Coming out of the family tradition of vaudeville, Keaton performed with his parents as a small boy (already showing a great gift 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 cinema would be all about and how he could fit into it. Keaton became one of the greatest directors of all time. Keaton understood the possibilities of the new medium, predicting (without even knowing it probably) where it would eventually go.
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 wailing through all of it, real sadness, not kitschy pantomime sadness.
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 of all the top athletes (you know, the “let me pause in mid-air” type athletes), the types who move first, no thinking, total trust, achieving perfection and miracles through some amalgamation of understanding spatial relations and how their bodies move through said space. Keaton was that kind of athlete.
That trust in spatial relations perhaps led to one of his most famous bits, from Steamboat Bill, Jr., the one that everyone has seen, even if they’ve never seen a full-length Keaton movie. It’s terrifying to consider just how badly this stunt could have gone wrong.
Akbar Abdi is one of Iran’s biggest comedic actors (he 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, American journalist, interviewed Abdi and asked him who was his favorite actor or director.
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, it appeals to all ages. I am thinking now of my nephew Cashel, age 10, watching a Buster Keaton movie on his laptop and laughing so loudly and so hard that I thought he would fall off of his chair.
James Agee’s four-part essay on silent comedy actors (“Comedy’s Greatest Era”) in Life magazine (included in James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism (Library of America)) was a watershed moment for film criticism and American culture. The essay launched, almost single-handedly, a resurgence of interest in silent comedies which could not 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. Audiences packed into the galleries. 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 James 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.
People line up in Chaplin camps or Keaton camps (seems silly to me: life is not “either/or”, people. It is “both/and.” While personal preferences come into play, there is no need to take sides). True, though, that those who care for Keaton “cannot care mildly”.
Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate, is coming out with a book on Buster Keaton and I am so excited about it. Fandor has a tribute up to Keaton, along with a poem by Stevens “for Buster Keaton”.
Keaton’s 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 got in that creepy film. There he is, STILL with that 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.
My old pal Trav S.D has written a wonderful book called Chain of Fools – Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube. He delves into the history of silent comedy bringing his encyclopedic knowledge to bear (not just about the films, but about the background shenanigans and employment issues at various production companies, and what distinguished one comedian from another, and more). Trav S.D. talks about Keaton repeatedly (of course), but here is one of my favorite excerpts:
Keaton’s artistry represents a kind of climax, a pinnacle of the silent comedy form. If Chaplin is silent comedy’s Aeschylus (its more passionate founding genius), Keaton is its Sophocles (the master of the codified classical form). Chaplin was a bit of a primitive, though admittedly a step ahead of Sennett in some ways. But Keaton by contrast was a modernist. His films look ahead to all that follows in the twentieth century.
For one thing, his comedies are imbued with an offbeat visual sense that we usually associate with the avant-garde. Certain shots and sequences in his films are every bit as awe-inspiring and beautiful as they are amusing (in fact that’s one reason for the lack of success of some of his movies in his own day. Formal perfection and hilarity are not necessarily always coexistent.) Keaton’s films seem a manifestation of the Collective Unconscious. Expressionism, dada and surrealism were all thriving in Keaton’s time, though he knew nothing about them. Rene Clair compared his work to Pirandello’s. Dali, Bunuel, Lorca, and Artaud were all fans, as was Samuel Beckett somewhat later (the two would actually work together in 1964.) Like contemporaries Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway he was an austere minimalist, producing plots and films as stripped-down and functional as the projectors that displayed them. Like a well-turned somersault, they do not wobble or stray. Keaton’s mastery of economical storytelling, of conveying narrative through pure action, can be seen as a prototype for much that came afterward, anticipating Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Jackie Chan, all of whom owe him a debt.
But of course Keaton neither knew about nor sought the approbation of European bohemians or future cinematic progeny yet unborn. How was the affinity possible then? How could a man with no apparent interest in art be a great twentieth century artist>
To my mind, the existence of Keaton puts the lie to all those snoots who think Bacon must have written Shakespeare’s plays. Like so many other original American geniuses he didn’t require a university education or the society of salons to hatch his unique visions. As Emerson had predicted such as he would do, Keaton sprang up from the native soil, requiring nothing more than instinct and application to carry him through.
The temptation with Keaton is to regard him as a kind of miracle. But of course he didn’t come from nowhere; no one comes from nowhere.
Here is an excerpt from Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, by Edward McPherson on Keaton’s 1925 film Seven Chances.
Edward McPherson tends to describe the action of Keaton’s films in minute detail, a sort of “and then this happens and then THIS happens and then OMG THIS” which detracts from finer points of analysis. Yes: everything onscreen was great. But WHY and HOW.)
But what is good about this excerpt is that it shows Keaton solving a problem as a director (and then as a performer). First of all, Keaton was genius enough to perceive that there WAS a problem, the problem was vague but it was fuzzing about “in the air”, and then it shows him riffing off of something unexpected that happened during filming (as the recently passed away Arthur Penn called them “happy accidents”). Keaton solved the problem in a way that fixed the entire film. (And you can watch a clip of the end result at the bottom of the post, a clip I never ever get sick of watching.)
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 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….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…
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…
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.
Here is the clip (as funny the 50th time I’ve watched it as the first).
Happy birthday, Buster Keaton!