Friday, January 24, 2014


If anyone wants to see the outcome of genius denied, the notorious What! No Beer! provides the perfect tutorial. One of the top-drawer comedic actors in movies, Buster Keaton had forsaken independent production in 1928 to sign with MGM, believing that he would continue to make movies the way he always he had. Instead, he quickly found himself just another cog in a studio factory that had no understanding or appreciation of his style. Faster than you can say "Ars Gratia Artis," Keaton sank into morass of depression, divorce and drinking. And any Keaton fan watching his MGM features will ultimately do likewise. 

Having immersed myself in Keaton's silent movies in the early '70s, I was struck not only by his breathtaking physical comedy -- he once broke his neck without realizing it -- but his strangely-modern deadpan countenance. While optimistic contemporaries like Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were always ready with a smile, Keaton looked defeated even when triumphant. Watching his movies at a time when America was still reeling from Watergate and the Vietnam War, Keaton appeared to tap into a zeitgeist about 75 years before anyone knew what the hell that word meant.

Durante does MGM's bidding by finishing off
Keaton once and for all.
Once talkies arrived, MGM decided the best way to present Keaton was to put him into dialogue-heavy comedies. Make that "bad dialogue-heavy comedies." Because who would want to watch somebody just do stuff when they could hear him talk? Ultimately some studio genius got the bright idea of pairing him with MGM's other new hire, Jimmy Durante, for three movies, each worse than the one before it. Their final picture, What? No Beer?, was the bottle, as it were, that broke Keaton's back.

There's no point in recounting What! No Beer?'s story. Keaton and Durante play a couple of nitwits who become bootleggers during Prohibition's dying days -- that's all you need to know. What's sadly fascinating is how MGM deliberately placed Keaton in a situation that called for little of his comedic gifts, forcing him to simply feed lines to the bigmouthed Durante. Even worse, he plays straight to a trio of hobos-turned-brewers who play their scenes like a flashmob in a cemetery. (I wonder if their roles were originally intended for the Three Stooges, who were signed to MGM at the time.) It's like watching Edward Hopper having to paint generic billboards for Wonder Bread. It's nice he's getting a steady paycheck and all, but goddamn-mighty-damn it's a tragedy to watch.

While always a Durante fan, I nonetheless watched him more stonefaced than Keaton himself ever was. 
Run away, Buster, as fast as you can.
Playing against Keaton, he's the cinematic version of the schoolyard bully, completely overwhelming his helpless partner not with physical but verbal abuse. Only 37 but looking 50, the once-great Keaton is drunk -- I mean really drunk, not acting -- throughout What! No Beer?, slurring his words and and barely focusing his dark, haunted eyes. He gets a couple of chances at his physical comedy -- nobody can slide down a beer-slicked stairway like him -- but those moments only illuminate the sickening dismay that both we and Keaton find ourselves experiencing. It's the original version of Night of the Living Dead.

Gagman Keaton compares notes with the Marx
Brothers on how MGM destroyed their
To Keaton's horror, the worse his MGM movies got, the more money they made -- more, perhaps, than his good movies in the '20s. (Sometimes it isn't always a good thing to give the people what they want.) Shortly after What! No Beer?'s release, he was fired by MGM for insubordination, sending him spiraling into years of severe alcohol abuse. Ever wake up in Mexico with a woman you had no memory of marrying the previous day? Just another day in the life of Buster Keaton. In a typically vindictive move, MGM would later rehire him as an uncredited gagman at $100 a week. And while he lived another 33 years, What! No Beer? would be his final lead role in an American movie. Hooray for Hollywood, hunh?

A few years earlier, fellow movie comedian Harry Langdon found himself in a similar situation. Having come to movies from vaudeville far later than his contemporaries, he was soon compared favorably to Charles Chaplin. But after firing his writer/director Frank Capra -- a move which Capra never stopped bitching about until, and probably after, he died -- Langdon started to focus more on the dark, bizarre humor that fascinated him. (In Long Pants, Langdon, having fallen for a sexy temptress, spends the rest of the movie plotting to murder his fiance. It's a comedy.) By the end of 1928, he was for all intents and purposes washed-up. Langdon had been in movies for all of four years.

But in 1930, Warner Bros. cast him in a strong supporting role in the World War I comedy, A Soldier's Plaything. Nothing more than a loosely-connected series of comedic vignettes, the 59-minute feature is by no means a classic. A laid-back fan of early talkies might consider it "OK, nothing special" and leave it at that. However, compared to What! No Beer? (how sick are you of reading that title?), it's another Duck Soup. And it's due only to second-billed Harry Langdon.

Although their approach to comedy was different, Langdon and Keaton were similar in two key ways. Unlike the universally-beloved Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Langdon and Keaton even at their best -- especially at their best -- were acquired tastes. Too, their onscreen characters never seemed quite of this world; while Keaton was an unemotional cynic, Langdon was more like a confused seven year-old boy trapped in a grown-man's body. It's no surprise that Langdon and Keaton play better to contemporary audiences than they did to those in the 1920s.

Ben Lyon warns Harry Langdon
to stop stealing the movie from
underneath him.
A Soldier's Plaything allows Langdon to display both the childlike and bizarre sides of his personality. Unfortunately, so dependent is Langdon on his subtle reactions that describing his best scenes really doesn't do him justice. You need to see him mindlessly following orders as he marches through a window, into the general's office and smack into a wall. It's not enough to tell you that he tries wooing a beautiful French woman, only to discover that she's deaf. It's his impossible-to-describe stunned, babbling reaction, climaxed by hitting himself on the head with a bottle, that makes it laugh out loud hilarious and proof that he could have easily reignited his career in A's if given the right material, a sympathetic director and the chance to contribute to his role. 

Alas, like Keaton, Langdon was at the mercy of an industry that just didn't get him. Apart from the occasional supporting role in A-movies, he was relegated to low-budget B's and shorts, a far cry from the days when he was mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and carried thousand-dollar bills in his wallet for spending money. And again like Keaton, Langdon made it through the lean years as a gagman, working with Laurel & Hardy at the Hal Roach Studios. While Langdon died in 1944, Keaton lived long enough to experience a late-in-life career resurgence thanks to TV and movie producers who let him do what he wanted, which was all he ever asked for.

Louis B. Mayer would be baffled that Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon silents continue to run at museums and film festivals. But they're strange. And they aren't classy like Metro pictures! So the next time you see a preview for a comedy that makes you wonder Who the hell thought this was a good idea and why did they pay this guy $20-million to make it?, say a prayer for the two otherworldly talents cut off at the knees in their prime by studios run by men whose allegiance to the bottom line was equaled only by their fear of genius.  Ars Gratia Quaestus.


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