Day Dreams (1922)
Buster Keaton had been producing his own short comedies for a few years by 1922, when he brought out this ambitious, large-scale project. It ties in with themes he had used before, including youthful ambition, attaining love, and a little man on the run from cops.
The movie begins by introducing “the Girl” (Renée Adorée), who is changing the flowers in a vase. After a quick cut to Keaton, who we see is picking flowers outside, we see her toss out the old flowers, which are deftly caught by Keaton and added to his bouquet, which he presents her as he walks up to her door. Soon, we learn the real reason for his visit, as he approaches her father (Buster’s real-life dad, Joe Keaton), reclining in his easy chair, and proclaims his love for her daughter. The father questions Buster’s ability to support his daughter, and Buster pledges to find good-paying work, or kill himself if he fails. Dad seems amenable to this arrangement, and Buster heads out to seek his fortune, backing out the doorway and nearly being hit by cars as he walks backward into the street.
For Buster’s first attempt at getting work, he takes on a job at a dog and cat hospital, which he describes as a “sanatorium” in letters to his girl. He puts a cat into a basket to bring in to the doctor, but he fails to notice a hole in the bottom, so the cat stays in the waiting area with a large dog, both of which escape onto the grounds in his absence. Keaton pursues the cat, which seems to have gone into hiding in a turned-over barrel, but he fails to notice it is actually a skunk. Momentarily, he comes out wearing a bathrobe, with his clothes in hand. He gives them a burial in the yard, to which the dog adds its own collar.
Next, Buster reports that he is “working at the Stock Exchange.” In fact, he is a street cleaner. Once again, he has a problem with the false bottom of his garbage can, and winds up cleaning up the very mess he has just swept up. Eventually, he puts the can over an open manhole, and dumps all the soot he sweeps up down on top of a worker, who becomes irate and the two fight, Keaton using his old “broom trick” from his days with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (and his stage work with Joe Keaton, in earlier years). Now a political rally for a local candidate begins, and soon the street is covered with streamers and confetti. Buster despairs of getting it all into his little can, and piles up a bunch of the stuff and lights it on fire. The fire quickly spreads and the crowd runs away, while the candidate is trapped on stage with his band. Buster thinks fast and grabs a hose, but mostly sprays the candidate with it. Eventually, he is clobbered from behind and then unceremoniously dumped into the water-logged manhole.
Buster’s next effort is to get work in the theater. Of course, he reports to his girl that he is “in Hamlet by Shakespeare.” Here we actually see her daydream of him in tights, holding a skull and bowing before an enraptured audience, before we see the reality of him in a chorus line of Roman soldiers, marching in place and not managing to stay in step at a small vaudeville house. Eventually, the diva leaves the stage in a huff, refusing to work with him, and he is caught with a hook and tossed out of the stage door. Still in his costume, Buster begins to walk down the street and passes a cop, who looks at him and then begins to follow him. Buster goes faster and faster, and the cop keeps pace, and soon the two are running full-speed (the tracking shot is handled by putting the camera in a car that drives beside them). Buster manages to get lost in a second-hand clothing store where another cop has just arrested a shoplifter, and he pretends to be a mannequin, stealing clothes when nobody is watching so that he can get away, but the store owner sees him and demands pay. Buster is surprised to find a wad of cash in the pants he just stole and uses them to pay. After everyone leaves, he checks all of the other pants on display to see if any have additional windfalls.
For Buster’s final attempt, he writes his sweetheart that he has left the theater, but doesn’t reveal his now position. The daydream depicts him in uniform, standing guard at a large police parade, which is shown in stock footage. Reality shows him tearing through city streets (this section looks like San Francisco) with dozens of cops in pursuit. He hops on the back of a speeding streetcar, to much peril, but it stops and turns around almost immediately, leading him back to his pursuers, some of whom are able to climb aboard. Buster looks up to see them as he pulls a coin from his pocket to pay, then leaps from the car. He uses a fire escape to trap the two from the streetcar and halts another streetcar, which is revealed to be full of cops. They chase him to a pier, where he leaps aboard a departing ferry and waves goodbye. Once again, the boat goes back immediately, allowing the cops to swarm aboard. He tries to evade them by leaping over the side and getting onto the paddle wheel. In what is now one of his most famous sequences, Buster struggles to stay upright and not drenched as the wheel turns faster and faster. Eventually, he is thrown clear and lands in the water. A fisherman drags him out, but tosses him back in to use as bait for a bigger fish.
Buster returns to the home of the Girl in shame, having shipped himself by parcel post. The postman dumps him on the floor in front of Joe, who signs for him and then gives him his revolver to carry out his promise. He and the Girl leave the room and hear a bang, but of course Buster has fouled this up too. Now Joe boots him out of his window in disgrace.
Am I the only person who gets the last sequence of this film confused with “Cops?” Cops came out earlier in the year, and is sometimes associated with Keaton’s frustration with the legal system’s treatment of his friend, Roscoe Arbuckle. This movie was released later in the year and may have been co-written by Arbuckle, if Wikipedia is to be believed. One thing that stands out to me is how dishonest Keaton’s character is here. First, we have the escalating lies he tells his Girl about how he is making good. But, second, in his autobiography Keaton argued that the difference between Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and his character was that Chaplin would steal clothing while he would have worked to earn the clothes. But, here, we find him doing exactly that – stealing clothes! I suspect that Keaton tended to romanticize his character in later years, and that he didn’t re-watch his early shorts that often. Various sources state that this movie is missing footage, but they also differ about the run times, and the time on the print I was able to watch was pretty standard for a two-reel movie, so I suspect that there is very little, if anything, missing from it.
A surprising number of Keaton’s movies use death or suicide as a gag, and it seems especially bleak here, where when Keaton returns, defeated, to the house we know he has committed to shoot himself. This is quite different from the beginning of “Haunted Spooks” in which Harold Lloyd makes several comedic failed suicide attempts at the beginning of the film, only to fall in love and find redemption throughout the rest of the picture (Keaton’s “Hard Luck” follows a similar structure). Here, the audience experiences a sense of dread as it seems that he will actually go through with it, and we see Joe Keaton and Renée Adorée jump as smoke from the gun blast blows across the screen before Keaton walks up and shows us his failure, which is not itself a gag or a joke. The joke comes when Joe kicks Buster out the window, which mirrors their old act together. This is not the funniest part of the movie, though, and there are some truly great parts, especially the extended chases with the police and the water wheel sequence.
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Renée Adorée, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Joe Roberts
Run Time: 24 Min, 30 Secs
You can watch it for free: here.