We’re now officially in the 1920s! In addition to our weekly feature (or two, or three), we’ll be watching Buster Keaton short films for the next three weeks, followed by silent cartoons for a few weeks after that. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s recap 1920 in film:
Our first true Buster Keaton film of the SVU project. Zach and I are fans of Keaton, and so is Brent – “based on what I’ve seen so far,” he said after watching this short, “I like Keaton’s comedy more than Chaplin’s.” Chaplin’s comedy tends to be more cinematic and artsy, while Keaton’s is mechanical, cartoonish and highly, highly visual.
This particular short is the story of a boy and a girl who carry on a romance over the back fence, while their families squabble and try to keep them apart. In these early films, there’s no transition period as Keaton tries to find his comedic style – he’s 100% Keaton, right from the start: comic set-pieces are built around makeshift contraptions; sequences loop back to their beginning, like cul-de-sacs; and, through it all, Keaton’s face remains emotionless.
In a previous post, I already mentioned some of Keaton’s other characteristics as described by Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns, but my strongest impression of Keaton’s comedy is one of balancing a scale to zero: in Keaton’s films, the world is a wild, unstable place, so Keaton remains stoic and impassive to balance it out. The amount of triumph he has in the end is directly proportional to the abuse he takes throughout the film, and if a love story is sweet and happy, you know there’s a sardonic twist coming at the end to balance it all out.
Nothing against the brilliant Chaplin or the hilarious Lloyd, but we’re Keaton fans here in the SVU, and we’re going to be watching a whole lot of Buster over the next couple of months!
Jeanine Basinger’s book Silent Stars sheds light on Douglas Fairbanks’ early films. He spent the 1910′s as a comedian in the vein of early Harold Lloyd, but his films started to take an adventurous tone, and he made his greatest mark in the 1920′s in swashbucklers like The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad. Like Errol Flynn after him, he dashed across the screen in lighthearted epics that carried dramatic weight and grandiose visuals, but kept the tone light and fun.
The Mark of Zorro is one of the first films that features Fairbanks in full adventure mode. This is a story that has been filmed innumerable times, each with its own twist. Following the traditional version of the story, Fairbanks’ Don Diego is a weak, effeminate pansy – but this is all an act. He reveals his true character when he dons his Zorro getup and rides through the night, crossing swords with the villainous Ramon. As Don Diego, he repulses the senorita Lolita Pulido (say it aloud, it’s fun!), but as Zorro, he romances her. By the end of the film, his hand is forced, and he reveals himself as both Don Diego and Zorro, inspiring the caballeros of Spanish California to take a stand against the corrupt local government.
This is an effective version of the classic story. It inspired filmmakers of the silent and sound eras, and was a primary influence on the creation of Batman. While not Fairbanks’ best work, this is a well-made film, full of action, adventure, drama and humor.
Also, the version we watched featured a unique soundtrack, added years later – the 70′s, if I’m any judge of music. Zorro’s action theme sounds like it belongs in a 1970′s action show – which seems to make Zorro even more awesome!
Seven sequences make up this film, and each one begins with a calendar page, showing the course of one week of events in the crazy world of Keaton. He is married on Monday, and receives a build-it-yourself house as a wedding present – but then his bride’s bitter ex switches numbers on the house-building materials, resulting in a wacky house loaded with trap-doors and strange angles.
Zach pointed out that, just as Harold Lloyd’s shtick was wild stunts like climbing buildings, Keaton’s shtick is crazy houses. Keaton was a gear-head whose comedy is so unique because he saw the camera a fascinating device, and dissected the possibilities for that device in comedy; his mechanical nature comes through also in the constant use of gadgets and simple machines as props, and the ultimate expression of this was the crazy house. He used it in this short as an improperly-assembled house, in The Scarecrow as a slew of life-simplifying devices, and in The Navigator as a ship full of nautical supplies converted to everyday use, not to mention the two shorts names for their wacky, gadget-filled houses: The Electric House and The Haunted House. Keaton seemed to have a never-ending supply of such gadget-related gags, and used them in one form or another in literally all of his silent films.
Ah, 1920. Good times. “I want to live in 1920,” said Noah.
“…but not 1919,” added Zach, since last week’s films were so weak.
Brent said, “…if you were alive in 1920 but not 1919, you probably wouldn’t remember the films of 1920.” Think about that one.
Next week, in addition to more Keaton, we have a choice of Chaplin, Pickford, or Fairbanks — or all three! We’ll decide next Friday night.