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 Butts leaves his small Arizona town for New York where he has decided to try his luck on a radio amateur show. The trouble is that, though not without talent, Elmer is a very clumsy fellow with a knack for being off the mark and putting himself in impossible situations. To begin with, he arrives late at the studio and he has to wait a whole week before the next broadcast. Which leaves him extra time to rehearse but he blunders once more in annoying the girl in the room below, which is all the more regrettable as he is smitten with her. When the great day comes, he announces a... juggling act! Not really radio-friendly, is it? To cap it all he creates havoc among the musicians and incurs the band leader's wrath. In these conditions, Elmer's career is bound to be short-lived! Written by
This 1936 short from Educational Pictures is often held up as an example that Buster Keaton, now being given a chance to write his own material again, still had it in the sound era. Well it should be, not just because just about every joke and sequence lands dead-on and hilariously, but because the whole two-reeler is a kind of comic riff on sound itself.
The wonderful "So Long Elmer" song parody at the start, the sequence of Elmer keeping the girl downstairs (who is involved in a perfectly-developed running-gag) awake with his practicing, his impromptu dance to the medley, his wonderfully non-radio-appropriate novelty acts, and his disruption of the orchestra, all depend on and relate to sound in order to work. It's appropriate that the first talkie short that Keaton really had control over should be a kind of meditation in comedy form on sound itself, not to mention set around a radio station (and the satire of Major Bowes is dead-on without being too much).
Buster himself is great. He style-changing dance is truly impressive and athletic as well as being funny, and one-hundred per-cent physical and non-verbal while still one-hundred per-cent dependent on the sound medium to work. Keaton said in interviews that most early talkies bothered him because there was unnecessary talking -- characters should speak to each other when they have something to say. He puts that principle into effect here and appropriately says nothing, but still carries the scene off completely, while alone in his room, but delivers his dialogue with panache as well. I got a laugh from his delivery alone when he assures the announcer "I made sure of that!" after being asked if his prop whiskey bottle was empty. His problem was never that he couldn't deliver dialogue well. Of course, there are visual gags too, such as when Diana Lewis disappears behind the bus, that bear Keaton's hallmark completely.
"Grand Slam Opera" is really satisfyingly funny all the way through, and it has that unmistakable and unique eccentricity of spirit found in many of Keaton's silent's. That's what really makes his work special, and here it is translated into a sound-dependent style of film-making in a way that really works, over and over again.
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