Buster Keaton returns to a familiar type for Doughboys (1930), his second sound feature under lucrative MGM contract. Elmer J. Stuyvesant, the pampered scion of a manufacturing magnate, is a sweet but sheltered young playboy with no conception of life in the real world. It’s another version of the part he played in such silent films as The Saphead (1920), The Navigator (1924) and Battling Butler (1926), only this time he doesn’t merely talk, he inadvertently talks himself into the army, mistaking an enlistment center for an employment office. The hapless Elmer only wants to woo Mary (Sally Eilers), a pretty, plainspoken girl who works in the family factory, but after she turns down the well-heeled suitor time and again, her interest is piqued when she sees him in uniform. As he bumbles his way through basic training, he brings his brand of comic chaos to the front lines of France and manages to turn bad luck into a happy ending in the trench warfare of World War I.
Keaton is clearly no longer a young man and the gentle, slow baritone of his stage-trained speaking voice made him sound even older than his 35 years, but the great stone face also had an ageless quality. He was the eternally hapless and guileless innocent in a world of schemers, wise guys and, in Doughboys, enemy soldiers with guns and bombs. Next to his rough and tumble drill sergeant (Edward Brophy), who becomes a rival for the attentions of Mary (just one of the many complications that sets his commanding officer against him), Keaton comes off as, if not a younger man, at least a gentle and benevolent soul and a model of generosity and trust. Vaudeville veteran Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, later famous as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, plays the urban wise guy to Elmer’s well-meaning naïf and joins Keaton for one of the musical interludes, tapping out a tune on his ukulele with a pair of drumsticks while Keaton works the frets and they scat out a jazz tune together. It’s a rare moment of Keaton camaraderie and a wonderful bit of bonding both onscreen and off. A lifelong friendship between Keaton and Edwards began over their shared love of eccentric old vaudeville songs and they could be found between takes huddled in a corner of the studio strumming out tunes together on the ukulele.
Plays Sunday October, 23 on TCM