaks in his own rifle and basically destroys the shooting range. Keaton makes his own escape after that.

A cop tries to arrest Tiny Tim with a banana.

Meanwhile, a cop tries to arrest Tim, but when he reaches for his gun it turns out to be the banana Keaton had put there. Rather than fight, the cop runs away. Tim takes the banana and eats it, depositing the peel on the ground. Keaton walks over it without a misstep, and gives the audience the high sign. Then Keaton runs into the cop who chases him. He tries to turn his jacket around to disguise himself as a member of the clergy. When that doesn’t work, he flashes him the high sign, but the cop isn't a Buzzard. Luckily the nearby fruit vendor is, and he smacks the cop over the head.

Tiny Tim about to throw the banana peel on the sidewalk.

August shows his daughter some of the secret wall panels and trap doors he's had installed, so he can escape from assassins from every room in their house. Keaton arrives and he has a look at the secrets. The butler reveals himself to be a Buzzard, and when Keaton shows no inclination to do his murderous duty, the butler tries to poison him and calls the rest of the Buzzards to the house.

After the butler threatens Keaton with a knife, he hatches a plan to fake Nickelnurser's death in front of the Buzzards, who have gathered around the house. It works until the Buzzards see Nickelnurser is really still alive.

The Buzzards then chase Keaton through every window, door, and secret escape route the house has and Keaton eliminates each in his turn. Tim is the last; as he threatens Miss Nicklenurser, Keaton drops him through a trap door. Our hero and heroine embrace and Keaton once again flashes the high sign.

While One Week is a better movie, it is not to say The High Sign is devoid of laughs. There are several laugh out loud moments, including the ever-unfolding newspaper at the beginning. Or when Tiny Tim opens the door and knocks Our Hero over the counter in the shooting gallery.

There are also some really good visuals, the best of which may be a surreal moment when Keaton paints a hook on the wall and then hangs his hat on it. One of the funniest scenes is at the end of the film, when the Buzzards are chasing Keaton around and through all the secret passages in Nickelnurser’s house.

In a specially made gif, Keaton runs through all the trap doors
and secret passages in Nickelnurser's house.

If you had never seen a Buster Keaton film, I would suggest One Week over this film. It is easy to see why Keaton might have wanted that film as his first solo effort. Still, The High Sign has its moments and should not be missed if you have the chance to see it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Stubs - Green Book


Green Book (2018) Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini Directed by Peter Farrelly Screenplay by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly Produced by Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Charles B. Wessler Run Time: 130 minutes. USA Color  Biographical  Comedy-drama

In the last effort to see more movies nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, we finally made it to see Green Book, which in addition to Best Picture is also nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Viggo Mortensen), Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay and Best Achievement in Film Editing
(Patrick J. Don Vito). By now the audiences have pretty much thinned out and the only people are probably ones like us, trying to see what the fuss is all about and to have some interest in the Awards show.

Frank (Viggo Mortensen) and Don (Mahershala Ali) are men from
diverse backgrounds learning to live with one another.

The film tells the story of two men with very different backgrounds. There is Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga, a made guy who is big, tough and unrefined. A bouncer at the Copacabana in New York, he finds he has nothing to do when the club starts renovations, which are supposed to last a couple of months. Frank has a wife and two kids that he needs to support.

Dr. Don Shirley is quite the opposite. Extremely well-educated with three doctorates, fluent in several languages, including Italian and he is also a very gifted musician. Classically trained, he has been working instead in "pop" music as part of a jazz trio. He is about to embark on an eight-week tour, which includes several shows in the Deep South.

It is 1962, Don is black and Frank is Italian and bigoted. But Frank needs the money and can overlook his own prejudices to make a buck. It is during this tour that the bulk of the film takes place. During the tour, Frank gets to appreciate Don not as a black man, but as a very talented human. Don learns that despite his rough edges, Frank is really grounded. It takes time, but the two men grow close and it is a friendship that will last until both men died in 2013.

The film is filled with the funny sort of things that happen in real life and when cultures and understandings clash. Frank paints Don with a black brush but Don is not your typical Black man or human for that matter.

But what underlies the film is the general bigotry that was running rampant in most of the South at that time with its sundown laws and white-only facilities. In fact, during that section of the tour, Frank often stays in nicer accommodations than Don, who is limited to what is available to him in the Green Book, a sort of black person's AAA directory at the time.

It is sinful that people were treated this way for no other reason than the color of their skin. While prejudice still exists in this country, one has to hope and pray that it is not this bad still, though I'm sure there are people who still carry this misguided hatred with them.

To be honest, Peter Farrelly might seem like the last director you would trust with this type of film. A history of directing lowest common denominator comedies doesn't seem like prep for tackling such a frank discussion of racial prejudice, but he does a very good job of not getting in the way of the story and deserves praise for his efforts here.

The acting is really good as well with both Mortensen and Ali as standouts in their roles. Both men give deep performances and you really get to feel that you not only get to know these men as individuals but also as friends. You get a real sense that it goes from business to personal as the tour comes to an end.

By the end of the film, Frank openly brags about Don Shirley's talent.

The music throughout the film is really good as well, from hearing snippets of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin on the radio to hearing Shirley play, though it is in this film Kim Bowers.

I'm sorry I waited so long to see this film and would readily recommend it to anyone who hasn't yet seen it. This is a very strong movie that is both intriguing and heartfelt. If you don't at least tear up by the film's end, then maybe you should check your pulse, cause your heart isn't beating.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Stubs - Making a Living


Making a Living (1914) Starring: Charles Chaplin, Henry Lehrman, Emma Bell Clifton, Chester Conklin. Directed by Henry Lehrman. Written by Henry Lehrman. Produced by Mack Sennett. Run Time: 13 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White, Silent, Short, Comedy

Fred Mace might be a name that you’ve ever heard of before but if it wasn’t for his desire to leave Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, Charles Chaplin may not have ever gotten into films. He was on his second U.S. tour with Fred Karno’s comedy troupe when he was approached by a representative of Keystone who saw his performance and thought Chaplin could be a good replacement for Mace, who would appear in more than 150 films from 1909 and 1916 and was at the time the big star at the studio and wanted to leave. Though Roscoe Arbuckle would take over the roles Mace would have played, Chaplin was signed to a $150 a week contract in September 1913. He arrived in Los Angeles in December and began work for Keystone on January 5, 1914.

Almost immediately he began working on his first film that was written and directed by Henry Lehrman, who would also appear in the film. Chaplin was used to rehearsing parts was also not used to films which are made out of sequence. There are stories that he and his director butted heads early on.

Edgar English (Chaplin) swindles a reporter (Lehrman) out of money and a ring.

The short film opens with Edgar English (Chaplin), described as a swindler is in conversation with a man on the street who later turns out to be a newspaper reporter (Lehrman) whom he is apparently trying to convince him to give him money, as Edgar is down on his luck. Somehow during their talk, Edgar manages to steal a ring from the man.

The reporter is not happy to find that his sweetheart (Minta Durfee) is now engaged to
 Edgar. The girl's mother (Alice Davenport) looks on.

Edgar goes almost immediately to a mother (Alice Davenport) and daughter (Minta Durfee) who are standing out in front of their mansion. Edgar comes on to the daughter and they become engaged when he gives her the ring he’d taken from the reporter.

The butler moves to break up the ensuing fight.

The reporter, who had stopped to buy the daughter flowers, soon arrives to not only find out that his girl is engaged, not only with the ring he intended to give her but the bum on the street who asked him for money. The two get into a fight, which is eventually broken up by the butler, who gives the reporter the old heave-ho.

Edgar sees a help wanted sign outside what was the old
LA Times Bldg. The Bum is played by Chester Conklin.

Later, Edgar is looking for work and sees a sign looking for a writer on the local newspaper. Before he goes in to apply, he has some interplay with a Bum (Chester Conklin) who is hanging around outside. When he goes in to apply to the manager, he finds the Reporter works there. The reporter gets the Editor of the paper (Charles Inslee) to throw Edgar out.

The Editor of the paper throws Edgar out.

Later that day, the Reporter is out on the street when he sees a car lose control and go over the edge crashing down a hill, pining the driver under the car. The reporter is the first on the scene and takes photos with his camera and interviews the victim. He is about to leave the scene when others arrive and try to right the car and free the driver. The reporter is encouraged to help and he puts down his notes and camera.

The reporter interviews and photographs the victim of a traffic accident.

Edgar, who happens to be walking by, sees the accident and goes to investigate. While there he sees the reporter's notes and camera, which he scoops up and runs away. When Edgar sees a Keystone Kop policeman (Chester Conklin), he runs up the stairs to hide in a house where the woman living there (Emma Clifton) tries to throw him out. However, the reporter takes chase and follows him into the house. Edgar manages to get away but the reporter ends up in the bed with the woman and is discovered there by her husband (Billy Gilbert).

Husband (Billy Gilbert) finds his wife (Emma Clifton) in bed with the reporter.

Edgar takes the story and camera back to the newspaper. An extra is issued based on his story and the paper is on the street almost before the reporter realizes his things are missing.

Edgar's story rates an Extra edition of the paper.

He chases Edgar down and the two get into a fight on the street, ending up in the cow-catcher of a passing trolley car.

Edgar and the reporter take their fight out into the streets.

Chaplin was apparently disappointed in the finished film, feeling that his best performances were left on the cutting room floor. Supposedly, Lehrman would admit to having done just that out of spite for Chaplin.

The film was released on February 2, 1914 and despite his own misgivings, he received very positive reviews from Moving Picture World, an influential early trade journal for the American film industry, which wrote, "The clever player who takes the role of the nervy and very nifty sharper in this picture is a comedian of the first water, who acts like one of Nature's own naturals. It is so full of action that it is indescribable, but so much of it is fresh and unexpected fun that a laugh will be going on all the time almost. It is foolish-funny stuff that will make even the sober-minded laugh, but people out for an evening's good time will howl."

Henry Lehrman may not be a name that gets a lot of attention today, but back in the beginnings of silent films, he was very prominent, working with not only Mack Sennett but also D.W. Griffith. The next year, he would leave Sennett to start his own company, the L-KO Kompany, making two-reelers for Universal. He had a bad reputation for putting his actors in precarious and dangerous situations, earning the name "Mr. Suicide." One more connection to silent films is that Lehrman was engaged to Virginia Rappe, the actress whose death in 1921 led to the downfall of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's career.

The film also features Chester Conklin, a film comedian, and one-time Keystone Kop. He would go on to co-star with Mabel Normand in a series of films, including  Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914), Mabel's New Job (1914), Mabel's Busy Day (1914) and Mabel at the Wheel (1914). He was also teamed with Mack Swain and became known for his Walrus-like mustache. In 1920, he left Sennett and went to work at Fox Film Corporation. Conklin would have a significant role in Erich von Stroheim's acclaimed Greed (1924). However, his part was cut from the finished film and lost. Conklin would also appear in Chaplin's films Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940).

Minta Durfee was married to Arbuckle at the time the film was made with whom she would appear in several films. A close friend of Mabel Normand, Durfee would be best remembered for her role in Normand's Mickey (1918).

Just a quick note, the Billy Gilbert in this film is not the same Billy Gilbert from The Music Box (1932) or His Girl Friday (1940). Even though they were acting at about the same time, the two only share a name.

But the star of the film is Charlie Chaplin. This is certainly not the best work Chaplin would ever do but it does show certain glimpses of what was to come. Chaplin would be a quick study and it wouldn’t be long before he was one of the most famous people in the young fledging film industry, becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Making a Living is one of the few films when Chaplin is not seen as his trademark Little Tramp. That character would appear in his next film, also directed by Lehrman, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Here he is dressed in a long grey coat and a large mustache with a more villainous look.

As far as should you watch this short, the answer would be a qualified “yes” though I would not say it would be for everyone. If you’re a fan of Chaplin’s already, you owe it to yourself to see all of his films that you can. If you’re not a fan then there are other films I would suggest, like City Lights (1931), which may be my favorite of his.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part - Everything Is NOT Awesome!!!


When The LEGO Movie first dropped in 2014, the movie turned out to be surprisingly good in spite of its early previews. Though a sequel was inevitable, two spin-offs had been released in the interim in 2017, The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie, the former of which I also enjoyed and the latter I skipped and turned out to not do too well with audiences. Upon the release of The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, the box office returns opening day didn’t give me high hopes for the overall quality of it, however I did at least expect it to be an enjoyable film, if not closer to the original in entertainment value. Upon actually getting to see the movie, it unfortunately wasn’t that hard to see why it was failing.

After the end of the original movie, Emmet (Chris Pratt) makes a peace offering with the DUPLO aliens, however this offering ends up getting destroyed. Five years later, Bricksburg has become Apocalypseburg, where everyone tries to avoid building cool things lest they attract the attention of the DUPLO aliens. Emmet, who somehow manages to remain optimistic in the post-apocalypse, builds a house anyway. This attracts the attention of General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who destroys the house and takes away Wyldstyle, Unikitty, Benny, Batman and Metalbeard. Emmet then rebuilds the destroyed house so that it can fly and chases after General Mayhem, along the way trying to figure out to toughen up because of something Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) said.

The animation is still impressive as it was in the first LEGO Movie, evoking the feel of stop-motion as well as exploiting the potential play patterns of LEGO for all they’re worth. That said, much like The LEGO Batman Movie, a number of special effects that the original cleverly recreated in LEGO are instead rendered in particle effects, which seems to stray a bit from the whole point of the LEGO aesthetic, though I suspect this may have been done solely to save time on rendering. I was, however, impressed by the animation of the character Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi, as she constantly and seamlessly changes her appearance while still retaining the same color pool of LEGO bricks.

Aside from the voice acting, this is about the highest praise I can give the movie. To clarify, the story wasn’t too bad and it has some really good messages, however the execution was a little lackluster; out of a group of myself and three other family members, I was the only one who managed to successfully resist the temptation to fall asleep. The humor is well-paced and there are some chuckle-worthy moments, however compared to the first one, the humor was a bit more on-the-nose, as were a number of forced cameos and references, and overall it felt like the sequel was trying too hard in capturing lightning in a bottle a second time. The film also features an attempt at having its own “Everything Is Awesome!!!”, the appropriately named “Catchy Song”, as a plot point; while the song is, indeed, catchy, it didn’t stay in my head the same way “Everything Is Awesome!!!” did.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part isn’t a terrible movie, however you should not go into this expecting the same magic as the original. The animation is spectacular, especially concerning one of the more important characters, however the story was bogged down by a number of things that made it more boring than it should’ve been. If you do, however, still wish to see this film, you are free to do so, so long as you watch The LEGO Movie first. Also, some throwaway dialogue confirms The LEGO Batman Movie as canon, meaning we now know where The LEGO Ninjago Movie stands in the franchise.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Stubs - The Balloonatic


The Balloonatic (1923) Starring Buster Keaton, Phyllis Haver, Babe London. Directed by Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline. Screenplay by Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck Run Time: 22 minutes. USA. Black and White. Silent, Comedy, Short

In 1923, things were changing for Buster Keaton. Having made 17 shorts since starting his own company, Buster Keaton Productions, Inc. in 1920, he was wanting to make his own feature films, following contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, both of whom were already making them. But before Joseph M. Schenck would talk the stockholders into letting him make the transition, there were still two more shorts to be made, The Balloonatic and The Love Nest. Keaton had appeared in The Saphead for Metro Pictures in 1920, which was released soon after his own production company was launched. In that film, Keaton had taken over a role originally played by Douglas Fairbanks on stage. While the film helped to solidify Keaton’s status as a film star, it was not an original Keaton film nor his production.

Keaton had complete creative control over his own company, which meant long days, often starting at 6 a.m. and going into the wee hours of the morning. While he’s given screenplay credit, there really never was a script, just story conferences every morning. Keaton later recalled, "When the three writers and I had decided on a plot, we could start. We always looked for the story first, and the minute somebody came up with a good start, we always jumped in the middle. We never paid any attention to that. We jumped to the finish. A man gets into this situation; how does he get out of it? As soon as we found out how to get out of it, then we went back and worked on the middle. We always figured the middle would take care of itself."

The film opens with Buster in the House of Trouble.

Such was the case with The Balloonatic, which opens with Buster (The Young Man) at a Coney-Island style amusement park in something called the House of Trouble. Everywhere he turns and behind every door he opens there is either a skeleton, a devil or a monster threatening him. Backing away, he drops through a trap door in the floor and ends up going down a slide which dumps him out in front of the establishment.

Buster falls through a trap door and ends up outside the venue.

A large woman (Babe London) buys a ticket and goes inside. Buster waits outside to see her get the same treatment he got but he gets distracted by a pretty girl who walks by and doesn’t give him the time of day. But he has ended up right in front of the slide and when the large woman does indeed come down the slide, he is there to break her fall. People run over to help her and ignore Buster. The woman is not hurt and indeed enjoys the experience so much that she buys another ticket and goes inside. Buster wisely gets away.

A large woman (Babe London) buys a ticket for the attraction.

Down the street he sees another pretty woman standing at the curb who seems to be a damsel in distress. There is a wide stream of water and mud in front of her. Ever the gentleman, Buster removes his coat and lays it out over the mess for her. However, she’s not trying to cross the street but instead is waiting for a man with a car, which pulls up, driving over his coat. She gets in and they drive away.

Chivalry is a thankless gesture.

Buster doesn’t give up. When he sees The Young Woman (Phyllis Haver) getting on a Tunnel of Love type ride, he races to get in the same boat she’s in. He apparently tries something because when the boat returns from the ride, he has a black eye and his hat and clothes are ruined. They get off on opposite sides and we see her drive away.


Before and after Buster gets on a Tunnel of Love style ride with Phyllis Haver.

Buster moves on and comes across a hot air balloon in an open field. It is loaded with all sorts of gear that will be necessary for its scheduled trip. There are a group of dignitaries there to see the balloonist off. Buster is very curious about the balloon and annoys the men prepping it. One of them gives him the job of attaching a pennant to the top of the balloon, which Buster is eager to do.

A balloonist tries to launch his balloon.

However, he is still attaching it when the balloonist decides it is time to launch. When he jumps into the basket, the bottom drops out, and he is left on the ground while the pilot-less balloon takes off. On top of the balloon, Buster finishes his task before he realizes he is afloat. Climbing down the webbing and guidelines, Buster makes it into the basket, almost falling through.

Buster climbs down the guide ropes to the basket of the balloon.

Unable to pilot the balloon, Buster makes himself at home with his situation. We see him washing some socks and lowering decoy ducks for a little duck hunting. But all Buster manages to do is shoot the balloon and it drops from the air and crashes in a tree.

The next morning, Keaton has patched the balloon and is filling it with hot air from a fire. He assembles a three-piece canoe, then grabs his fishing tackle and head off to the river. Meanwhile, The Young Woman is, coincidentally, also fishing.

Phyllis Haver is more adept at camping than Buster.

Buster goes into the river up to his neck before getting out. He drains his hip waders by standing on his head. He has no luck in getting a bite until he herds the fish to a narrow part of the river, builds a dam, and picks them up out of the riverbed. His creel's bottom isn't shut, so they fall back into the water. When he notices, he stuffs fish in his pockets and down his waders.

Phyllis about to take a dip.

Haver, already having landed herself a big fish, changes into her suit for a swim. Meanwhile, Keaton's makeshift dam collapses and he's swept downstream. When The Young Woman dives in she lands on him. They both stand up and she yells and throws rocks at him. In his hip-waders, he can only waddle away.

Keaton builds a fire in the bottom of his boat the Minnie-Tee-Hee.

Next, Keaton loads his canoe (the Minnie-Tee-Hee) with a paddle, fishing rod, and two tennis rackets. He sets out but the boat is tied to a branch and it separates. As Keaton puts it back together, Haver grills her fish. Buster, sitting in his boat, catches a fish. He builds a fire in the bottom of his canoe and uses his tennis rackets to grill the fish. But the rackets catch on fire and he ends up throwing them overboard into the water. Then the fire burns through the bottom of the boat, and Keaton must bail.

Haver, who is more adept at camping, drinks some very hot coffee and breathes smoke. She tosses the rest away.

Buster sets off in his canoe, walking down the river since his legs are now dangling through the hole the fire made. He sees a rabbit on shore, grabs his gun but can’t shoot when he sees baby bunnies as well. He continues downriver, reading a magazine, and doesn’t notice a small waterfall, which capsizes the boat with him still in it. The Young Woman, who is washing her dishes, notices the upside-down boat and tries unsuccessfully to lasso it. When the canoe runs into a bank, she wades out to turn it over. Buster is not there. However, when he stands up beneath her, he knocks her over. She's disgusted that it is him again.

Later, after Buster has put the finishing touches on his canoe, a canopy and flags, a bull confronts The Young Woman, who screams for help. Buster picks up his gun and because the water is so shallow, walks rather than swims across the river to help her. However, when he first fires the gun it squirts water on her, then it fires a bullet that lands a pitiful few feet from him. While he examines the gun, it goes off, frightening him. The Young Woman finally has enough and she literally takes the bull by the horns and wrestles him to the ground. She then chases the useless Buster away.

Buster doesn't know there is a bear behind him.

Buster walks and is unknowingly being followed by a bear. The Young Woman is busy chopping down a tree, which falls on her. Buster sees a squirrel and gets ready to shoot it, but the bear chews on the seat of his pants. The Young Woman can't stand to watch what’s happening to Buster. Another bear pops up in front of him and Buster slowly stands and hits the bear in front of him with the butt of his gun. It fires, killing the bear in back.

Haver gets caught under a tree she chops down.

The Young Woman is now entranced by Keaton's bravery and they flirt. When the bear comes to, Buster hurries The Young Woman to his canoe so they can get away. They cozily float down the river, again blissfully unaware they are headed straight to a tall waterfall. But when they go over the edge they don't drop since we now see that the balloon is attached. Instead, they float. They kiss, and the two ends of the canoe fall away.

Buster finally gets a kiss from Phyllis Haver.

Released on January 22, 1923, The Balloonatic is one of his last shorts (two-reelers as they were called) before his studio switched over to features. The last one would be The Love Nest that would be released only two months later. The first feature released from the studio would be Three Ages, released in September of that same year.

A lot has been written about how strong the female character The Young Woman, played by Phyllis Haver, is, especially in Keaton’s films. She seems strong-willed, determined and someone who doesn’t really need a man to get by; wrestling the steer to the ground when Buster’s efforts were fruitless is proof of that. Haver was an old pro with film by this time, having appeared in silent films since Whose Baby? (1917), a film starring Gloria Swanson from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios.

Haver began her career as one of Sennett’s bathing beauties but would eventually rise above that, though not to the heights of Swanson. She would appear not only in other comedies, including The Battle of the Sexes (1928), directed by D. W. Griffith, but also Westerns, like Hard Boiled (1926) and 3 Bad Men (1926), the latter directed by John Ford, as well as films like What Price Glory (1926) and the early silent version of Chicago (1927) in which she played the lead role of Roxie Hart. She would only make two sound films before retiring from the screen. Her retirement seems to be prompted by her marriage in 1929 to millionaire William Seeman.

The other actress identified in the film, Babe London, made 97 appearances in films, mostly silent. She made her film debut in The Expert Eloper (1919) and that same year played opposite Charlie Chaplin in A Day's Pleasure, his fourth film for First National. During her career, she would appear in The Perfect Flapper, The Boob (1928), opposite W.C. Fields, and would also appear in films with Harry Langdon, Chester Conklin as well as The Three Stooges. In this film, she doesn't really have that much to do except to be the heavyset woman who falls down on Buster.

Overall, The Balloonatic is not one of Buster’s better outings. More than a cohesive story, it is a series of gags that are funny in places but don’t stand up to his better works. The lack of a written script may be the culprit here. If the practice was to gather every day and wait for inspiration, that might explain how the film was built one gag at a time.

This only proves that not every film by one of the great comedic geniuses is a masterpiece. More of an aberration than a trend, The Balloonatic is more for someone who is already a fan of Keaton’s and not for someone who is unfamiliar with his work. If this is the only film of his that you ever saw, you would get the wrong impression of his work.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Stubs - Tit for Tat


Tit for Tat (1935) Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlie Hall, Mae Busch, James C. Morton, Bobby Dunn. Directed by Charles Rogers. Screenplay by Stan Laurel, Frank Tashlin. Produced by Hal Roach. Runtime: 19 minutes. USA Black and White. Comedy

The story for Tit for Tat actually starts a couple of years earlier with Them Thar Hills (1934), in which Stan and Ollie co-starred with Mae Busch and Charlie Hall, both who were contract players at Hal Roach Studios. In Them Thar Hills, the boys travel to the mountains for Ollie’s health. They park their caravan next to a well used by moonshiners to dump their stash. While they’re there, they make the acquaintance of a married couple, the Halls played by Busch and Hall. The Halls’ car has run out of gas and Stan lends him his spare can of petrol. Left alone with the Boys, Mae shares supper and ladlefuls of water from the well. They get roaring junk and upon his return, Hall fears that something more has happened. There is a tit for tat sequence which culminates in Mr. Hall being tarred and feathered with a toilet plunger stuck on his head and Ollie being violently ejected from the well when he jumps in trying to put out his pants which are on fire.

In Tit for Tat, Stan and Ollie open an Electric supply store next door to the grocery store owned by, who else, the Halls. On opening day, Stan and Ollie go next door to introduce themselves to their neighbors, not realizing they’d already met. Leaving their store wide open, the miss a customer (Bobby Dunn) who enters the store.

Charlie Hall has not forgotten Laurel and Hardy from their first meeting in the short Them Thar Hills.

Ollie may have forgotten they’ve already met but Charlie Hall has not. He rebuffs Ollie’s overtures to prompt each other’s store and orders him out of his store and warns him not to return. Going back to their store, the customer leaves with a waffle maker tucked under his arm. The Boys don’t seem to notice and are pre-occupied with getting the lights up on their sign.

While Ollie is high on the ladder, Stan goes into the basement to get more light bulbs and uses the sidewalk elevator or dock lift to get up to street level. Too bad its right below Stan and launches the ladder up into the air, landing Ollie on the window sill outside the Halls’ living quarters above their store. Mae, who has gone upstairs, is only too happy to oblige Stan, letting him through their window and down their stairs.

Charlie worries that something is going on between Oliver and his wife (Mae Busch).

Charlie isn’t happy to see a man coming down from their apartment and tells Ollie not to even look at his wife or he’d hit him so hard, Stan would feel it. While they figure out what to do, the customer exits carrying a clock and a lamp, which doesn’t seem to warrant Ollie’s attention. To him, it’s more important that his character has been besmirched.

They go over to tell Charlie off, and as they leave, Ollie causes the drawer in the cashier to open, hitting Charlie on the chin. As if to add insult to injury, Ollie eats a marshmallow from an open container on the counter as they leave.

Oliver eats one of Charlie's marshmallows out of spite.

Charlie comes over to tell Ollie off, picking up a hair curling iron on the counter. As he’s holding it by the curler, Stan plugs it in, burning his hand. The Boys laugh at him, to which Charlie uses the iron to pinch and burn Stan’s nose before storming out. Stan tries to help, but ends up spraying himself in the face with the seltzer bottle.

Charlie uses a curling iron on Oliver's nose.

Back over at the Grocery store, Ollie splats Charlie in the face with shortening that is on the counter.

While Charlie fumes, Ollie and Stan leave, stopping once more to help themselves to a marshmallow each. Charlie starts to follow them but stops to sprinkle the marshmallows with powdered Alum, a colorless astringent compound used in baking powder and pickling, just in case they come back.

On their way back into their shop, the customer exits carrying a floor lamp with him, as if he were taking it out for a walk.

Charlie sees the milkshake maker and gets an idea.

Charlie comes over and takes several $1 pocket watches and puts them in a milkshake blender, obviously destroying them before storming out.

The watches are ruined after Charlie runs them through the milkshake maker.

In their tit for tat, the boys return to the grocery store and pour honey into another of the grocer’s cash registers. Charlie doesn’t waste time and takes Ollie's derby and runs it through a meat slicer, taking off the top of his hat. The boys up the ante by placing a vat of lard over Charlie’s head. This time on their way out, the Boys each take two marshmallows, not knowing they’ve been tainted.

Oliver pours honey into one of Charlie's register.

On their way back to the store, they pass the customer who has taken to using a dolly to remove an appliance and another floor lamp. Back behind the counter, the Boys realize they can’t speak until Ollie sprays their mouths with seltzer.

Neither Oliver or Stanley know that Charlie has sprinkled Alum on the marshmallows.

But Charlie isn’t done. He comes into their store and wreaks havoc, destroying any and everything that he can. He even manages to break all of the lights dangling from the ceiling and even smashes one of their front windows.

Charlie puts shortening in Oliver's and Stanley's faces.

With a crowd gathering, Stan and Ollie march next door with the idea to get an apology. But Charlie isn’t in the mood and splats them both in the kisser with shortening like they had done to him. The Boys pick up a large container of eggs but before they can do anything, Mae comes back downstairs to try to stop them. But Charlie tells her to mind her own business just before the boys push him down on one container of eggs and pour another one down over his head much to the laughter of the crowd outside.

A crowd gathers and watches as Stan and Ollie pour eggs all over Charlie.

A policeman (James C. Morton) finally moves in to stop them. When he asks what started it, Ollie and Stan proceed to tell him that Charlie had accused him of a clandestine rendezvous with Mae, a charge to which Ollie pleads his innocence. They finally shake hands and let bygones be bygones.

A policeman (James C. Morton) finally tries to put an end to the squabble.

By now, having received no resistance, the mysterious customer has pulled a rented truck up to the store and has cleaned them out.

The short ends with the policeman, having taken a marshmallow for himself, finds he has trouble talking to disperse the crowd.

Shot in December of 1934 and released on January 5, 1935, Tit for Tat would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Comedy), losing out to Robert Benchley’s How to Sleep.

The film is very funny, something a dry synopsis can’t really capture. Much of it is due to the physicality of the performers. There is some very humorous dialogue, but the real source of the humor is involved in the "reciprocal destruction," wherein one little act of vengeance leads to another until all hell breaks loose. This is something that is seen over and over again in Laurel and Hardy films, going back to some of the earliest films, such as The Battle of the Century (1927), wherein a pratfall on a banana peel leads to a pie fight. This comedy technique was also utilized in Them Thar Hills as described above, which is not really required viewing to get the jokes.

This is not a film showing the development of Laurel and Hardy but rather a testament to their genius. They show that they are a finely tuned comedy team adept at both physical humor and witty dialogue. Tit for Tat is one of their funnier efforts and well-worth watching.