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The police are hunting for a jewel thief. Two detectives follow a suspect who ducks into Keaton's Snappy Hats, where all hats are four-thirds off. The thief, a good-looking gal, has the clerk model several hats before she picks one; she slips a huge diamond ring into the band and asks the clerk to deliver the hat to her house. At her flat he finds an irrepressible maid, Odette; complications arise when Odette bangs her head and the clerk revives her with too much whiskey. The thief, the clerk, the maid, and a parrot are soon in various forms of duress, distress, and undress. Written by
Buster grimly plays straight man to the worst comedienne of all time
A couple of years ago I was at a library near where I work and was dismayed to find that the video selection included only one Buster Keaton movie, Sidewalks of New York, an abysmal feature he made for MGM in the early talkie days. Anyone who had never seen Buster's great silent comedies and watched this film instead would get a badly distorted idea of his abilities, and might never want to give him another chance. Now, to add to the frustration, I find that the library down the street from where I live has just acquired its first Keaton material on DVD: a two-disc set of short comedies he made for Columbia Pictures in the late 1930s and early '40s, comedies which, in my opinion, represent the nadir of Buster's entire career. Even the weakest sound features he made at MGM have their moments here and there, and several of the two-reel shorts he appeared in at Educational Pictures in the mid-'30s are surprisingly enjoyable, but the Columbia series is the pits. Jules White, who directed most of them, favored a fast-loud-and-violent approach to film-making, and to say that this is contrary to the spirit of Keaton's best work is putting the matter politely. Wit is absent from these films, and all a viewer can do is feel sorry for the star as he valiantly attempts to lend these bargain basement comedies a touch of class.
I single out The Taming of the Snood for comment because it may well be the worst of the bunch. The closest this short gets to humor is in the opening sequence, when Buster, who runs a hat shop, tries to lure a skeptical lady customer into making a purchase by modeling several goofy new creations. The problem with this scene is obvious: any comedian can get laughs by putting on silly hats. This sort of shtick is for second-stringers like El Brendel or Hugh Herbert, not Buster Keaton. (You don't even need a professional: your Uncle Bob can get a laugh with a funny hat.) Furthermore, fans of his best work will only be reminded of the great hat shop sequence in his silent feature Steamboat Bill, Jr., where the laughs were inspired not by the hats themselves but rather through a carefully developed situation and the star's inspired performance.
In any event, Buster is soon plunged into a half-hearted plot concerning crooks and ill-gotten gain. A stolen jewel is hidden in the band of his famous pork-pie hat, and then we're whisked away to an apartment building where Buster must make a delivery. It is here that he encounters a low-comedy maid played by Elsie Ames, and the picture goes straight down the tubes. Elsie Ames is, bar none, the worst comic I've ever seen. She mugs, she rolls her eyes, she assumes "funny" voices and seems to think she's the cutest thing going. This would be acceptable in a grade school pageant where the performers are, say, 7 years old, but in an adult these outrageously hammy antics are deeply irritating. If Ames had given a performance like this at Keystone back in 1913 director Mack Sennett would have stopped the camera and told her to tone it down a little, but apparently Jules White egged her on. Meanwhile, all Buster can do try to maintain his dignity while this freak makes a fool of herself. There is a brief attempt to re-enact The Three Keatons' table routine from Buster's vaudeville childhood, but Elsie ruins it with her loud-mouthed buffoonery. The final scenes involve a pet parrot who gets the jewel attached to his leg, flies out the window, and nestles on a flagpole. Buster, working in front of a depressingly obvious rear-projection screen, climbs out onto the ledge and engages in some bogus "thrill" comedy while Ames continues to make a nuisance of herself right down to the final fade-out. At that point I imagine Buster heaved a sigh of relief and hustled off to the Bursar's Office to collect his paycheck.
All I can add is that if you're browsing the shelves of your local library and see this collection of Keaton's Columbia output, do yourself a favor: skip it, and seek out his silent work instead. When Buster left Columbia in 1941 he was quoted as saying that he "couldn't stomach turning out even one more crummy two-reeler." If you happen to see The Taming of the Snood you'll find out just what he meant.
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