Film unconventional

Register Editor

Buster Keaton’s “Doughboys” threw Dr. Leslie DeBauche for a loop.
“It totally blew my paradigm,” said the American film historian who specializes in early war films. “Doughboys” doesn’t fit any of the categorical slots DeBauche has created for early day films.
DeBauche teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, specializing in films from the “teens to the twenties,” she said.
Her talk, “Buster Keaton Fights the Great War,” will be at 1:10 p.m. Saturday. “Doughboys,” produced in 1930 and the second “talkie” for Keaton, will be shown at 4:10 that afternoon.
The film ventures from typical war films of that era, DeBauche said. “The film straddles the line between old-fashioned and new. War films of 1917 and 1918 were along the lines of D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation,’” a 1915 silent film about the Civil War.
These films typically, and unrealistically, cast women as victims to be rescued by the film’s hero just before they were to be “menaced” by the villain. Propaganda posters of WWI often depicted a “brutish Hun carrying off a scantily clad woman,” said DeBauche. “Saving the damsel was a prevalent theme as was starting and ending on the homefront.”
After the war, movies put a greater emphasis on the conflict, perhaps because of input by the veterans themselves, said DeBauche.
“Women fell out of the story lines. The movies became more authentic and true to combatants’ experiences.”
Some scenes in “Doughboys,” intended as comedy, are downright brutal, DeBauche said. She recalls a basic training scene where a buffoon of a sergeant instructs Keaton how to wield a bayonnet. Had it been a silent film, the scene could be tolerated, DeBauche said. But the sergeant’s screaming is “violent. It’s not what you see, it’s what you hear.” This crassness, she said, reflects a change in the attitude of the country that, over time, became much less certain of its involvement in the war.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, a romantic subplot pulls the movie along and provides venues for levity, sometimes to the extreme, DeBauche said. She cites a scene where in an effort to impress his beloved, Keaton dresses in drag and sings “Mr. Trouble.”
“It’s a cheerful song that gives you the feeling that if you only sang, your troubles would be washed away,” DeBauche said. “It’s cheerful in the extreme” and ill-suited to the situation, she said.
The film’s best scene to DeBauche is when Keaton and his buddy, the cook, break out and do scat singing. The scene “comes out of the blue and is absolutely wonderful — but it doesn’t fit with the movie,” DeBauche said.
In his autobiography Keaton doesn’t list “Doughboys” as one of his credits, DeBauche said. As a film, it was generally panned by critics.
DeBauche explains Keaton’s involvement with the film as a “contractual arrangement,” with MGM.
“At his best, Keaton never used scripts, but improvised,” DeBauche said of the comic genius.