Oliver Davis continues our Buster Keaton month with reviews of The Electric House and The Navigator…
The Electric House, 1922.
Silent comedies like these often have such overly complex set-ups. For The Electric House, a two-reeler (about 20 minutes long), Buster Keaton has his ‘Botany’ degree mixed up with an electrical engineer’s (Steve Murphy) at their graduation ceremony. As the University Dean quickly needs someone to fit his house with the latest technological gadgets, he recruits Buster as his electrician. In a mixture of bewilderment and wanting to get into the Dean’s daughter’s (Virginia Fox) knickers (who is inexplicably also at the ceremony), Buster accepts. You know, that old tired and cliched plot.
That’s all done with in the opening few minutes, leaving the rest of the movie to get on with the good stuff: Buster installing the most useless and potentially harmful inventions he can imagine. It’s a classic Keaton trope, of him vs. the modern world.
They include a mechanical food server, which is really just plates on a miniature train set; there’s a pool that empties and refills itself with the pull of a lever; and, most impressively, an escalator in place of a stairway. The first third of the short introduces each device to the family in perfect working order, setting up each to go wrong for the conclusion.
The real electrician then sabotages the house for revenge against Buster. The food (gravy?) train derails into the matriarch’s lap; the automatic library starts punching guests with books; and the escalator goes haywire, moving backwards, forwards and, at great speed, propelling people through the first floor window into the pool outside.
Just as you forget about one household modification, it literally slaps Buster in the face. The movie goes rather black at one point, too, where, upon losing his electrician job, Keaton ties a boulder around his neck and throws himself in the pool. Unfortunately for him, the water had already been emptied. I cackled loudly in the theatre.
Watching The Electric House, you can really see from where Wallace & Gromit came. It’s no coincidence that the plasticine dog is considered one of the great silent comedy characters. He’s borrowing from the best in Buster.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
The Navigator, 1924.
The Navigator uses a plot even more second-hand than The Electric House: a bunch of villains set an ocean liner adrift because it has just been bought by an unnamed country to use in a war against another unnamed country, hoping the rocks and waves will have their way with it.
This only concerns the movie’s opening five minutes, and the ‘countries at war’ set-up doesn’t feature again. It’s purely a way to get the “idle rich” Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton) and the equally-wealthy woman of his dreams, Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire), aboard a boat together completely alone. Betsy O’Brien. That’s a solid name. They don’t make names like that anymore.
The ‘woman of his dreams’ part is quite interesting, as Rollo had only decided he will marry her that morning…beat…later “today.” Like any normal person, Betsy O’Brien (such a good name) declines. Then for reasons stated above, they end up on the vast ocean liner together and alone. Two rich kids who don’t even know how to dress themselves without servants must cope with life on the seas.
Watching them do so is a masterclass in idiocy. Betsy O’Brien (seriously, a name like this deserves to be written in full each time) counts out precisely three beans to make coffee. Rollo, equally as dumb, throws a bucket overboard to collect the water for the brew. Upon taking his first sip, Rollo looks confused in the way only Buster can. He then reaches for the sugar, pouring its entire contents into his salty mug.
Buster’s typical deadpan confusion, however, is slightly askew. Here, he plays the reverse of his standard character – idiot rich kid Rollo Treadway – which requires a tweaked form of his usual bemusement. Rather than the everyman coping in a modern world, this is a modern man dealing with everyday life: making coffee, boiling eggs, getting dressed. The comedy comes from a profound sense of dumbness rather than Buster’s usual confusion. Which is more academically known as ‘confusualion.’
The Navigator is an hour-long movie, so the absence of a plot becomes rather noticeable whenever the gags lessen, and there are only so many falls on one’s bottom at which you can politely snigger. There’s also a small dash of blackface, for the cannibal island climax, which, although the product of its time, still induces a quiet toe-curl. It’s like the wince you make when your nan refers to the TV repairman as a ‘darkie.’
Overall, though, The Navigator is a tremendous film. The visual gags are truly inspired and incredibly well directed and paced. The swordfish fight, the ‘long walk’ home across the road, the rowing boat towing an ocean liner – they all had the audience in stitches.
Granted, the audeince’s average age was 102, but I laughed as well. And I have the mental age of a 12-year-old.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
For more info on A Serious Man, a Modern World: Buster Keaton and the Cinema of Today, visit the BFI website here.