He started working on his pitch—his ear for what would play with an audience and what wouldn’t—in infancy: by two he had his own costume; by four, after Joe and Myra made the leap to vaudeville, Buster was on salary; by five he was headlining the Three Keatons. The family’s violent and constantly improvised slapstick act—“I’d just simply get in my father’s way all the time,” he recalled in the 1950s, “and get kicked all over the stage”—would form his education for the next sixteen years. This is where he caught on that “the more seriously I took everything, and how serious life was in general, the better laughs I got.” Later much was read into his stage mask and his memory that it was Joe who coached him to keep a straight face. This was supposed to prove that their act had involved “brutality” and “left indelible psychic scars on Buster” that accounted for the “comic gloom” of his films (to quote Tom Dardis, who took this one lurch into speculation in an otherwise invigoratingly factual biography).
Instead, Keaton’s accounts of working with his father suggest how much the spirit of their collaboration—parody, deadpan, a brisk razing of false pieties, all precisely timed—informed the temper of his movies. Here he is recalling for his first biographer, Rudi Blesh, an incident when he was seven or eight:
The old man would kick me, a hell of a wallop with a number twelve slapshoe right on my fanny…. Now a strange thing developed. If I yelled ouch—no laughs. If I deadpanned it and didn’t yell—no laughs. “What goes?” I asked. “Isn’t a kick funny?” “Not by itself it ain’t,” said Joe. So he gives me a little lesson: I wait five seconds—count up to ten slow—grab the seat of my pants, holler bloody murder, and the audience is rolling in the aisles. I don’t know what the thunder they figured. Maybe that it took five seconds for a kick to travel from my fanny to my brain. Actually, I guess, it was The Slow Thinker. Audiences love The Slow Thinker.
The Three Keatons were popular enough by 1913 (the year Chaplin joined Keystone) that William Randolph Hearst proposed they star in a film series based on a comic strip called Bringing Up Father. Buster and Myra were game but Joe overruled them with a disdain for the new medium that was old-fashioned even then: “What! We work for years perfecting an act, and you want to show it, a nickel a head, on a dirty sheet?” The family routine, which centered on the disciplining of a little brat, soldiered on past Buster’s age of majority. By then Joe had a pronounced drinking problem and could be unpredictable on stage, in routines that required great precision.
Buster and his mother walked out in 1917. Arriving in New York City alone, Buster was immediately booked for a solo turn in The Passing Show (a rival to Ziegfeld’s Follies). As Keaton often told the story, one afternoon before rehearsals started he ran into an old vaudeville acquaintance on Broadway and simply went along with him to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s new movie studio on East 48th Street.
“First thing I did,” he later recalled, “was I asked a thousand questions about the camera and got into the camera.” His first appearance on film took place that day, a walk-on in The Butcher Boy that even then smacked of the Keaton quiet: as a customer shopping for molasses, he is more natural, more intelligent, than any of the other players, and for a few minutes he becomes the movie’s (falling down) center of gravity. That night he borrowed a camera from the set, took it apart in his room, and reassembled it by morning. Arbuckle instantly incorporated him into his cast and soon made him codirector. Their two-reelers tore through chaotic kitchens and broken-down garages and the actual twinkling Coney Island of the late 1910s (in the middle of this stint he was drafted and spent almost a year in France, mainly entertaining other troops). They made some fifteen shorts together before their producer, Joe Schenck, decided in 1920 that Arbuckle was ready for feature-length films and Keaton his own two-reelers.1
Keaton’s move to features in 1923 was again the idea of his producer. Most of the major turns in Keaton’s life were brought about by others; his comic inventiveness was matched by an almost morbid passivity when it came to the larger direction of his career. As Dardis writes, “he faced any oncoming argument by muttering, half-audibly, ‘No debates, no debates….’” But what mattered was working, and he was careful about his continuing ability to do so. His first feature film wasn’t really a feature at all: Three Ages (1923), a mild parody of Griffith’s Intolerance, was braided together using three stories—romance in the Stone Age, in classical Rome, and in Prohibition America—that could have stood alone, as two-reelers, had the long form flopped.
It didn’t. Three Ages and his next feature, Our Hospitality (1923), his most unjustly overlooked film (and the latest feature to be rereleased on Blu-ray), did well at the box office. Our Hospitality combined a dead-serious dramatic plot, a feud in the 1830s modeled on the Hatfield-McCoy story, with a socially preposterous situation—at least for Willie McKay, a young man raised in the North who at first, with unquestioning goodwill, blunders into his Southern sweetheart’s home unaware that her family is out to kill him—without letting any daylight between the thrills and the laughs.
The movie’s middle section takes place at the girl’s family estate, where her father and brothers follow the forms of hospitality and attempt to murder Willie only when he steps outside their house—leaving him no choice, once he catches on, but to overstay his welcome. Some wonderful minor gags flow from this situation; at the end of the evening he stalls by pretending to lose his hat, only to have it returned to him relentlessly by his faithful dog. But it’s the withering irony of his predicament that gives the movie its strange moral kick, like a tragedy in drag.
In Our Hospitality and two of the other recent rereleases, The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., America’s vast range, its contradictions in North versus South and East versus West, seem to be distilled in one bewildered person (in Steamboat Bill he is a fussy East Coast graduate who visits and grossly disappoints his salty pa back on the Mississippi). Chaplin is thought of as the socially and politically aware comedian (e.g., Shoulder Arms, Modern Times, The Great Dictator) but Keaton’s most coherent feature-length comedies—also including Go West and The Navigator and arguably The Cameraman—can’t stop playing with the immigrant nature of American identity: each of us is far from home, and the natives aren’t friendly.
Quite cheerfully a film like Our Hospitality squeezes laughs from the characters’ pretense of kindness; this would be unsettling enough, but as in every other Keaton feature the emotional tension is a means of packing extra force into the gags, giving an even wilder sense of release to the action sequence that caps the story. Keaton had firm ideas about pacing: “Now, we would go out of our way to see how quiet we could start a motion picture,” he recalled in 1958. When the quiet gave way to action—at the end of a long chase in Our Hospitality, Willie uses the rope that’s tangled around his waist to swing out across a waterfall and catch his sweetheart as she’s going over—he stretched out the laughs by shrewd use of the camera:
When I’ve got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups. So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling…. Close-ups are too jarring on the screen, and this type of cut can stop an audience from laughing.
Considering the fluid pacing of his features, it’s remarkable that Keaton saw the construction of a story as a sort of scaffolding job: “The minute somebody had an idea—we said what is it going to lead to? We don’t go to the middle of the story; we jump right to the finish.” He’d leave the detailed business of his central acts up in the air until he started filming, because that’s where he’d have room to improvise, which had been the wellspring of his comedy since his days in vaudeville.
Chaplin also improvised on camera—often discarding thousands of feet of film—but as Kevin Brownlow’s documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983)2 makes clear, he used film like a notebook, revising and revising and then putting a glossy polish on the choreography he wanted in the picture. Keaton thought rehearsing would make performances look “too damn mechanical”:
Half of our scenes, for God’s sakes, we only just talked over. We didn’t actually get out there and rehearse ‘em. We just walk through it and talk about it. We crank that first rehearsal. Because anything can happen—and generally did…. We used the rehearsal scenes instead of the second take.
This looseness helped instill underplaying—Keaton said he “was always a little fussy about that. I didn’t like overacting”—and gave the action sequences a documentary flavor, not just because he never faked stunts but also because what was captured on film was a bold attempt at something really dangerous or difficult, not a practiced slam dunk.
In maybe his saddest line in Sweeney’s collection of interviews, Keaton confesses how the advent of sound ruined his appetite for playing in front of the camera: “The minute you’re not flexible that way,” i.e., not free to shoot unscripted sequences owing to rigid bosses, expensive sets, and waiting extras, “the desire to originate and ad-lib, as they call it, is gone. You’ve lost that.” The coming of sound spelled the end for Harold Lloyd, too, and a serious slowing down (and stylistic seizing up) for Chaplin, but for Keaton the arrival of the talkies has always seemed tragic, perhaps because of what it revealed about his own judgment.
In contrast to Chaplin and Lloyd, he’d always chosen to hand others financial control over his films (a logical enough choice, in its way, though it’s astonishing to learn that he never owned any shares in Buster Keaton Productions). After Joe Schenck stopped producing films as an independent in 1927 in order to run United Artists, Keaton took his advice and signed with MGM (though both Chaplin and Lloyd warned against it). At the age of thirty-three, after finishing The Cameraman (1928)—Keaton’s only MGM comedy that retains a clear imprint of his vision—he acquiesced to pathetic roles in limp, big-budget spectaculars, and gave in to a long-creeping alcoholism. In a final, miscalculated attempt to make a movie his way, he pitched to Irving Thalberg a full-length parody of the recent MGM megahit Grand Hotel. Thalberg wisely passed on it.
1 Two years later Arbuckle's career would crumple when he was accused of raping and murdering Virginia Rappe. Ultimately acquitted, he could never openly direct another movie, while Keaton kept churning out popular two-reelers. Around this time they tended to feature, as A Hard Act to Follow points out, mobs of policemen pursuing an innocent man. ↩
2 The DVD was recently supplemented by a book by Brownlow about its creation: The Search for Charlie Chaplin (UKA, 2010). ↩
Two years later Arbuckle's career would crumple when he was accused of raping and murdering Virginia Rappe. Ultimately acquitted, he could never openly direct another movie, while Keaton kept churning out popular two-reelers. Around this time they tended to feature, as A Hard Act to Follow points out, mobs of policemen pursuing an innocent man. ↩
The DVD was recently supplemented by a book by Brownlow about its creation: The Search for Charlie Chaplin (UKA, 2010). ↩