“All my life I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, `Look at the poor dope, wilya?” — Buster Keaton

It’s Buster Keaton’s birthday today.

As a small boy with a talent for acrobatics (and a high tolerance for pain), Keaton performed with his parents in a family act (an act notorious for its wild violence) before launching off on his own. Getting into movies was not a natural leap (so to speak) for Keaton. He wasn’t sure what cinema would be all about and how he could fit into it. Well, he figured it out. Keaton grasped the possibilities of the new medium in a way many others didn’t, predicting (without even knowing it) where it would eventually go.

As a performer, no one can touch him. He’s on some weird almost inhuman plane: hilariously funny, unbelievably inventive, yet with that strange strain of sadness coursing through all of it, real sadness, not kitschy pantomime sadness.

In early 2022, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dana Stevens about her marvelous book Camera Man for Ebert. Dana knows her stuff, and has been steeped in Buster-love for decades, and this really shines through in her book. Marc Maron had her on his podcast to talk about Buster. I love it when good things happen for good people. (Dana is a friend, colleague, and fellow NYFCC member.)

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.


Keaton read Agee’s essay and called out that Abraham Lincoln line, saying he wasn’t sure if Lincoln would like the comparison but he was very pleased with it!

People line up in Chaplin camps or Keaton camps (seems silly to me: life is not “either/or”. 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 – to quote Agee again – “cannot care mildly”.

There are so many favorite and famous scenes, but I must point to the masterpiece in Spite Marriage, Keaton’s last silent comedy, where a newlywed Buster attempts to get his drunken new wife (Dorothy Sebastian) into bed on their honeymoon. The sequence gets funnier and funnier and funnier as it goes on. BOTH of them kill it. He, of course, is phenomenal – but watch HER work. (Keaton was known for using women as co-conspirators and partners in the action. See The General. Chaplin had a more sentimentalized Victorian view of women. Keaton, again, was modern. So watch this. This is a shared pantomime, created by the both of them, and it is absolutely brilliant.

The story of the filming of Spite Marriage is an interesting one. Stephen Winer wrote an in-depth essay for Criterion about it.

And let’s end with an avalanche. Yes, a papier mache avalanche, but no less real because of this. This sequence from Seven Chances is as funny the 50th time as the first:

No, let’s end with his influence, which reaches to the farthest end of the universe:

Johnny Knoxville. Carrying Buster’s torch into the 21st century.

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10 Responses to “All my life I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, `Look at the poor dope, wilya?” — 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. 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.

  3. Stephen says:


    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.

  4. 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.

  5. Clary says:

    I just love him when he’s standing, all alone and wondering what’s all about. An athletic man standing still, a funny guy not smiling in funny situations, almost a personified oxymoron.
    Thank you for bringing this man to my day.

  6. Trav S.D. says:

    Yowsa! Thanks Sheila! and you add so much more. I’m going to have to check out this Iranian fellow. And your description of BK as possessing a “sadness”…I’m not sure I’ve ever looked at it in quite that light, except maybe perhaps at the very beginning, on first impression. (and its become sort of canonical that he’s “expressionless”. But you’re right, that’s what’s coming out of his eyes, and certainly the situations are enough to make anyone sad!) It’s so hard to get back to that place of seeing the heart of the thing, which of course is kind of the most important, fundamental part (and as you say kids can help us do that). I think for the next long while I’ll be watching his movies with your insight in mind, watching for the undertone of sadness. Thanks again for the generous quotation

    • sheila says:

      // It’s so hard to get back to that place of seeing the heart of the thing, which of course is kind of the most important, fundamental part (and as you say kids can help us do that). //

      I know what you mean. We become used to things, even the things we love and admire.

      There’s something about Keaton which – in my opinion – puts him in line with the great movie stars – like Dietrich (another one with a “projector screen” face) or Cary Grant – These people always hold something back. and what they hold back may be THE thing we want most to see. And so we keep coming back to them. and it may be – in the case of Dietrich – that there’s no “there there” – she herself said she was so busy counting backwards from 20 or whatever, as von Sternberg told her to do – she was heavily coached by him – but to ME, the audience member, that doesn’t matter. What we have is what is on the screen.

      There are actors who “give it all” – show you everything – really good work is done in that realm! some of our best actors show us everything (including how hard they’ve worked??) – but the ones who hold something back, who REFUSE to give us everything … they’re the ones we keep coming back to.

      Keaton, for me, is like that.

  7. I hadn’t heard the audience reaction to the rockslide story before: one of the things that’s cool about it is that it tells us that the audience was interacting with the medium in a very engaged way. When I teach movies I try to show my students how to watch things like that.

    • sheila says:

      // When I teach movies I try to show my students how to watch things like that. //

      Interesting! I’d love to hear how the students respond. do they “get it”?

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