Limelight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the final film that Charlie Chaplin made in the U.S., is both a bittersweet sentimental drama and a tribute to the music hall era of entertainment. Chaplin stars as a former vaudeville star now reduced to penury, living in a rundown boarding house and scraping by on occasional booking, and Claire Bloom is the delicate, young ballet dancer he saves from a suicide attempt and nurses back to health. Chaplin casts Buster Keaton for a single scene as his partner in a comic duet, making this film the only time the two silent comedy greats ever worked together, and the scene is wonderful. (Legend has it that Chaplin shortened the scene because Keaton was “too good” and kept drawing attention from him.) Nigel Bruce, Norman Lloyd, and Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) co-star, silent star Snub Pollard has a bit part, and Chaplin’s longtime silent movie co-star Edna Purviance made her final screen appearance in an unbilled role. Just as the film was released, Chaplin was denied re-entry to the United States for suspected Communist leanings (this was the height of red scare hysteria and the Hollywood blacklist) and the film was pulled from release as theaters cancelled screenings. Chaplin’s score won an Academy Award in 1973, after the film’s belated 1972 theatrical release in Los Angeles.
Criterion continues its Chaplin releases with a new 4K digital restoration. New to this edition are the video essay “Chaplin’s Limelight: Its Evolution and Intimacy” by David Robinson, interviews with actor Claire Bloom and Normal Lloyd, and the 1915 Chaplin short A Night in the Show. Carried over from the earlier DVD release are documentary featurette “Chaplin Today: Limelight” directed by Edgardo Cozarinsky for French TV, a four-minute scene deleted by Chaplin after the premiere, two excerpts from the original novel “Footlights” read by Chaplin, and the uncompleted 1919 short The Professor (where Chaplin played a flea-trainer for the first time). The accompanying booklet features an essay by silent movie historian Peter von Bagh and excerpts from a 1952 report from the set by journalist Henry Gris.
This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014
No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.
The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.
The Saphead: Ultimate Edition (Kino) is Buster Keaton’s feature film debut, though he didn’t direct this one. An adaptation of the Broadway hit “The New Henrietta” (previously made into the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle “The Lamb”), it’s a conventional but cute comedy with Keaton in a role that would recur in numerous shorts and features: the spoiled son of wealth trying to navigate the working world. Apart from the energetic finale, where he leaps, slides, and wrestles with wall street lions on the stock exchange floor, Keaton is given little opportunity to display the comic gymnastics that would define his greatest films and the comedy stays safe and conventional. It’s a completely genial and entertaining film carried by Keaton’s sweet charm and plucky naiveté and it made him a star, but it’s only a warm-up for his later directorial efforts.
On DVD and Blu-ray in a new, remastered edition with a musical score by Robert Israel (originally recorded for the 1995 video release) and a bonus variant cut composed entirely of alternate takes (with a piano score by Ben Model). Other supplements include a short featurette comparing the two versions, a 30-minute audio recording from 1962 with Keaton recalling his vaudeville days, and a gallery of stills.
Seven Chances (1925), Buster Keaton’s fifth feature as a director, is a rare Keaton film based directly on another property, in this case a David Belasco stage play by Roi Cooper Megrue. But it’s safe to say that Keaton transformed the material into his own brand of humor: from stage farce to snappy cinematic slapstick, with Buster turning every verbal jokes into visual gags.
The script is built on the kind of impossible contrivances that have been driving comedies for centuries. Keaton is James Shannon, a meek, sincere young lawyer too timid to ask his girl (Ruth Dwyer) for her hand, a situation made abundantly clear in a prologue that takes his courtship through the seasons. Then, just as he and his partner are in a serious (but only vaguely explained) financial bind, he’s informed that his rich uncle died (as the cliché goes) and he’s to inherit $7 million. The catch: he has to marry by 7 o’clock on his 27th birthday. I’ll give you seven guesses as to what day on which this all occurs (hint: it’s the afternoon of his 27th birthday). And, wouldn’t you, after all that procrastinating, he trips over his non-proposal and ends up at the country club, where his business partner identifies the seven girls his know as James’ “seven chances.”
For all the sevens in this script, Keaton tosses the number aside as he builds momentum and James’ shyness and social insecurity is overcome with each rejection, steeling him to become more brazen with each proposal. Before the sequence is over, he’s asked every single girl in the place (including an unbilled, not-yet-famous Jean Arthur as the club receptionist; keep an eye out for the one who waves the ring on her finger in front of his face) and heads out to try his luck on the street.
This isn’t the kind of pratfall slapstick or creative tangle with technology that we associate with Keaton but a kind of comic dance where he slides from partner to partner, making his pitch, taking each rebuff in stride and moving to the next. Some of these bits are deliciously choreographed steps, others born of Keaton’s trademark earnest haplessness, overcoming his initial shyness and reticence and fear of humiliation as he soldiers on through variations on a theme. The purpose of the exercise is practically forgotten as James takes on the act of proposing itself as the challenge. Keaton the director pushes him into crazier situations and more brazen propositions and Keaton the screen performer meets them all with comic grace.
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.
Buster Keaton’s second feature film as a director is also his first genuine masterpiece. While it opens in the darkness of widowed mother fleeing her rural shack to save her infant from a Hatfields and McCoys-like feud, the comic sun comes out when we return years later to find that infant grown into the gentle Keaton, a New York City slicker traveling south (on a deliriously surreal train engineered by Keaton’s father Joe) to receive his inheritance. He falls in love with a pretty fellow passenger (Natalie Talmadge) who happens to be the daughter of the rival clan and the generations-old grudge heats up all over again, but Southern hospitality forbids the feuding family from harming him as long as he’s a guest in their home. Buster spins hilarious gags from his desperate attempts to prolong his stay (and to sneak out unobserved) and builds to a thrilling climax and an impressive stunt involving mighty waterfall, a damsel in distress and a fearless rescue.
The film arrives in a new DVD “Ultimate Edition” and debuts on Blu-ray. Both feature newly remastered version of the film with two musical scores (an original orchestral score composed and conducted by the great Carl Davis and a compilation score by Donald Hunsberger) and supplements. There’s a new 26-minute documentary on the making of the film, a 1926 short Fatty Arbuckle comedy “The Iron Mule” (featuring the same train from “Our Hospitality”) and most curiously an alternate 49-minute cut of the film (titled simply “Hospitality”). This version is pretty beat up and included largely for historical value (explained in the introduction to the film). Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV offers his take on the film, the restoration and the supplements at DVD Talk.
Chicago (1927) (Flicker Alley) is the first screen incarnation of the story of jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart, first created in a play by former crime reporter Maurine Watkins that hit Broadway in 1926. Ginger Rogers played her in the William Wellman-directed Roxie Hart, which took the sex and cynicism right out of it, and of course it was turned into the Broadway musical that was brought to the screen in the 2002 Oscar winner. This version, produced (and in part directed) by Cecil B. DeMille, had been all but forgotten in the meantime, at least until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMille’s private collection, but even after select festival showings it’s still largely unknown. Hopefully this Flicker Alley DVD release will help take care of that.
Former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver is Roxie, the bleached blond jazz baby of an unfaithful wife who plugs her wealthy lover (Eugene Palette) and tells her blindly adoring hubby Amos (Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode) that it was burglar. Unlike future incarnations, this Amos is no sap, merely deluded by love, but his illusions are quickly shattered when he recognizes the dead man and finds one of her garters in his pocket. And as the press turns it into a front page scandal turned salacious soap opera, with Roxie as the willing star, the femme fatale playing the victimized innocent with all the subtlety of a second rate stage diva playing Victorian melodrama, Amos is the hero of the piece if only for his loyalty and sacrifice. Everyone else—from Roxie to the press to the assistant D.A.—simply uses the murder for their own notoriety with mercenary focus.
Buster Keaton’s The General and Sherlock Jr. are consistently cited as Buster Keaton’s great masterpieces and I don’t disagree—Sherlock is one of the most cinematically inventive and visionary films of its era and The General simply a perfect piece of filmmaking—but there is more heart and affection in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton stars as a college dandy (complete with absurd mustache and beret) who arrives in the deep south to see his father (Ernest Torrence, who perfectly exudes tough love and gruff affection), a crusty paddleboat captain with a warhorse of a ship threatened by a brand new competitor on river. Buster is, naturally, in love with daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s nemesis, a modern moneybags determined to put Bill and his relic of a ship out of business.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. features a spectacular hurricane sequence that leads to some of Keaton’s most inspired gags and dangerous stunts (a side of a house falls on our hero, who survives thanks to a well-placed window). But under the spectacle is a love between father and son that neither can express except through action and a nervous city boy who transforms from an oblivious klutz into a mechanical genius with a Rube Goldberg bent for mastering the mechanics of the riverboat in the midst of a storm. Funny, sweet and inventive, it’s one of the great silent movie comedies.