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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.