Preface: I’m sure anyone reading this has already deduced the fact that updates to this blog, if they occur at all, may be extremely sporadic. However, having said that, I’ve recently had the blogging bee buzzing round my bonnet again, whispering sweet nothings to me, so it could go either way.
For a reason that currently escapes me, I’ve recently gotten into the habit of watching a lot of double features at home. I think part of it stems from my occasional inability to figure out what I want to watch next (with there being so much to choose from these days). By having theme nights or employing some kind of six degrees of separation process for linking films together (in ways ranging from the obvious to the more outré) I’ve found this has become less of a problem and has actually made the process of figuring out what to watch during a given period kind of fun in itself.
Also, being born during the VHS era, I sadly missed out on the golden age of repertory cinemas/revival houses that used to programme these things all the time. Certain theatres in the UK’s larger cities still do these sorts of events occasionally but I am unfortunately a fair distance away from most of them. Needless to say, the obvious solution was to try to approximate the experience at home. Sure, it isn't nearly the same, but it does have its positive points (the main one that comes to mind is being able to have intermissions anytime one feels like it).
Finally, from the critic’s point of view, watching a few films in succession, whether they are linked in some way, or wildly divergent, often brings some interesting and occasionally unexpected things to light.
Aside from their shared title and setting, the first thing that occurs to me when considering both of these movies in tandem is that, delightful as they are, neither are generally considered top drawer stuff from their respective creators. However, as James Agee pointed out in his review of the Marx Brothers’ later film A Night in Casablanca (Archie Mayo, 1946): “the worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of.” I’d have to say I wholeheartedly agree and that personally I also find this to be the case with Buster Keaton.
As per usual, we find Buster, at the beginning of his film, down on his luck and on the move to what he hopes will be greener pastures. His protagonist, the characteristically named Friendless, gets off to a shaky start. Firstly, he pawns all of his possessions and becomes almost instantly broke again after having to buy some of them back and then, whilst attempting to find work in the city, he’s trampled under foot by cold, self-absorbed pedestrians. Understandably depressed about how all this is going, Friendless slumps down and takes a seat on the side of the train tracks to reassess the situation when he has a vision of Horace Greeley’s statue (seen at the film’s start) imploring him to “Go West, young man”. Things have come to a dead end in the city so he decides to heed the ethereal statue’s advice.
Sadly, the residents of the ranch that Buster eventually arrives at don’t seem to be much warmer than their urban counterparts. Sure, they give the little guy a job but they still act somewhat chilly towards him (the recurring scene where they all seem to finish dinner the second he sits down at the table springs to mind) and some are just downright mean to him on occasion (he’s nearly gored by a bull after being told to wave something red at it by mischievous cowboys).
However, a ray of sunshine eventually appears on this somewhat cold and desolate horizon in the form of a cow called Brown Eyes. They become fast friends after Friendless extracts a rock from her hoof, thus curing a limp and later, somewhat returning the favour, she saves him from being gored by yet another bull. As one might imagine though, things eventually conspire to drive Buster and his new bovine buddy apart.
Whilst the film is perhaps not as thrilling and certainly less technically audacious than many of Keaton’s more highly regarded pictures (a few stylistic flourishes aside, such as a couple of POV shots from the perspective of various charging bulls, which I imagine would have been pretty damn impressive in 1925), I personally find it to be the most purely heart-warming of them all (there are still a handful of his silents that I haven’t seen yet though). On the surface, you might think that the central premise of what is essentially a love story between a man and a cow could horribly backfire and thereby relegate the film to the realm of novel comedic follies but honestly, if you’re not a little bit moved when Buster attempts to buy Brown Eyes from the rancher (Howard Truesdale) to save her from the slaughterhouse then I’d suggest there might be something wrong with your ticker.
The remainder of the narrative follows Friendless and a train full of cattle bound for the city where they are to be taken to the stockyards and sold in order to save the ranch from bankruptcy. However, following a shootout with some rival cowboys Buster has ended up as the sole shepherd of this particular herd and is forced to guide them single-handedly through the city streets, much to the horror of the residents and local law enforcement. Understandably intrigued by their new surroundings, many of the cattle disperse and go for a sojourn round the shops, forcing Friendless to find some means of rounding them up so they can carry on towards their intended destination. His solution to this quandary consists of donning a red devil costume and letting the herd (who are eventually also joined by the police) chase him, giving us, in the process, one of the most sublimely absurd sequences in Keaton’s entire canon.
The story comes to a typically satisfying conclusion as Buster saves the ranch, wins respect from his peers for his efforts and gets the girl. However, there’s a slight twist in this particular tale which makes it somewhat unique amongst Keaton’s films and, like I said earlier, never fails to warm my heart.
Whilst this isn’t exactly the best film to watch if you’re unfamiliar with silent cinema or have yet to be introduced to the genius of Buster Keaton, I’d still say you can’t go far wrong with it either, as long as you take into account when it was made.
Fast forward to 1940 and we find Keaton - whose star had sadly faded somewhat due to the silent era being superseded by the coming of sound and the creative straightjackets often imposed upon him by MGM (who he signed to in 1928) - working as an uncredited gag writer on the Marxs’ namesake picture. For the most part it’s hard to imagine anything more antithetical to Buster’s relatively slow-burning, predominantly visual, tragi-comic aesthetic than the anarchic and often surrealistic three-ring circus sensibility of the Marx Brothers. Unsurprisingly then, it seems that Keaton’s main contributions to the film were in the form of sight gags for Harpo, the early sound era’s master of pantomime. Whilst it would be interesting to speculate upon the specifics of what Keaton contributed to the picture, the lack of any real documentary evidence upon the matter leaves it somewhat open as a guessing game for fans and scholars to play.
The plot, as was pretty much standard for the Marxs’ MGM films, follows the brothers as they attempt to help a young couple to thwart the unscrupulous machinations of scheming antagonists. Unfortunately, said couple (again, as is almost invariably the case in the MGM pictures) may well come across, to a modern audience at least, as almost overwhelmingly earnest. Having said that, your mileage may vary and, to be honest, whether I personally find such characters tiresome or not depends mainly on what sort of mood I’m in at the time. Sometimes it seems quite sweet and endearing, other times it feels frankly nauseating (although the same could be said, I suppose, for romance in films generally, both contemporary and vintage).
So, as you might have gathered, the story isn’t exactly this film’s main selling point (although I’d say it’s certainly more engaging in this department than in many of the other post-Thalberg pictures). Thankfully, all the elements that one generally expects from a good Marx Brothers movie are still present and in plentiful supply. For the sake of expediency and ease of reading, here’s a quick list for y’all:
· Wacky (or in this case suggestively naughty) character names; I’m looking at you S. Quentin Quayle (apparently San Quentin quail is slang for jailbait).
· Groucho getting royally fleeced by Chico and Harpo. They manage to con him out of all his money at the train station, early in the film. Harpo even ends up cutting his pocket out to help achieve this aim, leading Groucho to announce: “There’s something corrupt going on around my pants but I just can’t seem to locate it”.
· An obligatory and wonderfully playful piano number from Chico. It occurred to me when re-watching this film recently that Chico’s right hand is almost like a character in itself when he’s playing.
· Typically chivalrous banter from Groucho: “Lulubelle, it’s you! I didn’t recognise you standing up.”
· Borderline racist stereotyping edging towards the realms of caricature (not completely uncommon for the period it seems; the infamous (and now censored) black centaur from Fantasia (also from 1940) and the “Who Dat Man?” musical number from the Marxs’ A Day at the Races (Sam Wood, 1937) also spring to mind) during the scene on the Indian reservation which, incidentally, features some of the most unconvincing Hollywood grown Indians I’ve ever seen (although, yet again, this kind of thing is not exactly rare in films of this vintage).
As the above suggests, the plot unfolds in and around the variety show structure that one generally expects from a Marx Brothers’ picture (something that was obviously carried over from their formative days as vaudeville entertainers). As I suggested earlier, the story in this film feels (to me at least) somewhat perfunctory and therefore frankly peripheral to the set pieces, some of which can stand up there with any of the other seminal scenes from the Marxs’ oeuvre.
The most notable set-piece of the film is undoubtedly the train chase that comprises the finale. Sure it starts simply and generically, but as the scene unfolds the Marxs keep amping up their anarchic antics until the sequence reaches a crazed and almost cartoonish culmination with them cannibalising the entire train and its carriages for fire-wood and, at one point, also picking up a house on the train’s cowcatcher, thereby turning it into a temporary mobile home. The level of visual wit on display during these scenes has led a few commentators to suggest it was probably here where Keaton’s influence was at its strongest. Indeed there are elements within this sequence, albeit combined somewhat differently here, that are vaguely reminiscent of the end of Buster’s solo debut short One Week (Edward F. Cline & Keaton, 1920), so these claims do make a certain amount of intuitive sense.
To reiterate then, I wouldn't put either of these films at the top of the list of movies for people who are new to pre-WWII film comedy (there are obviously way too many others that better represent what this era still has to offer for that to seem like a good idea). Having said that though, I think that thanks to a combination of their lean, bladder-friendly running times (neither is over 80 minutes long) and their generosity of spirit, a modern audience, hell, even a young and/or cynical one, will hopefully still find either (or maybe even both) of these films fairly entertaining. For those who are familiar and therefore hopefully already enamored with either Keaton and/or the Marxs though, I’d say dive right on in; whilst neither of these films can really be called superlative examples of their respective makers’ arts (as I mentioned at the beginning of this review) I’d still say they are both highly competent pieces of work that can stand proudly amongst their more lauded brethren.