Published on June 3rd, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy0
Oldie of the Week – Buster Keaton’s “Daydreams” and “The Frozen North”
Taylor hits us up with another fantastic old school recommendation. This week, we get two for the price of one: analysis of a couple late Keaton shorts.
This past week, The Giornate del Cinema Muto, a silent film festival that takes place every year in Pordenone, Italy, announced that it would be employing an online format this year do to COVID-19. While it is unfortunate that silent film lovers won’t be able to gather and celebrate the medium as they usually do, perhaps having the films’ online availability will help them find a wider audience than they otherwise would. Regardless of whether this hope comes to pass, the news inspired me to step further back into cinema history this week by discussing the short films of Buster Keaton, collected in a blu-ray box set by Kino Lorber films in 2015.
In particular, I’d like to highlight some moments from two of his final short films, Daydreams and The Frozen North, both released in 1922. Much has been written about Keaton’s genius at physical comedy over the years, so I’d like to discuss some of the under-appreciated aspects of his comedy, noting his use of comedic dialogue and intertitles as a counterpoint to, and means of enhancing and building on, the visual gags. In doing so, I’ll get into some more general observations about the unique formal properties of silent film, and about silent film spectatorship in the modern era.
Perhaps the most significant formal difference between films made during the silent era and those made after is the presence of intertitles. In the absence of recorded dialogue, character speech and expository narration was handled through shots of written text edited in between the action. Intertitles were thus generally used to convey story information in a straightforward manner, but some films recognized that intertitles can be used in more inventive and creative ways, allowing them to be a formal element that can generate aesthetic affects in and of themselves. Some films use intertitles playfully, with the dialogue being written to reflect specific character dialects and vernacular speech that could not be conveyed otherwise in silent films. Other films take things further, changing the shape and size of the intertitle text will be in order to represent the tone and tenor of a character’s voice, thus using intertitles in a visually expressive way as a means of representing characters’ subjective emotional states.
In Keaton’s films, however, the emphasis is primarily on the physical comedy, while intertitles are most commonly used to establish the scenario, creating a setup-punchline rhythm where the absurdity of the visual gag contrasts with the straightforward description of a situation from the title cards. The opening titles of The Blacksmith, for instance, speak of the burly men who work at such a job, only to followed by a shot of the slight Keaton, whose flexing biceps are revealed to be nothing but air in his shirt. In these cases, the emphasis is on the visual gag as a counterpoint to the description established by the intertitle, but what about cases where the intertitle serves as the punchline? These cases are rarer in Keaton’s films, but can provide some of the biggest laughs when the titles are unexpectedly used to finish the gag started by the visuals, reversing the usual formula.
A good example of this is in Daydreams, the bulk of which concerns Keaton’s attempts to perform various jobs, in the hopes of landing a successful one that will allow him to provide for his sweetheart and win the approval of her father. The film establishes a comedic rhythm whereby Buster writes to his girl about his latest fancy job, with shots of his letters in the intertitles, followed by a cut to him working at some menial job that is completely different and far less prestigious than his letters claim.
After a scene of physical comedy as he flounders as a street cleaner or vaudeville performer, the film cuts to a shot of his latest letter, wherein he announces himself to be moving on to another, entirely unrelated job. Here the intertitles are skillfully employed as both the setup and punchline to a comedic scenario; they provide a final joke to the previous gag, where we see Buster flailing about ridiculously, by immediately cutting to his letter where he succinctly announces his intent to move on to something completely different, while also establishing the scenario of the next scene. The brevity of his letters and the incongruity of the jobs he describes make these intertitles some of the funniest moments in the film, as in my personal favourite: “I’ve had enough of the stock exchange. I’m now acting in Hamlet by Shakespeare.”
Another funny dialogue gag comes at the beginning of the film, when Buster announces to his girlfriend and her father that he will wither become successful or kill himself, to which the father replies, “Fine, I’ll lend you my revolver.” At the end of the film, after Buster has failed in his mission to find gainful employment, he comes back his girl’s house and dutifully attempts suicide, though of course he fails at that too. Occasionally, the misfortunes of Buster’s hapless characters could get quite morbid, as in this example, but Keaton was not one to shy away from darkly comedic gags. A good example of this comes in The Frozen North, the darkest gag of this film also being a strong example of the intertitle as unexpected punchline.
A significant aspect of the film that will be largely lost on modern audiences is that it parodies the western melodramas of the period, in particular those starring William S. Hart. Hart was one of the biggest stars of the period, appearing in countless westerns where he often played an outlaw character with a sensitive, romantic side. Keaton’s costume and violent persona parodies the typical Hart character, and both the rugged and sensitive sides of the Hart persona are spoofed in the gag in question, where Keaton’s unscrupulous outlaw shoots a woman and her lover, believing her to be his wife, in cold blood, before going to inspect their bodies. When he does, there is a cut to an intertitle which bluntly says “I’ve made a mistake. This isn’t my house or my wife,” an incredibly bleak twist whose humour stems in part from how much it contrasts with what we expect from Keaton. He then cries a single exaggerated tear in another parodic jab at Hart’s melodramatic western characters.
Discussing the different uses of intertitles in silent film also brings to mind some of the challenges involved with watching silent films today. Many modern editions of silent films have been compiled from various sources which may not always be in good physical condition, and sometimes entire sections of a film are lost. This means that films will have to be extensively cleaned up and restored, but in some cases only so much can be done to save degraded prints, and we have to make do with what we have. One small issue I have with the Keaton films as presented on the Kino Blu-ray is that in some cases the original intertitles were not used, likely due to their poor quality, so they have been redone with newly filmed shots of the original text. Unfortunately, these intertitles look like they were created with modern digital tools to such an extent that it clashes with the aesthetic of the original footage, and the effect can be somewhat jarring, or at least noticeably incongruous in ways which can slightly dampen the comedic impact of the dialogue.
However, when modern viewers are lucky enough to see a good-looking print of a silent film, as in the version of Daydreams included on the Kino Blu-ray, it serves as a reminder of the silent cinema’s ability to remain impactful. The final chase sequence of Daydreams, with its gorgeous tracking shots of Keaton running through the city and riding on the streetcar, has a sense of excitement, movement, and energy that still comes through to this day, a testament to Keaton’s lasting brilliance as a filmmaker. When viewing work like Keaton’s, the ability of the silent cinema to remain vital and powerful even a century after the films were made is made readily apparent.
Stream both Daydreams and The Frozen North on Youtube via the links below.