When a great film star accepts an academy award, he reflects on a comedian he worked with in the early film days, owing his success to him, not realizing that man is now destitute, watching the show on TV from a barstool.
Kelsey Dutton once was a great name of silent comedies. But, for all his talent, sound made him redundant a quarter century before. Now he is no more than a face in the crowd. And a sad one at that! At the moment, Kelsey finds himself in a bar where he is brooding over a beer. The TV is on for both Barney, the barman, and Selma, a movie fan, want to see a program airing the Academy Awards ceremony. Which they do, not without being disturbed by a group of noisy fellows. At a time appears on the screen the famed director Arthur Vail, who takes advantage of his being presented the statuette to pay homage to a forgotten actor without whom he would not be recognized as he is tonight. An amazing performer by the name of... Kelsey Dutton. Written by
"The industry has lost a great talent and I lost a great friend" (Arthur Vail)
As an actual movie, this two-reeler does not really lift above the fray. But considered from a historical and emotional viewpoint, "The Silent Partner" becomes a glittering little gem. First of all tribute must be paid to Hal Roach and Hal Roach, Jr., who produced the "Screen Directors Playhouse". This wonderful 1955-56 series has indeed the remarkable quality to have allowed directors and stars of the big screen to express themselves freely on the small one, among whom John Ford, John Wayne and many others. As regards this particular episode, it is to filmmaker George Marshall that Roach (one of the kings of slapstick comedies) and his son gave a free hand to do whatever he liked. Marshall, who had been a comedy specialist in the 1920s and one of Laurel and Hardy's favorite directors, understandably chose to reminisce about this period. In the story he co-wrote (something he rarely did), he imagines famous director Arthur Vail (Joe E.Brown) choosing to dedicate the Oscar he is being presented to a forgotten star of silent comedies and former friend, Kelsey Dutton, whose career was broken by the advent of sound. And who could embody Dutton better than the "man with the impassive face", Buster Keaton himself? A genius, whose incredible talent had been suddenly denied and who had been marginalized for a quarter century. Vail's words, "The industry lost a great talent" are eloquent in this respect and can be interpreted as an act of contrition from Hollywood. Of course, Keaton was already sixty, but... better late than never! To this moving aspect you can add Marshall's delight in recreating the silent era (in two telltale sequences: the shooting of a silent melodrama disturbed by Dutton's irrelevant intervention and the re-run of a sight gag-filled spoof western). As well as the pleasure the director feels to work with veterans he has carefully selected, among whom cinematographer Ed DuPar, cutter Bert Jordan (who started editing for Hal Roach in 1915) and performers ZaSu Pitts, Heinie Conklin, Hank Mann and Snub Pollard. Keaton fans, slapstick lovers, movie buffs, you just cannot miss this unusual piece of filming, at once an act of love, an act of contrition and a source of laughs. Take my word for it, you will not find an equivalent to such a cocktail easily.
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