Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stair Masters

The success of a routine depends in large measure on motives and performance.  A YouTube clip showing a man randomly walking up and down a flight of stairs would not be funny.  But Buster Keaton was able to handle this simple premise expertly in The Cameraman (1928).  His motive?  Keaton is in his room at a boarding house waiting anxiously for a girl to call.  Every time the phone rings in the lobby of the boarding house, he races down three flights of stairs to see if it is the girl on the phone.   His actions in this context are reasonable, relatable and funny.  His affection for this girl renders Keaton human even though the comedian, in his precision and tirelessness, whizzes back and forth across the screen like a wind-up toy.  See for yourself.

Now, let us see Jerry Lewis do the same basic routine in Artists and Models (1955).

Lewis plays the scene in complete contradiction to the way that it was played by Keaton.  Unlike Keaton, Lewis does not comes across as an inexhaustible athlete.  Lewis has no great stamina or coordination and it isn't long before he is reduced to a crawling, gasping mess.  It is an entirely different approach to the routine, but the scene works well and Lewis could not be funnier.

Still, the scene has one flaw.  You will have noticed that motive is different in this scene.  Lewis answers the phone for partner Dean Martin, who is upstairs in the bath.  Martin keeps sending Lewis up and down the stairs for more information from the caller.  This motivation is less than reasonable.  Lewis could have gotten the caller to provide him with all the necessary information before he started up the stairs.  He could have demanded that Martin get out of the tub and take the call himself.  Keaton has no other option - he will lose out on a date with the girl of his dreams if he misses her call.  This makes his character more sympathetic.

Keaton was able to capture himself running up and down the stairs in a single shot by using a cutaway set.  He had created a similar set for a chase scene in The High Sign (1921).  That earlier routine was more clownish, with the comedian racing upstairs and downstairs through a home using trapdoors instead of stairs.
Cutaway sets have been used to comic effect in a number of films.

The Ladies Man (1961)

Tout va bien (1972)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Wait, I hear the phone!

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