Posted as part of the Shorts! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently.
My introduction to Buster Keaton came about a year ago at a showing of The General at the BFI and, to tell you the truth, I was a little nervous. I’d never been to a silent film before – aren’t they supposed to be hard work? Only to be watched for serious, academic purposes? My concern grew when it turned out that there was a short film preceding the feature. So, I have to watch 20 minutes of people running about incredibly quickly then getting kicked up the arse before I even get to the movie I paid to see?? Now, obviously I wouldn’t be sat here now, making a small contribution to this excellent blogathon if those concerns had not proven to be ludicrously misplaced.
The short in question was One Week, which turned out to be a 20 minute slot of pure joy and set me up perfectly for the genius of The General. In the following months, I caught up on Buster’s other short films and some patterns started to emerge, the most striking for me being the recurring use of mechanised, or automated houses. One Week does it a bit (although more in the construction than in the finished article – the intended finished article at least!), but the idea’s explored more thoroughly in several of his other works. In fact, you can see the level of ambition and sophistication develop from the charmingly homespun ropes and pulleys arrangement of The Scarecrow, through the much slicker stairs/slide in The Haunted House to the automated-beyond-what-we-have-today dwelling in The Electric House.As with a lot of Buster, you could intellectualise this stuff. How radical to use the mise en scène as a character in its own right! Is this absurdity a nod to Dadaism? You could do that, or you could think “Wow! This is just like Wallace and Gromit!” If you haven’t seen Wallace and Gromit, particularly The Wrong Trousers (and if you haven’t, you need to address that oversight as a matter of urgency because it’s one of the crowning achievements of modern civilisation) it’s an everyday tale of a Plasticine man, his Plasticine dog and how they foil a Plasticine penguin’s plot to steal a diamond (not, I think, Plasticine). Its joys are many, but significantly include the duo’s house which is chock full of ingenious labour saving devices, from a miniature train used to deliver supplies of cheese (Wallace does like a bit of gorgonzola) to a bed rigged up to tip Wallace straight out into his chair where he’s (automatically) dressed and (automatically) provided with tea and toast.
Now, I don’t know how familiar (if at all) the makers of The Wrong Trousers were with Buster’s shorts (although the studio has discussed Shaun the Sheep’s Buster-like blank face, a quality he shares with Gromit), but it doesn’t really matter anyhow. I just find it fascinating that two pieces of work separated by time, culture and form can share DNA. Teen comedies can borrow plots from Shakespeare and Jane Austen, a romantic comedy can be based on a French tragedy about a man with a massive nose and a man from the 1920s can share some tricks with a piece of clay moulded 30 years after he died.Buster did have one over on Gromit though, in that he did this stuff for real (admittedly, Gromit does have some disadvantages – principally that he’s made out of Plasticine and that he’s a dog). Towards the end of his life, his home in Woodland Hills was equipped with a train used to deliver food from kitchen to outside dining area whilst in his youth at the Bluffton Actors’ Colony a Mr Ed Gray presented two seemingly intractable problems:
- a persistent unwillingness to get out of bed; and
- people using his outside toilet without asking.
Many would have suggested pragmatic, even tedious solutions (maybe move your alarm clock further from the bed and put a lock on the khazi?) but not our man. Instead, he rigged up Ed’s bed so that an ignored alarm would be swiftly followed by the covers being automatically ripped off and then by the bed itself being hoisted up by an electric motor to tip him onto the floor.Even more brilliantly, the outhouse was rigged up by means of hinges and a fake clothesline such that a tug on a rope would lift the walls of the shed (which, by the way, was on a hill overlooking the town), thus leaving the interloper still on the throne but now somewhat more conspicuous than they’d envisaged. Sadly, history does not seem to record how many ran for cover (ideally, tripping over their trousers as they did so) and how many had the nerve to simply wave at any onlookers then go back to reading the paper.
- “Sheep Thrills: Aardman Animations on bringing Shaun the Sheep to the big screen”, The Big Issue Issue 1139 (9 February 2015)
- Rudi Blesh, Keaton (1966)
- Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1982)