|Buster Keaton's young man just can't get a break in his 1922 film Daydreams.
Buster Keaton’s characters seem to spring from another world and just aren’t suited for this one. They constantly battle mechanical devices and inadvertently set the forces of law and order against them. The protagonists typically mean well; they just want love and happiness like the rest of us. The difference is that conforming to social norms rarely works. Holding down a job is a challenge, and that means that even nice girls (and their fathers) want nothing to do with them. Keaton’s physical skills are the perfect match for this type of character. He’s dodging bodily harm on a regular basis, and his facial expressions rarely show exasperation about the failures. Even when he’s covered in mud and debris, he still tries to find the next route to rewards that constantly elude his grasp.
A fitting example is Daydreams, a 1922 short film that depicts Keaton as “The Young Man” who tries valiantly to prove his worth in the city. The narrative device of letters back to Renée Adorée’s “The Girl” reveals his overly positive spin on mundane urban jobs. His role as “head of a big sanitarium with 200 patients” is actually caretaker of a dog and cat hospital. When he accidentally brings a skunk into the facility, it’s time for a new line of work. Even a straightforward job like cleaning the street is too much. The city seems determined to remove this interloper who’s invaded its streets. Inanimate objects attack him, and the citizens retaliate by dropping the young man in a muddy manhole. Despite his failures, we don’t see this guy sobbing in a corner. He’s ready to debut in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it’s clear by this point that even the small role of a soldier will overwhelm his limited sensibility.
There are a few clever gags in the first half of this 18-minute film, but most are fairly muted. The young man loses a pet by choosing a basket without a bottom to transport it. The humor is mostly on this level, which isn’t great yet sets up the final sequence. A second example of the missing-bottom gag happens on the street, so we aren’t in highly creative territory. Thankfully, it’s easy to forget these concerns as the mayhem begins. Once Keaton leaps onto a streetcar and flies horizontally, those ideas quickly disappear. It’s a wondrous stunt that’s more impressive with the knowledge that it’s all Keaton. Another fun move involves a ladder with the pursuing cops perched on top of it. Despite his inability to succeed in the workforce, the young guy makes the police look just as foolish. Those guys are pulled underground after foolishly venturing into the dangerous spot.
Shot in San Francisco, the chase uses the locations effectively including the famous streetcars. It also involves the young man’s unsuccessful attempts to escape the incoming horde by boat. After leaping onto a departing vessel, his solace lasts momentarily when it returns to the dock. This sets up the film’s best visual gag with Keaton running inside the boat’s paddle wheel. He’s like a hamster endlessly running on the wheel inside its cage. His diligent efforts to escape accomplish little, and it’s one of the best Keaton stunts that I’ve seen. When he finally escapes this nautical menace, the young man barely resembles a person and has become part of the scenery. He’s returned to his girl with the mail and is brutally dismissed by her father. I’ve yet to mention the young man’s promise that he would shoot himself if he fails in the city. The dad simply takes the gun out of a drawer and walks away. Of course, assuming that the dim-witted guy can even complete this simple task may expect too much.
It’s unfortunate that the current version of Daydreams is missing certain scenes. There are also rough cuts and transitions, and the quality of the Amazon Prime release isn’t great. Even so, it’s interesting to catch a fairly early glimpse at Keaton’s career. It may pale in comparison to his work in Sherlock Jr. and The General, but there’s still enough to make it worthwhile. The chase includes some impressive physical comedy, especially when you consider the time of its release. The components for Keaton’s success are all in place and will contribute to some of his best work just a few years later.
This post is a contribution to the Buster Keaton blogathon hosted by Silent-ology on February 8 and 9. You should check out all the great pieces about Keaton in this series.