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By Phil Hall | September 4, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 299: “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” (1931 comedy starring Buster Keaton).

LAST SEEN: It can be downloaded from several web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been available for many years from companies specializing in public domain titles.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An orphan film with an expired copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope, it is stuck in public domain hell.

Contrary to popular belief, the transition from silent movies to talkies did not wreak havoc on the vast majority of Hollywood’s thespian elite. With relatively few exceptions, the movie stars of the late 1920s had the vocal prowess to continue in sound films. The main problem did not involve inadequate voices, but it focused on the stars’ inability to adapt their acting to films that required dialogue. It also didn’t help that the early talkies were, for the most part, little more than filmed plays – a switch in style that bewildered the silent film stars who never worked in a Broadway-worthy theatrical setting.

Buster Keaton’s transition from silent to sound films was actually not traumatic as many Keaton biographers and apologists insist. There was nothing wrong with Keaton’s ability to handle dialogue – his voice was perfectly fine and he had the talent to put over funny lines. The real issue – which many people refuse to acknowledge – was that Keaton was not able to adapt his highly physical, dialogue-free style of comedy to the new medium. Other silent stars like Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and the Our Gang child actors successfully used dialogue to expand their modus operandi into wider territory without sacrificing the physical elements of their distinctive comedy. But Keaton, not unlike Chaplin, could not reconcile his brand of comedy with the spoken word.

This was particularly problematic to Keaton, since the silent features that he conceived and that are now considered classics – particularly “The General” and “Steamboat Bill Jr.” – were box-office flops in their time. However, Keaton’s early sound films that were made at MGM (when he was a contract player) were all box office hits – even though contemporary film scholars find them sorely lacking in terms of artistic content.

In watching Keaton’s 1931 MGM feature “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath,” it is painfully obvious that Keaton’s sound film transition tragedy was solely of his own making – he was completely unable to bring his silent film persona into an environment that demanded sound, even if it was merely ambient in nature. This may seem radical to many Keaton supporters, but his films from this period clearly point out his glaringly obvious limitations as a performer. When it came to taking his art to another level, Keaton failed the “adapt or die” test.

“Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” was based from a 1917 play by Charles W. Bell and Mark Swan, but that work was obviously a riff on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Set among the ultra-rich who knew nothing of Depression-era America, the story involves the British aristocrat Jeff Haywood’s thwarted attempts to marry the young heiress Virginia Embry. Poor/rich Virginia won’t marry until her impossible older sister Angelica gets married. Angelica, however, is in no rush to walk down the aisle – she rejects the posh suitors who clamor about her by claiming she is more interested in “a husband who could make me jealous – I’d send him out nights just to get a thrill when he came home.”

But unlike Shakespeare, the Petruchio who tames this shrew is not a lion, but a lamb. Into this scenario comes Buster Keaton as Reggie Irving, a meek, working class sign tacker who gets hit by Jeff’s car. Jeff conspires to pass Reggie off as a wealthy adventurer with a leonine appetite for women. This gets Angelica’s attention, but she eventually realizes that Reggie is acutely inexperienced with women. To overcome this obstacle, Jeff hires gossip columnist Polly Hathaway to give Reggie a crash course in how to woo women. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan.

“Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” had the potential for being a genuinely amusing farce – it was previously filmed as a silent comedy in 1920 and was a staple in regional theater by the time this version was made. However, Keaton hated the notion of farce comedy. In his view, the contrived circumstances that fueled most of the comedy could have been avoided if someone bothered to stop and explain what was going on – but that, of course, deflates the whole purpose of farce. He also felt the conventions of farce (at least the theatrical conventions of the genre) did not suit his comic skills.

However, with this film, Keaton’s arguments didn’t really make sense. Contrary to the popular notion that Keaton lost control of his creative output when he joined MGM at the tail end of the silent era, “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” was presented by the studio as “A Buster Keaton Production” – and the exterior scenes at Angelica’s mansion were actually shot on location at Keaton’s extravagant Beverly Hills mansion.

But Keaton worked against the source material and kept putting his style of comedy into the work. The film includes numerous sequences that are clearly tailored for Keaton’s brand of silent comedy (but not the farce itself): two lengthy chases, a prolonged piece with Keaton unsuccessfully maneuvering the slippery surface of a wet hotel lobby, a reworking of a classic railroad sight gag from Keaton’s 1920 short “One Week,” numerous pratfalls with Keaton tumbling and collapsing all over the place, and a highly physical tutoring session between Keaton’s Reggie and Polly Hathaway, played by the six-foot-tall comic actress Charlotte Greenwood (who was clearly Keaton’s equal in regard to physical comedy – perhaps she was too much his equal, as Keaton would never work with her again).

As a result, “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” often feels like two films running at once: an old-fashioned slamming-door farce and an old-fashioned Buster Keaton silent comedy. Neither film is able to dominate, and as a result the production pinballs between the now-dated conventions of the bedroom farce and a poor approximation of peak Keaton, in which knockabout humor highlights his physical dexterity. It was impossible in 1931 to make an old-school Keaton silent comedy, but Keaton made it impossible to make a talkie that fit the demands of the era.

Actually, there are three version of “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath.” In this early talkies era, dubbing was not perfected and MGM (along with other studios) created simultaneous foreign versions of their major films using the U.S. stars. Keaton was required to make a French-language and German-language version of “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” for international release – the stonefaced star spoke his lines phonetically while European actors were brought in to play the other roles. To date, neither non-English version of this film has ever been seen on this side of the Atlantic.

“Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” was commercially popular at the time of its release – a fact that gnawed at Keaton, strangely enough (he appears to have been the rare star who hated having his films make money). However, the film’s risque view of pre-marital (and pre-Code) sex and subsequent legal complications regarding the rights to the original source text kept it out of circulation for many years. MGM neglected to renew the copyright on the film, resulting in it lapsing into the public domain.

For decades, this film has been bootlegged by numerous public domain labels; the full feature can also be found online in a satisfactory print.

Keaton’s die-hard fans will never give “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath” any serious consideration. This is a shame, because the film offers irrefutable evidence that Keaton was more limited as a performer than many of his advocates might wish to acknowledge.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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