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.
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 development of screen art, and the story ends lamely.
But "Go West" is a good picture—the best, I think, that Keaton has done since "Our Hospitality."
R. E. Sherwood, "The Silent Drama: 'Go West'," in Life, Vol. 86, No. 2246, November 19, 1925, p. 26.
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.∗
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 close to trepidation as we ever see him before he...
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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 controls his every movement. The dignity and silence of Keaton's suffering speak, as do Garbo's, of an immensity of early sorrow which cannot be put into words. There is in his films always something withheld, a little turned away from the audience, the nature of which is open to conjecture. It is this quality of reserve which in the end makes his performances so powerful. (p. 14)
Christopher Bishop, "The Great Stone Face," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1958 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XII, No. 1, Fall, 1958, pp. 10-15.
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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