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.

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