Buster Keaton Then and Now: The First Three Features

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How much have modern tastes changed when we compare them to the audiences and critics of the silent era? We are about to find out and Buster Keaton is going to be our test subject. His films were popular, though they did not gross as much as the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Still, box office isn’t everything. What about the critics and audiences? How much have we changed?

A close look at Keaton’s first three features will give us an idea.

Three Ages

Buster Keaton’s first feature was a riff on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. It also managed to sink the similarly-themed Adam’s Rib at the box office. Keaton was off to a flying start!

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Motion Picture News, a trade periodical, gushed:

“One could go on for pages telling of the novel and original stunts in this comedy of comedies.”

 

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Motion Picture News also reported a very enthusiastic response from a young man in Ohio. It seems that a young boy spent the entire day watching the film over and over again and did not return home until ten o’clock, much to the dismay of his worried parents.

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However, Photoplay sniffed:

“Buster Keaton testifies that love goes unchangingly on through the years — and gives demonstrations in the stone age, the Roman era, and the present. There are some good moments, but as a whole the picture is dull and stolid. Margaret Leahy, the Talmadges’ English importation, is as wooden as a chubby little blonde girl can be. And Wallace Beery is wasted as the comedy villain. No chance for uproarious laughter”

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Well, someone was certainly grumpy, hmm?

Variety took a clinical approach:

“Some of the settings are rather pretentious, particularly in the Roman episodes, and the stories are worked out with the most ingenious incidents.”

And here’s a publicity trick. How would you like your very own paper Buster Keaton hat?

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Modern Critics:

Leonard Maltin: “Entertaining silent comedy.”

Chicago Reader: “The gags are chiefly basic slapstick, with little of the surrealistic refinement and visual sophistication he brought to his later features. ”

TCM: “The Three Ages contains all of the ingredients essential to a Keaton film: the preference for long shots; the acrobatic stunts; and the interest in gadgets, machines, or the camera as a mechanical apparatus.”

Availability:

 Our Hospitality

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What did they do to his mouth?

Keaton followed up with a film that was very much a family affair. There were parts for his wife, Natalie, his infant son and, of course, his dad. It was another costume picture but it chose a period and stuck to it. It also merrily pokes fun at the dubious chivalry of the fictionalized, Hollywoodized old South.

Motion Picture World was once again in Keaton’s corner:

“Buster has a typical Buster Keaton role and gives an excellent performance, his unique type of comedy showing up to advantage.”

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And Photoplay once again pooh-poohs Keaton’s effort. (Did Buster steal their ice cream cone or something?)

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“Buster Keaton evidently thinks he is a good enough comedian to do without a story and situations. Mr. Keaton is right. He is too good a comedian to do without them. This was apparently intended to be a travesty on the old feud “stuff,” but one is never quite sure whether it was meant to be comedy or tragedy. You’ll get a chance to see Buster Jr., and a thrill at the sight of his illustrious Dad dangling on the end of a log over a waterfall — but that’s about all.”

Variety liked the picture but did not give credit to Keaton.

“This is an unusual comedy picture, a novelty melange of dramatics, low comedy, laughs and thrills. Jean Havez has built up a comedy masterpiece about as serious a subject as a feud.”

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Modern Critics:

DVD Verdict: “Keaton’s stunts are phenomenal, for that time or today; he was a natural at pratfalls, but the guy could swing from a rope pretty well, too.”

TCM: “Thanks to the care and ingenuity with which it is made, this is one silent film for which no apologies need be made to modern viewers. ” (Editor’s note: I beg your pardon? One silent film? One? Hmmph!)

Combustible Celluloid: “Despite all this good stuff, Our Hospitality isn’t one of my favorite Keatons. He hadn’t quite got the hang of directing a 75-minute feature, and it tends to drag in spots.”

Sherlock Jr.

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Keaton’s third feature is considered one of his finest films by many modern fans. The critics of 1924 were not so certain. While generally positive, the reviewers did have a few pans at the ready.

Keaton’s director made the news, it seems. It’s nice that Mr. Arbuckle got a few cheers during this dark period.

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Photoplay liked it! Will miracles ever cease?

“Buster Keaton with a lot of new gags. He appears as a young man with a flair for amateur sleuthing. He has
radical adventures. This is by no means Keaton’s most hilarious offering, but it is short, snappy and amusing. Comedies are like oases in a celluloid world, rare and refreshing, and you don’t want to miss Buster with his immobile face and unique composure in his new setting.”

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Ah, but Variety is there to pick up the slack!

“This Buster Keaton feature length comedy is about as unfunny as a hospital operating room. The picture has all the old hoke in the world in it. That ranges from a piece of business with a flypaper to a money-changing bit and, for added good measure, a chase. There are, in fact, two chases; but neither can for a single second hold a candle to Harold Lloyd. In comparison they appear child’s play.”

Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times thought that Keaton took his sweet time but was generally pleased with the picture:

“There is an extremely good comedy which will give you plenty of amusement, so long as you permit Mr. Keaton to glide into his work with his usual deliberation.”

Modern Critics:

Deep Focus: “Buster Keaton’s artistic breakthrough remains to this day absolutely the funniest film ever made. ”

TCM: “A non-stop collection of gags and stunts, with enough innovation and energy for two features.”

Slant Magazine: “Still immensely satisfying for both its playful structure and eye-popping gags.

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You can find loads of classic fan magazine and trade periodicals at the Media History Digital Library.

This is my contribution to the Buster Keaton Blogathon. Be sure to read the other posts!

18 Replies to “Buster Keaton Then and Now: The First Three Features”

  1. How could anyone be bored watching Sherlock Jr or Our Hospitality? We should go back in time and take those Variety reviewers to see modern comedies like Zookeeper or Jack and Jill to give them some perspective.

  2. Ahh! I absolutely love ads, reviews, and such from those old movie magazines. They’re downright fascinating–although somewhat maddening at times, like that Cranky Photoplay review of the beautiful Our Hospitality. (Maybe they didn’t get their coffee that morning.) It seems like critics back praised comedies that were well-done versions of what they expected, rather than appreciating out-of-the-box efforts like Sherlock Jr.

    And yes, what DID they do to his lips?? I’ve been wondering that for some time now. 😀

    Thank you so much for joining the blogathon!

  3. I remember seeing an interview with Buster Keaton and he said that once sound came in to movies the focus became verbal gags and less physical comedy. I think today, the majority of popular films have gone back to relying less on verbal comedy and with and more toward the physical gags. But they still don’t have the same panache as Buster Keaton!

    1. Yes, even when modern comics try to do slapstick, they usually lack the effortless grace of Chaplin and Keaton, whose background in dance and acrobatics made them practically float across the screen.

  4. What is the world is “hoke”?

    I liked how you structured this post, comparing reviews du jour to modern reviews. And I laughed at your editorial comment about apologies needing to be made for modern audiences. If you ask me, that statement right there is a bunch of hoke!

  5. I find it interesting to compare what modern viewers consider classics versus what the movie-going public thought of it back in the time when it was made. It’s a neat little throwback into history. 😀

    On another note, something must have gone horribly wrong in the coloring process for some of the Our Hospitality movie posters(and I’ve seen the same mistake in other silent movie posters, to be honest.) Why do colorists feel the need to use unflattering colors for the lips!?

  6. Great post, excellent approach. I also examined the then/now of critical thinking on The General, but I like your use of actual reviews to illustrate. It is truly mind boggling that critics back then thought Sherlock Jr. was ho-hum. I wonder if audiences agreed? Was it a hit?

  7. Hi Fritzi. This was a great idea you had, comparing old and new reviews. What was wrong with those guys in the 1920s? We often don’t appreciate things while we are living through them. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

  8. I love the style of the old-school reviews – perhaps someone at Photoplay had a personal grudge against Keaton! It’s interesting to see how even the review style has changed too. For what it’s worth, I love Sherlock Jr. , but I must admit that I haven’t seen Our Hospitality, sounds like it’s worth a watch if only for the waterfall scene!

    1. Yes, Photoplay writers were a nasty lot!

      To be honest, Our Hospitality is my favorite Keaton feature, tied with Out West. I know it sounds geeky but I love the way he set up these very elaborate and specific rules for his version of the Old South and followed them to the letter in all their absurdity. I always admire people who understand the inner workings of their own imaginary world.

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