The star of a film comedian waxes and wanes more rapidly than that of any other. Actors who seem like comic genius can – in the space of only 5-10 years – deplete their reserves of gags and jokes. Novelty matters in comedy, and when we grow too used to a style, it becomes not only unfunny, but downright annoying. (See Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, et. al.) Comedy is also the hardest genre to universalize. It doesn’t sell overseas. I have trouble understanding the humor in most imports. Comedies make up 17% of the movies on the critical aggregate They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They top 1,000 list. But when we isolate the list to only silent films, the number rises to 25%. More than half of those silent comedies were made by Buster Keaton. There’s something about his visual style transcends the limits of culture and context, enabling him to remain hilarious nearly a century later
Keaton was born into a vaudeville family, and performed as an infant. He left a stage audition to try out for a role in a film. He made several shorts with Fatty Arbuckle, and then struck out on his own. He was given control of his own production company, and immediately used it to establish his character. Film historian Walter Kerr wrote:
“As a star in his own right, Buster Keaton comes all at once and all of a piece. From the moment he began making short comedies independently in 1920, the whole repertoire – rich, bizarre, unindebted to others, and inimitable in itself – is there.”
One Week, Keaton’s first-released film, also brings us his first iconic moment – shown in the GIF above. The plot also sets up the Keaton theme of a man vainly trying to accomplish a goal, failing so miserably that his entire world literally collapses around him. He cannot build an instant house in 1920’s One Week, and he cannot launch a boat in 1921’s The Boat. He fails as a stagehand in the surreal 1921 film The Playhouse, in which reality and identity itself seem to fall apart.
In 1922’s Cops, Keaton’s attempt to find success in business gets him arrested as a terrorist. Cops is also one of the best examples of Keaton’s trademark chase sequences later appropriated by Bugs Bunny.
Keaton’s first feature film as director was really three short films. Three Ages, released in 1923, was made as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. It follows three boy-chases-girl stories, set in prehistoric, Roman and modern times. It’s funny enough, but lacks the true Keaton genius that goes on display in Our Hospitality, released that fall, or in The Navigator, and Sherlock Jr. in 1924.
In these films, Keaton first displays the formula he’d employ in most of his feature-length projects. He spends the first half of the film creating a believable (if slightly silly) world. Then, he runs rampant around the screen. His concrete world gives as absurd context to his actions that would otherwise seem simply anarchic, like the Marx Brothers.
This is featured prominently in one of my personal favorites, Seven Chances. Keaton receives notice that he can inherit a large fortune if he marries before 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday — the same day he receives the notice. The first half-hour of the film explores various gags that have since become romantic comedy tropes. It’s very funny, and Keaton’s perfect comic timing is on full display.
But the film shifts gear into something more primitive; more dreamlike, in the Jungian sense. A chain of comic circumstances lands Keaton in a church, where he wakes to find hundreds of prospective brides sitting behind him in their wedding gowns. When they realize he does not wish to marry of them, they chase him out of the church, through the streets, and down a mountain with tumbling boulders. Keaton doesn’t flail or biff. He is in complete control of his movements, and elevates stunt work into a dance that no one had done before and no one will do again. We forget the plot, the characters and all else. We’re transported into a world of pure movement, and pure symbol.
Keaton’s next film is widely regarded as his greatest masterpiece. One of the secrets behind his humor was to increase the scale. If Keaton’s stone face and matter-of-fact behavior was funny when confronted with small problems (a furniture mishap, or no where to hang a hat), it became hilarious when contrasted against epic problems (a bomb on his lap, or a Civil War battle).
In The General, Keaton increases the scale as much as he could. Keaton had spent most of his films running. Now, he was running on a train. And riding on the front of it. While being shot at. He went faster and larger and more dangerous than ever. Thanks to computers, we are certain to never see the likes of The General again. Even pre-cgi special effects couldn’t match Keaton. Yes, David Lean blew a train off a bridge, and did a good job doing so. But I’ll take Keaton’s shot better. It’s clearer, run at a normal speed, and doesn’t unnecessarily cut for reaction. Although The General‘s Confederate-sympathizing plot is dated (as is Lean’s imperialism, of course), its reliance on pure, universal attractions will keep it playing.
After this, Keaton kept trying to up the ante. He’d taken on war; now he was ready to fight nature. 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.‘s second act puts Keaton right in the middle of a hurricane. He maintains his trademark stoicism as the wind destroys a city around him. Steamboat Bill, Jr. features Keaton’s most famous stunt — a larger-scale version of the one seen in One Week. A house collapses on top of him, Keaton narrowly escapes, but doesn’t react.
Later that year, Keaton put himself in the middle of another battle; this one between two Chinatown gangs. In The Cameraman, shots ring out and villains crawl over each other to murder him, but Keaton keeps his classic cool.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Keaton’s last film with United Artists. Its poor box office performance sent him to MGM for The Cameraman. Keaton made one more film on his terms – Spite Marriage – but the studio never even gave him a real chance in the sound area. It took away creative control, and Keaton never made a great film again.
But what a run it was. From 1920 to 1928, Keaton produced about one all-time classic a year. He continually found new variations on a consistent theme that put his uninimitable form of physical comedy on display. No director or actor has created more masterpieces in such a short period of time.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.