Tag Archives: Buster Keaton

A Night At The Opera

Directed by Sam Wood
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Written by Story: James Kevin McGuinness
Screenplay: George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind
Uncredited: Al Boasberg & Buster Keaton
Starring Groucho Marx
Chico Marx
Harpo Marx
Margaret Dumont
Music by Herbert Stothart
Editing by William LeVanway
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Nov. 15, 1935 (Los Angeles)
Dec. 6, 1935 (New York)
Running time 96 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Many people say that A Night At The Opera is the Marx Bros. finest film, although I do prefer Duck Soup. It was their first film for MGM and also the first without Zeppo. It also features some of the best one-liners in all of filmdom including Chico’s “You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.” It also features a lot of Groucho quipping with his favourite straight man Margaret Dumont and Harpo’s silly slapstick. It also features the stateroom scene, one of the funniest in all of their movies.

Unfortunately this was also one of the first Marx Bros. films to feature a romantic sub-plot and the boring musical numbers that plagued the latter Marxist films. These are usually just some really boring 1930s ballads sung by some boring crooner or diva who are supposed to be the hero and heroine of the film. Anytime that someone who is not named Groucho Marx starts singing in a Marx Bros. film makes me grab the remote control for the DVD player. The same applies when Chico Marx starts playing the piano or Harpo Marx starts playing the harp. It takes a lot of effort to endure these pieces of tedium but the comedy on the other side is usually very funny and rewards the viewer with lots of laughs.

It is interesting to note that the silent film comedian Buster Keaton (old Stoneface) wrote for this movie but is uncredited for it.

The General

Directed by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Produced by Joseph Schenck & Buster Keaton
Written by William Pittenger (memoir)
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Uncredited: Charles Henry Smith & Paul Girard Smith
Starring Buster Keaton & Marion Mack
Music by Carl Davis (1987)
Robert Israel (1995)
Joe Hisaishi (2004)
Cinematography Bert Haines & Devereaux Jennings
Editing by Buster Keaton & Sherman Kell (both uncredited)
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) February 5, 1927
Running time 75 minutes (times vary with different versions)
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles

The General is regarded as Buster Keaton’s greatest masterpiece. In my opinion it is indeed a fine piece of film making that seems to be more of an action or adventure film than a comedy.

The movie is based on true historical events from the American Civil War. It involves the theft of the train The General, by the Union Army and how the group who stole it, Anderson’s Raiders, were pursued by one determined Southerner named Johnnie Gray. The film is very exciting and some of the cinematography is brilliant, considering that the film was made in 1927 and there are a few amusing bits, but nothing really laugh out loud funny. The final chase between the Union train The Texas and The General from back to the south is particularly exciting, as is the blowing up of the Rock River Bridge.

The film is more of an action/adventure film than a comedy. Although it was a critical and box office failure on its release, it is now considered one of the greatest films ever made. I enjoyed the film but more as a historical artefact than as a piece of entertainment. It has moments of excitement and drama but it isn’t really a comedy film.

* 29 years later Disney made their film The Great Locomotive Chase which was also based on these events but from the point of view of the Unionist who stole The General rather than the South.

Steamboat Bill Jr.

Directed by Charles Reisner
Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Written by Carl Harbaugh & Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Starring Buster Keaton
Cinematography Bert Haines & Devereaux Jennings
Editing by Sherman Kell
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) 12 May 1928 (US)
Running time 71 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film with English intertitles

I watched Steamboat Bill Jr. this morning on a DVD that I borrowed from the local public library. The reason why I chose to borrow this DVD was because of its star and how important his contributions to silent cinema are considered to be. Before talkies took over Keaton was considered to be the second most important film comedian after Charlie Chaplin, but unlike with the Chaplin films that I have watched I did not laugh much with Steamboat Bill Jr.

I wondered to myself why I did not laugh at Steamboat Bill Jr. To me there was really not much of a plot to the film as it was just one gag after another. Many of the gags felt quite familiar which is probably because they have been stolen and used by many comedians throughout the history of cinema. Keaton also uses a lot of stunts in the film but again they too look very familiar. Perhaps this could be because many of them have been reused by others several times since? Maybe I would have been more excited about the film back in 1928 when all these gags and stunts were still fresh?

I think that there is also a problem with Keaton’s persona in the film too. I know that he was known as old ‘stoneface’ due to the never changing expression on his face, despite everything that he had to face, but here it seems to be more than a hinderance than a help when it comes to getting laughs. It is very hard to make an emotional connection to Keaton as he goes through all of these difficulties that he has to face during the film. Contrast this with Chaplin who was the king of pathos and knew just how how to make audiences cry as well as laugh.

An example of what I mean can be seen in the climax of the film in which a violent wind storm lashes the town where Keaton has been staying. Buildings fall down around him and there are some incredible (for 1928) special effects and stunts, but you don’t feel any suspense or empathy for Keaton. The stunts don’t even really have much of a comic element to them, they just happen.

I’m not saying that Steamboat Bill Jr. was a horrible film. I did not turn the disc off until the movie was finished. It’s just that it is more entertaining today as a nostalgic trip back to 1928 than as a movie that will have you laughing your ass off.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a horrible film by any means. I think it’s just that the comedy has not aged all that well over the last 70+ years. I think that the best way to enjoy Steamboat Bill Jr. is to treat it as a nostalgic trip back to 1928 and look for an insight into what made cinema goers laugh back then. Maybe this was the wrong Keaton film for me to watch though as it was not really well received upon release in 1928. It didn’t do too greatly at the box office either. I do have another couple of Keaton films that I intend to watch, including The General, which is considered to be Keaton’s greatest film.