Buster Keaton Cheats Death in Two Classic Films



Directed by Buster Keaton & John Blystone; Keaton

Metro Pictures/MGM

74 minutes; 45 minutes; Not Rated


A recent NPR Fresh Air interview with author Dana Stevens prompted me to buy Camera Man, Stevens’ new book on silent film icon Buster Keaton. In his day, only Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd matched Keaton’s fame. Each pioneered forms of physical comedy that transformed movies from curiosities to mass entertainment. Keaton also directed many of his films. Our Hospitality and Sherlock Jr. are packaged on the same disc for those who have DVD players, though you can stream them separately. Each spotlights Keaton in front of and behind the camera.




Our Hospitality could have inserted the word “Southern” in the middle of its title. It riffs off the infamous Hatfield/McCoy feuds of the late 19th century. For Keaton it was a family affair. His son, Buster Keaton Jr. plays one-year-old Willie McKay, Keaton is the adult Willie, his love interest, Natalie Talmadge, was his first wife, and his father Joe appears as locomotive engineer. It opens in a scene in which the infant McKay’s father and a Canfield assassin kill each other. His mother knows that the Canfields will seek to kill all the McKays, so she trundles Willie off to New York, where he grows up in ignorance of the feud.


Years later, Willie learns he has inherited the old McKay “mansion” and ventures southward to claim it, with a stern warning not to tell anyone his last name. There are two very funny transportation scenes, one of Keaton riding an early bicycle, but of the push and glide variety rather than one that is pedaled. Funnier still is the journey on an early train–basically rolling stage coaches–in which the rails are placed on the terrain as it is rather than levelled. On the trip he meets a woman named Virginia (Talmadge), who invites him have dinner with her family. He has no idea who they are, but word soon gets out that he is a McKay and the roly-poly Canfield paterfamilias tells his two strapping sons that “honor” demands McKay be killed. Everything that can go wrong does and Willie shows up at the door, still ignorant that he is about to sup with Canfields bent on homicide.


Lucky for him that “honor” also demands that a Canfield cannot kill a guest as long as he’s inside the house. Imagine all the ways in which Willie manages to be inside when he learns he is a target and Keaton pulls off several you probably hadn’t conjured. He’s good at avoiding being shot outside as well. A classic scene sees him battle a raging river, avoid going over a waterfall, and rescuing Virginia. Love triumphs. The river scenes are all the more remarkable in that Keaton did his own stunts decades before special effects.




For me, Sherlock Jr. was the funnier of the two films, though it’s more crudely made. Keaton is a distracted movie projectionist and theater cleaner who needs money to impress a young woman (Kathryn McGuire) who is also being pursued by a dandy (Ward Crane). Every windfall ends badly and all he has is $1, which he uses to buy a box of chocolates. On a whim, he changes the 1 to a 4, which trumps the $3 candy purchased by the dandy/villain. But the villain steals the watch of the girl’s father (Joe Keaton), pawns it, and sneaks the pawn ticket into Keaton’s pocket who retires in unjust disgrace.  


The title comes from the forlorn Keaton’s dream as he falls asleep in the projection booth. He imagines himself as a suave detective who cracks a theft case involving Crane. That’s not how it goes down when he awakens, but Crane is exposed as a thief and a cad, the girl is again smitten, and Keaton backs her away from the movie being projected so he can take wooing cues from the dashing man on the screen. The scenes that most impress, of course, are the fantasy dream sequences. They are half pre-James Bond–the restored print even uses Bond music on the soundtrack–and they again make you wonder how Keaton didn’t kill himself. One involves a driverless motorcycle with Keaton riding on the handlebars. It must be seen to be appreciated.


These are silent films and, by today’s standards, seemingly unsophisticated. Don’t despair if you think I’ve given away the story. In early features–these two are seven and five reels respectively–you really couldn’t easily tell an overly complex story as the only dialogue appeared on intertitle cards. The films are really about sight gags and the acrobatic ways Keaton carries himself. The man was a veritable one-man Cirque du Soliel.


Rob Weir









Ceremony a Native American Classic

CEREMONY (1977/2006)

By Leslie Marmon Silko

Penguin Classics, 242 pages.




It would be insulting to “rate” this pathbreaking book. Leslie Marmon Silko is of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo nation and one of the guiding lights of literature’s Native American Renaissance.


Ceremony is often viewed as Silko’s masterwork novel, though N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) more accurately called it a “telling,” as it violates numerous rules whites associate with fiction. My recent review of The bone people may be a measure of how much Native history has been buried; I actually know more about Maori than I do Pueblo peoples.


On the surface Ceremony is about the post-World War II travails of Tayo, a “mixed blood” individual who is half Laguna and half white. That alone places him in cultural limbo, but he’s also a survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March and could not save his cousin Rocky from being callously slain by their Japanese captors. Tayo carries guilt for Rocky’s death in ways we’d today associate with severe PTSD, though no such diagnosis existed in the 1940s. He spent time in the psych ward of a Los Angeles hospital after the war, where he came to believe he was encased in a white shell. Doctors sent him home thinking it would help him heal.


That was both correct and wrong. Tayo is listless, adrift, and spends a lot of time drinking with war survivors Harley, Leroy, Emo, and Pinkie–unaware that Emo hates him and that Pinkie follows Emo’s lead. What Tayo mainly does is ponder power and identity amidst the poverty and drought of the reservation. He’s a mess and even comes to blame himself for the drought. The book’s “ceremony” is a healing intervention, first by a medicine man named Ku’osh who is out of touch with Indian soldiers, and then by Betonie, who mixes the old ways with the new. Tayo comes to understand that, “The people had been taught to despise themselves because they were left with barren land and dry rivers. But they were wrong. It was the white people who had nothing; it was the white people who were suffering as thieves do, never able to forget that their pride was wrapped in something stolen … and could never be theirs.”


That’s a good insight, but it doesn’t help Tayo cope in the here and now. To put it in Christian terms–and Rocky’s mother is a Roman Catholic convert–you have to understand how lost you are before you can be found. Don’t expect any sort of come-to-Jesus moment. Betonie leads Tayo to see that “witchery” is at work in mystical realms that are not part of white belief systems. Tayo’s spiritual journey is filled with wonders and perils, not to mention physical threats that unfold within the shadow of the Trinity atomic test site.


Ceremony delves into many things, some of which I grasp in their rudiments and many of which I do not. Racism is at play, both from whites but also from Mexicans and pure blood Pueblos. Matters are further stratified into Natives who admire whites, those who wish to recover traditionalism, and those like Betonie and Tayo who mix and match. Yet, it’s more complicated still. All live in a world in which the barriers between the natural and supernatural are thin. Why, for instance, place a deer carcass on the ground so that others can sprinkle corn meal on its nuzzle? Answer: So it can die again in the future to feed its slayers. Nor is a healing ceremony a psychological tune-up. It involves travels to the 4th World.


Silko overlays her conventional story with the myth of Hummingbird and Green Fly. She parallels it with Tayo’s plight in ways that often make us consider if some characters are actually avatar/teachers from the 4th World; we also wonder if we are in a worldly or an alt.New Mexico. Metaphor and reality blend so seamlessly that it’s hard for a white guy like me to sort them. For instance, is Tayo really being pursued by government agents who want to re-hospitalize him, or are they manifestations of internal demons he’s trying to vanquish?  


I was often bewildered when reading Ceremony, but I can’t stop musing upon it. As you read this, I will be in New Mexico. I will be carrying Silko’s timeless “telling” with me.


Rob Weir








Body Heat: Turn Up the Temperature


BODY HEAT (1981)

Directed by Lawrence Kadan

Warner Brothers, 113 minutes, R (nudity, language, violence)





A friend recently asked me about my favorite films of 1981 as part of an ongoing discussion of movies in the 1970s and early 1980s that many, including me, consider Hollywood’s second golden age. High on that list is director Lawrence Kasdan’s explosive debut, Body Heat. In addition to being a gripping film, you should consider it for a more somber reason; one its principals, William Hurt, just passed.


Body Heat is billed as an erotic thriller and that’s a superb handle. Body Heat focuses on the steamy relationship between Ned Racine (Hurt), a crooked and incompetent lawyer, and Matty Tyler Walker (Kathleen Turner), a dissatisfied married woman. Steamy is the right adjective for Ned and Matty. Body Heat pretty much made Turner’s career for as long as she could take her clothes off and excite audiences (male and female, I’m told) in doing so.


In short, Matty is married to Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna), a very wealthy man who keeps her in nice threads, fancy cars, and a rolling estate complete with its own lake and boathouse. Edmund is no dummy; before he and Matty tied the knot he secured a prenuptial agreement stipulating that if she files for divorce, she gets virtually nothing out of him. If, on the other hand, she’s his widow, she gets a healthy cut of his estate. Better yet, what if there’s a new will leaving everything to Matty? Then she and Ned could have as much sex as they want whenever they want and Ned will never have to screw up another legal proceeding. All they need to do is pull off the perfect murder and establish airtight alibis.


Remember that this is a 1981 film, not one from the days of the Hollywood Code, so there’s no longer any stipulation that you can’t get away with murder. That’s not to say, though, that Kasdan tossed out the old crime drama formula of cross, double cross, rinse, and repeat. What makes Body Heat such an intellectual treat in addition to a visual one is its is-anyone-who-they-seem-to-be? angle. Is Ned really incompetent, or just lazy? Can Matty be trusted to keep a secret? More to the point, can bombmaker Teddy Lewis (Mickey Rourke) keep his mouth shut? He’s a formal client of Ned’s and the guy he goes to for an incendiary device on burning down the building where he intends to dispose of Edmund’s corpse.


Body Heat is a terrific film with a conclusion that smacks you in the face. Before you get there, you are treated to three sparkling performances. Hurt is a hard-drinking, hard-loving, cigarette-puffing cynic. Turner, in addition to being striking and sexy, is every bit simpatico on the cynicism score. She slinks across the screen in ways that make us think we shouldn’t trust her, but we’re not certain why. Mickey Rourke as a mad bomber with a criminal record? Yeah, that’s believable.


What a debut for Lawrence Kasdan! This film is in color, but in many ways it’s a film noir given the use of light. Some scenes sport lurid contrasts–Turner in a stark white blouse and a tight red skirt, she and Hurt dressed in white standing outside at night in front of a neon-lighted storefront–and sometimes the screen might as well be in black and white as they cavort in near darkness. Kasdan also mastered dappled light, as in ambient light slanting through bedroom blinds, faces half lit, backlighting that captures Turner’s limbs beneath her dress, and smoke wafting through darkness. Kasdan and cinematographer Richard H. Kline even use Hurt’s bad 1970s hair and cheesy mustache to good effect.  


Body Heat is often compared to the great classic film Double Indemnity and that’s apt. Kasdan’s next film was also a 1980s classic, The Big Chill. Alas, he never again directed anything that captured the critical acclaim of those two. Later, though, he did pretty well as a screenwriter for Raiders of the Lost Ark, several of Star Wars prequels, and The Bodyguard. None of those are my bag of popcorn and I’ve often wondered how he lost his directorial mojo. Well, at least we have Body Heat and it scorches.


Rob Weir