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.