Sunday 25 September 2011

The Balloonatic (1923)

Note: The film that I was originally due to look at today was damaged, so I had to move on to the next one of the list. I’ll get to that other one when I can.

Today, we return to the world of silent comedy, although we now take our first foray into the world of the Master of Deadpan - Buster Keaton. Like many of the original stars of silent comedy film, Keaton had his beginnings in vaudeville, where it’s said that Harry Houdini himself gave him the moniker of “Buster” after helping the young lad after a fall… the story isn’t true, but it’s part of his legend. In 1917, through Fatty Arbuckle, Keaton came under contract with Joseph M. Schenck, who eventually gave Keaton his own production unit to make his own short films. In 1923, he made one of his final short films, The Balloonatic.

A young man (Buster Keaton) endures a few romantic setbacks at an amusement park, where he accidentally winds up in a hot air balloon. The balloon carries him into the wilderness, where meets a young woman (Phyllis Haver) on a camping trip. The two undergo a number of adventures trying to prove to each other their survival skills.

It’s sort of important to note that this was one Keaton’s last short films, having already begun a transition into feature length films. Taking this into consideration, it’s not entirely surprising that The Balloonatic is not particularly good. The underlying story is virtually non-existent, really serving as a flimsy framework to work some gags around. Keaton begins the film in a “House of Trouble”, which essentially seems to be a sort of haunted house that you wander through for a bit before being unceremoniously ejected via a slide that dumps you onto the sidewalk. Keaton’s young man walks around the amusement park, trying to be chivalrous and whatnot with some of the female clientele, but all to no avail. So then he winds up in a hot air balloon… wait, what? What has this got to do with anything that we just watched? Okay, he’s single, polite and looking for someone, but is that it? Couldn’t this have been most concisely set up? And there’s not much that you’d really say was actually funny.

When he eventually finds himself in the wilderness, having accidentally shot a hole in his balloon whilst hunting birds, his man versus nature shenanigans begin, with occasional cuts away to Phyllis Haver fishing more successfully or going swimming or cutting a small tree down on herself… wait, what? Let’s temporarily overlook the fact that these cutaways from Buster offer nothing that’s actually funny, but it shows a weirdly inconsistent character of the young woman, who can comfortably make her way in the wilderness, but doesn’t know she shouldn’t crouch in front a tree she’s cutting down. You may be tempted to brush this off as a product of a time when such things were less important. These things were always important; this film just completely drops the ball.

Again, it’s quite apparent that Keaton had begun to concentrate on features, because The Balloonatic feels lazy. He stills throws himself around with his usual abandon, but it’s nothing he hasn’t topped already. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was something to finish up a contract for a pre-determined number of shorts. I’m a big fan of Keaton, and many of his films are real classics, showcasing a brilliant sense of comedy and tremendous bravery when it comes to physicality of performance. To see him plod through something this lacklustre is very disappointing.

The Balloonatic is pretty bad, on levels of story and character, but also simply because there’s little you can comfortably call genuinely funny. There are a few nice images, like Keaton standing atop the giant balloon or the waterfall, but this does not make it worth the time. Even at 22 minutes, it drags. It’s not helped by some shoddy production values, with repeated frames and clumsy cuts. It doesn’t matter when it was made, this is amateurism in any age.

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