Keaton is clearly no longer a young man and the gentle, slow baritone of his stage-trained speaking voice made him sound even older than his 35 years, but the great stone face also had an ageless quality. He was the eternally hapless and guileless innocent in a world of schemers, wise guys and, in Doughboys, enemy soldiers with guns and bombs. Next to his rough and tumble drill sergeant (Edward Brophy), who becomes a rival for the attentions of Mary (just one of the many complications that sets his commanding officer against him), Keaton comes off as, if not a younger man, at least a gentle and benevolent soul and a model of generosity and trust. Vaudeville veteran Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, later famous as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, plays the urban wise guy to Elmer's well-meaning naïf and joins Keaton for one of the musical interludes, tapping out a tune on his ukulele with a pair of drumsticks while Keaton works the frets and they scat out a jazz tune together. It's a rare moment of Keaton camaraderie and a wonderful bit of bonding both onscreen and off. A lifelong friendship between Keaton and Edwards began over their shared love of eccentric old vaudeville songs and they could be found between takes huddled in a corner of the studio strumming out tunes together on the ukulele.
Keaton's sound film debut for the studio, the musical Free and Easy (1930), had been a hit, but Keaton was frustrated by the assembly-line system of MGM, where he no longer had the creative freedom of his great silent features, and suffered budget cuts for his subsequent films. Director Edward Sedgwick (who directed Keaton in his MGM silents The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929) as well as Free and Easy) was content to just plant the camera and watch the scene play out, rather than develop elaborate sequences or build scenes around Keaton's ideas for inventive gags. The technical limitations of the new sound technology worked against Keaton's fluid approach of comedy filmmaking.
Nonetheless, Keaton had more creative input here than he did on his first sound feature. The story was inspired in part by Keaton's own experiences fighting in France during World War I (where he lost partial hearing). He played another of his many Elmers, a favorite name throughout his career (and, incidentally, the name of his beloved St. Bernard). While the writers tried to fill the script with puns and verbal jokes, Keaton insisted that his dialogue, at least, be less "jokey." "There was only one thing I wanted at all times, and insisted on: that you go ahead and talk in the most natural way in your situations," he explained in a 1958 interview. "Don't give me puns. Don't give me jokes. No wisecracks..." He brought in some of his old vaudeville gags for the basic training scenes and put his acrobatic talents to use in a standout sequence that ends the film's big musical number. Keaton, dressed in drag as part of a scheme to break out of a military stockade, fakes his way through a stage show as part of the chorus and ends up tossed around in an increasingly combative parody of the French Apache dance. True to form, Keaton responds with a few inventive defensive moves of his own in the creatively choreographed number.
Though less lavish than his first sound film, Free and Easy, Doughboys made even more money and Keaton signed on to another two years with MGM. It was a lucrative contract but Keaton was increasingly frustrated on a creative level and, with the collapse of his marriage to Natalie Talmadge, he slid into alcoholism. As he became more erratic and his films less successful, he was finally fired from MGM. Doughboys was one of the final studio features in which he was truly engaged.
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Screenplay: Al Boasberg (story and dialogue); Sidney Lazarus (story); Richard Schayer (dialogue & scenario)
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt (foreign version, uncredited)
Film Editing: William LeVanway
Cast: Buster Keaton (Elmer), Sally Eilers (Mary), Cliff Edwards (Nescopeck), Edward Brophy (Sgt. Brophy), Victor Potel (Svendenburg), Arnold Korff (Gustave), Frank Mayo (Capt. Scott), Pitzy Katz (Abie Cohn), William Steele (Lt. Randolph).
BW-80m. Closed Captioning.
by Sean Axmaker
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