Saturday, February 18, 2017

Doughboys (MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Doughboys, a really quirky 1930 movie made by Buster Keaton at MGM — his fourth film for them and his second talkie. As the title implies, it’s about World War I — or “The Great War,” as World War I was usually referred to before there was a World War II — and Keaton drew on his own experiences for some of its story even though other writers (Al Boasberg — whom he’d worked with before on the 1926 silent classic The General — Richard Schayer and Sidney Lazarus) got the credit. In the film, Keaton plays one of his usual spoiled rich-kid characters, Elmer Julius Stuyvesant II (once again Keaton often gravitated to upper-class characters, perhaps as a deliberate way to differentiate himself from Charlie Chaplin by playing the other end of the socioeconomic scale from Chaplin’s lower-class “Tramp” — indeed, I’ve argued that the major male silent comics all seemed to stake out particular positions on the class trajectory: Chaplin lower-class, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle working-class, Harold Lloyd middle-class and Keaton upper-class), who’s angrily turned down by the woman of his dreams, Mary (Sally Eilers), who indignantly tells him off when he asks her for a date because “you Rolls-Royces think you can have anything.” Then the U.S. gets involved in the war and Elmer (a character name Keaton used a lot, especially in his talkies, perhaps because he, like W. C. Fields, had discovered it was the funniest name a male could have) finds himself suddenly losing his chauffeur because the man has run off and enlisted. Keaton’s manservant/bodyguard/factotum/whatever, Gustave (Arnold Korff), suggests that he contact an employment agency to hire another — an immediate necessity because neither Elmer nor Gustave know how to drive. (The moment we hear Gustave speaking with a pretty thick German accent we know the screenwriters are making a deposit into the Cliché Bank which they will later withdraw — and they do.) Only what used to be an employment agency specializing in chauffeurs is now the recruiting office for the U.S. Army — the sign explaining its change of identity has fallen off and we don’t realize this until Gustave picks it up while Elmer is already inside — and Elmer, in a gag Abbott and Costello repeated in their sensationally successful service comedy Buck Privates 11 years later, finds himself mistakenly having enlisted. Elmer and a few other unpromising-looking recruits, including Nescopeck (Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards), find themselves under the ultra-domineering leadership of drill sergeant Edward Brophy (he’s actually called “Sgt. Brophy” in the dialogue), who’d already acted with Keaton as the other man trapped in the changing room at the beach resort in The Cameraman (and his training with Keaton stood him in good stead years later when he appeared in Swing Parade of 1946 with the Three Stooges and joined so heavily in their slapstick he virtually became a Fourth Stooge).

Brophy’s performance here is so intense and mean he’s one of the three most sadistic drill sergeants ever put on screen, alongside Frank Sutton’s Sergeant Carter in the 1960’s TV show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and R. Lee Ermey (a real drill sergeant only hired as a technical advisor but then given the part himself because no mere actor could duplicate him) in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Viet Nam war film Full Metal Jacket. In one bizarre scene Sgt. Brophy leads his recruits into bayonet drill and, dissatisfied with the way the men are jabbing the training dummies (and Elmer’s bayonet keeps falling off his gun in an obvious self-plagiarism from The General — the gag of the sword which kept losing its blade whenever Keaton’s character tried to draw it), Brophy attacks the dummy himself, sticking the bayonet in and twisting it again and again in what looks like an orgasm of hate — while the men he was supposed to be training faint dead away at the sight. Doughboys also contains a romantic triangle, as Mary has an on-again off-again attraction to Elmer while Sgt. Brophy has appointed himself her boyfriend — even though she finds him as appalling as we do — and threatens any other man who approaches her with bodily harm. About midway through the film the principals actually ship out to the combat zone in France — and the film becomes a grim slog through the gritty realities of combat. What’s fascinating about Doughboys is that instead of mixing comedy and drama the way one would have expected from a Keaton film (especially if one came to this movie with the expectation, “Cool! He’s going to do to World War I what he did to the Civil War in The General!”), it’s really a dramatic film and the funny scenes seem more like comic relief than the main event — and, at least partly because it lacks musical underscoring — though, as Charles pointed out, in all other respects — fluidity of camera movement, variety of angles and naturalistic delivery of dialogue instead of all that damnable … pausing … afflicting all too many early sound films — technically it looks more like a movie from 1935 than 1930.

Indeed, it’s a surprisingly grim movie for something whose star’s reputation is as a comedian; only the great scene in which the men of “K” Company put on an amateur show in France (that gets broken up when a German plane bombs the theatre where they’re performing) and Buster Keaton does drag and plays the partner of an apache dancer is actually laugh-out-loud funny. Keaton based much of the movie on his own experiences in the war; he was drafted in 1918 and went through basic training but the war was over by the time his unit arrived in France, and so he spent much of his time drilling and participating in amateur theatricals, in some of which he donned drag as his character does in the movie. (Busby Berkeley also got drafted into World War I but arrived in France too late to actually fight; instead he and his company drilled, drilled, and drilled again, and his biographers agree that it was this constant drilling that led him, as a Broadway and Hollywood choreographer, to manipulate his dancers in militaristic formations.) Doughboys was Keaton’s fourth film after his producer, Joseph M. Schenck, had closed down the independent Schenck-Keaton comedy studio and arranged for Keaton to work at MGM, whose president was Schenck’s brother Nicholas — but Nicholas Schenck ran the business end of the company from New York and had no creative involvement. Keaton ran into the Hollywood studio system at the height of its power and became one of the great, innovative filmmakers who couldn’t deal with MGM’s factory-like structure. A lot of nonsense has been written about Keaton, MGM and the sound revolution; the truth is that, unlike Chaplin, Keaton welcomed the advent of talking pictures and couldn’t wait to start making them. Alas, MGM decided to keep his second film for them, Spite Marriage, silent, and released it with a music-and-effects track rather than doing it as a talkie as Keaton had wanted. Then they gave him a silent dance number in the film Hollywood Revue of 1929 and, for his first starring sound feature, concocted a totally inappropriate vehicle for him, a tearjerking musical called Free and Easy.

At least on Doughboys the MGM production staff came closer to letting Keaton be Keaton, giving him relatively little dialogue (later Keaton recalled that he’d wanted to use dialogue the way he’d used titles in his silents: a few lines to set up a comic situation he could later improvise and build on the way he had in silent days — and instead MGM’s writers expected him to wisecrack) and allowing him to draw on his personal experiences for at least some of the plot. Keaton does get a few funny lines that show that, given time and sympathetic screenwriting, he could have developed into a deadpan-style verbal comedian in much the style Woody Allen used when he started making films, and contrary to the rather silly critics who say Keaton could never have been a talking-picture star because uttering dialogue required him to break the “Great Stone Face,” his voice was actually an appealing monotone that, while not “great” in itself, certainly fit the “Great Stone Face” character he’d created in his silents. Alas, when sound came in Keaton’s life was heading full-tilt into a perfect storm: his marriage to Natalie Talmadge (sister-in-law of his former producer Joseph Schenck) was falling apart, he was largely losing control of his career to the “suits” at MGM, and both his professional and personal disappointments were fueling his alcoholism. Eventually he moved out of the big home he’d shared with Natalie and into something he called his “land yacht,” a converted bus (essentially Buster Keaton invented the RV) in which he held parties (and, according to some accounts, orgies) and which he parked on the MGM lot when he was filming so he could drink to his heart’s content, sleep it off and not have to face a commute when he needed to work the next day. All the drinking took its toll on both his personal appearance and his coordination — meaning he had to start using stunt doubles for scenes he could once have done easily on his own — and by 1933, after a comedy about Prohibition called What, No Beer?, MGM fired him.

But when Keaton made Doughboys he was still good-looking and in excellent physical shape — even though the script gave him some good slapstick scenes (including one early on in which, resisting the attempts of the officials inducting him to undress him for the physical, he grabs a chandelier and swings back and forth on it and Doughboys at last looks like a Buster Keaton movie) but none of the elaborate “trajectory” gags he’d done in his silent days — and though the script rather overdoes his character’s naïveté (towards the end he crashes the German lines, runs into his old friend and employee Gustave — see, I told you the writers would do something with that! — as a soldier for the enemy, and offers them food; they give him a shopping list which he writes down on a large piece of paper which turns out to be the battle plan of the German army, and when he returns to his own lines the Americans seize on this and use it to coordinate their final offensive), Keaton’s performance is quite good in that oddly fatalistic way of his, the grim stoicism with which his characters reacted to everything around them as if nothing good was going to come out of life and even his moments of happiness would be fleeting at best. Doughboys is a film of individual scenes rather than a well-constructed story (another aspect, besides the war setting and the crazy drill sergeant, it shares with Full Metal Jacket), and just when it seems Keaton and his writers can’t come up with a happy ending, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of the war suddenly ending. It’s a fascinating movie that isn’t really funny enough to fit comfortably into the Keaton canon but it’s also considerably better than any of his other MGM talkies, and for virtually the last time Keaton was able to make a starring feature that reflected his surprisingly dark vision of the world. Doughboys is a movie that sometimes seems decades ahead of his time — the scene with Brophy leading the bayonet drill and getting a quasi-sexual thrill out of “killing” the training dummy seems like it could have come out of a 1960’s anti-war movie, and as Charles pointed out Doughboys could be remade today with only minimal updating (“dirty words and blood,” he said) — and certainly there are few films like it even though the darkness and grimness through much of its running time is hardly what one expects from a movie featuring one of the greatest comedians of all time.