Thursday, 12 October 2017

Buster Keaton in "The General" and Arthur Askey in "The Ghost Train" - from the sublime to the abysmal

I was looking forward to The History of Comedy, an eight-part series starting at 9pm on the Sky Arts channel tonight. But then I Googled it and discovered that it's a CNN series, and that the first episode is all about American female comedians and their fight against sexism - i.e. it'll be an hour of ponderous left-wing finger-wagging, so sod that for a game of soldiers. I'd be far more interested in a programme explaining why the British cinema-going public spent so much of the 20th Century in thrall to spectacularly annoying monkey-men comedians. But first, The General...

...a 1926 film starring - and co-directed by - Buster Keaton.

I've always avoided seeing it because of its ubiquity - it's on every "best of" list ever released by every critic and every film industry organisation: best silent pictures, best comedies of all time, best American pictures of all time, best pictures of all time - you name it, The General's always there, usually very near the top.  Last week, I discovered the reason for all the adulation: it is a masterpiece. I didn't sit there tittering patronisingly, making allowances for the primitiveness of the humour and the film-making conventions of that period: I absolutely roared with laughter - repeatedly. Buster Keaton wasn't just a comic genius and a brilliant physical comedian - he was an absolutely superb actor, up there with the greats of any era, any genre. His facial reactions to impending disasters represent some of the funniest moments I've ever seen in a film: and, at a time when grotesquely exaggerated mugging was the norm, he achieves his effects while remaining deadpan - barely a muscle twitches. (He learned the comedic power of non-reaction while being thrown about the stage by his father in a long-running vaudeville act - Katon noticed that the more muted his reaction was, the harder the audience laughed). It's worth watching just for the scene in which Keaton, desperately stoking The General's engine to keep ahead of the pursuing Union forces, looks round to discover the girl he wants to marry prissily sweeping the floor  of the cab. I almost wept. (Very sexist, very funny.)

If you haven't seen this glorious screen classic, you don't have to take my word for it (or that of Orson Welles, who considered it the greatest film comedy ever made - possible the greatest movie ever made) - it's available right here:

The comedy thriller, The Ghost Train - written by Arnold Ridley, who was later to find fame as the incontinent Private Godfrey in Dad's Army -was an enormous West End hit when it was first staged in 1923.  I've read many references to the 1941 film version over the years, and so, encouraged by my experience with The General, I decided to give it a go last week. It's dreadful: it's not so much that the story is creaky and silly or that the acting is generally poor or that it's made on a shoestring (after all, there was a war on) - it's that Arthur Askey's in it, essentially playing his inimitable, chirpy self, aided by his regular partner in merriment, Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. I spent the whole film (a) checking how much more of this crap I would have to sit through, and (b) wondering how Arthur Askey managed to reach the age of 82 without someone beating him to death while repeatedly screaming, "SHUT THE FUCK UP!"

Now, "Big-Hearted Arthur" (as he was apparently known) was still appearing regularly on British television during my youth. While he was by no means a favourite in the Grønmark household (my mother would invariably groan every time he appeared),  I don't remember finding him any more obnoxious than the other old music hall types who would crop on programmes like The Billy Cotton Bandshow - and he was, by all accounts a decent sort, not at all like the catchphrase-spouting Arthur Atkinson in The Fast Show. But in The Ghost Train, he is so dismally unfunny, so vilely insensitive, so utterly out of sync with the rest of the cast (expect for Richard Murdoch, with whom he shares what must surely be the most inane, witless patter in the history of comedy), you just want him to die - not just his character, but the performer himself - so that he can never again commit this sort of outrage. And some poor blonde actress has to pretend to find the ghastly little twerp amusing and likeable!

In some ways, Askey was a chirpy, ugly, simian comedian in the George Formby mould - but, while Formby was almost as irritating in his films, and pretty actresses had to pretend not to be repelled by the weird, gurning morons he played, at least (ditto Norman Wisdom, who also played chimp-like retards) he appeared in vehicles that had been specifically created to showcase his talents, whereas The Ghost Train might have been designed to showcase Askey's defects. There's also the undeniable fact that Formby wrote and performed some extremely filthy songs that are genuinely funny to this day - and he played a mean ukelele. I doubt if Askey's main claim to posterity - "Busy Bee" - has made anyone laugh in the past 40 years (well, not unless they'd been heavily medicated).

I'm sorry to be so rude about the wee fellow: he was evidently a much-loved entertainer and he was apparently great on stage. But I can't remember ever being quite as annoyed by a film (and I've watched some truly rotten ones). There are some comedians who should never have been allowed to appear in a feature film: the great Morecambe and Wise, for example, and, even more surprisingly, Peter Cook, who, despite being funny in one brief appearance in The Princess Bridewas simply dreadful in 23 others.  (One definite exception to the rule of British monkey-men comedians only being bearable in films created specifically for them is Lee Evans, e.g his turn as the - supposedly - severely disabled academic in There's Something About Mary.)

You can watch The Ghost Train here - but I really wouldn't recommend it, -it's not even amusingly bad.  Me, I've got Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.  lined up for the weekend.


  1. Scott, thanks for writing all I've ever wanted to say about Arthur Askey and Norman Wisdom. I would add to that list Jerry Lewis in particular. To expect an audience to accept that a presumably intelligent, pretty young girl would fall for them is taking suspension of disbelief too far.
    Buster Keaton's parents brought him to London in the early years of the 20th century and appeared at a music hall. They threw Buster, aged about 6, around the stage and he was apparently covered in bruises. The rest of the artists were horrified and refused to perform with them, so that the management were forced to cancel their engagement and they returned to America.

    1. The fact that he was thrown violently around the stage isn't in doubt - his father even fitted a suitcase handle to Buster's clothes to make him easier to throw. But the alternative story is that doctors were once called to examine him after members of the audience had alleged child cruelty - only for them to be unable to find a single bruise on his body, because young Keaton had become a master of the soft landing. Keaton's own explanation of his poker face was that he was having so much up on stage being hurled around that it used to make him laugh - but that stopped the audience laughing (I suppose they might have thought it was a sign of lunacy, thus making the child abuse even more inexcusable), so he stopped showing his enjoyment. I've no idea what's true here.

      I toyed with mentioning Jerry Lewis as an American version of a retarded monkey-man comic, but I have a terrible admission to make: when I was little, he made me laugh, especially in The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor, and he gave an impressive "straight" performance as the kidnapee in Scorcese's King of Comedy. Mind you, given that the French think he's a comedy genius, I should probably have kept that guilty secret to myself.

      This is irrelevant, but I meant to mention one odd thing about The General - Keaton plays a loyal Southerner during the Civil War, and the whole film treats the Confederates as deeply patriotic heroes and the Union forces as sneaky devils. Presumably millions of Northerners were happy to sit in cinemas rooting for the other side. Now, they want to pull down Confederate statues. It's puzzling.

  2. Have just watched "The General". I thought it was brilliant. So thanks. Keaton does bear an uncanny resemblance to Mesut Özil which is disconcerting. If he suffered any after effects from his stage treatment by his parents he certainly does not show it - apart from being an excellent actor he was also supremely fit and took many risks apparently.

  3. The Americans-I was going to call them Yanks-do film comedy so well, and the Brit's excel at stand up.
    Sorry Helen, as adolescent as it may be The Nutty Professor is one of my favorite funny movies.

    1. All senses of humour are different, Southern Man. I'll stick with Some Like it Hot!
      By the way, Buster Keaton was not alone in being flung around the stage. The clown Grimaldi, when a young child, was swung around his father's head on a chain, as part of his father's act. On one occasion his father lost control of the chain and Grimaldi went flying into the audience, luckily having a soft landing in someone's lap. Sorry if you already knew that!

  4. Agreed Helen.Some Like it Hot is by far the better movie.
    In defence, I blame it on Obertauff Syndrome which is an affliction which exclusively effects men of a certain age who try as they might are simply unable to rid themselves of the last vestiges of adolescence.

  5. An affliction which also affects me every time I watch the Talking Pictures channel. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing.