Buster Keaton in Neighbors (1920)
Buster Keaton’s Neighbors is Romeo & Juliet set in a tenement courtyard. Buster plays The Boy, in love with The Girl (played by Virgina Fox), who lives just behind the back fence. Not surprisingly, The Boy’s and The Girl’s fathers, Joe Keaton and Joe Roberts respectively, are none too pleased. But love will always find a way and hilarity ensues. Neighbors is a small story, played out on a pretty small stage, and it is way more fun to watch than to read about.
The chief attraction of Neighbors is Buster Keaton’s dazzling acrobatics, on display much more fully in this short than in his previous ones. On first viewing, I thought Keaton had moved away from the mechanical brilliance demonstrated by the dinner scene in The Scarecrow. Then I learned that the abutting tenement buildings and courtyards were custom designed by Keaton to maximize the acrobatic effects. He zip lines across clothes lines, attaches a spanking device to the swinging door in the fence, and flies in out of windows.
There is nothing more visually funny, in my opinion at least, than Buster Keaton hurtling in and out of a window. I have to stop typing right now, so I can chuckle at the memory.
And there’s this.Trust me a still does not do it justice.
Neighbors is a pretty frantic 17 minutes of movie. At times it feels a bit Looney Tunes. It is rollicking fun romp, with a lot of classic slapstick elements. I mean there are a lot of cops. Or perhaps I should say Kops. The very physical style of the comedy on display here is what makes the movie so difficult to write about. Man A tosses banana peel on the ground and Man B slips on it. That’s much funnier when you see it than when you read it.
And in fact that happens in Neighbors. As Buster is being hauled off to the pokey, he tosses a banana peel on the ground and the Kop slips on it. But Buster doesn’t just make his getaway on foot… he doesn’t duck into a doorway or improvise a thin disguise (though he does both at other points in the film). Instead he kinds of vertically hops and then disappears into a passing laundry cart. And it is really, really funny.
There is a lot of metaphorical winking and nodding in Neighbors. The aforementioned banana peel gag is like Keaton’s Slapstick 2.0. He’s demonstrating that he knows the rules as well as how to break them. And silent comedy tropes of the day are not the only victims of this film making elbowing. The initial narrative title card reads, “The Flower of Love could find no more romantic spot in which to blossom than in this Poet’s Dream Garden.” Sounds like the start to a Griffithesque tale of sentimental redemption where a plucky young heroine perseveres in midst of grave hardship and poverty. Cut to The Boy and The Girl pining for one another under the drying tenement laundry.
Again, this is all a lot funnier when you watch it. So watch it! Neighbors is included on the Seven Chances DVD which can be bought at Amazon or streamed on Netflix. Or take a look on Vimeo.