Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Buster, Italian Style (or "Due Marines e un Maestro")

Having recently posted about Laurel & Hardy’s much maligned (and highly underappreciated) cinematic swan song, "Atoll K", it made sense to follow up with another musing on another comedy great’s final* film – Buster Keaton’s "Due Marines e un Generale" (aka "War Italian Style"). 

Buster gets his name above the title one last time.

Like “Atoll K”, this Italian-American co-production sees an icon of classic comedy far, far away from their familiar turf, shooting in a European location where all the other actors deliver their lines in one language while the American “star(s)” speaks their mother tongue – in Buster’s case, silence.

Like “Atoll K”, it received a delayed U.S. theatrical release with an atrociously dubbed English soundtrack.

Unlike “Atoll K”, people pretty much just pretend it never happened. Here it is, Buster’s final star billing in a feature-length theatrical film (20 years since his last top-billed feature), and it’s barely treated as a footnote in his filmography. 

In his book The Fall of Buster Keaton, author Jim Neibaur dismisses the film with the phrase “After playing a German general, of all things…”. Historian Kevin Brownlow just barely acknowledges it in his book, The Search for Buster Keaton.

Why is this? Why? Why?? Two words: Franco and Ciccio.

Damn you, Franco and Ciccio and your strident antics (fist shake)…you blinded everybody to the joys of Buster Keaton in this film.

Okay, so, Franco & Ciccio. Let's put them in perspective. Yes, sure, they’re like two feces-flinging monkeys on the loose throughout the film. But like herrings & cream or chicken & waffles, the Sicilian comedy team of Franco Franchi & Ciccio Ingrassia seem to appeal to certain geo-cultural tastes – primarily rural southern Italy. (Think of Larry the Cable Guy in the southern U.S.A. Does that help?). Heck, they were popular enough in their native Italy to make as many as 15 features a year in their heyday. Ultimately, they would work with such masters of cinema as Pasolini and Fellini. So, who am I to argue with audience and auteur appreciation on that level? Besides, they have their own cartoonish appeal. An example: When a mortar explosion blows away all of Franco’s hair in one scene, only to have it magically reappear in the next, it’s pretty funny. And when viewed in the original Italian (vs. that really awful English dubbing), it’s easier to go “yeah, I get it, that’s pretty funny”.

Now let’s focus on Buster. If Franco & Ciccio are all mania, Buster is nothing but subtle nuance. He’s the calm of this cinematic storm, and his work stands in stark contrast to all the noise and nonsense surrounding him. When Buster’s on screen he owns the film, and “War Italian Style” is stuffed with the sort of memorable bits that defined his style in the mid-1960s: throwaway sight gags that require little physical effort, but succeed on Keaton’s pantomimic abilities and sublime facial reactions. Buster’s General Von Kassler (“of all things”) is a masterpiece of stoicism, distinguished by the occasional raised eyebrow, curious glance and shrug of acceptance. He’s compelling even in the scenes in which he’s unconscious.

Franco chews the scenery while Buster quietly dines.

Witness the formal dinner scene shared with the Italian comics. As bombs fall around them and ceilings and walls collapse, Franco quakes, mugs, sweats, squeals, bugs his eyes out and furiously chews on broken glass. What’s Buster doing? Well, Buster being Buster, when a mortar shell blasts a hole in the floor next to him, it becomes the perfect repository for a nonchalantly disposed-of chicken bone. (Well, really, it’s the only sensible thing to do.) “War Italian Style” is full of stuff like that… little pantomime pieces dotted throughout the film, adding up to a good 40 minutes throughout the film’s 74 minute running time. So that’s lots of Buster to enjoy (about 10x more Buster than you’ll find in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, and 100x more than "It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”), all of it good enough to merit him having his name above the title one last time.

Still, when it’s discussed at all, “War Italian Style” is generally bucketed with the rest of Buster’s AIP efforts of the mid-60’s – just another pitiful, embarrassing mistake cranked out by Buster to pad his bank account while chipping away at his reputation. His beer commercials get more respect. But listen to what director Luigi Scattini had to say of the situation:
Franco and Ciccio had a great fear of being run with Buster Keaton, and he praised them continuously for their skill and their comic timing. Lo osservava, ne studiava ogni gesto e movimento.They observed, we studied every gesture and movement. E Keaton era molto lusingato di questo.And Keaton was very flattered by this.” Franco Franchi, in modo particolare, era presissimo da Keaton.

Luigi Scattini (centre) directs Ciccio Ingrassia. 
Buster gives the photographer the side eye. 

So are Franco & Ciccio any more annoying than, say, Jimmy Durante or Harvey Lembeck when sharing the screen with Buster? Yeh, sure, maybe, of course…okay, lots. But here’s the difference: Unlike things like “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” or even the MGM efforts of the ‘30s, “War Italian Style” projects the sense that the Italians are genuinely honored to be working with Buster. Director Scattini even went out of his way to pay homage to Keaton in the film’s final fade out – with the two Italian comics bidding a truly poignant farewell to Buster, as he trudges off into the future in his traditional suit and porkpie hat after delivering his one word of dialogue in the film: “Grazie”.

Arrividerci, Buster. And grazie.

None of this is to say that “War Italian Style” is a neglected masterpiece. It’s just neglected. And that's too bad. “War Italian Style” is a fine showcase for elderly Buster in full mastery of his pantomimic and comedy skills. Watch it, and watch it carefully – for Buster’s scenes alone if you must – and you’ll see it for what it is: a highly respectable and very funny effort, and definitely the most interesting feature film appearance of Buster’s final decade.

And it’s a heckuva lot funnier than “Film”.

Grazie, Buster.

* Final released film. “War Italian Style” was released in the U.S. on January 18, 1967, a year and a half after it was filmed. So technically, yep, Buster's last.


  1. That beautiful man Buster with such an ugly ,sickening voice! Why didn't they let him speak????!!!!

  2. I'd like to say that it was too bad Buster didn't costar with Toto'in it instead, but the two would have cancelled each other out. TOTO' worked with Franco and Ciccio for Pasolini.

  3. I'd like to say that it was too bad Buster didn't costar with Toto'in it instead, but the two would have cancelled each other out. TOTO' worked with Franco and Ciccio for Pasolini.

  4. There's few things I like better than reading a new perspective on a neglected film--especially one that's routinely dismissed. A lot of Buster's later work is waved aside as insignificant or embarrassing. In some cases it can be (and it's never Buster's fault, you may notice), but in others some context is required or the films just plain need a second chance.

    Thanks for contributing this evenhanded piece to the blogathon, sir! Hope to see you again next year. :-)

  5. Thank you for getting the word out on this Buster film. If you can find the whole movie, Buster is truly wonderful!

    1. And the movie plays much better in the original Italian than the terribly dubbed English version!