Having immersed myself in Keaton's silent movies in the early '70s, I was struck not only by his breathtaking physical comedy -- he once broke his neck without realizing it -- but his strangely-modern deadpan countenance. While optimistic contemporaries like Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were always ready with a smile, Keaton looked defeated even when triumphant. Watching his movies at a time when America was still reeling from Watergate and the Vietnam War, Keaton appeared to tap into a zeitgeist about 75 years before anyone knew what the hell that word meant.
|Durante does MGM's bidding by finishing off|
Keaton once and for all.
There's no point in recounting What! No Beer?'s story. Keaton and Durante play a couple of nitwits who become bootleggers during Prohibition's dying days -- that's all you need to know. What's sadly fascinating is how MGM deliberately placed Keaton in a situation that called for little of his comedic gifts, forcing him to simply feed lines to the bigmouthed Durante. Even worse, he plays straight to a trio of hobos-turned-brewers who play their scenes like a flashmob in a cemetery. (I wonder if their roles were originally intended for the Three Stooges, who were signed to MGM at the time.) It's like watching Edward Hopper having to paint generic billboards for Wonder Bread. It's nice he's getting a steady paycheck and all, but goddamn-mighty-damn it's a tragedy to watch.
While always a Durante fan, I nonetheless watched him more stonefaced than Keaton himself ever was.
|Run away, Buster, as fast as you can.|
|Gagman Keaton compares notes with the Marx|
Brothers on how MGM destroyed their
A few years earlier, fellow movie comedian Harry Langdon found himself in a similar situation. Having come to movies from vaudeville far later than his contemporaries, he was soon compared favorably to Charles Chaplin. But after firing his writer/director Frank Capra -- a move which Capra never stopped bitching about until, and probably after, he died -- Langdon started to focus more on the dark, bizarre humor that fascinated him. (In Long Pants, Langdon, having fallen for a sexy temptress, spends the rest of the movie plotting to murder his fiance. It's a comedy.) By the end of 1928, he was for all intents and purposes washed-up. Langdon had been in movies for all of four years.
But in 1930, Warner Bros. cast him in a strong supporting role in the World War I comedy, A Soldier's Plaything. Nothing more than a loosely-connected series of comedic vignettes, the 59-minute feature is by no means a classic. A laid-back fan of early talkies might consider it "OK, nothing special" and leave it at that. However, compared to What! No Beer? (how sick are you of reading that title?), it's another Duck Soup. And it's due only to second-billed Harry Langdon.
Although their approach to comedy was different, Langdon and Keaton were similar in two key ways. Unlike the universally-beloved Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Langdon and Keaton even at their best -- especially at their best -- were acquired tastes. Too, their onscreen characters never seemed quite of this world; while Keaton was an unemotional cynic, Langdon was more like a confused seven year-old boy trapped in a grown-man's body. It's no surprise that Langdon and Keaton play better to contemporary audiences than they did to those in the 1920s.
|Ben Lyon warns Harry Langdon|
to stop stealing the movie from
Alas, like Keaton, Langdon was at the mercy of an industry that just didn't get him. Apart from the occasional supporting role in A-movies, he was relegated to low-budget B's and shorts, a far cry from the days when he was mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and carried thousand-dollar bills in his wallet for spending money. And again like Keaton, Langdon made it through the lean years as a gagman, working with Laurel & Hardy at the Hal Roach Studios. While Langdon died in 1944, Keaton lived long enough to experience a late-in-life career resurgence thanks to TV and movie producers who let him do what he wanted, which was all he ever asked for.
Louis B. Mayer would be baffled that Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon silents continue to run at museums and film festivals. But they're strange. And they aren't classy like Metro pictures! So the next time you see a preview for a comedy that makes you wonder Who the hell thought this was a good idea and why did they pay this guy $20-million to make it?, say a prayer for the two otherworldly talents cut off at the knees in their prime by studios run by men whose allegiance to the bottom line was equaled only by their fear of genius. Ars Gratia Quaestus.