Posted by David Kalat on July 30, 2016
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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