Monday, April 27, 2015

The Scarecrow (Schenck/Metro, 1920)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles came home from work just in time to join me for the silent short TCM was showing to fill out their “feature,” The Ace of Hearts (a 1921 Goldwyn Pictures production of a play by future screenwriter Gouverneur — pronounced “governor” — Morris, whose Colonial-era namesake had been one of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution): The Scarecrow, a marvelous 1920 short starring and co-directed by “Buster” Keaton (that’s how he was billed then, with his first name — the nickname bestowed on him by family friend Harry Houdini when he saw the boy take a big pratfall as part of his act with his parents and said, “Wow! What a buster!” — billed in quotes). It was made in the heady early days of his independent filmmaking career under producer Joseph M. Schenck, who had first encountered Keaton as a supporting player in the shorts he was making with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. When Arbuckle’s zooming popularity propelled him into feature-length films for a heady two years from 1920 to 1922 until the scandal that cut short his career, Schenck had Keaton take over the shorts series and Keaton made an hilarious debut with One Week (1920), in which Keaton and Sybil Seely play newlyweds. Keaton’s father-in-law has given the couple a prefabricated house and a lot to put it on, but the guy Seely jilted to marry Keaton is still upset and for revenge mixes up the instructions on the house so it ends up looking like no habitable structure in history. Seely turns up again in The Scarecrow, in which Keaton and Joe Roberts play farmhands who both are romantically interested in the daughter (Seely) of the farmer they’re working for, played by Keaton’s father Joe. Joe Keaton and his wife Myra pressed Buster into service in their acrobatic vaudeville act when Buster was three, and at the peak of their fame they were billed as “The Three Keatons, featuring Buster, the Human Mop.” Keaton inherited quite a lot from his father, including a talent for slapstick and, alas, a taste for alcohol; Buster departed his dad’s act when he could no longer trust that his increasingly inebriated dad could maintain the split-second timing required to perform the act without dropping and injuring him, and in the early 1930’s Buster himself resorted to the bottle after both his independent career and his marriage collapsed. (With Buster’s typical laconicism and utter lack of sentimentality, in a later interview he said of this period in his life, “I wasn’t an alcoholic — I was a drunk!”), though in this film and several others in which Buster cast his dad one can see where his style of performing came from.

The Scarecrow opens with a blatantly phony (almost certainly on purpose) effects shot of a sunrise and a title indicating that all the rooms in the house we’re about to see are one room — and then we see Buster Keaton and Joe Roberts having breakfast together in a room with an elaborate series of pull-strings and multipurpose appliances, including a phonograph that converts into an oven and a table that, when the meal is finished, rises to the top of the wall and becomes a large sampler reading, “What is home without Mother?” In the meantime Keaton and Roberts serve themselves rolls from a miniature railroad car, pull strings for the salt and pepper (the condiments go flying through the air on their strings as the two men pass them to each other), and even have a napkin on a flying string with which they can each wipe their mouths during the meal. When they have to throw out the garbage, a lever directly delivers it to the slop pan for the farm’s pigs; and when they drain the dishwater it becomes a duck pond (which Keaton, of course, falls into during a later slapstick scene). Keaton did these gags even better in a later short, The Electric House, and it’s possible that (as Charles suggested) they have their roots in vaudeville and in particular the illusions created by stage magicians like the Keatons’ family friend, Houdini — but no vaudeville act would have possibly carted around a giant and incredibly elaborate set like the one here. The Scarecrow earns its title from a later scene in which Keaton — having first been chased by a local dog (including a hair-raising sequence in which the two of them run around the top walls of a building which has lost its ceiling) and then made friends with it — is disguised as a scarecrow to spy on Roberts as he woos Seely, the farmer’s daughter; when Roberts gets too close for Keaton’s liking, the “scarecrow” suddenly comes to life and kicks him. When Keaton drops to one knee to tie his shoe, the girl thinks he’s proposing and actually accepts him — and there’s a final chase scene in which Keaton commandeers a motorcycle and sidecar, then literally runs into a minister and has him pronounce the marriage ceremony as the cycle rides off and, out of control, ultimately drives into a lake just as the preacher emerges to pronounce him and Seely man and wife: a marriage and a baptism in one package deal! The Scarecrow isn’t one of Keaton’s most memorable films but it’s still screamingly funny, and watching it I couldn’t help but wish it had been Keaton instead of Larry Semon who made the 1925 silent version of The Wizard of Oz (a messed-up movie with only incidental resemblances to the classic story).