Buster Keaton was a genius.
But you don’t need me to tell you that. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.
One of the things I love about movies is that there are so many of them, a galaxy of motion pictures of every variety: some long, some short, some in color, some in black and white, some silent, some talkie, there are comedies, dramas, war pictures, gangster films, swashbucklers, romances, epics, science fiction films, horror pictures, westerns, films that deal with the fate of the universe and films that speak of the minutia of the soul. And because there’s so much out there, there’s always something new to discover.
I recently discovered Buster Keaton.
Oh, sure, I had seen The General and Sherlock, Jr. before, but, much like the man who found a huge gold nugget and used it as a doorstop; I didn’t know what I had found.
Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton was born in October of 1895, the oldest son of Joseph and Myra Keaton, a pair of vaudeville performers who toured as The Two Keatons. According to legend, eighteen month-old Buster took a tumble down a flight of stairs, shook it off, and continued on his merry way. The fall was purportedly witnessed by none other than a young magician touring with The Two Keatons named Harry Houdini, who exclaimed, “What a buster!” The name stuck. As a child, Buster was constantly wandering on stage in the middle of his parents act. Unsure what else to do with the determined youngster, they finally simply added him to the bill, thus, The Two Keatons became The Three Keatons. Buster learned quickly how to take a fall, and was soon billed as The Human Mop. Joseph would toss young Buster about (and sometimes off) the stage, including one incident where he used his young son as a human missile, aimed at a rowdy man who had been heckling poor Myra. The Three Keatons act was so violent, that frequent accusations of child abuse were made against Joseph, who gladly handed young Buster over for inspection, and, try as they might, they never found so much as a bruise on the young lad. In his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton had this to say about his act: “I did not cry because I wasn’t hurt. All little boys like to be roughhoused by their fathers. They are also natural tumblers and acrobats.”Part of his act, was that little Buster never smiled or cried, he seemed to take his abuse in stride. This seeming lack of emotion earned him the nickname The Great Stone Face. As Buster grew older, the act grew rougher, eventually; Buster and his father would beat one another with mop handles.
In February, 1917, Buster met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the most popular silent film comics of the day. Buster was fascinated by the cinema, even going so far as borrowing a camera, taking it to his hotel room, and disassembling and then reassembling it. He returned the camera the next day to Fatty, who promptly hired him. The big man took little Buster under his wing and immediately put him in a short film called The Butcher Boy, where Buster takes a sack of flour to the face like a man. Buster began appearing in numerous shorts with Fatty, his career delayed slightly by being drafted in the US Army in June 1918. Shortly after returning, he was given the keys to the kingdom and The Keaton Studios was born. What followed was one of the (if not the) most impressive runs in Hollywood history. Buster made short after short, each one a masterpiece: One Week, The Goat, Cops, The Boat, Neighbors, The High Sign, The Paleface, The Playhouse, My Wife’s Relations and The Balloonatic, just to name a few. Not only was Buster’s comedy a thing to admire, but so was his technical brilliance. For example, in The Playhouse, Buster plays every character on screen, including children, old women, an entire orchestra, nine members of a variety act and even dances a with himself, all this decades before modern computer effects. Soon, Buster moved into features, writing, directing and starring in such classics as Three Ages, Our Hospitality, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The General, Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator and Seven Chances. In these films, Keaton turns falling down into an art form. We’ve all seen the gag where the front of a house falls, and the person standing in front just happens to be where the open window is, and the frame falls, narrowly missing our hero by inches. Well, Keaton invented that (watch Steamboat Bill, Jr. for the best example). Keaton fell from trees, down stairs, into shallow ponds, swimming pools and into a girl’s dorm room (in College). The mother of all chase scenes serves as the climax of Seven Chances, where Buster is chased by a mob of angry would-be brides, boulders, and anything and everything that can move (it’s greatest rival, is Keaton’s own short, Cops, where hundreds of policemen chase an innocent Keaton through town).
Alas, all good things must end. Keaton signed with MGM in 1928, making what he would later call “the worst mistake of my life.” Gone was Keaton’s independence, gone were the days when filming would start with only the beginnings and endings of a script (Keaton believed that the middle would figure itself out). Keaton’s first film for MGM was The Cameraman, which is (in my opinion) the last great film from Buster (the look that he gives the office girl, peeking over his little tintype is the image of love at first sight. It recalls Norma Desmond’s comment in Sunset Boulevard, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces”). MGM insisted that Keaton follow their formula, use their people, all part of their factory approach to filmmaking. Keaton’s creativity stifled, and his films became more and more lackluster. Ironically, unknown to Keaton for decades, The Cameraman was used by MGM for years as a training film; they would sit down would-be comedy directors and have them watch the film, telling them, “This is how you make comedies at MGM.” Many of Keaton’s classic gags were recycled into Red Skelton or Marx Brothers comedies (the Marx Brothers similarly bristled under MGM’s yoke). Free and Easy, his third film for MGM was a misfire, an uneven, poorly plotted picture, slightly redeemed by the film’s bittersweet closing moments. Eventually, Keaton was relegated to supporting roles in films that featured the over-the-top stylings of Jimmy Durante.
Luckily, Keaton discovered television, which was still in its infancy. He embraced the new medium, and it brought him a whole new generation of fans. Keaton would return to the big screen, co-starring in films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
I would be remiss if I did not touch upon an issue that perturbs me and that is the Keaton vs. Chaplin argument. Is there anything sillier? I have read where others have praised Keaton while bashing Chaplin and vice versa. Must we fight? Must we choose a side? They were both brilliant, but in different ways. Both made amazing short silent films (Chaplin working first for Mack Sennett, then for himself), both made some amazing features (can you really say anything bad about City Lights or Modern Times?) and both made some lackluster films towards the end of their careers (Keaton due to lack of independence, Chaplin because he became more concerned with the message that the laughs).
Come on folks, let’s bury the hatchet.
After all, they certainly had no animosity between them. Keaton’s autobiography makes numerous references to the friendship they shared. More importantly, they shared a great (if all too brief) scene in Chaplin’s Limelight.
Buster’s legacy lives on. On YouTube there are dozens of Keaton tribute videos, featuring his “best of” moments. Keaton’s films have been lovingly restored and re-issued on high-definition Blu-Ray from Kino, enabling third and fourth generations of fans to embrace The Great Stone Face. The official Buster Keaton fan club can be found at www.busterkeaton.com, and they have given themselves the moniker “Damfino,” after the ill-fated craft in The Boat. (Say it aloud, you’ll get the joke.) Even Roger Ebert himself, in his ongoing collection of essays dubbed “The Great Movies” has dedicated one such essay to the films of Buster Keaton (this is, in and of itself, not very impressive unless you realize that Keaton is the only artist who has an essay dedicated to his work. Ebert claims he did this because he couldn’t decide which film of Keaton’s to highlight, so he chose them all).
I sat down and decided to re-examine the films of Buster Keaton and found that there was a treasure simply waiting for me. After kicking myself a few times for not finding it sooner, I eagerly showed the films to my family, all of whom became Keaton fans. My wife and son and I now give one another “the high sign” (thumbs to noses, fingers splayed, as though an eagle was on our chin). I have gone out of my way to acquire all the Keaton Blu-Rays I could, and have found them to be the perfect pick-me-up when I’m feeling a little sad.
So, what took me so long to discover the genius of Buster Keaton?