A Gag Every Minute: Buster Keaton in The Blacksmith (1922)

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We have a smithy at our country house. Yes, yes. We don’t use it anymore as no one alive in my family is a graduated blacksmith (!) but the woman who gave us this house (my grandfather’s cousin) was the daughter of the village’s blacksmith. She was quite a character and would put posters in front of her house written “damn flower thieves!”.  The smithy is a real Ali Baba’s cave in here. There are plenty of horseshoes or any type metallurgical tools you can take as a souvenir if you even visit. The chimney is still here and the pigeon loft too, but, fortunately, without the pigeons.

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Our smithy

So, with a blacksmith ancestor, movies with blacksmith characters are, of course, of a great interest, especially when the dynamic Buster Keaton plays the role.

With The Blacksmith, a 1922 short he co-directed with Malcolm “Mal” St. Clair, Keaton makes twenty minutes of screen appear like 2. From the very beginning until the end, we never get bored.

The story is simple. Buster Keaton is the assistant of a cartoonish-looking blacksmith (Joe Roberts). After a fight with Buster, this one is brought to the police station for a short time. Meanwhile, Buster receives various customers but all he does in his attempt to help them is to create several catastrophes. They eventually seek revenge, as well as the blacksmith who eventually gets back to work.

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Buster is introduced to us next to a palm tree. And that’s how the first gag of the film is installed. The camera makes a pedestal up from the base of the tree to the top. It goes up and up and it seems it’ll never read the top. Then, an extreme wide shot allows us to see how short Buster is in comparison to this tall and thin “top model” tree.

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The smithy is a picturesque place where strong men are needed to forge metal. Buster is only an apprentice here. His superior unfortunately takes advantage of his strength to be brutal with the poor Buster.

It’s interesting how the film is basically a succession of gags and new encounters. Ah! Customer service…

With physical or visual comedy, Buster amazingly knew how to make everything on the movie set participate to the gag. For example, toward the beginning of the film, Buster is outside the smithy with a wheel we suppose has to be placed somewhere. But, suddenly, it “flies away”. The same soon happen with the sherif’s gun and star. What is that mystery? With the help of a wide shot, the public is actually the first one to know (and to laugh at the confused characters). And then, clumsy but smart Buster realises that the lost metallic objects were in fact attracted by the giant horseshoe that decorates the smithy: this one is magnetic! Don’t ask me why!

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While watching The Blacksmith, I realized that one of Buster’s main quality in his acting game was his confidence. He indeed seems very sure of himself in what he does, even if he has to play a confused man. Every gesture is made with an incredibly calculated precision and with an impressive tact. Because of this, his acting game remains very natural but yet necessarily expressive for a silent film. Remember when Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) mocks the exaggerated mimics and facial expressions of silent film stars in Singin’ in the Rain? Well, Buster is the total opposite of this and that’s what makes him unique.

Buster Keaton shows this assurance perfectly well in the white horse scene. A woman has arrived with her horse who needs “shoes”. We suspect the horse’s name probably is “Pâte à Choux” or “Lord Danderfeet”. The animal is a very capricious one and it’s hilarious. Buster shows it various pairs of horseshoes and basically asks it what it thinks of them. Several times, the horse nods with disapprovement. Eventually, the horse finds what he likes and expresses a sweet happiness as he admires his new feet in the mirror Buster has brought him. “He” knows what he wants! But it doesn’t stay pretty as Buster eventually dirty it with some tar. But as the horse owner is very supercilious, Buster let her go without saying anything. Serves her right!!!

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Eventually, another lady arrives with a black horse. Her back hurts so she needs a new saddle and the one Buster gives her is impressive. It’s a high bouncing saddle and it takes the woman all her energy to climb on it.

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Flexible!

There’s a situation that I won’t ever understand in this film. What is Buster doing with his pocket watch? Does he wish to fix it with these big blacksmith tools?? While he goes about his business, an alternative montage allows us to see the woman with the bouncing saddle riding in the country. She goes fast and seems quite satisfied with her new toy.

The irony of Buster Keaton’s humour continues in this scene where he has to take care of a rich dandy’s car. But clumsy Buster sort of damages it completely ruins it. The irony resides in the fact that, while he is fixing a ridiculous looking car, the beautiful car loses all its value. Well, it’s never a good idea to use a fancy car to nail a nail. Oh, Buster…

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I mentioned before my appreciation of Buster being able to give us just the right dose of facial expressions to his acting. While I was watching the film again yesterday for the blogathon, I noticed a moment in his acting in which I had never paid attention before (ok, I hadn’t seen the film 10 times before either) and it’s just a priceless moment. The horse with the bouncing saddle comes back to the smithy but without the lady on it… In the frame created by the silly object, we see Buster noting the situation. And his facial expression is just perfect. You know that confused “what the f***” type of face, with eyes moving from left to right and from right to left. Well, Buster does it perfectly. Yes, Buster Keaton indeed was a silent film actor who knew how to use his eyes in his acting game and created amusing situations with them only.

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As always, there are too many things to say about Buster Keaton’s films, even with a 20 minutes long one. But I don’t want to spoil all your fun and will let you watch it before I hope my big mouth and tell you the ending!

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This post was written for the Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the amazing Lea from Silent-Ology. It’s always a pleasure to discuss the silent film icon’s films! Their details make them worthy of very interesting discussions and reflections!

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Don’t miss the other entries!

The 4th Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon

See you!

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We’re crazy about C.R.A.Z.Y.

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8 years before he made his debut in Hollywood with Dallas Buyers Club and 12 years before he won an Emmy Award for Big Little Lies, Jean-Marc Vallée released what is, for me, one of the best French-Canadian films ever made: C.R.A.Z.Y. Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria, and Wild were great but, in my opinion, never surpassed the quality of this film I’m going to talk to you about.

Honestly, there are so many great things to say about this film. I wouldn’t know where to start. C.R.A.Z.Y. is that type of film that makes me proud of our French-Canadian movie industry and that gives it a good reputation. You might have heard of it or even saw it as, on its released, it gained not only a national recognition but also an international one. The film represented Canada for the Best Foreign language Film Oscar, but unfortunately wasn’t selected as a finalist for the competition.

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On the right, Vallée witn actors Michel Côté (left) and Marc-André Grondin (centre)

When Vallée’s masterpiece was released in 2005, I was only 9 or 10 so didn’t immediately saw it as it deals with themes you don’t necessarily understand at that age. But I remember my parents seeing it at the movie theatre and saying it was great. So, I eventually see it with them and my sister a few years later and I was in awe. It eventually became my favourite French-language Canadian film and it surely is in my top five movies of the 21st centenary. You see, C.R.A.Z.Y. is a perfect national movie as it deals with our local culture but there’s also something about it that makes it internationally accessible. It’s the kind of story that could happen in many places.

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But what is it about? C.R.A.Z.Y is a coming of age drama telling the story of young Zachary “Zac” Beaulieu (Marc André Grondin), born on Christmas and who has to deal with a sexual identity crisis. The film takes place in Quebec during the 60s, 70s and the beginning of the 80s. Zachary is the 4th one of a family of five children. As a child, he and his father (Michel Côté) share a beautiful complicity. He is his hero. But when Zach starts revealing a non-masculine side and a possible homosexuality, war is declared. His father doesn’t accept it so things between them aren’t the same anymore. However, has Zach wants to get his father’s love back, or, should I say his complicity (because his father doesn’t stop loving him despite everything), he himself has difficulty to accept his sexual orientation. But everyone has a breaking point… Luckily, in times of crisis, Zac’s mother (Danielle Proulx), a wonderful woman, is always here to support him.

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Aside from being a truly “crazy” film (in the good sense of the term), C.R.A.Z.Y., stands for two things: Zac’s father, Gervais, is a fan of Patsy Cline and her song “Crazy”. Also, the letters that form the words are the first letters of Zac and his brother’s names: Christian (Maxime Tremblay), the nerd who reads anything, including ketchup bottles and cereal boxes; Raymond (Pierre-Luc Brillant), the rebel and junky, Zac’s “worst enemy”; Antoine (Alex Gravel), the athlete; Zachary; and Yvan (Gabriel Lalancette), the youngest one.

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C.R.A.Z.Y. was praised for his realistic representation of a middle-class family of 60s-70s Quebec. The quality of this film also resides in the fact that it is an highly creative movie. After all, Jean-Marc Vallée spent between 5 and 10 years writing it with co-writer François Boulay (who’s personal memories of growing-up inspired the story). So, the result couldn’t be mediocre.

We first have to take a look at the varied characters and their incredible performers.

C.R.A.Z.Y. is the film that put Marc-André Grondin on the map of Quebecois cinema. At the time the film was made, he was 20-21, which is Zac’s age at the end of the film. His portrayal of Zac is one that can allow many viewers to identify with him. The role is complex, so probably wasn’t an easy one to play. It’s a character that constantly changes and tries desperately to find himself in order to “fit” in a particular environment. Zac’s knows moments of joy, anger, sadness, hate, and happiness. A certain versatility for such a role was necessary and Marc-André Grondin did it with brio.

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Michel Côté who plays the boy’s father, Gervais, probably is one of the main reasons why I love this film. I think I can say that he is my favourite Quebecois actor. He is known as one of our best stage and on-screen actors. Playing the role of Gervais Beaulieu implies putting himself in the skin of someone with whom he didn’t necessarily share the ideologies. Côté has an incredible charism which he transmitted perfectly to his character. Because Gervais Beaulieu is the type of man that owns a place when he’s in it. His character knows also different moments of complex emotions and the clash between his and Zac’s ones creates amazing fireworks. What I love about Michel Côté also is his very natural acting game and that’s a quality we can find in many local actors here in Quebec. I work in a movie theatre and Michel Côté sometimes attends special events there such as Q & A for the promotion of his films or, as I’ve been told, sometimes just come to see a movie! I haven’t seen him yet (I started working there in late August) but if I ever do, I will probably faint.

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Danielle Proulx who plays Zach’s mother is an actress I first knew thanks to the children television show Cornemuse. Every kid from my generation know this program. Danielle also was part of the distribution of Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, which was nominated at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. Laurianne Beaulieu is one of the most beautiful characters of the film. Quebec uses to be a very Catholic place but it began to change precisely in the 60s with the venue of new ideologies and the Quiet Revolution. Mrs. Beaulieu is a strong believer, but her acceptance of her son’s sexual orientation sort of incarnates that clash of culture and ideologies that Quebec knew in the 60s and 70s. The complicity she has with her son is strong and different from the one he has with his father. You see, Zac can never fear to lost his mother’s love. This would simply be impossible. To her, Zach is very special as he was born the same day has Jesus. Danielle Proulx touches our heart infinitely with her protrayal of Mrs. Beaulieu. She shows, yes, a sensibility, but also an incredible strength. She is a woman of the Revolution.

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Of course, all the other actors in this film are incredible as well, but I decided to focus on the three main ones, otherwise, this text would be way too long! Interesting fact: young Zachary Beaulieu was played by Jean-Marc Vallées son, Émile, who showed a great potential as a child actor.

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Jean-Marc and Émile Vallée on the set of the film

Music is one of the most important elements of C.R.A.Z.Y. As a matter of fact, $ 600 000 CAD were invested in the music only as many the music rights had to be obtained. Jean-Marc Vallée even had to cut his own salary for it. The music truly defines the atmosphere of the film and any great music lover would be amazed by the choice of the songs from legendary artists such as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd, and more.

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Jean-Marc Vallée knew perfectly how to include the songs to the story and really made them “part of” the film. Some of the best scenes are the ones where the music takes a lot of space.

From the first minutes of the film, you know it won’t be an ordinary one. It all starts with Elvis. Images of a baby (Zac) in his mother’s tummy are shown to us. It’s first almost silent and, slowly, we start hearing Elvis’s singing “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”. We then move to the next scene where the Beaulieu’s are celebrating Christmas’s Eve until Mrs. Beaulieu’s waters breaks and the family has to head to the hospital for Zac’s birth.

If Zach and his father share a common interest, it’s certainly is their passion for music. They both have different music tastes (being from different generations), different but all great. Gervais Beaulieu not only his a fan of Patsy Cline but also of French singer Charles Aznavour. Every Christmas, he traditionally to sing his beautiful song “Emmenez-Moi”, which is probably the song we hear the most often in the film.

If I can identify myself to Zac, it’s thanks to his obvious love for David Bowie who also is my idol. We LOVE Zach’s bedroom as it is decorated with posters of the singer and iconic vinyl records such as Space Oddity, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs are part of his music collection. The “Space Oddity” scene is one of the most iconic of the film and is a glorious moment. I’ll let you watch it:

Zach also loves Pink Floyd and, as you saw in the previous video, his bedroom is beautifully decorated with The Dark Side of the Moon colour prism. Zac’s transition from childhood to teenagehood is brilliantly made with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.

So many great songs are part of this film, but I’ll finish this musical discussion with another of the film’s most glorious moment: the “Sympathy for the Devil”‘s moment. Zac puts The Rolling Stones’ album and we transit to the church where he attends the Midnight Mass with his family. The song continues to play in Zac’s head but, suddenly, everybody starts being part of it, including the priest. This is a very fantasist moment as it surely only happens in Zac’s mine, but we love it.

Here are both “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Sympathy for the Devil” scenes!

So, as you realize, C.R.A.Z.Y. wouldn’t be the same without this impressive soundtrack. The film doesn’t contain any original music, but it honestly doesn’t need any. It’s interesting to know that Zac’s look in the 80s is inspired by Sex Pistols’ singer Sid Vicious, and his brother’s Raymond’s look is somehow inspired by Jim Morrison’s one and… his lifestyle too… for better, but especially for worst.

As I mentioned before, C.R.A.Z.Y. screenplay is the result of many years of work and the result is this breathtaking product that is given to us. The story is, of course, developed on 21 years (with times ellipse) and never a faux-pas is committed. The film, yes, contains a dramatic tone, but you’ll also find many comedic elements. It’s that variety of styles that makes it the type of movie everybody loves. Surely, Zac is at the center of the story, but Vallée and Boulay were brilliant enough to give a complete background and to the secondary characters. Of Zac’s brothers, Raymond probably is the one we know the most about and his presence has an important influence on the course of the story.

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The film also contains some lines that define perfectly its thematic and the relation between the characters, but also between the characters and the society they live in.  The best dialogue probably being:

Zachary Beaulieu: I want to be like everyone else.

Madame Chose: Thank God, you never will.

 

As Ingrid Bergman once said, “Be yourself, the world worship the original.”

C.R.A.Z.Y. was mostly filmed in Montreal and its area, but it’s a film that also makes us travel as Zac’s goes to Jerusalem, which has always been one of his mother’s most cherished dreams. However, for security reasons, the scenes had to be shot in Morroco. This part of the film is quite short but is an important transition in Zac’s life. It allows us to see some beautiful desertic spaces and cities.

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But the film also makes us travel in the Quebec of the 20th century with yes, the music, the way of life, but also the costumes that can make people of this generation say: “Oh, I remember when  I used dressed like that!”

Finally, The film also has to be praised for its effective editing. I always thought the transition between some of the scenes was brilliantly made, as well as the choice of camera shots. There is an appreciated continuity and a visual dynamism that keeps us at the edge of our seats. And the whole thing is beautifully shaped with a top-notch cinematography.

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C.R.A.Z.Y. was THE film of the year here in Quebec in 2005. It won no less than 14 Jutra Awards, plus two special awards for the same ceremony. I sort of feel bad for the other films that were nominated that year haha. But what can I say? Sometimes, you just can’t surpass supreme quality!

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There aren’t enough words to express the excellency of C.R.A.Z.Y., but I hope this review convinced you to see it as soon as possible if you haven’t. Meanwhile, take a look at the entertaining trailer. Not the best visual quality, but there are English subtitles!

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I wrote this article for the always fun O Canada Blogathon hosted by the ever-enthusiastic Ruth from Silver Screenings and Kristina from Speakeasy. I want to thank both ladies for honouring my native country via this great event!

Don’t miss the other entries:

O Canada Day 1

O Canada Day 2

O Canada Day 3

See you!
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Cain and Mabel: Davies and Gable’s Clash

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Yesterday, the one who was known as The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, would have turned 117 years old. For the occasion, my friend Michaela over at Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting the Clark Gable Blogathon. The charismatic actor played in a load of great movies that are today known as important classics such as Gone With the Wind, It Happened One Night or The Misfits. With such good material, it was difficult to make a choice, but I decided to go with a more obscure one: Cain & Mabel, a 1936’s comedy directed by Lloyd Bacon and also starring the energic Marion Davies. I had seen the film once before and remembered enjoying it a lot, so I thought it would be a good occasion to re-visit it.

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After having lost her job as a waitress, Mabel O’Dare (Marion Davies) becomes a Broadway star. One night at the hotel she is rehearsing her tap dancing for a show opening the following day. Prize-fighter Larry Cain (Clark Gable) occupies the room underneath and wants to get some sleep to be in shape for his fight the following evening. But he can’t as he is disturbed by Mabel’s dancing and music. So, as he comes to her room to complain, the two develop a hate for each other. However, their entourage encourages them to pretend to like each other as this would be a great publicity stunt and a good way to make money. But eventually, the two really fall in love with each other and things become even more complicated…

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As I was watching the film yesterday, I wondered if Hitchcock was inspired by this scene were Mabel and Larry meet for his seen where Iris and Gilbert meet in The Lady Vanishes (1938)…

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Cain & Mabel is the occasion for you to see Clark Gable without his iconic moustache! Honestly, I think he looked fine with or without it. Clark Gable and Marion Davies had already been paired before in a movie called Polly of the Circus (Alfred Santell, 1932), which I haven’t seen. Their teamwork proves us a great chemistry between them. They both had a good sense of comedy making the movie lively enough. It is easy to believe in what their characters think of each other.

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Marion Davies is the first of the two stars to be introduced to us. At one point, we wonder if Clark Gable will finally appear, but it doesn’t take him too long! What I like about Clark in this film, is that he can be funny without necessarily doing the clown. For example, during that fight following his sleepless night, he has no energy in the ring s is practically sleeping in the ring to his trainer’s despair. His fake smiles while he is in the company of Marion/Mabel also cracks me up. But Clark was always able to show a certain humour on screen, even in movies that weren’t comedies. Gone With the Wind would be a great example of that. That’s probably why he is one of my favourite actors!

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But Clark Gable was also a serious actor and was able to use his charm to conquer the ladies on-screen. No wonder why Mabel eventually is seduced by Larry! Their mutual hate becomes an exciting secret romance!

On its released, Cain & Mabel, unfortunately, didn’t face a commercial success. However, it remains a worthy and sympathetic film. More, it allows us to considerate Marion Davies’s dancing abilities. The film indeed contains two interesting musical numbers staged by Bobby Connolly. And it’s also a way to observe Clark Gable’s energy as a boxer. Because, believe me, he is not always sleeping in the ring!

Comedy is my favourite genre and I think those made in the 30s were among the best, that’s why this film is a must for me. In opposition to physical comedies of the Silent Era were Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin made us laugh with their crazy mimics and stunts, a film like Cain & Mabel gives us a lot of humour in its dialogue. My favourite line would be when Larry and Mabel are kissing each other at the library and a man working there drops a book next to them. It turns out to be about babies. Clark tells the man: “Hey! Don’t rush things!” Haha!

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If you are in for a good time, I highly recommend you to watch the delightful Cain & Mabel. You can rent it on Google Play. It’s not too expensive and worthy! 🙂

Many thanks to Michaela for hosting this fun blogathon! Don’t forget to read the other entries:

The Clark Gable Blogathon

Happy heavenly birthday again Mr. Gable!

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