smoking holes illo

smoking holes illo

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Short: GRAND SLAM OPERA (1936)

After his triumphs in an incredible run of shorts and features during the 1920s, comedy superstar Buster Keaton hit hard times. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge was a rocky one. That, along with his unsatisfactory working relationship while under contract to MGM --which took away his creative control, insisting on downplaying his amazing physical comedy, making him a 'sad clown' character, then second fiddle to the brash, abrasive comedy stylings of a young Jimmy Durante-- drove him into an alcoholic haze in the early 1930s. His film career at a low ebb, and no longer at MGM, he got some work making a series low-budget two-reel short subjects for Educational Pictures --a company that had, long before, dropped their original 'Educational' mission statement, and focused squarely on entertaining ticket-buyers, on the cheap-- which were distributed to theaters by Twentieth Century Fox. As no-frills as they were, unlike MGM, they allowed Keaton the creative leeway to make comedies more along the lines of his earlier work.

Though several rungs below the high quality of his silent films, Keaton's Educational Pictures shorts nonetheless are a much better showcase for his talents than the bulk of his MGM output (not counting the early classics The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929), made before MGM really lowered the boom on him), and are also superior to the later series of shorts he made for Columbia. Arguably, the best of Keaton's shorts for Educational Pictures is Grand Slam Opera.

     We open with a small, hostile (though musical!) mob of rural townsfolk, who are sending Elmer Butts (Buster Keaton) away on a one-way train trip, which takes our hero from the hick town of Grover City, Arizona to New York City. It's not really made clear why... they just all hate him enough to give him the choice of either exile or death. Sounds fair enough. Incidentally, the sheriff in this scene is played by frequent Three Stooges nemesis, Bud Jamison.                 


After his brisk cross-country trip, and upon reaching Manhattan, Elmer attends the 'Colonel Crows' Amateur Night' radio program (spoofing 'Major Bowes' Amateur Hour', the popular, real-life granddaddy of 'The Gong Show', 'American Idol', etc)... and considering himself to be a man of many abilities, seeks a spot on the talent show, to prove that he's a master entertainer, and win some prize money. A cute gal (Diana Lewis), one of the contestants, is dancing an Irish jig for her performance, and she catches his eye.

Unfortunately for Elmer, all this happens just as that night's program is wrapping up...

"Well, I''m off to get plastered... Goodnight, America! --Security, please remove this non-entity from my environment."

Afterward, he sees a girl (guess who!) flipping pancakes in a restaurant window, and he's immediately smitten...

Edward Hopper's 'Nightgawks'
*Sigh* "She's an important part of my complete breakfast..."
"You want a side order of disdain-dipped-in-contempt with that, sir?"

He bumps into her (literally!) after she finishes her shift at the flapjack mill, and asks her out. As you can see, his approach isn't quite having the desired effect--

"Congratulations, Romeo... you just got yourself a blind date with my pepper spray!"

His initial attempt to ask her out on a date failing, Elmer --being Elmer-- doesn't give up. It helps that this woman is cursed to be somewhere near him at all times, including living in the hotel room below his, as he practices his act for the program, while striking out with her yet again.

"I meant to do that..."

Well, that didn't quite go as planned. Perhaps a display of terpsichorean prowess is the answer...

"Hmmm... if this strange alien creature can dance professionally, so can I!"
"Just call me 'Mickey Mantle'!"
"Now, for my next trick, I'll-- N-n-n-nyaaaaah!"

Despite these setbacks, he goes to that night's broadcast.

"Bring on the trapdoor fodder!"

Ahead of him in the lineup of gifted hopefuls are The Hoboken Canal Boat Boys, who play an international medley...

"You are all still in a deep sleep... when I snap my fingers, you will be Dokken..."
"Too bad for them... I'm a Freddie & The Dreamers man. NEXT!"

Followed by Mrs. Van Ashbelt of 615 Park Ave, NYC --with chauffeur, maid and lapdog in tow-- singing 'My Old Kentucky Home'...

"Telepathically thinking the lyrics at you all should more than prove my supreme talent..."
They clearly weren't expecting her 20-minute foray into Tuvan throat singing in the middle...
"Maybe they weren't... but I was. NEXT!"

At last, Elmer's time has come. He finally manages to grab a bit of the limelight on the talent show... by juggling! Wait, what? Juggling... on the radio??

Elmer: "See, I've got it all figured out. I explain each trick to the radio audience as I do it!" 

"If you fail, my piranhas will grow fat tonight, Elmer."
"Folks... all I can say is that the next act promises to be filthy!"
"What in Sam Hill--???"
"Augh! Surely, these are the end times... now where did I put my cyanide capsule?"

Both his efforts at romance and fame/fortune end in disaster... or do they?


 It's all a lot of fun. The emphasis is on visual gags and storytelling, rather than over-reliance on clever wordplay, and gives you a pretty good idea what Keaton's 1930s feature-length movies would've been like if MGM had left him alone, and if he had kept relatively sober. But here, take a look for yourself:

Keaton's co-star, Diana Lewis, came from a vaudeville family, and had made her film debut in 1934. That same year, she had a small part in the W.C. Fields classic, It's a Gift (1934), in the memorable scene (starting at the 7-minute mark in the linked YouTube clip) where Fields' attempts at getting some sleep on the front porch are derailed at every turn. She plays the teenage daughter who repeatedly asks her mother whether she should pick up either ipecac or syrup of squills from the drugstore. She'd join Keaton again in another of his Educational Pictures shorts, Love Nest on Wheels (1937).

A contract with MGM netted her co-starring roles in several higher-profile films, including the Marx Bros' comedy, Go West (1940); the title object of Mickey Rooney's interest, in Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940); with Red Skelton and Anne Rutherford in Whistling in Dixie (1942); a smaller role in the film noir, Johnny Eager (1942), and as one of the nurses in the female-centric WWII drama, Cry 'Havoc' (1943). Four years after this short's release, after a brief courtship, Lewis became Mrs. William Powell (who had suffered through the tragic deaths of wife Carole Lombard and finace Jean Harlow), and reportedly remained happily married to the Thin Man star for over four decades, until his death in 1984.

John Ince (Colonel Crow) was a prolific actor and director in the silent era. With the coming of talkies, he focused on acting, usually in uncredited character bits in scores of films, including The Whole Town's Talking (1935), The Little Colonel (1935), Les Miserables (1935), Barbary Coast (1935), Way Out West (1937), San Quentin (1937), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), Voodoo Man (1944), Bedlam (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and the Frank Capra classics Broadway Bill (1934), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Incidentally, his younger brother, Thomas Ince, was a pioneer of early Hollywood, inventing the 'assembly line' method of film production, where all aspects of the film-making process were done under one roof (he also discovered cowboy star William S. Hart, and died under mysterious circumstances on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst's yacht in 1924).

Harold Goodwin (the tuxedo-clad radio bandleader) already had excellent experience as Keaton's on-screen rival, well before this short; he performed similar duties in Keaton's classic silent features, College (1927) and The Cameraman (1928). He would work with Keaton again in further Educational Pictures shorts, and later, on Keaton's early-1950s TV series. Between the silents and Grand Slam Opera, Goodwin managed to score a supporting role in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), as one of the young German students/soldiers, "Detering". Beyond that, like John Ince, Goodwin mainly appeared in a multitude of smaller rolls and uncredited bits (often as tough guys), both in features and on TV, from the Teens through the late 1960s, as well as work as both a stuntman and as a dialogue coach.

YouTube embeds aside, the optimal way to see Grand Slam Opera these days is to buy or rent Kino International's DVD (or Blu-ray) collection, Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts (1934-37), released back in 2010 (and still available from the usual online retailers). It collects all of his Educational Pictures shorts in the best condition we're ever likely to see, given that the original negatives are long gone, and the films have been out of studio hands for eons. What's here is what was saved from Keaton's own archive, as well as what could be found from other private collectors, so the picture isn't razor-sharp, there are occasional jumps and splices, dirt/scratches on the prints, etc. Nothing pristine, but nothing especially jarring, either, and eminently watchable. All the screen-shots from the film on this blog entry are from my own DVD copy, so that's pretty much what you can expect these films to look like, overall.

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