In Doughboys (1930), Buster Keaton plays Elmer Stuyvesant, a wealthy young fellow who is enamored by Mary (Sally Eilers), although she makes it clear to him that she doesn’t reciprocate these feelings. Despite the juxtaposed 1930s aesthetics, the story takes place in the World War I era, during which Elmer accidentally enlists himself into the Army. To his surprise, however, he runs into Mary, who is now visibly impressed upon seeing him in uniform. Adding to the already grueling journey into war, Elmer faces some competition with the sergeant (Edward Brophy), who also has eyes for Mary. What to do, what to do.
Since Doughboys is partly inspired by Keaton’s experiences in The Great War, I was eager to see where real life overlapped with the silver screen. More than once, I picked out his autobiography from my bookshelf, and perused through the chapter that holds his wartime memories to pinpoint any comparisons.
Affectionately dubbing his service as his “career at the rear,” Buster was drafted into the United States Army in June 1917, and would eventually put his motion picture career with Comique on a brief hiatus. The following summer, he was assigned to the 40th Division (nicknamed the Sunshine Division), 159th Infantry, Company C, and left for San Diego to train in nearby Camp Kearney before ultimately being shipped overseas to France. According to Keaton in his autobiography, he took his role as cryptologist very seriously by studying Morse code, map reading, and semaphore signaling on a regular basis (97).
FILM: “Haven’t you anything smaller?” Elmer queries, but instead gets handed a pair of boots still far too roomy for his feet.
ACTUALITY: Buster states that his clothes didn’t fit him properly, especially the shoes. They were about two sizes too big.
FILM: The sergeant yells, “Left face, forward march!” to the troops. Elmer, however, turns to his right and clumsily bumps into his fellow soldiers.
ACTUALITY: Yes, in typical Buster fashion, this actually happened. The real story, of course, completely upstages the onscreen version.
“I was then put in with my regular squad. I might have done fine there if some impulsive officer had not given a command I had never heard of. It was: ‘To the rear, march!’ I went forward and everyone else turned and went backward. Immediately I got hit on the chin and knocked down by somebody’s gun butt. I wasn’t unconscious, but I might as well have been— because I couldn’t get up. While I lay there in a dazed condition, my brothers-in-arms, my dear buddies, either had to jump over me or step to one side to avoid kicking me.” (97)
FILM: Elmer sneaks out of his tent to see Mary, eventually disguising himself as a military police officer from Sgt. Brophy.
ACTUALITY: Once again, real life Buster outshines his movie counterpart and goes so far as to successfully sneak past the sentries with his girlfriend in her lavish car. He had picked up on the lazy salute that officers often gave and realized how similar the uniforms were. He ended up spending the day as he pleased, before being sent overseas the following day. Unlike Elmer, he didn’t get caught.
FILM: Elmer takes a nice little pre-code shower on board the ship, until he suddenly hears the alarms going off. Unsure if it’s just another drill, he still gets himself in line, towel and all. I mean, “orders are orders!”
ACTUALITY: In Rudi Blesh’s Keaton, you can bet that the real-life story is in there. Poor Buster had gotten a case of the cooties, and was ordered to immediately scrub with surgical soap after getting caught scratching. Never could there be such an inconvenient moment for a drill to occur, and it left Buster contemplating what to do. Just to be on the safe side, he scrambled into formation, “clothed only in soap.” (115)
FILM: The base camp is stationed in France. Fresh mud is everywhere. The troops take up quarters in barns.
ACTUALITY: While Buster and his company never saw action, conditions were still notoriously rough during the War. It wasn’t long before our beloved comedian-turned-doughboy developed a cold that affected his hearing, and nearly cost him his life with the sentry. The nightly exposure to drafty weather during his time in France caused Buster to become partially deaf for the remainder of his life.
FILM: Trying to find a way to get closer to Mary, Elmer hams it up in drag and shows off his acrobatic side by performing la danse Apache onstage for the troops. It is described as a very savage dance, which takes its roots in the lower-class areas of turn-of-the-century Paris.
ACTUALITY: Throughout the duration of war and the months that followed afterwards, small entertainment shows were set up in order to boost morale. Buster was kept in France long after the armistice was signed due to his very popular snake dance, which is also referred to as the “Princess Rajah” dance. Elements of his routine can be found in films like The Cook (1918) and The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
As a visually-based learner with a strong penchant for history, the movie aspect provides the imagination with a glimpse of recollected events that are otherwise merely documented through select photos, artifacts, memories, and print media. Perhaps this is why I am usually drawn back to watching Doughboys from time to time, more often than the rest of Keaton’s sound films. Somewhere in between the Hollywood perspective, a personal history seems to come alive through it. As for the rest of the movie, whether some parts are inspired by true events or not, there are especially endearing moments that I find myself gushing over (fangirl alert), such as the scene where Elmer tries to escape a physical evaluation at the recruiting office. He does these little gestures that I can only describe as puppy-like: swooping his arm and stomping his foot at an officer only ends up looking adorable rather than threatening. Bless his heart. Buster’s well-to-do character also echoes the likes of Bertie van Alstyne and Rollo Treadway from his silent film days, but not only do we get to hear that lovely baritone in this picture, he sings and plays a bit of ukulele. Sign me up for that anytime.
And now, I leave you with this charming deadpan quip Buster gives to Joseph Schenck, assuring us that he is still the endearing comedian that we all know and adore even after his return from war.
“You look terribly peaked, Buster,” [Schenck] said. “You’ve lost so much weight. I never saw you look so sick and miserable.”
“Why shouldn’t I look miserable—with my beauty gone forever?” I asked. (105)