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When commercial television came along in the late 1940s it provided
legions of show business veterans with new career opportunities. Aging
vaudevillians and silent era comics who'd been hustling for bit parts
in movies found themselves in demand once more, filling slots on T.V.
variety shows with ancient routines that were newly fresh for younger
viewers and provided a touch of nostalgia for their elders. Buster
Keaton was a major beneficiary of the new medium. The '40s had been a
fallow period for Buster, but by 1950 he was hosting his own weekly
T.V. series and doing guest shots on many other programs. Suddenly, and
after a long dry spell, Keaton was famous again, performing well-honed
bits from his classic comedies for live audiences.
Filmed in 1955, "The Silent Partner" was something a little different. This was a half-hour dramatic episode from an anthology series, one of many such series that flourished at the time, and it served as something of a tribute (and explicit apology) to Keaton and all the other long-neglected veterans from the silent days. Buster plays a once-famous comedy star named Kelsey Dutton, a character clearly meant to be a version of himself. The story is set in a greasy spoon diner in Hollywood, located a few doors down from the theater where the Academy Awards ceremony is taking place. While the show plays on a T.V. over the bar the diner's regulars exchange quips, bicker, and pay little attention to the stranger in their midst, an old man in a baggy suit who sits at the counter sipping a beer, watching the show in silence. When a movie director named Arthur Vail (played by Joe E. Brown) receives a lifetime achievement award the televised tribute includes clips from his early comedies starring Kelsey Dutton, and the denizens of the diner gradually realize that the old man at the counter is Dutton himself. In the end, it's implied that the renewed attention brought by the Oscars telecast will result in a career comeback for Dutton --which, obviously, echoes the real-life role T.V. played in Buster Keaton's life.
The intended highlight of "The Silent Partner" is Keaton's recreation of his silent film routines in the televised Oscars tribute, but for me this is where the show falls short. The routines Buster performs here are primitive compared to his own actual comedies; Kelsey Dutton's movies look like the sort of thing Ford Sterling was doing at Keystone in 1913, and give viewers a skewed idea of what the best silent comedy was really like. The humor is based on broad slapstick, falls, and silly props, and, worse, the segment is accompanied by the shrill sound of a raucous laugh track. I wish the producers of this show had simply inserted clips from such classics as The Goat or Cops instead of staging these rather patronizing sequences.
Even so, "The Silent Partner" has a number of elements in its favor. The diner sequences are the true highlight, and Buster gets an opportunity to demonstrate his dramatic acting chops in these ensemble scenes. The supporting cast features several familiar faces, not only Joe E. Brown but ZaSu Pitts as an eccentric (of course) lady at the diner who remembers the old days. Jack Elam is cast against type in a brief bit as a pompous stage actor who disdains the movies, while Evelyn Ankers, best known from Universal's '40s horror flicks, plays Kelsey Dutton's leading lady in the flashbacks. Most surprising of all, Bob Hope turns up in a brief cameo as himself, hosting the Oscars broadcast in a scene shot specifically for this program.
While this show isn't all it might have been, it's an unusual treat for silent comedy fans who will likely find the finale quite moving. Incidentally, "The Silent Partner" was filmed at the Hal Roach Studio, one-time home base for Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang kids. And, in a happy postscript: five years after this T.V. episode was filmed Buster Keaton --not Kelsey Dutton-- finally received his own honorary Oscar.
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.
Screen Directors Playhouse: The Silent Partner (1955)
*** (out of 4)
Extremely well-made story about a group of strangers who gather in a small bar where they plan on watching the Academy Awards. The host (Bob Hope) of the show is giving a Lifetime Achievement award to a man (Joe E. Brown) who thanks a silent partner who helped him make great movies. What no one knows is that this silent partner (Buster Keaton) just happens to be in the bar. If you're a fan of silent movies then this here is a must-see as we get one terrific performance after another but what makes the film so memorable is that it's clearly a tribute to all the silent stars who were forgotten by the time this thing was released to TV. The film re-enacts two silent movies and this is where Keaton gets to do his physical type of comedy that he was so loved for. Keaton was nearly 60-years-old when he did this movie so when we see the silent clips there's no question he's not as fast on his feet but I think the effort warrants an A+ and there's no question he still has that wonderful timing. I thought the first film where we see how the character got his start in the pictures was extremely funny. The second bit wasn't that good but it was still great seeing Keaton in another silent picture. The supporting cast includes Zasu Pitts in a very good performance playing a movie fan in the bar who doesn't recognize the famous face next to her. Bob Hope plays himself and we get Percy Helton, Jack Elam, Evelyn Ankers and 'Snub' Pollard in the cast. Joe E. Brown doesn't have the biggest part but it was great seeing him in the film. Being able to see all these famous names, many from the silent era, together again is certainly worth sitting through the 27-minutes. THE SILENT PARTNER was certainly a love letter to those pre-sound days and when you consider that the majority of the cast, including director Marshall, were involved in those days it's no wonder this film turned out so well.
Well executed window into movie past. We get a good look at Buster
Keaton silent-era slapstick through clever use of apparent flashback
(re-enacted silents, not real silents). For younger viewers, it's a
chance to see one of that early era's most celebrated comedy stars in
action. How funny you find the slam-bang style is likely a matter of
The sequence framing the flashback is set in modern day with an appropriate heart-warming theme. Kelsey Dutton (Keaton), now a forgotten has-been, is sitting alone in a cut-rate bar, watching TV and an Oscar presented to his former comedy director Arthur Vail (Joe E. Brown). It doesn't help that Vail pays tribute to Dutton to the millions watching. And not even the other bar patrons recognize the former star now sitting alone among them. Despite the pathos, the storyline ends appropriately.
A notable supporting cast also distinguishes the 1955 production. Joe E. Brown had a very successful comedic movie career in the 1930's and 40's, while Zasu Pitts was a well-known ditzy specialist from the same period. And catch that great little gnome Percy Helton as the bartender, along with horror movie queen Evelyn Ankers as the flashback's lady in distress.
All in all, it's a cleverly done look into movies past, featuring one of its biggest comedy names.
When I returned home from work yesterday I came across a Joe E. Brown films marathon on TCM. I sat through three of Joe E. Brown's slapstick feature comedies from the early thirties. I enjoyed each film immensely and I had several belly laughs. The last item on the schedule was The Silent Partner. I have never seen any of the episodes from the Screen Directors Playhouse. Oddly enough, TCM was paying homage to television programs from 1955 that was paying homage to the silent movie era, circa 1916 to 1926. I found it was a real treat, and I loved all of the outstanding actors who were in on the fun. I must admit I was especially pleased with Jack Elam part as Shank. Elam is most remembered for playing a baddie in numerous cowboy movies and program, but he was a very skillful physical comic as well. Of course, Buster Keaton stole the show in the end.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
OFTEN A STYLE OR a particular way of doing things will go by the
wayside and almost immediately be nearly forgotten. Hence, we have a
sterling example of this phenomenon in the ascent of talking pictures;
which relegated the silents to a state of unwanted. They were taken in
wholesale numbers and withdrawn, discarded and lost.
SOME SHORT SUBJECTS, Sports Films and Cartoons were given post-synchronized sound tracks; which featured mostly sound effects and innocuous musical scores in both theme and incidental music. Additionally, often the title cards were excised; leaving the movies seemingly senseless and extremely difficult to watch and follow the story line, such as it was.
WITH THE ADVENT of the TV Set becoming a fixture in the typical home, some silents were to be seen daily over the "Tube." We were treated to the exploits of such luminaries of the Silent Screen as Snub Pollard, Charley Chase, The 3 Tons of Fun*, Bobby Vernon and Harry Langdon performing going through their paces, while being the recipients of off screen narration by the likes of Buffalo Bob Smith (on HOWDY DOODY TIME) and "Uncle" Johnny Coons (on UNCLE JOHNNY COONS TIME).
AFTER THE PASSING of a few years, the old Nostalgia Bug set in and we collectively seemed to desire to know more about this Silent Era and those veterans who lived it and were still around to honor. One avenue of educating an public, anxious for knowledge of these "Old Time Moview was the creation of the abridged anthology television series, SILENTS PLEASE (BlaBla, 1960).** ANOTHER COMMON, BUT less consistent pathway was the inclusion of an occasional Silent Film Spoff Episode in many of the series that were so common and successful.*** Today's subject, SCREEN DIRECTOR'S PLAYHOUSE: THE SILENT PARTNER (Hal Roach Studios/NBC, 1955), is just one such of an example of this sub-genre.
STARRING THE FORMER member of the Silent Screens "Big 3" Comedians, Buster Keaton, the half-hour episode (essemtially a Short Subject), had the additional advantage of showcasing the skills of George Marshall. Mr. Marshall, himself a veteran of the Silents, had in the ensuing years worked his way up from doing short subjects to features.
AS FOR THE story, it is a sincere attempt to remind us of how time can wither away at whatever success and fame that we can build over the course of a career, whatever the field. The setting was in a Bar Room, which is adjacent to the Theatre which is staging the Academy Awards Show (Oscars). Patron, Zasu Pitts, recognizes a stranger in the tavern as being a former comedy star, now all but forgotten. Eventually, he goes into the awards show and is honored.
THIS EPISODE IS a sincere and honest attempt to both bring an almost subject to the forefront; while at the same time, providing an interesting edition of a fine, all too short lived of a television series.
THERE IS AN almost uncontrollable impulse for us to draw a comparison to another TV episode featuring Mr. Keaton. It is THE TWILIGHT ZONE: ONCE UPON A TIME (Cayuga Productions/CBS TV, 1961). of the two, THE SILENT PARTNER is the one with more story; but ONCE UPON A TIME provides a better stage from which to give us brief snippet of the comic skills of all time genius, Mr. Keaton.
BOTH CAN BE readily viewed; with DIRECTOR'S PLAYHOUSE Episodes being featured on Turner Classic Movies and THE TWILIGHT ZONE regularly appearing on the SCI FI CHANNEL and MEE TV.
This is an episode of a rather amazing Hal Roach Studios TV series, as
the stars and directors of these shows were pretty impressive. Here,
George Marshall directs Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts and Joe E. Brown--and
a small appearance by Bob Hope as the Academy Awards emcee.
The show is set in the 1950s when the show debuted. It's about a faded silent star, Kelsey Dutton (Keaton)--and this is quite fitting since Stevens first successes were with silent comedies. Keaton enters a bar where a couple patrons (including Pitts) are debating over the merits of some film...as well as whether to watch the Oscars on TV in the bar. During the telecast, they see Brown receive an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievements. During Brown's acceptance speech, he gives thanks to Dutton and you then see a flashback scene that makes up much of the episode. It seems that Dutton's roots as a film comedian began with a chance blundering into a scene that was being filmed--and he didn't even know it wasn't real. Now, sadly, he's almost forgotten--much like Keaton in real life.
This episode of "Screen Directors Playhouse" is incredibly nostalgic and a bit maudlin. However, for fans of silent comedy (and I am definitely one), it's a must see--a nice homage to the genre. And, if you like this, try seeing Chaplin's "Limelight" (which also has a nice cameo by Keaton)--another homage to comedy of yesterday that was made shortly before this episode. Not great but well worth seeing.
By the way, for this show they made some fake silent comedy clips. They really weren't all that funny and I wonder why they didn't just show some of Keaton's actual clips from this golden age.
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