Sunday, May 13, 2012
The other day, I happened to watch The Taming of the Snood, a two-reel comedy that Buster Keaton made for Columbia Pictures in 1940. Keaton's Columbia shorts should, by all reason, be a treat for a Keaton fan like myself. The series put the comic master back in front of the cameras after he had spent two years working behind the scenes as a gag man for M-G-M and 20th Century Fox. His creative team included esteemed comedy veterans Del Lord, Clyde Bruckman and Felix Adler. Best of all, the series gave Keaton the opportunity to revisit many of his classic routines. Unfortunately, this series did not turn out too well and the reworked routines may have been the biggest problem. It looks as if, under the supervision of producer Jules White, the process of reconstructing the vintage routines included sucking them dry of the slightest traces of subtly or depth. This is particularly evident with the two routines revived for The Taming of the Snood.
Keaton was funny trying on different men's hats in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). The selection of hats, which included a checkered cap, a black fedora, a straw hat and a western hat, was no longer seen as being funny enough.
So, now, Keaton sought laughs trying on impossibly silly women's hats, including a hat in the shape of a giant milk bottle.
The second routine recreated in The Taming of the Snood was carried over from Spite Marriage (1929). The Spite Marriage routine was, on its face, serious. Dorothy Sebastian regrets having married Keaton to get back at a faithless suitor. She is so distraught seeing her former lover at a nightclub that she drinks herself into a stupor. Keaton dutifully gets Sebastian home and then, when she falls unconscious, he struggles to carry her to bed.
The comparable situation in The Taming of the Snood is not at all serious. Taking Sebastian's place is eccentric dancer Elsie Ames. Ames plays a ditzy maid who meets Keaton while he is delivering a hat. The ditzy maid lacks the emotional heft of the distraught wife of Spite Marriage. She is an incidental character who shows up randomly. Her heft is purely physical. Ames is performing an oafish dance as she dusts furniture. A misstep causes her to bang her head into a wall, the result of which is that she becomes unconscious. Keaton tries to revive her with a shot of whiskey, but he is distracted by a squawking parrot and pours too much whiskey down her throat. The whiskey elevates Ames to a manic state. Her alcohol-fueled aggression, which puts her at the opposite extreme of Sebastian's unconscious state, causes her to wrestle with Keaton as he labors to lift her off the floor.
Humor is not immediately evident in the idea of a man lifting his drunk wife into a bed or a man trying on a black fedora, but Keaton had the unique talent to turn less than outrageous material into great comedy. It is a shame that he had to resort to a milk bottle hat, a wrestling maid and other broad comedy devices while at Columbia.
In Habeas Corpus (1928), Oliver Hardy shinnies up a post to read a street sign at the top. He reaches the top only to find a sign that reads, "Wet Paint." He can see now that the post has been freshly painted and the paint has left a thick white stripe running down the front of his suit.
This gag appeared in earlier films, including a 1920 Roach comedy called Money to Burn and a 1925 Sennett comedy called Sneezing Beezers!. Here is the scene in Money to Burn.
Laurel & Hardy used the gag again in the 20th Century Fox feature The Big Noise (1944).
The gag continued to be used by others in a variety of films.
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
In the short story "Another Fine Mess," Ray Bradbury imagined Laurel & Hardy's ghosts haunting the staircase where The Music Box was filmed. Bradbury described the haunting as follows:
There was a series of shouts and then a huge banging crash as the music box, in the dark, rocketed down the hill skittering on the steps, playing chords where it hit, swerving rushing and ahead of it, running the two shapes pursued by the musical beast, yelling tripping shouting, warning the Fates, crying out to the gods, down and down, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred steps.
I suspect, though, that this location holds more sentiment for fans than the comedians, who would have little reason to spend their afterlife being chased down a flight of stairs by a phantom piano.
Recreations of Buster Keaton's famous falling wall gag have found their way into music videos and cartoons.
Weird Al Yankovic, "Amish Paradise" (1996)
The Chemical Brothers, "The Test" (2002)
Popeye, "For Better or Nurse" (1945)
Teen Titans, "Apprentice - Part 2" (2003)
Shrek the Third (2007)
Phineas and Ferb, "Spa Day" (2009)
The Simpsons, "American History X-Cellent" (2010)
The most oft-used comedy routine in film history was the man-child falling into the grasp of the femme fatale. Harry Langdon took ownership of this routine in the 1920s, but a comedian who came to use the routine even more frequently than Langdon was Lou Costello. Here are a few examples.
Filmmakers never tired of the premise. Even after Costello had become worn out fumbling around on a couch with these sinister ladies, other comedians were willing to hop on the couch and see what they could do.
Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models (1955)
Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954)
Lou Costello in Hit the Ice (1943)
Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models (1955)
The tradition carries on today as vamp meets vamp in Dark Shadows (2012).