Sunday, February 08, 2015

Parlor, Bedroom And Bath, a.k.a. Buster Does Farce by Paul F. Etcheverry



This is our contribution to the first annual Buster Keaton Blogathon - happy to be a part of it!




Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, a bedroom farce involving much running in and out of hotel rooms and the customary multiple misunderstandings between the characters, could be considered the best of Buster Keaton's MGM talkie features, a sorry but far from worthless lot.



First and foremost, we must re-visit, at least in brief, the history that preceded the making of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. While classic film aficionados all know the story of Buster Keaton, the tale bears repeating.



After co-writing, directing and starring in 31 films (for producer Joseph M. Schenck), ranging from very good to blazing masterpieces of cinema, The Great Stone Face signed with Hollywood mega-factory of mega-factories, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and relinquished his independent studio.



While the powers that be in Tinseltown (at least until the enforcement of the Production Code hit American films like an iron fist on July 1, 1934) could not take Betty Boop's "boop-oop-a-doop" away, they could and did take Buster Keaton's creative freedom away.



For the most part, not joining Keaton at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, would be his key collaborators, a.k.a. THAT OLD GANG OF BUSTER'S, from left to right, Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Eddie Cline. Not in this photo but equally essential were cinematographer Elgin Lessley and technical director/effects wizard Fred Gabourie.



Buster began his stint with at the mega-studio by making his last two silent films, The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. Both are very enjoyable, with excellent production values throughout, but seem a lot less personal than his previous features. Still, The Cameraman appears to have at least some minimal input in its creation by Buster.



On the former, Clyde Bruckman and Lew Lipton share story credit, while Lessley was among the cameramen and Gabourie is listed under the category of Set Decoration.



However, storylines and individual moments, a little in The Cameraman and a little more in Spite Marriage, reflect a general carelessness with the Keaton characterization - which is neither a Raymond Griffith style "smart guy" nor a bumbling, stumbling sap - that is a harbinger of big trouble down the road. Worse yet, the name of Buster's character in Spite Marriage is Elmer, the preferred moniker of the nerdy nincompoops he would be frequently asked to portray at MGM.



THE NOT-MAGNIFICENT SEVEN



The MGM talkies, now regarded as the nadir of Joseph Frank Keaton's six decade career in movies and television, range from Not Bad (much of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, Speak Easily and Doughboys - especially when Ukelele Ike and Keaton play music together) to Not So Good (The Passionate Plumber) to Oh Dear, Buster Looks Like Death Warmed Over (What! No Beer?) to Utter Abominations (Free And Easy) and finally, Crimes Against Humanity (The Sidewalks Of New York).



BUSTER KEATON, FARCEUR
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was the third of the MGM sound era features conceived by the mega-studio of mega-studios as vehicles for Buster Keaton and, with The Passionate Plumber, one of two to be based on farces. It is also to a lesser degree a vehicle for another MGM headliner from silents, British character actor and light comedian Reginald Denny.

The basic premise is that Buster, playing amiable but awkward sign poster "Reggie Irving" transforms, via the veritable litany of standard issue bedroom farce misunderstandings and mixups, into a lusty Don Juan, romancing babes with gusto if not skill at the Seaside Hotel - and eventually enjoying himself immensely in the process.



WHY PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH ISN'T HALF BAD
Although the bedroom farce that drives the plot is definitely an open-and-shut case of shoehorning a comedian into a genre that doesn't suit him, somehow, against all odds, a fair number of signature Keaton sight gags and rollicking Comique Productions style physical comedy bits (the "slipping on the wet floor" segment featuring Buster and Cliff Edwards) make it into the finished film. Arguably the prime example is a sound era variant on the remarkable sight gag from one of the penultimate Buster Keaton silent 2-reelers, One Week. It's amazing in both films. One assumes that Buster fought the suits at MGM tooth-and-nail for every moment featuring his signature style.



(note: said gag from One Week starts at 1:14)

Although bashful, definitely too timid with the gals and a far cry from the smart and resourceful protagonist we'd like to see Buster Keaton play, at least "Reggie" in this film is clearly a good guy and not quite the blithering idiot character from other MGM features (the "Elmer" character). His politeness and meek persona at least fits the context of the character.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath is also the rare Metro feature in which the supporting cast, principally long-legged musical comedy gal Charlotte Greenwood, actually works with Buster instead of against him.

WHAT WORKS
  1. This is one of the very few Keaton films in which he shares the screen with a comedienne - and that would be the very funny and acrobatic Charlotte Greenwood - who can match his pure physical comedy, pratfall for pratfall. There is also a variant on the "dragging a woman to bed" routine (in this case hiding Ms. Greenwood in a closet) Buster performed in movies (and many years later, onstage with his intrepid wife Eleanor Norris Keaton). While Buster does subsequently share some excellent sequences with Thelma Todd in Speak Easily, scenes pairing Buster with comediennes were rarities in his feature films.



    Charlotte Greenwood and Buster are so good together, one wonders why the story was not re-tooled to have them share more scenes. Now just why there was never a Buster – Marie Dressler – Charlotte Greenwood starring trifecta at MGM, possibly with Marion Davies thrown in for good measure and balance, that we’ll never know.


  2. Believe it or not, considering that MGM teamed Buster with "subtle as a two-by-four in the face" Trixie Friganza and pre-television Jimmy Durante, the various supporting players actually contribute something other than irritation. Dorothy Christy - who Laurel & Hardy fans know well from her role as the duck-hunting Mrs. Laurel in Sons Of The Desert, is charming as the gal who has a crush on Reggie, but strictly on the proviso that he's "dangerous". Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, as the bellhop, doesn't get the opportunity to sing, unfortunately, but has one of the best verbal zingers in the film when he bursts into the hotel suite to find Reggie romancing yet another beautiful babe and mutters "Mormon?"

  3. Buster's performance is pretty darn wonderful throughout and often manages to make the frequently dunderheaded "Reggie" endearing. One scene which illustrates this is when Reggie has a pekinese pooch on his office desk for the purpose of licking stamps that are then applied to letters. Keaton works in subtle ways with the character's essential politeness and honesty, managing to squeeze quite a bit of inventiveness and likability into his "contract player" role along the way.


WHAT DOESN'T WORK
  1. Awful treatment of Buster throughout. He's ordered around by Reginald Denny, shouted at by Charlotte Greenwood, bawled out by Dorothy Christy, called names like "terrible shrimp", etc. Somebody at Metro seemed to think that presenting Buster Keaton as a pathetic individual and then putting him down for the entire running time would create pathos and humor. News flash: it doesn't. The unending and increasing humiliation of Buster during the run of the MGM features is, however, remarkably effective as a caustic irritant for Keaton fans!

  2. Misunderstanding of Buster Keaton's characterization and identity. Again, he is by no means inept in his 1920's features and frequently beats the odds with sheer resourcefulness. Here, there are too many instances in the film when "Reggie" is a knucklehead (although, thankfully, less than in several of the other MGM features). While this may work for Knucklehead Smiff, it proves deadly for Buster Keaton and undercuts the comedy.



    Another noteworthy trait of the MGM talkies is the complete lack of the "wide open spaces" and "one man dwarfed by the grandeur of nature and the elements" motifs that are trademarks of the Buster Keaton silent features and short subjects. The ending features lots of mayhem and running around, neither of which have a darn thing to do with Buster's more measured and thoughtful approach. Whatever mayhem happens in his previous epics is not caused by jealous husbands running around shooting guns in hotel lobbies, but by Mother Nature.

  3. It is overloaded with subplots, secondary characters and scenes involving said characters. On the plus side, the pace moves reasonably briskly and the mix is far more agreeable than certain Laurel & Hardy and Marx Brothers features that are known for wretched, unwelcome "young lover" subplots and cringe-inducing musical numbers.

HISTORICAL NOTE
The opening of the film was shot on the spectacular grounds at the Keatons' Italian villa, occupied in the 1920's by Buster and Natalie Talmadge, among other illustrious tenants. The scenes at the swimming pool and on the grounds of the villa are the only outdoors sequences in the movie.



THE 14,000 POUND ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM:
Buster's MGM talkies made money. Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was a big hit in 1931. Alas, things would get worse for Buster from here. It's never a good sign when your next feature is directed by the guys who helmed the "Dogville" series.



While, granted, MGM had much difficulty adapting the big studio playbook to the individual needs of an improvisational, brilliant, accomplished and fiercely independent artist such as Buster Keaton, the studio eventually produced The Thin Man series, mysteries with generous slugs of booze and humor, co-starring always urbane William Powell with always delightful Myrna Loy, and later, sprightly comedies starring the likes of Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn: outstanding ACTORS all, but not Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd style comedian/filmmakers with doctorates in advanced visual humor.

Provided one does not directly compare it to such epic silent features as Our Hospitality,The Navigator, Go West, The General and Steamboat Bill. Jr., one can see this "Buster Does Farce" feature as a noteworthy example of Joseph Frank Keaton's originality, charm, acting skill and acrobatic derring-do. The story, milieu, genre and concept are clearly not Buster's cup of tea, but he, yet again, proves himself the ultimate trouper and carries the day.

Acknowledgements: we thank the many fine writers, researchers and historians who have presented the tale of Buster Keaton's film career with some level of accuracy, especially Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions, creators of the following documentary on Buster at MGM.



Most of all, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog thank Lea Stans of Silent-ology for hosting this blogathon.

6 comments:

Silver Screenings said...

It really is too bad that Buster Keaton went to MGM. I don't understand why they would sign Buster then refuse to let him do what made him a star in the first place...?

Thanks for including the videos in your post. It's like you've given us Buster fans an armload of presents! :)

Lea S. said...

One of the not-too-bad MGMs, I agree. Seeing Buster in a bedroom farce is pretty...strange (that vintage ad you posted joking about "petting parties" totally sums up the difference between Big Time MGM and Buster's own artistic films), but he does do a great job with what he's given. That is an excellent point about the lack of wide open spaces in the MGM films--think of all the great sequences featuring him running, jumping, and climbing. It's essential to his style. No wonder MGM started to seem like a cage to him.

Thank you so much for joining the blogathon, Paul! I appreciate it.

Caftan Woman said...

Thanks for sorting through the dross for me.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks for your comments. Enjoyed reading your Buster Blogathon postings.

To some degree, the point of my post is that, with the exception of "Sidewalks Of New York" and "What? No Beer!", Buster is very good in these films - even when the material doesn't suit him at all.

What blows me away about Buster Keaton's stretch at MGM is that they managed to not just completely miss on Buster the filmmaker/comedy creator, but also did not see his possibilities as a leading man. If Buster's character in Parlor, Bedroom & Bath was not the super awkward "Reggie", but a smart and competent fellow who is on the shy side, an offbeat but wonderful leading man is exactly what you've got. So, even within the Hollywood movie factory style contract player concept, the geniuses at MGM totally blew it on Buster Keaton.

And, incidentally, the vintage "petting party" ad does not actually describe anything that happens in the movie. However, we all know that (then and now) there is no such thing as "truth in advertising".

Joe Thompson said...

"PB&B" was the first Keaton talkie that I saw, on the PBS program Matinee at the Bijou. I was surprised that it was not nearly as bad as what I had read about his talkies. You make an excellent point that MGM rarely let Keaton go outside in the talkies. But MGM always knew better, and would have pointed out that his talkies made more money than his silent features. Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

antoniod said...

I love most of Keaton's Educational shorts, because they give him room to move that he didn't have at MGM and have very clever set-ups.