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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Top of the World: My Hitchcock Day + Some Top Lists

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Well, yesterday was this time of the year where I do my usual Hitchcock movie marathon in honour of him. My favourite movie director would have been 118 years old! Even if he is no longer with us since a long time, many continue to celebrate his timeless work. I started my little marathon Saturday by watching one of his early British films, Murder! starring the great Herbert Marshall in one of his very first roles. I’ve always loved that film. It has all the ingredients of a perfect Hitchcock film, except maybe a cold blond! Well, there is a blond girl, but she isn’t exactly the Hitchcock-type. Then, yesterday morning I watched Family Plot, Hitchcock’s very last film. Without being a masterpiece, this film featuring a score by no one else than John Williams is a great entertainment. The cast composed of Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, Karen Black and William Devane is one of the elements that make it worthy. They are all perfect in their respective roles. It’s fun to think, when you watch that film, that almost 50 years before he released The Lodger! Hitchcock considered this film to be his first one, although he directed a few before (unfortunately, most of them are now lost or partially lost).

After a little pause to do some exercise, I went back on the couch and watched Saboteur. This early 40s film is one where so much is going on! Have you ever thought of taking a trip to Soda City? Well, that ain’t much of a town, but it certainly leads our heroes, Barry Kane and Pat Martin, to some important elements of investigation.

Yesterday, I also made an exception and instead of listening some David Bowie music (like I usually do) I listened to some Alfred Hitchcock movie scores (sorry David!). It’s always great to listen to Miklós Rózsa‘s score for Spellbound while doing the dishes. It’s my favourite movie score of all time and being very dynamic it helps me do things faster.

I also spent some time outside painting 3 little paintings illustrating Alfred Hitchcock movies: The Trouble With Harry, Suspicion and The Birds. I can’t show them to you now as I have not scanned them, but I certainly hope to do so as soon as possible.

Finally, I ended my day by watching Lifeboat and Foreign Correspondent. I chose these two films as I had only seen them once. Both excellent of course.

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Because I watched all these films, I didn’t have time to write a long tribute to Hitchcock. I already did it as a matter of fact, but I think I’m due for some little top lists. I’m not ready yet for the ultimate Hitchcock top list (ranking all his films), but I’ll see you next year for that. You see, next winter I’ll be attending a seminar on Hitchcock and Welles and I intend to have seen all of the Master of Suspense’s films before the classes start! Be reassured, there isn’t many more left as I’ve already seen 47 of them. 🙂 Unfortunately, there are a few that I’m afraid will be difficult to find (anyone as ever seen Elstree Calling?), but I’ll try my best!

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to make it easier for me and present you a little top 5 for each decade where Hitch released movies, going from the 20s to the 70s.

I don’t like to repeat myself, but don’t forget that these lists are purely subjective and represent my own tastes so I only ask you to respect them. Thank you!

The 20s:

1- The Lodger: Story of the London Fog (1927)

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I put this one at the first place as I remember being very impressed by it the first time I saw it.

2- The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

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Not a typical Hitchcock’s film, but certainly a fun one. A bit long though.

3- Blackmail (1929)

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Hitchcock’s first talking picture and also England’s first talking picture! Just that priceless scene makes it worthy:

4- The Manxman (1929)

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Another Hitchcock film starring the beautiful Anny Ondra. Not an excellent film and I honestly don’t remember much of it, but there was some beautiful cinematography. I once made a joke with a shot from the film. What do you think of it?

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5- Downhill (1927)

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The two left for me were these ones and The Ring. I chose Downhill since it stars the great Ivor Novello. There’s a shot in this film that makes me think of The Graduate. See?

The 30s:

1- The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Well, that was an easy-peasy first choice as it is one of my very favourite Hitchcock films and the funniest also (without neglecting the great suspense). I love everything about it, especially the colourful characters. Saw it too many, but still not enough times.

2- Young and Innocent (1937)

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This film made me discover Nova Pilbeam who was only 18, but brilliant when she starred in it. It’s the first British Hitchcock’s film I saw and I’ve always enjoyed it immensely. The scene where the spectators discover where the real murderer is hidden is one of my very favourite!

3- The 39 Steps (1935)

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Certainly considered a masterpiece, this film can be cited among the perfect Hitchcock’s films (and this time, the cold blond isn’t missing!).

4- Murder! (1930)

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Once again, Hitchcock combines suspense, tragedy, and humour brilliantly here.

5- Secret Agent (1936)

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I’ve always loved this film for its cast: John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, Robert Young, Percy Marmont and Lilli Palmer. Do you need more? Peter Lorre is unforgettable!

The 40s:

1- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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Another one of my very favourite Hitchcock’s films and I believe that Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is one of Hitchcock’s best villains.

2- Rebecca (1940)

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I love both the book and the film. Perfect.

3- Spellbound (1945)

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I’ve always found this film highly fascinating. The dream sequence by Dalí was a great addition to this film and Dr. Constance Pertersen (Ingrid Bergman) is my favourite Hitchcock’s female character. And Gregory Peck is so handsome!

4- Lifeboat (1944)

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Hitchcock certainly knew how to develop a great story in such a small space!

5- Saboteur (1942)

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I hesitated between this one, Notorious and Suspicion (all excellent). I choose Saboteur because it’s a movie that never fails to grab my attention. It’s great to think that one of the members of its cast, Norma Lloyd, is still with us today!

The 50s:

1- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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And this is my very favourite Hitchcock’s film and also my 4th favourite movie of all times behind Some Like It Hot, Bringing Up Baby and It’s a Wonderful Life. James Stewart and Doris Day form an excellent duo and I love how Hitchcock makes us travel from Marrakesh, Morroco to London, England. It’s an adventure full of delightful suspense!

2- Strangers on a Train (1951)

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Ok, that film is just… wow! Next to Charlie Oakley, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is the other very best Hitchcock villain. That carousel scene is unforgettable. Well, the whole movie is. Plus, I love its black and white cinematography and the shots of the railways (seen from a moving train point of view).

3- Rear Window (1954)

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James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter (at her best), Edith Head’s costumes, etc… And to me, this is the Hitchcock’s film with the best suspense. Never tired of watching it, even after 50 times.

4- To Catch a Thief (1955)

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I remember, this is the 2nd Hitchcock’s film I ever saw and I’ve always loved it. Last Friday, I saw it on big screen for the second time! It simply makes me want to travel the French Riviera!

5- North by Northwest (1959)

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This once was my favourite Hitchcock film. Not anymore, but I still love it very much. Worthy for that plane scene, and more of course!

The 60s and the 70s. I combined those two decades since he only made 2 movies in the 70s (so it would be difficult to do a top 5, you know…):

1- The Birds (1963)

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This is the first Hitchcock film I saw and it fascinated me the first time I watched it (so much that I decided to watch it a second time in the same weekend). It has its faults, but it certainly needs to be seen by all Hitchcock’s fans. Probably his most iconic one along with Psycho. And it’s not because of that film that I’m afraid of pigeons, ok? (There aren’t any pigeons in it anyway).

2- Frenzy (1972)

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Quite an overlooked Hitchcock’s film. Immensely thrilling.

3- Family Plot (1976)

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Hitchcock’s last film and a fun one, but I’ve already said a few words about it earlier!

4- Psycho (1960)

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It’s not my favourite Hitchcock film, but it certainly is a worthy one. That scene where Lila Crane (Vera Miles) “discovers” Mrs. Bates is priceless (along with the famous shower scene, of course).

5- Marnie (1964)

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I always tend to forget that Sean Connery starred in a Hitchcock’s film. Well, there was one and it is the underrated Marnie, the second Hitchcock film starring Tippi Hedren (the first one being The Birds). I think the main flaw of this film is being a bit long for what it is (I mean, it’s not Gone With the Wind after all), but overall it’s a good one.

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Well, if you haven’t seen many Hitchcock’s films, I hope these ones can be used as suggestions! If you did anything special on this Hitch day, please don’t hesitate to share it with me in the comments!

Happy heavenly birthday again Sir Alfred Hitchcock! And also, happy heavenly birthday to his wife Alma Reville! She was a screenwriter, editor, and co-director who had an important influence on his career. 🙂

By the way, if you want to read more of my Hitchcock’s related articles, I invite you to click on the links in orange!

BIO ALFRED HITCHCOCK

 

 

ClassicFlix (Teen Scene)- Review #6: The Cameraman (1928)

From March 2015 to April 2017, I was writing the monthly Teen Scene column for the website ClassicFlix. My objective was to promote classic films among teenagers and young adults. Due to the establishing of a new version of the website, it’s now more difficult to access to the old version and read the reviews. But, I’m allowed to publish my reviews on my blog 30 days after they had been published on ClassicFlix! So, I decided to do so as you could have an easy access to them. If you are not a teenager, it doesn’t matter! I’m sure you can enjoy them just the same! My sixth review was for the 1928’s classic The Cameraman directed by Edward Sedgwick and starring Buster Keaton. Enjoy!

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It’s time for me to review a movie from the 1920s and, more precisely, a silent film, to prove to teens that they might like silent cinema despite their prejudices towards that it. Let’s face it, if you are interested by cinema or curious about it, you have to see some silent film. The first films, until 1927, were all silent. So, seeing them is nothing but beneficial to your general culture and, of course, even if they are silent, they can be very entertaining.

During the era of silent film, one of the most popular genres was the burlesque comedy. Since there was no sound to create jokes from dialogue, the comedies were more physical and inspired by vaudeville theatre. Of course, the most famous star of that genre was Charlie Chaplin, but he was not the only brilliant burlesque actor. Harold Lloyd, Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton were also part of the lot.

I remember the first time I saw a Buster Keaton film was in a museum in Shawinigan (Quebec). My parents, my sister, and I were visiting the exhibition. The artist decided to show us one of Keaton’s films on a little television. It was part of his exhibition because he was a fan of Keaton’s personality. Suddenly, our attention was grabbed by this funny little man trying to build a house (not without any difficulties). Of course, the film we were watching was the short One Week, one of Buster Keaton’s best short films. We watched it twice. We then got interested by the amusing actor and, despite not knowing much about him, we knew he was a genius. Not long after, my parents gave me a little DVD box set with three of his films for my birthday which is how I discovered The Cameraman.

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Buster Keaton wasn’t just an actor but also directed many of his own films. However, he co-directed The Cameraman with Edward Sedgwick (in 1928) and was uncredited as one of the directors. I chose to review this one instead of more popular titles like Steamboat Bill Jr. or The General (two very famous Buster Keaton films), not only because it’s my favorite of his, but also because it was his last success. Buster Keaton made one last silent film after this, Spite Marriage (which is good too) and then moved to the talkies, which was not a big success for him. He was quickly forgotten and appeared in more minor roles. That’s probably why he’s not as well known as Chaplin, who also starred in some noticeable talkies (The Great Dictator and Limelight). Nevertheless, he highly deserves the honor.

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What is nice about Buster Keaton’s films is the fact the stories are quite simple. They are not too long, so you don’t get lost watching them. The plot of The Cameraman goes like this: Buster (Buster Keaton) is a simple photographer who takes pictures of people on the street so they can buy them as souvenirs. During a celebration where he is invaded by a crowd and the MGM News team, he notices a beautiful girl (Marceline Day), proposing to take her picture. She accepts, but when he’s looking somewhere else, she goes away with a cameraman from MGM News. Buster wants to find her to give her the picture, so he goes to the MGM News office to see if they know her. Luckily, Sally (that’s her name) is working at there as a secretary. He gives her the photo and asks no charge. It’s a gift. We have no doubt he is in love with her.

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He then asks her boss (Sidney Bracey) if he has a job for him. He will have to buy a camera so he can film stuff and prove he’s a good cameraman. This should be easy, but Buster is quite clumsy. He is watched constantly by a cop (Harry Gribbon) who thinks he’s crazy. Concerning his love for Sally, he has to compete with another MGM cameraman, Harold (Harold Goodwin). Fortunately, despite his failures, Sally will always be there to support Buster.

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After seeing the film, teens will understand why Buster Keaton is a genius. The Cameraman is not only one of the most entertaining films of all time, but one of the funniest. Each time I watch it, I have a smile on my face. It is the kind of film that makes you feel good because of Keaton’s inventive gags, Keaton himself, the hilarious cop and boss’s facial expressions, the lovely Marceline Day, the little monkey, and the music! The Cameraman has very entertaining music that fits perfectly with the film. Too bad a soundtrack doesn’t exist!

The film begins in force with an interesting concept. We see some professional cameraman filming serious events, like a war. During this sequence, the music is quite stressful, adding excitement to the action. Then, the music changes, becoming sympathetic and innocent. We then meet another cameraman, a much more common and simple one. This is how we are first introduced to Buster. The opening catches the spectator’s attention in a great way, beginning with some very powerful and impressive images which make us think of Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera. Then, it slows down and we know we are about to watch something nice, not stressful. We are more ready than ever for a big laugh.

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This may be insignificant, but something that aids my enjoyment of the film is the little monkey. Seriously, how can you resist this adorable animal dressed up as a sailor, who claps hands when she (it’s a girl named Josephine) is happy? Josephine adds a lot to the film and is a much-appreciated character. It’s also because of her that we have a happy ending!

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If teens who watch this film after reading my review never saw a Buster Keaton film before, they will notice his trademark; he never smiles. Buster Keaton’s nickname was The Great Stone Face. However, he is capable of sharing many emotions, even happiness, through his gestures. That’s probably why he has such a great chemistry with the leading lady, Marceline Day and also makes an incredible duo with Harry Gribbon as the cop.

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The Cameraman has everything you can expect to have a good time, even a banana peel gag! Once you have seen a Buster Keaton’s film, you’ll be willing to see more. The Cameraman is definitely a good start.

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