Buster Keaton 1895–1966
(Born Joseph Francis Keaton) American director, actor, screenwriter, and producer.
Keaton's silent films are among the most important works in the development of American comedy. His films of the 1920s are now considered as impressive as those of Charlie Chaplin. Keaton's films are a mixture of comedy and pathos, with Buster playing a protagonist trying to extricate himself from dangerous situations. Stunts were filmed in long shot, so that their danger is fully apparent to the viewer. In front of the camera, Keaton had the ability to remain stoical and aloof through the most outrageous situations, a talent which won for him a large following in the 1920s.
Keaton began his theatrical career at an early age. He appeared in his parents's vaudeville routine, and was called "the human mop" because they threw him all over the stage. Keaton later claimed that this experience helped him perform the difficult stunts that he staged in his films. He worked in vaudeville until 1917, when he appeared in his first film, The Butcher Boy, with Fatty Arbuckle. Throughout the early and mid-twenties, Keaton made many popular shorts and features, including Cops, The Three Ages, and Sherlock Jr. At this time, Keaton had total artistic control over his films. However, by the time he made his best films, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr., stifling restrictions had been put on his work, such as the hiring of co-directors and artistic supervisors. In 1928, when his contract was transferred from United Artists to MGM, Keaton became little more than a hired hand in the films in which he starred. His work deteriorated steadily, personal problems sapped his skills, and many people thought he was dead until the 1950s. At that time, Keaton began to appear once again in films, including Chaplin's Limelight, and critical reevaluations of his early work began to appear. Most of these were extremely favorable.
Keaton's most important physical asset was his face. Impassive, never smiling, "The Great Stone Face" seemed ready for any disaster. Critics today see Keaton as a solitary film-maker, an artist who planned his films and routines very carefully (when he was allowed to). Admirers say that his films are beautiful as a result of creative and exciting photography. Many critics feel the scenes Keaton shot in the Northwest wilderness for some films (particularly The General) are still unsurpassed. Above all, Keaton created films in a slapstick style that audiences still find engaging today.
R. E. Sherwood
In one of his earlier comedies, "The Paleface," Buster Keaton captured a quality of wistfulness that marked him as one apart from the ordinary run of movie gag-grabbers. It is this same quality that has made Chaplin great.
Keaton returns to the mood of "The Paleface" in "Go West"—a comedy which, when viewed analytically, is in fact a soul-stirring tragedy. It is the story of a boy, known on the program as "Friendless," who is kicked about from pillar to post—from New York, N.Y., to Needles, California—until he finally finds a startling treasure of human warmth and sympathy in the person of a brown-eyed cow. For this cow he conceives a devastating affection, and his loyal heart is shattered when an inexorable ranch-owner compels him to lead his bovine girl friend to the slaughterhouse.
A [James Matthew] Barrie, a [Ferenc] Molnar, or a [George Bernard] Shaw could not have conceived a romance like that. It is the utterly mad but oddly significant sort of story that could flourish only on the screen.
Buster Keaton plays it with his usual dead pan, and with occasional sidesteps into the realms of ridiculousness. In these moments he is terribly funny, but for the major part of the picture, he is inexpressibly sad.
Toward the end, a herd of cattle breaks loose in a city street—and here, unfortunately, Buster Keaton loses control. The cows refuse to do their bit toward the...
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Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit that he achieved a great deal besides, especially in his feature-length comedies. (For plain hard laughter his 19 short comedies … were even better.) He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those who sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Matthew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise. (p. 85)
James Agee, "Comedy's Greatest Era" (© copyright The James Agee Trust; reprinted by permission), in Life, Vol. 27, No. 10, September 5, 1949, pp. 70-82, 85-6, 88.∗
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The hero of The General is a little engine driver, turned down by the Confederate recruiting sergeants, dismissed as a coward by his girl, who, in pursuit of his stolen engine, penetrates the Unionist lines, spies on a military conference, rescues the girl, recovers the engine and steams back in triumph to the Confederate encampment. The exploits are preposterously heroic; their manner of execution is brisk but detached. Confronted with the outlandish or the alarming—the disappearance of his train, the discovery that in setting fire to the railway bridge he has placed himself on the wrong side of the blaze, or that, in his grand scheme to fire on the enemy train, he has directed the cannonball straight into the cab of his own engine—Keaton remains imperturbable. This, one feels, is how he expects things to behave; there is no need for undue alarm. It is out of this laconic, matter-of-fact acceptance, this obstinate persistence in effort, however misguided, this untroubled, dream-like logic, that Keaton builds his comedy technique. The film advances in a series of triumphs and setbacks, with each check stimulating him to fresh activity, fresh displays of ingenuity. The train puffs past first the retreating Confederate troops, then the advancing Yankees, while its driver, sublimely unaware, busily saws wood for the engine. It runs steadily towards an obstacle across the line while Keaton, spread-eagled against the front of the engine, comes as...
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Where the goals in Chaplin's films are social, physical, and explicit, those in Keaton's are metaphysical and implicit. Chaplin's art is rooted in a period which could believe in social solutions, while, for Keaton, there are no solutions—or rather, the solutions, like the problems, lie somewhere just outside the frameline, somewhere beyond the film's conclusion. His films, unlike Chaplin's, end happily, his ambitions and those of his girl meeting finally at one point. But these endings suggest a temporary adjustment of ultimate divergences; any solutions fate may provide for this man are essentially irrelevant. One critic has spoken of "the admirable play of horizontals and verticals" in his films; the fundamental disparity between Keaton's line and that of the other characters is final and immutable. Keaton is willing to join in the game, a game not entirely innocent, in which the stakes may be life and death—but it is not his game, and one senses that, for him, all has already been lost.
Keaton moves in a windless vacuum of his own, his directions suggesting the trajectory of a bullet moving through a wind tunnel, buffeted by whirlwinds of ceaseless violence. His lack of engagement extends to his audiences as well, from whom he has always seemed separated as if by a glass and soundproof wall. His lack of emotional response, his endlessly rigid and inflexible behavior imply a previous hurt which even he cannot remember, but which...
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Keaton at his best as in The General, College, and the first two reels of Spite Marriage, has real merit. His humour is dry, exceptionally well constructed and almost entirely mechanical in execution. He has set himself the task of an assumed personality, which succeeds in becoming comic by its very sameness. He relies, also, on the old method of repetition, which when enhanced by his own inscrutable individuality becomes incredibly funny. His comedies show an extensive knowledge of the contrast of shapes and sizes and an extremely pleasing sense of the ludicrous. Keaton has, above all, the great asset of being funny in himself. He looks odd, does extraordinary things and employs uproariously funny situations with considerable skill. The Keaton films are usually very well photographed, with a minimum of detail and a maximum of effect. It would be ungrateful, perhaps, to suggest that he tries to take from Chaplin that which is essentially Chaplin's, but nevertheless Keaton has learnt from the great actor and would probably be the first to admit it. (p. 214)
Paul Rotha, "The American Film (concluded)," in his The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema (© Paul Rotha 1949, 1951, 1960, 1963), revised edition, Vision Press Limited, 1963, pp. 189-216.∗
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Keaton's profoundly visual kind of comedy depends on his skill in directing which permits him to use space itself as an element in his gags. And thus by using different shots of a railway track describing a hairpin bend on a steep slope together with shots of a locomotive prankishly advancing and retreating, Keaton can gallop through woods, tumble down the slope and scale rocks (The General). Ultimately this turns into a sort of abstract locomotive ballet. Using an ingenious system of deceptively crossing railway tracks (one of the two, no longer in use, is suspended in the air), Keaton then superposes two trains going at top speed, one forward, the other (his, the General) backward, and after having led us to believe the two will inevitably crash, he isolates one train perched on its track in a ridiculous, grotesque position, as the other, roaring forward, disappears.
Keaton makes the Northerners who pursue him look ridiculous, and uses scenic elements to jeer at them: by his retreat which suddenly reveals how to avoid a crash as well as the grotesque position in which the Northerners now find themselves, he makes them look ridiculous; by placing his train directly beneath their shelf, out of their reach, he seems to be there deliberately to jeer at them.
The mad humour of this scene rests on a genuine visual pun, the result of mathematically precise direction. (p. 51)
Keaton is never so...
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The Boat has all the resilience, pig-headedness, and strangeness of the best Keaton films. It ends perfectly; but if it were to go on one has no doubt that this extraordinary family (wife and children behave like extensions of Keaton himself) would next be found setting up some ultra-ingenious desert island shack. The survival power of the Keaton character is never seriously in question. But the element of melancholy … still bites. Keaton's humour is seldom destructive except at his own expense; and the collapse of the house at the beginning of The Boat seems to me one of the most strangely and sorrowfully and totally comic moments in cinema.
By now, the principles of Keaton films were set—of Keaton, that is, looked on as director rather than performer. There are obvious rules of construction, like the slow starts and all-out finishes. But I would suggest three basic elements of Keaton comedy, all in evidence in The Boat. First, there is the concern with plot, adventure, real hazards. I find the storm sequence reminiscent, of all unlikely things, of the hurricane in [Ichikawa's] Alone on the Pacific, a comparison one could never begin to make if Buster were just a booby adrift in a studio mock-up boat. Second, there is the sense of place. In The Boat this is no more than the modest little harbour whose yachts and boat-houses can be seen in the background of the launching sequence. But if this...
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Keaton has never been forgotten, but he has been comparatively neglected. That comparison is, obviously, with Chaplin. Now some points seem clear. As performer, Keaton is certainly Chaplin's equal. As director, he is Chaplin's superior, more flexible in his camera movement, more sensitive to pictorial quality as such. As producer of whole, organic works, he is not quite as good as Chaplin. As manager of his career, he is not remotely in Chaplin's league. Chaplin had great business and promotive sense; Keaton had practically none. (p. 20)
Artistically, there are close similarities and wide differences between them. Both understood the body as the source of comic life, both had incredible control of their bodies—an identification of physicality with comic performance that may never be seen on stage or film again…. Both understood that mere physical miracle was eventually sterile, that it had to be used in support of a character, a basically fixed character, as in the ancient tradition of clowning. In Chaplin's earliest shorts, one can see him moving toward the Tramp. In Coney Island, where Keaton supports Fatty Arbuckle, one can see him moving toward his character. (And, incidentally, disproving the myth that he never smiled.) Both pantomime artists dreaded the coming of sound, and neither was at his best in speaking roles. (p. 21)
The differences between them are also interesting. In a primary but not...
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[Only] Buster Keaton could rival Chaplin in his insight into human relationships, into the conflict between the individual man and the immense social machinery that surrounds him; only Keaton could rival Chaplin in making his insight both funny and serious at the same time. On the one hand, the Keaton canon as a whole is thinner, less consistent than the Chaplin canon; the character he fashioned—with his deadpan, blank reaction to the chaos that inevitably and inadvertently blooms around him—lacks the range, the compassionate yearnings, the pitiable disappointments of Chaplin's tramp. On the other hand, Keaton made a single film, The General, that is possibly more even, more unified, and more complex in both conception and execution than any individual Chaplin film. (p. 152)
Chaplin and Keaton are the two poles of silent comics. Chaplin's great strength is his development of character and the exhausting of a particular comic and social situation; Keaton's strength is the tightness of his narrative structures and his contrast between the numbers one and infinity. Chaplin is sentimental; his gentle, smiling women become idols to be revered. Keaton is not sentimental; he stuffs his females into bags and hauls them around like sacks of potatoes; he satirizes their finicky incompetence and even raises his fist to the silly lady in The General who feeds their racing locomotive only the teensiest shavings of wood. It was...
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The year 1922 has been celebrated for the appearance of [Eliot's] The Waste Land and [Joyce's] Ulysses. It was also the year The Reader's Digest began publication. Buster Keaton's "Cops" (1922), I would maintain, is a great work of art, belonging with Eliot's poem and Joyce's novel rather than with the trivial works with which it has been associated because its discourse has depended on gags. (p. 269)
Keaton's gags are more philosophical than slapstick in that they test the nature of reality. In "Cops," objects prove to have a side so hidden as to allow indeterminacy to reign in our perception of the received world….
If things have a hidden side, people also are capable of conscious and unconscious duplicities; they too are "indeterminate." (p. 271)
For Keaton's hero in "Cops," the resistance of phenomena to certainty, the duplicity of people and things, and the failure of epistemological systems to establish roads to knowledge—all these compel him to abandon the world.
In "Cops," Keaton tries to remove man from objects, whether natural or contrived, so that man will be isolated from deep meanings and, though locked into his separateness from people and things, be free. His method involves using gags for an assault on the logic that sustains our world. His discovery of the indeterminacy of the things of the world is no less remarkable than Eliot's or...
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Keaton's character in "Sherlock Jr." is very much Buster's. Sherlock is cultivated, well dressed, virtuous, and fortunate. He is the forerunner of the well-heeled central figure of "Battling Butler" (1926), of the posh college son of the old captain in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928), and, most of all, of Rollo Treadway, the augustly decorous hero of "The Navigator" (1924, but later than "Sherlock Jr."). In the beginning of his dream, The Boy is constantly buffeted by the alien film's overcutting by what Keaton once called to me "the homeless camera." (Like Renoir, among most other great directors, Keaton detested restless editing, and chose that audiences be able to watch in their own time what he was doing.) No sooner does Sherlock jump off a rock into water than it turns out to be snow. No sooner is he on a mountain than he finds himself on flat earth again, between two alarmingly interested lions. Aesthetically, the film plays a subtle and entrancing trick. The movie that the dozy, wistful projectionist is watching is "real," or else his dream of walking into it would not be "unreal;" therefore, the idea that cinema is an illusion is illusory. Sherlock as a figment of film dream can still be harmed by the legerdemain of moviemaking. "Sherlock Jr." transports us because of its gaiety, and also because it understands the truths about the universe which lie in pretense and magic. (p. 48)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Farce,...
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Keaton's addiction to his scrupulously well-made plots grew out of his awareness that the most astonishing comic invention demands the most conventional of dramatic contexts. But as this awareness apparently intensified over the years, it also began to threaten to limit his work. In Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926) the plot exacts too much of our attention, repeatedly subduing Buster to its complex needs, cheating us of occasions to watch the Keaton body at work. (p. 244)
In The General (1926) Keaton has conquered the problem with a success no one could have anticipated. Here the plot attains a Euclidean harmony of shape even as it forces its protagonist again and again to explore the very limits of his own physical resourcefulness; the tension between the demands of the action and the possibilities of the actor is flawlessly maintained over eight reels. So it is, perhaps, that the succeeding film, College (1927), is the most nearly episodic of the major Keaton features. Perfection of form, attained in The General, no longer seems a challenge. Yes, even in College the familiar narrative framework is present: the given situation demands a hero but instead gets a Buster; a Buster under pressure finally explodes into a hero unparalleled and so settles the situation. But the narrative framework is present as if only to permit discrete and self-contained illustrations of Keaton's...
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One of Buster Keaton's inimitable images is worth a thousand words of explicatory prose…. This kind of hyperbolic heraldry gets me into trouble with people like Walter Kerr, who chides me … for describing Buster Keaton as "cerebral." I stand by my opinions, however, as I would much prefer to have people see Keaton's movies than sob over his memory…. But if any group can be credited with saving Keaton, it is that body of European intellectuals and academics who steadfastly regarded Keaton as an immortal artist rather than as a dated comic. And if Keaton has become, like Chaplin, a figure of speech in the discussion of cinematic style, it is because his films have been studied as high art, and not merely enjoyed as escapist entertainment.
Also, I don't believe the "fun" argument is as strong a motivation for looking at silent movies as is the "art" argument. For anything old to be appreciated in our Now-oriented culture, it must be certified as spinach rather than as ice cream. We are still more puritanical than we care to admit, and we have never treated comic talent with the awe and respect it deserved. In any event, Keaton was always a very special case in that he often became so preoccupied with the peculiar implications of his visual and kinetic ideas that he lost sight of his audience and even his characters. Hence, he was never the most efficient laugh machine in Hollywood. Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Lloyd easily surpass...
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[When Fleming's Gone With the Wind was re-released in 1967, the distributors tried to "modernize" the film.]
An analogous thing has been done recently to Buster Keaton's silent comedy feature, The General…. And here the changes are even more serious, not least because The General, unlike Gone With the Wind, is a masterpiece by one of the great film-makers (perhaps the greatest film-maker of the silent era).
The distributors have made basically two kinds of change: one, the less serious, in the visuals; the other, far more serious, because fundamental, in the sound track. Both seem to have been carried out, at least in part, in the futile and misguided attempt to "modernize" the film, to make it seem less like a silent and a product of its period.
Let us deal first with the less serious change: the changing of the intertitles to subtitles superimposed over the images—and, in at least one case, the complete elimination of the text of an intertitle. The worst thing about the change is that the subtitles keep one from giving one's full attention to the images (this is of course also true with subtitles in foreign sound films, but there it is the lesser of two evils). Moreover, aesthetically speaking, most of the intertitles probably should be separate: at least those that contain, not a functional bit of dialogue, but a fairly independent joke (and aesthetically...
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Buster Keaton wrote, starred in, and directed movies when the movies were still in awe of themselves and their very gift for movement. Keaton's kinesis happened also to coincide with the crisis of mimesis in other narrative forms, the growing doubt about story's responsibility toward that "real" world which cinema had so recently learned to simulate and resee. The art of duplication had turned dubious. In the process it had also turned in on itself to discover why. Perhaps the most analytically disposed of all the silent film-makers outside the Russian school, certainly among American directors, Buster Keaton was quick to avail himself of film's position at the fountainhead of modernism. As the period's greatest exegete, Hugh Kenner, points out, the epoch of literary modernism was still in the process of arriving when film emerged as a narrative art, and movies could therefore readily indulge themselves in modernism's reflexive vantage: "Keaton's great creative period was 1921–1927, the age of Ulysses and 'The Hollow Men.' In being his own subject he was equally Joyce's and Eliot's contemporary." Indeed, some of Keaton's finest films "might almost be subtitled portraits of the artist as a young man, with a complexity of symbolic displacement hardly to be matched by the auto-inspection of earlier craftsmen." These movies are also portraits of their art form as a young medium. Near in time to the genesis of their form, Keaton's films frequently...
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