Happy Birthday, Buster Keaton!

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Coming out of vaudeville (a family tradition), Keaton performed with his parents as a small boy (already showing a great penchant for acrobatics and pratfalls) before launching off on his own. Getting into movies was not a natural leap for him. He wasn’t sure what the brand new medium would be all about and how he could fit into it, which is one of those wonderful ironies of life. Keaton became one of the greatest directors of all time, and in many ways, Keaton, more than anyone, understood the silent era and used it to its fullest effect. And as a performer, no one can touch him. He’s on some other weird plane: hilariously funny, unbelievably inventive, yet with that strange keen of sadness through all of it, real sadness, not kitschy pantomime sadness. And then of course there’s his athleticism. All the silent comedy stars were amazing athletes, they had to be, but Keaton, again, was on another level. He had the fearlessness about him of all the top athletes (you know, the “let me pause in mid-air” type athletes) – the types who move first, think later, and achieve perfection through some amalgamation of understanding spatial relations and how their bodies move through space.

Akbar Abdi is one of Iran’s biggest current-day comedic actors (he has said, “I am the Mrs. Doubtfire of Iran” because one of his biggest hits The Snowman involves him dressing up in drag in order to get a Visa.) Robin Wright, US writer and journalist, interviewed Abdi and asked him who his favorite actor or director was. To Abdi the answer was easy:

It’s probably Buster Keaton. For him, humanity is important. He cares about the other side of the coin. Sometimes when I’ve seen his films or biography I’ve actually broken into tears because I see a similarity between us. He was a very lonely person. And usually comedians know sadness better than others.

Keaton’s appeal crosses centuries, cultural lines. I am thinking now of my nephew Cashel, age 10, watching a Buster Keaton movie on his laptop and laughing so loudly and so uproariously and so hard that I thought he would fall off of his chair.

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James Agee’s four-part essay on silent comedy actors (“Comedy’s Greatest Era”) in Life magazine was a watershed moment in many ways. It started, single-handedly, a resurgence of interest in those “quaint” silent comedies which, naturally, could not just be easily rented or seen at that time in the days before private VCRs or even late-night television. Movie houses began running silent comedy festivals, and the houses were packed. Agee writes, on Keaton:

Very early in [Keaton's] movie career friends asked him why he never smiled on the screen. He didn’t realize he didn’t. He had got the dead-pan habit in variety; on the screen he had merely been so hard at work it had never occurred to him there was anything to smile about. Now he tried it just once and never again. He was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face.

Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny; he improved matters by topping it off with a deadly horizontal hat, as flat and thin as a phonograph record. One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and, just as grandly, straight on to the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away.

Here is Agee again:

Much of the charm and edge of Keaton’s comedy, however, lay in the subtle leverages of expression he could work against his nominal dead pan. Trapped in the side-wheel of a ferryboat, saving himself from drowning only by walking, then desperately running, inside the accelerating wheel like a squirrel in a cage, his only real concern was, obviously, to keep his hat on. Confronted by Love, he was not as deadpan as he was cracked up to be, either; there was an odd, abrupt motion of his head which suggested a horse nipping after a sugar lump.

Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit that he achieved a great deal besides, especially in his feature-length comedies. (For plain hard laughter his nineteen short comedies — the negatives of which have been lost — were even better.) He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Mathew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise.

Perhaps because “dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than “dry” wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.

I have certainly found that to be the case. People line up in Chaplin camps or Keaton camps. And those who care for Keaton “cannot care mildly”. I myself never felt the pressure to choose between the two. I mean, honestly, can’t I have both?? I see no reason to be positional when it comes to such two different artists. I will say that Keaton’s deadpan strikes my funny bone at a profoundly weird and personal level. It hits the sweet sweet spot in a way that is quite unique when it comes to comedy.

His cameo in Sunset Boulevard (as one of the “waxwork” dummies who come to play poker with Norma Desmond once a week) was one of the eeriest of all of the famous glimpses we get in that creepy film. To know that that’s him. And there he is, STILL with that serious deadpan face, performing for an audience who might not even know who he is, inhabiting that character with a dour solemnity that is Keaton through and through … it kills me.

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Here is an excerpt from Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, by Edward McPherson

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I love this particular excerpt because it shows Keaton solving a problem as a director (and then as a performer). First of all, he was intuitive enough to perceive that there WAS a problem, and then, going off of something unexpected that happened during filming (as the recently passed away Arthur Penn called them “happy accidents”), solving the problem in a way that fixed the entire film.

EXCERPT FROM Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, by Edward McPherson

Buster was sweating in the dark. It was the second preview of Seven Chances and, like the first, it was deathly quiet. They had a dud. From the start, Buster hadn’t liked the story. McFermott, the co-director, was gone after two weeks, sacked on budgetary grounds; he had spent unwisely in what was likely an already unsympathetic environment. Buster had shot the opening in two-strip Technicolor, hoping the novelty would improve a lackluster film. He had brought in the brilliant Snitz Edwards, a short, sulky, putty-faced comedian, to play the lawyer. He had thrown in a special effect or two; in fact, Buster’s favorite moment in the film was the ‘drive” Jimmie takes from the country club to Mary’s house. Buster gets into his 1922 Mercer Raceabout and grabs the wheel; the background dissolves from one location to the other – he then gets out. (Lessley matched Buster and the car using surveying instruments). There were even a few unexpected crashes and collisions (a minor leitmotif of Buster encountering out-of-frame obstacles). But he knew the film essentially would ride on the last act – the great bridal chase, when the buttoned-up stage comedy would finally cut loose.

Buster strides down an empty street on his way to Mary’s. Unbeknownst to him, a flock of brides follows, taking in reinforcements from side streets. A succession of progressively higher camera shots reveals the massive parade of veils behind him. At the last possible minute, Buster turns around – and takes off.

The bridal wave threatens to engulf Buster. No helpless jazz babies here: these are strong, smart gals, determined as hell. Like a force of nature, they overturn football games and flatten cornfields. They commandeer streetcars and hijack construction cranes. A bricklayer is building a wall. One by one, the passing brides remove a brick, for bashing purposes; once the pack is gone, there is no wall. The sequence is a testament to indomitable female will, in all its complex glory. (The women weep when they think they’ve killed Buster, then – seeing him alive – leap to finish the job.) Along the way, the groom is beset by bees, barbed wire, and a bull – and almost shot by duck hunters – before being driven into the hills.

In the theater, the chase was getting a few laughs – nothing too loud, but an encouraging chuckle here and there. Keaton cut an amusing figure in his leggy sprint, coattails flying, and he had put to good use the choreographic lessons of Cops. (There is even a moment when Buster falls in step with some marching patrolmen; at the sight of the brides, however, they scatter like mice.) Then, just as the film was fading out on Buster being chased down a hill and into the sunset – a lame ending, if ever there was – the audience sat up and roared. What was that? Keaton and his men repaired to the studio, and ran the finale in slow motion. Then they saw it. As Buster scampers down the slope, brides in tow, he kicks up a rock, which begins to roll. dislodging a few more rocks – as the scene fades, he has three small rocks tumbling after him. The audience laughed, thinking Mother Nature had joined the chase.

And so Gabourie went to work making 1,500 rocks out of wire frame and papier-mache. Some would be no bigger than baseballs; others would weigh over 400 pounds. The biggest were eight feet around. The crew went to the High Sierras and found a long ridge with a grade greater than 45 degrees – to ensure a fast roll. At the sound of a starter’s pistol. Gabourie would begin releasing the boulders in a pre-arranged sequence; once they were rolling, it was up to Buster to dodge them. Lesley would keep cranking, come what may.

So instead of a fade-out, the momentum builds. The bit with the bricks and the cranes was just a prelude to what is arguably the most athletic four minutes in film. High in the mountains, the hunters and the hunted part ways, as the brides go to head Buster off at the pass. Keaton speeds along the ridge, jumps a gap, and leaps from a cliff to the top of a thirty-foot-tall tree the moment it is felled by a lumberjack. He rides the tree down, gets up, and sprints off. He flies along another high ridge, which ends in a steep sandy slope. Without breaking stride, he throws himself down the slope, head high over heels, turning front flip-flops the whole way down. Towards the bottom, he somersaults through a clump of rocks – which begin to roll – before catching his feet under him and scampering full tilt down the hill. Now in a boulder field, the dodging begins. Tiny Buster – ever-nosing downhill at impossible speeds – is caught in a bona fide avalanche. He thinks he can find safety in a tree, then behind a giant rock, but gravity is relentless, like a freight train, and at the bottom of the hill are those brides! Buster grinds to a halt. Which is the worse fate? The rocks continue their assault, and Buster dances in and out of rolling death. Rocks fly over, under, to the left and right, as Buster hurdles, weaves, and hits the ground – occasionally getting clobbered. When 500 brides meet 1,500 boulders, the brides scatter, clearing the descent for Buster. On level ground, he is a horizontal blur as he broad-jumps a horse (pulling a buggy), dives under a truck, and crosses some railroad tracks (barely missing a train). He pulls up to Mary’s house, only to get his coat stuck on the front gate, which he drags off its hinges and up to the door. Buster collapses across the threshold.

The unwavering momentum, the breathless athleticism, the symphonic pacing, the impossibly sustained thrill – the sequence is a masterpiece. Words cannot do justice to the sweeping cinematography, the fully-loaded (often rolling) frame – running hills, distant horizons, clumps of brush, shadows, and boulders, and one driven, little man. Then comes the inspired ritard. Buster learns he has arrived too late; the hour has passed. Hope is crushed. The girl wants to know whether they’ll be married anyway, for richer or for poorer. Doesn’t Buster think they’ll be happy? Buster shakes his head, no. Ha! Then he explains: without the money, he’s off to jail, and he won’t share that shame. He walks outside. He looks towards the church, then rushes inside. The watch is wrong – according to the bell tower, they have seconds to spare! – thus he and Marry marry just in the nick of time.

The rockslide rescued the picture – for while not as big as The Navigator, it was a definite hit – but for most of his life, Buster would claim Seven Chances was his worst effort. (In the 1960s, he didn’t feel it even merited re-release; he was happy enough to let it remain unseen.)

The accidental brilliance of the last-minute avalanche only reaffirmed Schenck’s faith in Keaton’s freewheeling, freeform style. Nothing kills a laugh like a scientist – or a script. Bsuter and his boys were fools in the funhouse, guests by courtesy of the management, who knew jokes were best caught unawares, where you least expected. Buster kept all the funny business in his head; he never wrote any of it down – when needed, he’d just sit on the floor and give the sequence a good mental chew. Later in his life, Buster would work out gags by shuffling pennies – stand-ins for people – to the music of the radio, which helped set the tempo.

But the best comic marinade, Buster found, was baseball. Before long, a suspicious number of professional ballplayers wound up on the Keaton payroll. As of Sherlock, Jr., Byron Houck, a former pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, was running the second camera. Around the same time, a talented slugger named Ernie Orsatti went to work as a prop man. In a few years his involvement would be only part-time; in his other, in-season job, he played outfield for the St. Louis Cardinals. (In 1928, Oratti would go straight from playing in the World Series to working on a Keaton shoot.) If the crew got stuck on a busted gag – and couldn’t find a way out of the rut – there was no use crying about it; they played ball. (Everyone, that is, but round Jean Havez, who served behind the plate as umpire). Moviemaking and ballplaying seemed very much alike; neither was a job one would take seriously.

Keaton’s best features have that boys-at-the-sandlot attitude – a sense of play, of athletic bravado, of rough-and-tumble one-upmanship. Keep filming no matter what: Buster will dust himself off, drain the water from his ears, bounce back to fight another day. You don’t get a dry run on a dangerous stunt – accidents are too likely, and injuries make for timid participants – and so you just do it in one take, counterintuitive and impossible though it may seem. These were not typical chest-beating tough guys, but guys simply having too much fun to do things any other way. They might butt heads in the thick of it – games have winners and losers, after all – but they were a team through and through. From each man’s individiual sense of ownership to the unit’s blurry, pragmatic division of labor, the Keaton Studio was a remarkable collective. As Bruckman remembered years later, “It used to be our business. We acted in scenes, set up scenery, spotted lights, moved furniture – hell, today even the set dresser with paid-up dues can’t move a lousy bouquet.”

And thus the golden age of the small, streamlined independent studio. Having a dedicated, salaried unit made for cheap, easy retakes and inserts – the essential crew was always on call – and because the studio used its own sets and equipment (as opposed to renting them), post-production tinkering was only a matter of another reel of film. Even off the lot, shooting remained relatively simple. A cop or two might be dispatched for crowd control – gratis – as would any necessary firemen. At the end of the day, Buster recalls making sure each was handed an extra’s check, usually for about $10. Railroads readily lent their services and equipment, too, as long as Ketaon left the company name on the side of the cars. The business of 1025 Lillian Way was a world unto itself – a lost world, as Bruckman points out. Soon, industry shooting schedules wouldn’t make allowances for afternoons of baseball.

Here is the clip (as funny the 50th time I’ve watched it as the first), so you can follow along with the excerpt.

Happy birthday, Buster!

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7 Responses to Happy Birthday, Buster Keaton!

  1. Dwight says:

    Keaton has become one of my favorite actors to watch despite my original impression: the first movie I saw him in was Beach Blanket Bingo and I remember thinking “This is it? This is the great Buster Keaton?” I felt sorry for the guy that he was doing movies like this (as well as How to Stuff a Wild Bikini). And I have a soft spot for the beach movies!

    Fortunately I watched some of his early work and became hopelessly a fanand relaxing my view on the beach movies, simply enjoying his inclusion in them. Thanks for the excerpt!

  2. sheila says:

    Dwight – Oh my God, Beach Blanket Bingo. I didn’t even think of that when writing the piece. I have a soft spot for those movies, too! But yes, it’s so important to go back to his glory days to see WHY he is Buster Keaton!!

  3. Bruce Reid says:

    There’s not a better run in the movies than Keaton throughout the ’20s, period, and that Seven Chances is the worst of them only highlights his remarkable inventiveness and consistent genius; there’s plenty of marvelous bits even before the justly celebrated final reel. Unfortunately the racial and ethnic gags somewhat jam up the good times. Part of being from its time and place, of course, and nothing egregiously nasty, but Keaton’s reaction when he overtakes the black woman on the street makes you wish he’d lived up to the Great Stone Face stereotype in that scene.

    Yet all can be forgiven by that ending. The rock slide is a wonderfully choreographed burst of inspiration, although my favorite bit is probably that dive under the truck McPherson mentions.

    Speaking of your quotes, I adore Agee’s “horse nipping after a sugar lump,” a perfect description of that idiosyncratic gesture.

  4. Stephen says:

    Sheila,

    I always enjoy reading these mini biographies and studies. Your writing is very easy to read and much more optimistic and warm than the norm.

    I’m not really in either the Chaplin or the Keaton camp but there are moments, such as the rock slide, that stand out and stay with you.

  5. sheila says:

    Stephen – wow, what a nice compliment! Optimistic and warm! Thank you! I guess, at heart, I’m a fangirl. My tastes are eclectic (some day I will write a huge detailed post about why I love the movie Blue Crush – why I think it’s so good – just need to gather my forces for that one, it’s gonna be a doozy) – and it is fun to write about these people/movies that I have loved for (in some cases) decades!

    I love the moment early on in the clip where he jumps over a cavern – and he really does appear to “pause” in mid-air. Keaton somewhere knows it’s funnier to not just jump across that gap trying to get to the other side. He does something with his body, brings his legs up just slightly – so that he almost looks frozen in mid-air as he careens over the abyss. That’s just such smart physical comedy!!

  6. sheila says:

    Bruce – It is sometimes jarring to see the racism in these early movies, something that needs to be forgiven (“time and place”) in order to continue with the movie. I find some movies suffer more than others – for example, I find Adam’s Rib almost ruined by the vicious gay stereotype of the next-door neighbor. It’s so mean-spirited, so pointed and deliberate that it threatens to derail the whole thing for me. But with others, it’s just a flash – a moment – and it’s jarring, but the movie still survives.

    I love when he jumps onto the tree and then the tree goes down. There is a cut there – so I wondered if he really did do that stunt. It seems like we see the tree plummet down, and THEN there is a cut – I’d have to watch the clip again.

    I know Keaton was famously fearless. (I love the story about the filming of the house falling down around him, and how the crew were all terrified – and how you can see a slight jar in the camera itself as the house goes down … I imagine the cameraman sweating bullets, wondering if he is going to be filming the death of his director.)

  7. sheila says:

    Just watched it again: There is a cut right before the tree goes down, where we see Buster on the cliff. Then we see him jump and then the tree goes down, and we can see his body hanging on to the tree. Pretty amazing.

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