Saturday, February 07, 2015

Le Roi des Champs-Elysees (1934)

Following the disastrous and crushing end of his association with MGM in 1933, Buster Keaton appeared in this film in France for producer Seymour Nebenzal. On the surface, it might seem that such a project -- a Hollywood star, on hard times, accepting work in a foreign picture -- would be a step down for a star of Keaton's magnitude. For even following his period of fertile creative independence during the 1920s, his talking films for MGM -- while certainly a far cry from the brilliant work he'd been doing just years earlier -- still did well at the box office. Audiences had not forgotten his immense talents, even if studio executives seemed to. But there were Keaton's personal and professional problems behind the scenes that really came to a head in 1933, contributing to his swift downfall and acrimonious departure from MGM, which must have made his fall from grace seem all the more devastating, then.

But Keaton was very much what the entertainment industry now calls a "survivor". Where others might see a comedown, Keaton saw opportunity. Le Roi des Champs-Elysees is, at its best, a whimsical, visual comedy that contains much of the old Keaton magic. It is the tale of a hapless young man, Buster Garner, who lives with his mother and bounces from job to job trying to make something of himself. His most recent endeavor involves posing as a millionaire, in top hat and tails, and walking down the Champs-Elysees passing out bills of money that are actually coupons for a large company. However, when he accidentally gives away a stack of five million francs  -- set aside to cover the company's debts -- he is quickly fired. In the process of passing out the money, he has inadvertently saved a young woman from eviction, for which she is eternally grateful. Her sudden appearance at an outdoor cafe, where Buster has planned to consume poison in order to put an end to his failures, rejuvenates Buster's will to live, and he sets out to make good. As in most of Keaton's films, the girl is merely a plot device, their "romance" another goal that he works toward accomplishing throughout the film. Though the circumstances of their meeting and subsequent encounter at the cafe are played with a degree of pathos and sympathy uncharacteristic of Keaton, their remaining scenes underline the arbitrary nature of the relationship, as there seems to be little doubt (and therefore little dramatic tension) over the fact that Buster has already earned the girl's affection (their first kiss even causes Buster to display one of his very rare on-screen smiles!)

Fortunately for Buster, his mother works as a prompter in a local theater, and gets him a job in the company as a bit player in a prison drama. This leads to another set of complications, however, as Buster is the exact double of crime boss Jim La Balafre (Keaton, in a dual role), who has just escaped from jail and is waiting near the theater to be picked up by his old gang. Predictably, the two get switched, and Buster finds himself trapped in Jim's elaborate hideout. The last half of the film deals with the clever mix-ups and confusions that the appearance of the exact doubles cause for the gangster's moll and henchmen. When Jim finally discovers the inconvenient doppelganger, Buster has to escape with his life intact, and make it back to the theater in time to deliver his line in the play.

This plot has echoes of a number of Keaton's earlier films. The whole case of Buster being mistaken for a criminal formed the plot of his 1921 two-reeler The Goat. The criminal element also recalls the gangsters and crooks in his earlier two-reelers The High Sign and The Haunted House, as well as the features Sherlock Jr. and Spite Marriage. Indeed, with its elaborate passageways, trapdoors and revolving walls, the criminal lair here is strongly reminiscent of the similar contraptions in the gang's hideout from The High Sign. Keaton demonstrates his remarkable physical skill and timing in these scenes, proving that he had not lost the dexterity that he had used to such astonishing effect in his silent classics, and which had only been too rarely allowed to show itself in his MGM talkies. There is also some really impressive trick photography, too, with the two Busters appearing in the same frame. It is far more sophisticated than similar split-screen effects used in Hollywood films of the time, enhanced by expert editing, and more than once I had to pause and re-watch a certain shot to try and figure out how it was accomplished.

The film also gives Keaton a chance to demonstrate what a really fine actor he was. In essaying a dual role, he gets the chance to play both his usual characterization of the aimless young man, slightly befuddled by the world around him but always able to resourcefully adapt to the obstacles the universe puts in his way, and an uncharacteristically tough "heavy" role of the crime boss. In this latter role, Keaton achieves a striking balance in making the character both genuinely menacing but also funny, such as the moment he runs and clips his head on a rising gate, knocking him flat on his back -- an impressive bit of slapstick played with Keaton's typical flourish.

As "Buster", Keaton's character is a bit older and slower than his screen incarnation of a decade earlier, but still possesses the grace and poetic movement that defined his character. He certainly appears to be in better condition here than he had in his past couple MGM films, though his face is visibly aged and worn. He still moves with the youthful zeal and energy, though, which makes his portrayal of the bumbling boob funny rather than pathetic. Interestingly, because his lines are dubbed by a French actor, there is a disconnect between Keaton's body and his voice. This has the effect of showing how superfluous speech really is in Keaton's comedy, and distancing the audience from the unfamiliar voice while simultaneously focusing our attention on his inimitable physicality. The dubbing can be distracting at times but because so much of the performance is purely physical, it scarcely matters.

There are some wonderful moments taking place behind the scenes in the theater, including Buster getting caught on a set that rises to the top of the stage, swinging across the stage on a rope and disrupting the act, and the final on-stage melee between Buster and the gangsters, all of which recall the backstage antics of his earlier shorts The Playhouse and Daydreams, as well as his MGM features Spite Marriage and Speak Easily, both of which involve Buster inadvertently wrecking a show.

The best scenes, however, take place in the very opening of the film, in which Buster parades down the Champs-Elysees, dressed as a millionaire, throwing away wads of cash. His movements, not to mention the behavior of throwing away money, immediately create a funny contrast with his the station and status implied by his fancy costume. It is just that: a costume. We immediately wonder who this empty-headed millionaire really is. Keaton's appearance and behavior immediately bring to mind his turns as wealthy idlers in films such as The Saphead, The Navigator, and Battling Butler, where he drew a sharp, comic contrast between the character's apparent stupidity and helplessness, and the resourcefulness and cleverness with which he triumphed over adversity when confronted with it for the first time. Here, however, it soon becomes apparent that Buster is no millionaire, he's simply playing one for the sake of a publicity campaign. Like his theatrical role, and like his being mistaken for the crime boss, it is just another part he must play.

Ultimately, this is a comedy of identity, or rather multiple identities, with Buster forced to play many roles and succeed at each one in order to achieve success.

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