Sunday, July 30, 2023

What No Beer?

What! No Beer?
Directed by
Edward Sedgwick
Written by Robert E. Hopkins (story), Carey Wilson (screenplay), Jack Cluett (Additional dialog)
Starring Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Phyllis Barry, Edward Brophy
IMDB Entry

Buster Keaton's last film for MGM (and his last American starring feature) was another teaming with Jimmy Durante, What No Beer?

Elmer J. Butts (Keaton) is a taxidermist who falls for Hortense (Phyllis Barry). His best friend, Jimmy Potts (Durante), is an avid "wet" -- favoring the end to Prohibition. After repeal, Jimmy gets the idea to make beer and cash in. Elmer puts up the money (hidden in various animals in his shop) to buy a brewery and start brewing. They manage to make a batch, and are raided, but it turns out the beer they were selling has no alcohol content. Released by the authorities, they go into making "near beer" -- without alcohol -- when they discover one of their workers was a brewmaster in St. Louis with that as his specialty. Elmer wants to money to woo Hortense, and the gangster Spike Moran (Edward Brophy) gives them cash -- and secretly has them brew real beer, so Elmer and Jimmy will be the fall guys if they're raided.

Like Keaton's other films with Durante, this is a pleasant and forgettable comedy. But Keaton was on the downswing. Frustrated by his deteriorating personal life and divorce, his lack of input in his movies, and his orders not to do any dangerous physical gags, he turned to drink. Indeed, he appears to be drunk in several scenes. Stunt men handled the physical comedy (except for pratfalls) and Keaton would not show up for shooting some days.

Durante plays Durante. He was not someone who could play any character but himself, but he's good enough to fit in. In this film, he's billed with Keaton above the title, though Keaton's name is on the left.

The movie did well enough to create talk of another teaming. But Keaton's alcoholism reduced MGM's faith in him, and when he did something to piss off Louis B. Mayer (accounts vary), he was fired. It was the low point of his life.  He kicked the alcohol and was eventually hired by Educational Pictures* for a series of short comedies.  He also made a living as a gag writer, eventually working his way into supporting roles. He shows up in Sunset Boulevard as one of the Hollywood "waxworks," a comment that he was washed up.

But Keaton was a shell of himself. His age made it harder to do physical comedy. He had some success in television.** Eventually, a biopic was made of his life starring Donald O'Connor. It bore no resemblance to his actual life, but the money allowed him to buy a house where he lived the rest of his life.


*A misleading name. Founded to make actual educational films, it switched to two-reel comedies with sound, often starring established comedians who had been dropped by a major studio. As a footnote, I have a film guide in French that says that Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle did "films éducatifs." Given his reputation after the scandals, the idea that he did lower-case "educational films" is highly absurd.

**Including a Twilight Zone episode "Once Upon a Time," with Keaton as a time traveler. It was one of the few times that he was allowed free reign to do the kind of gags he did back in the silent days (much of the show is shot silent and in black and white); writer Richard Matheson made it an homage to Keaton's greatness and director Norman Z. Mcleod had helmed movies with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, so he understood comedy.  It is one of the most entertaining episodes of the show.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Speak Easily

Directed by
Edward Sedgwick
Written by Clarance Budington Kelland
Starring Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Ruth Selwyn, Thelma Todd
IMDB Entry

Speak Easily was the second teaming of Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. Keaton was still top billed in the credits, but Durante was now billed prominently after the title.* Once again, this is primarily focused on Keaton, though the two have more time together than in The Passionate Plumber.

Professor Timothy Post (Keaton) has lived all his life at Potts College. When told he had inherited $750,000,** he leaves the college to see the world. He runs into a traveling theater troupe, managed by James (Durante). Potts becomes enamored of Pansy Peets and joins the troupe, convincing them to head to New York and put their show on Broadway, with Potts backing. Unbeknownst to Potts, the "inheritance" was a joke played on him to get him out of his bookish life, And just before the curtain comes up, the bills come due.

Keaton liked to play the innocent. Most of his verbal comedy comes from his not understanding what's happening.  As for the physical comedy . . .

Keaton contributed to many of the gags, but they don't land well. MGM refused to let him do anything dangerous. Keaton told them that people wouldn't laugh at a stunt man, but, as usual, they ignored him. Thus the gags fall flat without Keaton's comedic abilities, especially in the final sequence, which should have made the movie much better. They're funnier in concept than in execution and without Keaton executing them, they don't work well.

Durante has a larger role than in their first teaming, with his well-known brash comedy style. Most of his best scenes has Keaton too innocent to understand the slang Durante is using. Interestingly, Durante has practically no scenes on his own, and no backstory or B plot. He's just there, playing Jimmy Durante.

Ruth Selwyn is a typical ingenue of the period and Thelma Todd -- best known on screen as a foil for Groucho Marx -- plays a vamp trying to seduce the oblivious Post.


*Some of the movie posters have them both billed above the title, but the credits did not.

**$16 million in today's dollars.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Passionate Plumber

The Passionate Plumber

Directed by 
Edward Sedgwick
Written by Laurence E. Johnson (screenplay), Ralph Spence (dialog)
Starring Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Irene Purcell, Gilbert Roland, Mona Maris, Polly Moran
IMDB Entry

After the success of The Sidewalks of New York, MGM decided they knew better than Buster Keaton and treated him even more like a contract player. They came up with the idea of pairing him with Jimmy Durante. The first movie with this was The Passionate Plumber.

Elmer* Tuttle (Buster Keaton) is a plumber and inventor living in Paris, friends with cab driver Julius J. McCracken (Jimmy Durante). Patricia Alden (Irene Purcell) is a wealthy American who is having an affair with Tony Lagorce (Gilbert Roland), who is simultaneously wooing Nina Estrada (Polly Moran). Patricia wants to make Tony jealous, so she pretends to be in love with Elmer, who believes she means it. Her off-again, on-again romantic gestures toward Elmer leads him to believe the sentiment is reciprocated.

I had always thought the pairing of Keaton and Durante was a bad idea. Durante is a strong presence and bravura performer, while Keaton is laid back and quiet. But it was better than I expected. Keaton tended to be an innocent and Durante's brashness does mesh in that respect. But Durante is a supporting character -- he vanishes for large parts of the movie. I suspect this was partly a tryout to see if they could work together. Since his screen time is limited, and there are only a few scenes where he appears with Keaton, the combination is adequate, but not great.**

There are some decent comic sequences, all featuring Keaton. There's an attempted duel between him and Tony, and a scene in the casino where the naive Keaton never really catches on to how gambling works.  

You can also see the pre-code credentials in the basic story and in the scene when Keaton emerges from the bathroom in just a towel after his clothes are soaked. Tony challenges him to a duel by slapping Elmer's face with a glove.  Elmer removes the towel to slap Tony with it; Patricia screams.

Gilbert Roland had a very long career as a character actor, and is probably best known from the movie versions of The Cisco Kid.


*Keaton was fond of the name Elmer, using it almost twenty times in his movies, 

**As an aside, at one point Durante refers to the French national anthem as "The Mayonnaise." This was an ancient joke at the time. When Alexander Woolcott wrote his review of the Marx Brothers' "I'll Say She Is" on Broadway in 1924 (a rave, but not a great review, since he talks more about himself than he does the Marxes), he says "it was in a music hall in Omaha in 1904 that a French scene was last played without someone referring to that inspiring anthem The Mayonnaise." Some hyperbole, but obviously a very old joke.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Al Boasberg (comedy)

Al Boasberg
IMDB Entry

Al Boasberg was one of the greats of radio comedy, but you have to be a completist to know anything about him. He was a gag writer and made a living -- often a very lucrative one -- selling gags to vaudeville and radio comedians, and acting as what today we'd call a script doctor to punch up a movie.

Boasberg was born in Buffalo and grew up to work in his father's jewelry store. In in spare time, he wrote jokes and sent them to vaudeville comedians. In 1921, he sold his first jokes to vaudevillian Phil Baker for $5 each.* His career took off when George Burns came to town and offered him a job writing for him.

Word of his talent got around. He was instrumental in creating Jack Benny's comic persona and wrote for Bob Hope; Burns and Allen; Wheeler and Woolsey; and Leon Errol. He moved to Hollywood in 1926 to work with Buster Keaton and was credited as a writer on The General.  He also wrote for Harold Lloyd, Olson and Johnson, and many others, usually uncredited. He was making $1000 a week to come in and add jokes to script and continued to write for Benny's radio show.

His most famous work was when he was hired to write a bit for the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. Supposedly he had some falling out with the producers and did not deliver the script. When they went to find out where it was, they discovered it had been cut into strips with a single line that were nailed to the ceiling of his office. It was worth putting them together -- they were the basis for the classic stateroom scene.

He also contributed dialog to the classic horror film Freaks, certainly the odd movie out on his list of credits. 

He also directed the occasional short subject. 

Sadly, he died of a heart attack at age 45. Just the day before, he had introduced the character of Rochester to the Benny show.

A giant of comedy.


*That may not sound like a lot, but it's the equivalent of about $80 today. It was a common practice even up to the 70s for comedians and cartoonists to buy jokes.