As one of the waxworks playing bridge in Sunset Boulevard (1950), a ravaged Buster Keaton contemplates a dubious hand. With his customary stoicism, he croaks, “Pass.” Then, facing up to lousy luck, his face only slightly dejected, he again says “Pass” more quietly.
This brief appearance in Billy Wilder’s mordant classic expresses the essential attitude of his life and work. It is this attitude that makes Buster an important artist, patronized by intellectuals who appreciate his profundity and by mainstream audiences who gasp and giggle at his daring. Dismissing claims to greatness, Keaton insisted again and again that what he was most interested in was getting the laugh.
Like so many film artists, he needed the freedom to create spontaneously if he was to function at his highest level. During the 1920s, he put out a phenomenal array of rarified, perfectly judged features and shorts, a cinematic jewel-box featuring authentic period detail, is-he-really-doing-that? stunts and an enduring persona that qualifies as one of the most poetic reactions to life imaginable. Restrained, unpretentious, pure films, they belie his seemingly disorganized working methods, a series of disparate and largely unnecessary co-directors and the apparent self-destructiveness of his own personality.
As a child, he was part of a vaudeville act with his parents. Buster was billed as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged” and Papa Joe Keaton was flinging him roughly around the stage at the age of five. Buster understood quite early that he would get bigger laughs if he retained a serious expression. The Three Keatons were a popular act, though some questioned the knockabout humor, especially as Buster got older and his father got drunker. At the age of 21, after 16 years of punishing, trouper-like work, Buster didn’t have a penny to call his own. (1)
The effect of such a childhood cannot be overlooked. Because he refused to complain and would not hear a word against his family, even his abusive father, it is difficult to gauge just how much and what kind of damage was done. For Buster, it seems as if life from an early age was all about physical pain and cultivating the endurance to absorb it. Take your lumps and get the laugh, year in, year out. Out of this experience came the creation of his artistic persona: you fall hard, you get right back up; the girl doesn’t love you, do what you can and wait until she does. He did not cry and he would not smile. Above all, even if things worked out, Buster knew that everything would soon fall apart again, which led to some of the most ruthlessly unsentimental endings in film history. At bottom, he was a cagey, down-to-earth pessimist who could occasionally liberate himself through graceful movement up into pure physical abstraction.
Liberation from vaudeville came in the zaftig form of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who mentored the young comic. In The Butcher Boy (1917), his film debut, Buster compels the camera immediately with his subtle, very contained movements. Casually, he puts on what was to become his trademark porkpie hat and it sticks—literally—with molasses. At one point, in one of innumerable pratfalls to come, he falls backwards onto his neck and does a headstand to get up to his feet.
He made 14 films with Arbuckle and got his first taste of directing the action. “I directed when Roscoe was in the scene,” he reported. (2) In these shorts, his persona has not fully formed yet, but many of the familiar characteristics are already present. Though he’s not entirely deadpan, facial gymnastics are few. The Arbuckle/Keaton shorts are sloppy and Mack Sennett-hostile; when Buster was given the opportunity to make his own films, he did not settle for knockabout stuff. What interested him was a kind of conceptual humor that is rather difficult to describe in words, since it depends on visual associations that only make sense in the moment. Such humor is, needless to say, an acquired taste.
There are some that find Keaton’s films dull, preferring Chaplin’s flash, his easy laughs and unearned tears. There is no pressing reason to choose between them, any more than there is a reason to choose between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Both have their virtues and failings, depending on your point of view, but Keaton is definitely the more realistic of the two; when he kicks a villain in the ass, as Chaplin did constantly, his foot gets hurt.
The shorts Keaton made in the early twenties are warm-ups for his features, but they have exotic delights of their own. Filled with topical jokes about prohibition and the success of women’s suffrage, they exhibit a consistent self-reflexivity, making them perhaps the first serious films about films themselves. In One Week (1920), there is a delicious scene: his newlywed wife is taking a bath. She drops the soap and reaches to get it, but then looks at the audience and makes a “tsk-tsk!” face, whereupon a hand covers the camera lens to hide her nudity. This scene demonstrates his sophisticated awareness of the nature of the film medium, which would climax in Sherlock, Jr (1924). Keaton understood, instinctively, the dream-like nature of films — many of the shorts end with him waking up from a dream-filled slumber.
In Hard Luck (1921), he anticipates Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) by 50 years—the entire short consists of various unsuccessful suicide attempts, a gambit that reveals his ticking time bomb despair. “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” he remarks in The Playhouse (1921), a short in which he plays every one of the people in a theater: a full orchestra, a conductor, a kid, an old lady, a dowager and her bored husband. Unbounded surrealism, it is also a dig at the pretensions of Chaplin and others who wanted to be the be-all and end-all of a film, particularly producer Thomas Ince. In The Frozen North (1922), he does a wicked take-off on Von Stroheim in Foolish Wives (1922).
Social issues are often broached, uncertainly but boldly. In The Paleface (1921), he wanders onto an Indian reservation with a butterfly net. When tied to a stake and set on fire, he tries to put out the blaze with a few phlegmatic birthday candle blows. Impressed by his tact, the Chief makes him a member and he soon joins them in a violent fight for their land. In perhaps his most enjoyable short, Neighbors (1920), he gets stuck in a hole in the ground and emerges in full blackface, prompting an outraged cop to chase him out of the neighborhood. Quickly, Buster rubs half of the dirt off of his face, then bewilders the cop by turning in one direction and then another. When he is white, the cop moves away. When he is black, he moves to eject him. It all ends in a fury of confusion, providing a pointed racial commentary only slightly spoiled when he later “spooks” a black lady by putting a sheet on his head.
The Buster of these shorts is often a sarcastic hothead, but can be wonderfully solemn-silly when lovestruck. The deterioration of his marriage to first wife Natalie Talmadge is brutally exposed in the shorts, as attitudes towards hostile women become stoic yet biting. In 1923 Keaton was promoted to features by his brother-in-law, the aptly named Joseph Schenck, husband to screen star Norma Talmadge. Schenck made sure to secure the rights to all of the Keaton films. Thus, in the future, Keaton would not see a penny from any of his masterworks. Like Joe Keaton, Schenck was an exploiter of the Great Stone Face, but he did give him the freedom he needed. In the next blessed years the best of the Keaton features began to unroll.
Keaton’s first feature, The Three Ages (1923), is a ragbag send-up of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), studded with odd gags, but purely preliminary. Our Hospitality (1923), his next effort, featured the kind of careful period verisimilitude that would embellish his best film, The General (1926), and it ends in some daredevil stunts over a waterfall. Keaton was learning to take his time and find his own particular rhythm.
With Sherlock Jr, he came up with a haunting little meditation on movies and dreams. Projectionist Buster falls asleep at the controls and dreams that he can enter the film he is unreeling. With a series of ingenious visual effects, Keaton gives us a perfect demonstration of what it would be like to climb up onto a screen and become a part of the movie we are watching. It’s an unforgettable scene. Without self-consciousness, Keaton brings home the wondrousness of the medium itself, submerging himself in the ocean of its superb and liquid unreality. When he steps onto the screen, he fulfills something in all of us.
The Navigator (1924), which followed, is more of a ballet than a film, a dry account of two rich twits, effete Buster and out-of-it Kathleen MacGuire, stranded aboard a deserted boat. The gags are cerebral and as mild as you can imagine. There’s an aesthetic at work in The Navigator that is unlike that of any other director, a style that is distinctly Buster. For once, the girl is just as funny as he is—he and MacGuire make a fine team.
Seven Chances (1925), which Keaton considered one of his worst films, is actually one of his best, and certainly his most under-rated. Perhaps Keaton didn’t like being tied to such a definite plot; it’s the old Belasco chestnut about the man who must marry before the day is up if he is to receive seven million smackers. Buster has something of Cary Grant about him in this, an off-kilter sexual charge, a snarky urbanity. Trying to find a bride fast, he tangles with a young, dark-haired Jean Arthur for a blissful moment or two. There are a lot of far-out jokes in Seven Chances, the kind of situations that you can’t unravel with words—described point by point, they wouldn’t sound as funny and strange as they are. In the lunatic climax, an amazingly sustained live action cartoon, hundreds of potential brides chase him across the countryside, an avalanche of unleashed feminine rage. As he runs, a real avalanche starts, with boulders that get bigger and bigger.
In Go West (1925), Keaton toys around with Chaplin-like pathos, but tempers it by going as far out into Zen-like stoicism as you can possibly go while still retaining a pulse. In a defining moment here, during a game of cards, a gunslinger commands, “When you say that, smile!” Buster cannot, of course, comply, though he does force the ends of his mouth up with his fingers, a sweet nod to Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919). At the end of Go West, Buster goes off with a charismatic cow named Brown Eyes, the most appealing of his leading ladies.
Battling Butler (1926) was reportedly a favorite of his. It’s probably his weakest feature, though Martin Scorsese has praised the realism of the long boxing sequence at the end. Far more impressive is the film many consider his masterpiece, The General, which was based on a true occurrence during the Civil War. Keaton spent a great deal of time and money to get the film exactly as he wanted it, and this care shows—it is meticulous in its period recreation. Buster’s engineer hero, Johnny, loves both his train and his girl. When saying goodbye to the latter, he waves grandly, trips, then resumes his dignified farewell. Dreaming about her, he sits on the wheel of his train and fails to notice that it has started to move forward, a sublime image of romantic preoccupation. When things don’t work out as he intended, his frozen yet fidgety annoyance is priceless. The stunts on the train are awe-inspiring, but the other great moment, praised by Andrew Sarris, is when he rings the neck of his ditzy sweetheart then kisses her, all in one fluid gesture. It is his best film and he knew it, but The General closed quickly, a costly flop. Keaton could never understand why, but perhaps the film was, as Pauline Kael later pointed out, too perfect. (3)
After this pinnacle, he slipped somewhat with College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), but both of these works have enchanting moments. The first, his most audience-friendly film, finds him trying to impress his girl by taking up athletics. As could be expected, the stunts dominate, and the movie has a likable calm. In an ending of breathtaking morbidity, the usual happy fade-out is extended with dissolves, to domesticity, to crotchety old age and, finally, to a shot of matching tombstones. The studio system would not take kindly to such dangerous instincts.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was his last really fine feature. His face is older and sadder, but he still exhibits humid romanticism, sniffing a girl’s hair as if in a trance. The gags play with expectations and build suspense; in one perfect moment, though knocked out and stuffed upside down in a car, Buster still manages to cross his legs jauntily.
These last few films are the most refined expression of his art, unafraid to draw out situations to the point of, and even past, tedium. They are something like Beethoven’s last string quartets: heaven for the specialist, alienating for the casual viewer. After this achievement came the downward spiral, all-too-familiar for those who deal with the more fragile and intransigent of the great American film directors, like Griffith, Von Stroheim, Welles and Nicholas Ray. These artists, along with performers such as John Barrymore, Bette Davis and Marlon Brando, were forced, through business pressures, to either compromise themselves, satirize what made them unique, or give up work altogether. In Keaton’s case, the trajectory of events that led him from his own unit under Schenck to a prison-term contract at MGM is especially sickening.
Buster’s voice did not really suit his silent persona—it was low, hoarse and sometimes cracked, a drinking man’s voice. But he probably could have made the transition if MGM had allowed him freedom to create the way he needed to. In many ways, Buster was the Godard of the twenties, the Rossellini of slapstick—he needed to improvise. He was unable to come up with a cut-and-dried script—that just wasn’t the way he worked. The studio system crushed him, indifferently. After some financially successful but embarrassingly poor talkies, he was fired by MGM in 1933, ostensibly because of his now-severe alcoholism. Washed-up in films, divorced by vindictive Natalie Talmadge, he lost his huge mansion, his children, his career, his life.
Buster thought of himself as a failure for a long time and he took what he could get—grim shorts at Columbia and Educational Pictures and gag man jobs at MGM. He turned up in bit roles in the forties, a woeful, deteriorated face in the crowd, the ruined remains of one of life’s most beautiful faces. Later, television sustained him financially.
“I never thought we’d come to this,” he says to Chaplin in Limelight (Chaplin, 1952), both of them past their prime, irrelevant in sound, longing for youth and silence. In the early ’60s, he did a series of commercials for Simon Pure Beer and the like, as well as three beach party movies with Frankie and Annette. Older, heavier, his timing long gone, he minced and mugged. The years 1930 to 1966 are quite a trial for those who admire his silents. But they are important too if we want to take the measure of the man.
Like Chaplin, he had a native gift for movement, but, unlike the Little Tramp, he had very modern instincts that propelled him far ahead of any of his contemporaries. For so long, he was thought of as just a forgotten pie-thrower with stone face and porkpie hat. Today he is revered for that stream of pure movies from the twenties, a sequence of work that has improved with age and speaks to us all from the viewpoint of an artist who is both burned and purified, numb and serene, hopeful but cynical. Buster was just getting the laughs. We got the rest.
Buster Keaton’s two-reel shorts with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle:
All films directed by Fatty Arbuckle and starring Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.
The Butcher Boy (1917)
The Roughhouse (1917)
A Country Hero (1917)
Oh, Doctor! (1917)
His Wedding Night (1917)
Coney Island (1917)
The Bell Boy (1918)
Out West (1918)
Good Night, Nurse! (1918)
The Cook (1918)
The Hayseed (1919)
Back Stage (1919)
The Garage (1919)
Buster Keaton silent shorts:
The High Sign (1920) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
One Week (1920) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
Convict 13 (1920) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
The Scarecrow (1920) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
Neighbors (1920) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
The Haunted House (1921) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
Hard Luck (1921) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
The Paleface (1921)
The Boat (1921)
The Playhouse (1921)
The Goat (1921) Co-directed with Malcolm St. Clair
Cops (1922) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
My Wife’s Relations (1922)
The Frozen North (1922) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
The Electric House (1922) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
The Love Nest (1922) Co-directed with Eddie Cline
Buster Keaton features:
The Three Ages (1920) Co-directed with Eddie Cline. 80min
Our Hospitality (1923) Co-directed with Jack C. Blystone. 87min
Sherlock, Jr. (1924) 56min
The Navigator (1924) Co-directed with Donald Crisp. 78min
Seven Chances (1925) 80min
Go West (1925) 87min
Battling Butler (1926) 80min
The General (1926) Co-directed with Clyde Bruckman. 95min
College (1927) Co-directed with James W. Horne (uncredited). 85min
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Co-directed with Charles F. Reisner (uncredited). 77min
Buster Keaton later shorts:
The Gold Ghost (1934) Co-directed with Charles Lamont
Allez Oop (1934) Co-directed with Charles Lamont
One Run Elmer (1935)
Tars and Stripes (1935) Co-directed with Charles Lamont
Hayseed Romance (1935) Dir: Charles Lamont (performer)
Grand Slam Opera (1936) Co-directed with Charles Lamont
Blue Blazes (1936) Co-directed with Raymond Kane
The Chemist (1936) Dir: Al Christie (performer)
Mixed Magic (1936) Co-directed with Raymond Kane
Jail Bait (1937) Dir: Charles Lamont (performer)
Ditto (1937) Dir: Charles Lamont (performer)
Love Nest on Wheels (1937) Co-directed with Charles Lamont
Pest from the West (1939) Dir: Del Lord (performer)
Nothing But Pleasure (1939) Dir: Jules White (performer)
The Taming of the Snood (1940) Dir: Jules White (performer)
Film (1965) Dir: Alan Schneider, written by Samuel Beckett (performer)
The Railrodder (1965, Canada) Co-directed with Gerald Potterton
Film about Buster Keaton:
Buster Keaton Rides Again (1965, Canada) Dir: John Spotton
Benayoun, Robert, The Look of Buster Keaton, St. Martin’s Press, 1984
Bengtson, John & Brownlow, Kevin, Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton, Santa Monica Press, December 1999
Blesh, Rudi, Keaton, Macmillan Publishing, 1966
Dardis, Tom, Buster Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, 1979, Reprint Edition, Proscenium Publishing, 1988
Dyer MacCann, Richard, The Silent Comedians, Scarecrow Press, 1993
Edwards, Larry, Buster: A Legend in Laughter, McGuinn & McGuire, 1995
Horton, Andrew (ed.), Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr, Cambridge University Press, 1997
Kael, Pauline, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Henry Holt & Company, 1982
Keaton, Buster and Samuels, Charles, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, 1960, Republished by Da Capo Press, 1988
Keaton, Eleanor & Vance, Jeffrey, Buster Keaton Remembered, Harry N. Abrams, 2001
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns, Random House, 1975
Kline, Jim, The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, Citadel Press, 1994
Knopf, Robert, The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton, Princeton University Press, 1999
Meade, Marion, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, Harper Collins Publishers, 1995
Miller, Blair, American Silent Film Comedies: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Persons, Studios and Terminology, McFarland & Company, 1995
Mitchell, Glenn, A-Z of Silent Comedy: An Illustrated Companion, Brasseys, Inc., 1999
Moews, Daniel, Keaton: The Features Close-Up, University of California Press, 1977
Oldman, Gabriella, Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter, Southern Illinois University Press, 1999
Rapf, Joanna and Green, Gary L., Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Keaton shorts by Adrian Danks
Compiled by Albert Fung
Buster Keaton: The Damfinos Official Website
A dedicated Buster Keaton site.
Film Directors: Articles on the Internet
A few articles on Keaton.
Juha’s Buster Keaton Page
This single link can satisfy as a Buster Keaton web resource.
The Beauty of Buster
Lovely site with article and quality images.
Annual Buster Keaton Celebration
You may have missed it, but the program can be read for interest.
Has a large selection of images.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Here you can view some .mov files of Keaton in action.
The Sound of Buster Keaton
Hear wav files of Keaton.