Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Big Gag

The cyclone scene of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) provided the single most famous gag in silent films.  Buster Keaton, who is standing in front of a building as its facade collapses, avoids being crushed underneath the debris by passing through an open window.  I really want to call this astonishing stunt the most famous gag in film history, but I am not in the mood to argue with fans of There's Something About Mary who are more impressed by Cameron Diaz's glazed hair wave.

I set out in my new book, The Funny Parts, to analyze the various permutations of this gag and separate out the good ones from the bad ones.  Adaptations of this gag came from a variety of strange and unexpected sources.  Can you imagine a MacGyver version?  What about a Star Wars version?  No need to imagine as I have included clips of these versions below.

The most audacious reworking of this gag came from Keaton himself.  He came up with a steam-powered version of the gag while working as a gag writer on the Marx Brothers' Go West (1940).  Take a look. 

A significant percentage of an artist's time is devoted to conceiving ideas, but much more of his time is devoted to revision, refinement and restatement.

I was confident that I had seen every version of the gag in existence, but then I came across an unfamiliar version while watching TCM's Red Skelton marathon last week.  Several of Skelton's MGM films, including A Southern Yankee (1948), The Yellow Cab Man (1950) and Watch the Birdie (1950), are well-stocked with old Keaton gags as Keaton worked on these films as a consultant.  But this greatest of Keaton gags was reworked without Keaton's involvement.  The film was A Fuller Brush Man (1948), a feature that Skelton made while on a loan-out to Columbia.  Skelton, in flight from criminals in a war surplus factory, encounters an inventory of prefabricated homes and attempts to topple multiple facades on top of the criminals.  This version of the routine actually has much in common with the MacGyver version except that the criminals safely pass through openings in the facades and it is Skelton who eventually has a slab of plywood and drywall land on top of him.

 In 1950, Keaton performed a scaled-down version of the gag on his television show.


Here is a clip of the same scene.

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