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I Did It My Way (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Buster Keaton’s Doughboys)

So, gentle readers, this is my farewell. I started writing for TCM’s website ten years ago; I joined the Movie Morlocks six years ago. Since my debut here in the fall of 2010 I’ve posted over 300 blog posts. Between the Morlocks posts and my work on the website, I’ve contributed significantly more than 500,000 words—the equivalent of something like 6 full-length books.

It has been a phenomenal experience. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to share the stage with my fellow Morlocks—an extraordinary collection of worldclass film writers—and speak to such an engaged, knowledgeable audience. It’s been a blast. But I’ve chosen to resign from TCM so I can spend more time yelling at the raccoons in my neighborhood. Raccoons have got to be an atheist’s best argument for evolution—what Intelligent Deisgner worth his salt would deliberately invent hyper-intelligent trash-eating scavengers with thumbs? And really, if after 500,000 words I haven’t totally exhausted everything I could possibly have to say about classic movies, you’ve got to agree I’ve certainly long ago run out of useful or interesting things to say.

In the spirit of going out as I came in, I’m going to take my final post as an excuse to once again bang the drum in favor of an unloved, underappreciated gem by a slapstick clown. My first post was about Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races, and today I’ll go down swinging in favor of Buster Keaton’s MGM talkie Doughboys. Yes. Seriously. Come on, click the fold to keep reading –this will be our last time together, let’s make it special!

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Doughboys was Buster’s second talkie feature for MGM, after Free and Easy. It’s set in the same WWI-era muddy trenches as Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms… or Harry Langdon’s Soldier Man, or Syd Chaplin’s Better ‘Ole… it was something of a right-of-passage, just like doing a comedy set in a college.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Keaton’s talkie features at MGM get compared to his and other’s silent-era slapstick and are generally found wanting. The received wisdom on Keaton’s MGM talkies is that they are leaden, unfunny, poorly made, and overpowered by Jimmy Durante.

My argument against that has generally been that it doesn’t make sense to grieve that Keaton’s talkies aren’t in the same style as his silent, when you can instead celebrate them for what they are. And the best of Keaton’s talkies (The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily, Parlor Bedroom and Bath) are charming early-30’s dialogue comedies that just happen to also star one of America’s greatest comedy legends. They might misuse his talents, but that doesn’t mean those films don’t have their own merits.

 

But Doughboys positions itself more than any of the others as a slapstick romp in the silent mode, but with a soundtrack added. We have to approach it differently. It is without question the closest in tone to his silent-era classics.

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It is, for one thing, far more handsomely appointed than any of the other Keaton MGM talkies. Those films, like so many comedies, are generally flatly-lit and photographed in medium shot so as to minimize the technical work and maximize the time the comedians do their thing. Cinematographer Leonard Smith however carves the screen with shadows here in a way that rivals any of Keaton’s silent films.

And within this richly photographed frame, Keaton gets several silent-worthy slapstick set pieces. His routine being forcibly undressed at the army recruitment office was one he reused later in his Columbia work—it’s always a good sign when Keaton felt strongly enough about a bit to return to it. My person favorite however is the scene in which Buster convinces his drill sergeant that he’s an MP, and chases the sergeant back to barracks. The key to this scene is the effortless way Buster modulates his speed—increasing the pace of the chase steadily until it hits its breaking point, and then stopping suddenly.

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The film also features an extended play-within-a-play, as the troop puts on a tremendously amateurish variety show. This sort of thing was a Keaton trademark, and similar scenes occur throughout his filmography—finding it here is like finding the artist’s signature.

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For all this, Doughboys is also, pointedly, a dialogue-era comedy feature with a variety of approaches to using sound. There is a charming impromptu jazz performance, for example.

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Buster himself gets a few choice punchlines, including a deadpan discussion of murder methods: “How do you feel about throwing him under a train?”

For those of you who hate Jimmy Durante’s presence in Keaton’s talkies, don’t worry, he’s not in this one—but you can see the wheels in turning in MGM’s collective heads to bring Durante in. They’re obviously realized that Keaton’s slow drawl is not particularly well-equipped to fire off snappy one-liners, so they decided to pair him off with a co-star to carry that half of the show. In this case, the sidekick role is fulfilled by Cliff Edwards, a ukulele-playing vaudevillian whose distinctive voice would later be immortalized in countless cartoons (he was, among others, the voice of Jiminy Cricket).

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Unlike Durante, though, Edwards happily occupies the second fiddle role, and never tries to eclipse Keaton—he’s just a friend, there to help his buddy Elmer through a rough patch.

The overall setup is reminiscent of The General meets The Navigator: a rich boy whose wealth has left him largely unaware of how the world works gets roped into combat to impress a girl.

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Legendary writer Al Boasberg (whose work with the Marx Brothers would soon be the stuff of legend) wrote Doughboys with a clever twist: instead of having Buster Keaton play a misfit soldier in a fish-out-water wartime comedy, he made Keaton one misfit among many. The entire platoon is stocked with weirdos and losers, of which he’s potentially the most competent. This enables Keaton to play a bumbling, head-in-the-clouds character throughout while still earning genuine victories—he doesn’t have to change who he is to win in the end. And by backing him up with so many supporting characters with comedy bits of their own, the filmmakers hedged their bets about what would be entertaining.

This is not my favorite MGM–I’m on record as preferring The Passionate Plumber, which has a zippy energy and is unfairly underrated by Keaton fans who have a prejudice against anything with Durante in it). But for people who don’t share my oddball proclivities, this is possibly the best choice to show off the merits of the MGM talkies.

And that, as they say, is that. Thanks y’all—see you in the funny papers!

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18 Responses I Did It My Way (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Buster Keaton’s Doughboys)
Posted By Jeffrey Ford : July 30, 2016 5:17 am

Sorry to see you go, Mr. Kalat. You will be missed. Thanks for the great articles and arguments.

Posted By Maurice Saylor : July 30, 2016 11:12 am

I suppose all good things must come to an end, David. I love the way your brain works. I trust you will continue writing piecemeal as occasions arise. At least I sure hope so. In the meanwhile, perhaps it’s time to collect your 500,000 words into a few published volumes.

Posted By Doug : July 30, 2016 12:45 pm

Thank you for your service, Mr. Kalat. I’ve enjoyed your work, and good luck with the raccoons. Consider throwing food scraps into your neighbor’s yard.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) : July 30, 2016 12:52 pm

You sold me. You often have.

Posted By BillC : July 30, 2016 3:07 pm

Sorry to see you go, David. You were my favorite columnist here and probably my favorite for film commentary tracks as well.

Posted By Hannu Björkbacka : July 30, 2016 3:13 pm

Dear David;
Thanks for this, which brings to mind the many Keaton MGM DVDs I could only get from you – Doughboys especially!
And the fine book on the Mabuse series with your dedication “I have only one lord and master – Dr. Mabuse!”
And of course the glorious Ulmer DVDs from you All Day Entertainment.

Looking forward to your next adventure!

~(;^)~ Hannu
Kokkola
Finland

Posted By Jazzmonkie : July 30, 2016 3:27 pm

I agree with BillC.

Posted By Nick : July 30, 2016 5:06 pm

Sorry to see you go. I’ve been a fan since buying 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse from AllDayEntertainment years ago. Looked forward to this column every Saturday.
All the best

Posted By EricJ : July 30, 2016 6:25 pm

That’s the problem with having a MGM network that can only show the Keaton talkies, all of the true Keaton classics are owned by Kino, and they don’t have a network.
But at least they’re still on streaming.

Posted By George : July 30, 2016 7:56 pm

Also sorry to see you go, David.

Keaton’s MGM talkiesgot a bad rap for decades — Keaton himself denounced them as trash, and since they were rarely shown on TV or in revival theaters, nobody contradicted that view. Then TCM began and we could finally see them.

The MGM talkies are not as good as Keaton’s silent classics, but they’re watchable and all have funny moments. The only one I find hard to watch is WHAT, NO BEER?, and that’s because Keaton’s alcoholism shows on his face and in his shaky movements. DOUBHBOYS is certainly worth seeing.

Posted By Anthony Balducci : July 31, 2016 2:19 am

It’s sad to say goodbye, David. I have long admired your work on this site. Your weekly insights into film,especially those insights to be found in your reflections on comedy films, will be greatly missed.

Posted By Dan Oliver : August 1, 2016 2:36 am

Adios, David. Very sorry to see you go. I’ve enjoyed your posts, your books, and your commentary tracks. Looking forward to more of the latter two in the future. Best of luck to you.

Posted By LD : August 1, 2016 10:34 am

Thank you for all the information you have shared in your posts and I especially would like to thank you for your commentary on Criterion’s release of GODZILLA. Good luck with the raccoons!

Posted By Leslie Claussen : August 1, 2016 8:59 pm

I will very much miss reading your posts each Saturday. I hope this means you will have more time to create supremely masterful dvd commentaries. I wish you all the best, David Kalat.

Posted By Qalice : August 1, 2016 9:40 pm

Bon voyage! I’ll miss your formidable scholarship and the joy you take in it.

Posted By swac44 : August 2, 2016 1:07 pm

I’ve also been a DK fan since the early days of All-Day Entertainment (you may even have some of my DVD reviews in your press clipping files), and it was a delight to see your writing surface here. I was hoping maybe MM could get a couple dozen more Japanese monster movie columns out of you, but dem’s da breaks.

I just visited a stirring museum exhibit about the sacrifice of the Royal Newfoundlanders at Gallipoli and the Battle of the Somme yesterday, I’ll throw on my laserdisc of Doughboys in tribute this week, and try and equate the horrors of the First World War with the antics of Buster and Ukulele Ike. I’m sure I’ll still be able to get a few laughs out of it.

Posted By Rob Farr : August 6, 2016 10:32 am

Lucky squirrels, unlucky us. You had a great run David. Hope to read/hear/see you in some future classic movie venue.

Posted By robbushblog : August 8, 2016 3:44 pm

Yet again we Morlock readers are in mourning for losing a great writer to some other pursuit. I hate to see you go. Your depth of knowledge on silent films, especially silent comedies, plus your natural writing abilities are/were a joy, while also being extremely informative. I wish you well on your quest to defend the cans against those cute, masked bandits.

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