Blindspotting: A Night At The Opera and The Navigator

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I remember a Saturday evening many years ago sitting down with my Dad to watch the Marx Brothers. I think we had tuned into PBS around 7PM and a double bill of Monkey Business and Horse Feathers was showing. Together they didn’t even total 2 and a half hours, but holy crap did we cram in the laughs. It was silly, goofy and appealed to every juvenile instinct I had in my body (and still have). It seemed to have the same effect on my Dad since he sat in his chair giggling in that “Dad” fashion and shaking half the house along with him. Of course, that just made everything that much funnier. I was probably about 10-11, so I was also old enough to catch some of the puns, banter and sharpness of these obviously practised comedians and realized that this was a craft. A well-honed one.

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And speaking of artists and their crafts…Buster Keaton remains to this day one of my all-time favourite artists in any medium. Far more than just simple slapstick, his silent comedies of the mid-to-late 20s were things of beauty and marvels to behold that would make you smile, laugh and question basic laws of physics. A somewhat “life changing” experience was watching a 3 hour American Masters program on PBS dedicated to Keaton (which I fortunately taped to VHS and wore down to microscopic width). His life had tragedy, regret and failure, but also contained some of the greatest work to ever be caught on celluloid. As the “great stone face”, Keaton rarely broke a smile or showed a sense of fear while throwing himself (or mostly being thrown) info a myriad of dangerous stunts and physical gags. Though he was also an obviously well-rehearsed funny man with razor sharp timing, the falls, leaps and tumbles seemed almost improvised. It was part of his brilliance and was fascinating to hear him reflect on the broken bones and sets of cat-lives that he had. Those interview clips of Keaton in his late 50s also greatly reminded me of my Dad – there was just a certain way he told a story.

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Blindspotting #8 – Our Hospitality and The Family Jewels

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If you’re wondering what Jerry Lewis’ decidedly non-classic The Family Jewels is doing on my Blind Spot list, well, you can easily be forgiven. I blame the NetFlix gods for unceremoniously turfing The Nutty Professor from the ranks of their streaming library, so I took a flier with his 1965 effort that (just like The Nutty Professor) was also written and directed by Lewis (and additionally produced in this case). The intent was to watch and compare two of the top comedies from a pair of brilliant physical comedians who also worked behind the camera. One of them (Buster Keaton) is a personal favourite while the other (Jerry Lewis) is someone whose filmography has barely been scratched by me. Keaton, of course, is the great Stone Face: a gifted and slightly bonkers physical comedian who did insanely dangerous stunts, but whose characters on screen rarely showed any emotion. Lewis, on the other hand, drew strongly on his elastic facial expressions to double down on the physical gags of his films. My preference has always been with Keaton (knowing Lewis just from clips off TV, etc.), but a viewing of one of Lewis’ earliest films called The Bellboy made me reconsider digging into his film career.

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Therefore The Nutty Professor was the obvious next step for investigating Lewis – it’s typically his highest rated film (among those he directed and starred in), is rife with potential for slapstick and is essentially part of general pop culture at this point. The Bellboy was an excuse to squeeze numerous skits and ideas together into a non-plot film, but it succeeded in impressing me along several lines. Lewis showed he could actually be subtle and very inventive while being a complete goofball. The Nutty Professor will have to wait, but I had some high hopes going into The Family Jewels that I’d get at least more of the same and build further anticipation to his other films. How did that pan out? Well, let’s review my first sentence of this post again…Barring several moments of reasonably inspired absurdity and several deftly timed bits by Lewis, the film flops and flounders as it haphazardly wanders through its plot mechanism: a 9-year-old heiress (first time actress – and boy does it show – Donna Butterworth) gets to spend 2 weeks with each of her five different uncles (all played by Lewis) to see who she prefers to be her guardian. The family chauffeur Willard (also Lewis) is her best friend and escorts her to each new candidate. He also happened to accidentally stop an armoured car holdup at the start of the movie which is not forgotten by the gangsters he thwarted.

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Finite Focus: Battling the Elements for 116 Years [Buster Keaton]

Well, not quite 116 years. Buster Keaton would’ve turned 116 today, and his films have been delighting audiences for 94 of those years. One of the three great silent comedians (along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Keaton’s name doesn’t always strike the immediate recognition among mainsteam audiences that Chaplin’s might, but for me, and for many who have seen his films, Keaton’s particular brand of stone-faced endurance against any and all elements that would seek to do him in – from enemy soldiers to angry fathers to hordes of cops to nature itself – can hardly be beat.

Keaton was a genius at physical comedy, and though Chaplin practically has a patent on the word “pathos,” Keaton’s stoicism manages to get just as much or more true emotion. You feel for him because he refuses to ask for your empathy. Meanwhile, he was busy working through some of the most incredible stunts ever put on film, which he did all himself. The first “whoa” moment watching a Keaton film is always “whoa, they did this before they had computers and stuff,” and the second is always “whoa, he’s doing this himself without stunt double to fill in.” Chaplin did this too, don’t get me wrong, and I love Chaplin to bits, but I get a sense of real danger with Buster that’s quite exhilarating without ever failing to be funny.

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