Friday, February 7, 2014

Buster Keaton's last starring role -- Boom in the Moon

By Doug Gibson

I am reading James L. Neibaur's book "The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia," (The Scarecrow Press, 2010) and I plan to review it soon. On page 177, he mentions Keaton's  role in an obscure Mexican comedy -- from 1946 -- called "El Moderno Barba Azul," or "Boom in the Moon." Neibaur says the film is best forgotten, and he's correct that it makes his low-budget comedy shorts seem like "The General" in comparison. However, I think it's worth a review; after all, it was Keaton's final starring role. So, here we go:

There's really no big reason to see Boom In the Moon ... unless you are a cult film fanatic. (And that's why we at Plan 9 Crunch are reviewing it) It's an  feature from 1946, made when Keaton was at the low point of his career (he later rebounded via TV and small roles and cameos in big-budget films). But in the mid-1940s, Buster Keaton was not working much.

But, first some background: In the 1920s, Keaton was among the kings of cinema comedy. But he had a drinking problem that became more acute when talkies came and he signed a multi-picture deal that included comedies with Jimmy Durante. To put it charitably, Durante's manic, often-unfunny rantings grated on Keaton's physical, stone-face comedy. Without any creative input, Keaton was portrayed as a buffoon and clown rather than an industrious underdog. During the making of their last film, "What No Beer?" Keaton was so drunk he trashed his dressing room and disappeared from the set for several days. After the film wrapped, MGM, his employer, canned Keaton.

After that, Keaton existed for almost 20 years in a grab-work-when-available world. His chief income was making comedy shorts for Educational Pictures and Columbia, as well as doing gag-man work for the bigger studios at $100 a week. Keaton's comedy shorts efforts were overshadowed by The Three Stooges and Little Rascals shorts.Also, Keaton felt the shorts were demeaning, as well. He had not starred in a film for a long time when he accepted the lead role in Boom in the Moon, or as it was known in Mexico, The Modern Bluebird ("El Moderno Barba Azul)

It is a very low budget, often strange movie starring Keaton and a bunch of mediocre Mexican actors. Buster plays a sailor in a lifeboat who drifts for weeks. He doesn't know that World War 2 is over and thinks he is in Japan when he lands in Mexico. He is immediately arrested and accused of being a killer of young girls. He's paired with another clownish prisoner (Angel Garasa). The pair are offered the choice of flying to the moon in a very goofy professor's rocket instead of execution. After a bunch of clowning they accept. Somehow the professor's very pretty niece (Virginia Seret) is in the rocket when it blasts off.

After a few days the rocket lands. The trio thinks they are on the moon, but they are really just a few miles from where they took off. The two convicts are cleared ... No more synopsis in case some readers want to watch the film. (It's hard to find. The best bet is to check amazon and ebay for used copies)

The first half is a little better than the last half because Keaton has the opportunity to use a lot of physical comedy, including a funny bit in his cell. The last half unfortunately allows too many actors to babble, including one Mexican actor -- playing a silly psychiatrist -- who will cause viewers to grind their teeth in pain at his performance. The rocket is so low budget that it would not have qualified for a C-movies serial in the 1930s. Still, Keaton occasionally, with his physical deadpan humor, comes off well in a few scenes. Ironically, Garasa, as Keaton's sidekick, is as nasal and annoying as Durante was with Keaton 15 years earlier.

Keaton has very little dialogue, and it's dubbed anyway in today's prints, although the others prattle on too much. Boom in the Moon could have been a lot better if it had been shot silent, and relied on Keaton's emotion and physical comedy. But that idea likely occurred to nobody in 1946.

The film was released theatrically in Mexico and played only in Spanish for 37 years, including U.S. TV on Spanish-speaking stations. It was briefly released via VHS with English dubbing in 1983. The release wasn't very long and the film has become a little hard to find. I'm glad I watched it -- I have wanted to for at least a decade. It was good to see Keaton starring in any feature in 1946. Despite the poverty-row film, Keaton still retained flashes of the great talent in the The General, The Camera Man, and Steamboat Bill Jr., etc.

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