Judy Garland loves The Pirate (1948): A Garland Blogathon

Anyone who personally knows me will tell you that I am a sucker for pirate movies. Obviously, it is the “romantic notion” of a pirate that I enjoy and not the criminal element of real piracy that still exists today. The idea of a noble pirate like Sir Frances Drake, who historically was “the greatest sea dog” of all time, sailing around the world on The Golden Hind to escape capture by Phillip II of Spain is an exciting tale.  Just think of it, Drake was the first Englishman to circumvent the globe in order to keep the gold “booty” he stole from the Spanish king…classically, awesome. Drake aka el Draque (The Dragon) was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and participated in the naval battle to stop the invasion of the Spanish Armada.  To the English he was a hero; to the Spanish he was a criminal. This is history; however, in the world of the arts our “Bad Boys” can do and be anything we so choose, even being chased by a crocodile with a clock in its belly.

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Basically, the romanticized idea of a  pirate or privateer is a talented captain who is much like a “James Bond,” but sailing the seas and not driving an Aston Martin. In reality, some of them secretly worked for a government or group of investors.  The fantastical captains were strategically brilliant, expert sword fighters, charmingly witty, loved music and the spirits (Ho, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum), had a lusty libido, and were fearless in face of danger.

From movies of all genres (dramas, comedies, horror, and musicals…) and even in Disney theme parks, the pirate is a common sight. So, when I was invited to pay tribute to the beautiful and glamorous Judy Garland, I immediately chose her pirate movie.  This post is part of a Blogathon celebrating the work of Judy Garland.  It is graciously hosted by Crystal from In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2017/06/08/the-judy-garland-blogathon-has-now-arrived/

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Since, I admit to my pirate weaknesses, I should acknowledge that I am also a fan of television series Once Upon a Time.  Of course, I am happy Emma Snow (the savior) played beautifully by Jennifer Morrison fell in love with Captain Hook played by devilish handsome Colin O’Donoghue. Who could resist?

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Whatever the influence from history, movies, books, or location, pirates are part of the general population’s psyche.  Now, what does this have to do with a post about Judy Garland’s The Pirate?  Well it explains how I could fall (Hook, line and sinker) for the storyline of this MGM, 1948 musical. Although this film was a bust, it lost over two million dollars at the box office, I feel it had the potential to be a great movie.  Okay, given it is not a great movie, it is still enjoyable and has some of the greatest dance and song scenes ever recorded.

There is a myriad of reasons why movies fail.  For instance, a movie like Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971) is an example of a movie that failed at the box office: but, later not only becomes a children favorite, but a cult classic, and later a successful remake in 2005 with Johnny Depp.  Although the The Pirate (1948) is unforgivably underrated, it is enjoyable and  entertaining. This film not only stars the multi-talented actress and singing star, Judy Garland; but, also the versatile Gene Kelly. In addition, it showcases an energetic dance number by the amazing Nicholas Brothers; luscious music by the suave Cole Porter; and, all of this delivered under the artful direction of Vicente Minnelli (married to Garland at the time).

So, how did this movie become underrated?  

Part of the reason is because two dance and song scenes were cut from the movie for different reasons.  With these cuts, it left gaps that gave the audiences at the time a sense that something was missing.  Plus, this was released only three years after World War II.  Although Spain was a neutral country, it was still a fascist country under Franco.  The Cold War, and the House Committee of  Un-American Activities were beginning to rear their ugly heads.  Many American audiences were more than cautious about being influenced by what they perceived as propaganda. This is one explanation out of many that explains why this musical failed so miserly at the box office.

Another reason, some say it failed was a result of the music.  Some believe the Cole Porter Tunes didn’t match the story.  I personally do not feel that way.  It is true, there is not a heavy influence of Spanish rhythms or beats in the music to enhance the setting in the Spanish Caribbean Port of San Sebastian.  However, the emotional lyrics matched the story very well.  And, let’s face it, Garland could sing the words off a traffic ticket and people would swoon. There is one thing Cole Porter did that might have hurt this movie.  He agreed to write the music if he could name the pirate after a friend, Macoco. The name sounds like a special hot drink at Starbucks. Latte, anyone? You could find a better pirate name from the following list:

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If I could change anything, it would be the character development of the two main leads. Serafin’s character (Gene Kelly) trying to “sell the life of a traveling troupe” to Manuela’s character (Judy Garland) has an sound of untruthfulness or Con job. An actors life should have sounded as romantic as the life of a pirate. Plus, he speaks so quickly, he sounds too smug to be charming. Manuela is a nobleman’s daughter.  The romantic side of her character should have been developed more. Manuela’s final decision of what to do with the rest of her life should not have been so obvious.  The dilemma of choosing happiness over her family, reputation, duty and money is not an easy one to make. Yes, I did find the script to be lacking.  There were six writers involved in this project.  Only two of them were credited. So, another reason the movie might have failed could have been a simple matter of ” too many writers” spoiling the script.

Manuela Dreams of Life With The Black Macoco

Manuela (Judy Garland) is a young woman who has just come of age. Her aunt Inez (Gladys Cooper) has just told her that an arranged marriage has been negotiated on her behalf with the mayor of the city, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak).  Manuela learns of her newly betrothed just after she describes, (romantically sings “Mack The Black” to her lady friends.  When Judy Garland sings, you are in her world of possibilities.  No one interprets a song like she does.  She sings of “Mac’s” (Macoco) bravery; his heroic acts of fighting; and, his treasure and gold. She dreams of her pirate, the Black Macoco, falling desperately in love with her and sailing away with her to see the world.

Manuela is well aware that her aunt and uncle took her in as an orphan with no diary of her own to attract husbands. The mayor is a self made man who is at least 20 some years her senior.  She feels beholden to their care in taking care of her.  Plus, it isn’t so so bad since the Mayor is rich and is a world traveler.  Angela’s dream of seeing the world could come true.  During a meeting is set up between her and the mayor, he assures her that although he is not cultured, he has seen the world and will tell her all about it.  He has no wish to travel again because he  cannot bear the sea.  Instead, he enjoys just staying home since it is quite, peaceful and safe. Then, Manuela is told the mayor is paying for her new wardrobe.  To seal the deal, he gives her a beautiful bejeweled extremely expensive engagement ring.

Crushed, Manuela begs her aunt to allow her to take 30 minutes by herself to look at the sea wall.  They are in town to meet with the dressmaker who is making alterations to her new wardrobe from a famous Paris fashion House, Maison Worth.  Just one last  trip to the sea by herself, she begs.  At least then she could see some corner of their world on an adventure. The aunt nervously grants her that wish.  It is near the sea wall that she meets a touring actor, Serafin (Gene Kelly).  He falls instantly in love with Manuela.  How do we know? Because, he calls every woman he meets “Nina.”  It saves him the trouble of remembering their names.

There is a great song and dance that Kelly does as he sings about all the town Ninas. During his dance routine he uses carnival poles. This might be the first pole dancing performed on screen.  After a brief meeting with Manuela, he begs her to give him her name. She informs him that she will soon be married; and, he tells her that she must not marry a “pumpkin.”  Before, she leaves, he invites her to his performance later that evening.  Before the show begins,  Sarafin sees her in the audience and decides to hypothesize her as part of his act.  But, what he really wants to do is plant the idea that she might love him.

While under hypnoses and  to his surprise, she reveals her infatuation with the notorious pirate. She sings about the Black Macoco.  This is one of the song and dance routines taken out of the picture.  It is known as the Voodoo scene.  When Louis B. Meyer saw the clip of this song and dance, he became enraged and demanded all the negatives of it be destroyed. The recording of the song survived. Someone took some movie clips and pictures of the revised scene with Judy singing Mack the Black again but at a much faster tempo.   This video is on YouTube; but,  I added that link below.  The beginning of this song is kind of creepy.

https://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=WKhytfI1UKg

The Tale of Two Scenes (Dance and Song) Cuts: Too Much Sex or Too Much Diversity

Eventually, Serafin borrows Macoco’s identity in his pursuit of Menuela. There is a lot of fun here before Manuela has her revenge for his deception.  Serafin is so convincing in his act, the mayor has him arrested as Macoco. It is during his trial that one of the best dance scenes in the history of film was cut out of the movie, Be A Clown. Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers are incredible in this unbelievable routine. It was cut out of the film before it could be showed in Southern cities.  This was a time of law enforced segregation.  It was the first time a white and black men were filmed dancing together. Eerily, there is a part of the routine where they dance to close to the gallows and see three nooses hanging.  All three of them cringe and quickly dance away as part of a joke.  Unfortunately,  after the Northern cities saw the film, the Nicholas Brothers were blackballed and could not find work in Hollywood. So, they left the continent to find work in Europe.  They would return in 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This great dance routine can be seen in the DVD version.  Hereit is to view it now.  It is not to be missed.

Not to spoil the surprise ending, Garland and Kelly will sing and dance this song again, dressed as clowns. Four years later, the song Be a Clown will be plagiarized by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed for another Kelly film, Singing In The Rain. They changed the title to Make em Laugh. Kelly did not sing the song in that movie, Donald O’Connor did. Cole Porter did not legally make a claim that the  song was used without his permission.

https://www.bing.com/search?q=be+a+clown+garland&form=EDGTCT&qs=PF&cvid=7f80993c1d3c4473a334e8398af45e26&cc=US&setlang=en-US

Final Thought

Despite the problems with the script and the cut and piece editing of the dance scenes, I still enjoyed this Garland movie. Personally, I am happy that she had the opportunity to share her romanticized pirate in one of her  movies.  Honestly, regardless of the movie, Garland and Kelly are simply a joy to watch and listen to.  This was the second of four projects planned for Garland and Kelly.  The first was For Me and My Gal (1942), The Pirate (1948), Easter Parade (1948) and Summer Stock (1950).  Kelly broke his ankle during the filming of Easter Parade and was replaced by Fred Astaire.     

What is truly amazing is that Garland, the consummate performer, could make this look and sound so good, especially  when you learn that she smoked four packs of cigarettes a day during the filming of this movie; and, she was also not at her best mentally or physically.  She missed 99 days out of the 135 filming days for illnesses.  It was during the filming of this movie that she received psychiatric treatment that was paid for by the studio. This was a first for any studio because they usually dock expenses out of their actors’ pay.

Like all Garland fans, I wish her life could have been better because she really deserved it. Who knows what may have happened if she went to nursing school and had a different life. What I do know is that she was so amazingly talented that even today, when we  hear her sing, watch one of her movies or listen to her interviews, we feel warm inside because she has made a special place in our hearts. With that said, here is a clip gym from the film, For Me And My Gal.  Garland and Kelly are shinning bright and at the top of their game as they “Show ’em.”

 

This post is part of a Blogathon celebrating the work of Judy Garland.  It is graciously hosted by Krystal from In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  To read more posts on the work of Judy Garland, please use the link below.

https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2017/06/08/the-judy-garland-blogathon-has-now-arrived/

 

SOURCES:

http://www.notablebiographies.com/Fi-Gi/Garland-Judy.html

Link list of historical Pirates:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pirates

 

 

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Goin’ South with Jack Nicholson

There are only a few Western comedies that I like:  I enjoy Mel Brooks Blazzing  Saddles (1987) with Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little and Paleface (1955) with Bob Hope and Jane Russell.

However, neither of these have an authentic Western feel to them. Which is one of the reasons why Goin’ South (1988) with Jack Nicholson and Mary Steenburgen has been added to my personal Best List.  This movie has all the standard elements that is in a Western Hollywood movie: cowboys, outlaws, a posse, bar room fights,  saloon gals, shoot outs, rail road building, bank foreclosures, Mexicans and Indians, romance, jealous suitors, love for a horse ( named Speed), etc…. Even with all the Hollywood fanfare, Goin’ South has more.

This movie has  some historical content within its sense of time and place.  The time is during the late 1860s – 1870s and the place is a Texan town, near Mexican border. One of the reasons that it seems so realistic is due to the filming location.  Along with some film history, the location used was in  Durango, Mexico.  This was John Wayne’s favorite filming location. The town is basically the same  set Wayne used for the movie Chisum (1970). They only changed some colors and signs.

Another aspect of the authenticity of this film is the historical background of the character, Henry Moon.  He once rode with the infamous Quantrill’s Raiders who became an embarrassment to the Confederate government during the Civil War (1861 – 1865).  The Raiders followed the command of William Quantrill who basically did what ever he wanted to do.  Under his command, they perfected the use of guerilla warfare successfully against Northern Union troops. However, when Quantrill led a retaliation raid against Northern sympathizers, and massacred 180 civilian men and boys, the Confederate government decommissioned Quantrill (1863).  Eventually, Quantrill loses control of his men (known as Bushwhackers); and, they  split up into smaller bands of outlaws.

From one of these groups, a smaller group of outlaw gangs emerges. It is the infamous gang is known as the  James – Younger Gang (Jesse and Frank James’ gang).  To many Southern people, these outlaws were heroes still fighting the war against the corrupted North and their carpetbaggers ( unscrupulous opportunists). This is one of the reasons they were able to elude the law.  Many southern home welcomed these outlaws and hid them too.

Henry Moon wanted to ride with the Younger Gang; but they didn’t think Moon was cunning enough to keep up with their criminal standards. They were probably right.  Henry decided to  start his own outlaw gang of thieves, the Moon Gang.  Hollywood has given these Raiders much attention over the years.  Here are just a few, who rode with Quantrill on film.

 

Another historical bit of authenticity in this movie, is the town ordinance.  It is now estimated that over 750,000 men were killed during the Civil War. In the 11 Southern states that fought the war, it created a shortage of eligible marrying men. To help the womenfolks and the procreation of the Southern population, some towns had a special ordinance to save a man (not for a murder) from execution. Some people might have preferred the rope when compared to the idea of marrying. Henry Moon was not one of those people.

Nicholson Directs and Stars

This is Jack Nicholson’s second film as Director and his first, of two films, with him as a leading man and director. This project was not planned this way.  Nicholson only wanted to Direct this film. Fortunately, things didn’t work out as planned.  I cannot imagine anyone else playing the role of Henry Lloyd Moon (horse thief) as brilliantly as Nicholson.  This performance is pure Jack, TNT.  There is a lot of manic energy and fun when Moon makes himself act a fool just for the fun of it.  He can also be crass and appalling while at the same time make you laugh so hard that tears appear in the corner of your eyes.  Nicholson’s performance comes across like a shot of whisky: a bit strong at first, then soothes to a delightful perfection.

One the best decisions Nicholson made as a director is making sure that Mary Steenburgen received the female lead in his film.  As a working waitress and trying to break into show business, she auditioned for the part of Julia Tate.  While waiting in the casting office, she briefly met Nicholson.  He  gave her one page to read.  That page grew to many pages of reading; until, three hours later, she was hired.  This film is her debut appearance in a major motion picture.

The Plot

Henry Moon is a criminal about to be hanged as a horse thief.  In the old west, there was nothing as low as a horse thief.  As a matter of fact, some people thought hanging was too good for them.  However, after the Civil War (1860 – 1864), there is shortage of men.  In some western towns, there was a town Ordinance that allowed a property-owning woman to save a man from being hanged provided they got married.  Once married, the redeemed man was required to stay on probation for the rest of his natural life.  Meaning, he must never break the law.  This includes no alcohol consumption, no beating his wife, no gambling, or running away. For some, this would probably be a true test to their character. For Henry Moon, this was “down right” impossible.

The movie begins with a posse chasing Moon on his trusty steed, Speed.  They race over a dusty Texan terrain.  Moon is trying to reach the Rio Grande; so, he can cross over into Mexico. Texan law men cannot arrest him there.  Moon is barely ahead of them as he and Speed continue to swim/walk/run across a small section of the river. Once on the other side, Speed exhaustively falls down. Moon is excitedly jumps around and screams like a maniac: We made it. You can’t touch me.  The law men continue their pursuit and ride through the river.  They promptly rope the running Henry Moon to the ground and arrest him and his horse.

While awaiting his execution, Moon isn’t aware of the town ordnance for saving a condemned man (as long as he is not a murderer). So, when groups of ladies come in to “get a gander” of him, Moon is verbally abusive to them.  He said he felt like a caged animal on display.  Besides being on exhibit, Henry only visitors is his outlaw gang.  He was hoping for them to break him out of jail.  Sadly, they were not up to saving poor old Moon.  They just came to say goodbye and  see if he had anything that he wanted to give to them before he left this earth.  Moon’s gang is composed of one woman, Hermine, (Victoria Cartwright) and three men: Hog (Danny DeVito), Big Abe (Jeff Morris) and Coogan (Tracey Walter).  DeVito would later direct Nicholson in Hoffa (1992).

Sheriff Andrew Kyle (Richard Bradford), lets Moon know it is time for him to go and proceeds to explain the town ordinance to him too.  Moon realizes too late that is the reason all those women coming in to have a look at him.  After all the insults the town’s women endured by Moon, most of them wanted to see him hang.

The first time Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen) sees Henry Moon, he is standing on a Scaffold with a thick rope around his neck and his hands tied behind his back.  He is begging for any women to take him and save his life.  Two saloon girls, sitting in chairs are watching the hanging event from the end of the street. One remarks to the other one:  This one is pretty stupid.  He is sure to hang.

There is one fragile, elderly widow, Frances, who is moved by Henry’s pleas. She claims him for her own. The Sheriff reminds her that she is a “mite elderly” to be a bride. Frances does care because “he was a veteran of the war; and, he deserved a second chance.” Henry is so elated that after the rope is removed from around his neck, he jumps down and gives her a cuddle.  She is so overwhelmed; her heart stops beating; and, she kneels over dead.

Video clip of elderly Florence savings Moon from a hanging

As they are dragging poor old disappointed Moon back up to the scaffold, soft-spoken, Julia claims him for marriage. Everyone is in shock.  The Sheriff asks her several times if she drunk.  Deputy Sheriff Towfield (Christopher Lloyd) is in unbelief because he has begged Julia to go out with him for a date; and she refuses. Don’t worry about Lloyd getting the girl because he does later in the film Back to the Future III  (1990) as the Professor falls in love with the schoolmarm (Steenburgen).

Mary Steenburgen’s  is totally convincing as the shy, refined and secretive Julia.  Julia Tate is a young lady who sees her marriage to Moon as a marriage of convenience for a business transaction, only.  She is no more attracted to Moon than she was to the Deputy Sheriff Towfield. In other words, the marriage is a sham, not real.

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The wedding ceremony
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The Newlyweds and their neighbors

Once the couple is married, Julia wastes no time in letting Henry know why she married him.  She needed him as a laborer to work her secret mine.  They only had 30 days before the bank foreclosed on her property.  At the same time, the government was taking her land under Eminent Domain law; since, they needed to build a railroad through the property too.  So, she had to put up with a noisy land surveyor from the railroads while she was trying to keep her gold mine a secret.

As Julia is explaining all of this to Henry, he knows all too well how all of this is going to work out.  He asks her if her recently deceased father believed there was gold in this secret mine.  Julia tells him that her father did not “believe enough.”  Henry says, “Sounds like he was the brains in the family.”

As if the two don’t have enough problems, the neighbors come over to welcome Henry and to advise the newly weds on what married people do best. Little do they know that this newlywed couple have no plans to consummate their marriage.  One lady even goes as far as telling Julia if she is uncomfortable during copulation: Just think of canning peaches. Moon is very disappointed when he finds out Julia does not want to can peaches with him.  To add more stress to Henry’s unfulfilled desires about his bride, he discovers that she was a virgin too.  Not since the African Queen (1951), has there been such an unlikely romantic pairing as Henry Moon and Julia Tate.

So, as they work the mine, hating each other and sometimes, really liking each other, they discover gold.  Now, this is a business partnership Moon can really get behind.  They work as fast as they can and decide to take some of the gold to town to lock up in a box at the bank.  Just like vultures who smell dead meat so does Moon’s old gang smell gold.  They make a surprise visit bringing gifts of alcohol.  Non-drinking Julia gets drunk and lets it slip about the gold.  Henry, being Henry, makes a deal to betray Julia behind her back.  But, he soon realizes he has fallen in love.  The question is does she love him? And for that, I hope you watch the movie for yourself to find out.

Christopher Lloyd is his usual quirky, funny self.  Unfortunately, John Belushi is not. I hate to say it because I really like Belushi’ s work.; but, his talents were wasted in this movie.  His character was underdeveloped; and, he used a  stereotypical Mexican accent which is not funny to me.  He had just completed Animal House the same year as this movie.  Although he was a well-known comedian on television’s Saturday Night Live (1975) he was not a film star yet. Goin’ South was he second movie; and, it was released after Animal House was released.

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Some Behind the Scenes Drama

Apparently, Nicholson and Belushi constantly clash on set.  It must have been difficult for both of them.  When Belushi was asked how he liked working with Nicholson the Director, he said: In the end, Jack treated me like shit on Goin’ South.  I hate him. When Nicholson was asked what he thought of the director, he said: The Director of this film is one selfish demanding egomaniac.  And the leading man isn’t much better. 

In truth, Nicolson treated his cast as extended family on set.  According to the producers of the movie, Belushi had a “short fuse” and was constantly fighting with them. When they did not give in to his petty demands, he sulked.  The more his sulked; the less his role became.  This is unfortunate because it would have been interesting to see what his totally engaged talents would have done in the final outcome of this movie.

When Christopher Lloyd was attended a Back to The Future Convention in 2016, he was asked which movie did he have the most fun making.  He said, Goin’ South; and, he wished more people knew about it.  That is “one fun little movie.” I couldn’t agree more Mr. Lloyd.

Happy 80th Birthday Mr. Nicholson, this  April 22, 2017.  This is part of a Jack’s 80th Birthday Blogathon hosed by Gill at Realweegiemidget.  Thank you Gill for such a lovely invite to your Blogathon.  I hope you, the reader,  will want to read more posts about  other Nicholson films.  I almost did this blog on “The Last Detail” (1973) which is my number one Nicholson movie.  So, I am really looking forward to reading  the blogs at this site. Just click on the link below to find more about this amazingly, gifted actor and Director and his work.

https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/

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References:

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/4597/Goin-South/articles.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077621/trivia?ref_=tt_ql_2

http://www.binghamton.edu/history/docs/Hacker-Hilde-Jones_Civil%20War.pdf

 

A Funny Thing Happen: Buster Keaton

 

Why Do We Still Remember Buster Keaton?

Even though it has been 100 years since Buster Keaton started making movies, his film shorts and movies keep collecting new fans every year. They have a timeless appeal to the human heart and funny bone.  It is with great honor, that I can contribute this post  to the celebration of one of the greatest film makers of all time.  If you love movies, Keaton movies are a must to watch. To learn more about him and his movies there are several posts to  read  thanks to Lea S from Silent-ology. She is hosting this Keaton Tribute.  You can find these posts on Keaton using the link below:

https://silentology.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/blogathon-update-the-third-annual-busterthon-is-almost-here/#more-27136

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Buster Keaton helped pioneer the movie and Television industry; however, he did so much more.  Besides acting,writing, directing, producing, choreographing and doing his own stunts,  he mentored and continues to influence comedians and film makers today. He started making movie shorts (around 22 gag minutes) at a time when most film was thought to be a collection of pictures, flickering quickly across a reel of film. Moving pictures or Flickers, as they were called at the turn of the 20th century, were a novelty past time for potential trill seekers, vaudeville gags or even a bit of pornography.

To explore and celebrate Keaton’s stage and film work, I wanted to look at some elements of his Genius, some historical basics about theater, his movement from one performing art to another, and finally his to his last movie: Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum.

Elements of Genius

Comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, and “Fatty” Arbuckle took the everyman (underdog) and bought him to heroic heights using their own brand of comedy.  While Chaplin made a homeless man heroic, Keaton made the working man a hero.  Keaton’s hero was a regular guy trying to do the right thing, personally and professionally; but, life kept throwing obstacles in his way which forced him to become extraordinary.  Keaton’s dead pan or stoic expression when facing these obstacles became part of his trademark. How philosophically Greek of him!  Stoicism is a Greek/Roman world view or belief: Regardless of what life throws at you, it is your fate; so, no whining or complaining allowed. Just accept it and move on with your life.  Keaton’s stoic expression earned him the title, Mr. Stone face.

While the muscles in his face may have been set to stone acceptance, his expressive and soulful eyes screamed a myriad of emotions. If the eyes are the Windows to the Soul, Keaton’s eyes gave his audiences a grand tour.  Revered actor, Spencer Tracey, claimed the best performance is found in no performance, just quite, subtle, pauses.  This is definitely one of the many elements to Keaton’s genius: timing, soulful eyes and stoicism. His signature look also included a “pork pie” hat that he would eventually have to make himself. Keaton said a comedian does funny things; a good comedian makes “things” funny.  That hat is one of those things.

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Some Art (stage comedy) 

Keaton was more than just an actor/comedian; he was a performer who understood the depth and history of his Art.  Just as philosophy (Stoicism) flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome; so did theater. According to the classics, there are two basic types of the human condition. These are considered divine or god-like: Sadness (includes ranges of loneliness, grief, loss, crying, and Tragedy), and Joy (includes ranges of elation, happiness, redemption, laughter, and Comedy). There is a rule for these two types; you cannot not have one without the other.  Remember the symbol for theater: the connected masks of two opposite expressions: One is laughter and the other is sorrow.  Some comedians have tried to define and explain comedy by using the expression, Tragedy Plus.  Comedian Sid Caesar explained it this way:

If you have no tragedy, you have no comedy.  Crying and laughing are the same emotion.  If you laugh too hard, you cry.  And vice versa.

The movie Forrest Grump is a perfect example of this: It is tragic story of a mentally challenged and physically disabled orphan boy  who is raised by a single mother who is willing do anything to help her son, and does.  His best friend  grows up being sexually abused by her father. She loves him too; but, as an adult cannot see pass his limitations.  He goes to college to play football and soon after is drafted in the Vietnam war where he finds himself, in jungle combat, holding  his only real friend in his arms as he dies of his wounds. Laughing yet?

Born and Nurtured in the Performing Arts

Buster Keaton parents worked the Vaudeville circuit.  They were literally “on the road” doing a show in Piqua, Kansas when Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895.

Vaudeville is a multi-act (usually around 12 different acts) variety stage show that was popular in the USA and Canada during the late 1890s and early 1900s.  Since it started with an all-male audience, it had an element of the obscenely comical. Many Vaudeville performers eventually migrated to the flickers/movies. Some were successful and many were not.

Keaton’s father had a business partner: The great magician, Harry Houdini.  They owned a traveling show: Mohawk Indian Medicine Show.  They performed their acts and sold a “medicine” on the side.  It was Houdini who witnessed 18 month old baby Keaton tumbled down a long flight of stairs; after the fall, the toddler stood up as if nothing happened.  Houdini said, referring to the fall, “that’s a Buster.”  Keaton loved to tell that story; so, the nickname stayed with him for the rest of his life.

 

Keaton’s Dad understood the power of a pratfall in physical comedy.  Besides, he must have believed that a family that clowns together, stays together.  It did not take long for the toddler to became part of the act at the age of 3 years old.  While being thrown into the stage screen or elsewhere, in a skit about a child being disciplined, Keaton’s Dad soon realized that a laughing baby was not as funny as a straight-faced baby.  So, Keaton learned to control the urge to smile or laugh while performing the “toss about.”

From Vaudeville To Silent Movies and Life

Due to his father’s alcoholism affecting their act, Keaton’s mother took him and left Vaudeville for New York City.   Keaton meets and befriends  “Fatty” Arbuckle who is under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Keaton is hired as his gag man (comedy writer) and eventually co-star. His first movie was The Butcher Boy.  By 1920, he had starred in 14 movie shorts with Arbuckle.

It is in silent movies that Keaton will precisely execute his hilarious stunts and surprising gags.  According to Keaton landing on his feet like a cat came natural to him.  He said you have to stay limp and break a fall with a hand or foot, if not, he would have been killed years ago. I have included a video link that highlight some of his most popular stunts. Any stunt he did with trains or grabbing and holding onto a moving vehicle mesmerize me.  Just remember, those stunts are done as you see them; so,  there were bruises and fractures involved.  He even broke his neck in a scene where tons of water fall on his head from a water tower.

Similar to one of Keaton’s movie plots, an obstacle interrupts the Young 22 year old’s life: World War I – The Great War. The last war to be fought by civilized man.  Or, so they believed.  Keaton served in the 40th Division in France.  Luckily the “Sunshine” Division delivered supplies to the troops.  It was a bit safer than fighting in ” No Man’s Land” between enemy trenches.  Nonetheless, it was still seriously dangerous work.  Keaton suffered an ear infection that left him with permanent partial hearing.

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Keaton’s Impact on Silent Movies  

So, Keaton is born in Vaudeville, eventually makes history in silent films, and goes on to influence early television and finally perform in “talkies” movies.  To understand what I mean by making history in Silent movies, I’ll use the words of two experts.  One is by Orsen Wells. Many film historians believe Wells made the greatest movie in film history: Citizen Kane.  Wells said, The General (1926), which Keaton directed and starred, was cinema’s highest achievement in comedy and perhaps the greatest film ever made.  This is high praise indeed; but, he isn’t the only one singing Keaton’s praises. Film Critic Roger Ebert went even further with his praise: Keaton is the “greatest actor-director in the history of Film.”  I totally agree with both gentleman.  By influence in television, I mean he done things like write gags for people like Red Skelton and the Marx Brothers or tutored and influenced people like Lucille Ball in comedic basics and timing.  Most film experts agree that out of all the films he made the following three are Keaton masterpieces. If you only watch three Keaton’s films, make sure you don’t miss these three: Sherlock Jr. (1925) / The General (1926) / The Cameraman (1928)

A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum (1966)

Keaton’s career spanned from 1898 and ended in 1966. Just a few months before his death (February 1, 1966), he was working on  Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum in Spain from September to November in 1965. It is based on a book by Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart.  Their book is based on a collection of Roman plays by Plautus.  However most of the book uses one play in particular, Pseudolus (192 A.D). The book evolved into a criticality acclaimed and long running Broadway musical.

It is important to note that many elements of an ancient Roman play evolved into the elements of a successful Vaudeville stage show.  Music is one of the main attractions for both types of stages.  As a matter of fact, Greek/Roman plays kept a chorus of singers on stage that sang  the actions or emotions throughout the play. Not surprisingly, the movie begins with the main character singing the praises of the show to the movie audience. The song, A Comedy Tonight, expresses the fun and surprises of people popping up in disguise, puns galore, mistaken identities, uniting lovers, outwitting adversaries, courtesans, music, some dancing, slamming doors, some transgender, and basically a giddy romp of daffiness. The music in the Broadway play and movie were brilliantly composed by Steven Sondheim. The movie is a combination of a Classic plot, vaudeville format, and  1960s views on equality and love.

Keaton’s character (Erronius) is a elder Roman senator.  Who is not only a bit blind and hard of hearing but also senile.  He has been away looking for his children who were kidnapped by pirates.  In the house next door, lives Michael Hordern (Senex) who is wealthy (Patrician) Roman citizen with a domineering wife, Patricia Jessel (Domina).  They have a horny 18 year old son (Hero) who is helplessly in love with the girl (Philia) from another house next to theirs.  Hero is played by a very young Michael Crawford (Phantom of the Opera).  Hero has never spoken but a few words to Philia.  He fell in love while watching her from his window.  It makes no difference because their love is ill fated since she is of lower birth (slave-courtesan [Virgin]. Philia lives in a brothel managed by the greedy, Pimp master, Phil Silvers (Marcus Lycus).

The star of this musical comedy is Pseudolus (Zero Montel) who is Hero’s personal slave. Since the  hero is an underdog (slave), it already sounds like a  Keaton movie.  Pseudolus is a quick witted and resourceful slave who is always looking for money in any way he can; usually by conniving, lying and trickery.  What he wants most is to be freed in this 1966 musical.  Pseudolus agrees “to get the girl” if Hero agrees to free him.  Of course in the original play, the idea of freeing a slave would never be part of their agreement. In 192 A.D., the Roman audience would have rioted and mobbed the festival Temple at such a suggestion.  Besides, if they had starting freeing slaves, which would have created Roman jobs, the Roman Empire may have not Fell as it did.

The plan is to get the girl; Hero will convince her to love him; then, they will runaway and live happily ever. However, they need a love portion to convince Philia she loves him. Remember, they haven’t actually spent time getting to know each other yet. This is a crazy, bold scheme that  Psuedolus is more than ready to implement in order to be free.

While Hero’s parents are away to visit the Mother-in-Law, Pseudolus and Hero pay a visit to the brothel House of Marcus Lycus to find the Philia.  Of course, they have to look at all the merchandise (ladies) that the House of Lycus has to offer.  None of them are Philia since she is not up for sell. They discover she is promised to a Roman Captain, Miles Gloriosus.   In the Broadway play, the Captain introduces himself to the audience in song, I am Parade.  Even Carly Simon’s song, You’re So Vain doesn’t hold a candle to this insufferable Captain’s view of himself. Later in the movie, he sings some of this in another song, Bring me My Bride.

Psuedolus lies to Lycus and insists he must buy her for Senex; or, he will be beaten or worst. He cannot tell Lycus that it is Hero really wants to buy the girl.   Since Hero is only 18 years old, he cannot buy a slave. Again, ideas from the 1960s change the original storyline. This movie was made during the Vietnam war when 18 became the average age for a soldier serving overseas.  Many 18 year olds were drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam while at the same time they not allowed to vote or buy alcohol in the states.

Lycus explains to Pseudolus that he is very frighten of the Captain because a few years ago he sold him a “dud virgin.” So, it is very important that virginal Philia is perfect for this flesh transaction.  Besides, Lycus doesn’t trust Pseudolus. He doubts that he has the money to buy Philia.  He is correct. Psuedolus lies and tells him he came into money from his uncle who was recently killed. Here is one of many gags straight out of Vaudeville:  Psuedolus’ uncle was an elephant trainer who was killed during the mating season.

However, when Lycus revels to  Psuedolus that Philia is from Thrace, quick witted Psuedolus lies and tells Lycus that  Thrace is in the droves of a terrible plague. So, if the Captain would be angry enough to kill him over a “dud virgin” what might he do to him for inflicting the plague on his House?  Lycus rightfully becomes even more frightful and being a greedy businessman realizes His House of the Courtesan are also exposed to this horrendous disease. Cunning Psuedolus offers to take the “infected”girl from House of Lycus to the House of Senex (Hero’s Dad). And as an added a favor, he will pretend to be Lycus and face the Fearsome Captain, himself. Lycus believes he has manipulated Psuedolus to his advantage. Of course, we know Psuedolus out maneuvered Lycus.

So, Hero and Psuedolus bring Philia home. To calm her, they lie by telling her the Captain will come for her there.  In the meantime, Hero is running around Rome looking for the ingredients for a love portion.  However, the head slave, Hysterium  (Jack Gilford), who is the best groveling, obedient slave in Rome, discovers Philia and knows Psuedolus must be behind this confused girl’s presence. He threatens to tell the master and expose the whole sham. Psuedolus uses some good old fashion blackmail to convince Hysterium to help the lovers runaway before their master (Senex) returns and finds out.

Senex (Hero’s Dad) is ordered to go back home early; since, he broke a gift for his Mother-in-law. When he returns, he finds Philia, who thinks he is her Captain.  She offers herself to him.  Luckily they don’t get very far before they are discovered. To explain her presence, Senex is told she is the new maid. This is when the guys sing a very sexest song, Everyone Ought to have a Maid while posing throughout Roman ruins.  Psuedolus needing to get Senex out of the house before the Captain shows up uses his master’s desire for the new maid (Philia) to convince him to bathe in the empty House of Erronius, just next door; so, he could have more privacy with Philia later.

While in the House of Erronius,  Senex is singing and cooing about his future conquest. It is at that moment, Erronius (Keaton) returns home after 20 years of searching for his children.  I love the fact that Keaton worn a Roman hat that reminds his fans of his signature pork pie one.

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In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Erronius  (half blind and deaf) is stopped from entering his house by Hysterium who just left his singing master in the bath. Erronius tells  Hysterium  of his kidnapped children by pirates. He explains that he has traveled the world to find them.  Even though twenty years has passed, he will know that they are his children because they both worn a ring like his: The rings have a gaggle (at least seven) of geese carved into each of them. Hysterium is desperately trying to keep the old senator from entering his house. Senex is singing so loudly that even near deaf Erronius says it sounds like his house is haunted. Hysterium  immediately repeats to him that he cannot enter that house because his house is haunted. At that moment, Pseudolus overhears them. He hears Erronius say he needed a soothsayer. Psuedolus disguising himself as a soothsayer tells the senator to run around the seven hills of Rome seven times in order to get rid of the haunting.  Here is a clip  of that scene.

Keaton’s First Scene in Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Keaton was very ill while making this movie.  Most of his stunts were done by others.  However, that is not how Keaton “rolled.” There is a scene where Keaton runs into a branch of a tree and falls hard to the ground.  It is typical Keaton stunt because you don’t see it coming; and, it is hilarious. Keaton did that stunt himself without warning to the director or anyone else. I think Keaton knew that this movie was his swansong.  He passed away a few months after the movie wrapped in November of 1965. He passed away from  lung cancer on February 1, 1966.  The movie was released in October of 1966. His third wife of twenty six years, was with him at home. People said he was restless and played cards the night before he died.   He had come full circle in his life.  He started in Vaudeville in 1898 and ended his career making a movie that is as vaudeville as you can get in 1965. Comedy and Tragedy coming together and making perfectly divine laughter and sadness.

 

He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh Koran

None of the images are owned by me

References:

Links:

SONG LYRICS BY STEVEN SONDHEIM: Comedy Tonight (Prologue)

http://www.lyricsfreak.com/s/stephen+sondheim/comedy+tonight_20170416.html

SUMMARY OF ORIGINAL PLAY: PSUEDOLUS BY PLAUTUS (ancient Roman playwright, April of 192 B.C. [Third Day of Feastival])

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudolus

The Art of A Gag: by Every Frame A Painting         https://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=UWEjxkkB8Xs

Biography link

http://www.biography.com/people/buster-keaton-9361442