When I went off to college, I had yet to see a Buster Keaton movie, though I was already a huge Charlie Chaplin fan. A hallmate of mine found this out and we made arrangements to see The General (1927) at the library. We arrived and discovered that we needed to squeeze into a tiny viewing booth. There were headphones, but the film -- shown, I think, on a 16mm print -- did not have any soundtrack, so we discarded the headphones. Goodness only knows if it was shown at the correct speed; I tend to doubt it. But even under those lowly conditions, I remember being as blown away as if I were sitting in a huge, air-conditioned movie house watching a state-of-the-art summer blockbuster.
Now Kino Video has released two new Keaton titles. One is a remastered DVD and Blu-Ray of Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and the other is Lost Keaton, a DVD with sixteen short films from the 1930s. Of the four great Silent Clowns, which included Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, Keaton was perhaps the best director. He seemed to have an innate understanding of the possibilities of the medium, including its rhythms and spaces. He grasped how a lone figure, juxtaposed against a huge train or a huge, bizarre house, or a huge ship, could result in untold comic possibilities. He was also perhaps the unluckiest of the four in terms of his career.
He grew up in showbiz, and was named "Buster" by none other than Harry Houdini. He performed on stage as a child, doing slapstick with his parents as "The Three Keatons." In 1917, at around age 22, he made his film debut along with Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, and he directed his first short in 1920. Keaton enjoyed success as an independent filmmaker, especially with his extraordinarily detailed and complex two-reel comedies. In 1923, after Chaplin and Lloyd had seen success with feature-length films, Keaton wanted to try as well, but at the behest of his financiers, he had a back-up plan. Three Ages (1923) was designed to tell one story over three time periods, but if the film failed, it could be chopped up into three two-reel shorts. It did not fail.
Over the 1920s, Keaton directed an amazing series of feature comedies with some of the most beautiful and astonishing set-pieces ever produced. Our Hospitality (1923) was about two rural feuding families, with an incredible train sequence that forecasted The General. Sherlock Jr. (1924) was his first full-fledged masterpiece; Keaton plays a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams that he's a great detective. In one amazing sequence, he gets stuck inside a movie, and each time the scene "cuts," he finds himself in new trouble. The Navigator (1924) was another work of genius, with a cream-puff rich boy and a girl stranded alone and adrift on a huge ocean liner.
In Seven Chances (1925) Keaton plays a ne'er-do-well who must get married by the end of the day to inherit a fortune. (It was ineffectually remade as The Bachelor in 1999.) It's one of his frantic chase comedies, with ever more complex scrapes and escapes, a more expanded version of his short film Cops (1922). Go West (1925) is a surprisingly touching tale as a city slicker called "Friendless" goes west and befriends a sweet cow called "Brown Eyes." In one sequence, Keaton designed a chase sequence with the camera providing the POV of a bull (complete with horns).
Most fans and critics agree that the boxing picture Battling Butler (1926) is probably Keaton's least successful picture, but The General (1927) quickly followed, and even though it was an expensive flop for its day, it is now regarded as Keaton's greatest. It consists of two train chases, as Southerner Johnnie Gray (Keaton) chases his stolen train into Northern territory, steals it -- and his girl (Marion Mack) -- back, and races home with the bad guys on his trail. This one featured some gorgeous cinematography modeled after Matthew Brady's famous Civil War photographs, and a very pricey "exploding bridge" stunt.
After losing money, Keaton retreated back to safer material with College (1928), but it was no match for Harold Lloyd's very similar The Freshman (1925). Then came his final independent production, Steamboat Bill Jr., which is one of his best. It's one of the only times Keaton gave a significant role to another actor, Ernest Torrence, as his father. In the film, the effete William Canfield Jr. (Keaton) returns from the city to work with his tough, grizzled father on their riverboat. Keaton effectively sets the tone when Willie accidentally knocks a life preserver in the water and it sinks!
Willie strikes up a romance with a girl (Marion Byron), who happens to be the daughter of Willie's father's greatest rival, John James King (Tom McGuire). This causes an even greater rift between father and son, which eventually gets mended when a hurricane strikes, and it's up to Willie to save the day. In the movie's most famous sequence, the entire front of a building falls on top of Keaton, while he passes safely through a small window. The stunt is absolutely real, and if Keaton had miscalculated just an inch or two to one side, he'd have been a goner.
In a bad move, and against his own judgment, Keaton signed a contract with MGM, a studio that demanded control over all its players; Keaton no longer had the freedom to experiment or improvise. He managed to make one great film there, The Cameraman (1928), but his final silent feature, Spite Marriage (1929) is more of a whimper than a bang. From there, he served out the rest of his contract in a series of lowbrow talkies, sometimes paired with Jimmy Durante. Despite that series of 16 great short films made between 1934 and 1937 for Educational Pictures, and released this week on the Lost Keaton DVD, Keaton's career was more or less over.
For the next several decades, he made small appearances in things like In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Chaplin's Limelight (1952), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). Fortunately, during this time, James Mason -- who had bought Keaton's old mansion -- discovered a cache of "lost" films and started the process of getting them restored. In 1957, an ill-fated biopic of Keaton, The Buster Keaton Story, was released, with Donald O'Connor in the lead. But it at least drew more attention to the master comedian.
Perhaps further headway was made with the release of Film (1965), a twenty-minute quasi-experimental short written by Samuel Beckett. Intellectuals of the time discovered Keaton for the first time, and he appeared at film festivals and gave interviews. All this helped to bring Keaton back into the limelight. But then something weird happened. At this same time, Charlie Chaplin had stirred up some controversy. Persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was denied re-entry into the United States and was forced to live in exile. What's more, his final films, A King in New York (1956) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) met with less than enthusiastic receptions.
And so it became a film buff's game to compare Keaton to Chaplin and find Chaplin wanting. Keaton was the underdog who had been rescued from obscurity, and the ever-popular Chaplin represented the mainstream star that had abused his privileges. I, too, fell into this trap and began to appreciate Keaton more than Chaplin. Eventually a truce was called and film buffs could agree that "Keaton was the better director and Chaplin was the better actor." But now I have come to love both filmmakers unreservedly. Both found a certain poetry in comedy that has never been replicated.
Keaton was called the "Great stone face," but he could find awesome depths of loneliness, affection, disgust, and even rage within the tiny fraction of a centimeter that he allowed his form to move. Chaplin may have been a great actor and a master of pathos, but there's nothing quite like the scene in The General in which Keaton sits down on the coupling rods on his great steam engine. His girl has just dumped him, and he does not know why. Suddenly, the train begins moving, and the oblivious Buster begins bobbing up and down, face unwavering. Or in Steamboat Bill Jr., when Buster tries to walk down the street into the force of the hurricane, and, though walking, makes no headway at all.
These are sublime moments of sadness and comedy, the great poetry of the human form and his place in the world. No other director has ever come anywhere close to him, and this is why I love Buster Keaton.