Large Association of Movie Blogs
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Monday, March 14, 2022

Mr. Keaton Goes To The Columbia Shorts Department


"Buster Keaton doing his own films was a master. Buster Keaton working for other people was a travesty.” YouTube poster, commenting on GENERAL NUISANCE (1941).

"Buster Keaton plays everything well, but there's absolutely nothing that feels specific to Buster Keaton in the material." IMDB commenter hte-trasme, commenting on THE SPOOK SPEAKS.



First and foremost, we tip our well-worn porkpie hat to Lea Stans of Silent-ology for hosting the annual Buster Keaton Blogathon and encouraging the following contribution from the diehard and dyed-in-the-wool Damfinos at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog.


Today's topic is one of the low points of Keaton's career - arguably THE lowest point - the two years Buster spent starring in comedy short subjects created by Jules White and Del Lord at Columbia.



Just in case one is an enthusiastic fan of Buster and the studio's house-style gurus, The Three Stooges, the ten Columbia Keaton shorts are available on a 2-DVD set under the title Buster Keaton Collection. There are commentary tracks by comedy film historians throughout, if one can’t stop thinking of the 1920's masterpieces Cops, Sherlock Jr., The General, Our Hospitality, The Navigator and Steamboat Bill, Jr. and finds the misuse and misunderstanding of Buster in these films unbearable.

Classic movie buffs know the story: Buster makes magic, the most astonishing and original of all comedy films, as an independent producer, signs with MGM, who, making such Thanksgiving turkeys as Free & Easy and What? No Beer, ruin him as surely they subsequently made the worst movies of The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Our Gang.

Thus, Buster Keaton transitioned from MGM feature film star to the ignominious world of comedy shorts, first with Educational Pictures. The 2-reelers were made quickly and inexpensively, shot in three or four days.

As far as the Columbia Shorts Department goes, its product to this day remains lowbrow, and yet, it is difficult for this classic movie fan to dislike a production company that makes films titled “You Were Never Uglier” and “Three Dumb Clucks.”



The stars of the Columbia Shorts Department, unquestionably, were The Three Stooges, creating cartoony slapstick mayhem in some of their funniest films at the same time Buster Keaton was at Columbia. The formula works like a charm for them, at least until the serious health problems that led to Curly Howard's untimely passing in 1952 become undeniable onscreen in the mid-1940's.



Under producer Jules White, to some extent everybody on the lot made Three Stooges comedies, complete with the trademark sound effects and stock company, whether their individual style of and approach to comedy fit into the formula or not. So, with the Columbia Shorts Department, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, two idiosyncratic, clever and original comedy creators, essentially starred in knockabout slapstick. This was anathema to the approach they rode to 1920's feature film stardom. While this slapstick humor style frequently squelches the silent movie headliners, whose humor depended on nuance, Buster's astonishing ability to execute acrobatic falls and devise brilliant bits of comedy business often carries the day, both at Educational and Columbia.

Buster Keaton landed at Columbia Pictures in 1939 and, as he needed the steady work, signed for half the rate he had been paid to star in short subjects for Educational previously. In 1930, comedy short subjects still ruled the roost, with Hal Roach Studios specializing in them, but by 1939, Roach, Sennett and Educational were no longer producing short comedies and - with the exception of the 1-reel "Joe McDoakes" series made by Richard L. Bare for Warner Brothers - Columbia and RKO were the last studios to make them. While "2-reelers" in particular were considered the minor leagues of movies, Buster took the job.

Columbia became the destination for former silent comedy performers, writers, cinematographers, producers and directors looking for work. At one point Del Lord, architect of insane car chases and Billy Bevan comedies at Mack Sennett's studio, Charley Chase from Hal Roach Studios, Harold Lloyd collaborator Felix Adler and Jules White's brother Jack (a.k.a. "Preston Black"), producer/director of funmakers from Lloyd Hamilton to Louise Fazenda at Educational Pictures, were all making 2-reelers for Columbia.

As noted, Keaton’s fellow silent feature star Harry Langdon was there at the Columbia Short Subjects on and off, as was uncrowned king of comedy short subjects Charley Chase. Of the three, Chase fared best by far and would appear to have maintained at least some creative control over his starring series and held on to a fair amount of his established onscreen persona, while also directing other comedians on the lot. He died in 1940 and it is likely that had Chase lived longer, his films would have increasingly veered into heavy-handed slapstick.





What suggestion do we have for the avid fan of Buster Keaton silents watching the 1939-1941 Columbia shorts for the first time? After all, Buster Keaton not only starred in The Goat but WAS the GOAT, a.k.a. Greatest Of All Time.

On one hand, DON'T WATCH THEM would very likely be the advice for Damfinos and silent movie mavens. Some of the Columbia shorts are not bad at all, even quite funny and enjoyable, but others are such unmitigated stinkers that, given the choice between watching one and shoving a dipstick from a 1976 Buick LeSabre as far up your nostril as humanly possible, the latter option would be best for Buster fans.



On the other hand, for classic comedy buffs who laugh out loud and invariably end up ROFL at Chaplin's Keystones, Larry Semon’s Vitagraph 1-reelers, Mack Sennett car chase epics (SUPER-DUPER DYNE LIZZIES), early Harold Lloyd comedies transitioning from dorky "Lonesome Luke" to his "glasses character, The Three Stooges' YOU NAZTY SPY, Laurel & Hardy in HELPMATES and both Buster silent era masterpieces as COPS and ONE WEEK, plus his work 30+ years later in television and even in AIP features, it might well be possible, with some trepidation, to watch Keaton's Columbia short subjects. Make no mistake about it, these "Buster the Stooge" Columbias suffer by direct comparison to Keaton's silents but certainly hold their own in the late 1930's and early 1940's 2-reeler universes of the Columbia Shorts Department and RKO's comedy shorts directed by Hal Yates.


Short films, while considered the ragged stepchild of prestigious feature films, were popular with audiences, and Buster, like his mentor Roscoe Arbuckle, began his silver screen career starring in short subjects. Buster created quite a few of the funniest, most inventive short comedies ever produced, the gold standard once he took over Roscoe Arbuckle's studio when the big fella graduated from 2-reelers to starring in feature films for Paramount. These Buster Keaton Comedies from from 1920-1923 are in the same category among silent era comedy triumphs as the Chaplin Mutuals, the last Harold Lloyd "glasses character" short subjects and, also produced by Hal Roach Studios, the films Leo McCarey directed for Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase in 1924-1928.



Since the Columbia series is the first since the 1917-1920 Comique Productions films in which he co-starred with Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John to focus almost entirely on knockabout slapstick, another way to regard them is to imagine that the only existing silents featuring Buster Keaton were the Arbuckle Comique series - and that everything else went the way of the Fox and Universal comedies that burned up in the notorious 1937 vault fire in Little Ferry, New Jersey. Buster's solo films, from One Week through Spite Marriage, are not necessarily slapstick-oriented, although there is much physical comedy, as well as sight gags that inspired everybody from Mel Brooks to Chuck Jones.

The biggest problem with the Buster Keaton Columbia 2-reelers is something insidious that creeps into his films beginning with The Cameraman and extends through the MGM features and Educational Pictures short subjects: presenting Buster as a sad sack, a pathetic individual and a blithering idiot. Who was the genius who thought this somehow made Keaton funnier? It doesn't, and the Columbias are particularly egregious at presenting Buster as a dolt. This idea reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of his comedy and couldn't have come from Buster; given the onscreen results, from big-budget MGM features to threadbare Educational and Columbia short subjects, this remains absolutely incomprehensible. Yet, Buster playing an idiot is what is seen and repeated through the ten Columbia shorts. . . repeated over and over and over.

In Keaton's best films, the more competent, resourceful, clever and unconventional thinking the unassuming pork pie hat fellow is, the funnier he is - he's a smart guy who's just ever so slightly absent-minded, not an amalgamated moron in the Moe, Larry and Curly mode - but such films as The General were considered ancient history by 1940.

Another big problem and elephant in the room with this series is a by-product of the Jules White signature slapstick and related to the change in Buster's characterization that begins in The Cameraman: how often Buster is mistreated. He's pushed around and bullied to a degree not even seen in the misbegotten MGM features and Educational shorts, which denigrate Buster plenty. This never ends up being in the service of comedy. Buster The Stooge gets Buster gets bashed throughout the ten short subjects repeatedly and frequently for no reason; Keaton is constantly getting smashed in the face throughout the Columbia series and the point comes quickly where it's not funny. The viewer ends up feeling sorry for Buster. Unfortunately, "Moe Howard Theory", a specific sequence within The Three Stooges formula that gets laughs - Moe acting like a complete jerk, then getting hit hard with a two-by-four or large metal object - is nowhere to be found in the Keaton Columbias, even with supporting players Vernon Dent and Bud Jamison on hand to play the "Moe" part.

The third big problem with Buster’s Columbia series is Elsie Ames, an enthusiastic, energetic and unrelentingly in-your-face performer who could execute vigorous slapstick a la Joan Davis and Lucille Ball, but also possessed a pronounced penchant for overacting (note: Trav SD, author of Chain Of Fools, wrote a post about the slapstick comedienne on his Travalanche website, which also covered Jules White at length). Jules paired Buster with Elsie Ames - and the teaming doesn't work any better than teaming Keaton with Jimmy Durante in the MGM features.


Among a slew of brassy comediennes (Martha Raye, Mabel Todd, Judy Canova, Betty Hutton and rubber-faced Cass Daley), who came to prominence at that time, Elsie Ames made her show business name as part of the comedy dance team of Ames & Arno, seen here doing their pratfalling act in the 1937 Bing Crosby vehicle Double Or Nothing. It is possible to understand why Jules White and the Columbia Shorts Department signed her, as Ames is quite an accomplished acrobat and possesses a goofy personality.



One would venture to guess that Jules White envisioned Elsie as a Curly Howard-style slapstick comedy star who would headline her own series. Comparisons to Curly Howard prove difficult, as the NYUK NYUK NYUK WOOWOOWOO king's onscreen persona exudes a certain peculiar charm and highly unique timing that was, just about always, extremely funny. His characterization is weirdly likable and gets laughs. Oddly, Elsie Ames never appeared in the one Columbia Shorts Department series where she might have been a good fit - as a supporting player with The Three Stooges. Of course, if Elsie tried to upstage them even once. . .

Although Elsie Ames is, as noted, a gifted acrobat and a physical comedienne willing to take thunderous pratfalls that would give Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John pause, she tends to run roughshod over her co-stars at Columbia, not just Buster but Harry Langdon and El Brendel as well. It's comparable to a heavy metal guitarist whose only technique is to shred, shred, shred and then shred some more at high volume and ridiculous speeds but entirely without nuance or variation in dynamics. The concept of "less is more," at least at this stage of her show business career, is entirely lost upon Elsie.

When Keaton imbues the Three Stooges style slapstick with his more low-key and thoughtful personality, does it work? The writer feels that understatement surrounded by bombast can succeed, if it is allowed to. Is The Taming Of The Snood, a knockabout opus loaded with pure physical comedy and astonishing falls by both Keaton and Ames, overbearing or funny? Find it, like other Keaton Columbias, to be both - and love the opening scene with Buster modeling hats for Dorothy Appleby - but you be the judge. As is the case with slapstick gags in Laurel & Hardy and Three Stooges comedies, I find myself LOL at the extremity of it all. Again, with the Columbia series, draw the direct line to Arbuckle's Comiques, not Keaton's 1920's masterpieces, as Buster's pal Roscoe would have fit right into the Columbia Shorts Department and perhaps brought just a touch of that "slapstick ballet" quality from his Comiques and Keystones to the proceedings.




To cut Elsie just a tiny bit of a break, here is one sequence from General Nuisance in which she does include her strong suit, dancing. This sequence is still dominated by shameless mugging and knockabout, but the hoofing is enjoyable and there's something to like in this song-and-dance bit; as much as Elsie and Buster slap each other around, the musical number indicates a possible direction other than 100% knockabout this series could have taken. Buster sings and dances, and, as always, is funny and charming. If Elsie could have just done a moment here or a moment there of nothing, of repose, for a breath. Whether this was her sensibility or Jules' direction, we don't know. That said, we know Buster was too much of a gentleman to overrule the director or tell her to shut up.



Interestingly, Elsie Ames redeemed herself for the enthusiastic and well-intended but overbearing performances in Columbia 2-reelers with her last appearances in movies 30 years later, in the John Casavettes films Minnie and Moskowitz and A Woman Under The Influence. Casavettes was an original, innovative and first-rate feature film director and turned out to be the one to successfully bring out the acting mojo in Elsie Ames. She's good in both movies and, as a senior citizen, totally unrecognizable from the knockabout clown from the Columbia 2-reelers.



Of the ten Columbia shorts, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog have a favorite. That would be Nothing but Pleasure, in which a bus trip to Detroit devised to save money on shipping the newly bought auto is an unmitigated disaster. This is a Buster piece in that he brings back the "getting a stone drunk woman to bed" bit from Spite Marriage (and several other films), as well as a Clyde Bruckman piece which includes a gag involving parking a car in a tight space which was previously seen in Lloyd Hamilton's TOO MANY HIGHBALLS (1933) and, with improvements, the hilarious W.C. Fields feature THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935). Redolent with Clyde Bruckman's dark sensibility, Nothing But Pleasure is very much a Lloyd Hamilton-like piece in its fatalistic "everything happens to me" scenario.

Although Buster does not portray the sharpest tool in the shed, or even the resourceful fellow we see in his silent features, thankfully, he does not play a complete idiot, just a guy who, like Lloyd "Ham" Hamilton and Albert King, is born under a bad sign. Unlike Lloyd Hamilton and W.C. Fields, Buster's character is chock full of cheerful earnestness - and the contrast with the viewpoints of his long-suffering wife (played by Dorothy Appleby) and Bud Jamison as a puzzled police officer, makes this a very good, very funny comedy short.

Also like So You Won't Squawk, with a gangster and chase-filled plot reminiscent of the Gus Schilling - Richard Lane comedies produced by the Columbia Shorts Department a few years later. Buster is mistaken for a gangland kingpin and it's off to the races. Keaton takes fall after fall after all in this and adapts surprisingly well to the fast-fast-fast and then faster Jules White ethos throughout.



One wonders, watching the Columbia Keatons and seeing them wrecked over and over by loud, hammy, irritating performances, is whether anyone thought of casting Buster’s wife Eleanor, who he married in 1940, even briefly. She was not under contract to the Columbia Shorts Department and perhaps, after hearing how very unhappy her husband was there, would have opted not to appear in these slapstick-heavy films had she been offered the opportunity to do so. In the 1950’s, Eleanor would work onstage with Buster at the Cirque Medrano with great success.


All ten Keaton Columbias are, at least at this moment, up on YouTube. Proceed at your own risk.

Pest From The West

Mooching Through Georgia

Nothing But Pleasure

Pardon My Berth Marks

The Taming Of The Snood

The Spook Speaks

His Ex Marks The Spot

So You Won’t Squawk

General Nuisance

She's Oil Mine






For more on the Buster The Stooge series. . .

In his 2010 book The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia. Author James L. Neibaur delves into Buster’s post-Steamboat Bill. Jr. films at length. The encyclopedia on the subject, Columbia Comedy Shorts: Two-Reel Hollywood Film Comedies, 1933-1958 by Ted Okuda and Edward Watz, is out of print in hardback, but available in paperback and on Kindle - and well worth checking out, as the authors painstakingly review hundreds of Shorts Department films. Leonard Maltin discusses Buster's comedy in The Great Movie Shorts and The Great Movie Comedians and offers his insights.

All we can say in closing is, "thanks, Buster" and "thanks, Eleanor" - and note how many genuinely funny moments turn up between the knockabout in the Columbia series. No Keaton film, no matter how threadbare, is a total loss because he's in it, making great comedy regardless of the circumstances.


9 comments:

nitrateglow said...

Lmao, I loved your write up of this period of Buster's career! I saw a handful of the Columbia shorts a few years ago. Some are unbearable, but others do have nuggets of actual comedy there--- dumb comedy, but comedy all the same. To be honest, the ones I saw were at least better than Boom in the Moon, which gets my vote for worst movie to ever star Buster Keaton.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks Nitrate Glow and I am glad I haven't seen Boom In The Moon. I love how the name of Buster's character in General Nuisance is Hedley Lamarr. Mel Brooks is a Buster fan!

Elisabeth Veidt said...

Great post! Reading this I think I've missed very little by ignoring Buster's Columbia shorts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Most excellent write-up of Buster's Columbia shorts. Avoid, avoid!

Virginie Pronovost said...

This is my first time reading that blog and I have to say, I love your writing style! Very dynamic! That was a great analysis of Buster Keaton's work at Columbia. I like how informative it was an how you manage to give a good equilibrium to the quality of those films by sharing their good and bad aspects. But now I have to watch them!

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks for the kind words, all of you! IMHO, if you like Three Stooges comedies and the more knockabout-oriented silents from Sennett, Arbuckle, Henry Lehrman, as well as such slapstick-oriented comics of later generations as Jerry Lewis and Chris Farley, you will be okay with the Columbia Keatons.

Funny, in my decades of schlepping 16mm films and projectors around, the movie that elicited the single worst audience response was a Columbia 2-reeler starring El Brendel. This was a sophisticated crowd and boy, did the El Brendel in drag segment (in which he uttered such lines as "I'm a monkey wench") bomb!

Lea S. said...

Great contribution to the blogathon, Paul-- thank you! I love what a diverse selection of topics we have this year. The Columbias are frequently glossed over so having background/context behind them is very useful. As a sucker for Keystone/Arbuckle/all that, I can usually sit through them myself! ;)

Silver Screenings said...

I'm not familiar with the Columbia shorts, so I loved your excellent essay. You make a good point about Buster being knocked about, etc., as not being funny. We as the audience end up feeling sorry for Buster, and – as you also stated – that was not the type of comedy that made him great. The Buster of the 1920s was resourceful and clever...and if only...

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

The Columbia 2-reelers, IMHO were best when Jack White, Charley Chase and Del Lord were directing. Jules White could make hilarious short subjects with The Three Stooges, but does not adjust his style to fit the other comedians on the lot. Del directed "Pest From The West," one of the better Buster Columbias. Lea, in the "what might have been" department, wonder how things would have worked out had Mayer fired Buster a year or two earlier and he ended up reuniting with his pal Roscoe at Vitaphone.