It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) movie poster

director Stanley Kramer
viewed: 05/10/2014

For a sprawling, epic comedy starring a multitude of Hollywood greats, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is high on the sprawl and the epicness (clocking in at 161 minutes, down from an even longer original), but the heights of hilarity are more in the amusing level than that of epic humor.

We were going to go see it at the Castro Theatre a week or so ago but the timing didn’t work for us.  But Felix got fixated on it and wanted to see it so we queued it up.

From the main group of five guys that witness a car go flying over a cliff and huddle to watch “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) give up the ghost and the location of his stolen bundle of bucks, I was struck that both Mickey Rooney and Sid Caesar had both just died earlier this year and that Jonathan Winters had passed just a year prior.  Heck, when you come down to it, everybody in this movie is probably dead.  It was made over 50 years ago.

The wild antics of the crazy people who go on a road (and plane) race to get from the hills of Kern County down to the lowest end of Southern California in pursuit of $350,000 of buried loot is madcap and antic.  Along with those above, we’ve got Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Terry-Thomas, Phil Silvers, Edie Adams, and Peter Falk.  And in addition lots of super cameos from Jerry Lewis, Jim Backus, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, Paul Ford, Joe E. Brown and Don Knotts.  Jesus, just about everybody you can think of (that is, til you read all the people who were “almost” in the movie.)

The kids actually really enjoyed it, both of them.  Clara commented early on during the title sequence (designed by the inimitable Saul Bass) that even the title sequence was long (4 minutes).  And they groaned when the Intermission came on.  But they liked it.  I had to point out to them who everybody was.

One sort of negative thing is how obnoxious all the women are.  I guess all of the men are greedy, selfish jerks too, but Ethel Merman’s performance is both great and massively strident.  At least some of the men have some element of pathos to soften their coarseness.  It wouldn’t be out of step in 1963 Hollywood for a little patriarchal misogyny.

The General (1926)

The General (1926) movie poster

directors Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
viewed: 03/21/2014

I had been reading a biography of Buster Keaton, simply titled Keaton by Rudi Blesh, a man who had personally known Keaton and interviewed him and his family members.  This book had long sat on my shelf but I was keen to watch another Keaton film after reading it.  There were still a couple of Keaton features that we hadn’t seen.  But in the end, I felt it had been a long time since we’d seen the film considered his masterpiece, his 1926 comedy/action/adventure The General.

The funny thing is that it had been six years since we’d seen it.  Felix had been six, Clara four.  Memories not as strong of that time.  Not so surprisingly, Clara didn’t recall it at all.  Felix recalled odd moments more than the epic ones.  But Clara of course remembered other Keaton films that she’s liked, notably some of his short films.

When we’d seen it before, I had never seen it, so I think I anticipated it being more comic than it is.  I think that is one of the misperceptions about the film because it certainly does have some very funny bits and moments, but it’s more an adventure first, with some stunning stunts and feats.

It’s based loosely on a true story, known as the “Great Locomotive Chase” that happened during the American Civil War in which a group of Union soldiers stole a Confederate railroad engine, taking down telegraph wires and damaging the rail tracks as they went, pursued by the Southern army.  In Keaton’s version, he’s the lone man in pursuit, and his pursuit is less about the North versus the South but rather that they’ve stolen his beloved engine (oddly enough with his human beloved as a captive as well).

He chases them up and then recaptures the train and they chase him back.  It all ends in the collapse of a railroad bridge and a skirmish between the armies and the heroism of one man.  It’s a little befuddling, the story sort of making out the good guys as the South.  It makes for a harder to explain context to the kids (it’s all quite complicated if you don’t feel like being reductive).  But it struck me odd before, especially with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), these two major silent features in which the good guys are the Southerners.  Of course, Griffith’s film is a much different ball of wax, it’s still on the surface, a little odd perhaps for a modern audience.  This time around it all made a bit more coherent sense to me but I don’t know.

The film is wonderful.  The kids were a tad restless but enjoyed the film a lot.  I can imagine them getting to see it on the big screen would have better impact.

It’s amazing about Buster Keaton.  He had such a small period of his life in which his greatest work was created.  He was limited by Hollywood and so many other things throughout most of his life.  It’s such a shame that he wasn’t given more opportunities as sound came into being.  But one can only pine for what might have been for so long.  What we have of Keaton’s is the best of much of what we have of anything.  And that stuff is pure joy.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 01/02/2014

Sunset Bouldevard.  One of the great movies.

You know, I hadn’t seen it for ages.  I may actually have only watched it in its entirety once before in my life, some time long ago.  But so much of it is so deeply ingrained via pop culture, so iconic are its performances, its style, scenes, dialog, that it’s as familiar as some long lost dear friend.

But you know, it is truly brilliant.  The reason that there are so many quotable moments?  The script is brilliant.  The performances are brilliant.  Gloria Swanson?  Impeccable.  Erich von Stroheim? Sublime.  William Holden?  Spot on.

What struck me more than anything this viewing through was how this film came out in 1950, meditating as it does on Hollywood myths and legends, and the great Silent Era, which had ended two decades before, though many of its greats were still alive and well.  Obsolete perhaps in 1950’s Hollywood, but the sense of historical truth all in the paper-thin facades of movie sets…for an industry that was itself turning half a century, it seems a particularly mature and observant perspective on itself.

Here I sit, even further away, another half century plus since Sunset Boulevard and I gaze at the vantage of that time and appreciate its clarity.

Of course, Billy Wilder was among the greats  of that second age of Hollywood.  It’s amazing how many terrific movies the man made.  Sunset Boulevard, a notable and well-known as it is, is just plain fantastic.  The kind of movie I could watch over and over again.

Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances (1925) movie poster

director Buster Keaton
viewed: 08/31/2012

Vying for variety in our ever-changing, weekly movie night experience, I queued up another Buster Keaton feature that we had yet to see, his 1925 film, Seven Chances.  The plot device was adapted from a play and is something we’ve seen time and again ever since.  He’s a failing businessman who receives note of a $7 million inheritance that stipulates that he must be married by 6pm on that very day.  When he manages to offend his long-time girlfriend, it’s up to his buddy and an attorney to try to get him set up.  His comic foibles of attempting to woo women add up to zilch.  Until his friend posts in the newspaper that this millionaire is out looking for a bride and to meet at the chapel by 5 o’clock…well then.  Half of Southern California’s female populace are suddenly on the scene.

And that’s where the movie gets going.  Literally.  Keaton spends almost the rest of the film running from a mob of angry women as he tries to get back to his girl.  He races over hill and dale, through a train yard, down a steep hill with tumbling rocks, leaping, bounding, pratfalling.  Maybe it’s not the pure brilliance of some of his other films, but the last half hour of non-stop gags and action are top-notch Keaton and hilarious, inventive, physical genius.

The first part of the film is a bit slow and the comedy doesn’t really snap quite as cleverly as it might.  But the finale, a sort of formula for Keaton films, of the big hectic action, chase, what-have-you is ultimately what he’s all about.  The kids enjoyed it quite a bit, not in comparison, but just plain enjoyed it.  Which is really what watching Keaton is all about.  Fun.  And his daring stunts, which you have to remind yourself and the kids at times were physical stunts without nets or tricks make him, like Jackie Chan after him, such an incredible unique talent.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) movie poster

(1928) directors Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton
viewed: 01/25/11

Sick day home with both kids, me sick, too.  Netflix streaming beckoned.  But really, at present, as good as the selection is for this service, it’s also quite limited.  While I recognize it is the future, even the near future, right now it’s good but not superb.  However, I do have to say, the opportunity to re-watch Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. with the kids.

We’d watched it a while back, early in our ventures in silent comedy.  At the time, Felix had laughed his way through the whole last half hour of the film.  And while we’ve watched a number of other Buster Keaton movies, as well as Charlie Chaplin, in the interim, I kind of wanted to revisit this film and The General (1927), as well.

I guess that I didn’t find it quite as hilarious this time around as I did the first time, though the film’s final half hour or so, set during a tornado that pulls the entire river town down around everyone’s ears, especially Keaton’s!, is out-and-out terrific.   The stunt when the building facade falls down on top of him and he is positioned in the only spot where the open window lands on top of him, leaving him unscathed, is one of his best most signature gags.

Clara didn’t remember it all that well, but enjoyed it this time around as well.  We all enjoyed it.

The Navigator

The Navigator (1924) movie poster

(1924) directors Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton
viewed: 10/01/10

It had been a while since we’d watched a Buster Keaton film for Friday night movie night, quite a while for a silent film in general, so I wrangled Buster Keaton’s The Navigator to play for the kids and myself.  Of the several Keaton features that we’ve watched together, I think that The Navigator is more of a second drawer film, not achieving the greatness of Sherlock Jr. (1924), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) or The General (1927), or even Our Hospitality (1923) or Go West (1925).  But that’s fairly quibbling, since the former three are all masterpieces and the latter two are total genius.

And that is not to say that the kids didn’t enjoy themselves.  By the end of the film, with cannibals raging to take over the Navigator and Keaton and his gal shooting off fireworks galore, the kids were howling with laughter and fully wound up.  Great joy for all.

The Navigator is the name of the a large ship upon which Keaton, playing a wealthy useless fop, and his would-be fiancee find themselves adrift, all on their lonesome.  Some of the initial gags revolve around their uselessness on the ship, never having had to fend for themselves in a kitchen, much less aboard a large ship with no crew.  But the film kicks up a notch or two when they become lodged on a reef near an island of cannibals (not your most politically correct depiction of native peoples, as I’m sure you can imagine).  And Keaton also has to don a large old fashioned diving suit to go under water to repair a leak that the ship has developed.  And the battle with the cannibals, as I mentioned above.

Though I am eager to see all of Keaton’s features, I’m a little tempted to re-view Steamboat Bill, Jr. with them because that was the funniest and the biggest round of laughs.  Also there are lots of collections of Keaton’s short films which we’ve watched before too.  Felix is just now 9 and Clara is 6 1/2 at this viewing, so the first time around they were much younger.  I can only imagine that they’ll enjoy it even more.

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924) movie poster

(1924) dir. Buster Keaton
viewed: 12/12/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Odd, yet not so odd, that this would be the first film in the eight years that I’ve been writing this diary, that I will have reached a third entry on.  I write about every film I see in full, and it’s not surprising that the brilliant Buster Keaton and the fantastic Sherlock Jr. would make for such repeat viewing.  I had first seen it in a literature class on DVD and then a couple of years later at the Castro Theatre, along with a live accompaniment.

This time around it played at the Castro as part of the Silent Film Festival’s winter event, sadly the only film I got to catch that day.  And this time, I took the kids and their mom and her boyfriend, the latter two having not actually been exposed to Keaton before at all and the most latter who had not even been to the Castro before.  Much like the last outing to the Castro for a Keaton film, Our Hospitality (1923) with new initiates, a good time was had by all.

And, you know, how could one not have a good time?

Felix and Clara love Buster Keaton, and even at their young ages, having to read intertitles to them and explain certain anachronisms or complex story changes, they are as caught up, laughing, and awed by his cleverness, his timing, his stunts, and sight gags.  We spent the next half hour or so, talking through the best scenes, the most impressive stunts, and the sheer fun of the damn thing.

They played another Keaton short beforehand, a very good one called The Goat (1921), which I think we’d watched on DVD when we had rented some of the Keaton shorts.  We’ve really watched a lot together.  We’ve watched The General (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Go West (1925), The Cameraman (1928), Our Hospitality (1923) and now Sherlock Jr. As well as some of Keaton’s shorts and some of the work that he did with Fatty Arbuckle.  And yes, I am bragging a bit.

I had forgotten that the scene in which Keaton falls with a huge pipe from a watering basin onto a train track that he had sustained the worst injury of his career.  Apparently he didn’t realize it for some years, but he had fractured his neck, which led him to have migraines for the rest of his life.  With knowledge of this, in watching the scene, you can see his distress and disorientation are real.

Keaton is a master, a joy.  And this film, which is interesting on numerous levels, is also just plain fun to watch and enjoy.

Our Hospitality

Our Hospitality (1923) movie poster

(1923) dir. John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton
viewed: 02/14/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

There was a special winter Valentine’s Day Silent Film Festival at the Castro and I made the most of it.  Three films was a bit of an endurance run, especially with a lot of outward travel wrapped around it, but the opportunity to take the kids to see Buster Keaton on the big screen was just plain not to be missed.  Unfortunately Felix had a conflict, having to do some karate testing to earn a stripe for his belt, but Clara was availble and the family from upstairs, both girls and their folks, plus my ex-in-laws, come from England for a visit, we had quite the little crowd for the event.

It was quite something, lots of young kids and families and people.  I mean, it’s Buster Keaton!  He’s the man.  The most amazing and wonderful silent film comedian/writer/director/actor/auteur.  And, you know what?  Fun was had by ALL!  I mean it.  Coming out of the film at the end, the joy and smiles on everyone’s faces were as fresh and pure as one could imagine, the true and genuine response to such masterful, wonderful, fantastic stuff.

And this is not even Keaton’s best!

Our Hospitality is the first of Keaton’s feature films to be created and conceived as a feature film, the story of a dilletantish fellow from the North, who inherits a family estate (such as it is) and a historical feud (of the Hatfield and McCoy variety) that had pushed his widowed mother from the South in the first place.  It’s also the setting for a Romeo and Juliet-like romance between Keaton and “the girl” that he meets on the “train”-ride down, who happens to be the descendent of the opposing family.

The main story takes place in that Keaton ends up in the warring family’s house as a guest of the girl, but the family has sworn to kill him to settle the blood feud…only they can’t shoot him, out of Southern hospitality while he is a guest in their house.  They just need to wait for him to go outside.  Thus is the setting for many of the gags, with Keaton finally aware of his predicament and trying to stay indoors.

The two main other sequences that are the prime pieces of the film are the train ride down in the very old fashioned train and the amazing waterfall rescue that sets the finale.  The old fashioned train is a working model of Stephenson’s Rocket, a hilarious steam-driven train that is far closer to the carriages of the Old West than a proper train, a true missing link in the evolution of transit.  The discomfort of traveling by this means and the rickety qualities of the train are the setting for a series of a number of gags, exacerbated by the tracks built for the job, making ride more twisty and bumpy than necessary.  And it does sort of lead the way for the work that will be one of his true masterpieces, The General (1927).

But the totally amazing stunt, the waterfall rescue at the end, is just one of those great cinematic moments.  Clara was sitting on my lap so that I could whisper the intertitles to her, and when Keaton swoops over, tied to a rope and snags the girl from the boat just as it is about to go over the waterfall, is just pure physical genius.  Clara sponaneously started clapping and cheering the stunt, the heroics, the wonder.  It was awesome in the most pure and wonderful ways.

Keaton is a true cinema god.  Wonderful beyond words.

The Cameraman

The Cameraman (1928) movie poster

(1928) dir. Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
viewed: 01/30/08

Buster Keaton.  The whole house of kids cheers for Buster Keaton!

The Cameraman was our latest foray into the world of Buster Keaton, though we are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day showing of Our Hospitality (1923) at the Castro Theatre.  The kids totally dig Buster.  And this movie did not disappoint.  The Cameraman is considered Keaton at his best, though it was the first of the films that he made at MGM, a move that would ultimately stifle his creativity and artistic control.  But this film has great pluck and aplomb, and even a monkey (the kids LOVED the monkey).

The story has Keaton as a tintype photographer, falling in love with a beautiful clerk who works in the newsreel office at MGM.  Inspired by her, he strives to learn the process of shooting film, capturing action, and getting both the job and the girl.  Within the photographic process, cranking the handle of the camera, Keaton learns the hard way about double-exposures and shooting both backwards and forward.  I believe that the self-reflexivity regarding the filmmaking process to be played out here is charming itself.

Along the way, Keaton gets involved in shooting a Tong War that breaks out at a Chinese New Year parade, with lots of guns and knives and other action.  Keaton also ends up adopting an organ grinder’s monkey who he accidentally “kills” and is forced to purchase.  The monkey ends up saving the day by photographing the dramatic moment when Keaton saves the girl from drowning.  There is also another great sequence in a swimming pool.

One thing that is interesting, after watching a bunch of Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle films with the kids a couple of weeks ago, is the New York setting for the action.  Using Coney Island, Manhattan, and other locations certainly adds to the picture.  One of the best scenes in the movie is when Keaton runs across several blocks of Manhattan to see his girl on their first date.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  It’s been such a blast watching these films with the kids and their enjoyment of Keaton and silent film has been absolutely pure, unadulterated pleasure.  I, myself, am thoroughly enjoying the films, but watching them with the kids is just something far more wonderful.  Their bursts of laughter, their total excitement.  It’s more than palpable.  It’s totally infectious.  And Keaton is king!

Go West

Go West (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. Buster Keaton
viewed: 06/14/08

Back by popular demand, Buster Keaton.

Actually, I watched this film with my son and the girl upstairs, who is about 6 months older than him.  I am sure that even in San Francisco, I had the unique reaction from a 6 and a 7 year old when I told them: “Guess what I brought?  Buster Keaton” received by hoopla and hoorays as if I’d just said “ice cream”.

It’s been a particular joy to discover these films for myself with them.  I read the subtitles and occasionally explain some historical anachronisms and narrative points, but Felix and Samantha spend the film just dying with laughter.

Go West is very funny, though not Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) funny, it’s as inventive and surprising and clever as anything really.  A down-on-his-luck fellow named “Friendless” departs the East Coast for the West, inspired by Horace Greeley’s notable recommendation, “Go West, young man.”  Friendless’s adventures via rail car to the dessert and the world of cowboys plays quite a bit on some of the conventions of the genre, but also gets some of its most humorous moments from simple gags that Keaton poses, sitting waiting for a cow to make itself milk.  There are some big stunts and lots of hilarious gags, but the big ending results in Keaton leading a cattle drive through downtown Los Angeles, ultimately in a devil suit (so the cattle will chase him clad in the color red).  It’s good stuff.

I tell you, if you are even thinking you might, you should see these films.  You will not regret it.  And if you have kids of about this age…well, the world is your oyster.