29 May 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Sometown, U.S.A. is Nowheresville
"Life in Sometown, U.S.A." is one of the hundreds of short films churned out by MGM in the days when a trip to the movies meant a double feature plus several shorts. Many of MGM's shorts were excellent; others were passable. This one stinks. "Sometown" is notable only because it was directed by Buster Keaton, during the fallow period in his career when MGM kept him under a tight contract but wouldn't take advantage of his brilliant comedic talents. Keaton's direction of this film is proficient but listless. "Sometown" has good production values, up to MGM's usual high standard. That's all, though.
The premise of this film is a good one. All over the U.S.A., mostly in small communities, there are obscure laws (often quite ridiculous laws, or outdated legislations) which have never been repealed, and which remain legally in effect. Back in 1936, author Dick Hyman and cartoonist Otto Soglow had a popular feature in *American Magazine* titled "It's the Law", in which Hyman described a (genuine) ludicrous law that was still on the books, and Soglow drew an appropriate illustration. For instance, in North Dakota it's illegal to shoot rabbits from the rear platform of a streetcar. Hyman's text was effective because he cited the actual communities in which these real laws were genuinely in effect.
"Life in Sometown, U.S.A." could have been a neat little "Believe It or Not"-style item if its scriptwriters had followed the example of "It's the Law", with performers acting out skits in which they scrupulously follow (or disobey) ludicrous laws. Instead, these filmmakers have created a mythical Mayberry-style town called "Sometown, U.S.A." and attributed a dozen obscure (but genuine) laws from real communities to this one nonexistent town. "Sometown" is supposedly the place where all the really daft laws are in effect, and actively enforced.
It's a clumsy idea, badly done. The material carries no conviction because we know that "Sometown" isn't a real place. Even the narrator sounds embarrassed. Every time he starts to cite an authentic piece of legislation, he tells us "...there's a law in (embarrassed pause) Sometown, U.S.A. ..." We keep getting that embarrassed pause, over and over through the whole movie. There's no dialogue in this movie (it was shot silent), so the narrator has to carry the whole burden ... and he sounds too embarrassed.
This movie is awful. I went to a lot of trouble to see it because Rudi Blesh mentioned it briefly in his excellent biography of Buster Keaton, and I thought that Blesh was praising this film. He wasn't. It stinks. "Life in Sometown, U.S.A." deserves zero points out of ten.
Alas, poor Buster, who wasted his talents on rubbish like this.