The Best of Buster
A Hard Act to Follow
Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts, 1934–37
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Sherlock, Jr./Three Ages
The Short Films Collection, 1920–1923
More than fifty years have passed since critics rediscovered Buster Keaton and pronounced him the most “modern” silent film clown, a title he hasn’t shaken since. In his own day he was certainly famous but never commanded the wealth or popularity of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, and he suffered most when talkies arrived. It may be that later stars like Cary Grant and Paul Newman and Harrison Ford have made us more susceptible to Keaton’s model of offhand stoicism than his own audiences were. Seeking for his ghost is a fruitless business, though; for one thing, film comedy today has swung back toward the sappy, blatant slapstick that Keaton disdained. There’s some “irony” in what Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler do, but it’s irony that clamors to win the identification of the supposedly browbeaten everyman in every audience. Keaton took your average everyman and showed how majestically alone he was.
The story of his life seems in its twists and dives borrowed from his movies, survival demanding a pure lack of sentiment. There were twenty years of child stardom in vaudeville and nearly a decade making popular silent movies, followed by alcoholism, a nasty divorce, a nastier second marriage, twenty years producing a few dreadful blockbusters for MGM followed by a long series of low-budget flops, and a third lasting marriage, until his silent work was unearthed and brought him renewed recognition. “What you have to do is create a character,” he once said. “Then the character just does his best, and there’s your comedy. No begging.” He embodied this attitude so entirely in his silent films that you can’t watch him without feeling won over, a partisan of the nonpartisan side.
The logic in his first pictures, the two-reel shorts, resembles the logic of dreams. It was an alternate reality that freed him from narrative obligations—one thing simply followed another—and allowed him to pack a staggering quantity of life’s particulars into each twenty-minute film. Five of his nineteen shorts end with or hinge on “Buster” (he gave the hero his first name in some of the two-reelers, and it stuck) being shaken awake from the contents of the movie we’ve been watching. As opposed to the occasional dream sequence in a Chaplin film, which usually dangles like an ornament from the main storyline, Keaton’s dreams and dreamlike camera effects seem to compound the stillness and inwardness of his deadpan character. They are not a break from reality but a truer form of it. The conceit is also, of course, a neat way of alluding to the nature of cinema; if all copies of all other movies were somehow lost or destroyed, Keaton’s two-reeler The Playhouse (1921) together with the compact feature Sherlock, Jr. (1924) could, with no strain on their hilarity, stand for the imaginative potential of the medium.
In the short film The Goat (1921), a quite wakeful Buster seems caught in a nightmare that borrows heavily from the Keystone Kops. First he’s mistaken for a criminal. While running from the cops he dashes into a hospital—where he’s taken for a patient due for some gruesome procedure involving hacksaw and hammer. He escapes, passing through a park—where a sculptor is about to unveil “the clay model of my masterpiece.” The curtain drops, revealing Buster trying to blend in with the sculpture, mounted on the clay horse—whose legs slowly, uncannily, bend and buckle under his weight. Even in the midst of such a haywire profusion of funny stuff—all grabbed convincingly from everyday life—what you’re left with is an exquisitely elegant gag, probably the most formally surreal of a career filled with ingenious sight gags. It’s hard to think of another creator of mass entertainment who has been such an inspiration to artists (a word he refused to apply to himself)—including Federico García Lorca, Luis Buñuel, and Samuel Beckett—yet cared only for making people laugh.
Among these freewheeling two- reelers are a handful that seem more focused, in which one solid prop (a house, a boat, a theater) or theme (unjust pursuit, bad luck, even land grabs against Indians) situates the gags and chisels a more precise identity for Buster. He must have sensed some promise in this tighter style, because in 1920 he set aside The High Sign, the more madcap picture he’d filmed first for the just-formed Buster Keaton Productions, as not worthy of his debut, and made instead One Week. (The High Sign was released a year later, when a broken ankle forced him to take a break from shooting.) One Week showed something new and was an instant hit: in clear, precisely composed shots it focuses on a blameless figure scrambling, with a sleepwalker’s stillness in his face, to construct a house and cope with a tornado as everything he’s built literally spins out of control.
Once he turned to feature films, Keaton would develop what he’d learned from this kind of comedy, making pictures about a Don Quixote-esque figure on a quest that pits him against a remorselessly realistic world. The recent rerelease of Keaton’s long-acknowledged masterpiece, The General (1926; at the time both a critical and a commercial disappointment), lets you see the result in luminous high definition. Johnnie Gray, an honest if ordinary Southern locomotive engineer during the Civil War, loses his train and his sweetheart to Northern infiltrators. Commandeering another train, he single-handedly chases the Northerners back to their base, rescues his girl, and warns his countrymen of a coming attack (they win the battle, of course; the North’s final victory in the war stays out of the picture).
For several years Keaton had been playing with the comic payoff of situations that aren’t actually funny at all, in some cases hiring codirectors known for making dramas in hopes of deepening the realism. He brought in a protégé of D.W. Griffith, Donald Crisp, to help lend gravity to some scenes in The Navigator (1924), in which a rich young couple are set adrift on an abandoned ocean liner and run into cannibals on a desert island. At first their pampered helplessness leads to a long folly of slapstick (she can’t brew coffee; he can’t boil an egg), and after they adjust, it’s the gags of their triumph over circumstance (a Rube Goldberg machine prepares their breakfast; their bunks are cozily ensconced in the ship’s boiler room) that yield laughs. But Keaton went back and reshot the dramatic dockside scenes that got the pair trapped in the first place because he didn’t find Crisp’s version convincing enough.
In The General he took this logic to its ultimate conclusion, making a funny movie about the Civil War. It was not a method that was very popular at the time, though Chaplin had had success with Shoulder Arms (1918), his short (and much sweeter) film about World War I. The General delivered no message about brotherly love, only incidental intimations about the absurdity of war—whole regiments, first Northern, then Southern, march past Johnnie’s train unnoticed as he feeds logs into his engine, desperate to complete his self-appointed mission.
Writing about him for Life in 1949, by which time Keaton had been all but forgotten, James Agee noted:
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.
One thing that has changed since Keaton was rediscovered in the 1950s—owing at first to Agee’s brilliant criticism—is that there are now very few people who don’t immediately care for his films. Another is how much material is available to anyone who wants to know more about him.
A documentary by the film historian Kevin Brownlow, A Hard Act to Follow, recently rereleased on DVD, is probably the best introduction to Keaton and his life in early Hollywood, bringing together unexpected interviews and archival footage. It shows, for instance, how The General‘s historical accuracy was achieved—evidence of a far-reaching directorial vision that Keaton himself rarely discussed. Anyone who’s seen him only in his silent films, a lean athlete with the face of Apollo, will be jolted to find him here, in 1964, a tubby, blunt senior citizen. “Keaton had a voice like an anchor chain running out,” as Brownlow describes it, and it turns out he had a tough, practical sensibility to match. If you go by nothing but his own statements, the source of Keaton’s wildly imaginative and often gently whimsical movies can seem a complete mystery.
He shied from anything that smelled of analysis—“I don’t feel qualified to talk about my work,” he once declared—and his encounters with the press could generate their own kind of comedy. (They may also have ensured that he always played second or third fiddle to Chaplin and Lloyd—it’s hard to imagine Keaton wrapping himself in the myth of celebrity.) His qualities of innocence—verging on simplicity—and shrewdness as a filmmaker are constantly bumping up against each other in Kevin Sweeney’s collection of sixteen hard-to-find interviews, Buster Keaton: Interviews. One interviewer in the 1950s started to savor the notion that the ship in The Navigator had an “eerie quality” because it was bought for a rock-bottom price, with only a skeleton crew to sail it, and had “everything…stripped from it.” Keaton’s very Keatonish reply: “Sure. We painted her too, see, to make her look better.” Another thoughtful interviewer says, “In The General, the boy is a schlemiel.” Keaton corrects him: “In The General, I’m an engineer.”
Born in 1895 to two young people aspiring to variety theater while working across the country in a humble medicine show, Keaton came to vaudeville at the creative height of the form. It was the only schooling he had (he sat in a classroom for no more than a day), stocking his comic imagination with gags he would return to again and again in his movies—generally tinkering with them to intensify the humor each time—and teaching him respect for tough audiences. A photograph confirms that the nine-month-old Buster crawled to center stage in his parents’ show (co-hosted with the young Harry Houdini) just when his father, Joe, was in the middle of a blackface monologue.
Keaton always retained a vaudevillian’s appreciation for blackface routines and ethnic comedians of all kinds—the single way his films have grown dated. In several he walks up to someone from behind thinking he knows them, only to find that the person is black. That’s the joke. Later in life he declared that audiences would never laugh at a Civil War comedy whose villains are Southern: “They lost the war anyhow, so the audience resents it.” In The General he reversed his source material so that the film was about the heroic plight of a Southern railroad engineer rather than of the Northern hijackers (who in real life wound up not very comically hanged); the film itself is free of racist gags.