Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: March, 2020

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Old Wives for New (1918)

This feature-length drama by Cecil B. DeMille shows his more sophisticated side, after opening his career with simple Westerns like “The Squaw Man” and “The Virginian,” and moving into racier material with “Carmen” and “The Cheat.” Considered scandalous at the time, and often censored for its frank dealing with questions of infidelity and divorce, it stands today as a kind of an unwitting critique of the gender order.

Disgusted by the unattractive, slovenly appearance of his wife Sophy (Sylvia Ashton), Charles Murdock (Elliott Dexter) goes on a long hunting trip. He meets Juliet Raeburn (Florence Vidor), falls in love with her, and while telling her of his love, he reveals that he is a married man. Upon his return, his secretary (Gustav von Seyffertitz) allows Murdock’s wife to learn of his dalliance, and she, imagining the worst, flies into a frenzy of jealousy. To forget, he goes out with his business partner Tom Berkeley (Theodore Roberts), meets Jessie (Julia Faye), who is being provided for by Berkeley, and Viola Hastings (Marcia Manning) who is looking for a rich boyfriend. Jess shoots Berkeley when she finds him in another woman’s bedroom and Juliet Raeburn’s name is connected to the scandal by a false report made by Mrs. Mudock at the secretary’s urging. Murdock, to protect Juliet, goes abroad with the gold digging Viola. After his wife obtains a divorce and marries the secretary, Juliet and Murdock meet in Venice, renew their friendship, and marry.

Essentially, this movie delivers what the title promises: a man throwing over an old-looking wife for a younger model. But, DeMille is at pains to make him seem to be a decent person, and to argue that the original wife, in ignoring her duties to the family and her man, is the one to blame for the situation. She wakes up late, runs water for a bath, then decides not to bother and lets it run down the drain, ordering breakfast in bed because she is “unwell.” Most of what we see her eat are chocolates or sweets of one kind or another. She is lazy, fat, and lets “the house run itself, for the most part,” resulting in badly cooked eggs that her husband refuses to touch. Her vindictive attacks on the innocent Juliet just strengthen the audience’s sense of her as the villain of the piece. But, despite himself, DeMille also makes her a victim of both the men in her life – her husband for abandoning her for a younger woman and the secretary, whose only interest seems to be the money she will win in her divorce, and who instigates most of her worse decisions.

DeMille also made the interesting decision of casting his mistress (Faye) as the mistress of the playboy millionaire (Roberts). Her character is shallow, flighty, greedy, and jealous, and ultimately commits murder and then agrees to keep quiet about it to protect the reputation of the man who wronged her. I don’t know what this says about their relationship; Faye remained with him (clandestinely) for many years and was in more than thirty of his pictures. It’s hard to imagine, then, that DeMille treated her as badly in person as he treated her character in the movie! Overall, however, the movie doesn’t seem to reflect a man who had a great deal of respect for women or understanding of their position within the world. Only Miss Raeburn, a virgin, is portrayed sympathetically as virtuous.

With all of that said, this is definitely a technically satisfying film. DeMille had only been making movies for four years since he got started with “The Squaw Man,” and he’s kept up admirably, and probably even pushed some innovations, as we saw with “The Cheat.” Here, he makes heavy use of close ups to create a more intimate connection with the characters for the audience, editing is zippy, and for the most part intertitles are used sparingly, just to give enough information to keep the audience engaged. The performances are good all around and especially those of Dexter and Vidor work to sell the story, however problematic it may be. The screenplay, by Jeanie MacPherson, is sprinkled with sophisticated humor, which probably could have been better handled by a Lubitsch, but it works fine in DeMille’s hands as well.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Elliott Dexter, Florence Vidor, Sylvia Ashton, Theodore Roberts, Marcia Manon, Julia Faye, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Tully Marshall, Edythe Chapman, Raymond Hatton, Charles Ogle, Madame Sul-te-Wan

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Convict 13 (1920)

Buster Keaton tries on a striped suit along with his stony expression in this early two-reeler from Metro. Dealing as it does with execution, prison riots, and police brutality, it is of course a gold mine for comic pratfalls.

The movie begins with Keaton on a golf course, in his typical get-up, trying to impress a girl and generally failing as a golfer. At one point, having knocked his ball into a water trap, it is swallowed by a fish, and Buster has to catch fish with his bare hands, inspect their insides, and find a way to retrieve his ball when he does find it. Meanwhile, a fellow about Keaton’s height escapes from a nearby prison. He find his way to the golf course and comes across Buster, lying unconscious as a result of beaning himself with his own ball. The escapee swaps clothing and walks away free. As Keaton wakes up and attempts to continue golfing, several prison guards surround him and he slowly becomes aware of his new uniform. He distracts them with his ball and takes off running, but pretty soon there are more guards and Keaton falls into line marching with them. For a moment it looks like he may escape when he tricks them into marching the other way, but it only gives him a brief reprieve – he winds up trying to hitch a ride from the warden before getting finally running ahead of the guards into the prison and locking himself in when he tries to lock them out.

The warden, it turns out, is the father of Buster’s girl (Sybil Seely). She tries to plead for him, knowing that he was free just a few hours ago, but his number (#13) is on the roster for a hanging today and daddy insists on carrying it out. Thinking quickly, Sybil grabs some elasticated rope from the gym, and replaces the noose with it. When the hangman puts it around Buster’s neck, he bounces up and down, but does not hang. The warden assures the disappointed audience of convicts that he’ll hang two next week to make up for it. Keaton is put on rock-breaking, which he does by tapping lightly on the smallest bits of rock he can find, resulting in an extended slapstick battle with one of the guards, who happens to be about Keaton’s height. When he is knocked out, Buster changes clothes with him.

Now in a position of authority, Buster finds himself confronted by a hammer-wielding crazed convict (Joe Roberts), who has already knocked out all his other guards. Buster tries to frighten him, but soon they are also in a running battle, which extends to a riot as the other convicts catch the fever. Buster puts attaches a basketball to the elasticated rope and swings it around his head, knocking out all of the other convicts, and finally managing to take down Roberts as well. Just as it seems he will be able to claim victory and get the girl, he accidentally knocks himself out, finding himself back on the golf course, being shaken back to awareness by Sybil. It was all a dream.

In this movie, Keaton takes the concept of “the clothes make the man” to an extreme. Once he’s in the uniform or prisoner #13, that’s his life. Only Sybil can see through the clothes to recognize him, even Keaton seems resigned to his fate as a convict. This is particularly evident as he resolutely goes up the gallows steps because his number is due for execution – his character doesn’t even know that Sybil has acted to save him. He barely even protests, and does nothing to stop the executioner. Once he’s changed clothes with the guard, now he’s a guard (and presumably the other fellow just accepts being a convict on death row). He acts in his own interest in fighting the rioters, but he also makes no attempt to escape the prison now that he’s presumably a free man. He does his duty, stands his ground, and manages to prevail. Of course, the ending calls all of it into question. In a dream, we often accept conditions that wouldn’t logically make sense in waking life. It’s somewhat more funny to think of this as the reality of Keaton’s world, rather than a dream, but the ending kind of undoes that conceit.

The basketball-swinging stunt harks back to a gag that Buster and Joe Keaton did on stage, as described in Keaton’s autobiography. His father would be shaving himself on one end of the stage with a straight razor while Buster swung a basketball on a rope, getting closer to his dad with each swing, and timing the hit precisely to avoid injury and maximize laughs. Then his father would chase him and use him as a “human mop.” According to Keaton, a real razor was used, and no one was ever hurt with it. Still it shows the lengths he and his family would go for a laugh.

Director: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Joe Keaton

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.