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Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Well do you?
I can't understand a word he's saying!
He's asking if you'll swear...
No, but I know all the words.
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Poor Buster! He looks deeply unhappy here, and no wonder
Maybe this isn't the worst movie Buster Keaton ever appeared in, but it sure felt like a long, long way to spend 74 minutes, and I regret to say that the 'The End' title came as something of a relief to me. Buster was a truly great comedian, but watching this film is no way to appreciate his talent, especially if you've never seen his best work from the silent days. Viewers unfamiliar with the details of his career should know right off that Keaton made this movie (and his other early talkies) during an unhappy stint at MGM, where he was denied creative control of his material and forced to take ill-fitting assignments. Sidewalks of New York is a prime example from a generally dismal series. Recently I was sorry to find a VHS copy of the film on the shelf with other videos at a local library, and to make matters worse they didn't appear to have any of Keaton's other, better movies, just this one. Wherever he is, Buster is wincing.
What's wrong with it? Well, where to start? The dialog is generally labored and witless, but feels even worse because this is an early talkie with no musical score whatsoever, so the actors exchange their clunky jokes accompanied only by the low hiss of the soundtrack. Next problem, the casting is off. Buster has been assigned the role of Homer Van Dine Harmon, a dim-witted product of Old Money. This sort of part suited him in silent movies due to his elegant appearance, but it feels all wrong in a talkie because, let's face it, the man didn't speak in the cultivated tones of a moneyed person sent to the finest schools. (I'm trying to phrase this delicately.) Buster Keaton was a brilliant comic artist but he was not well educated, at least not in the conventional sense. He grew up backstage and learned all about show business, not subjects they teach at Harvard. His voice was harsh and his grammar was poor, and he tended to impose his own phrasing on the dialog he was given, so he'd say things like "That don't feel good." He doesn't sound like a child of privilege, and when he's given such bogus things to say as "You strike me as a trifle unbalanced," as in this film, he sounds even less so. Furthermore, Homer's dimness lacks the distinctive eccentricity Buster displayed in his best silent comedies: he's merely stupid. Worse still, MGM has placed Buster's annoyingly dim-witted millionaire in the middle of a sentimentalized Lower East Side slum, full of picturesque Little Tough Guys with nicknames like Baloney. The real-world euphemism for "Baloney" sums up this script succinctly.
The plot hinges on Homer's attempts to clean up the slum and provide the kids with wholesome activities; his primary motivation is to impress Margie (Anita Page), the older sister of one of the boys. The Hollywood ghetto feels phony, and the script's version of snappy dialog is painful at times, but even so this premise offered the potential for decent visual comedy if those genuinely dim-witted millionaires who ran MGM had allowed their star to develop some of his characteristic set-pieces. But no, this project has the look of something cranked out in a hurry, and the exquisitely funny routines we remember from Keaton's silent features have been reduced to mercilessly repetitive bits in which Buster gets punched, trips, flails, drops things, clunks his head, breaks more stuff, and falls over again.
Even Keaton's weakest comedies usually have a scene or two worth seeing. (Perhaps the only exception is the abysmal feature he made in Mexico in the mid-1940s: all prints of that one should be seized with fireplace tongs and tossed into a raging furnace.) Sidewalks of New York provides a moment or two, but the pickings are pretty slim. There's a modestly funny sequence in which Buster attempts to carve a roast duck, and another in which he and Cliff Edwards mess up an amateur stage performance, but any comedian worthy of the name could have performed these scenes. Keaton's MGM bosses just couldn't figure out what made him unique, or else they just didn't care. On balance, there's no compelling reason to see this movie, and I'd suggest that the 74 minutes it takes to view it could be more profitably and enjoyably spent watching any of Buster's silent features.
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