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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My First Time with Buster Keaton: One Week

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Writing about Buster Keaton’s films has always been a pleasant experience for me. When Lea from Silent-Ology announced that she’ll be hosting the Buster Keaton Blogathon for a third consecutive year, I couldn’t skip this most amazing event. This year is a special one, as 2017 marks the centenary of Buster Keaton’s career which started in 1917.

To read the other entries, please click on this picture:

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For the occasion, I chose to talk about the film that introduced me to his work: One Week (1920); one of his most delightful shorts and a personal favourite along with The High Sign.

I first have to tell you how I came to see this film for the first time as it is one of my favourite life stories. To tell you the truth, it’s by pure coincidence that I discovered Buster Keaton. I don’t exactly remember how old I was, in my early/mid-teens I think. I was at the museum of Shawinigan with my sisters and my parents and there was an exhibition featuring two eccentric artists (can’t remember their name). One of them had decided to project One Week on a little screen as he was a fan of Buster Keaton. So, we see this funny little man building a house in the most amazing way and we are thrilled by it. We watched it twice in a row because it was just so good, you know. We didn’t know much about Buster Keaton’s then, but we could feel what a genius he was. And that’s how I was introduced to his films.

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One Week has a very simple, but effective plot: A newly wed couple (Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely) receives a build-it-yourself house as a wedding gift. Keaton starts the job, but the final result is not the one expected after a jealous man (who wanted the girl for himself) writes the wrong numbers on the boxes containing the material for the house as a bad joke and revenge. Bad joke, but the result is hilarious. The film is called One Week as the story lasts… one week!

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Just like The High-Sign, One Week is a film that can pick architects’ curiosity as the set itself has its own importance. The house is not only a house, but it also becomes a character. All the film revolves around it and is influenced by its metamorphosis. The building of this house also creates interesting visual effects. Did Buster Keaton really do all his stunts? To be honest, I’m always surprised he didn’t die… However, Wikipedia (I know, I know…) informs us that “the fall Keaton takes when he steps out of the bathroom and falls two stories down, is one of the few occasions he truly hurt himself making films. ” So, he took risks.

Interestingly enough, no models were used: a full-size house was used for the filming, and I think it was for the best, as it makes the movie credible enough. Who says movies of the 20’s are not impressing?

What I’ve always loved about Buster Keaton’s films is how those are truffled with a ton of amusing details and fun physical comedy moments. One Week doesn’t make an exception and is like a tiara of fun with moments such as:

  • Buster Keaton taking the place of a policeman to stop a car (after knocking him on the head)
  • The milk splashing Sybil Seeley’s face

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  • That priceless censorship moment (my congratulations to the hand, whoever hand it was)

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  • Buster Keaton falling in Sybil Seeley’s bath (while trying to install the chimney on the house)
  • When it’s raining in the house

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  • The house spinning on itself during a storm
  • … etc.

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There’s also this line that never fails to crack me up. Once the house is finished, Keaton and Seeley invites a few guesses to their new home, but a storm breaks out and the house starts spinning around. Once everybody has been thrown outside, a man thanks Buster and tells him:

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For this film, Buster Keaton was faithful to what he was known for: The Man who never smiles. I honestly think he’s very adorable, even if he doesn’t smile. I would have liked him to build my house anytime, even if the result could have been catastrophic. He’s just amazing to watch. He and Sybil Seeley makes a lovely couple and we can truly feel a good chemistry between them. Those moments where they kiss each other very rapidly are lovely. I also love the fact that the two characters stand for each other and never get impatient at each other despite the trouble they are having with the house. Oh, there’s this scene when Keaton tells to Seeley to go away (so he could install the carpet if my memory is good) and she’s not very happy. Or when Keaton’s falls in his wife’s bath and she’s mad at him. But those little incidents are quickly forgotten by both of them, and true love and solidarity win the battle.

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For anybody who hasn’t seen any Buster Keaton’s films, One Week is certainly a good option. It’s easily watchable, it’s visually brilliant and narratively captivating. If you haven’t seen this film yet, well, be ready to spend some of the most entertaining 20-ish minutes of your life:

Big thanks to Lea of Silent-Ology for hosting this wonderful blogathon! Buster Keaton is one that deserves to be celebrated again and again!

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