From foppish Bostonian to maritime Mississippian hero

Lea of Silent-ology is hosting her fourth annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, a yearly celebration of all things Buster. Click on the button for more information and a list of participants and their themes.

This year, I decided to do Steamboat Bill, Jr., my favoritest of Buster’s features.

Released 12 May 1928, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Buster’s final film as an independent. Due to its financial failure, Buster had to stop making films for United Artists and move to MGM. He never enjoyed this much creative control ever again.

The title comes from “Steamboat Bill,” a popular Arthur Collins song from 1911. Collins was known as The King of Ragtime Singers. In turn, the film inspired Mickey Mouse’s début cartoon, Steamboat Willie.

In November, I’ll have a series in honor of Mickey’s 90th anniversary.

There’s a new steamship in Muddy Waters, King, owned by local bigwig J.J. King (Tom McGuire). The proud owner of the older steamship, Stonewall Jackson, is William Canfield (awesome character actor Ernest Torrence), nicknamed Steamboat Bill. Bill’s first and last mate is Tom Carter (Tom Lewis).

Everyone flocks to King, ignoring Stonewall Jackson. The arrogant King believes his floating palace will drive his rival’s junky ship out of business. Carter thinks it’s hopeless, but Bill swears he’ll run his boat even if he’s the only one on it.

Bill is thrilled when Carter gives him a telegram which arrived four days ago. He hasn’t seen Willie since he was a baby, and imagines Willie is now bigger than he is.

Shortly before Willie arrives, King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) also comes home from school.

Bill has a devil of a time finding Willie, since many men are wearing white carnations. There’s a bit of ethnic humor many people may now find dated, as two of the guys with white carnations are an African–American and a stereotypically bearded Jew.

Bill is far from thrilled when he realizes Willie is a short, slight, ukelele-playing fop with a pencil moustache and beret. He warns Carter, “If you say what you’re thinking I’ll strangle you!”

Bill insists upon a makeover for Willie, which starts with a trip to the barber to get the moustache shaved off. Who else should be in the chair across from Willie than Kitty, his sweetheart!

The next order of business is a hat shop, where Bill makes Willie try on a parade of hats to replace the beret. Willie is open to a new hat, but Bill doesn’t like any of the ones he does.

This part of the film reminds me a bit of Putting Pants on Philip (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s first official short as a team.

Bill then takes Willie to get working clothes for the boat. While Willie’s in the store, Bill steps on his ukelele.

From the jump, Willie proves himself to be hilariously inept at any and all boat-related tasks. He’s only interested in sneaking away to meet with Kitty.

King is just as displeased with Willie as Bill, and orders him off the boat unless he wants his neck wrung. As bemused as Bill is with his son, he dislikes his rival more, and realizes he and Willie have a common enemy.

A silver lining in Willie’s mismanagement of the boat is the resulting mayhem it wreaks upon King and his boat.

That night, Kitty sends Willie a message, asking him to meet her. Both fathers are adamantly opposed to their relationship, but Willie, determined to see Kitty, outsmarts Bill’s attempts to keep him on the boat.

In the morning, Bill gives Willie money and a ticket back to Boston. His day gets worse when he discovers Stonewall Jackson has been declared unsafe and condemned.

Bill gets into a fight with a newspaper salesman who agrees with the condemnation. After he throws a rock and breaks a window, a lot of people come running, and Bill is arrested.

Willie tries to smuggle him a loaf of bread with escape tools baked in, but the jailer discovers this scheme. A short-lived prison break follows, and then even more trouble begins, accompanied by a growing storm.

Regardless of all the obstacles, Willie remains determined to save the day and prove his worth.

Buster spent over $100,000 building the sets, and spent $25,000 more on the famous storm scene. The storm scene includes Buster’s most famous stunt, depicted above.

Had Buster not stood at exactly the right spot, he might’ve been killed or seriously injured. Buster named that as one of his greatest thrills.

In spite of the mixed reviews and box office failure, today the film is rightly regarded as a classic.

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Limelight at 65, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though Chaplin had become enormously unpopular in the U.S. by 1952, Limelight was nevertheless filmed by Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. Calvero’s street was a Paramount set; the music hall scenes came from RKO; and some outdoor scenes used back-projected London images.

Chaplin spent over two years writing an unpublished, 100,000-word novel, Footlights, in which he created the story that became Limelight. This book includes biographies of Calvero and Terry before the actual story begins.

Footlights contains episodes from Chaplin’s own life, and his parents’ lives. There are a number of strong parallels between Calvero and Charles, Sr., while Terry was strongly based upon Hannah Chaplin and Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love.

There are shades of Dante’s love for Beatrice in Chaplin’s love for Hetty, since they only met five times, and most of their meetings didn’t last longer than twenty minutes. Those brief encounters were enough to leave a strong, long-lasting impact.

When Claire Bloom rehearsed, Chaplin often recalled his mother’s and Hetty’s gestures and clothes.

In spite of all these strong parallels, Chaplin maintained the story was based upon U.S. blackface clown Frank Tinney and Spanish clown Marceline, both of whom he’d worked with as a boy.

Chaplin wanted very much to accurately recreate the London of his childhood. Towards this end, he hired Ukrainian-born designer Eugène Lourié, who decorated an RKO-Pathé theatre to look like London’s grand Empire Theatre. Lourié also remodelled a Paramount set to look like a Victorian-era London street.

Chaplin surrounded himself with his nearest and dearest during filming. His three oldest children from his fourth and final marriage, Geraldine, Michael, and Josephine, play the street children in the opening scene, while his second son from his second marriage, Sydney, plays secondary male lead Neville.

Chaplin’s younger halfbrother, Wheeler Dryden, plays Terry’s doctor, and his wife Oona doubles for Claire Bloom in two brief shots. His oldest son, Charles, Jr., plays a clown.

Sydney is on the far left

Chaplin was very happy and energetic during filming, due to having so many loved ones nearby and because the story gave him a chance to waltz down memory lane. At the time, he believed Limelight would be his final film.

Chaplin gave the role of Calvero’s former partner to Buster Keaton after learning about the hard times Buster had gone through. Though the role was rather small, Chaplin insisted on giving it to Buster. This was the only time they performed together on film.

According to rumour, Chaplin cut Buster’s scenes out of jealously at his superior performance, not wanting to be upstaged. In reality, Chaplin heavily edited the scene of their duet to elevate Buster. He also gave Buster free reign to do what he wanted, despite his notoriously rigid directorial style.

Buster was thrilled to be in this film. Since losing his MGM contract and having his career sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, he’d been reduced to mostly bit parts. Chaplin gave him the chance to shine like he deserved, even if it were only a secondary role near the end.

Sydney, who didn’t believe the rumours about his father cutting Buster’s scenes, said even if that had happened, it wouldn’t have made any sense for a secondary character to suddenly appear and upstage the protagonist by his own climactic comeback.

Chaplin composed all his own scores, with help from arrangers. He was relieved to be reassured by ballet partners Melissa Hayden (née Mildred Herman) (who doubled for Claire Bloom in dance scenes) and André Eglevsky that his music for the ballet could be choreographed.

In 1972, Chaplin, Larry Russell, and Raymond Rasch belatedly got an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score. This was Chaplin’s only competitive Oscar, as his previous two (1971 and 1928–29) were honorary. Chaplin was the only surviving awardee.

“Terry’s Theme” remains one of Chaplin’s most popular and belovèd compositions. As “Eternally,” with lyrics by Geoff Parsons and John Turner, it’s been covered multiple times.

Limelight was heavily boycotted in the U.S., and only made a million dollars. Outside of some East Coast cities, many theatres refused to play it. Chaplin was denied a re-entry visa to the U.S. while promoting the film in Britain.

In comparison, it was very successful in the rest of the world, and made seven million more dollars. Only in 1972 was it finally released properly in the U.S.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated its 60th anniversary with a screening, reception, and film panel by the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Claire Bloom and co-star Norman Lloyd shared their memories in a conversation moderated by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.

Today, the film is highly regarded as one of Chaplin’s greatest and most personal works.

Limelight at 65, Part I (General overview)

Today is my English birthday. My Hebrew birthday was the fifth day of Chanukah, 16–17 December. I’m older than I’d prefer to admit to, but still young enough to have a baby.

Released 16 October 1952, Limelight was Chaplin’s penultimate starring role, and is a beautiful summing-up of his life and career. While I’m glad he made A King in New York (1957), Limelight would’ve been a great swan song.

In summer 1914 London, has-been clown Calvero drunkenly struggles to open his building’s front door, while three kids (Chaplin’s real-life kids Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael) talk to him.

Inside, Calvero smells gas. He breaks down a door and finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) passed out, the stove open, a bottle in her hand. He sets her on the stairs and runs for a doctor (Chaplin’s halfbrother Wheeler Dryden), though doesn’t remember to turn off the gas.

Calvero and the doctor carry her upstairs to his room, where she regains consciousness. The doctor gives Calvero instructions on how to nurse her back to health. If she goes to hospital, she’ll be arrested for attempting suicide.

Calvero’s busybody landlady, Mrs. Alsop, sees the broken-down door, and decides not to let this woman back. She’s convinced this is a woman of ill repute. Mrs. Alsop is even more outraged when she discovers her in Calvero’s room.

Calvero says it’ll cause a scandal if word gets out she allows unmarried opposite-sex roommates, and rented to an attempted suicide. And for all anyone knows, they might be married.

Calvero then goes onstage, in very animated form. It ends in every performer’s worse nightmare, as he gazes out into an empty audience. It was all a dream.

That evening, Calvero and his guest finally get acquainted. The young lady introduces herself as Thereza Ambrose, called Terry. She’s a ballerina who’s all alone in the world, and deep in depression since having rheumatic fever. Calvero assures her she only has to pretend to be his wife in name, and that he’ll take good care of her as a platonic friend.

Calvero has another dream of performing onstage, this time with Terry. It ends in applause instead of an empty audience.

In the morning, Terry says she tried to get up, but collapsed. She’s convinced she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t want to bother with a doctor, for fear of wasting his time. Terry remains deep in depression, and doesn’t think she has any future.

Calvero says he was given up for dead six months ago, but now has a new outlook. He tries desperately to convince Terry life is worth living, and that someone her age should have more hope and desire for survival than someone his age.

He admits he lost contact with his audience as he got older, and thus became less funny. He turned to drink, had a heart attack, and almost died.

Calvero’s mood lifts when he gets a telegram from his agent. When they meet, the agent promises a week by the Middlesex Music Hall. If Calvero’s name is poison to the audience, he’ll use another one.

When Calvero comes home, he bumps into the doctor, who says he couldn’t find anything wrong with Terry. He believes her paralysis is all in her head. She either invented it or convinced herself she has it for some deep-seated psychological reason.

Trying to get to the bottom of things, Calvero talks to Terry about her past.

Terry says she was in love with a customer at her music shop, Mr. Neville (Chaplin’s son Sydney). She often gave him extra change and music sheets, and came to listen to his music.

Neville fell on hard times, and Terry got fired for giving him extra change.

Calvero urges Terry to find him and admit her feelings, spinning a beautiful, romantic story about their reunion, but that still isn’t enough. No matter what he says, she’s convinced her life is hopeless and that she’ll never dance again.

Calvero says life is just as inevitable as Death, if only she has courage and the will to use it.

Calvero says since he’s begun preaching and moralizing to her, he’s begun to believe it himself. His mood is on the upswing.

Calvero’s comeback performance isn’t a success. The only person who doesn’t walk out early is someone who’s sleeping. His contract is terminated.

This time, Terry is the optimistic one trying to cheer him up. While she lectures him, she realizes in jubilation she’s walking.

Six months later, Terry is dancing by the Empire Theatre, and uses her influence to get Calvero a position as a ballet clown. By this point, Mrs. Alsop’s attitude has completely turned around, and Calvero has gone back to drinking.

Neville plays the music by Terry’s audition for prima ballerina. Afterwards, Calvero says she’s a true artist, and Terry confesses her love. She asks him to marry her.

When Terry and Neville become friends, Calvero leaves, feeling they’re a much better match. He starts performing on the streets, while Terry goes from strength to strength in the ballet.

Terry tracks Calvero down and begs him to return to the stage. With his former partner (Buster Keaton), he gives a triumphant performance with a bittersweet, poignant ending.

I highly recommend this beautiful, personal film. The mature roles in his sound films wouldn’t have worked with the Tramp, but were perfect for who he grew into as an elder actor.

A King in New York at 60, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In 1957, Charles Chaplin and his family had left the U.S. for good and settled in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. His re-entry permit for the U.S. was revoked in 1952, and he didn’t try to return. His fourth and final wife, Oona, handled his remaining affairs, such as the sale of his studio and their Beverly Hills home.

Chaplin’s final professional ties to the U.S. were severed in 1955, when he sold the last of his United Artists stock. Given the personal and political attacks he’d weathered since at least 1942, and the widespread boycotts of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), he knew A King in New York wouldn’t be shown in the U.S. at all.

Chaplin no longer had the luxury of his own studio, all the time he wanted for filming and editing, or loyal employees. He now had to rent expensive, unfriendly studios by the minute and work with strangers. AKINY was wrapped in a record twelve weeks.

The rushed production really shows in the frequently improper lighting. Though Chaplin hired legendary cameraman Georges Périnal, there often wasn’t enough time to light the set properly before filming. Many of the shots are dark and shabby instead of crisp, focused, and light.

Chaplin always spent a lot of time editing his work to a high level of perfection, but this wasn’t possible now. As much as I love a good satire, I have to agree the film suffers from taking on way too many targets—plastic surgery, TV commercials, widescreen movies, popular music, celebrities, politics, materialism, the HUAC, social pretension.

Shows like American Dad and Family Guy can wear thin after awhile, since everything is up for lampooning, with not much treated seriously. Even a deliberately over the top satire needs to rein it in to avoid coming across as cartoonish and divorced from any semblance of the real world.

If the film had stuck to a few well-developed targets, instead of stuffing in everything but the kitchen sink, the satire would’ve been even stronger and funnier. The storyline with Rupert is so strong, so relevant both then and now (for different reasons). It would’ve been even better had it been introduced earlier.

A few other things could’ve been worked in as secondary targets, maybe TV commercials, materialism, and social pretension. It’s not that the film isn’t funny or brilliant, just that it’s trying to do way too much at once.

AKINY was filmed in London, in spite of the title. Chaplin didn’t return to the U.S. until 1972, when his reputation finally was rehabilitated. The London scenery and architecture don’t exactly suggest a true New York setting.

The role of 10-year-old Rupert, like that of little Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921), was crucial. At the last minute, Chaplin’s son Michael was chosen. Michael (now 71 years old) is Chaplin’s second child from his fourth and final marriage, and the fifth of his eleven total children.

At first, Charles and Oona wanted to keep Michael’s true identity secret through the pseudonym John Bolton, but Michael insisted upon using his real name. He plays Rupert brilliantly, and inspired debates by his parents in later years as to whether he or Jackie Coogan were the better actor.

Oona always argued in favor of her son’s performance.

AKINY generally got good reviews in Europe, where it did well commercially. Though it’s a social, political, cultural, and comedic study of 1950s America, the jokes and deeper themes are timeless. In some ways, the lack of an editor may have enhanced its appeal.

Sometimes an honest story with rough edges is more compelling than a polished and defanged one.

A King in New York at 60, Part I (General overview)

Released 12 September 1957, A King in New York was Chaplin’s final starring role, his swan song proper. The film wasn’t released in the U.S. till 8 March 1972, the same year he received an honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

While the film satirizes too many targets, instead of focusing on one or two things, it’s nonetheless a brilliant comedy. I think it might be my second-favorite of his talkies, after Monsieur Verdoux.

The film opens as a mob storms the palace of King Igor Shahdov of Estrovia (Chaplin), calling for his head. Their attempt at vigilante justice is denied, as he’s already escaped by air and taken everything with him.

After Shahdov lands in New York, he gives a press conference where he reveals he was overthrown because he wanted atomic energy for domestic use instead of bombs. He dreams of creating an atomic utopia.

On his first night out on the town, Shahdov is thrust headfirst into 1950s pop culture and current events. In a scene harkening back to his silent days, he has to mime what he and Ambassador Jaume want for dinner over the impossible noise of the house band behind them.

In the morning, Shahdov discovers Prime Minister Voudel has taken off to South America with all his funds and securities. Jaume wants to expose him as a thief and liar, but Shahdov realizes they have no legal claim without records. All the books and records were left behind in Estrovia when they fled.

Jaume reminds him he still has his atomic plans, but Shahdov says it’ll be difficult to finance blueprints. Shahdov doesn’t want word of this to get around, since he’d rather be thought of as a successful crook than destitute monarch.

Shahdov’s estranged wife Irene then comes for a visit. Though they’re divorcing, they have a very cordial relationship. Irene doesn’t even want alimony.

Shahdov eavesdrops on a woman next door (Dawn Addams), Ann Kay, singing in the bathtub, and comes to her rescue when she shouts for help. While he’s massaging Ann’s hurt ankle, he discovers she’s attending a dinner party he begged off. His smittenness makes him change his mind.

Unbeknownst to Shahdov, this dinner party is being televised live. Between Ann’s deodorant and toothpaste commercials, Shahdov is talked into reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The public is quite impressed with Shahdov’s performance, and he’s asked to do TV commercials. Angry and feeling tricked, he turns down all the offers, and even rips up a check.

Shahdov digs through the garbage for the check after realizing what dire straits he’s in. He also accepts an invitation to speak at a progressive school (think Montessori or Waldorf).

By the school, Shahdov meets 10-year-old Rupert Macabee (Chaplin’s son Michael), editor of the school paper. He’s very advanced for his age, and gives Shahdov quite the lecture.

The visit to the school ends in humiliation for Shahdov.

Since he’s so deep in the hole, Shahdov accepts $50,000 to act in a whiskey commercial. The ad is a smash hit, and leads to many more ads with large payouts.

Ann convinces Shahdov to have a facelift to increase his appeal and salary, but no one is happy with the results. To try to cheer him up, Ann takes him to see a slapstick comedy show. This scene too harkens back to Chaplin’s silent roots.

Shahdov’s new face comes undone when he’s laughing, and he has to have his old face restored.

Shahdov runs into Rupert without a coat in the snow, and invites him to his hotel room. Rupert admits he ran away from school because his parents were arrested for being Communists.

Shahdov’s friendship with Rupert lands him in lots of trouble. There are chilling parallels to the real-life activities of the HUAC.

I highly recommend this if you’re interested in Chaplin’s later years. Whatever you might think of his politics or personal life, there’s no denying he was a genius.