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The "received opinion" of critics of the past concerning Keaton
(including the great James Agee, who ought to have known better) was
that sound films killed his career because his speaking voice was too
dark and raspy to be funny. This was, and is, total nonsense. Keaton
might actually have been *funnier* as a sound era actor, if he had been
granted the material and the creative freedom to make the pictures he
wanted. This film, made outside Hollywood and indeed outside the US,
proved that - as hobbled by alcoholism and depression as he was - the
Great Stone Face could still be great.
The funniest and most memorable gag in the film occurs early on when Buster, as a naively ambitious actor who has been hired to distribute advertising flyers for a bank disguised to look like French currency, accidentally gets his hands on the bank's *real* money and starts throwing it to passersby on the streets of Paris. His calm acceptance of the excitement of the crowd as they follow him around, scooping up the bank notes, is hysterical. (In one case, a man about to be married is given money by Keaton, and he runs away from his homely bride, shouting "Saved! Saved!") There is another great sight gag (this time influenced by Rene Clair) of the Board of Directors of the bank weeping and wailing in unison as they discover that Buster has literally tossed away the bank's fortune.
There is one other eye-popping sight gag that I'll never forget. In the gangster's lair, Buster is holding a glass of whiskey in his hand and one of the gangster's henchmen pats Buster on the back a little too roughly, so that the glass of whiskey jumps out of his glass and looks about to spill. Suddenly Buster reaches out and literally catches *every drop* of the precious alcohol in the glass before it hits the floor! Only Keaton could have dreamed up, much less pulled off, such an amazing gag. (The sting in the joke is that, as I have already mentioned, the great man had a serious drinking problem at the time.) Finally, I'd like to comment on his acting. In addition to playing the hapless actor Buster Garnier, he also portrays an escaped hoodlum, Scarface Jim. This was his only role as a villain (if you don't count his incredibly bizarre short, The Frozen North). Yet he is completely credible as the heavy, and it is, in fact, perfectly easy for the audience to guess which character Buster is playing at each moment, even when the gangster and the actor wear the same clothes. So the picture is one of his finest acting triumphs as well as perhaps his last great moment as a comedian.
Though my French is rudimentary, and though the print was unsubtitled, this film was a total joy, and is highly recommended.
Someone in France must have thought to exploit the potential of Buster as a schlemiel and a comic mime (which is his character in a nutshell, no?). Certainly this movie respects and uses him better than, say, "What, No Beer?" He is the central character and he gets a chance to run & look beleaguered, but the film lacks any sort of brilliance or madcap inventiveness, except in little details where Buster may have been adlibbing. It's worth seeking out for Keaton fans, for a few reasons: Buster gets to speak French (though he is speaking the lines, his voice is dubbed with a sort of scratchy French voice -- except at one point where his actual voice says "Ouvrir la porte!"); he gets to play a bad guy, an escaped American gangster who leads a chase for the "good" Buster & who shoots cops as he flees them (a surreal perversion of Buster's usual dilemma); and, probably the strangest sight, which comes just before the final fade (to "Fin") where Buster gets the girl, says "Oh, Baby!" and breaks into a big grin. Keaton fans can just imagine how odd it is to see that smileless face (& he remains stonefaced throughout the movie) lighten up and show how happy he is. The fact that this film is in unsubtitled French isn't too much of a drawback, since its sense is conveyed through action. Buster gets to dissolve societal order into chaos at least three times (he tosses away 5 million francs, he gets caught in a knight's helmet & disrupts a stage show, and he leads the cops & gangsters onto the stage of a very boring play, where they shoot each other & the stodgy orchestra, and rouses the audience from its lethargy). Some have said that this movie might have revived Keaton's career from its 1930's abyss, but I don't think so; the acting is too European and the setting is obviously not America, yet it's commonplace, rather than "exotic." It's true that Buster looks good and is in fine form, rather than seeming obviously drunk & depressed, but that doesn't necessarily relate to a movie's acceptance. A curio, particularly if you don't understand French.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This feature film is in one sense a disorienting experience, since it
looks and plays like one of the later Educational short subjects (with
its 'innocent caught up in jail break' plot, it reminded me somewhat of
"Jail Bait"), while featuring a visibly younger Keaton. In fact, he was
apparently still drinking heavily at this point, but there is no sign
of this in his performance. I've heard it suggested that if "Le Roi des
Champs-Elysees" had only received a US release it might have
rehabilitated Keaton's reputation; but having seen it, I have to say I
wouldn't have rested too many hopes on that myself.
It's not that the film is especially bad. (Keaton's French dialogue does sound dragging and semi-moronic in places, due I would guess either to laboured phonetic rendition of his lines and/or primitive dubbing techniques.) On the whole it comes across as a pretty low-budget production, with rather arbitrary plot development and lack of characterisation more reminiscent of a short than a full-fledged feature, especially where the two girls are concerned.
A lot of the humour is very broad: some of this (as when Buster's knocks are met by improbable crescendos of blubbering from within the boardroom) I found funny, some of it (yet another 'clumsy Buster disrupts theatrical spectacle' scenario -- twice!) fell flat. The beginning of the film, despite its memorable image, feels totally unconnected with the main plot, save for the slender thread that causes the girl to fall for Buster because he gives her not-really-fake money to pay the rent -- in itself a highly strained contrivance, since a trip into a tenement doesn't belong in his advertising campaign, and he himself believes the notes to be worthless...
On the other hand, cheap script and production values aside, there is actually a good deal to appreciate in the film, and it left me smiling. The scene in which Buster decides to commit suicide is a classic Keaton blend of humour in pathos without sentimentality -- the laughs are in the detail. His rotund, ever-optimistic mother is an entertaining creation (not to mention an unusual one -- Keaton's lonely failures seldom sport supportive relatives!), and in her role as stage prompt, provides an effective finale to the over-long slapstick scenery struggle. The chase at the end is well set up by the earlier scene, in itself entertaining, in which the various trap-doors and entrances are unwittingly demonstrated while Buster tries to escape the attentions of his loyal bodyguard. It's a classic case of double pay-off on the same gag.
But the notorious decision to have the 'Great Stone Face' break into a smile in the film's last few moments actually forms a very sweet and effective sequence that leaves the audience on a laugh. He reacts to the girl's kisses at first with distaste and embarrassment, then with dawning speculation (the mental process written clearly on his face), and finally -- with a lovely curling grin, and murmur (in French!) of "Oh, 'Baby'..." -- gets stuck in with enthusiasm. What appears grotesque in the circulated still, where he is caught with his mouth half-open, is actually infectiously attractive in motion; enough to give rise to the heresy of wishing that he'd done so more often!
The real interest in "Le Roi des Champs-Elysees", however, despite its uneven qualities, lies in Keaton's parallel performance in the role of Jimmy, the American hoodlum. Practically every long-running TV series seems to boast an 'evil twin/clone/double' episode where the heroic leading man can re-assert his claim to be a bona fide actor as well as a heart-throb: this film demonstrates something that hadn't even occurred to me, that -- with his low growl, angular features, iron grip and the jerky, assertive movements we see in rare clips of him as director -- if fate had intervened otherwise, Buster Keaton could have made a career as a perfectly credible villain.
When he is kidnapped as a hapless innocent, the very idea that the leader of the criminals could possibly resemble this diminutive figure in any way appears to be yet another contrivance to be accepted for the sake of the plot. But when Jimmy, whom we have hitherto only glimpsed in snatches, bulls his way back into their headquarters, alert, snarling and palpably dangerous, the concept is suddenly not preposterous at all. It's not simply the way that Keaton demonstrates his ability to differentiate his two characters (although he does, to a degree that made me forget that any screen wizardry was involved in having the two in the story at the same time); it's the sheer perceptual shift of surprise in realising that Buster Keaton isn't actually a hundred miles removed from the pug-like power of a Jimmy Cagney, should he so choose.
I can't honestly recommend this as an unjustly neglected classic: it has the flaws of a low-budget two-reeler without the laugh-a-minute virtues of the compact format. ("Jail Bait", for example, is funnier.) On the other hand, by and large it doesn't drag the way that many of the MGM features do, it doesn't suffer from the same curse of unfunny dialogue (unless I'm simply missing intended nuances in the French), and Keaton himself gives the welcome impression of being engaged and interested by the work.
As comedy, it's patchy but watchable; a small production cashing in on the opportunity to get a big name on the cheap, I'd guess, and a project that apparently didn't pay off for either party in renewed success. However, as a missing piece in Keaton's jigsaw -- both in featuring the 'dark' role and in the one-off use of his smile -- it is definitely fascinating, and not such bad entertainment either. It's not going to rehabilitate any reputations, but I'm glad it has survived.
And incidentally, it also has an infuriatingly catchy theme tune...
This is good movie. I found a fairly clear copy with English subtitles
from A-1 video, image and sound properly in-sync, but image tightly
cropped, and it can be seen from reading the subs that the movie has
none of the awful joke-dialogue that plague the MGM comedies. The story
is well put together and, unusually, I can find nothing I would edit
down or cut out. It is not a high-budget affair, but the script does
not require it.
The notion that a U.S. release of this film might have revived Buster Keaton's career doesn't make any sense: the general public still loved Keaton in the early 1930s, and his worst movies were very successful; the only way of "reviving" his career would have been for a major studio to hand over full production of movie-making to Buster, and I don't see how this film or any other non-Buster directed movie would have accomplished that. However, if the idea is that "Le Roi " brought Keaton back to his old self, well, that's debatable, but he does not seem to be fighting for his comic life, either.
Of course, under Keaton's direction, the photography might have been pellucid instead of so much shadowy-gray, and the cinematography probably would have focused more clearly on the gag and story elements. If Buster had been completely in control, no doubt he would have found an even higher level of wit or irony in the story, and greater comedy in the details with probably a few innovative stunts as well; but overall "Le Roi " remains a successful, if lesser Keaton vehicle. It is a particularly surprising and moving accomplishment to have taken place during the most disastrous time of his life, a time of suffering that would have killed anyone with less inner strength and resilience. This is a movie that deserves restoration and perhaps dubbing (so we can always watch the all-important physical action instead of reading).
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