In a way, Buster Keaton is the essence of movies. He is one of the inventors of cinema.
Werner Herzog, The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018)
[Buster Keaton is] the biggest inspiration [of] my whole life.
In February 1917, young vaudeville star Buster Keaton visited a film set for the first time. It was at the invitation of director-star Roscoe Arbuckle who promptly asked if he’d like to do a bit of acting in the two-reeler being production that day. He agreed and made his film debut in Arbuckle’s The Butcher Boy (1917), reputedly the only comedy debut, he said later, to be filmed in one take: he gets body-slammed to the floor by a flung sack of flour. “It put my feet where my head had been, and with no cooperation from me whatever.” That night, he took a motion picture camera home (with permission), disassembled, and reassembled the entire thing by morning. Later that week, he told his theatrical agent that he wanted to forfeit his first Broadway role for the movie industry instead. He was twenty-one.
Over the next four years, sparing a stint in World War I, he went from Arbuckle’s protégé to his collaborator on fourteen short films, all but one of which are still available. In 1920, he was given his own production unit where he assembled a group of writers and co-directors, and began making his own two-reelers and then moved onto features, all of which survive today thanks to sheer luck and James Mason, only a couple in incomplete form. In the preservation of silent film, that ratio is pretty rare.
Some fifty years later, a director you may have heard of by the name of Orson Welles would say: “[Keaton] was the greatest of all of the clowns in the history of cinema, a supreme artist, beyond all praise, a superb director. In the last analysis, nobody came near him.” Of all the things I love about Orson Welles, his Keaton fanboying is probably my favourite thing.
Discovering the comedy of Keaton can be either a dizzying explosion or a slow dawning of genius, depending on whether you start with the two-reelers or the features. Mine was Sherlock Jr (1924), probably his most famous feature film and certainly the highest rated of his own work on Letterboxd. The surrealism and his beauty intrigued me but I didn’t feel ready yet for the challenges of silent cinema. It was only a couple of years later when I went back that I discovered the sheer electric energy and lethal wit of those early short films. I think I watched seven in one day, gasping and shrieking and cackling over the frenetic music. My neighbours probably thought I’d ascended to a whole new level of lunacy.
There’s no doubt that watching Keaton is a joyous education for lovers of film and especially of comedy. His timing is impeccable, he trusts the audience to be smart enough to follow his logic, however idiosyncratic. There’s hardly a wasted moment – sometimes the gags come so fast upon each other it takes a few viewings to catch them all. I’m still noticing bits of snark and absurdity I’ve never noticed before.
You’ll see why dear ole Werner calls Keaton an inventor of cinema: how he (with his crew) work out exactly where the camera should be to maximise the effect of the joke. How he takes the disjointed two-act structure of early silent comedy and compresses it into one act of seamless plotting over two reels. How he uses intertitles with ironic contrast to the visual. How, like a lot of early film, his narrative logic plays with perception, tricking your brain into what’s real and what’s not. How he punctures alpha masculinity over and over again, as this small basically honest American working man who finds himself doing battle with machinery, the elements of the natural world, and frequently the establishment in the form of big burly police officers. Keaton flies his ACAB flag quite high which just goes to show: the 2020s aren’t that different to the 1920s.
He’s justifiably famous for his stunts that seem to almost defy the laws of physics – sometimes done with no more than an almost invisible safety line, but mostly through sheer acrobatic skill honed from childhood to adulthood onstage. Keaton had perfect body control, he knew exactly how to land, and only seriously damaged himself a few times in a very active career. His most infamous injury was only discovered years after the fact – in filming Sherlock Jr, the man broke his neck and you see him dash across a field directly after. “Conditioning,” he said later, “is the one thing, I suppose, that can enable a man to walk around unaware that he has a broken neck.” Honestly. My personal favourite is just watching him run: no one runs like Keaton, with such speed and fierce determination and often with a perfectly straight back, like he’s a goddamned machine.
It also doesn’t hurt that, like Orson said, he’s “one of the most beautiful people that was ever photographed.” His face is an architecture of gorgeous excess – big heavy-lidded eyes, a bold swoop of a nose, and cheekbones so sharp and slanted most of us in the fandom wonder how he was even real. He just walked about in the world, looking like that?! I particularly love the fact that he figured out exactly how to adapt garish vaudeville makeup to the subtlety of film: his brows darkened and slanted to accentuate those eyes, his tanned weathered skin smoothed to porcelain perfection, and an almost femme lip shape painted onto a surprisingly lush mouth. He’s a little demon elf in a custom flattened hat tipped to one side, concealing the muscle definition of a Greek god in baggy coats and clown trousers. And don’t believe that nonsense nickname “The Great Stoneface” – the expressiveness of Keaton is rich and subtle and no less affecting. Anyone who thinks he isn’t emoting hasn’t been paying attention.
Aptly enough, he was born in 1895, the same year the Lumiere brothers premiered the first film. Today is the 126th anniversary of his birth, so if you’re new to silent comedy or to Buster Keaton, here are seven recommendations to get you started.
A few tips for us millennials: feel free to mute the score if it’s too distracting or incongruous, I frequently do and there’s nothing lost in the experience. The films range from 18 to 25 minutes, and a lot happens very quickly so you might want to put the phone down and focus (unless of course you’re watching on your phone). Trust me, it’ll be rewarding.
The Goat (1921)
I’m not even going to try to summarise this chaotic plot. Let’s just say it alternates between visual gags of gleeful anticipation – look out for his lean in the first – and desperate chases through the streets of a barely recognisable Los Angeles, and a few bits of surrealism which he and his creative team called “impossible gags.” Keaton’s rabid love of trains creates one of his most iconic moments which is in itself a take on an iconic moment in cinematic history. Ngl I gasped and clutched my chest the first time I saw it, and now it’s one of my favourite gifs ever. The tall guy is frequent Keaton antagonist Joe Roberts, and he features in possibly the most shocking stunt of the film. I may or may not have replayed that three times on one watch just to see how Keaton does it, where he places his feet. In case you’re wondering, the title refers to his character constantly eluding the authorities and causing havoc along the way. But I also love how it works as a quite accurate acronym. I like to think he’d be quite amused at that.
Co-starring the best Keaton leading lady, Sybil Seely, there’s a lot of adorable honeymoon smooching between these two very pretty people while our intrepid new husband tries to assemble a pre-fabricated house. You’ll see a precursor to his most famous stunt from Steamboat Bill Jr (1928), though I find this one less nerve-wracking, and a charming bit of fourth-wall naughtiness. Keaton’s deadly sarcastic body language is most obvious not once but twice here. True, there is a framing joke set up with a final punchline that never comes, but the ending we do get is so glorious I screamed the first time. It’s a minor masterpiece of subversion and then a vicious topper. I always wonder if Keaton and co intended the original ending but then decided it would be too sappy and that this would be much more memorable. Really, I wouldn’t put it past them, the fiends.
This ought to be shown in every screenwriting class – the construction is flawless, the plotting of point A to B to C a thing of beauty that will be later perfected in Keaton’s most revered feature and Orson’s fave, The General (1926). I love the passing of money from person to person, a sly delightful illustration of capitalism. Look for the impossible gag of where he hangs his hat, a running joke through the two-reelers. The horse sequence could be a whole short on its own, and there’s a sex joke with a payoff that is either super ironic or super subtle, depending on your interpretation. I still haven’t worked it out. And yes, Keaton’s ACAB hostility is in full effect here, no doubt exacerbated by the contemporaneous scandal surrounding his mentor Roscoe Arbuckle. This is one of the few of his films with an unhappy ending but it’s no less darkly funny and not funny at all at the same time. Nevertheless, worth watching for the plotting, the steady escalation of the climactic sequence into complete glorious anarchy, and another of his most iconic stunts done with one arm and no tricks and no safety line – that was just him, the fearless lunatic.
This may be my favourite white saviour narrative ever. It manages to be way more progressive and nuanced than you might expect from the era, and also manages to commit every possible cultural atrocity against First Nations people, at least two of which make me groan out loud. There are plenty of obviously white people in redface which makes it always uncomfortable and ungiffable, but the film takes an unabashed stance for Indigenous land rights against corporate landgrabbers. It also features Keaton being the sweetest purest butterfly collector who then tries to punch a butterfly – as you do. There’s some exquisite pacing that makes me gasp and laugh every time, a sneaky editing trick, and another precursor to another of his famous stunts in the incredibly mean-spirited – not his fault, he hated it too – feature Seven Chances (1925). Try tracking Keaton through the crowd scenes – it’s a trip. The ending involves a pointed interracial romance, (albeit with a white woman in redface), and rather horny for his usual onscreen persona of sexual innocence. I won’t lie: as a queer of colour, I’ll take interracial Keaton snogging in any guise.
The gags in this ascend from simple to elaborate to sublime. There are perfect pratfalls, three marvellous uses of the impossible hat trick — haha, sorry, Keaton makes me pun a lot — and an intertitle of astounding alliteration. My second favourite bit might be when he subverts a gag and then flips the high sign at the camera. Keaton says in his memoir that he went back and added in a shot with the conventional payoff but I haven’t yet been able to find that version, if it even exists anymore. My favourite bit, the final sequence, is an absolute masterpiece of pacing, shocks and misdirections, and Keaton going totally parkour on a set filmed in a way that no doubt inspired Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man (1961) and so on. Also, look for him breaking the fourth wall more than once.
The first bit is a tableau of perfectly choreographed bachelor domesticity, with Joe Roberts playing more of a frenemy than antagonist to Keaton who may be at his prettiest in this two-reeler era. Sybil Seely does some frisky ballet moves, and Joe Keaton (his actual dad) threatens to kick his son’s behind like he actually did for about twenty years onstage. There’s a clever reworking of a chase sequence from Arbuckle’s short The Cook (1918) in which Luke the Dog pursues Keaton through all sorts of apertures and a few states of undress which I find quite morally uplifting. Look for Keaton crossing a stream as only he can, though why I still don’t know. It’s all very silly and very fast and a lot of fun.
The Love Nest (1923)
This was the last of the silent two-reelers I watched, and it is my supreme favourite. From start to finish, it’s so exquisitely constructed that even if you guess the ending, it’s a delight to watch Keaton get there. And there are no shortage of surprises and laughs on the way – a shooting gag of pure elegance, a running joke with wreaths and Keaton’s sardonic reactions, and a tiniest bit of surrealism that would be expanded to thrilling effect in Sherlock Jr the next year. It’s also one of a few instances where Keaton uses the filmic convention of the era: sepia tint to indicate daytime and blue tint for night-time. Doesn’t make him any less pretty, not to worry. The pace is quite relaxed with none of the anarchy of the other two-reelers. You can tell he and his collaborators have honed his art to the point where they’re totally ready to leave the frenzy of the short form behind and move into the graceful refined structure of his feature narratives. The result? Sublime perfection.
Oh, if you’re wondering about Keaton features, here are my recs: watch them all. But only the silents. Start with Three Ages (1923) and end with Spite Marriage (1929). Don’t even attempt the talkies, they’re not worthy of him. He deserved so much better. Keaton the master.
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