Buster Keaton Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.