Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Elaborations and Commentary on the Banana Peel Gag

A gag as simple as a man slipping on a banana peel can develop into something elaborate.  In The High Sign (1921), Buster Keaton plays off audience expectations by revealing a banana peel in his character's path but then allowing his character to walk over the banana peel unharmed.  Keaton makes a defiant gesture to the camera before walking on and slipping on a second banana peel.  Years later, Keaton acknowledged that he added the second banana peel only after preview audiences failed to laugh at his character's cleverness.

In his very next film, Keaton staged the following gag.

The track switch gag, which has the comedian averting a disastrous encounter with one train only to fall victim to a second train, is nothing more than the banana peel gag writ large.

Red Skelton repeated the High Sign gag in The Fuller Brush Man (1948), making no changes except that he used roller skates in place of banana peels.  This was less contrived since it can be assured that, when one roller skate turns up, a second one must be lurking nearby.


Skelton had the opportunity to expand the routine when he received Keaton's assistance as a gag writer on The Yellow Cab Man (1950).  This time, Skelton is unable to see the banana peel because he is carrying a grandfather clock.  He misses stepping on the banana peel not because he is clever but because a sweeper happens at the right moment to push the banana peel out of his way.

But this reprieve from danger is momentary.  Skelton, still unable to see where he's walking, approaches an open shaft of a sidewalk elevator.  He is just about to take a tumble into the shaft when the elevator rises up and allows him to safely walk across.

Even though Skelton has not been clever or conveyed an arrogant attitude, it remains inevitable for him to suffer a downfall.  On cue, he enters the street and gets hit by a car.  From Keaton's perspective, fate is malevolent and it will not be cheated.  Keaton would have enjoyed the Final Destination movies.

Larry Semon, whose outlook was less pessimistic than Keaton's, often had his clownish character benefit from humorously fortuitous events.  A nearly identical version of the elevator gag was performed by Semon in The Bakery (1921).  But Semon did not feel the need to have his character defeated in the end.  It was in the same way that Harry Langdon's "Little Elf" character later came to survive many troubles by sheer luck.

Throughout his career, Keaton held to his belief in the perversity of fate.  Film critic Dan Callahan wrote, "[E]ven if things worked out, Buster knew everything would soon fall apart again, which led to some of the most ruthlessly unsentimental endings in film history."  Keaton left sentiment to Charlie Chaplin and optimism to Harold Lloyd.  Instead, he lamented about the banana peel that could be lying in wait around the next corner.

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