Friday, February 1, 2013

Buster Keaton Rides Again: Silent Film Greatness

Think slow, and act fast."--Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton (1895-1966)      

February 1, 1966 was for many "the day the laughter died." Well a lot of it at least.  I observe this anniversary of the greatest American silent  film comedian Buster Keaton. Raised in a vaudeville family, Keaton left his parents' act for good in 1917 and started making some of the best comedy films (short films as a supporting player with then-major star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and later moved to  his own film studio in 1920's Los Angeles to make shorts and features.
Keaton in his main film career  was not as popular as Charlie Chaplin or the all-American do-gooder and small-town striver "glasses" character created by  Harold Lloyd.    But he was the most creative of the three as far as using cinema to its heights to get a style that was unique to the medium.  
After a botched career move to the giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1929 took away his creative control, Keaton's career floundered on the rocks of personal and professional setbacks.  He succumbed to alcoholism, while at the same time his films got less funny and, ironically, made more money now that they play in more theaters thanks to MGM's chain of distributors.  By 1933, the jig was up and he was unemployable by a major studio as a leading comedian. He went to England and France to make movies and came back to do bargain-basement short films for small film companies in Hollywood and later was hired as a gag writer for the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton at  the studio which tossed him out.
By the fifties though some of Keaton's silent films were rediscovered and Keaton was clean and sober and married to a very supportive wife.  He toured music halls in England and in summer stock plays in the USA.   His films were restored and audiences from Venice California to Venice Italy enjoyed them  and paid tribute to him. He also made dozens of appearances on variety shows on television and his acting career in films started getting a second wind in films.

He died having restored his finances, been received of much-belated awards and accolades like an honorary Oscar in 1962. He was in demand for everything from commercials to small roles in B-Comedies like "Beach Blanket Bingo" which were not great films but allowed a new generation of fans to see him.  Many appreciative fans went back to his great films like "The General" (1927), "The Cameraman" (1928) and "Sherlock, Junior" (1924) as well as the short films. He could be subtle and he could play things broad with great physical gags. And there has not been his like since.      
Thanks Buster.                  


  1. A fitting tribute to an incredible performer Doug. Watching those amazing clips I was greatly impressed by the precision and choreography of many of the stunts. Buster Keaton whose faith in measurement was it seems infinite, survived literally by being in the right place at the right time. It is a health and safety inspectors nightmare come true, but the accuracy and attention to detail is what put Keaton in movie theatre rather than the operating theatre. I can see how a mix of alcohol and this kind of thing would rapidly become problematic, but it is good that Keaton got through that stage of his life and ended up with the recognition he deserves. His breathtaking audacity is what is so amazing to me, but also the technical cinematography is impressive too, capturing those crazy visual gags, I wonder how rehearsed they were?
    Whatever the answer to that might be, Buster Keaton was an incredible performer and acrobat, the 20th century clown-like figure that has you asking questions like 'how on earth did he get away with that'? And a great dancer too, to boot!

    Thanks for reminding me of how very entertaining Buster Keaton was Doug and for paying homage to this pioneer of cinema on the anniversary of his death.

    1. Thanks to you,AA, for your spot-on analysis of what makes Buster Keaton's cinematic legacy so unique. Yes, he did have the mind of an engineer, dedicated to precision, and the creative will of a full-blown artist, so his movies were planned out and rehearsed to painstaking limits. It was the cost of the way Keaton made his films that contributed to the loss of creative control and move to MGM. Chaplin himself tried to convince Keaton to remain independent but Buster as no businessman and the power at his front office was unwisely put into the hands of his father-in-law. The rest is history, but it's a history that ultimately had a great third act recovery!

      From what I've read, a lot of work went into stunts like the all-too-real from facade of an actual house crashing down toward his standing figure, He had only a narrow open window frame to make the "gag" work and even the cameraman looked away when it came time for the stunt. It is in the compilation film above, originally in the movie "Steamboat Bill" (1927).

      How Keaton managed NOT to wind up in a hospital in his Hollywood hey-day also amazes me. And he did it all with rudimentary camera optics that called for getting it done in an as-it-happened style with almost no in-camera special effects. On top of that his feature films like "The General" are beautiful. I wish they could all be seen in a theater with an audience like I initially did when I went to see them in San Francisco and Berkeley in the 70's and 80's.

      Keaton's father Joe, his mother Myra and he used to have a "knock-about"vaudeville act around 1900-1916 in which he was thrown about and Buster was often looked over by child services authorities in medical exams because they couldn't believe he wasn't getting bruised. It was Joe Keaton's jealousy for his son--who was getting solo work and most of the praise as Buster got older-- that caused the father to start drinking and for Buster to leave the act and go it alone 100 percent of the time. But of course it was inevitable that the son would surpass his acrobatic but father but it was a school of literal hard knocks that made Buster pliant enough in mind and body to do these stunts and clever enough to keep an audience guessing.

      Another Keaton fan once said the secret to Buster's enduring popularity was in fact both his humor and his audacity. He is quite unique. Thanks again AA.

  2. Correction Notes: Actually it was Buster's brother-in-law Joseph Schenck in the 1920's who ran the business end of Buster Keaton films (which were released through United Artists) UA was a company partially owned by Chaplin, a friendly acquaintance of Buster in those days.
    His father Joe Keaton was indeed acrobatic but his drinking made him less reliable for Buster's personal safety on stage. Buster however forgave and employed his father regularly later on when the former achieved solo stardom.

  3. I remember my dad as being a big fan of Buster Keaton. He would split a gut laughing when watching those films. Thanks for the memory.

    1. You're most welcome Lia. Glad these clips remind you of happy parental memories. :-)