The 39 Steps: Madeleine Carroll as Pamela

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

“It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with ‘The 39 Steps”’ – screenwriter Robert Towne (ChinaTown)

It’s a sentiment that Alfred Hitchcock, the film’s director, would surely have shared. He regarded the 1935 release as one of his favourite pictures. He even remade it (in a fashion) as North by Northwest, itself often regarded as the ‘American’ version. So what’s so special about The 39 Steps? It’s true that it introduced many of the themes that were to preoccupy Hitch throughout the rest of his filmmaking career, including the innocent man, wrongly accused, a too-charming villain, an inept police force… and The Blonde.

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

The blonde in question is Pamela (played to perfection by Madeline Carroll), who our dashing hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) first encounters on the Flying Scotsman. He’s there because he’s evading the police – wrongly suspected for a murder – and is off to the bonny Highlands to ‘solve’ the mystery. From the very beginning the relationship is tempestuous, so of course you know that means (*spoiler*) they’ll end up together. But part of the thrill in watching The 39 Steps lies in knowing how it will end, but not caring. Hannay, desperate to evade his pursuers, stumbles into Pamela’s carriage, where she is the sole occupant. The resultant meet-cute is one of Hitch’s finest, but Pamela scuppers her place in history by revealing Hannay’s whereabouts to Scotland Yard’s finest.

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935Pamela is introduced in such a way – the most provocative spectacle removal you ever did see – that it’s clear that’s not Hitch’s only role for her. She’s too alluring for that. That’s another quality The 39 Steps has in spades, although that’s not all down to Carroll. Hitch was a master at sexual in-jokes and puns and they abound here, especially in the later scenes where, for various reasons, Hannay ends up being handcuffed to Pamela. Unwillingly bound together, they are forced to spend the night in a hotel, masquerading as a besotted young couple. Both leads play off each wonderfully, with Pamela by turns furious with Hannay, then surprised by his caring gesture to dry her wet stockings off by the fire. His concern for her welfare always falls on the right side of chivalrous, even when he’s helping her out of her hosiery.

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

In a scene full of subtlety, the pair are forced to share a bed – an awkward and intimate act familiar with newly-weds everywhere (well at least at the time of the film’s release). Under another director, this scene could have reverted to stereotyped gender roles, but focusing on the unwanted handcuffs and the enforced bond, Hitch created a partnership of equals, where a man wasn’t overawed by a sharp and intelligent female.

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

Of course, Pamela is an ice-cool Hitch blonde. Although she’s not quite as frosty as some of his later creations, she shares certain characteristics with Lisa Fremont, Madeleine Ester et al. – notably a certain un-ruffability, which extends to her attire. Ill prepared for prolonged handcuff action, Pamela spends most of the film in a series of pristine blouses, one with an enormous bow that frames her face, pencil skirts and low-heeled court shoes. Pamela’s look very much set the standard for the Hitchcock heroine, although the director would refine his ideal in subsequent films Carroll was the first. Interesting, Hitch wasn’t convinced that the actress was the right choice for the role, initially concerned she might be too prim for the role. One anecdote suggests that Hitchcock prepared Carroll and Donat for their handcuff scenes (some of the first to be shot) by leaving the duo bound together whilst he attended to an urgent technical matter. He didn’t return for hours, by which time they had ample time to get to know each other, and were better prepared for the shots.

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

It’s interesting to note that female characters drive the plot of The 39 Steps, which was based on John Buchan’s famous novel of the same name. The first, Annabelle (Lucie Mannheim) is an exotic mystery. Hannay meets her at a music hall, and she invites herself back to his apartment where he serves that well-known aphrodisiac haddock, only for her to be shot in the night, instigating the hero-on-the-run storyline. The second ‘driver’ is Pamela (she also returns in the closing ‘act’) followed by Peggy Ashcroft, a crofter’s wife who persuades her husband to offer Hannay a bed for the night then helps him to escapes once the police appear over the Highland hills.

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

These drivers have the effect of splitting the film up into shorter stories, and indeed the mood often changes with each new ‘story’. The early mystery angle is replaced with a borderline-screwball / romance, but Hitch gets away with it because the lead characters are so strong. The plot is never surprising – ponder it too long, and you’ll discover holes to sink the Marie Celeste. Muse about the ‘meaning’ and feel cheated. And lets not mention the discussion about whether The 39 Steps is Hitch’s most misogynistic film. Instead, watch for the humour, come for the characters, marvel at the implausibility’s (think: bullets dodged by concealed hymn books) and stay for the wardrobe that maintains elegance under fire.

The 39 Steps - Alfred Hitchcock 1935

This post is part of the Madeleine Carroll blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. Read all the posts celebrating the life of this wonderful actress here.

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Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker and the Oscar glass ceiling

THE HURT LOCKER

This is the second post in the monthly Female Filmmaker Series, and also part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Catch up on all the Oscar-related musings here.

When Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2009, many critics took it as a sign that the glass ceiling for female filmmakers had finally been smashed. Fast-forward six years, and how many more women have graced the Best Director nominations list? Zero. Nada. None. Because in fact, Bigelow’s win didn’t shatter the ceiling, it merely reinforced it, giving the Academy a chance to demonstrate their broadminded generosity, to tick the equality box then retreat into tradition and convention. Whilst I’m not suggesting that a female-directed film should be given preferential treatment when it comes to director nominations, there have been clear contenders that have been overlooked, including Zero Dark Thirty (also directed by Bigelow) and Selma (Ava DuVerney).

the_hurt_locker-bigelowPerhaps it’s significant that The Hurt Locker beat the boys at their own game. It’s a male-dominated war movie that centres on Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a cocky ‘hero’ who’s addicted to army life and chooses to put himself in more-dangerous-than-strictly-necessary situations. Much like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, this is a film about male relationships and male actions, and one that takes place in hostile and unforgiving surrounds. The screenplay was written by Mark Boal, a former journalist who spent time embedded with a bomb squad in Baghdad. Of course, there are claims that The Hurt Locker’s representation of the war in Iraq is inaccurate and unconvincing (‘it’s Hollywood’s version of the Iraq war and of the soldiers who fight it, and their version is inaccurate’) but this isn’t a history lesson, it’s a comment on individuals in peril, and what drives them. James might not be a hero in the conventional sense – he is, in fact, unlikeable in many ways – but he’s a strongly drawn character, who expresses patriotism through action and not words.

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One of Bigelow’s biggest detractors was Martha P. Nochimson, who wrote an essay for Salon entitled ‘Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist Pioneer or Tough Guy in Drag?’. Nochimson suggested that Bigelow succeeded where Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers were ‘summarily dismissed’ because war films are seen as more valuable and superior to romantic comedies, that Bigelow deliberately tried to make ‘men’s movies’, making choices that would make her stand out because of her gender. The idea of a woman behaving like a man to ‘get ahead’ is tired. Whilst there is truth in Nochimson’s assessment about romantic comedies, Ephron’s (and indeed Meyers’) legacy hardly needs her defence; in fact, it’s impossible to imagine the feminist writer lamenting her lack of acclaim, she surely would have been a supporter of any women basking in Oscar glory. And Nochimson overlooks one crucial point: Bigelow didn’t make the first film about Iraq. Plenty had previously been made by men. She just made the first one that was considered worthy of accolade and acclaim.

the_hurt_locker-bigelow

the_hurt_locker-bigelow

Bigelow has always kept her gender a low profile, perhaps wary of discussing the difficult path to success lest she should be profiled as a ‘whiny woman’. Before the Oscars, she took another first – becoming the first woman to ever win the Directors Guild of America award for feature film. Discussing the award, she downplayed her success: ‘”I suppose I like to think of myself as a filmmaker… and it’s truly extraordinary to be honoured by this amazing directorial body”’. At the time, Bigelow’s DGA win was overshadowed by comments (at the event and on social media) by references – almost exclusively made by men – on her appearance and gender. Lee Daniels, director of Precious, reportedly commented: “Your movie is as beautiful as your legs. You make me question my sexuality.” And according to Renner: “the only thing to rival Kathryn Bigelow in a bikini is ‘[openly gay director] Lee Daniels in a one-piece.'” Men unsure how to respond to female success and taking the humorous route is nothing new, but it’s sad that these comments came from Bigelow’s direct peers. What’s more disturbing is that you can still imagine them being made today, although perhaps less publicly, as the resultant PR wasn’t particularly positive. Maybe the DGA (and the subsequent Oscar) represent a crack in the glass, rather than a shattering of it.

And let’s not forget James Cameron, Bigelow’s ex-husband whose mega blockbuster Avatar was also nominated for (amongst others) Best Director, Best Picture and Best Film Editing. At the time, much was made of Bigelow ‘beating’ her husband, but the two have always played it down, claiming they remain friends and share script an film ideas when they are in the early stages. The press seemed to be unable to see Bigelow and Cameron as equals – really it was as a David/Goliath tale as much as it was a gender battle.

the_hurt_locker-bigelowOne final point to consider: whilst The Hurt Locker did much to address the argument about women behind the camera, it did little to further them in front of it. Perhaps Zero Dark Thirty was an attempt to address that (that’s a film with its own complexities, worthy of a separate post), and certainly Bigelow’s previous films had included ‘strong’ female leads – see Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Blue Steel. It’s unlikely that Bigelow developed The Hurt Locker with an eye on Oscar glory, but it certainly can’t have harmed her chances that it spoke more directly to male voters than a female focused drama. But that’s an oversimplification of a complex issue – male directors have won awards based on their ability to ‘direct’ women for decades.

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But ultimately, was Bigelow’s Hurt Locker win a token gesture, a bow to feminist pressure? The fact that it won five others (including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing) suggests not. What it did do was open the debate about female filmmakers and their lack of representation to a much wider audience – but that’s hardly translated to increased visibility amongst big budget films. Just this month, Sam Taylor-Johnson proved that female directors could break box office records: her adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey took more than $237 million across the globe in its opening weekend. In the case of 50 Shades, don’t expect ticket sales to correspond to award nominations; to describe it as mediocre is a stretch. But overlooking the quality (and what it means for the representation of women in general), it’s a nail in the coffin for those who continue to claim that female directors are underrepresented because they don’t offer a sound financial return. And in the case of Taylor-Johnson, it’s not just women flocking to see a ‘women’s picture’, audience breakdown suggests that it’s a 68% skew. As Inkoo Kang observed, lets hope that ‘Taylor-Johnson doesn’t suffer the same fate as “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke and find herself booted off the mega-successful franchise she launched and replaced by her male colleagues.

the_hurt_locker-bigelowAnd that takes us neatly back to the crux of the matter. Most female-related, Hollywood glass ceiling ‘shatters’ aren’t exactly as they’re billed. Too often they just create a crack. But make enough cracks, building on them, learn from them and being inspired by those that made them – whether it’s Bigelow, Lupino, Arzner or Pickford – is the only way to create something the shatters.

The Great Gatsby: too much style, not enough substance

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It’s fitting that a novel that’s meant to be a comment on the emptiness of wealth, the decline of the American dream, and the ultimate unattainability of dreams could be converted into a film that’s so superficial and so obsessed with its own image. That’s a backhanded compliment though because, in spite of the glamour, the beauty, the (mostly) faithful interpretation of the original source material, Jack Clayton’s 1974 version of The Great Gatsby fails to capture the essence and nuances of Fitzgerald’s classic novel. The novel’s events are all present and correct but Clayton – and by extension leads Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston – fail to convey any of Fitzgerald’s feeling or the beauty and meanings of his prose.

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At the time of the film’s release, Vincent Canby at the New York Times observed: ‘Francis Ford Coppola [screenwriter]… and Jack Clayton… have treated the book as if it were an illustrated encyclopaedia of the manners and morals of the nineteen-twenties instead of a short, elegiacal romantic novel’. By focusing on events, ‘history’ perhaps, and the literal visualisation of Fitzgerald’s motifs (the green light at the end of the dock, or Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s all-seeing eyes for example) Coppola and Clayton manage to completely overlook most of the finer points. The events to which they are so ruthlessly beholden were, under Fitzgerald’s skill, a narrative device (after all, a novel has to be filled with something) that enabled the author to make a much wider comment on society. In the original novel, Daisy and Gatsby’s love affair might be the central idea, but it’s part of a wider thought – the broken heart belongs not to Gatsby but to Fitzgerald. Reducing the film to a cookie cutout love story was a mistake; the audience is invited to engage with characters and events but is never fully immersed in them.

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Production designer John Box and costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge suffer from the same literal blindness. Although there are fewer allusions to surrounds and costumes in the source material there are enough to imagine ‘the Gatsby era’ as the author did. That’s not to say the film isn’t visually stunning – it is. Yet in spite of the visual dazzle – or perhaps because of it – the imagery, clothes and styling also fail to encapsulate anything that’s truly ‘Fitzgerald’. It’s a paint-by-numbers view of the Jazz Age, viewed through the lens of the 1970s. I should note that this clearly was not an opinion shared by the Academy. Aldredge won an Oscar (and a BAFTA) for Best Costume Design (beating Chinatown and Daisy Miller among others) and Box received the BAFTA for Best Art Direction.

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

Watching the film, it’s the costumes and production that make the (almost) 2.5-hour film bearable (as Roger Ebert notes, it takes as much time to watch Gatsby as it does to read it; the latter is an immeasurably preferable experience). And perhaps that shameless, empty and frivolous experience is in keeping with the novel’s original ethos. Daisy, Tom and Gatsby are obsessed by what they own and consume, by who they are and the illusion(s) they project. It’s only natural that a film that’s so obviously about image should be ostentatious itself. Again, as with the screenplay and direction, there’s nothing to back up this show of superficiality. What’s behind those T-bar clad shoes dancing the Charleston to perfection? Not a lot. In Aldredge’s defence, she was hired just a fortnight before shooting began (a last minute change of producers forced Clayton to find a new costume designer). The schedule – already fixed – meant she had just two months to prepare for the party sequence. Considering that, the entire wardrobe is nothing short of a miracle.

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In terms of costume, it starts promisingly enough. In the novel, Fitzgerald introduces Daisy Buchanan (played by Mia Farrow) and Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles): ‘they were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering’. White displays wealth. The movement of the dresses highlights their inaction, the fact that they can recline on sofas all day in the full heat of summer. As Aldredge observed: ‘everything worn by the main character is white to pale, pale lavender. Rich people did not get soiled, and they didn’t care, they thought they could throw it all away.’ Yet this carelessness – of possessions and other people – is never fully conveyed. Daisy’s clothes wear her. She needs them to create her character because her own sense of self (or Mia Farrow’s sense of her) isn’t strongly defined. She clings to her material trappings, but there’s no indication why she needs to construct her identity through them.

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Of course, the attention to (costume) detail is wonderful. Aldredge again: ‘All of Daisy’s gowns will be memory pieces, beaded to look like daises. She will flutter and be frail. She is a Southern belle who looks pretty, has no whims, can’t boil an egg or heat up coffee.’ However, the overall effect is too fussy, too fanciful – reducing Daisy to a ‘romantic’ type figure diminishes the many other facets of her character. She’s also empty, naïve, selfish, indecisive – a love-hate character that’s reduced – in Clayton’s film – to little more than the clothes she wears.

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

The masculine-inspired wardrobe favoured by golfer Jordan Baker is much more convincing. Not only have the androgynous silhouettes (no doubt inspired by Coco Chanel) and graphic patterns aged better, they say something more about her character (even if Lois Chiles doesn’t make much of an impression) and exemplify her sporty independent spirit. That’s not to say it’s not difficult to get a handle on Jordan – is she arrogant? dishonest? comically blunt? – but she certainly feels less elusive.

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

The Great Gatsby is one of those rare films where the men’s costumes are just as important as the women’s. Created by Aldredge in collaboration with fashion designer Ralph Lauren (apparently the partnership – and exactly who got credit for what – was a source of contention. Aldredge was adamant that Lauren only provided tailoring and some shirts; tellingly she fails to mention him in her Oscar acceptance speech) they generated quite a buzz. The standout look is Gatsby’s pink suit, an outfit that – according to Tom Buchnan – proves he is no way an ‘Oxford’ man. It is ostentatious and showy – all the more so when executed in a white-buttoned, wide-lapeled three piece, and styled with a crisp white-collared shirt and shoes. Just like Gatsby’s yellow car, it’s worn for show – the chance to display his wealth and status.

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

Great_Gatsby_Clayton_1974

Any costume analysis of The Great Gatsby really has to consider the shirt throwing scene, when Daisy realises that Gatsby is (or has become) the successful/wealthy/privileged man she wanted him to be when she first fell in love with him. That she missed her chance for happiness because she looked down on his poverty. It’s his opportunity to prove he is – and was – deserving of her love, but that now perhaps she isn’t worthy of everything he created in his effort to impress her. The mirrored doors of Gatsby’s dressing room wardrobes reflect the character’s images back on themselves, showing Daisy marooned in a sea of crumpled shirts. It’s a visually harmonious images as the discarded fabrics are so similar to her lavender chiffon dress, and a successful (if unsubtle) cue that they could have been happy together. Here, as in so much of Clayton’s film, there’s a lack of depth to the performances. Daisy might show emotion, but we’re not convinced she’s really feeling it. Her tears are as shallow as his conspicuous consumption.

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It’s not Theoni V. Aldredge’s fault that The Great Gatsby doesn’t work. Considered as standalone costumes, they’re actually wonderful, but when viewed within the context of the film they only heighten its flaws. Maybe it’s simply that the ‘Great American Novel’ doesn’t translate to screen. Coppola certainly claimed that his script was significantly altered during filming – it would be interesting to know how he would’ve directed it, given the chance. It’s also possible that the novel – indeed the author – is one I personally hold too close to my heart to view with any kind of objectivity. But any adaptation that fails to incorporate one of the most famous closing lines in literary history really needs to take a long hard look in the mirror.

(Just because I can: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’)

Further reading: The problem with Daisy / The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald / Dressed: a century of Hollywood costume design by Deborah Nadoolman Landis

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Running throughout February, each week will examine a different facet of the Oscars. Catch up on all the wonderful entries here.

Buster Keaton’s early shorts: the foundations of a comic genius

buster keaton

He is arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies, one whose name and image need little introduction – but much of Buster Keaton’s early film work remains less known, less celebrated, perhaps in part because quite a substantial part of it was thought to have been lost forever. But many of those early shorts (from the very earliest with Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John to Keaton’s earliest directorial efforts) were instrumental in shaping and creating the Keaton persona, the comic who wanted you to laugh with him but didn’t want to ask you to. This post highlights just three of those early greats… there were too many to choose from, so consider this a chronological introduction to Keaton the director.

The High Sign (Dir: Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920 – released in 1921)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety, Ingram B. Pickett

Buster Keaton - The High Sign 1921

Although The High Sign was the first two-reel film Keaton directed as an independent filmmaker under Metro Pictures, it wasn’t the first to be released. In fact, it was shelved for almost a year; Keaton, keen to carve out an independent voice, was reportedly unhappy with how similar it was to his previous efforts with Fatty Arbuckle and wasn’t impressed with the ‘unsympathetic’ character. With hindsight, it’s one that sits closer to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘audience pleaser’ persona and there are several parallels with Chaplin’s Little Tramp, including a wandering vagrant lifestyle and a particular enthusiasm for rule-breaking – for example, stealing a police officer’s gun and replacing it with a banana. However, The High Sign’s biggest problem is the plot, which is disjointed and – even for a silent – a stretch of the imagination. Having convinced the world that he is an excellent shot via a wonderfully inventive Pavlov’s dog gag, Keaton gets a job at a shooting gallery owned by the Blinking Buzzards, a local mob outfit. A passing businessman hires Keaton as a bodyguard, but a dual identity problem arises when he is taken to the mob’s headquarters, and asked to kill the same man he has just pledged to protect.

Buster Keaton - The High Sign 1921

This sets the scene for a wonderfully inventive trick house that’s rigged with trap doors, fake doors and ‘escape’ mirrors. A fan of a ‘mechanical comedy’ Keaton would return to this gag style time and time again throughout his career, but it also provided the foundations of his relationship with the audience – one built on openness and a lack of anticipation. By showing the traps and props that are built into the structure he allows the audience to guess what’s going to happen, but the stunts still manage to solicit surprise and delight through Keaton’s deadpan execution, sheer inventiveness and the fast-pace of his physical comedy. The best shot here is a cutaway that shows a cross section of the house (two floors, four rooms) and demonstrated the elaborate cat-and-mouse chase to its full effect. Within the structure of the narrative, Keaton the clown has little allegiance to either party (or indeed ‘society’) – he exists outside of both because his true purpose is to entertain, he is just playing a character that has somehow got involved with a near-farcical situation.

Buster Keaton - The High Sign 1921

Buster Keaton - The High Sign 1921

Another notable element of The High Sign that Keaton would employ throughout his shorts is the use of long shots and close ups. If, to borrow from Chaplin, ‘life is a tragedy when seen in close up, but a comedy in long shot’, Keaton makes good use of long establishing shots that allow moments and actions to be viewed through a comic lens. The close up focuses attention on the character emotions, whereas the long shot offers more distance and a greater appreciation of the comic gags.

One Week (Dir: Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Disclaimer: it’s impossible to analyse this short without bias as this is – by far – my favourite Keaton short. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch the video. It’s only 20 minutes…

Marketed as Keaton’s first film, One Week centres on the trails and tribulations faced by a young couple during their first week of married life. It’s a typically unsentimental view of marriage (the opening title card? ‘The wedding bells have such a sweet sound but such a sour echo’) and is unusual because the female lead (played gamely by Sybil Seely) is an integral part of the plot. Typically for Keaton though, her character isn’t sentimentalised or romanticised, she’s an equal – part of the action – but also a foil to his comic gags. It’s an interesting active/passive role that requires participation but not real input. But in-spite of this, and the tongue-in-cheek opening, there’s an instantly recognisable element of partnership and camaraderie and an undeniable sweetness – Seely even goes as far as to paint some hearts on the exterior of their new house.

Buster Keaton One Week 1920

In fact, this is a tale of three elements – the newlyweds and their portable house, a generous wedding gift. Unperturbed to discover it’s a flat-pack, the duo set about building. But a jealous ex-lover has got there first and re-ordered the instructions (perhaps Keaton was also predicting the rise of Ikea?) and the resultant structure defies the definition of house – the roof is too small, the veranda is wonky, doors are in the wrong place… it’s a comedy structure, a giant prop that provides the basis for a series of outlandish gags. One stunt sees an entire wall fall off; the open window (sans glass panel) just about misses Keaton who’s surveying the landscape. This idea of playing with props is something that came from Keaton’s vaudeville days, and this particular gag would be used in later shorts, despite its potential danger. Perhaps the ‘horror’ house is a metaphor for the dangers of marriage, but as both are so enamoured with something that’s ‘theirs’, it’s more about the dangers of idealising marriage and married life – a modern notion in the 1920s.

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The house narrative also allowed Keaton to employ the talents of Joe Roberts, who would go on to appear in 16 of Keaton’s 19 shorts. Instantly comedic due to the differences in their physical appearances, there’s something of Laurel and Hardy dynamism to their relationship. In One Week, Roberts plays a piano delivery man who leaves Keaton to move the instrument into the house alone – really just another opportunity for Keaton to show off his gymnastic ability and stunt creativity. That thread is of course woven into almost every Keaton short, but in this film that’s put aside in the final scenes as he allows his comedy to be surpassed by a spectacular scene involving the wonky house and a train (hint: it doesn’t end well). The closing moments bring it back to the personal, with a charming shot of Keaton and Seely walking away from the physical objects that symbolised the start of their married life together. The life they started to create might have disappeared but their partnership hasn’t.

Buster Keaton One Week 1920

But despite all the humour and creativity, what stands out most (or at least to a modern viewer) is the way Keaton plays with the medium of film, sharing an in-joke with the audience when the camera almost catches a naked Seely reaching for a dropped bar of soap in the bath. A hand covers the camera lens, protecting her modesty and the audience’s blushes. It’s a small gesture – over in seconds – but it speaks volumes about Keaton’s sophistication as a filmmaker and his willingness to engage in a narrative (or in this case an extended joke) that acknowledges the limitations of a new(ish) medium whilst also inviting the audience to participate.

Convict 13 (Dir: Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline, 1920)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Buster Keaton Convict 13 1920The line between comedy and darkness is narrow and difficult to navigate. It’s easy to laugh at macabre, everyday situations because of their familiarity but it’s more difficult to conceive these scenarios with a comic angle. Clearly with his second release, Keaton felt comfortable enough to explore a more challenging type of comedy, and it’s testament to his genius (both as a comedy actor and his ability to spot the potential of a new medium) that it was a success. On the surface this is a short about (mistaken) identity and the power of transformation, but it also makes a wider comment on death and metamorphosis – unconventional comedy themes, but under Keaton’s touch, simultaneously thoughtful and relatable.

Buster Keaton Convict 13 1920

How does he manage this? By starting the story in one place – luring the viewer in, earning their trust – and then taking it somewhere completely unexpected but completely accepted because, as an audience, you know there’s a joke in it. The short starts at a golf course. Playing to character, Keaton is a bad golfer, forced to put like a snooker player and then taking a boating trip to retrieve a lost golf ball. There’s a wonderful moment of self-parody as he eagerly attempts to row back to shore using his golf club – the effort and energy it takes almost outweighs the comic benefits. Almost inevitably he knocks himself unconscious with a wayward shot. Upon awakening, he discovers that an enterprising criminal has swapped clothes with him, turning Keaton into a convict. The only escape from the hordes of officers out to catch him is to surrender to the local prison, itself the perfect backdrop for a multitude of black humour gags, including a well-executed (pun intended!) hanging joke that sees Keaton replace the noose with an expandable rope, leaving him bouncing up and down off the elevated hangman’s platform. It’s a grim joke, and it takes a lot of self-belief to offer such dark comedy, but Keaton must’ve known his deadpan delivery and talent for absurdity would enable him to carry it off.

Buster Keaton Convict 13 1920

After that, Keaton almost undoes the rest of the short. He’s proved his resilience, so of course he’s going to be able to survive anything else that prison throws at him. But never one to rest on his laurels, he surprises the audience by switching to a guard uniform and squaring off against Joe Roberts, playing another inmate. It seems Roberts takes Keaton by surprise too – you can see him planning the way out of the problem, using brain rather than brawn. This is Keaton, the thinking comedian, fast on his feet and capable of finding any solution. In this sense, both Convict 13 and One Week show Keaton establishing and reinforcing the Keaton character, one that would be taken through much of his subsequent work.

Buster Keaton Convict 13 1920

One aspect that seems particularly atypical in Convict 13 is the level of violence. Given the setting it hardly comes as a surprise, but it does have the effect of making the short feel like a series of gags held together by a loose narrative. It’s also something that Keaton doesn’t really explore in any of the later shorts (or features). Perhaps it was an avenue he wanted to explore but decided wasn’t for him. Convict 13’s other flaw is that *spoiler* it all turns out to be a dream feels like a bit of a short sell, but perhaps that’s because that trope has become an overused cliché.

Further reading: Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the laughter by Gabriella Oldham / My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton / Silent Echoes: Discovering early Hollywood through the films of Buster Keaton by John Bengston

This post is part of The First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Silentology. Read all the entries here.

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