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.
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.
There recently appeared Lost Keaton, a set of two-reelers he made in the 1930s—after he had been sacked by Louis B. Mayer (as well as divorced from his wife, Natalie Talmadge, and denied the right to see his two sons). These B-comedies made on shoestring budgets occasionally show flashes of his old self, with his wary optimism tilting at the world, but mostly they induce exactly what he tried to avoid in his silent work: pity. These and his other sound films are described in James Neibaur’s recent book, The Fall of Buster Keaton, which marches in chronological order through Keaton’s MGM and post-MGM performances, dutifully trying to find a trace of his old spark. In fact they form a kind of negative image of what made his silent movies so strange and delightful. If it’s hard to reconcile the inventiveness of his silent work with the second half of his life, when he repeated his old gags and performed as a sort of mascot of his former self, his own consummate stoicism is probably to blame. He lacked the stomach to maneuver through Hollywood’s big studios after they solidified in the 1920s, and his style was alien to the new screwball comedies that called for urbane, fast-talking wise guys.
Keaton wanted stories of a certain kind of innocence, and aspiration, and even mulish indifference to what might make people laugh (a hilarious film about the Civil War, for instance). His humor wasn’t a blank face that could be transferred willy-nilly to any kind of satire that might prove timely. This meant temporarily ignoring what the audience expected, and having the freedom to keep on inventing. “Anesthesia of the heart,” as Henri Bergson called it. That, after all, is the real soul of deadpan: such deep absorption in a task, or a way of being, that the audience thinks it alone can see that the whole thing’s going to hell.
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). ↩