Film Review: The Blacksmith (1922)

Release Date: July 21st, 1922
Directed by: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Written by: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Cast: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox

First National Pictures, 25 Minutes

Review:

The IMDb description of this film is, “Buster Keaton shoes horses and repairs cars, with mixed results.”

That pretty much sums the whole thing up.

However, this is Buster Keaton and the gags and physical humor are great, even if this is still pretty early into his career where he was pumping out silent short films left and right.

While I don’t enjoy this one as much as One Week or Cops, it still showcases the man’s great talent and how he could make magic with just about any prop or situation.

This is only 25 minutes but a lot happens and Keaton doesn’t really stop moving, except to fill in a few narrative points between the physical scenes. But even then, he finds a way to put his physical energy to use.

In the end, I’ve never seen a Buster Keaton film I haven’t enjoyed and The Blacksmith is no different.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films of the silent era, as well as the movies of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

Film Review: Cops (1922)

Release Date: March 11th, 1922
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Steve Murphy

Joseph M. Schenck Productions, 18 Minutes

Review:

“I won’t marry you until you become a big business man.” – Mayor’s Daughter

Cops is a Buster Keaton movie I hadn’t seen until now. Like a lot of his pictures, you can actually find a good copy of it on YouTube for free.

Overall, this was energetic and fun but I probably wouldn’t put this near his upper echelon of stuff, even his shorts. I enjoyed One Week a lot more and found it to be pretty damn hilarious from top to bottom.

Cops does have some good gags and sequences but it’s a lot more grounded than Keaton’s best work, which often times gets surreal and over the top (in a good way).

This also feels like a much smaller picture than many of his others, even One Week, which was mostly filmed in a large dirt covered area near train tracks. The only thing in this that felt somewhat grandiose was the finale that saw Keaton running away from what looked like a hundred or more cops.

This was definitely charming in that typical Buster Keaton sort of way but everything, other than the closing minutes, felt pretty subdued and light.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s.

Film Review: One Week (1920)

Release Date: August 29th, 1920
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Joseph M. Schenck Productions, 25 Minutes (TCM print), 19 Minutes (1995 Film Preservation print)

Review:

“Now look at the darned thing!” – The Bride

One Week is a fairly early movie in Buster Keaton’s career but I wanted to revisit it, as it is one of my favorites.

It’s actually the first film where he is the star and it also has Sybil Seely playing his wife. She would be featured in other early Keaton films.

As a kid, this was one of my top Keaton films because it’s just really damn good and the physical comedy here is just on another level. Plus, it’s a short film, so it used to pop up on TV early in the morning quite a bit.

The story revolves around two newlyweds that are gifted a “build-it-yourself” portable house. Keaton, as the Groom, does his damnedest at trying to build their new home but he’s terrible at it, which leads to a great series of gags and still, some of the comedian’s best.

Looking at it through a modern lens, it’s impressive for the time. I’m not sure how they were able to pull off some sequences and there are really big things that happen in this that exceed the scope of a typical movie for the time.

For instance, there is a bit where the entire home is spinning as people tumble in and out of it. There is then the big finale, which sees the house get decimated by a real life train. I’m guessing it wasn’t hard to get permits back then.

At the end of the day, this isn’t Keaton’s best film but it is a good example of how far ahead of the competition he was in his first starring role.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s.

Film Review: The General (1926)

Also known as: The Engine Driver (original script title)
Release Date: December 25th, 1926 (El Paso premiere)
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Written by: Al Boasberg, Clyde Buckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith
Based on: The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
Music by: William P. Perry (1926), Carl Davis (1987), Robert Israel (1995), Baudime Jam (1999), Joe Hisaishi (2004), Timothy Brock (2005), Angelin Fonda (2017)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

Buster Keaton Productions, Joseph M. Schenck Productions, United Artists, 67 Minutes, 80 Minutes (1982 cut), 83 Minutes (1962 cut), 75 Minutes (2003 alternate cut)

Review:

“[to the recruiter who rejects him] If you lose this war, don’t blame me.” – Johnnie Gray

While I’ve reviewed several Charlie Chaplin films, as well as a few Harold Lloyd ones, I’m surprised that I haven’t reviewed any Buster Keaton pictures yet. Granted, I haven’t watched any in awhile but I’ve been itching to revisit The General, as I hadn’t seen it since my film studies class in high school, over two decades ago.

What I like about Keaton’s movies, especially this one, is the high emphasis on plot. He is a physical, slapstick comedian and he employs the style in his performances but he still makes a well plotted film that doesn’t mostly rely on his gags and his stunts.

The General is a great example of this and it is a true cinematic classic of its time.

What really stands out, at least to me, is the scope of the film. It feels large and epic when compared to other motion pictures that are similar. Silent comedies were typically filmed indoors and outside sets usually didn’t have a lot of scale. The General takes advantage of the environments it’s filmed in, especially during the iconic locomotive chase scenes.

Additionally, it has amazing cinematography with stellar shot framing, lighting and use of natural environmental texture, weather and color tinting.

It has a well structured, layered plot, which moves briskly and doesn’t get too hung up on staying in one place for too long or overdoing a gag.

I also really like the plot. It sees Keaton’s Johnnie Gray, a locomotive operator, get rejected by the love of his life because he won’t join the military and fight in the Civil War. As time goes on, she is taken hostage by Union raiders who steal his train. Propelled by the undying love in his heart for his woman and his train, Johnnie takes to the rails to hunt down the enemy and get his loves back.

The story then expands into different directions but it stays pretty focused on moving forward and it employs a level of character development that wasn’t common in 1920s pictures.

Keaton and Chaplin are often times compared and you have people that are either in one camp or the other. Despite similarities in their physical comedy, I think that their films are very different. I think that The General showcases their differences pretty well.

Also, unlike Chaplin’s films from the ’20s, this feels like a true blockbuster movie of its age.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films.

Film Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Also known as: SUNSET BLVD. (stylized on screen)
Release Date: August 10th, 1950
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton

Paramount Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy 20s. A neglected house gets an unhappy look. This one had it in spades. It was like that old woman in “Great Expectations”. That Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding dress and her torn veil, taking it out on the world, because she’d been given the go-by.” – Joe Gillis (as narrator)

There are few movies as perfect as Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder directed a plethora of true cinematic classics but this could be the man’s magnum opus.

This film-noir is considered to be the big send off to the genre, which dominated the 1940s. It was also directed by Billy Wilder, who got a lot of credit, and rightfully so, for kick starting the genre with his 1944 film Double Indemnity. Although, Wilder would do another film-noir the following year called Ace In the Hole. Plus, film-noir wasn’t something that was clearly defined, at the time. Even today there is still debate as to whether it is an actual genre or just a style. But Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard are considered, by many, to be the bookends of classic film-noir.

Sunset Boulevard is exceptional, from the opening shot all the way to that final, creepy moment, as the camera fades out to the credits. It feels like a cinematic Persian rug that has been meticulously worked on for years and years. And while the film itself didn’t take years to make, it is the result of years and years of some of the best craftsman in Hollywood honing their skills and merging together to create absolute beauty.

While Billy Wilder directed the picture, a lot of credit has to go to cinematographer John F. Seitz. Having spent his years visually enhancing classic films going as far back as 1916, Seitz delivers in every single shot of Sunset Boulevard. The clever lighting, the chiaroscuro feel, the visual contrast between the elegant Gloria Swanson and the dark crumbling world around her, everything was executed with an uncanny preciseness.

Getting to the story, the film follows William Holden’s Joe Gillis. The film begins with Gillis dead, floating face down in a swimming pool. He narrates from beyond the grave, telling the story of how he met his end, becoming a human lily pad outside of a decrepit mansion.

Gillis, on the run from some men he owes money to, finds himself in the mansion of ex-Hollywood screen legend Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson after a long hiatus from pictures. She initially thinks that he is there to bring the coffin for her dead pet monkey. Once she finds out he is a screenwriter, she digs her claws in, taking over his life, giving him a taste of luxury in exchange for his services. Norma has a story she wants turned into a script. She believes that her fans want to see her triumphant return to the silver screen. In reality, it is her butler who has been writing the fan letters for years. In film-noir style, everything that can go sideways, does.

Sunset Boulevard is also littered with notable cameos of big Hollywood names. Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper and others play themselves. Hopper’s role is actually pretty funny. DeMille has the biggest cameo and he does pretty good on the other side of the camera.

This is a stellar film. It examines the cult of personality and celebrity and rips the bandages off, exposing the nasty scabs underneath. This should be a film that is forced on any Kardashian child born from now until eternity. It is a film that is more relevant now than ever, as we live in a time where anyone can be a celebrity for ten minutes, as long as you do something completely stupid on the Internet.

Sunset Boulevard was a reflection of its time but it was also ahead of its time. Nearly seventy years later, the film is still effective.

Rating: 9.75/10