July 19, 2018
Doughboys – US, 1930
Spare a thought for poor Buster Keaton, and add one more for all of the other silent actors in his position following the advent of sound. I don’t mean poor in a financial sense, but rather unfortunate, as in the state of having all that made them what they were taken away in an instant. Imagine that: One minute you are on the top of the world, the master of your own destiny; the next, you are reduced to making schlop like Edward Sedgwick's Doughboys. And Doughboys is not the respectable kind of schlop; it’s not the kind of schlop which people make because they woke up with an idea that, despite all of their hard work, just never completely pans out. Instead, it’s the worst kind, a safe, bland vehicle that employs a paint-by-numbers formula, poorly utilizes its star, and inadvertently reveals their lack of confidence in his or her creative impulses. Yep, it’s that kind of film.
Yet it’s more than that. It’s also a tired example of a film genre that moviegoers are all too familiar with now and which rarely has produced much in the way of decent films. Laurel and Hardy did a version of it, as did Abbott and Costello; Bill Murray even tried his hand at it later with Stripes. None of them had any success. By it, of course, I mean that genre in which some hapless soul finds himself accidentally registering for the army, going through boot camp being harassed by a tough-as-nails drill instructor, and then being sent to some foreign conflict where he inadvertently finds himself saving the day and getting the girl. Sound familiar?
In Doughboys, Keaton plays Elmer J. Stuyvesant, a pampered member of the upper class who seems to have nothing better to do than wait outside his company’s factory every afternoon and ask the same woman out. Each day he has in his hands a fresh bouquet of roses, and each day he ends up handing them to his driver, Gustav, who just shakes his head as if lamenting the repetitiveness of both the offer and the rejection. Surely, there must be better ways to make a living.
After yet another rejection, Gustav suggests they make his employment official by going to an employment registry. Elmer agrees, and through a series of mishaps involving a sign on a door and some peculiar questions, he abruptly finds himself shipped off to basic training. There he encounters, you guessed it, a sergeant who has it in for him, a pal who just happens to be a talented musician, and, wouldn’t you guess it, Mary (Sally Eilers). That’s right. The woman who has made a habit of crushing his dreams just happens to have been assigned entertainment duty at the very base he is stationed at.
Unfortunately, instead of telling a compelling narrative, the film is content to get by on short scenes in which Elmer errs, the sergeant yells, and nothing much of consequence ever seems to occur. It’s everything I hated about Buck Privates, but with far fewer characters. Even more egregious, none of the film’s five writers – two of them wrote the story, one contributed the scenario, and two share the blame for the dialogue – saw fit to explore the romance that supposedly rests at the heart of the film. Instead, we are asked to believe that Mary becomes sweet on Elmer simply because he enlists. The characters have no heart-to-hearts or anything even remotely resembling an extended dialogue, and this is a mistake. Keaton’s silent films are known not just for the deadpan delivery of its leading man. They are films about love and the great lengths one goes to earn it. Think of College and its perfect closing montage, showing the characters aging, dying, and resting next to each other for eternity. Or Our Hospitality, in which Keaton’s character swings through a waterfall to catch the one he loves. It is moments like these, coupled with Keaton’s characters’ impressive ability to persevere when faced with adversity, that drive his early films, yet Doughboys neglects this – to its detriment.
Only two scenes truly stand out. In the first one, Elmer sits with two of his army buddies and breaks out a ukulele. His friend Nescopeck, played by singer Cliff Edwards, scats out a tune, during which his voice alternates from a natural lower voice to a high-pitched cat-like growl, essentially singing a duet with himself. Keaton chimes in, bopping a rather likable beat, and a fellow soldier soon joins in, playing his rifle like a bass. It’s a great scene, and it does nothing to advance the plot. It is also one of the few times in the film when Keaton doesn’t look somewhat bored by what he’s doing on camera. In truth, I don’t blame him. Accustomed to playing scenes out or structuring films around a series of slapstick gags, it must have pained him to have so many quick cuts. In many, he’s just getting started before some character yells at him to knock it off. The other noteworthy scene, or should I say half a scene, comes in the latter third of the film during a musical number that strains too hard to be different. In it, Eilers comes out and shows off her tap dancing skills, and my, aren’t they impressive! And what joy she displays! It made me long for a full-fledged musical with her in the leading role.
This is really all I can recommend of Doughboys, for even though the rest of it has moments of comic promise, the rug is pulled out from under them far too quickly for them to resonate. One of them involves Keaton hearing a bugle call while taking a shower. In the very next scene, there he is standing for inspection wearing very little other than his suspenders. And wouldn’t you know it, just at that moment Mary arrives hoping to see him in his army duds. The moment is rife with comic potential, yet all Keaton is given to do is hide and then exit as rapidly as possible. Mission accomplished, I guess. However, the scene feels rushed, and it produces little in the way of laughter other than a mild, polite chuckle, followed by an instinctive shaking of the head. In other words, the scene is a perfect summation of the film and the disappointment it is likely to inspire in its viewers. Buster Keaton deserved so much better. (on DVD from Warner Archives)