Buster’s silent swan song

Lea of Silentology is hosting her fifth annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, a celebration of all things Buster (features, shorts, comedic art, news stories, the whole kitten caboodle). Click on the button above for links to this year’s entries.

My subject this year is Spite Marriage, Buster’s last silent and second MGM film, released 6 April 1929. Though Buster wanted this to be his first talkie, relying less on dialogue than sound effects, MGM only let him use a synchronized musical score and sound effects. (Buster hated the sound effects he ended up with.) Apart from that bit of studio interference, this was the final film Buster had any creative control over.

Elmer Gantry (Buster) is a dry cleaner hopelessly smitten with stage actor Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). Her pictures are plastered all over his wall at work, and Elmer has a front row seat at all her shows.

Unluckily for Elmer, Trilby’s dating her co-star Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle), who in turn is cheating on her with Ethyl Norcrosse (Leila Hyams).

Elmer’s luck starts turning around when an undercover cop shows up looking for one of the actors. Since he’s seen the show (David Belasco’s Heart of Maryland) 35 times, he assures the actor he can take his place onstage. The guilty party then escapes through the window.

While Elmer puts on a false beard, Trilby confronts Lionel about his cheating ways, and brags she’s got a millionaire (Elmer) sending her flowers.

Naturally, nothing goes right from the moment Elmer begins getting into costume. Trilby’s manager Nussbaum is more and more horrorstruck at Elmer’s hilariously incompetent antics, and demands someone shoot him. The audience will think it’s part of the show.

The audience is in hysterics over Elmer’s performance. This serious Civil War drama has been transformed into a comedy.

Elmer falls into the orchestra pit as he flees from Nussbaum, then finds his way to another escape route with a window. He changes clothes and pulls off his beard just in time to fool Nussbaum and his associates.

Trilby is heartbroken when Ethyl tells her she and Lionel are announcing their engagement that night. When she runs across Elmer, she proposes to him, and declares they’ll marry that night.

After their unhappy, unconsummated wedding night, Elmer and Trilby go to speakeasy La Bohème, where Lionel and Ethyl have also gone. Trilby spends most of the night longingly looking at Lionel and drinking.

Full of alcohol, Trilby goes to confront Lionel and Ethyl, and has to be hauled back to her table. Elmer has to help her back into her shoes and wrap, and walk her out of the club, up the stairs, and back to their room.

The putting the drunken bride to bed scene is one of the film’s most famous. Buster reused this scene in a number of his later films and live shows, some of them with his third and final wife Eleanor.

In the morning, Nussbaum advises Trilby to leave this poor pants-presser for the sake of her public reputation. She agrees, and Elmer learns the news when he goes to deliver her a stuffed dog. Outside the hotel, Lionel tells him the real reason Trilby married him.

Elmer ends up in a taxi with gangster Scarzi, who’s on the run from the cops, and then on a boat with Scarzi and his gang. He escapes onto a private yacht, where he’s put to work as a member of the crew. As expected, he’s hilariously incompetent at this.

Who should also be on the yacht but Trilby and Lionel! Things go from bad to worse when Elmer accidentally worsens a fire in the engine room.

Everyone flees while Elmer puts out the fire. Everyone, that is, except Trilby, who passed out in the hall after Lionel abandoned her.

Things get even more complicated when the gangsters get on the yacht.

MGM’s hit film Show People, released November 1928, is referenced in a poster for fictional film Peggy Pepper Fires of Desire. Peggy Pepper is the name of Marion Davies’s character.

Buster loved the name Elmer, frequently giving it to both his characters and his dogs. In this film, Elmer Gantry comes from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel of the same name, about a conman.

The film was originally 90 minutes, and the opening scene of Elmer and Trilby on a bridle path is all that survives of a much longer scene of Elmer trying and failing to ride a horse.

The names Lionel, Ethyl, and Drew come from the famous siblings Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, and their mother Georgiana Drew.

Dorothy Sebastian (whom the unhappily married Buster was having an affair with) is much different than Buster’s previous leading ladies. Instead of serving as a passive prop, she takes an active, full role in the story and helps him with saving the day.

Though Spite Marriage isn’t always considered one of Buster’s best silents, I’ve always loved it, and highly recommend it.

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A simple story of a simple mouse

NOTE: All images are used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of a film review and historical background, and as such are consistent with Fair Use Doctrine.

Released 18 November 1928, Steamboat Willie was Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s official début. They’d both appeared in silent cartoon Plane Crazy, released 15 May 1928, but it failed to find a distributor after its screening. Another pre-stardom, silent, unreleased cartoon was The Gallopin’ Gaucho, in August 1928. Due to Steamboat Willie‘s success, both cartoons were remade with sound and released 30 December 1928 (The Gallopin’ Gaucho) and 17 March 1929 (Plane Crazy).

Steamboat Willie was Disney’s very first cartoon with synchronized sound, and the first cartoon with a fully post-production soundtrack. Its title is an obvious spoof of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Walt Disney did all the voices (unintelligible though they may be).

Mickey is steering a steamship when the giant, mean captain, Pete, creeps up behind him and yanks him away from the wheel. Naturally, Mickey is quite upset. When Pete tries to kick him, he runs down the stairs, slips on soap, and lands in a bucket of water. Smarting with humiliation, Mickey throws the bucket at a laughing parrot.

Back at the wheel, Pete (who’s been watching Mickey’s antics) takes a bite of chewing tobacco and spits it into the wind.  It flies backwards and rings the bell. Hoping it’ll happen again, Pete spits a second time, only to get hit in the face.

The steamboat stops by Podunk Landing for livestock, where Mickey attempts to milk a very skinny cow. When he feeds her hay, she instantly becomes plump.

Minnie comes running up alongside the boat just before it sets back off, but doesn’t make it in time. Mickey uses the same hook he used for the livestock to bring Minnie aboard. On deck, Minnie accidentally drops sheet music and a guitar, which are promptly eaten by a goat.

In a gag many modern viewers might’ve guessed would happen, Mickey and Minnie use the goat as a musical instrument, in this case a cranked phonograph. Mickey also uses various objects and animals on the boat as instruments.

Pete has had enough of Mickey’s hijinks, and throws him at a potato bin. (I love how Mickey peels the potatoes left-handed!) The parrot from earlier reappears, and Mickey throws a potato at him, knocking him into the water.

The film was produced from July–September 1928, at an estimated budget of $4,986 ($72,675, or £57,414, in today’s money). An unfinished version had a test-screening on 29 July, with live music and sound effects. The audience (Disney employees and their wives) sat in a room adjoining Walt Disney’s office, with the film projector outside. The film was projected through a window.

The audience loved it, which was all the incentive needed to finish the film. Walt Disney decided to use the Cinephone sound-on-film system.

Steamboat Willie premièred by NYC’s Universal’s Colony Theatre (now Broadway Theatre, on 1681 Broadway), and initially ran for two weeks. It was one of the shorts played before the part-talkie feature Gang War (starring Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother; Olive Borden; and awesome character actor Walter Long). Walt Disney was paid $500 a week.

Critics and the general public alike loved the cartoon, which led to nationwide theatrical release and Mickey’s first two cartoons being redone with sound and publicly released.

The film has been referenced, featured, spoofed, or paid homage to in countless films, TV shows, cartoons, and video games over the years. In 1998, it was inducted into the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

When novelty matters more than quality

Released 6 July 1928, Lights of New York is the first true all-talking feature film. While there were some prior features with synchronized soundtracks, sound effects, and short dialogue sequences, never before had a feature been able to take advantage of the new sound-on-film technology for an entire film filled with all of the above. However, as with many other early talkies, explanatory intertitles are sprinkled throughout.

Bootleggers Jake Jackson (Walter Percival) and Dan Dickson (Jere Delaney) are very anxious to return to New York and get out of the little town they’ve been hiding out in. They’re running out of money, and want the opportunities which come with the big city.

They’re thrilled to discover their barber friend Gene (Eugene Palette) is going to New York tomorrow. Gene’s young friend Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis), son of the hotelier (Mary Carr), is also eager to go to the big city. Though his mother is very reticent to loan him money and let him leave, she finally sends him off with her blessing. She makes him promise he won’t fail or lose the money.

After the four friends arrive in New York with $5,000 from Mrs. Morgan’s savings, Gene and Eddie start their barbershop, only to discover Jake and Dan are using it as a front for a speakeasy. Gene and Eddie are disgusted by this business, and decide to return home as soon as they break even and can repay Mrs. Morgan.

Kitty Morgan (Helene Costello), Eddie’s girlfriend, arrived in New York ahead of him to work in a nightclub, The Night Hawk. She’s very uncomfortable with her boss, Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), and wants to quit. Eddie reassures her there’s nothing to worry about with Hawk, since he’s got his own girlfriend. He also gives her a gun to protect herself.

Hawk, who controls Jake and Dan’s speakeasy, is very worried about his business being shut down after a bootlegging raid ends in a cop’s death, and orders Jake and Dan to find someone to take the fall for the crime. Predictably, they suggest Eddie.

After Jake and Dan refuse to do it themselves, Hawk says he’ll take care of setting up Eddie. He also warns them to get out of town.

Hawk calls Eddie to his office and says he just got a tip that he might be raided by feds. Until the situation blows over, Hawk asks Eddie to hide his supply of Old Century liquor. Eddie immediately, cordially agrees.

Between acts, Hawk strongly suggests Kitty dump that sap Eddie, and reminds her she owes her career to him. After Kitty leaves, Hawk’s girlfriend Molly Thompson (Gladys Brockwell) tells him to lay the hell off Kitty, and takes him to task for all his other odious actions.

Two detectives come to speak with Hawk about the cop’s murder, convinced he knows something. Hawk denies all knowledge, and the cops say until they solve the case, they’re closing every speakeasy. The search of his office turns up nothing, but the detectives press on for information.

Hawk tells them to come to the barbershop at 10:00, and he might show them something interesting. Kitty of course overhears this, and phones Eddie to warn him. Meanwhile, Hawk summons Jake and Dan to his office to discuss what they’re going to do.

And then everything starts hitting the fan.

Lights of New York had a budget of $23,000, and earned $1,252,000 ($18,248,988, or £14,407,576, in 2017). Originally, it was planned as a two-reeler, with a $12,000 budget. Warner Brothers hadn’t yet committed to an all-talking feature, but with bosses Jack and Harry Warner abroad, the crew gradually expanded the plot more and more.

Louis Halper, who’d been left in charge, wired Jack for the extra money. Jack wasn’t very pleased to learn four additional reels had been shot, and told director Bryan Foy to turn the film back into a two-reeler. Foy believed this initial refusal stemmed from the Warners’ plans to make their first all-talking feature more prestigious.

Foy screened the film for an exhibitor friend, who was so impressed he immediately offered to buy it for $25,000. In response, Jack and Harry asked their brother Albert to watch it.

Albert loved the film, which convinced Jack and Harry to release it.

Critics weren’t wild about the film. Disregarding the technological marvel of an all-sound feature, the acting, plot, direction, and production are pretty bad. As with many very early talkies, people flocked to see it not because it was quality cinema, but because it was an exciting novelty.

Hollywood sends up Hollywood

Released 20 November 1928, Show People is widely considered Marion Davies’s best film. It’s also notable for having about two dozen celebrity cameos, such as Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Karl Dane, Elinor Glyn, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Eleanor Boardman. Another thing it’s known for is being one of the greatest silents still not on DVD.

Marion Davies was a wonderfully talented actor, esp. in light comedies, despite the ugly, persistent myth she only got into films because of her powerful lover William Randolph Hearst. His mismanagement of her career hurt her, such as how he tried to force her into costume dramas instead of the light comedies she excelled so much at.

Peggy Pepper is driven to Hollywood from Georgia by her father, Col. Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper, to prove herself as a great actor. She’s overcome with shocked delight to realise she’s really arrived in Hollywood. Her first celebrity sighting is John Gilbert.

Col. Pepper drives her to a studio and asks to see the president of the company. He’s directed to the casting office, where he and Peggy are asked to produce photos. All they have are very old photos, so Peggy is asked to demonstrate various moods, such as anger, sorrow, and joy.

Peggy and her dad have just 40 cents, which only buys crackers in the dining hall. Billy Boone (William Haines), a slapstick actor, joins their table uninvited, and tells Col. Pepper his “Southern makeup looks very Indiana.”

Peggy is very insulted by his antics, still believing she’s about to become a great actor and is so much better than all these other people. She says her acting is “the talk of all Savannah,” and that she’s got several offers in Hollywood. Billy promises to help her to break in.

Billy gets her an audition at his Comet Studio, which Peggy believes produces dramatic pictures. Trouble starts immediately, as she first disrupts a filming in progress, and then walks across another set.

Peggy gives a serious, dramatic performance to show Billy’s boss how good she is, and is quite unpleasantly surprised to find herself in a slapstick film. She lashes out by throwing a pie in one of the actors’ faces, and rages about how her clothes were sprayed with seltzer.

Peggy laments she came there to do drama, and asks why Billy didn’t warn her. He tries to cheer her up by saying all the greats had to start somewhere, and that many of them began with comedies. Billy also says success means work, and urges her to think about the first big thrill she’ll get when she sees herself on the big screen.

The director liked Peggy’s performance so much, he insists she do another take, and signs her up to star in another slapstick picture. The theatregoers love her work, but she’s despondent. The film that starts after hers is John Gilbert’s Bardelys the Magnificent, the kind of “real” acting she insists she’s going to do someday.

One of Peggy’s new fans asks for her autograph afterwards. Only after he leaves does Billy reveal that was Charlie Chaplin. She also encounters the casting director for High Arts Studio, who asks for an audition.

Peggy is worried he only wants to see Billy, but Billy reassures her he won’t accept a deal unless the director wants Peggy too. The receptionist dashes his hopes by saying the director only wants Peggy.

Before she goes to her audition, Peggy tells Billy she won’t accept a deal unless he’s signed up too. However, the director doesn’t have anything for Billy, and says maybe next year there’ll be something.

Peggy is both glad and sad to leave Comet Studio and her new friends, esp. Billy. As badly as she wanted to break into “real” acting, she’ll miss everyone so much, and can’t bring the person responsible for her success.

Will Peggy achieve stardom like she’s always dreamt of, and what will become of her relationship with Billy?

Wind, wind, incessant wind

Released 23 November 1928, The Wind is widely considered one of the greatest of all silents. It’s also one of the silents most famously not on DVD, in spite of its incredible reputation. The Wind was based on Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel of the same name.

In the 1880s, Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) leaves Virginia for her (male) cousin Beverly’s Texas ranch, Sweet Water. On the train, she makes the acquaintance of cattle rancher Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love, who frequently played villains), who tries to scare her away from this land of neverending winds and isolation. Wirt claims the wind often drives people, esp. women, crazy.

Letty is met by Beverly’s closest neighbours, Lige Hightower (Swedish import Lars Hanson) and Sourdough, who live fifteen miles away. After a difficult journey full of wind and sandstorms, Letty finally arrives, and is joyously met by her cousin Beverly.

Beverly’s wife Cora isn’t very pleased to have a new addition to their household, and is even more displeased when her kids immediately warm to Letty.

Some time afterwards, at a party, Sourdough tells Cora he’s going to propose to Letty that night. Lige breaks in and says he’s going to do it. In response, Sourdough challenges him to shoot a wooden owl on the wall. Since they both shoot equally well, they decide to ask together.

An incoming cyclone forces everyone into a storm cellar, where Wirt professes his love and begs Letty to come away with him. When the party resumes, he tells her to think it over, and that he’ll be in town till tomorrow.

Lige and Sourdough get Letty alone and propose. She doesn’t think they’re serious, but Cora feels very differently. She demands Letty leave Beverly alone, in spite of the fact that they were raised by Letty’s mother as siblings.

With no money or home, Letty decides to marry Wirt, but there’s a catch—he’s already married, and wants her as his mistress. Cora drives her away and demands she marry one of the other two.

Letty chooses Lige, whom she feels absolutely no passion for. Under the influence of alcohol, Lige becomes more brutish and insistent. Letty says he’s made her hate him, when she didn’t want to hate him. Lige says he thought she married him because she loved him and wanted to be his full wife.

Lige promises he’ll never touch her again, and will try to earn enough money to send her back to Virginia.

Letty encounters a group of cattlemen on their way to a meeting, to see what can be done to save the people from starvation. She begs Lige to take her with him, since she’ll go insane alone with the wind.

When Letty is unable to control her horse in the intense windstorm, Lige has her get behind him on his horse. She later falls off, and Lige orders Sourdough to take her home.

Lige’s party returns with an injured Wirt. With nowhere else to go, he stays in Lige and Letty’s house.

Letty is terrified of being alone with him, and denies the wind has made her crazy. She pretends she likes it. Wirt tries to tempt her with descriptions of how lush and beautiful Virginia is this time of year, but Letty stands firm. So terrified of Wirt is she, she runs right into Lige’s arms for safety.

Lige conscripts Wirt into participating in a roundup of wild horses. This is Lige’s one big chance to get money to send Letty home to Virginia. Once again, Letty is left alone with the wind.

And then, in the thick of a fierce windstorm, Wirt returns alone.

The Wind was both panned and praised by critics, coming as it did during that difficult transitional period away from silents and towards fully sound pictures. It suffered a net loss of $87,000 in the U.S., though it fared much better in Europe. Today, the film is considered a classic.

Both Lillian Gish and director Victor Seastrom (né Sjöström) were quite displeased with the ending, though, contrary to popular myth, neither written nor filmed proof exists of an alternate ending that was replaced.

Lillian Gish was an absolutely incredible actor, one of the greatest of the silent era. She communicated so much emotion without saying a word.