So, let me get the initial question out of the way first- which ones should you watch? All of them. That was easy. The not-so-easy is why you should watch them, apart from the fact that they are Buster Keaton films. I will go through the schedule for the day and give you brief insights on each, without giving spoilers or telling you the whole plot.
(All times listed in Central because we don’t get the lovin’ we deserve from the networks.)
5:00 AM Battling Butler (1926)
A rich guy, Buster, decides to become a boxer. What could go wrong? Everything, because it’s a Buster Keaton movie. This one features some great bits of feigned modesty, mistaken identity, glamping, and some of the funniest boxing ring stunts ever conceived. It also showcases Buster’s fierce face, as well as his rippling muscular pulchritude. It’s a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway.
6:30 AM The Cameraman (1928)
A tin-type sidewalk photographer becomes a newsreel camera photographer to win the heart of the girl he loves. This is my favorite Buster Keaton film because it had MGM’s money behind it, so the production value is higher quality than his previous films, and he still had control over it, which MGM took away afterward. There are some lovely shots, one completely heart-breaking scene, and a lot of funny gags throughout, including an obscured-by-water naked Buster. It’s a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway.
8:00 AM Spite Marriage (1929)
Buster is in love with an actress who is in love with someone else that falls in love with someone else. This was Buster’s last non-talkie, and it wouldn’t have been non-talkie if he had his way. MGM decided that the world wasn’t ready to hear Buster talk yet, so rather than giving it regular dialog, they gave it a soundtrack so that it could still play in theaters that hadn’t converted to sound yet. What we end up with is applause in strange places, annoying laughter for no apparent reason, and odd sound effects. Way to go, MGM. There are fun theatre jokes, and a couple of famous routines- one that Red Skelton revisited (poorly) and another that Buster would continue to perform in live stage appearances for the rest of his life. Note: there is a distinction between a silent film and a non-talking one. A silent film had no sound at all, while a non-talkie had music, etc., but still had intertitles and no voice dialog.
9:30 AM Doughboys (1930)
Oddly, and possibly cunningly, TCM opted to skip over Buster’s first talkie, Free and Easy, and move on to his second. His first isn’t so bad, it definitely has its moments, but it displays why Buster wasn’t a verbal joke man. Don’t get me wrong, he had the jokes, and he liked talkies just fine, he just didn’t think SO MUCH dialog was necessary, and MGM was way into a lot of dialog at this point. And they had him by the nads, so he had to do what they said. Back to Doughboys…This love/war story is about a rich guy who accidentally joins the army, and it has some highlights that mimic some of his real life antics in WWI. This is his first pairing with a sidekick, something MGM did to take some of the pressure off of Buster so that he didn’t have to talk so much. Cliff Edwards (most know him as playing Jiminy Cricket) was that sidekick, and he went on to play alongside Buster in two more films- the next two films they are showing on TCM, as it turns out. There is also a scene in which Buster and Cliff Edwards play a 6-string ukulele together while Cliff (also known as Ukulele Ike) sings along, Not a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway. You can read way too much about it on my film blog at https://myclassicmovies.wordpress.com/…/…/06/doughboys-1930/
11:00 AM Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)
A poor guy falls in love with a rich girl and accidentally ends up staying in her mansion. There’s a bit of a twist on the plot of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shew, but it leaves that behind pretty quickly. This time, Buster is the main character, sans sidekick, but everyone around him does most of the talking. I like this one a lot. There are those that say no Keaton film after The Cameraman is worth watching, and that’s simply not true. Every one of his films has its merits, and every one of them has its faults; it’s just that the merits to faults ratio increased as MGM took a diamond (Buster) and turned him into a lump of coal. This film contains my favorite movie kiss of all time.
12:15 PM Sidewalks of New York (1931)
A rich guy falls in love with a poor girl and tries to get on her good side by opening a gymnasium for wayward boys. Notable for a courtroom gag that the Three Stooges subsequently borrowed, an adorable window-kiss, and more boxing ring tricks. There are some great lines, not only from the rest of the cast, but also Buster himself. And this is the second film today that has Buster in drag, the first time being in Doughboys. I do like this one a lot, but there isn’t much else to say about it except that you should watch it.
1:30 PM The Passionate Plumber (1932)
Mercifully, this is the only film that TCM will be showing with Jimmy Durante as his sidekick. Rather than MGM using a funnel to add Durante’s presence into the moments where silence should have been golden, they wedged it in and then beat it with a sledge hammer. He is more annoying in this one than he is in Speak Easily, but less annoying than he is in What, No Beer?, not that this matters since they aren’t showing those two. An inventor who makes a living as a plumber is hired to fix a shower and save a woman from making bad choices. The writing on this one is not so good, but even though Buster’s character goes back and forth between being a bumbling idiot and being a sarcastic genius, this is still my favorite Buster talkie, because of the sarcastic moments. The scenes I like best are the towel scene near the beginning and the duel scene later on. Watch this so you know what I’m talking about. You can read an expanded version of this recommendation on my film blog at https://myclassicmovies.wordpress.com/…/the-passionate-plu…/
3:00 PM In the Good Old Summertime (1949)
Not a Buster Keaton starring vehicle, though you can very much see his influence throughout. At this point in his career, he was a gag writer for MGM more than an actor, and they needed him to come up with a way to break a Stradivarius. Then they realized that he was the only one who could actually perform the gag, so they put him in as a supporting character behind Judy Garland and Van Johnson. This is a musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, and it’s my favorite version of the story, as well as one of my favorite movies in general. And it’s a Christmas movie- not a summertime movie. Don’t let the title fool you. You can read more than you want to know about it on my film blog at https://myclassicmovies.wordpress.com/…/in-the-good-old-su…/
5:00 PM How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
If you don’t like the beach movie genre, you can skip this one and catch Buster Keaton’s sequences on youtube. He has a few funny cameos in it, so it counts as a Buster Keaton movie.
7:00 PM The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018)
This film is one that I haven’t seen yet. It’s a documentary/homage to Keaton which was made last year by Peter Bogdanovich, and featuring interviews with Patricia Eliot Tobias, Cybill Shepherd, Bill Hader, Quentin Tarantino, Bill Irwin, French Stewart, Mel Brooks, and more, as well as highlights from Buster’s film career. I’ll be watching this one for sure.
9:00 PM The General (1927)
Many consider this Keaton’s masterpiece. A train engineer tries to enlist to fight in the Civil War, can’t get accepted, and ends up fighting in it anyway. There are lots of funny stunts, a stroke of lever-genius, cannons, a table-cloth with a hole in it, and the most expensive explosion in film history. I love this film, but it is not my favorite (see The Cameraman above). In fact, there are a few Keaton feature-length films that I like more. If you ask me what my favorite Buster Keaton film is, you will get a list because I categorize them into Arbuckle films, silent shorts, feature films, and talkies. I have seen this in a movie theater a couple of times, and it’s way better there than on a tv, but it’s still pretty great in any format. It’s a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway.
10:30 PM Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The one where Buster is a projectionist in a movie house who is studying to become a detective and ends up solving a crime he is accused of. This one has a famous sequence that had many filmmakers scratching their heads as to how he achieved it. It is innovative and also hilarious, and I like this one better than The General too. It’s a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway.
11:30 PM The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018)
TCM is so proud of this acquisition, they are showing it twice in the same night.
1:30 AM Seven Chances (1925)
Buster is to inherit a fortune IF he gets married by a deadline. This story was also lifted by The Three Stooges and then, many many years later, poorly remade as The Bachelor with Chris O’Donnell and Renee Zellweger. It features a very famous scene in which Buster is chased through a town by what appears to be about a thousand women. This is actually the first Buster Keaton move I ever saw. My mom was watching it when I was about 9 and I sat down and watched it with her. Even then I thought it was pretty funny, but I didn’t see another Keaton film for a very long time. It’s a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway.
2:45 AM Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
This was Buster’s last film before signing up with MGM. It contains some funny intertitles, a jailbreak, a lot of wind, and his most dangerous stunt ever. A college boy goes to live with his disapproving father who operates a paddle steamer. The house façade that falls down around him weighed about 4000 pounds and he would have been killed if he hadn’t calculated it right. Mind you, this was not the first time he used this gag, but it was the most famous. It’s a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway. You can read a bit more about it on my film blog at https://myclassicmovies.wordpress.com/…/steamboat-bill-jr-…/
4:00 AM The Navigator (1924)
A rich guy, rejected by the girl he loves, ends up on an abandoned ship alone with her. A surprisingly well-preserved Keaton film, it has a lot of gags about a man who has never had to do anything for himself before, an exasperatingly funny scene as he goes about trying to find out who is stuck on the ship with him, some funny underwater stuff, and a big rescue. Although there are several endearing moments, this is closer to the bottom of his feature-length films that I like and I like The General better. It’s a silent film; quit crying about it and watch anyway.