Buster Keaton, Sally Eilers, Cliff Edwards. Dir: Edward Sedgwick
For those of you who have never read my blog before, allow me first to say “Welcome”. My purpose in writing about classic film is to get the new people interested in them without giving away the entire plot. I speak more conversationally than most writers, so that might take an adjustment on your part to get used to it. To those of you who read my blog on a regular basis- this is going to be much the same as usual, only more thorough because I’m participating in a special blogathon for movies about WWI, of the which this movie is one. And this is my entry in said blogathon.
No, really. I made an outline and everything.
I got to thinking about what people would want to know about the film and decided that the most obvious thing would be where the term “doughboys” even comes from. Short answer: nobody knows. Long answer: Of the several theories put forward on the origin of the term (apart from its allusion to actual bakery workers) the only thing that makes one more plausible than the next is the year it is recorded. One theory is it came from the fact that there was a predecessor to the doughnut called a “doughboy” and servicemen enjoyed eating them, thus the French called these servicemen “doughboys”, because, well, you are what you eat. Another theory is that the men were being called doughboys because they had light skintones. And the last theory I’m going to bother mentioning is that it is a variation on the word “adobe” which is what the soldiers looked like after walking in dusty regions in northern Mexico. If you want to read more about the non-definite and possibly questionable origins of the term, you can go to the World War 1.com site and read an entire page about it. With me seeing the uselessness of it all, I only give it a paragraph.
The next obvious question is “What is this movie about?” This is where we get away from my usual mode on plot explanations. Usually, I’m as vague as possible so as not to give much away. So I urge everyone who wishes to avoid spoilers to avert their eyes for the next little bit. I’ll let you know when you can look again. (Yes, I know that’s not how things work) So, let’s get to it. There’s a rich guy (Keaton) named Elmer who wants to date a girl (Eilers) that works at a store, and every day when she comes out from work, he’s waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers to ask “How ’bout a little dinner and a show?” She (who is clearly an idiot) says “no” every time because she doesn’t like rich people. Meanwhile a rally to sign up for service in the war, which was just declared, is happening a few feet away. Elmer’s chauffeur runs off and joins up and leaves Elmer stranded. Elmer goes to an employment agency to hire a new chauffeur and accidentally joins the army, as one does. He ends up at training camp and finds the previously mentioned shopgirl now enlisted in the effort as well. When she sees him, she decides he’s not a rich jerk after all, which is moderately ironic because they see each other right after he gets off the phone from begging his father to get him out of the army because he’s rich.
His drill sergeant, played by Edward Brophy, is mean because that’s what drill sergeants are, and he’s in love with the shopgirl too. Elmer makes friends with a ukulele playin’ nutjob named Nescopeck played by Cliff Edwards. Of course, everyone is a nutjob of some sort in this movie, so that’s not really saying anything. Anyway, they go to Europe and get in dangerous situations, it is a war after all, and Elmer and the shopgirl are not getting along so he decides to do things that are even more dangerous because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. I really am uncomfortable with going further than this in my plot synopsis. I will simply add that it ends happily. I will tell about some specific scenes shortly though, but for now, you can start reading again.
There are those who do not know that Buster Keaton served in World War I, and that’s okay. I’m going to tell you about it now. Buster started working with Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle in early 1917 and made 12 two-reelers with him before he was drafted into the army in 1918. He went in in July and the war was over in November, however, Buster was not discharged until the following April, and didn’t arrive back in Los Angeles until May of 1919. Considering the amount of work Keaton and Arbuckle did together in the 16 months prior to his service, there could have probably been about 10 more movies from the two of them if it weren’t for the war. Thanks, Obama.
Early in Keaton’s deployment to France, he got very sick and nearly lost his hearing. And we nearly lost Buster. Here are some quotes regarding this from Buster himself. “We slept in circular tents … our feet in the center and our heads close to the drafts from the great outdoors. This was the beginning of an experience I have never forgotten. During my seven months as a soldier in France, I slept every night but one on the ground or on the floor of mills. barns and stables. ” “There is always a draft close to the floor of such farm buildings, and I soon developed a cold which imperiled my hearing. Before I was overseas a month, my superiors had to shout orders at me. I had become almost stone deaf due to my being exposed to floor drafts each night.” “Late one night, I had a narrow escape while coming back from a card game. A sentry challenged me and I didn’t hear his demand for the password or the two warnings he gave me after that. Then he pulled back the breech of his gun, prepared to shoot. My life was saved by my sixth sense which enabled me to hear that gun click and stopped me dead in my tracks.” “After bawling me out, the sentry listened to my explanation and got me past a second guard. From that day on-the fear of losing my hearing drove me half crazy permanently.” He attributed his illness to the drafty conditions in which they were sleeping, but there are those who theorize he may have actually contracted influenza, which was very fashionable at the time. In either case, he was in rough shape.
While he was in France, he and some guys in his company got a show together and would entertain the troops. But when the rest of his company had gone home, Buster was still there entertaining the troops. He was famous, remember? His most popular bit was what he called his “snake dance”, something he would do a few times in movies as well. Buster referred to his time in the army as “My career at the rear”. For a more thorough account of Buster at war, you can read about it here.
If you would like to see the first time Buster did his snake dance on film, watch this video. If not, just scroll on.
I will now astound you with some quick fun-facts:
- Doughboys was the second talkie that Keaton made for MGM (not counting that Singin’ in the Rain thing)
- It was his fourth MGM film
- It was his second film about war (The General was the first)
- It was the third movie in which his character was named Elmer (there would be 13 more)
- This was the first film in which he had a sidekick.
I’m going to expound on that last quick fun-fact. Nescopeck wasn’t so much of a sidekick as sidekicks generally go, but I do feel the classification fits. Cliff Edwards had a ridiculous amount of screen time for a mere supporting character. It is my opinion that, rather than give Keaton so many lines, they gave him a sidekick to do the talking for him. Keaton was not opposed to dialog; he just didn’t feel like it needed to be so prevalent in movies, but with the excitement about talkies, the studios felt that every second needed to be filled with chatter or singing of some sort. So, after Keaton’s first talkie, Free and Easy, they threw in Cliff Edwards to brighten up the joint. Edwards would do two more movies with him until they threw Jimmy Durante in, and I’m not entirely certain what effect they were going for on that one. Which is not to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that I don’t like Jimmy Durante, I just don’t like him so much with Buster. I love Cliff Edwards though, which is why the next paragraph is going to happen.
I call this paragraph “Let’s Talk About Cliff Edwards”. That’s kind of special because I don’t generally name paragraphs. And actually, we aren’t going to talk, only I am. On second thought, I’m not going to name this paragraph anything. Clearly I am inept at it. For those of you who have never heard of him, Edwards was the voice of Jiminy Cricket, and was just a few months older than Buster, both of them having been born in 1895. Edwards grew up in Missouri, leaving school at 14 to pursue a career in entertainment. He was primarily a singer, but many of the places he went to sing either had bad pianos or no pianos at all, so he decided to accompany himself with something portable. He went to a music store and bought a ukulele because it was the cheapest instrument they had in the store. Soon he became crazy famous, using the nickname “Ukulele Ike”, and even played in the Ziegfeld Follies. Irving Thalberg saw him and signed him to a contract with MGM. He made many movies. His personal life was crap. He was married three times and spent so much money on alcohol, drugs, and alimony, that he declared bankruptcy multiple times throughout his life. He was broke most of the time and died absolutely penniless. He used to hang out outside the Disney studios in case they needed a voice he could do. At the time of his death in 1971, he had been living in a charity home and his body was sold to science. When Disney studios heard about this they offered to buy his body back and give him a proper funeral, but the Actors’ Fund of America and the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund did that, and Disney Studios paid for his grave marker. I find all this both tragic and fascinating at the same time, especially considering the joy he exuded on film and in his music, which I listen to all the time. Well, a lot of the time. He’s awesome. If you are on Spotify, and you want to listen to the best of Edwards’ music, check my playlist out here (note: some of his songs are dirty). Anyway, this concludes the paragraph whose name I took back.
In doing research on Doughboys, I really couldn’t find much in the way of critical response from the time. I found a lot of people who write about it from 21st Century standards, but that doesn’t do me a lot of good. I have seen it mentioned in more than one place that the drill sergeant played a typical movie drill sergeant, but I really can’t vouch for how typical that was back in 1930. It’s doubtful, but for all I know it was innovative. I do know that it made more money than his previous film, Free and Easy, so much so that MGM signed Keaton on for another two years. Keaton himself felt that Doughboys was the best of the films he made for MGM. I submit this is why he put several of the gags from in it in two of his Columbia shorts- Tars and Stripes and General Nuisance. The people who write about Doughboys nowadays mostly think that it is his best talkie. I don’t agree. And since this is purely a matter of opinion, it doesn’t matter. I like the movie a lot; it’s just not my favorite.
Here’s the part where I talk about the things that I like about it. I think I’ll make another bulleted list.
- (which led to) This:
- And (most especially) this:
- (Many people enjoy) This:
One might wonder why I selected the two photos just above as some of my favorite moments. They’re from one of the funnier parts of the movie, for one thing. Buster is in the “shower” and they get called on deck. He has no time to dress, so he goes as is. The part that happens just after is funny too, but a) I don’t want to spoil it for you, and b) I couldn’t find any photos of it. I would like to point out that Buster was extremely hot, so it’s important to post photos like this as often as possible.
With regard to the first video just above (not the actual first video way up there with the dancing), this is one of my favorite moments from any movie ever. Buster Keaton movies, for me, are on a tier higher than every other movie in the world, and this is in the upper echelon of the Buster tier (thank goodness for French, or else I wouldn’t have been able to describe levels to a satisfactory degree). I like this scene because you can tell that he is very relaxed and not really performing. Even though he’s playing the top half of a 6 string uke, it’s the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. There just isn’t a lot of footage that old of Buster in his normal state. I know this is natural for him because there is footage of him being a regular guy when he’s older, and this is completely in line with that. I like to hear him sing too. He sang the title song from his previous talkie, Free and Easy, and the song was a huge hit- with someone else singing it. I do enjoy his voice, though I have heard someone say he was “croaking his way through” the song, which is likely why they had someone else sing it for the record. And, since I love Cliff Edwards so much, listening to him eefing (google it) while Buster does the low notes is a real treat- every time I listen to it. The third gentleman of note is the one off to the right playing along. That’s the movie’s director, Edward Sedgwick.
In the second video, the gag is he is stepping in to replace someone in a number he doesn’t know for the purpose of getting his shopgirl back. Makes perfect sense, really. If I wanted to win back the affection of someone like that, I would do what I could to make a complete fool of myself. At first glance this bit is humorous, but if you stare deeply into it, it’s somewhat disturbing. If one considers the way Keaton’s drag character is being treated, then one can’t help but imagine an abusive situation which appears to be portrayed as commonplace back in the day. Personally, I find that frightening, so I usually skip this part when I watch the movie. But I’m projecting things on it, I think, so I would not begrudge someone else enjoying it.
Every copy I’ve seen of Doughboys has been of poor quality and it desperately needs and really deserves a restoration. I feel like this is one of the reasons that TCM rarely shows it. Maybe I should start some sort of campaign.
I think I’ll wrap it up here with the following bullet points:
- Doughboys has a more solid plot than some of his other talkies, so it has that going for it.
- Keaton is as brilliant as MGM allows.
- If you can get your hands on a copy, watch it at least once.
- Watching it will make you a better person.
- I’ve run out of points to make.
- Maybe I’ll just leave you with this photo of King Vidor visiting the set, Edward Sedgwick looking like a goofball, and Buster almost smiling. Enjoy!