An unimpressive but well intending man is given the chance to marry a popular actress, of whom he has been a hopeless fan. But what he doesn't realize is that he is being used to make the actress' old flame jealous.
Elmer, rich society loafer, falls for Mary, but she'll have nothing to do with him until (mistakenly thinking that he's hiring a new chauffeur) he accidentally volunteers for the army. Luckily, Mary's signed up to entertain the troops. Unluckily, Elmer's sergeant likes Mary, too. And worst of all, they're all about to ship out for France. Written by
In 1941, after President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress passed the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, Buster Keaton approached MGM to see if they would be interested in making a sequel to "Doughboys." He had found that all the principal actors in "Doughboys" were still alive and living in the L.A. area, and he intended to use them in the sequel as they had naturally aged. MGM's executives turned him down because they didn't think a comedy about the peacetime draft would draw audiences. Then Universal released Abbott and Costello's "Buck Privates," a comedy about the peacetime draft, and it became the most successful film of 1941. See more »
Should have been the starting template for Keaton's sound features
After "Free and Easy", I was seriously starting to wonder if I could bear to stick out the rest of Buster Keaton's MGM talkies. But in fact I not only managed to tolerate this; I actually enjoyed it.
"Doughboys" is never going to be anybody's classic, but it's a perfectly decent little picture. The quality of the contents is not great, but pretty consistent; its best moments never quite reach the heights of the best of "Three Ages" or "Spite Marriage", let alone, say, "Steamboat Bill, Jr"... but quite frankly, its worst moments are actually better than the more tedious sections of the former two movies. MGM's script department have, apparently, finally got their act together, and the dialogue is far more fluid -- and funnier -- than the laboured humour of "Free and Easy". Such a benchmark scarcely implies, of course, that the scenes necessarily sparkle in any way, but they're entertaining and seldom outstay their welcome. The cardinal virtue of this film in comparison with its predecessor is that it's rarely an embarrassment to watch.
Keaton himself appears much happier with his material here, and -- again unlike "Free and Easy" -- "Doughboys" clearly bears his stamp. This may be a talkie, but it's recognisably a Buster Keaton film, and allegedly one with autobiographical elements, as when he asks for a smaller pair of Army boots! We see the welcome return of Buster's trademark range of deadpan reactions, and revisit a couple of silent-era gags -- funnier when seen for the first time, but still old friends. The balance of visual versus verbal humour is much more even overall in this film, and it's better for it.
Sadly, given the age-distorted soundtrack of the print one problem this non-American viewer faced was considerable difficulty with some of the actors' accents. Buster himself is fine, but there were a couple of scenes -- including, unfortunately, the finale -- where I completely failed to understand what had just happened because a vital line was delivered in what appeared to be thick dialect.
My other principal dialogue issue is that (apparently gratuitous) line about Buster's being twenty-three, when he is quite evidently ten years older! Since the character is represented at both start and end of the film as being in a fairly senior position in the firm, and since his father and namesake is apparently old enough to have retired, I simply can't see any script logic in wrong-footing the audience in this way.
"Doughboys" doesn't have anything like the inventiveness or laugh quotient of Keaton's own early short films, or the depth of his great silent features, but there's nothing too much wrong with it bar a few mildly tedious stretches. An inoffensive lightweight comedy that no-one -- studio included -- need be ashamed of; as an apprenticeship in the technique of talkie humour this is fine, and it's nice to see places where Keaton is clearly enjoying himself again. Personally, I'd rather watch this than, say, "The Love Nest": at any rate it really doesn't deserve Leonard Maltin's dismissal as "one of Buster's worst films".
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