The Artist at the New York Film Festival: Evoking Memories of Buster Keaton

A brand new silent film pays tribute to the visual masters and cinematic language of the past
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Sunday afternoon, on the final day of the New York Film Festival, I saw Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. Sunday night on Turner Classic Movies, I watched Buster Keaton in Free and Easy. Although these two very different films were made more than 80 years apart, they actually have a lot in common.

As you may have heard, The Artist is a silent movie scheduled for release on November 23 by the Weinstein Company. There are many current films I wish were silent, like Transformers, the Sex & the City movies or anything with Adam Sandler, but The Artist may be the first full-length, non-talking-picture since the Mel Brooks parody Silent Movie in 1976.  

In black and white and with no spoken dialogue (save for a very short sequence at the end), The Artist is a touching and funny film. It's lovely to look at and captures much of what was so memorable about the late silent/early sound era in American filmmaking - ironic, considering that it's made by a bunch of French people.

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Free and Easy is also in black and white, but it's a sound film - in fact, it's the first talkie Buster Keaton made after a decade spent directing and starring in silent comedies (first shorts, then features).

Keaton plays Elmer J. Butz, an agent who brings his young client Elvira (Anita Page) from Kansas to Hollywood in hopes of getting her into the movies (at Keaton's home studio MGM, where much of the film is shot). Elmer fails in his efforts to win a big break for Elvira, but ends up starring in a musical opposite her shrewish mother (Trixie Friganza). Not-quite-hilarity ensues.

Sadly, Free and Easy is a complete failure from beginning to end, a primer in everything that was wrong with early sound filmmaking. It's visually inert; it sounds terrible and there's far too much reliance on endless, uncreatively shot musical numbers. Keaton is relegated to supporting status in his own film, disappearing for long stretches so Robert Montgomery and Anita Page can awkwardly canoodle. Ho hum.

But most importantly, Free and Easy is not funny. I mean, it tries to be funny - sometimes desperately - but it fails. And if there's one thing a Buster Keaton film always should be, and up until that point always had been, it's funny.  

I'm sure director Edward Sedgwick (who also helmed Keaton's excellent The Cameraman) did his best, and it's not like MGM was trying to ruin Keaton's career. But in catering to the popular tastes of the day, MGM chose to make a sound film with Buster Keaton in it, rather than a Buster Keaton film with sound. In the process, MGM stripped away just about everything that made Keaton unique, forcing him to tell lame jokes, dance in dumb costumes, and sing in his froggy growl of a voice. It was the beginning of the (premature) end for the most talented visual comedian of all time.

Keaton was not alone in dealing with this dilemma; literally every working film actor faced it in the late 1920s, as Hollywood made the paradigm shift from silent films (with musical accompaniment, usually performed live) to talking pictures (with synchronized dialogue and music, initially on disc and later, embedded on the film itself).

And that's how The Artist connects to Free and Easy: it's the (fictional) story of one actor's fight against the challenge of sound, and how, like Keaton, it nearly ruined him.

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In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a dashing leading man in the vein of Douglas Fairbanks, is appearing at the Hollywood premiere of his latest (silent) film. After the movie he delights the crowd with a bit of on-stage patter, a soft shoe, and a live performance from his ever-present canine companion, generally charming everyone (except his leading lady, who salutes him with an obscene gesture from the wings).

As George leaves the theater, he is greeted by a throng of adoring fans, one of whom falls into his path and impulsively kisses him. The picture of that smooch is plastered all over the trade papers, much to the consternation of George's already-fed-up wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Soon after, the kissee Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) turns up at a casting call at Kinograph Studios, where George is shooting his next picture. They end up dancing in a scene together and the chemistry is undeniable.

And then, pictures begin to talk. George is discarded as a hammy relic of a dead medium, while Peppy is praised as a wisecracking, all-singin', all-dancin' talkie sensation. After he's fired by the cigar-chomping studio boss (John Goodman), George sinks all his money into one last silent epic. But audiences want to hear their stars as well as see them and soon, George has lost his wife, his home, his money, and his will to live. 

It goes without saying that love conquers all and that The Artist ends happily. Or maybe it doesn't. Free and Easy has a similar ending, but it's not a happy one, at least not for Elmer. The last shot of the film is a heart-breaking close-up of Keaton's face, his eyes closed tightly in sorrow, as Elvira heads off into the sunset with hammy Robert Montgomery. It's a tone-deaf denouement that makes me wonder if someone at MGM had been watching too many Chaplin films.

Sadly, Keaton's voice didn't work on film. This wasn't the only reason he failed in talkies, but it was part of it. George Valentin in The Artist has a similar problem, though we only realize at the very end what his problem is. And it's a funny, fitting conclusion to very good film.

Also funny is Jean Dujardin's performance as George. He has the toothy grin, bon vivant style and dashing good looks that made larger-than-life leading men so irresistible to audiences of the '20s, and so incongruous in the rough-hewn, down-and-dirty talkies of the early Depression. Berenice Bejo is adorable as Peppy, with the cheeky grin of Sylvia Sidney and the show-stopping moxie of Ginger Rogers. The chemistry between the two is sublime, particularly when they dance.

Hazanavicius generally does a pitch perfect job of evoking the visual style and cinematic grammar of the late '20s and early '30s. There are a few minor missteps that bring us out of the moment, like the aforementioned obscene gesture, some anachronistic, Orson Welles-esque angles in dramatic scenes, and exterior action sequences that would likely have been shot in front of rear-projected backdrops if the film was actually being made eighty years ago. But these are minor quibbles that only a fetishist (like me) would notice or care about. 

At its core, The Artist is a film about the universality of the language of cinema. If that's not clear it certainly becomes clear in the last minute of the film, which I won't spoil here. And nowhere is the cinematic language more universal than in silent comedy. In a delightful interstitial celebrating Buster as TCM's Star of the Month, veteran comic Richard Lewis talks about encountering Keaton's films for the first time on a trek across Europe in 1969. It was around that period that Keaton, Chaplin, the Marx Bros., and other highly visual comedians of a previous generation were rediscovered and embraced by young people, here and abroad. What an exciting time that must have been for those aging stars and their fans, new and old.

Sadly, Keaton didn't live to see it. He did, however, live long enough to experience a late-career revival with hilarious appearances in '60s teen comedies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Even at age 70 he was still taking pratfalls and generally doing anything for a laugh, like the go-for-broke showman he always was.  

Arguably, Keaton is more popular than ever, thanks to TCM's primetime broadcasts of his silent classics (and late night airings of lesser works, like Free and Easy). There's also an excellent series of DVD and Blu-ray releases from Kino Video of Keaton's shorts and features that I highly recommend.

And the spirit of Buster Keaton lives on in The Artist. Early in the movie, Peppy sneaks into George's dressing room and has a lovely, romantic scene with his empty blazer. It's a moment that immediately reminded me of Buster, and one I'm sure he would have loved. 

For more information on TCM's Buster Keaton programming in the month of October visit TCM.com 

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