Monday, August 1, 2011
THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1921)
**&3/4 out of ****
PLOT: Buster Keaton is a bank teller at a bank where one of the managers is running a crooked side “business” to fleece customers of their cash. Orchestrating an “inside job” the wayward co-worker’s henchman attempt to rob Buster. Through a series of mishaps that leave Buster’s hands filled with glue, he is able to turn the tables on the would-be-robbers. In the process, however Buster is caught with a gun stuck in one hand and cash stuck to the other, leading the owner of the bank to suspect Buster of the crime. Buster takes refuge in a tricked-out house which is also doubling as the hideout for his crooked co-worker and gang. Meanwhile, an acting troupe run off the stage for their horrible performance of “Faust” also hide in the house. Between the various contraptions like collapsing staircases and trap doors as well as thugs dressed like ghosts and skeletons… and let’s not forget the devil Faust wandering about – Buster must clear his name, catch the crooks, get the girl and keep from being scared!
REVIEW: Never have preconceived notions. I must admit before I started watching this short I had guessed that the highest I could possibly score it would be 2 to 2 and ¼ stars out of 4. The reason? I am one of the few who holds a unique position on Buster Keaton. While I admire Keaton greatly and think he’s a genius filmmaker in terms of his direction, most of the time I don’t laugh much at his films or feel any connection to the protagonists he plays. It really just comes down to his deadpan style. Of the silent solo clowns, I most often throw my lot in with Harold Lloyd. Lloyd was very inventive, too; not genius-level inventive like Keaton (although close) but still he managed to conceive some amazing set-pieces in his comedy. More importantly, he played a character to who I could root and relate. Lloyd’s character, like Keaton’s was a man trying to get ahead but he was not detached. You knew Lloyd’s emotions. He didn’t just wear them on his sleeves but on his trouser legs as well! Which is not to say that one style is “better” than another but just that I personally prefer a character to who I can relate.
Having said that, there are limitations to Keaton’s character that make the horror-comedy in particular a mostly unsuitable sub-genre for him. It pretty much begins and ends with the fact that Keaton can never get too scared, and if he does get scared, it’s not for long – otherwise he threatens to diminish his character’s main feature: the stoic and deadpan “stone face.”
...and yet, as you can see from my rating, the film ends up succeeding more than I thought it would. It’s a close call, but there are enough touches that work to make it almost worthy of a full three stars.
Common to silent comedies, this short starts off with a humorous opening title card: “Wall Street – The palatial parking place of the Bull and the Bear – mostly the Bull.” No time is wasted as the first visual gag follows immediately after the title card: Buster pratfalls out of a taxi on his way to work. As he runs through his routine so he can man his station at the local bank, Buster treats his fans to his time-honed acrobatics – leaping, climbing and tumbling his way through his surroundings.
There is brevity of set-up in this short – one minute in the scene jumps from Buster’s arrival at the bank to an interior of a house with this title card, “The bank cashier and his band of counterfeiters have a strong reason for making people believe this house is haunted.” The burly bank teller demonstrates just how he can make people believe the house is haunted by pulling a lever. His first trick: flattening the stairs so that those climbing fall to the bottom! This will be the first of several “tricked-out house” gags in the short, and they anticipate similar gags in the silent Our Gang shorts “Shootin’ Injuns” and “Shivering Spooks” that would follow a few years later.
Back to the bank, a pretty young girl convinces Buster to open the time-lock on the vault for an early withdrawal. The woman returns a short time later to reveal she received a counterfeit bill, and the bank president says he’ll have the police look into the matter, much to the concern of the crooked bank teller.
Buster then gets into some bits of business with a glue pot, money and bank statements – he has accidentally gotten glue on his hands and everything sticks! Just as he removes one element from his hands, he ends up stuck to another! It is classic Keaton physical dexterity at work. Of course, as he hands off money to a customer, the stickiness just compounds matters! Soon everyone in the bank has money stuck to their hands and feet!
The silent comedies with their knockabout slapstick often get a bad rap from some quarters for (in “their” opinion) being “dated” and having a “sameness” to them but too often what’s forgotten is not only the visually inventive gags but the truly audacious and outrageous lengths comedians would go to get laughs in their films. These bits are usually jarringly unexpected, and “The Haunted House” contains this gem: to get a man who is stuck to the floor by the seat of his pants unstuck, Buster first conks him on the head and then pours boiling hot water onto the floor to loosen the glue’s grip!
Before too long Buster’s hands are stuck in his pockets. Eventually he breaks his hands free, and when robbers come to hold up the bank and carelessly leave their guns at the counter, Buster successfully chases them off… and then is summarily confronted by the bank officials because he’s still holding the guns and looks like he robbed the place himself with all the glue-filled money stuck in his pockets. In his inimitable way, however Buster manages to escape (sort of – he ends up back in the vault).
Continuing with this film’s brisk pacing of transitions (almost as if it’s a comic book and the scene’s abrupt change is easily explained away with a “MEANWHILE” caption) we are taken to a local theater where, a title tells us, “That night the Daredevil Opera Company was executing Faust – and he deserved it!” The title card writer isn’t kidding, either as a man throws a whole head of lettuce (or maybe it was cabbage – hard to tell in a black & white movie) at the performer on-stage, leading to the entire audience chasing the actors out the back of the theater.
…and then we’re back at the bank with Buster, where a wonderfully written title tells us, “After searching everywhere else the police found him where he was.” Buster runs into the blue-tinted night. The sheriff and his men take chase but when Buster runs into the title house, they stop short, exclaiming “That house is haunted.”
Once inside, Buster sees a man in a sheet walk by but is nonplused. He begins to nonchalantly explore the home, touching various objects. When he opens a book it sets off a smoke bomb. Then the ghost (man in sheet) runs in, frightened by a lawman’s rifle being shot and Buster runs up the stairs to avoid the ghost… but the ghost merely runs into another room, leaving Buster on the stairs perplexed… and soon at the bottom of the stairs on his butt as the “trick stairs” are activated.
The actors on the run from the angry audience soon duck into the house just as Buster did. This adds some extra elements to the spooky fun because now “the devil” Faust is in the trick house. Perhaps the funniest moments come in the scene where the actor in the Faust costume confronts Buster. Buster plops down in a chair at the sight of ‘ol scratch and is quizzical about the whole matter. He touches the actor to see if he’s “real”… and perhaps to assure himself he’s not just having a delusion. This one little bit is a brilliant piece of acting on Buster’s part as he acts with his eyes – he keeps his stone face but his eyes belie the fact that he is simultaneously curious and scared out of his wits. By default, that makes this the funniest scene in this “scare comedy” that otherwise finds its hero not-very-scared. The scene gets even funnier as Buster rightly decides the Faust actor is not the real Satan after kicking him in the shin and getting the expected reaction!
Buster’s hysterical attempts to explain the collapsing staircase are met with disbelief by Faust, who walks away only to be replaced by a man in a sheet while Buster isn’t looking! A brief tussle leads to a genuine scare-take from Keaton in inimitable fashion: a back flip that ends up with Buster lying on the ground! This is followed by the classic horror-comedy stand-by of a person pretending to be a chair with a blanket draped over their body. When the “arms” of the chair cup around Buster’s waist, we see one of the few times on film where Buster’s stone face actually registers an emotion!
Genuinely scared now, Buster runs out of the room. He regains his composure a bit then ends up following a couple of men in creepy skeleton outfits (another horror-comedy standby) into a room where they are assembling disembodied mannequin parts into a whole “man.” And a “real man” at that! The effect is suitably eerie and is the first instance in the film where something truly supernatural has occurred, and suddenly at that. This is one of those “just go with it” moments that turns up from time to time in horror comedies – it’s been established that the crooked banker and his gang are aware that “the little man from the bank is upstairs” and are determined to scare him away with tricks, yet they also slip in something totally unexplainable. This would happen again in such films as The East Side Kids’ “Spooks Run Wild,” where Bela Lugosi and his assistant Angelo Rossitto – mere stage magicians – somehow vanish into thin air as bullets are shot directly at them; and the Shemp Howard-Billy Gilbert-Maxie Rosenbloom starrer “Crazy Knights,” where John Hamilton, despite otherwise being presented as a man up to no-good tricks (literally and figuratively) actually turns transparent and floats away without any explanation. These bizarre occurrences are usually tossed off without a second thought, and such is the case here.
As often happens in two reel spook spoofs, the climactic action picks up a frenetic pace as various characters dart from one room to another and various scare gags are pulled off. By the end of “The Haunted House” this means that various combinations of the gangsters, the lawmen, the actors from the Faust play and Buster intersect. The gags are fairly unconnected. At one point, Buster sits on a sofa to catch his breath, putting his arm around a sheet-clad figure with the expected reaction. He sails down the collapsing staircase headfirst as if it is a playground slide when another figure in a sheet approaches. A tried and true gag occurs when one of the sheet-wearing crooks grabs Buster by his coattails and Buster frantically tries to run away but ends up running in place while the carpet under his feet turns in circles!
I mentioned earlier that critics of the day had become all too aware of the typical silent comedy conventions, overused as they were. One such gimmick was “the chase” scene, and “The Haunted House” breaks this trope out for its finale, too. When the Faust actor’s cape catches on fire just as he’s being confronted by one of the sheet wearing gangsters, this film’s obligatory chase ensues as he jumps out the window and scares off the waiting law enforcement officials. But back in the house, to Keaton’s credit the “chase scene” takes on a different, absurdist tone. Buster directs traffic as various sheet wearing gangsters pass each other in the hall as they rather languidly cross from room to room. This scenario of having various characters dart (or merely cross) from room to room became a staple of not only horror-comedies but also animation in everything from the Beatles’ full-length animated feature “Yellow Submarine” to the “Scooby Doo” Saturday morning cartoon series.
One of the best gags soon follows as Buster decides to outwit the collapsing staircase by first gently stepping on one or two steps the way one would dip their foot into a swimming pool to test the temperature of the water, only to promptly sliding down the banister… where he ends up on the 2nd step which promptly collapses, sending him to the ground!
With a minute to go we come to learn there is a trap door that deposits people in the basement hideout of the crooks. Why this device comes into the short so late is a mystery, as surely there could have been great “bits of business” built around this prop.
When all is said and done, Buster saves the day (with a well-tossed vase to a crook’s head foreshadowing the hysterical climax of Wheeler & Woolsey’s 1930s classic, “The Nitwits”) and gets the girl… but in one of the more bizarre horror-comedy endings on par with the “shock endings” in Laurel & Hardy films, the villain knocks Buster dead and he ascends the stairway to heaven… which promptly collapses sending him into hell! Until he wakes up, of course – the villain merely knocked Buster out!
The gags in the haunted house are fun and inventive, but as previously mentioned, Buster in a “scare” comedy can be a disconnect – again, he is the “great Stone Face” and a lot of “scare comedy” relies on “reaction takes.” In the initial sequences inside the “haunted” house, Buster is only ever momentarily “scared.” He shrugs things off so quickly that his emotionless persona doesn’t register the same laughs as say cartoon superstar Bugs Bunny, who didn't scare easily but would generally come at his would-be tormentors with a steady stream of head-spinning double-talk and physical distraction techniques. That may sound like an unfair comparison – after all this is a silent movie – but the physical “recovery” for Buster just happens too fast to elicit many laughs. That’s not necessarily a knock on Keaton as much as it is an acknowledgement that his stock style and the horror-comedy genre are not the best match. Indeed, it seems Metro, distributors of the short felt the same – they don’t even feature one of the haunted house scenes on the movie poster, opting instead for Buster’s gummed-up glue gaggery.
As in many of the silent comedies, the co-stars are game and really bring a lot to the proceedings with their lively playing. Almost by default given Keaton’s deadpan style, the supporting cast comes off alive and kicking indeed with big and broad body language and facial expressions, as well as frantic physicality. Among the cast members are Virginia Fox, who spent the ‘20s as a supporting player in Mack Sennett shorts including several Buster Keaton entries. She also co-starred with other famous silent clowns including Charlie’s brother Sydney Chaplin, Charley Chase, Ford Sterling, Ben Turpin, James Finlayson, Billy Bevan, Vernon Dent, Marie Prevost and others, and was an ex-wife of movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. Also on-hand is Joe Roberts. A family friend of Keaton’s, Roberts was primarily a supporting player in Keaton shorts although he also appeared in Bobby Dunn shorts and a smattering of features including the Mary Pickford version of “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Natalie Talmadge played mostly uncredited bit roles (usually quite small bits) in Keaton films as well as small parts in her sister Constance’s comedies and her sister Norma’s dramas. Outside of Keaton’s “Our Hospitality” the most famous movie Talmadge appeared in was the silent classic, “Intolerance” (which also featured a small part for Walter Long who would become a perennial foil for Laurel & Hardy).
All things considered, the film is much better than one would expect given that disparity of styles… and to Keaton’s credit it soon picks up as he figures out ways to make the horror-comedy trappings work despite his deadpan style. It was the first of only a small handful of “horror-comedies” Buster would make, the others being talkie efforts (none I’m sure coming close to the entertainment value of seeing Buster play in a 1940 charity baseball game alongside Boris Karloff – in full Frankenstein monster makeup! – as previously mentioned here). I recommend “The Haunted House” as your best chance to see Keaton tackle the standard trappings of the genre in the medium where Keaton excelled, the silent film. In that regard, feel free to add an extra star to my rating if you are a big Keaton fan.
BEST DIALOGUE: The aforementioned title card, “After searching everywhere else the police found him where he was.”
BEST GAGS: All the best gags are already mentioned in the body of this review, but I will elaborate on Buster’s successful beaning of the criminal in the film’s finale: Instead of hitting a man directly over the head with a vase, Buster throws it up over the man’s head and it hits its target on the way down. This is an extremely Keaton-esque trifle – expertly planned and timed for maximum effect, sort of a small scale version of the elaborate and famous scene in the classic “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” which followed seven years after “The Haunted House,” where the façade of a house falls directly over Buster but does not harm him as he’s standing dead-center where the open doorway lands.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: The big talent in the cast besides Keaton is of course Edward F. Kline, aka Eddie Cline, who also co-directed and co-wrote this short with Keaton. Cline gets but a bit part as a bank customer in “The Haunted House,” but of course he is more well-known for his behind-the-camera work. He directed and/or wrote/co-wrote such comedy classics as W.C. Field’s “Million Dollar Legs” “The Bank Dick” and others; several Wheeler & Woolsey movies including the notorious “So This is Africa” and one with horror-comedy overtones, “Hook, Line & Sinker;” a few Olsen & Johnson features including the wild “Crazy House” and their classic horror-comedy, “Ghost Catchers;” the Ritz Brothers’ “Behind the Eight Ball,” programmers including entries in the comic strip-based Snuffy Smith and Maggie & Jiggs series; and the silent horror-comedy “The Ghost of Folly” with Andy Clyde. Cline also directed a pair of “Cracked Nuts” – both the Wheeler & Woolsey vehicle co-starring Boris Karloff and the pseudo-horror-comedy of the same title but with a different plot that featured Shemp Howard and Mantan Moreland. And that’s just scratching the surface!
BUY THE FILM: This one shows up in various DVD collections, but the best print is probably the one offered by Kino in their extensive “Art of Buster Keaton” collection which you can order here:
FURTHER READING: The seminal work on silent comedies in my opinion is Walter Kerr’s “The Silent Clowns.” You’ll find much about Keaton as well as his contemporaries Chaplin, Langdon, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy and others in this essential volume. Order it when you click on the title here: The Silent Clowns
Books solely about Keaton abound. Two that come highly recommended to me by a film historian friend are "Keaton" by Rudi Blesh and "The Complete Films of Buster Keaton" by Jim Kline, part of that ever-reliable collection of "Films of" books originally published by Citadel Press. There is an additional book I’ve never read it, so I can't vouch for it beyond the fact that it includes coverage of "The Haunted House," and that is Gabriella Oldham’s Book “Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter” which takes a look at Keaton’s shorts from 1920 to 1923. You can order these books here (for the Blesh book click on the title):
UPDATE: After this post went up I decided to surf the net to see if any other blogs had reviewed this film. Wouldn't you know that the Pretty Clever Film Gal reviewed it at the Pretty Clever Film blog just a few weeks prior to my review being posted? You can read that review when you click here.
WATCH THE FILM: This film is thought to be in the public domain so you can find it on various websites including the Internet Archive. Here is a brief excerpt from this short, the finale of the film which is chock full of horror-comedy gags – ENJOY!