In 1921, Buster Keaton was dishing out hit after hit. As Carl Sandburg observed at the time: “While Charlie Chaplin is taking it slow and easy and making sure that he is not going to have a public overfed with Chaplin stunts, the managers of Buster Keaton are taking him through many ropes. … No sooner does he fall off one roof than he is called on to fall off another.” A short of this from this time, Neighbors, is particularly interesting. It significantly shows a ripe time in the slapstick auteur’s filmography during which he was gradually coming of age, with the help of his frequent collaborator Edward F. Cline, perfecting a confident comedic style.
Here, Keaton and Virginia Fox play star-crossed lovers whose romance is thwarted by their feuding families. They live in neighbouring tenement housing, separated by a fence. The geography of the setting is very important; it is clearly established from the beginning and is the source of creative physical humour. It is not surprising to find that before settling on a title, working titles for this short included Mailbox and Backyard, both of which immediately not only draw attention to the importance of the setting in the movie but also its claustrophobic nature.
However, it is interesting to note how Neighbors also features, in its narrative, many elements that Keaton would revisit in his later works. Besides the narrative of the romance thwarted by families, props, and even cops, here we find the disapproving fathers, played by Joe Roberts and Joe Keaton. Their feud and their bullying, the latter of which B.K. is often at the backend of, particularly recalls Keaton’s last feature film masterwork, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). – ★★★★★
NEIGHBORS | 1920, USA | Comedy | Directed by – Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton / Produced by – Joseph M. Schenck / Written by – Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton / Cinematography – Elgin Lessley / Starring – Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy