Friday, August 20, 2004

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Buster Keaton was a funny guy, perfectly suited to the silent movie as a medium. His athletic, physical comedy was without peer, and his blank stare made for a priceless reaction shot as the world descended into chaos around him. Sadly, there are only a few points in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath that require slapstick, and this adaptation of a stage play turns out to be far too confining for Keaton's particular gifts.

Ironically, the movie starts out well. It starts off in Taming of the Shrew territory, as pretty younger sister Virginia (Sally Eilers) is anxious to marry, but propriety dictates her older sister Angelica (Dorothy Christy) marry first. She, of course, is picky and blunt, which is a cause for aggravation for Virginia's fiancé Jeffrey (Reginald Denny). When he accidentally hits sign-poster Reginald Irving (Keaton), who had been scoping out Angelica, he is brought into the mansion and Angelica starts going Florence Nightengale for him. The men hatch a scheme whereby Reggie will woo Angelica, clearing the way for Jeffrey and Virginia to marry. Of course, to do that, Jeffrey decides to make the timid Reggie appear to be a ladies' man.

The plot has whiskers on it, and I imagine might have been considered sort of stodgy when it was released in 1931 (the same play was adapted as a silent in 1920). Silly social rules are a potent fuel for farce, though, along with half-heard conversations and random disasters. The biggest laugh comes halfway through the movie, as as Irving and a married friend of the sisters drive to a hotel, Irving thinking it's part of a plan to make Angelica jealous and Nita (Joan Peers) unaware of this plan but wanting to put her husband in his place for continually being away on business. It's pure Keaton, probably created specifically for the film, and involves a tire coming off the car near a set of railway tracks.

Once they get to the hotel, though, the movie runs into problems. Although it's been painfully obvious that the farce has been a bit mean-spirtited and based on nobody saying or doing the obvious thing, what goes on in the hotel room requires Reggie to not only be inexperienced with women, but also to be mentally deficient in some way. A misunderstanding can funny, but the hotel room sequence requires stupidity beyond what we've got any reason to expect from Keaton's character, and becomes off-putting. There's probably an argument to be made that it's demeaning to women, too, but it's not as though the men in the movie come out looking great, either.

The play this is based on is potentially a decent farce, and even if it didn't play to his strength, Keaton might have worked well in it. The final segment, though, just doesn't work in 2004, and I question whether it would have worked in 1931, either.

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