Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball – Together on TV in 1965

The following is my second of two contributions to The Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology on Feb. 18 & 19, 2019. Click on the above image, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of this silent-film comedy master!

(Above is one of several lovely paintings that artist Julia Hutchinson has contributed to this blogathon. Check out more of her colorful artwork at www.juliahut.com.)

As is well-documented elsewhere, Buster Keaton, who had been a huge money-maker for M-G-M studios in the early 1930’s, had his personal life upended through various circumstances. By the 1940’s, he was back at M-G-M, but only as a generic gag writer at $100 a week.

Between gag-writing calls, Keaton holed up in the office of Edward Sedgwick (above, far right), Keaton’s former M-G-M director who was now similarly regarded as “incurably old-fashioned.” Joining them was supporting actress and ingenue Lucille Ball, whom the studio regarded as “washed up” at the time.

Under Keaton’s mechanical guidance, the trio created elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like contraptions to perform simple activities. Their most notorious creation was a machine to raise the window blinds in Sedgwick’s office. Not only did it raise the blinds, but at the end of its mission, it played “Hail to the Chief” while a photo of M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer shot up from behind the sofa. The humorless Mayer finally came to see the machine in action and then ordered it dismantled the next day.

Two decades later, things had changed immensely. By then, Ball had achieved TV immortality with “I Love Lucy” and was in the midst of starring in its top-10-rated follow-up, “The Lucy Show.” Sedgwick had died in 1953 after only a few sparse directorial jobs (one of them being an episode of “I Love Lucy” shortly before his passing). But by this time, Keaton’s career had a memorable third act; he had found voluminous TV and movie work, and his silent film classics had been reissued, to the joy of a new generation of fans.

When Keaton’s friend and comedy peer Stan Laurel died in February of 1965, another friend of Laurel’s, a professional photographer named Gene Lester, got the idea of presenting a TV tribute to Laurel. When Dick Van Dyke — yet another friend of Laurel’s who, like Ball, was currently starring in a legendary sitcom — agreed to host the show, the idea took off — and then eventually crashed, for all of America to see.

CBS aired “A Salute to Stan Laurel” on Nov. 23, 1965. Unfortunately, by the time it got to the airwaves, Lester’s modestly intended tribute to Laurel & Hardy fans had transmogrified to an all-star variety special that had slightly less to do with Stan Laurel than I did. A great number of celebrities were commandeered into performing on the show (much to the later regret of many of them). Two of those stars were Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball.

The entire special is available for viewing elsewhere on the Internet, but if you can make it through the whole thing, you have a stronger constitution than I have. Happily, Keaton and Ball’s sketch, on its own terms, is an enjoyable little gem of pantomime.

The sketch appears to be a version of a routine that Buster performed with his wife Eleanor on previous TV appearances. (Brief clips of Eleanor doing the sketch with Buster can be found in the marvelous documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.)

Some other trivia regarding the sketch: Harvey Korman, famed second banana for Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, and Mel Brooks, plays the irate cop. And the unfolding-newspaper gag is taken from the first solo movie that Keaton ever filmed, The High Sign (1921).

Here is the sketch for you to enjoy (introduced by Van Dyke).

Sources:

Keaton (book), Rudi Blesh. 1967, Secker & Warburg, London.

News from ME (blog), Mark Evanier. 2017, https://www.newsfromme.com/2017/06/26/todays-video-link-2510/

(If you enjoyed this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, my review of Keaton’s feature film Seven Chances.)

Buster Keaton in SEVEN CHANCES (1925) – Funny in spite of itself

The following is my first of two entries in The Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology on Feb. 18-19, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of this silent-film comedy master!

(Above is one of several lovely paintings that artist Julia Hutchinson has contributed to this blogathon. Check out more of her colorful artwork at www.juliahut.com.)

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Based on a popular Broadway play, Buster Keaton had Seven Chances foisted upon him by his brother-in-law and producer Joe Schenck. Keaton never liked farce, and he always regarded Seven Chances as the worst of his 1920’s movies. But there are far unfunnier things in the world than Seven Chances.

For one thing, Keaton, who usually worked in a vacuum where getting laughs was concerned, here had a couple of co-stars who were amusing in their own right. The story is that rich man Jimmy Shannon (Keaton) is facing financial ruin, and he and his partner (T. Roy Barnes) are doing their best to evade a lawyer (Snitz Edwards) who is stalking them. The lawyer finally tracks them down and gives them the great news that Jimmy is to inherit $7 million from a late relative. But there’s a catch: Jimmy must be married by 7:00 p.m. on his twenty-seventh birthday – which, it happens, is that very day – or he must forfeit the inheritance.

Barnes and Edwards are perfect matches for Keaton comedically. In particular, Edwards, a prune-faced silent-movie veteran, adds much laughter to the proceedings. Also, the movie’s laughs rely on title cards far more than in any other Keaton movie, but funny they are. At one point, Jimmy has inquired with numerous women at his country club, and all of them have turned down his abrupt marriage proposal. Jimmy turns to his partner and (via inter-title) asks, “Who bats next?”

Keaton also adds some interesting directorial touches. When Jimmy drives to his potential fiancee’s house and then drives back home defeated, we never actually see him driving the car; instead, the movie fades from Jimmy’s car sitting in his own driveway to showing the car sitting in front of the girl’s house, and then back again. Seen in retrospect, Keaton might have conjured up this bit of editing due to his boredom with the rest of the movie; nevertheless, it makes for an interesting, attention-getting visual.

The movie’s one unfortunate aspect is the “laughs” that it derives at the expense of African-Americans. To give just two examples: Jimmy is walking down the street when he sees a potential “bride” walking ahead of him. He catches up with her and starts to chat with her, but then he sees that she is black and quickly jaunts ahead of her. Also, there is a black man who is given a message by Jimmy’s erstwhile girlfriend Mary and is told to rush the message to Jimmy; the movie keeps cutting back to the man to show him leisurely sauntering to Jimmy on a horse, Stepin Fetchit-style. There is the lame excuse that such “black humor” was the norm in the ’20s, but it does nothing to endear Keaton to African-Americans today.

The movie’s famous climax shows hundreds of Amazonian brides giving chase to Jimmy through the city streets. The climax is part of Keaton folklore, in that the never-ending chase was a dud until it got Keaton some unexpected laughs from a preview. Keaton and his crew re-ran the movie and noticed Jimmy getting “chased” by some pebbles as he runs downhill. Keaton ordered 1,500 papier-mache boulders of various sizes to be built and then re-filmed the ending with Jimmy dodging the various rocks. Seen today, the chase is funny enough on its own, but the boulders certainly punch up the joke. (George Lucas later paid homage to this scene in Star Wars – Episode I, when inept Jar-Jar Binks dislodges some lethal orbs from a cart and then runs away in fear of them.)

If nothing else, Seven Chances shows that Keaton could take even generic Broadway material and stamp it with his personal style. For simply mining laughs, it stands as one of Keaton’s funniest movies.

Bachelor

(Footnote: In one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, Seven Chances was remade three-quarters of a century later as The Bachelor [1999], starring Chris O’Donnell as the rich boy, Renee Zellweger as the jilted girlfriend, and Hal Holbrook as the rich man’s lawyer trying to pimp his own daughter to the potential millionaire. It only proved that nobody could do Keaton’s kind of material but Keaton.)

(If you enjoyed this blogathon entry, click here to read my second entry, about Keaton and Lucille Ball appearing together on TV in 1965.)